Discovering the charms of the ancient cliff city of Petra

For more than 1,000 years it was a lost ancient city, concealed behind desert mountains and accessible only via a narrow mile-long passageway-rift through the mountains.

Then in 1812, a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, having heard rumors of a lost city, persuaded desert guides to lead him to Petra.

What he found were the well-preserved remains of an entire city carved into red sandstone cliffs. There were statues from the Roman and Hellenistic eras, intact water works, roads, temples, tombs. It was one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made.

Now, more than 170 years after the rediscovery, the Jordanian government is anxious to make Petra even less of a lost city - particularly for tourists.

For the sightseer, Petra has long offered one of the most complete and best-preserved examples of an ancient city anywhere. It is described by veteran travelers as being as interesting as, if not more so than, such well-known tourist hot spots as the Cairo pyramids and the ruins of Carthage. But tourism officials say Petra has suffered in past years as a major international tourist attraction because of its relatively remote location in southern Jordan. Petra is more than three hours' drive from Amman.

''The problem of Petra is that it is far away from Amman,'' says Jousef Jamal Alami, director of the government's Petra-Jerash tourism project.

To compensate for the remote location, the Jordanians have undertaken a development plan including construction of an 82-room, four-star hotel with restaurant and swimming pool. British, American, French, German, and Jordanian archaeological teams are continuing excavation and restoration work inside Petra.

Petra, which means ''the Rock'' in Greek, was originally settled more than 2, 000 years ago by the Nabateans, a society of former nomads who maintained the northern leg of the spice, silk, and frankincense caravan route of western Arabia. The city grew into an important commercial and trading center. Its decline is believed to have been linked to the shifting of trade routes and to a major earthquake in the year 363.

The Nabateans are believed to have constructed their magnificent cliffside temples and tombs - some ranging from 130 to 150 feet in height - by starting high on the cliff face and working down, carving as they went. Similar buildings were constructed by the Nabateans at Medain Salih in western Saudi Arabia. Those buildings, still remaining, are believed to have been an outpost of the capital city, Petra.

One of the reasons Petra was so well preserved was its remote location. It was virtually surrounded by mountains and steep cliffs. The entrance to the city is through the siq (pronounced seek), or passageway, which with its narrow, high cliffs was easily defended by a few men against much larger forces. This is believed to have repeatedly hindered the efforts of Romans and others to capture the city. But it finally did fall to the Romans in the year 106, and it subsequently became a provincial capital for more than 300 years.

During that period a number of Roman construction projects took place within the city. They included a theater and nymphaeum, or public baths.

Jordan's second major tourist attraction is Jerash, about 40 minutes by car north of Amman. Believed to have been established in the 4th century BC, Jerash is said to be one of the finest surviving examples of a provincial Roman city. It was at one time a lavish metropolis.

The Jordanian government with the help of various archaeologists has embarked on a five-year project to restore much of the city. Among an assortment of foreign archaeologists at work in Jerash are groups from Spain, restoring the columned main street; Italy, restoring cathedrals built on earlier ruins in the city; the United States, restoring the north theater; Britain, restoring the public baths; France, restoring the city's southern gate; and Poland, restoring the forum area. In addition, a team from Jordan University is restoring the street and artisan area.

The government expects to begin this month operating a sound-and-light show daily in the city in Arabic, English, French, and German. The show will take place in three different locations within the ancient site and will highlight the development and history of Jerash.

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