After our relatively late arrival the previous day, Donnette and I explored the hotel grounds a bit after breakfast. The views from the Petra Marriott of the rugged Jibal as Sharah mountains are stunning. Even as jaded as I am, having driven through so many amazing mountain ranges, I was impressed, and wished that we could have savored the drive more than we did.
About 9:00 a.m. we drove down the hill, winding our way through the narrow, crowded streets of the town of Wadi Musa – or “Moses Valley,” so named because it is near the place where Moses struck water from a rock. The Visitor Center and entrance to Petra is in Wadi Musa.
We paid our 50JD (about $70 US) entry fee, which is high, but includes an optional horseback ride – a carriage is another option for those who prefer to ride. As we emerged from the visitor center onto the long path into Petra, we were besieged by horsemen following us, cajoling us to take them up on offers for a ride to the entrance to the Siq: “It’s included in the price!” Being conditioned to distrust, we didn’t believe it until we checked our tickets; it’s true. Of course, there is the obligatory tip at the end – so if you plan to take the ride, be sure you have some small bills.
We were tempted, but finally declined. Donnette’s back was feeling delicate, the mid-morning November weather was sunny but still cool, and we wanted to enjoy the walk. I was reluctant to even take a photo, and only shot from a distance, because it would invite another round of solicitations. Even so, they were like eagles! They would always spot me as I turned to focus on them, and gallop toward us.
After saying “No, thank you, thank you, no,” about four dozen times, we were left to make our way, marveling again at the massive sandstone djinn blocks and caves.
After about 30 minutes of walking, the path seems to end at a rock face. You walk through an opening and suddenly, the walls of the Siq rise up and close in.
The clatter of horses’ hooves and the rumbling of carriages rang off of the walls, and I thought of my silly comment the night before, that the sound effects were too loud. No! It was exactly the same volume.
Everywhere along the Siq were carvings and remnants of the falaj, or aqueduct, eroded over the centuries by powerful flood waters charging through the canyon.
This larger than life-sized camel caravan relief is dated 100-50 BC. The falaj runs below and behind the figure.Springs, along with flash flood waters captured during torrential rains, were used by the Nabataean people to create an artificial oasis in the sandstone and limestone of Petra. Throughout our travels, I’ve been intrigued by the ancient aqueduct systems we’ve seen, some in ruins and some in remote villages, still in use.
Throughout Petra, Jordan, Nabataean engineers took advantage of every natural spring and every winter downpour to channel water where it was needed. They constructed aqueducts and piping systems that allowed water to flow across mountains, through gorges and into the temples, homes and gardens of Petra’s citizens. Walking through the Siq, one can easily spot the remains of channels that directed water to the city center, as well as durable retention dams that kept powerful flood waters at bay. (Wikipedia)
There is a lot to see along the 30-minute walk through the Siq. Stone steps carved into the rock lead to alcoves or caves.
It almost seems that you are not so much emerging from the Siq, as the Treasury is unfolding before you. First a glimpse, then a sliver, and then suddenly there it is – too much to comprehend in one glance, too much to capture in one photo. And it’s not a building, but a façade, ingeniously carved from a massive sandstone face with no added structural support, and just a few small cave-rooms dug out behind it.
In the book Married to a Bedouin, which I read just before I moved to the Middle East, Marguerite van Geldermalsen, the only white woman to ever live in Petra, tells the story of how she went traveling as a young woman, struck up a romance with a Bedouin souvenir seller named Mohammed in Petra, married him, and lived with him in a cave from 1978 until 1985, when they were provided with government housing where they raised their three children. That book made me want to go to Petra. Now, three years later, I was finally seeing it.
There’s a lot more to Petra than the Treasury. It’s almost like, if you can forgive the terrible analogy, the Flintstones meet Disneyland. There are lots of souvenir vendors, there are rides – albeit on camel, or donkey, or horse – and there is so much to see. The site is a huge, ancient, multilayered city.
A city of caves and tombs …
… and Roman ruins, complete with Roman soldiers to pose with.
Many people had guides. Local Bedouins, handsome young men colorfully dressed, eyes lined with black kohl (they reminded me of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean) approached us for a donkey or camel ride, or to guide us off the beaten path to see the views from the High Place of Sacrifice.
I was aching to photograph their faces but resisted, thinking that if I did we would never be rid of them. That may be untrue and maybe even unkind, but perhaps I’ve become a bit weary of some aspects of being a tourist with money in my pockets. Everything costs money, and your first offer is never enough. And Donnette’s and my blonde heads stood out a little, even among the tourists; if we even looked at a man with a horse or camel or donkey, he would be following us for a kilometer or more, saying “Excuse me! Excuse me!!!”
Instead, I brought an Approach Guide on my iPad – Temples and Tombs of Petra, by David and Jennifer Raezer, with an overview of Petra and detailed information about the most important sites. I’d read it beforehand and, as Donnette and I progressed along, we read aloud. It was a great way to appreciate our self-guided tour. And again, not to be unkind, but as a seasoned traveler I now know that sometimes guides can be exhausting. They want you to participate when you just want to contemplate, and – now please forgive me – often, I can only understand a fraction of what they are saying, even thoughtthey are speaking English. Why can’t I understand? Because they pronounce vowels differently, they use unfamiliar vocabulary, and they speak very fast.
The two monuments in Petra that are most famous, the Treasury and the Monastery, are quite far from each other. This map below shows all of the places we visited in Petra. The darker color is the high ground, and the light color is the lower dry river bed, or wadi, where the flash floods come through during the rains. Unfortunately there is no scale, but you can gauge walking times by the fact that the walk from the Visitor Center to the Treasury is about one hour. Dotted lines are uphill – the Siq is quite gradual, but from the Museum to the Monastery is 800 quite steep steps. So you can figure it’s three hours in and three hours out, plus stops. We did it in seven hours, and we walked 12 miles.
Donnette had hurt her back lifting a golf bag (doh!) ten days before our trip. She didn’t want to be bouncing on a tall horse. But a slow little donkey was a different story, right? And when we arrived at the museum, where the long uphill slog to the Monastery begins, I wondered if she would make it climbing all the way to the top.
At the same time, I realized that the large tour group that was staying at our hotel had arrived at the same time, and their guide was arranging donkeys for everyone. I sidled over to a gentleman and asked, “How much are you paying?” The answer, 10 Jordanian dinar, seemed reasonable.
Then I realized that the tour guide was negotiating with a handsome Bedouin named Mahmood, who had introduced himself to us earlier. I liked Mahmood. I could see that he was mature; he was the leader. I trusted him. I turned to Donnette.
“I think we should do the donkey ride. It’s a long climb up, and then we have to come back down.” It was getting late.We were OK with not seeing the views from the High Place, but we were not going to miss the Monastery. Donnette said, “I’m game.”
So we saddled up – after a fashion – and headed up with the group. It wasn’t long before I realized how well-deserved is the donkey ride’s reputation for being terrifying. The path is part steps, and part slope worn slick by thousands of years of flood water. It winds, it skirts precipices, it’s steep in places, the donkeys slip here, they balk there. All the time the Bedouin guides, many just young boys, hustle them on.
I was carrying my camera, attached to a tripod, around my neck. That, along with the large handbag that kept falling off my shoulder, meant that I could only hold on with one hand. Added to that, the blanket that was functioning as a saddle was slipping sideways. Fortunately, the donkey I was on was not tall. My guide kept telling me to lean forward as the little donkey struggled uphill. It wasn’t easy!
Finally the boy stopped me, and while the others continued on up, he had me dismount while he adjusted and retied the blanket – breaking the flimsy tie not once, but twice. Donnette passed by and said, “You’re not leaving me, are you!?”
She was waiting at the top with her camera ready as we triumphantly arrived. I didn’t find out until later how truly terrified she was during the donkey ride. I’m still not sure if she’s glad that we did it, but I loved it. We did it!
There was a short walk up to the Monastery after the donkey drop-off point – perhaps a poor choice of words – which is lined with souvenir sellers, many of them women. We were drawn in to have tea with a mother and her grown daughter. Afterward, Donnette and I each picked out a bracelet and necklace to buy. Amazingly, we both chose the exact same ones! We’re like soul sisters.
The Monastery – which was given that name by archaeologists even though it has nothing to do with religion – did not disappoint.
It’s massive, and it represents the highest and most refined example of the Nabataean architectural style.
We had a lunch of fresh, cold juice and a bag of chips before making our way back down the 800 steep steps. I was fine being on the donkey on the way up, but I did NOT want to ride back down. Just looking down was too scary!
It was getting late, but we had just enough time to pass by the Royal Tombs, which we had missed on our way in. This row of edifices represents a sort of “workshop” in which the Nabataeans experimented with architectural styles and techniques before eventually creating the masterpiece that is the Monastery.
By the time we reached the end of the long walk back to the visitor’s center, all we could think about was finding a beer. Suddenly we remembered that our friend Terry had told us to be sure and go to the Cave bar. And like magic, there it was! And there we were.
Once our thirst was quenched, we realized we were starving. Passing by the places with the proprietors standing outside waving discount leaflets at us, we arrived at Three Steps restaurant at 6:00 p.m., just as he was opening. Another Abu Dhabi friend who had recently been there had recommended, “Order whatever is the special.” So we did, and it was mensef, the traditional Bedouin wedding dish. We could choose beef or lamb, which was simmered in goat milk yogurt and served over a bed of rice mixed with parsley and covered with shraak, a tissue-thin bread. It was simple, elegant, perfectly delicious. But first, we were served a mezze of three dips with bread. And afterward, tea and a sweet which was a still-warm Arabic pastry stuffed with cheese, which was delivered fresh from the bakery just as we were finishing our main course.
It was a perfect day, perfect weather, and we were perfectly exhausted by the time we got back to our room. Too exhausted to drink the complimentary bottle of wine provided by Marriott.
It’s amazing to realize that Petra was largely forgotten, except among local Bedouins, for centuries until 1812, when it was described by Swiss geographer Johann Burckhardt. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, and in 2007 became one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Petra siq in 1947 (left) compared with the same location in 2013 (Wikipedia)We didn’t meet Marguerite van Geldermalsen, but that wasn’t really a goal of mine, although I can’t exactly explain why. I kind of wish I’d met her, but at the time we were so overwhelmed by our day, it just didn’t seem to matter. I saw a large image of the book cover at one of the souvenir places; that must have been her shop. But I guess I was so exhausted I didn’t make the connection.
I was thinking about how impossible it seemed that all of the people selling souvenirs there live outside of Petra, especially the ones up by the Monastery. What a commute! And how do they safeguard their merchandise? I suspected that some of them still live in caves. So I did a little research, and discovered this interesting story about the locals, along with a follow-up on Marguerite: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/12/jordan-petra-cave-dwellers-neglect-authorities.html#
Life in Petra doesn’t look easy. We were told that the crowds have thinned – perhaps people are avoiding Jordan because of the troubles in Syria. Petra is in the southern part of Jordan, far from Syria, but people think of the entire Middle East as dangerous. So the locals are struggling to make their income. And maybe that’s why we felt so much pressure to ride and buy.
But no matter how many souvenirs or donkey rides they try to sell you, the fact is that Petra occupies unique place in human history, and nothing can overshadow its magnificence. You realize how gifted the Nabataeans were, that they ruled the trade routes and that they were amazing engineers. You appreciate the forces of nature that they tamed and the unique architectural style they developed, blending Greek, Roman, and Arab elements to arrive at their own classic Nabataean style.
Now , without the Nabataeans to maintain it, nature, aided by the impact of hordes of visitors, is reclaiming Petra. I don’t know exactly what is being done currently to mitigate the natural and human-caused erosion. But in the long run there isn’t much we can do to stop water, wind, and the salty airborne sands of time from reconfiguring the land.
Thanks for reading!