Archaeologists Discover Key To An Ancient City’s Wealth

archaeologists, Petra, Jordan
A couple of months ago we reported on how archaeologists discovered how the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria thrived in the desert. A complex system of canals and cisterns trapped the sparse but regular rainfall.

Residents of another ancient city, Petra in Jordan, appear to have taken advantage of desert water to support their civilization too. Jordanian and Dutch archaeologists have discovered that an area 15 kilometers east of the city used to be a large oasis. The ancients tapped into it with an extensive network of aqueducts, reservoirs and underground canals cut out of the rock to water their fields.

Petra, capital of the Nabatean Kingdom, was a major trading center in the deserts of what is now Jordan and grew rich off of trading luxury items such as frankincense and myrrh.

The Udhruh Archaeological Project, named after the site, has found evidence that the irrigation system dates back at least 2,000 years. The area was in use for several centuries and the team has also found what may be the best-preserved Roman fort in the world. You can take a virtual tour of that fort here. The tour will show you not only the fort, but also a Byzantine church and a satellite view of the entire site.

[Photo of Petra courtesy Chris Yunker]

Petra: Beyond The Treasury

The Treasury at PetraWithout a doubt the most famous destination in the entire country of Jordan is Petra. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, Petra is well known for its impressively detailed structures that are carved directly into the sandstone rock faces that are so prevalent throughout the area. The most famous of those structures is a building known as the Treasury, which has become very well known to travelers across the globe. Photos of the Treasury have become so iconic in fact that many people now mistakenly believe that it is Petra. But in reality the site is a vast complex of tombs, temples and other structures that make up an ancient city, of which the Treasury simply marks the entrance.

The origins of Petra can be traced back to the 6th century B.C., when a formerly nomadic tribe known as the Nabataeans decided to occupy the site and make it their capital. The narrow canyons that lead into the place made it easy to defend and its relatively central location was important to their plans of establishing a trade-empire. Several large and important caravan routes passed through the region and over the centuries the Nabataeans managed to leverage their geographical position into becoming major players in the silk and spice trade. As their wealth grew, so too did Petra.

Visitors to the site today must still navigate a long and twisting canyon, known as the Siq, just to arrive at the entrance to Petra. Walking that narrow gorge offers few clues to what awaits ahead, although several basic structures can still be spotted carved into the rock. Perhaps most noticeable are the two stone channels that run along portions of the canyon walls. Those channels were originally used to collect fresh water and deliver it to the city, helping to provide a steady supply for its citizens.Running about a kilometer in length, the Siq unexpectedly ends in dramatic fashion. The narrow gorge suddenly gives way to a much larger canyon with the Treasury prominently on display in the middle. Visitors are immediately struck by that structure’s impressive features, which include a massive open doorway, multiple columns and intricate stonework. Those carvings reveal the influence of a number of cultures, including the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, each of which were important trading partners of the Nabataeans.

As you can imagine, this is indeed an amazing and humbling sight that seldom fails to leave visitors in awe of what the Nabataeans have built. If those visitors were to linger in that spot for a time and then simply turn around and hike back through the Siq, I have no doubt that they would leave Petra completely satisfied with their visit. If they were to do that, however, they would also miss out on dozens of other wonders that are contained within the city, most of which are unknown to travelers before they arrive.

More of Petra's wondersJust to the right of the Treasury lies another passage that turns downward into a widening valley below. Broader than the Siq, this canyon was a more prominent road that was once used by the citizens of Petra as they went about their daily lives. Walking that road gradually reveals the true breadth of the place, with dozens of tombs, residences, a Roman temple and amphitheater and numerous other structures being revealed. Those buildings are all carved out of sandstone and vary widely in their condition. None are nearly as well preserved as the Treasury, but most have the added benefit of allowing visitors to actually enter the buildings and explore the interiors as well.

Surprisingly enough, most of Petra is open for visitors to walk through, with ancient staircases providing access to structures that were carved out of rock on some of the higher plateaus. On busy days you’ll find that those areas are teeming with visitors who meander in and out of the buildings as they admire the architecture and engineering that has allowed most of them to stand for more than 2000 years. For history buffs in particular, it is a real treat to be able to get so close to these monuments.

Exploring those places is definitely interesting and can absorb the better part of your day, but the two most impressive locations are not found amongst those ruins and require a bit more effort to reach. The first of these sites is known as the High Place of Sacrifice and as the name implies, you’ll have to do a bit of climbing (not to mention sacrificing!) just to get to it. Accessing the sacred place requires a hike up the more than 700 steps but those who make the effort are rewarded with a fantastic view of the entire city. From the High Place of Sacrifice visitors will get a true sense of the size and scope of Petra and gain an even deeper appreciation of what the Nabataeans accomplished there.

Petra's Monastery Even more impressive, however, is the Monastery, a building that more than rivals the Treasury in size and grandeur. Built upon a high plateau, visitors to this wonder must first negotiate a climb of more than 900 steps. Those that survive the hike will be treated not only to an amazingly large and well-preserved structure, but some of the most spectacular views in all of Jordan. There are several scenic overlooks near the Monastery itself and they are worth the effort alone. The fact that Petra has saved its most impressive secret for last is simply icing on the cake.

Petra is one of those destinations that many people feel they know long before they ever arrive. It has served as the backdrop for countless films, television shows and books, and has even been named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. But even knowing all of that I was unprepared for what I found when I visited the place. It was far larger, and grander, than I had ever imagined and it is one of those rare places that exceeds expectations.

If you plan to visit Jordan, then without question Petra has to be on your itinerary. If you have the time and flexibility in your schedule, then I would recommend purchasing the two-day pass. It costs just $5 more and allows you to explore at a more leisurely pace. I’d also recommend that you plan on arriving to the site as soon as it opens at 6 a.m. The solitude that it provides makes for an even more magical experience.

How To Go Couch Surfing In a Cave

As the popularity of the Couch Surfing movement grows exponentially across the budget travel community, it’s widely understood that often times you won’t actually be sleeping on a couch. Sometimes you will have your own bedroom. Other times it could be the floor.

Or, as this recent article from CNN points out, it doesn’t even mean that you’re going to be staying inside of a house. In the case of one couch surfer outside of Petra, Jordan, you could opt to spend the night couch surfing inside of a cave.

Listed on the site by Ghassab Al-Bedoul, this 42-year-old Bedouin invites travelers to stay in the same cave he was born in just minutes from the ruins at Petra. Although there is no bathroom, his cave can accommodate up to ten guests who all sleep on thin mats on the desert ground.

A traveler himself who reportedly received ample free lodging while bouncing around Europe, Al-Bedoul has no qualms about opening up his cave to visitors coming to pay a visit to his hometown. As of publication, Al-Bedoul estimates he’s welcomed over 1,200 travelers into his humble abode.

Renowned for being a site where travelers are able to have unique experiences unavailable to those staying in traditional accommodations, Couch Surfing yet again offers up a tale such as this one, which can only stir the wanderlust of scores of adventurous travelers.

[Image courtesy of Jack Zalium on Flickr]

Eight Underground Cities

As a rule, people generally prefer to live above ground. Whether it’s claustrophobia, prohibitive construction costs, or just enjoyment of the sun, people have generally stuck with above-ground structures across the globe. In instances where above-ground cities have subterranean components, they are often public transit systems, municipal works, or just plain old sewers.
Yet every once in a while, some far-fetched city planner or wealthy tycoon will decide that the cheapest real estate is just one floor down. This gallery collects some of the most eye-popping examples of underground zoning – whether it’s ancient catacombs repurposed for modern use, a billionaire’s dream, or just an organic growth of cities with imposing population density, these underground creations make the Morlocks look downright shabby.


John William Burgon’s “rose-red city half as old as time” is one of Jordan’s great treasures. While it gained a small amount of fame through association with the popular 1962 film “Lawrence of Arabia, the city’s stunning architecture and unique water management methods made it a marvel far before the film. The city was carvedinto the slope of Mount Hor sometime in 6th century BCE, and was fought over by the Romans, King Herod, and even Cleopatra. With a grand theater, their own coinage, and a nearly unassailable fortress, the capitol city of the Nabatean empire was a feat well before it’s time. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and listed by the BBC as one of “40 places to see before you die”.

Basilica Cistern

Just a stone’s throw from the Hagia Sofia (and a couple stories down) lies one of the most impressive wonders of Istanbul.Built sometime around 6th century CE, the structure was a large basilica involved in commerce and the arts. It was later converted to a cistern during Emperor Justinian’s reign to store water for the palace – capable of holding almost 21 million gallons of water. Scholars still haven’t figured out all of the repurposed temple’s secrets: a pair of odd Medusa heads (one upside down, the other on it’s side) grace the bottom of two pillars. Is their positioning to ward against evil spirits, or just to allow the pillars to fit correctly? James Bond also made a brief rowboat trip through the cistern in From Russia With Love.

Coober Pedy

The Australian Outback has some brutal living conditions, and much of the country is uninhabitable by humans. In Coober Pedy, the scorching heat would scare off almost any settler – except for the presence of a huge lode of opal in the area. Residents avoid the over-100F temperatures by living in “dugouts” carved into the hillsides, which allow for more reasonable temperatures. Above ground, the near-wasteland has been used in such films as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Pitch Black. The residents have a good sense of humor about their situation – artist Claus Wirris created the town’s only “tree” out of scrap metal atop a hill in the town.

Moscow Metro

The Moscow Metro is not the highest-volume underground tranportation system – that honor goes to Tokyo. However, the pre-WWII system is one of the most stunning underground structures of any kind. Stalin himself pushed for a “radiant” style, including high ceilings, marble walls, gold anodized lamps, and iconic chandeliers of copper, blue ceramic, and milk glass. 2.3 billion passengers take the Metro each year, and while many other countries are used to exposed cement and grimy ceilings, the Muscovites are still riding in style.


The most famous of four major underground cities, Derinkuyu is one of the wonders of ancient Cappadocia. One of the oldest and largest underground structures, Derinkuyu’s massive depths (reaching eleven seperate levels) could hold some 40,000 people with their livestock and belongings included. Likely created as a means for Christians to hide from persecution, the city included a chapel among its many amenities, as well as massive stone doors to secure each level. The cave-dwellers even went so far as to establish travel options – a tunnel connects the massive underground complex to Kaymaklli, another underground city.

Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel

There is little glamorous about the function of this Kasukabe overflow control channel – it simply functions to prevent floods in Tokyo. But given the presence of tsunamis and other hazardous water possibilities, this structure is one of the largest in the world, and can pump out 200 tons of water per second. The main attraction for visitors is the “Underground Temple” – the main water tank’s stunning pillars easily dwarf the viewer. A Range Rover commercial featured the car driving inside the massive structure.

Salt Cathedral

The Salt Cathedral of Wieliczka, Poland is fairly literal in its etymology. A former rock salt mine, the cathedral carved out by the miners for daily prayers was ultimately expanded and turned into a tourist attraction, continuing on after salt production ceased in 1996. Counting Goerthe, Chopin, Pope John Paul II and Bill Clinton among its visitors, the site has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978. In addition to a stunning underground lake, the cathedral prominently showcases its namesake material – several of its statues and even the chandeliers are made of raw or reconstituted rock salt.


Another ancient aquaduct, the underground city on the island of Kish showcases their Kariz – underground water storage facilities essentially similar to the cisterns of Europe. The small waterways of the Kariz can be traversed by boat tour, and the masonry is supplanted by stunning coral in several areas. The island is also a free trade zone, and several investors have planned future renovations and commercial expansions to the 1,000-year-old site.

Israel, Chile, Slovak Republic among countries with highest adventure travel potential

Israel, Chile, and the Slovak Republic are amongst the top adventure travel destinationA new study conducted by George Washington University, Vital Wave Consulting, and the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) shows that Israel, Chile, and the Slovak Republic led the way in adventure tourism in 2010. The study, which resulted in the third annual Adventure Tourism Development Index, uses a mix of quantitative data and expert surveys to rank nations from around the globe on their approach and commitment to sustainable adventure travel.

The study examines what researchers call the “ten pillars” of adventure tourism. Those pillars include such things as infrastructure, cultural resources, adventure activities, entrepreneurship, and more. When those factors were all examined and ranked accordingly, for each country, a score was calculated that resulted in rankings for both developed and developing nations.

So exactly which countries earned high marks in the latest Adventure Tourism Development Index? The top ten developing countries included the following: Israel, Slovak Republic, Chile, Estonia, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Jordan, Romania and Latvia.Conversely, the top ten developed nations included: Switzerland, Iceland, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Norway, Finland and Austria.

The ATTA is quick to point out that these lists are not an indication of how well visited these countries currently are as adventure travel destinations, although some are already popular amongst travelers. Instead, it is a general rating on the climate that exists in these places that make it possible to support sustainable tourism now and into the future.

Judging from the list, it appears that Europe is well ahead of the game in terms of promoting sustainable travel. Both lists are dominated by countries from that continent, which could come as a surprise to many travelers.

To read the entire report click here.