Breakdown: How Ancient Sites Are Falling to Pieces

Petra Culture
by Christine DeSadeleer May 26, 2010
Ancient sites are crumbling, and yet hordes of tourists still descend upon them. How can we save these man-made wonders?

© Salim Photography/

Here’s a case for not getting your rub-on at an ancient holy site like Petra in Jordan:

Petra has two main enemies: people and water. Named one of the wonders of the natural world in 2007, it now attracts hordes of tourists, up to 800,000 a year by some estimates, who sit on the steps of the theater and rub up against the walls of the Siq (the narrow gorge leading to Petra’s most famous temple), eroding inscriptions carved by stone masons thousands of years ago.

Oh, and for the installation of indoor plumbing, too:

Without adequate toilet facilities at the site people have been known to wander off and use the tombs to do their business, producing problematic (and unseemly) chemical reactions with the stones.

Uh…not good. Why the rubbing? Well, the inscriptions are of deities from both from the Arab and Hellenic traditions, so I’m guessing people think it’s good luck or gets them closer to their God(s). I think the peeing speaks for itself.

Seems there are quite a few ancient sites throughout the world falling apart, according to an article in Newsweek. The list includes the Taj Mahal (affected by the pollution from traffic), Angkor (trees taking over and vendors cutting off face carvings to sell to tourists), and Machu Picchu (floods and more stone rubbing), among others.

This once again raises the question of whether or not tourism is actually a good thing for other cultures, or in this case, structures. I know that personally, I’d love to see all of these sites, that to be inside a place with so much history and energy changes a person. But is that view selfish? Isn’t the preservation of these works more important than hordes of tourists playing let-me-get-mine?

Isn’t the preservation of these works of art more important than hordes of tourists playing let-me-get-mine?

I also understand that to upkeep these places – and the livelihood of some of the locals – tourist dollars are necessary. Yet, from the look of things, some of these structures won’t survive but a few more years, and then they have to contend with creating a new income source at that point. Why not start now (and we can help by choosing lesser known destinations within the same area)?

I’m sure there is some balance here – a cap on tourists per year, more security to keep people’s hands to themselves. Problem is, many of these places can’t afford that kind of security, and when a poor vendor knows he can make a good buck from a tourist, he’s gonna do what he needs to do. Plus there’s that whole pesky car/bus/train/plane pollution issue…

What do you think should be done to preserve ancient holy sites? Share your thoughts below.

Community Connection

The question of travel goes beyond environmental issues and into issues of ethics, as Sarah Menkedick discusses in her piece, What is Ethical Travel?

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