10/26/2012 07:44 am ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

Jordan's Petra Is Still Alluring Two Centuries Later (PHOTOS)

Petra's entrance is waking up from its reverie, its rock-cut tombs, temples and rose red walls sleepy with shadows. Even the alley leading up to the entrance gate, typically flanked with busy hawkish vendors, is starkly quiet. Morning is still in Petra.

A group of adventurers, eager to get that crack Canon shot, visit Petra at sunrise. We're all too eager to capture the Treasury being slowly bathed in pure sunlight. It would appear that we couldn't get enough of this structure, even 200 years after the Swiss Explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt discovered the tomb studded valley deep in the heart of Jordan in 1812.

Now, decades later, Petra is the jewel that everyone who visits Jordan comes to see, despite the country's vast other treasures. I walk down the long gravel path, past Bedouins peddling horse rides, to the long and gracefully winding Siq. Arabic for "shaft", the Siq is the main entrance to the ancient city -- a teaser. Dimly lit, endlessly fascinating and smoothed down by water erosion, the sinuous cobblestone path is like an endless trailer to a spectacular Feature Film, although the trailer is long and the suspense mind-numbing. The Siq is so narrow in places that you feel as the striated walls are determined to touch each other. In the early morning, the sounds of the few visitors reverberate, ricochet off the rose-red walls.

I talk to a French couple whose gaze, much like mine, fixates on the crack of blue sky above us. "We are stunned, it is more beautiful than we thought it would be," one says. And we're not even at the Treasury yet.

The Nabataeans who were heavily into merchant trading, established a presence in Petra as early as 312 B.C. as a stronghold of their caravan route. These were avant-guard thinkers and "the world's earliest publicists," our tour guide jokes, gesturing towards the latte colored gods and goddesses studding the Treasury. These were nods to Greece, Rome and Nabataean culture. Marketing managers can still learn from Petra today: the tradesmen wanted to please many, and alienate none.

Like the illustrious Egyptians, the Nabataeans built Petra as a grandiose sign of respect for their deceased.

In this aspect, a visit to Petra could have been creepy: these are glorious tombs after all. But while they were formerly filled with mummy like bodies and treasures, they are now empty, concealing nothing but shadows, cobwebs, memories.

I walk down the Siq carefully but eagerly, taking care not to get in the way of several Roman style, passenger-laden chariots that come careening down the path. The rather expensive entrance ticket includes the price of a horse ride to the Treasury, and visitors can clip clop their way to the main attraction. The opulently-decked chariots, a nod to the Roman civilization that was a stronghold in Jordan, except that the Romans did not take over Petra (the fact that Petra remained somewhat independent until an earthquake in 747 AD).

The main tomb, Al Khazneh, first seen narrowly through a bend in the Siq, is mirage-like. I rub my overworked eyes: the structure is much larger than you've anticipated, studded into the sandstone cliff like an unannounced but welcome visitor. There is a giant urn on top of the Treasury, and the initial settlers though that this urn contained gold, so they started shooting at it. But alas, no gold was found.

The Treasury is just one of the surprises; I walk past it and see a Malthusian explosion of tombs carved in rock, in the open air. At one end of Petra lies a Crusader-period castle, near the tomb that is popularly known as "the Monastery." I climb 900 well-worn and smooth stone steps, looking back at the valley, and catch my breath. The view is unforgettable.

More than anything else, I feel a deep sense of living history. After all, I'm walking on paths and staring at carvings that date back to 300 BC. To really appreciate the phrase "cradle of civilization," it is essential to walk the path the Nabataeans once did. The marvelous thing is that Petra still stands so pristine and intact, after thousands of years.

Here too, are encounters with historical artifacts. A frail old man sits in a corner, playing the rebab, one of the oldest musical instruments in the Arabic world. A bowed instrument, its strings are made from horse tail hair. He plays it with such soul: Petra becomes Carnegie Hall to us, and we watch him pour his heart into music stemming from just a few strings. Every area of this valley has a story to tell, and most of the stories are timeless.

The sun finally rises and bathes the Treasury with a gentle gold light, and one by one, statue after statue, the structure comes to life and unfolds like a tale from Scheherazade. It is a magical moment, and one that I am glad I came so early to see.

Petra Beckons

Jordan's Petra has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, and is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. For a list of admission fees, visit this site. Visitors can also see Petra at Night, light with thousands of candles, on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Purchase tickets at the Site Office.