08 May 2014

Petra, Jordan 2007

This was definitely a bucket list item: PETRA! ... "a rose-red city half as old as time ... ."

I not only saw this iconic site, but a great deal more of this awe-inspiring country (for later posts).

[Click on photos to open to full size.]

For me Petra conjured ancient cultures, archaeological sites, exotic landscape, and of course camels. On this my first visit to Jordan I was completely enthralled with the experience of being so close to the storied birth of civilization. So enthralled, I neglected making many notes or photographs. The lapse was overtaken as I visited the region more often. My travel journals become slightly more reflective as time and travels went on. 
We would see little of Amman 

I arrived at the Amman hotel after dark where tour leader Jihad (a Moslem Syrian) introduced himself. What can his name portend, I was thinking. Our news at home associates the word with death-to-the-infidels "jihadists." Later, I was gently disabused of any such personal connotations (Jihad is not an uncommon male first name). More of Jihad's story will be in a later post.

My first night in the Middle East, Amman was celebrating Eid, the end of Ramadan. I was going to sleep with Arab music pouring into the street below my window; initially strange to our ears, but it has a hypnotic quality. Then, awakening to the call for prayer signifies so many things to me: a structure to the day; synchronicity with the essential human continuum; affirmation of life in general.

Unlike most tours, we had two full days at this fascinating World Heritage site. Day one, onto the entrance trail with Jihad and local guide Ramzi (a Christian Jordanian). The entrance trail of almost a mile is in two parts.

The first part is unshaded; it's the reason for starting very early in the morning. An option is to ride a horse from here to part two or take a bumpy carriage ride the whole way as boys on Arabian horses whip by like cowboys on a dusty parallel track. Caves and tombs in the rocks prepared us for increasing wonders. Part two goes into crevices between the mountains, a much longer hike and an education in itself. The old caravans entered this way ... carvings, writings, and ancient aqueducts to study. 

These sandstone mountains seem like something out of this world. Colour striations are amazing, impossible to describe or capture on amateur film. We stopped at various spots along the way for lessons in history and geology (Ramzi was a recent PhD in geology). It's a gradually downhill walk, on stony or sandy ground, interspersed with huge blocks of ancient Roman paving. One must watch the feet when walking, and stop constantly to gaze about.

At the end of the entrance trail, more than an hour later, we paused for our first glimpse of the most famous monument. The iconic photo of Petra is the spectacular opening from a narrow canyon called the Siq (photo at top). The traveller comes from towering shade into a burst of sunlight on the magnificent "Treasury" (one of those foreignly applied misnomers from its modern "discovery" in 1812). Thanks to misunderstanding of the name, it's said that earlier visitors would shoot at it, thinking they could release a spill of "treasure."

There's so much more. The entire valley of sandstone cliffs was carved by the Nabateans for habitation and worship, flourishing from the third century BCE. A mixed history followed until the Romans became dominant and the forces of nature, including an earthquake, saw Petra's decline. At its height, it was a major trading hub for camel caravans.

And the camel population has scarcely changed since then!

Impressive dwellings and tombs line the mountainsides along the inner way. One can follow a number of side trails and climbs to great heights. We stayed (staggered?) the length of the main trail as the sun heated up, another couple of hours, up and down hills and rocks, staring awestruck as Ramzi's encyclopaedic information unfolded. 

It does not seem unusual, somehow, that Bedouin nomad families still occupied these structures and caves until a few short years ago. The Jordanian government has provided nearby housing for them but it's not the same. Many families continue their seasonal migrations back and forth to the south.

After passing the signs of Roman occupation, including an enormous amphitheatre and ruins of a colonnaded street, we were ready for the lunch break at the trail's natural end. An improbably situated (and almost invisible) restaurant was a welcome sight. Next door was a small gem, a museum and craft shop under the sponsorship of Queen Noor's many activities for the preservation of Petra and its artifacts. 

A few mad dogs and Englishmen (midday sun) in our group then undertook the 800-step climb to the Monastery (not such a misnomer, as Byzantine monks made use of the first-century building at one time) and the rest of us were on our own for the return trek. A camel ride back to the Treasury looked ideal to me. My companions demurred, content to watch me. Much taking of photos, thanks to Gloria. 

So I rode grandly off, waving imperially to the straggling group behind. We swayed past small clusters of souvenir and refreshment vendors. They are not as aggressive as in some other countries. Sand art designs are among the more unique souvenirs. It was a smooth ride retracing the long trail. A drink of “iced” tea at the little Treasury rest stop was just the thing before tackling the entrance trail back through the Siq. Uh-oh: ever so slightly but relentlessly uphill this time. Tough going by the time we hit the blazing sun in the last part, mid-afternoon killer!

Day two was much the same although we were free to explore on our own. I did want to visit the young man selling the autobiography Married to a Bedouin ... because the author, Marguerite Van Geldermalsen, was his mother, a native of New Zealand! She lived and raised him in one of these cave homes until the death of her husband, as I learned after I bought the book. He was selling some exquisite, locally crafted silver.

A few of us climbed to the high royal tombs: high enough for me with no railings or support in most places! Even here a few vendors were setting up tables to sell simple jewellery while keeping an eye on their goats. Others of our group went to climb to Aaron's Tomb, the highest peak, where Moses' brother is said to be buried; that will take several hours. I purchased a small camel-wool carpet, lugging it all the long way back.

In two words: magnificent and overwhelming.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman
Photographs by BDM, 2007



Twisted Scottish Bastard said...

I have always wanted to see Petra.
My Beloved has seen it, my sisters-in-law have seen it, but I haven't.

I don;t think that these days I'd want to visit unless I had my own SLR (7.62mm).

Purely for personal security.

BDM said...

Ah, TSB. You've been in NZ too long. Jordan is probably the safest country in the Middle East. Save the SLR to quell the riots in your day job. ☺