Saving the Rose-Red City

Ann Hills on the UNESCO masterplan to rescue Petra.

Petra, the 'rose-red' city which is the pride of Jordan, is at risk. Rainwater is attacking its 2,000 year old classical façades  – as is sand, some of it blown by the hoofs of the hundreds of horses on which visitors ride into the city through the Siq – the narrow gorge which forms Petra's main entrance.

Petra was the capital of the Nabataeans, occupying a crucial position on caravan routes from East to West before the Romans attacked it in c.AD106. It then suffered from a major earthquake in AD363, and in the seventh century from clashes with the armies of Islam. Later crusaders brought commercial rewards, and its treasures were rediscovered by Europeans last century when Petra's captivating grandeur was portrayed in the well-known painting by David Roberts in 1839. Today the city is a World Heritage Site, but that designation is scant protection as natural weathering and increasing visitor numbers take their toll.

At present tourists pay the equivalent of a mere £1, or enter free, to explore hundreds of monuments hewn from cliff faces spread over 26,000 hectares – a vast, mountainous, desert panorama. Until the mid-1980s local tribesmen camped in Petra's caves, some reached by a series of stone steps. The Government subsequently banished most to modern houses in nearby villages.

In 1989, the Petra National Trust was established in Amman under the patronage of Queen Noor Al Hussein to form a network of those 'who are committed to a collective international effort to safeguard Petra's unique physical and human heritage'.

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