Monday, November 7: Petra is more awesome than I could have ever imagined. I have traveled extensively in the last two years, and often I’ve found that national treasures are a bit of a letdown because their “tourist attraction” aspect is so blatantly inescapable. I felt especially this way about the Taj Mahal. But Petra, even though tourists abound, does not disappoint. Its natural beauty is so unreal and fantastical and its man-made imprints so classic and imposing that even pictures don’t do it justice. Just the magnitude of the sheer terra-cotta painted walls on the path leading to the surprising Treasury takes your breath away. There is no easy way in and out of this hidden treasure, and the exertion is definitely worth every hard-earned step. I love this place.
I start my morning with breakfast at the Rocky Mountain Hotel and in the lobby I meet, purely by accident, a colleague from the university, Matt. He has come alone to Jordan for the Eid, as I have, and he is planning to go back to Petra today to climb to the High Place of Sacrifice. He says he can accompany me until he has to turn off to make his climb.
I am going for the first time and so am looking forward to taking it all in by myself. I love going to a place like this on my own, with no one to distract me with chatter. I take my time, soak it in, move at my pace and in my way. I am finding that I mostly prefer to travel this way, alone. I do enjoy meeting fellow travelers along the way, and I love time with them if they have a certain zest for life and an adventurous outlook. The nice thing about traveling this way is that I’m never tied to anyone and if I find someone difficult, boring or not to my liking, I can take off in my own direction and be done with them.
But this is awkward. Matt is a nice guy but he talks nonstop. And he’s a colleague so I don’t want to be rude. The worst part of his talk is that a great deal of it is about sports. Anyone who knows me knows I have ABSOLUTELY NO INTEREST IN SPORTS!! When Matt starts talking about the Redskins and the Bills and God knows who else, I tell him the same thing I say above: I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO INTEREST IN SPORTS! Does that stop him? NO! Funny thing, this. I find honestly that most sports fanatics, even if you tell them you have NO INTEREST IN SPORTS, will keep talking about them ad infinitum as if you never said such a thing. Maybe they just don’t believe such a thing is possible, for a person not to care about sports.
Soon after the main gate to Petra, we come upon some men offering horse rides down a long path to As-Siq, the ancient main entrance. It’s quite a long walk to As-Siq and I love to ride horses, so I take one up on his offer. Matt doesn’t want to do this, so he walks on. I ride the little horse for a leisurely walk down the trail for about 3 dinar. I hop off, and there is Matt waiting for me.
We walk into As-Siq, which is an impressive and breathtaking 1200 meter long, deep and narrow sandstone gorge. It towers over us up to 80 meters. This is apparently not really a canyon, though it looks like one. It’s really a rock landmass that was ripped apart by tectonic forces. We see colorful rocks, bizarre-looking geological formations, agricultural terraces, and water channels cut into the cliffs (what we call aflaj in Oman). We see tombs, facades, theaters and stairways carved into the rocky cliffs. The sunlight spills like shimmery liquid into the gorge and highlights parts of the high cliff faces, artfully gilding the already painted walls. It’s stunning.
This early in the morning there aren’t many tourists. If only Matt would stop talking. I want to be silent, to soak it in, but there is this chatter, non-stop. I wish so much I was all alone. To contemplate, to linger, to appreciate the natural beauty and the history.
And oh, what a history. Petra is the ancient rose-red city of the Nabataeans, ancient Arab tribes who controlled the region’s trade routes, levying tolls and protecting caravans filled with Arabian frankincense and myrrh, Indian spices and silks, African ivory and animal hides. Profits from their caravan business enabled them to establish a powerful kingdom that stretched to Damascus and included parts of the Sinai and Negev deserts, effectively ruling the greater part of Arabia. This wasn’t an easy task as the region at the time was dominated by rival Greek factions, the Hasmonaeans and later the Romans. The city itself was built in the 3rd century BC by these enterprising people who carved palaces, temples, storerooms, tombs and stables from the cliffs.
Despite fierce battles to protect their independence, the Roman Empire annexed the Nabataean kingdom in 106 AD. Petra and the Nabataean kingdom managed to prosper for many more years until trade routes shifted and demand for frankincense declined as Christianity replaced pagan religions. Archeologists believe that several earthquakes, including a massive one in AD 555, forced the inhabitants to abandon the city. A Swiss traveler named Johann Ludwing Burckhardt rediscovered it in 1812.
I honestly didn’t know about the Nabataeans before I came here, but I’m impressed by their architectural and artistic sensibility. What they managed to add to an already beautiful and impenetrable landscape is of fairy-tale quality and explains why movie-makers picked this place as the setting for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s simply unreal, unimaginable, what they created here. Yet. They did indeed imagine it. And then they ran with this vision to chisel the towering rock facades into a city that lasted, and flourished, for hundreds of years.
We meander along through the curvaceous As-Siq and I’m waiting for the surprise of the Treasury. I can imagine it from pictures. And then, around a bend, there it is, looming before us, through a sliver in the gorge, yes, there is a slice. Al-Khazneh, the Treasury, with its Alexandrian Hellenistic columns, its unique Nabataean facade. I feel dwarfed by its height, its immensity, and struck by its proportions, by its elaborate carvings. It was carved in the 1st century BC as a tomb of an important Nabataean King. Some scholars believe it was later used as a temple. Locals believed, mistakenly, that an Egyptian pharaoh hid his treasure in the top urn, thus the misnomer “The Treasury.”
At the Treasury, I can’t pass up the opportunity to get on a camel and have my picture taken. Part of the problem with traveling alone is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get pictures of yourself. I ask Matt if he would mind taking a picture of me on the camel, and he grudgingly does so. I’m thinking it’s pretty darn selfish that he is so put off by my request. I’m always offering to take pictures for solitary travelers or for couples who can only take pictures of each other but none together. So I don’t understand why it should be such an imposition.
After the camel photo shoot, we continue and the way broadens into the Outer Siq. This is the Street of Facades, with over 40 tombs.
Then we come upon a 7,000-seat Theatre. To the left of that are the steps that lead to the High Place of Sacrifice, a hill-top altar, where Matt plans to climb. We part ways, saying we will meet for lunch later, and I head further back into the depths of Petra.
Across from the Theatre are the Royal Tombs, a set of tomb facades cut into the cliffs.
I continue to walk along a colonnaded street that used to be lined with shops. I head toward the Great Temple and the Temple of the Winged Lions. At the end of the street, on the left, is the Nabataean temple known as Qasr al-Bint.
I keep walking until I come to an area where boys are offering donkey rides up to the Monastery. Despite the fact that I took a short horse ride, and sat on a camel, I’m game to pay the boy 7 dinar to take me on his donkey up the 800-step rock-cut staircase. I think of this as a kind of adventure, just to ride the donkey upstairs. There are magnificent views of the mountains as we climb. Once he drops me off, there is still plenty of walking to be done.
At the top is Petra’s second most famous attraction, Ad-Deir, or the Monastery. The proportions of this are much bulkier and gargantuan than the Treasury, whose columns are much more delicate and intricately carved. The architectural embellishment is much simpler than the Treasury. But it’s overpowering in its sheer magnitude.
After reaching the Monastery, I sit at an outdoor coffee shop, sip some tea and take in the view.
After, I walk up to one of the viewpoints on a cliff top, where I can see the rock formations of Petra from above, Jebel Haroun, and even Wadi Araba. A Jordanian guy is sitting at the top playing some kind of guitar-like musical instrument. He does double-duty as a shopkeeper, selling jewelry made by local artisans.
On the way down from the Sacrifice View, I pass by the Monastery again.
Finally, I must walk down and this is the worst of all. Down the 800 steps is hard on my knees, one of which is bad anyway, but also surprisingly on my toes. I am wearing these Keds tennis shoes today, and going down my toes are jamming up against the end of these shoes. By about halfway down, with all the walking I did just to get to the area near the Theatre, plus the difficult walk down, my legs and toes are killing me. I’m actually thinking someone may have to come and carry me out of here.
By the time I get to the bottom, I am starving and dead tired. I go into the only restaurant around which happens to charge an exorbitant 10 dinar for a buffet lunch. At the lunch counter, who do I find but Matt, who has haphazardly just arrived here himself. We sit at an outdoor table and eat lunch. I am hesitant to get up and walk again, because I know the way out is still a long one.
Finally, after eating, we wander into the museum and there I buy two rings, one with amethyst and one in turquoise and coral. A little further on, Matt decides to go explore the Royal Tombs, and I continue on by myself. He’s disappointed I won’t go to the tombs with him because he wants to share a taxi back to the hotel, but I don’t care about the cost of the taxi. I’m ready to go and I want some peace and solitude. I say it’s best that we part ways. I continue the long journey out, which seems to take another hour at least.
Finally, I hobble out the entrance and look for a taxi which I take to the Rocky Mountain Hotel. I can hardly move my legs. They are throbbing with pain. Misery. I can’t remember when my legs have known such agony.
After a warm shower and a nice nap, Mohammed Gabaah arranges to pick me up at 7:00. He comes in hiking shoes, khaki pants and a red fleece jacket ~ his work attire I presume. He takes me to the Mövenpick Resort Petra near the entrance to Petra and buys me a couple of glasses of wine. I actually enjoy his company here. We sit at the bar for a while and talk and talk. Everyone in the hotel knows him. Then he takes me to the Oriental Restaurant, where we share a veggie pizza. Here, more people know him, come up to him and hug him, pat him on the back. It’s clear that everyone knows him and respects him. Seeing how other people treat him makes me warm to him.
I’m too tired to stay out late and the wine has made me sleepy. I ask him to take me back to the hotel so I can rest for my trip tomorrow to Wadi Rum. Parting ways, I find I feel a new appreciation for him. Funny. I had been so determined to brush him off. Now, he appears in a new light. Still not a bright light, but a new one just the same.