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Animals Roam Free In Petra Heritage Site Under Jordan's COVID-19 Lockdown

Cats overtake an empty tourist shop in Jordan's ancient city of Petra.
Cats overtake an empty tourist shop in Jordan's ancient city of Petra.

What happens to a popular travel destination when visitors suddenly stop coming? In Jordan's ancient city of Petra, it makes way for the cats, dogs, birds and other creatures to take over.

Normally, the city teems with Bedouin guides and their animals — camels, horses and donkeys — bringing some of the thousands of tourists a day to the site's tombs and temples carved out of colorful rock more than 2,000 years ago.

But with Jordan's coronavirus lockdown in mid-March, all sites were closed and workers sent home. Theft is so rare in the tribal area that souvenir sellers left their wares out on outdoor tables and open shelves — which is where the cats wander.

On a recent morning just after sunrise, six cats curl up on top of piles of cushion covers and hand-woven rugs across from the iconic Treasury, the 120-foot-high colonnaded tomb featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The felines are staying close to a sleeping Egyptian laborer, the only worker visible on the 20-square-mile site. The cats are so hungry that these carnivores fight to devour banana muffins offered to them.

The cats in Petra are left without tourists and tourism workers to feed them.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
The cats in Petra are left without tourists and tourism workers to feed them.

Falcons wheel high overheard, but on the ground, the site has been taken over by sparrows. They hop along the sand and gravel paths normally crowded by tourists' feet. They twitter inside the caves and elaborate tombs. Where there is normally the din of tour groups and sales pitches, birdsong has become the loudest sound.

The stray dogs seem the loneliest. Used to being played with and fed by tourists, they wander the empty site, scrambling up hilltops and barking at one another. A brown and white dog with his ribs showing follows us all around the site, eating the only thing left to offer him — bread — and wagging his tail for an entire hour.

Farther down the mountain, the Bedouin say wolves are venturing out again.

Petra is a World Heritage site and a fragile one. Before the pandemic, visitors coming from cruise ships stretched its daily capacity at times. While the shutdown has had devastating economic repercussions, it has eased pressure on the ancient city, says Suleiman Farajat, Petra's tourism commissioner.

"Now the site can breathe," he says. "It's like ... it says, 'I'm happy to be alone now and I'm happy to relax' because it was consumed too much."

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