Jordan: Petra – Rose City in the Desert

It was dark but there were little tea lights in paper bags marking the way. We had no idea where we were going so we just followed the lights. We walked and walked. The track changed from gravel to paving and we became aware of high sides of rock around us as we walked, hearing the echo but not entirely sure how long we had to walk or where the trail of lights would take us. Petra, by night. After about half an hour of steady walking we came upon an open area, lit only by hundreds of candles, the glow faintly lighting up what we later learn was the Treasury. Our first glimpse of the most iconic view of Petra. We were ushered through to sit on mats and given hot, sweet tea to drink. In amongst the candles a Bedouin was playing traditional music. It was nothing short of magical.

This was my first experience of Petra. I think it added to the experience that we didn’t quite have our bearings or know what was round about us.

The Treasury - seen from the end of the Siq, a first glimpse!

The Treasury – seen from the end of the Siq, a first glimpse!

The following day we walked the same route, stopping regularly to look at the many interesting shrines and architectural features along the way. The places where channels have been built to contain water running downwards into the city, the dam and the aquifers. You fast realise how important water is in such an arid environment. The echoing rock that we had around us the night before was, in fact, the Siq. A long pathway through the rock, created by an earthquake and rubbed smooth by water running through in the annual floods. It lays bare the many layers that form the rock. The heat was intense, even out of the sun, the rocks emanated heat, making the Siq a long slim winding oven.

On reaching the treasury in daylight we then realised that that was only the tip of the iceberg that is Petra. Beyond the treasury there is a vast city spread out in the desert. Around the corner, and through another break in the rock it opens out into a hive of tourist activity. Stalls are set up and offers of camel rides, donkey rides, carriage rides and mule rides abound. Tour groups follow their guides around, and although Petra can expect up to 2-3000 visitors a day it doesn’t feel overcrowded. Looking up, we see many ornate tombs, carved out of the rock face, similar to the Treasury, ahead there is a Roman amphitheatre. The façades of the tombs are surprising well preserved, considering that they are open to the elements. Walking on we see the main street of Petra’s city centre – the Via Maxima, where temples, palaces and markets lined the street and you can still see the columns and steps, marking their presence. This is where the business of ancient Petra was done.

The Treasury - well preserved due to the rocks around it.

The Treasury – well preserved due to the rocks around it.

Petra was an ancient trading post but grew into its full grandeur in around the first centuries BC and AD, standing at the centre of trade between Egypt, Assyria and Arabia the Nabatean people who colonised the area capitalised on this. Towards the end of the first century however, trade routes had shifted to the sea and their power was on the wane. In the early 2nd century AD the city passed into the hands of the Romans and by the 3rd century AD Petra was in decline, the last stragglers however didn’t dessert the city until around 750 AD.

We spent 2 days at the site – and we could have done more. The heat, when we were there in early September, is overpowering and the sun relentlessly beats down. The walking is hard as some is over sand, some on sandstone flags and the walk back up to the town at the end of the day is a steady incline, deceptively slight but taking you up over around 4 stories en route back to the entrance. It’s hard work for tired legs!

On our second day we hiked up to the High Place of Sacrifice, overlooking Petra. It’s worth an early start as it’s around 600 steps up the hill face but once there the views are spectacular. It offers a completely different perspective on Petra and allows you to take in much of the full sweep of the site . You can also see the alleged site of Aaron’s tomb, not supported by the geography of historical documents, but still a place of pilgrimage for local people. Also on offer is a hike up to the monastery, another façade – reportedly a slightly more graded climb, if in fact a little longer.

There are a variety of methods of transport back on offer. For those light enough, a donkey; camels for the slightly more adventurous. These will take you back to the mouth of the Siq at the treasury. The camels are quite a restful way to travel once you’ve mastered leaning back as they get up and kneel down again. From there you can walk through the Siq (around 2km) or take a precarious horse and trap through the Siq. The carriages seem very light weight once you’re actually in them and the speed makes it quite an exhilarating ride! Fares all need to be negotiated. Your entry ticket to Petra includes a ride on a horse from the mouth of the Siq to the entrance. What does need negotiating is the tip to the handler which should be between JD3-5 (£3-5) and it’s important that this is paid as this is how the handlers earn their living.

The facades of the Royal Tombs

The facades of the Royal Tombs

The animals are all well cared for. There is a charity operating out of the local town which looks to ensure that animals are well fed, tack fits properly and that they aren’t mistreated. From a Western point of view the owners look harsh on them with lots of shouting and waving around of ropes but in reality, when you talk to them about their animals they speak kindly of them and their hands are kind to them. They rely on these animals for an income so it’s in their interests to keep them well.

Petra wasn’t anything like I’d expected. Accounts I read had led me to think it was a remote outpost in the middle of the desert, with a hotel or two built nearby. When, in fact, there is a little town called Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses) right next door, with many hotels and restaurants and a large residential community. Petra is an exhausting place so the night life isn’t buzzing as most people retire to their beds at the end of a long day but there are restaurants to eat at and one or two nice bars.

Petra itself is a spectacular place to visit. It has been on my list of things to do for a number of years and it was worth the wait. Go prepared for alot of walking and take plenty of water and sun cream. Cover your head and wear a shirt with sleeves rather than having shoulders on display, this is a good idea throughout Jordan as modest dress respects the local culture, but also protects from the burning sun. Take a camera – you will want those photos!

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