PETRA, Jordan - The sedan crossed flat stretches of Jordan's dust-yellow desert, climbed barren ridges, descended through olive groves, then entered more desert.
"They call this the King's Highway. There's been a road here since the Iron Age," Sameer Halh said as he drove. "From Aqaba to Damascus. It's been paved since the Roman times. This was the spice route then. That's why Petra is where it is. It's a perfect gateway between north and south."
Petra, one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and Jordan's No. 1 attraction, is the ruins of a city carved into the walls of a red canyon. The desolation of the landscape made a vision of caravans - laden with goods and shepherded by wealthy tradesmen - difficult to muster.
As we drove south from Amman, mile by mile, Jordan passed by the windshield. It was April; spring had just begun to assert itself. An improbable wheat field, rows of fragile green fingers reaching for the blue sky, came into view. A huge black bird flew over the highway.
"You see that?" Halh asked. "We had a very sad story a couple of years ago when two men were attacked by some of these eagles. One died, and one lost his eyes. Very sad. You know an ostrich? These ones have a body that big. And wings? Three meters."
Halh, with his white shirt and tie, tidy moustache, and impeccable manners, was a credible fellow. His story didn't seem any less likely than some other things I'd seen in the four hours I'd been in Jordan.
Already I'd sat in the bleachers at the perfectly preserved Roman amphitheater in downtown Amman, stood on the mountain where the Old Testament says Moses viewed the Promised Land, pondered some ruins of the Umayyad kingdom, and, outside a Byzantine Christian church in Madaba, stopped to smell the rare wild black iris, Jordan's national flower.
As we arrived in Petra in the dark, I was glad I'd have one full day to focus on what many see as a wonder that rivals the Pyramids.
Dawn revealed a red landscape of camel-humped hills with doors and windows carved into them.
As promised, a guide appeared at 7:30 a.m. at the Crowne Plaza hotel on the outskirts of the ruins. Leaning on a walking stick, the stocky old man in a red-checked kaffiyeh looked me over with theatrical skepticism. "I am Hani Ali, and I am 79 years old," he said. "I hope you can keep up."
He said he'd been guiding in the ruins since he was 27 years old and that his knees were finally giving out. "I should retire, you know! But everyone wants Hani Ali, and I can't say no."
We paid our entry fee for the archaeological park, and walked down what seemed like a dry riverbed toward the mountains. Finally we reached the Siq, which is essentially a crack in a 500-foot-high mountain. The red walls of the canyon narrow until the sky above is just a meandering sliver of light. The walls of striped sandstone undulate wildly, carved by thousands of years of wind, rain and floods.
Petra, which means "stone" in Latin, is a quirk of geology, Ali said. It occupies a mountain-locked valley situated on the only easy route for north-south travelers. That meant anyone - whether they were carrying frankincense from Egypt or silk from China - had to pass by this Siq, making Petra a trade center.
Ali pointed out water channels carved into the rock. "Rain was channeled into tanks. This was a city of thousands of people," he said. "They needed every drop."
After the crusades ended in about 1200, the trade routes moved, Petra was abandoned, and eventually only local Bedouins knew about the lost city, Ali said.
Finally, a ragged opening appeared as we neared the end of the Siq. The view we encountered has beguiled travelers since the ruins were stumbled upon by a Swiss explorer in 1812: the Royal Treasury, an out-of-place Greek-style temple, taller than a 10-story building, carved with amazing precision from the red rock of the canyon walls.
"This actually is not a treasury," Ali said as we walked closer and then between its columns to the cave inside. "No one knows for sure what it was. But the Bedouins thought that there might be money hidden in that urn in the center, and they shot at it, hoping the gold would fall out."
The rooms behind the facade were perfectly square and fairly small - not at all in scale with the outside. Ali said that archaeologists had discovered another layer of the building under the present facade.
"The more we dig, the more we find," he said. "Eighty-five percent of Petra is unexcavated. All of the secrets are still buried here."
We walked into a broader valley, with facades and caves carved into every vertical face.
The Nabataeans were an Arabic tribe, Ali said. Their kingdom was at its peak from about 300 B.C. to 100 A.D., when the Romans finally conquered the area.
"When the Romans came, they built a forum and a second city, but it was destroyed in an earthquake in 363 A.D.," he said. "There are ruins and foundations, but nothing like what you see here."
In deference to Ali's ailing knees, we hired donkeys and a driver, who rode behind us cracking a whip, to carry us to the top of one of Petra's peaks, known as the High Place of Sacrifice.
The donkeys labored and wheezed. Ali rode in front talking nonstop, sometimes about Petra, sometimes about life in general.
"My father had 38 sons and seven daughters," he said at one point. "We had no TV then. Only making kids was the entertainment. He married six times but died young, while he was engaged to the seventh at 101."
The High Place of Sacrifice was on top of the mountain. It was a flat space, with benches carved into the stone. A basin marks what was probably the sacrificial altar. Some people believe that the Nabataeans conducted human sacrifices on the mountain, Ali explained, and that the blood ran in a narrow channel down the side of the mountain to the mouth of a stone lion, which we would see on the way down. "Back then, they worshipped everything they feared," he said.
The sky had clouded over, and I tasted rain in the air. From the mountain, we could see the whole valley of Petra, the carved city and the stone-paved Roman road leading to the open ruins of the forum, with square foundations and a few columns left standing. The camelbacked red mountains guarded the horizon in all directions.
"Don't feel bad if it rains," Ali said. "I have seen Petra in every kind of weather, but I believe it is most beautiful in the rain. The stone shines, and the color gets very red."
We rode down, past the timeworn form of the blood-drinking lion, and more monuments and caves carved into the mountainside.
Ali and I shared lunch in the bustling cafeteria by the Roman ruins. He had a beer and about five bites of curried cauliflower. He said he might run into me in the afternoon.
"Every time I think I might rest, someone calls with a job," he said. "The tourists need me."
I spent the afternoon wandering the ruins, the remains of hundreds of years of human endeavors, struggles and sacrifices. The road that passed through Petra had seen followers of Isis, Dushara, Jehovah, Jesus and Muhammad. They all had left their marks. They all had spilled their blood as kingdoms rose and fell.
At 3 p.m. the rain came in big, fat drops. Then it came in sheets. Without an umbrella, I got soaked on the long walk back to the hotel.
But Hani Ali had been right. Petra was most beautiful in the rain.
Air France, British Airways and Delta fly to
, Jordan's capital, from Philadelphia International Airport, with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $1,290.
Royal Jordanian Airlines flies nonstop from JFK Airport in New York to Amman for about $870.
From Amman, minibuses ($5, three hours) and private taxis (negotiable) travel daily along the Desert Highway between Wahdat station and Petra's base town, Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses).
A patchy mass of hotels, restaurants and shops, Wadi Musa is about 2 miles from the Petra visitors center (011-962-6-567-8444;
), where you can buy tickets for Petra ($28/$35/$42 for one-, two-, three-day passes) and Petra by Night ($16).
Places to stay
In Wadi Musa, the
(011-962-3-215-7090; doubles $15) is a popular backpacker spot offering no-nonsense private rooms and the obligatory nightly screening of
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Amra Palace Hotel
; doubles $45) is a bright, modern hotel with an outdoor pool, summer terrace, Jacuzzi and Turkish bath. Conveniently located 100 yards from the entrance to Petra, the luxurious
; doubles $150) is heavy on Mediterranean styling, with a beautiful swimming pool, rooftop gardens, a Middle Eastern library, and a slew of bars and restaurants.
Places to eat
To dine on hummus, falafel and shawarma with the locals,
Al-Adandi Quick Restaurant
in Wadi Musa offers Jordanian staples at rock-bottom prices (meals $2-$3). For slightly more upscale fare, try a big, meaty slab of spit-roasted lamb in the outdoor beer garden at the
(meals $9-$12) in Wadi Musa. To quaff a cocktail in a 2,000-year-old Nabataean rock tomb, look no farther than the
(drinks $3-$5), behind Petra's visitors center.
SOURCE: Lonely Planet
The results reportedly of more than 100 million votes were announced July 7:
1. Great Wall of China
3. Statue of Christ the Redeemer
4. Machu Picchu
5. Chichen Itza pyramid
6. The Colosseum
7. Taj Mahal