Wednesday 18 May 2022 – It was never really one of my bucket list items to be the first to breakfast at a big international hotel, but we achieved it anyway this morning. The alarm went off at 0500 and we arrived just in time to push open the breakfast room door and ask them whether they were open. Fortunately, they were and we had a swift but satisfying breakfast (Twinings Earl Grey included) and were a couple of minutes early to meet Ali, our guide for the day.
The Mövenpick is literally just across the road from the Petra visitor centre, so we were on our way into the site within minutes. To give some context to the day’s peregrinations, let me give some idea of size and distance. Here’s a map of the site.
Something I hadn’t internalised is that the site is 27 square miles. The thing that everyone knows about from the Indiana Jones film is The Treasury, which is a third in from the right. Our destination today was the Monastery – top left. In all, including some great detours that Ali knew about, we walked 12 miles and ascended over 500 metres (sorry for the mixed units, but you’re all international folk so you can work it out, can’t you?).
Like Marwan did in Amman, Ali gave us a huge amount of historical, geographical and cultural information, only parts of which have stuck, but I’ll try to include some of what he told us.
The first thing he kept mentioning was the Nabatean Kingdom. I confess that I’d never heard the term before, and I was of course too embarrassed to confess this, so I looked it up. The Nabataeans were one of several nomadic Bedouin tribes that roamed the Arabian Desert in search of pasture and water for their herds. They emerged as a distinct civilization and political entity between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC, with their kingdom centered around a loosely controlled trading network that brought considerable wealth and influence across the ancient world. They were allies of Rome, annexed into the Roman Empire by Emperor Trajan (trajuced?) in 106 AD. This explains much of the Roman bits and bobs we came across on our visit today, although there was much other pagan content in their culture and practices as well as later Christian influence. Petra was the capital of the Nabateans.
After a short walk from the visitor centre, you come to the location of the formal gate to Petra, though the arch that once signified it no longer stands, as it (along with masses of other buildings and monuments) has fallen prey to the multiple earthquakes that have shaken things up, or possibly down, over the last two thousand years. However, there are a couple of things that mark the gate, the most striking of which is the Bab Al Siq, the gateway to the Siq.
May I ask you, please, to take note of the moon in the first of these pictures, which signifies that the time at this time was 0637, exactly the sort of hour you’ll only find me awake when I’m on holiday.
One of the reasons we started so early was to try to avoid the worst of the day’s heat. The second was to try to get ahead of the crowds, which we largely did, although we weren’t entirely alone as we walked along the Siq.
(There are many enterprising locals who will offer you camel rides or horse rides if you want to take the weight off your feet. Some of them have a little problem understanding the words “no, thank you”, but not to an upsetting degree.)
Then you enter the Siq, a narrow gorge resulting from natural splits in the mountains which was the main entrance for religious people (the tradesmen’s entrance was round the back). Down each side of the Siq run water channels
which work quite well, given that the entire thing runs downhill. Quite a considerable amount of time and effort has been spent in damming and maintaining the various water courses to keep them (a) running and (b) not drowning people, as there is a potential for heavy rain to bring huge amounts of water into Petra.
On the way along the Siq, Ali pointed out various phenomena, both natural and man-made. There are many niches to various deities, some of which were permanently resident and had recognised symbols representing them
and some were left empty for visitors to install their own gods. There is a natural formation which looks a little like an elephant (actually I think it looks more like a manatee, but apparently I’m in a minority, here),
and there are other man-made carvings such as this, which if you look carefully, can be recognised as a camel and a man, albeit somewhat eroded by wind and rain.
After just over a kilometre, you begin to get a glimpse of something vast and man-made
and so you soon arrive at The Treasury, the largest structure in Petra.
Having started out early, we’d been very lucky that there were relatively few people there, but the place was still afflicted by people who simply couldn’t bear to have a picture of the noble historic works of ancient civilisation without them gurning in front of it.
Ali pointed out some details on the Treasury. For example, up the side you can see marks where the original workmen installed ladders so that they could work on the structure from the top downwards.
At the top of the centrepiece is a funerary urn which was reputed to contain a Pharaoh’s treasure. So, obviously, you shoot bullets at it to try to open it.
The next landmark is the street of façades. This is a street which, amazingly enough, has façades carved into its walls.
As you walk along you will notice many caves carved into the walls. We took a look at one of the more colourful ones
but inside it’s pretty much like all of the others,
a living space with cavities carved into the walls for ashes, or sometimes actual remains. This bears out a comment from Suhir, our guide in Jerash, who rather dismissively said that Petra was basically a necropolis. I think maybe he was a little sensitive about being a guide to a place which, although impressive, didn’t quite match Petra for charisma. But he has a point; virtually every cave was a living space plus storage for the dead; and some of the other structures were just tombs, albeit quite fancy ones, like these.
At this point, Ali took us off the main drag to show us some of the lesser-visited parts of the site and thus demonstrated to value of having a guide, as we wouldn’t have found these things by ourselves. Firstly, a couple of great views over a part of the site, including (in the first picture) a prime minister’s tomb;
and a superb view over something that I hadn’t realised (until today) existed in Petra – a Roman Theatre
(although, as we now know after our tour of Amman, this was more in the Greek style, being sculpted from the surroundings rather than standalone); secondly, some great caves
including a spectacularly coloured one – truly breathtaking.
This one was used for hospitality by a Bedouin who had been born in such a cave (but lived in a nearby Bedouin village). We took tea with him whilst Ali snuck off for a quick smoke.
Thirdly, we got a surprise Church, not something one might have expected on a site such as Petra. It was probably built around the fifth century AD, thus making it Byzantine in period, and has been only slightly restored after being devastated in various earthquakes.
On either side it has – brace yourselves! – mosaics! Yay!
(These are depictions of beasts known across the Roman Empire.)
Finally, Ali led us to a fantastic view over the Great Temple.
At the right hand end of the picture is a three-pillar gate to this end of the city. As we walked down towards it, some reconstruction of Roman Guard shenanigans was under way.
And that marked the end of the guided part of our day. So we bade Ali farewell, and embarked forthwith on Phase II – the ascent to The Monastery, billed as climbing over 800 steps to the top of a mountain.
It’s a little awkward and/or steep in a couple of places, but the trail is clear, and all one has to do is to toil upwards, avoiding some oncoming traffic occasionally
(you will be offered donkey rides incessantly as you go up. One of the things that I hadn’t expected was the ubiquity of retail opportunities as people try to sell you souvenirs and handicraft items. See later).
The easy availability of donkey rides means a liberal amount of donkey shit on the steps, so you have to watch your step. We came across this lady who appeared to be cleaning it up
but since there was still a vast amount of the stuff around she was either totally ineffectual or was simply collecting it for fuel.
There’s some great scenery to be viewed on the way up.
and, as I say, several retail opportunities, where one is hailed as a great buddy or asked to support the families.
We made the mistake of falling into conversation and drinking tea with this lady, who turned out to be a great salesperson; we didn’t get away without paying really quite a lot of money for a couple of items, but it would have been awkward just to leave. She was later seen in action with others.
I would recommend smiling and being firm with a “no, thank you” unless you want to get involved with a sales transaction. The attitudes are not aggressive, but sometimes a little persistent.
Then, before we knew it
we’d reached the top. It didn’t look altogether ancient and monastic, to be honest.
but then we turned the corner….
Ali had mentioned that you could walk past the Monastery for a fantastic view over the far valley. I wasn’t too sure of the route until we looked around a bit.
So we followed the signs and arrived at the viewpoint and, well…
It was precipitous, mind.
We headed back down to the Monastery and I took advantage of another route promising to be the best view in the world. Frankly, it wasn’t, but en route, I got a brilliant angle on the Monastery.
After all that clambering about, it was time to head down, and we reached the bottom without any mishap. It was getting quite hot by this stage, and some people were suffering a bit as they walked up (frankly, I think that some of them were showing more courage than common sense). Some people cheated.
Our original plan had been to have lunch when we reached the bottom, but we decided instead to head back to the hotel, rest for a bit and then get a late lunch. All this was prior to the excitement of the evening which was to see “Petra By Night”.
Something that I hadn’t appreciated until we started the walk back was quite how far below the level of the hotel we were. It was a long, hot and relentless uphill pull for the best part of three miles, and as far as I can tell the hotel’s altitude is not far below that of the Monastery. There were a couple of diverting moments on the way back.
and the Treasury was considerably more crowded than it had been at 7am.
It was now just about midday and the sun was (a) very hot and (b) directly overhead, so my hope of finding some shade from the high walls of the Siq was ill-founded.
so we sweated and stumbled our way all the way back to the hotel, pausing only to take a photo of the Roman guards at the gate.
The rest and lunch at the hotel were very welcome indeed. We treated ourselves to some proper western food, and the hotel burger and chips were a transport of delight for me.
At 6pm, Saeed delivered our Petra By Night tickets, and we set out some moments before its official start time and joined the queue in the souk by the visitor centre. There is some entertaining, and probably borderline illegal marketing at work for some of the boutiques there.
I bet they didn’t ask Harrison Ford for his permission. There was quite a crowd for the event and we started shuffling along down the track to the Siq
and it was all going quite nicely until people started using torches and other lights, and talking loudly (mostly rubbish) which completely ruined the atmosphere that we infer the organisers wanted by lighting the way by candle light. Long story short, we eventually got to the Treasury where lots of lights were arrayed and people were sitting waiting for the show to begin.
The show, or at least the bit we stayed for, was music with a strong local cultural content – an Arab flute and a rebaba, an Arab one-string instrument. The flute playing was OK, but the rebaba was accompanied by shrieking vocals and with appalling audio quality, so we left. The walk back was much nicer, because it was much less plagued by fuckwits with torches.
And so we come to the end of a long, long day. We’ve walked over 15 miles, ascended and descended 750 metres and we have to get up in six hours to basically do it all over again, although we’ll be visiting a different part of the Petra site. So stay tuned to see whether we survive….