Between a Rock and a High Place
(National Post, March 25, 2006)
Some destinations are an over-hyped disappointment. Petra's the reverse. It's an archaeological marvel so vast, so intoxicatingly beautiful, it seems improbable it wasn't one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It makes the long trek to Jordan well worth the cost, the kilometres and the supposed danger.
When I mentioned to friends I was going to the Middle East they either looked worried or the jokes came out. "Pack a flak jacket", "remember to duck", those kinds of quips. Jordan however is the eye of the hurricane, a relatively peaceful oasis in a stormy region. About twice the size of Nova Scotia, its borders touch Syria, Isreal, the West Bank, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The late King Hussein's lifelong role as a peacemaker for the war-torn area matched with the welcoming warm nature of the average Jordanian sets Jordan apart from its neighbours.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a young nation, created just 60 years ago, in a region rich with history. The country boasts the baptism site of Christ, the mountain where Moses first saw the Promised Land, Crusader castles and Jerash, one of the best-preserved province cities of the Roman Empire. It's home to Wadi Rum, the desert Lawrence of Arabia called, "vast, echoing and God-like". Amongst all these treasures, the ancient red-rose Nabataean city of stone, Petra, is the crown of glory.
This UNESCO designated World Heritage Site was founded before 300 BC in the forbidding desert canyons of southern Jordan. Great traders, agriculturalists and skilled engineers, the Nabataeans built a city out of an arid, rocky retreat. Petra prospered for centuries at the confluence of the famous silk and spice roads, two of the greatest trade routes in history that linked the empires of now Europe to the East. When it was absorbed into the Roman Empire in 106 AD, the city flowered with the dams and irrigation channels that captured water for their gardens, pools and orchards.
Petra lost its commercial dominance when trade routes changed from caravans overland to ships on the seas. About this time a major earthquake in 363 AD smashed half the city and destroyed its water system. Petra however continued to function as a religious centre becoming a seat of Christianity under the Romans and the residence of a bishop during the Byzantine era, during which times a series a magnificent churches were erected. The advent of Islam in the seventh century sealed Petra's fate. It sank into obscurity for more than a thousand years until a Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt convinced Bedouin guides to lead him to it in 1812.
The ancient city is estimated to have been the size of lower Manhattan. More than 3,000 monuments and man-made features have been identified so far including 600 tombs and 100 sacred banquet halls. There are temples, amphitheatres and dwellings all hand chiselled into towering sandstone cliffs. Roman roads, waterworks and hundreds of stone-carved stairs climbing up the mountains are just some of other remains spread out over 400 square acres.
A part of the film Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade was shot at Petra. I'd seen the film but nothing prepared me for the actual place. Its stunning natural beauty accented by monumental architecture seeped in the spiritual - that was cinema of the highest order. The drama started after a fifteen minutes walk from the admission gate when I reached the narrow Siq or chasm that served as the entrance to the old city. It was only four to five metres wide with sandstone walls that soared up - some rounded, some jagged and jutting - in layers of coral, rose, lavender, black and ochre to a bright blue sky. Under my feet were the stones of a Roman street, marked by the wheels of their chariots. I walked both humbled and intoxicated by nature for almost a kilometre.
Then suddenly the gorge opened up to The Pharaoh's Treasury (Khazneh el-Far'un) as seen in the Indiana film. It got its Arabic name "Treasury" from the urn atop the conical roof that the local Bedouins (a nomadic desert tribe) thought contained riches. You can see the bullet holes where the Bedul shot at the urn in hope of smashing it open. It was impossible not to feel like a speck beside the façade that measures about 40 metres high and 30 by 30 metres wide.
There were many more dramatic moments for me over the two days I spent visiting Petra. The pathway with its approximately 700 steep stone steps leading to the High Place of Sacrifice on top of Jebel (mount) Attuf was a strenuous half hour hike. The views as I climbed took my breath away more than the exertion though, culminating in a panorama of Petra stretched far below that was so exhilarating I felt a sense of vertigo both real and emotional.
The route to one of Petra's most magnificent monuments Al Ed-Deir was another highlight. Those who came in the "easy" way had to climb about 45 minutes up steep stairs from the Basin restaurant in Petra's centre or take a donkey. Judging from the involuntary screams that escaped from the donkey riders as their mounts leaped up steep narrow steps, I'd have to say neither way's a walk in the park. The group I was with decided to up the ante and hike in from Little Petra, a two to three hour climb along an often very steep, slippery and narrow pathway through the mountains.
Before we headed off we visited the Siq Al-Barid which means 'cold canyon' so named for its entranceway so narrow the sunlight can't penetrate. This mini Petra resembles the original Petra prior to Roman influence. Ancient homes carved into the stone with fireplaces, stairs, workshops and dining halls indicate it was a residential area and perhaps an ancient motel town for the passing caravans. On one ceiling was a fresco of grape vines, flowers and birds dated to the first century A.D. Adjacent is a Neolithic village thought to be over 9,000 years old.
Shadi, a Bedouin guide, led us from Little Petra along the footpath to Petra. We passed Bedouin tents where the children rushed out to greet us, testing out a few English words and looking for treats. A mother sat making yoghurt by slowly shaking milk in the bloated stretched skin of a goat. Camels, donkeys, chickens and goats grazed around the settlement. Elsewhere was a vast wilderness of rock, sandstone outcroppings and sand punctuated with green succulents and yellow flowers of spring. A wind called the Khamasin was stirring up the sand creating haze in the distance, which by the next day would become a full-blown sandstorm. Then we started to climb, climb and climb. Perched on a ledge of one mountainside overlooking a precipitous drop was an old Bedouin with freshly made tea for sale, kept warm on a tiny wood fire. It was the best Jordanian dinar I ever spent.
A few on this treacherous walk were grumbling like camels before it ended. But the fears of falling were quickly forgotten when we reached our destination. Al Ed-Deir is the most impressive building in the Nabataean capital. Its façade measures over 48 metres wide by close to 40 high and was likely the cenotaph of king Obodas I. There's a most welcome coffee and handicraft shop that faces it where we sat to recuperate. This place was an oasis for all.
No matter what way we had chosen, touring Petra meant a lot of hoofing it. It's about 8 kilometres from end to end without the deters or hikes up the mountains. The local Bedouin make a living offering tourists rides on horses, horse drawn carts, donkeys and camels. They also peddle trinkets, cardamom laced coffee, over-priced water, lovely hand crafted jewellery and even pieces of sandstone rock. They used to live in Petra until it was designated a world heritage site and they were evicted to a government built concrete village nearby.
Petra is now just their day home and they enliven it with their
bantering and smiles directed at tourists. I had happily given in the first
day to a camel ride through part of the site. My mount was Jack, a grumpy
seven-year-old camel prone to growling and showing his teeth. I still loved
the ride. The second day after the trek through the mountains, I felt empowered
and proposed a race to the Bedouin whose camel I chose. His beast was attached
to mine by a rope so we couldn't really go too far astray. He flashed a big
grin and off we galloped (if that's the name for the lopping swaying fast
gait of a camel) down the Roman Colonnade Street, through the city centre
to the Siq. The walking crowds parted; the Bedouin gave me thumbs up. It was
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