Petra: The Red Rose City

For years I have wanted to visit the ancient city of Petra which lies in the heart of the Jordanian desert. As I fairly regularly visit Israel you would think a journey to see one of the wonders of the ancient world in the neighbouring country would be quite easy to arrange. Yet somehow between Gulf wars, intifadas and various suicide bombings it has always been too unsafe to cross the border (the timing of my previous trips to Israel really sucked, and my grandmother, understandably, worries a lot). At any rate the trip never eventuated; until now.

To visit Jordan from Israel generally requires a night spent in Eilat. Now the travel brochures will have you believe that this city is a peaceful seaside paradise. I beg to differ: Eilat leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps it was the never-ending rows of beach-side restaurants clogging up the beach, or the hundreds of boats coming and going all day long that I didn’t take a shine to? Or possibly it was the thousands of Russian tourists with their obnoxious overweight kids running everywhere? Or maybe the incessant 38oC heat which has clearly made the locals a little prickly with the tourists? Or perhaps it was simply being constantly buzzed by 747 jets flying just a few hundred metres over head on route to the international airport in the middle of the city (!) that kind of ruined the tranquil resort feeling for me?

Airplane landing in Eilat, Israel

At any rate Cam and I didn’t have too much time to complain as the next morning it was off to cross the border into Jordan. After much time checking passports and paying the necessary fees we met Maud, our Jordanian driver. Maud, a local lad in his mid-20’s studying mining engineering in Aqaba, greeted us extremely politely and on behalf of King Hussein himself welcomed us to Jordan. He also proceeded to give us a VIP tour of his home town, where business is booming due to the King’s recent proclamation that Aqaba become a tax-free city.

Leaving the city behind, we headed straight into the desert. A great big dry and dusty desert from which hundreds of rocky mountains rise into wrinkled, rose-coloured peaks. Here Maud proved to be quite the rock-jock with bountiful geological knowledge about the rugged rock-strewn landscape that surrounded us. A few hours later, it was amongst some of these incredible craggy formations that we made our first stop.

Jordan Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum is a massive nature reserve encompassing a desert landscape of amazing scenery, which is home to large numbers of Bedouin tribes, and more recently to the Arabian Oryx (which went extinct in the wild in 1970’s but is recovering to due captive breeding and reintroduction programs).

Jordan Wadi Rum

We signed up for a jeep ‘tour’ of the main sites in the area, a term I use very loosely as the ‘tour’ simply involved the driver pointing in the direction we should walk at each stop, and then sitting back and drinking Arabic coffee until we returned! But this actually suited us just fine, and we spent the next few hours exploring rocky outcrops, examining rock carvings written in ancient languages, climbing sand dunes, and spotting wildlife (no oryx, unfortunately, but ticks for a Sinai Rose-finch and a blue Agama lizard).

Blue Agama Lizard

And then after a well-earned rest in a Bedouin tent to drink deliciously strong, sweet Bedouin tea and a late but hearty lunch, it was back to the desert highway and a long dry hazy drive to Petra.

After three hours of driving in the afternoon heat through the rocky moonscape, slowly winding up the mountains, we were both sleeping like a babies. It was only when Maud pulled off the road to stop at a lookout over the valley that we awoke (which seemed to amuse him no end). There with the setting desert sun beginning to cast a pretty mauve glow across the vast cloudless Jordanian sky, we were treated to an aerial view of the magical rose-red city of Petra ensconced in a myriad of globular rocky crags, that looked like dripped sand castles.

We continued down to the site, which by this late stage of the day was closed. So we checked into the hotel (which had clearly been locked in a 1960’s time capsule, complete with an elevator with manual doors, a radio in the bed-head, porter in uniform and authentic retro fittings) and spent the rest of the evening perusing the coloured-sand-bottles stands and souvenir shops, and fawning over the amazing Bedouin jewellery, and the more masculine sword and dagger type adornments.

The next morning after a strange half-Western, half-middle eastern breakfast (toast, jam and hummus anyone?) it was finally time to go explore the ancient lost city of Petra. The first thing you notice on approaching the entrance to this archaeological site is that this city is certainly not ‘lost’ any more. Although it was only about 9 am the place was already full of people. We gave the huge noisy group of schoolboys a substantial head start, and then started through the gates ourselves.

The initially wide rocky valley meanders gently downhill, passing numerous small carved tombs and at least one weathered temple carved into the rock wall, and ends at the start of al-Siq, the grand caravan entrance into Petra. A narrow gorge extending over a kilometre in length, which is flanked on either side by soaring 80 m high cliffs, the Siq is, well, fully-sick (sorry couldn’t resist).

The gentle downhill walk through the Siq with the bright Jordanian sun beaming down through the smoothly weathered cliff walls, bringing the rock to life was simply wonderful. The sunburnt colours and the molten sculpted formations of the sandstone cliffs were nothing short of stunning.

Petra al-Siq

To top off the ethereal experience, on reaching the end of the Siq, at its narrowest and darkest point, you are suddenly treated to a magical first glimpse of Petra’s most famous building, drenched in full glorious blinding sunshine.

The Al-Khazneh (or Treasury building, of Indiana Jones fame) is a massive façade, 30m wide and 43m high, carved out of the sheer, dusky pink rock-face, which dwarfs everything around it, including the 1000’s of tourists, their guides, the souvenir carts, the food vendors, the Bedouins with their camels, horses and donkeys, and all the official photographers crowded into the plaza at its base. Despite the mass of people, it was still simply an amazing sight to behold, and truly worthy of its fame.

Petra The Treasury Building

From the plaza, the vast valley of Petra begins to open up before you, and the immense scale of the bustling trading city that used to exist here can be truly appreciated. Hundreds of elaborate and enormous rock-cut burial tombs and palaces with intricate carvings adorn the cliffs on either side of the valley. Unlike the common houses, which were destroyed mostly by earthquakes or floods, these magnificent edifices were carved to last throughout the afterlife. Though none are as perfectly preserved as the Treasury building, these palatial creations and giant empty sarcophaguses with their foreboding dark doorways, still stand as a testament to a time when things were quite literally built to last.

Petra Valley

After being escorted rather quickly through this fascinating archaeological history by our guide, we were left to our own devices and spent the next few hours happily wandering the massive site, continually declining offers for donkey and camel rides, and trying to get nice photos without hundreds of people in them!

Then just after lunch the “population” of Petra suddenly tripled. Although some people might say that the arrival of hordes of cruise-liner day-trippers probably leant an authentic “bustling town” feel to the site, I’ve never really been one for bustling towns. And so we made our way back up and out of the magnificent city of Petra, described so eloquently and vividly by John William Burgon:

It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,

By labor wrought as wavering fancy planned;

But from the rock as if by magic grown,

Eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!

Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,

Where erst Athena held her rites divine;

Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,

That crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;

But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,

That first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;

The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,

Which Man deemed old two thousand years ago.

Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,

A rose-red city half as old as time.

                                     John William Burgon (1845)

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