The donkey snorted and stamped its hooves. A flag flapped and snapped in the brisk breeze. In the valley below a goat bleated and a large bird cried out as it wheeled away into the distance. Surrounded by craggy mountains, the late afternoon sun glimmered through the heat and the horizon was blanketed in mist.
I’d climbed up to this mountain top with a group of English friends and after an incredible day exploring, we had emerged from a land of ancient peoples into the wilderness. Far off, hidden in the haze, lay the Dead Sea and the Holy Land; behind us lay the ancient city of Petra.
That morning, we’d walked along an old river bed from Wadi Musa (Torrent of Moses) towards Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our Jordanian guide, Burhan, pointed out significant sights along the way. The influence of Egypt and Greece could be seen in the Tomb of the Obelisks, dating back to reign of Malichos II (AD 40-71), king of the Nabateans, who had settled here thousands of years ago.
The path gradually narrowed as horses trotted past carrying excited tourists. The vertiginous walls blocked out the morning sun, providing welcome relief from the heat. The rocks changed colour from white to grey, to cream then gradually to a richer, golden colour, striated with ochre, yellow, orange, brown, mauve, blue and pink. Every so often horse-drawn carriages charged past, swaying and swerving past each other in a race through the gorge.
Walking along the Siq (dry river bed), I felt a sense of anticipation and nervousness increasing, as I was to finally get the first sight of Petra, a place I had longed to visit for over 30 years. Would I be disappointed by a lack of grandeur? Would it be overrun with tourists like Ephesus? Would it be hassle-central like the Egyptian Pyramids? Round a corner and there, through a dark, tapered opening, were butter-coloured columns, worn carvings, a shadowy doorway ….
Moving into the sun-light was like stepping onto a stage, the most theatrical and awe-inspiring entrance to a site I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Protected from the wind by the surrounding rocks, the Treasury (Al-Kazneh) soars magnificently upwards towards the blue skies.
There are six columns on either side of a dark entrance, with a triangular pediment above. The upper part has a circular tholos (temple) with a conical roof and stone urn. It was thought this might contain a king’s fortune in gold, hence the name ‘Treasury’. Nothing was found on the site, though bullet marks identify where Bedouins fired their rifles to try to dislodge the treasure.
Many of the building’s architectural details have been eroded during the two thousand years since it was carved and sculpted from the cliff. The sculptures are thought to be those of various mythological figures associated with the afterlife. On top are figures of four eagles that would carry away the souls. The figures on the upper level are dancing Amazons with double-axes. The entrance is flanked by statues of the twins Castor and Pollux who lived partly on Mount Olympus and partly in the underworld. Wikipedia
What was wonderful, though not so good for the tourist-related businesses, was that the site was fairly quiet, with only a handful of visitors so we could take our time to absorb it in relative peace. Yes, we were asked if we wanted a ride a camel or buy a souvenir, but a firm No thank you, resulted in a charming smile and often a cheeky reply in English; ‘Have a break, have a Kit-Kat’, ‘Lovely jubbly,’ ‘Cheap as chips’ – TV influences all over the world!
Walking on, we passed the 3,000 seat Amphitheatre and Street of Facades; numerous small tombs carved into the hillside. A ramshackle row of stalls selling the usual souvenirs and drinks was enlivened by a sign saying, THE BEST COFFEE IN THE MIDDLE EAST – RECOMMENDED FROM AUSTRALIA and Free WIFI. An Australian woman married one of the local Bedouins and apparently she gave this resounding testimony.
Further on a row of lovely royal tombs stood out from the rocks above us. The Urn Tomb and the Corinthian Tomb have ornate façades like the Treasury but are more weather-beaten. The Silk Tomb is so-called due to the striations of coloured sandstone that resemble watered silk.
The route opened out into the Roman Lower City. From around 100 AD the paved main street was lined with public buildings, including markets, baths and Nymphaeum. The Monumental Gate still stands, framing the distant mountains. What was really noticeable was just how few tourists there were once we left the magnetic pull of the Treasury.
We had an excellent buffet lunch and very welcome ice-cold drinks at The Basin restaurant, near the Museum, which we didn’t have time to visit. Then it was up on a donkey for a bumpy ride up to the Monastery. It was the best JD10 I spent on the trip! My donkey, appropriately called William Shakespeare, was led by Jack Sparrow look-alike Ram and his brother, who walked ahead to watch the path. Ram said they still live in the caves, though it’s officially illegal. He’d had his donkey since he was a 3-month old foal. Sure-footed and steady, William S took his time to get me right to the top of the uneven 1000+ steps, carefully avoiding slipping off the precarious mountain edge, through a stunning rocky landscape.
The Monastery (Ad Deir) comes as a big shock; unlike the dramatic entrance to Treasury, you clamber down a few steps, see an open area in front of you and then suddenly realise there’s an enormous temple looming up behind you. Unlike the Treasury, its width (50m) is greater than its height (45m) with an elegantly curved dome. Originally a temple, it was later used as Church. Most of the elaborate decoration has been worn away but still quite remarkable.
Once I had dismounted, Ram tied up William and took me over to the cafe. One of the young Bedouin lads legged it up the side of the Monastery and onto the very top of the central dome. Having stood up and waved down at us, he then sat down and dangled his feet over the edge. Crazy boy. Definitely not to be recommended and when a tourist tried it, he was immediately told to get down!
When my fellow explorers arrived we relaxed at the little café on low-slung seats and enjoyed the view. We were all amazed at just how much more there was to see in Petra than we had expected, and how visually impressive it all is.
You may be admiring the fancy headgear – Burhan showed us how to tie a Bedouin scarf in a number of different ways. You can see his demo here.
As we were relaxing, a young man and woman posed for photos in front of the Deir. Suddenly he went down on one knee and was clearly asking her to marry him. From her excited response and his smile, I think she said yes. What a fabulously romantic place to propose …
Our final trek took us to the very highest point, egged on by hand-drawn signs enticing us onwards and upwards with the promise of unrivalled views of Little Petra and Wadi Araba (Jordan Rift Valley).
The area was totally deserted except for two young lads under the canopy, who had bottles of drink to sell and seemed totally unbothered by the lack of trade. Here, beyond the natural boundaries of the ‘Lost City’ of Petra, we took our time to reflect on all we’d seen and relish the opportunity we had to be in such genuinely awe-inspiring setting.
On our return, we were able to see Petra in the late afternoon sunshine. The buildings and rocks had changed colour from the golden hues of the morning to the fabled ‘red-rose’ (well, more pink really) of the evening sunset. We had to wrench ourselves away from the tranquillity of the deserted Treasury and as we left, I turned back and there were a couple of visotors getting one last photo of this beautiful place, one none of us will ever forget …
As you can see, Petra did not disappoint. It exceeded expectations on every level; there’s nowhere else on earth to compare it with. I do hope you get to visit one day. It is justifiably known as one of the remaining wonders of the Ancient World and hopefully it will last for thousands of years to come. There’s a new Jordan Pass with some great reductions on entry to over 40 sites including Petra.
At the time of publication Jordan has the same safety rating as Canada, United States, China and Germany and has fewer tourists at present so it’s a great time to go. Many thanks to our knowledgeable guide Burhan and Visit Jordan for inviting us to experience Jordan, a country beyond expectations.