No budget hotel for us in Petra, no way. We found a good mid-range hotel and were able to negotiate a better rate because we planned to stay for four nights. The manager seemed surprised that we would have three full days in the area, but was pleased to provide us with a larger room than usual for the package tour guests, and we were pleased as well.
Most visitors are up early and on their way to Petra, recently voted one of the Seven Wonders of the World in an internet-based poll. The fact that there were over 14 million votes from a country of 7 million residents, raised a few eyebrows, but there is no disputing the fact that Petra is a very special world heritage site.
Those who have heard of this ancient hidden city, may have heard of the Nabataeans and believe that they were the first peoples to live in the region. However, excavations have unearthed Neolithic villages from around 7000 BC. Much later, the Edomites settled there but were pushed west into Judea by the Nabataeans, a nomadic tribe from western Arabia. The Nabataeans were traders extraordinaire and used their wealth to built Petra over the ensuing 500 years.
At its peak, the city was home to over 30,000 people and the scribes and engineers were responsible for creating a written language and a city supplied with water through a vast network of dams, water channels and cisterns. Initially, the Nabataeans partnered with Rome in order to keep their precious trade routes, but eventually, Rome took control in AD 106 and Petra became part of one of Rome’s many provinces. The Romans naturally added their own touches to the city’s architecture. They expanded the original theatre to accommodate 8500 spectators and built colonnaded streets and baths.
During the Byzantine period, some of the Nabataean buildings were turned into Christian churches. Earthquakes destroyed much of the city in the 4th and 6th centuries and by the time the Muslim’s took control in the 7th century; Petra had lost its influence and was a backwater. For the next 500 years, there is almost no mention of the city except when the Crusaders invaded and built two forts. After these forts were conquered by Saladin in AD 1189, only the Bedouin retained the knowledge that the great city ever existed. The hidden city of Petra was revealed to the Western world when a Swiss explorer, disguised as a Muslim holy man, entered through the siq and brought the news of his fabulous ‘discovery’ to light.
Petra caught the attention of a world fascinated with the Orient. Since 1812, the interest in the hidden city has grown, and today the town of Wadi Musa has expanded and grown to accommodate the vast numbers of visitors who come to gasp at their first glimpse of the Nabataean’s creative genius, as they emerge from the close walls of the siq, at the end of a 2km-long walk from the entrance gates. There are few places in the world that travellers can visit this easily and not be disappointed with the reality of their quest. Petra never disappoints.
We took our time over breakfast because we wanted to let the ‘day-trippers’ rush into Petra ahead of us. We wanted to be alone as far as is possible in such a popular place. We purchased a two-day pass, though it is possible to buy a ticket for a third day for very little extra. We had three days to spend in southern Jordan, but we hoped to visit the beautiful Wadi Rum, the location for much of the scenery in the film Lawrence of Arabia. Wadi Rum is only an hour and a half away from Petra, east towards the desert.
Petra: Day One
Once we passed through the gates, we were asked by several people if we wanted to hire a carriage or a horse to make short work of the distance to the end of the siq. The locals were persistent, but not annoying and finally accepted the fact that we preferred to walk. Most people do walk in, but many are so very tired by the end of the day that they are delighted to have transport out. We chose to buy a ticket for two days because we wanted to pace ourselves and see the sights at our leisure, and still be able to walk out under our own steam.
Words cannot do justice to the landscape unfolding before us. I will let my photos show you a little of what we experienced, but I have to say, there is nothing like walking along the old river bed and looking up at the high walls of rock rising above you. We could feel the excitement and awe emanating from the other visitors. People seemed to speak in hushed tones and we were glad that the few groups that were entering at the same time as we did would stop periodically for the guide. We would walk ahead and for much of the way in, we had no one in front of us, it was like we were the first ones to enter.
When we reached the end of the gorge, the fabulous Al-Khazneh (Treasury) stood tall and sun lit before us. Incredible. It’s hard to describe what it is like to finally visit a world wonder, after dreaming of this moment for so many years. It rates right up there with the first time I saw the Pyramids in 1972. And believe me, that is a hard act to follow.
We took the advice of the Lonely Planet guidebook and resisted the temptation to continue on into the valley as it widened. We turned and began an hour-long climb up hundreds of rock cut steps to the Al-Madbah (High Place Of Sacrifice). It was tough going at first, and we were happy that we hadn’t visited during a hotter time of year. The stairs were steep, but the rock walls on either side gave me a sense of security and I wasn’t affected by my fear of heights. As we climbed higher and higher, we were able to see the valley far below and the other visitors making their way towards the ruins of the ancient city of Petra.
As we climbed, we could see the mountains towering above us and it was clear that we had a long, long way to go. Eventually, the two obelisks came into view and we knew we were nearly there. The obelisks are over 6m tall and were carved from the top of the mountain, rather than being constructed from shaped stones piled upon one another. The sheer amount of rock that was removed to form the pillars is hard to imagine. I looked around for the ruins of the altar, and was puzzled not to see them. A young woman at a tea stall located conveniently near the obelisks pointed out a rounded escarpment and indicated the altar was at the top.
Now I was worried. There were no obvious steps in this section of the climb and no encompassing rock face to give security. We were open to the sky and to the possibility of a long, long fall. Other climbers scrambled past us and made it look easy. I don’t know where I got the courage to make the last ascent, but I did and no one was happier than me to finish the hike to the top. The altar was magnificent, but I was a little put off by a group of French tourists who agreed to pose for photos draped over the altar with a Bedouin woman holding a shiny dagger above their chests.
While they all took turns with the altar, we headed back down and began our descent. There was no one ahead of us, and it felt like we were alone at the top of the world. The steps down were well placed but there were no hand rails and at times it was more than a little disconcerting to see the sheer drops at the edge of the steps. I knew I had to get down one way or the other, and I didn’t like the idea of the expressway. Slowly and surely, I worked my way down, keeping near the rock face on the left when I could. We stopped to consult our guidebook every now and then because there were some terrific carvings to enjoy as we descended.
One that we wanted to see for sure was described as a lion that at one time had a water channel positioned so that water squirted from its mouth. When we arrived at a small open space part way down, we looked everywhere for the lion. An old, old Bedouin woman was preparing tea next to her trinket stall, and we finally asked her where it was. She smiled and pointed directly behind us. What dolts we were, we looked everywhere but the rock face where we were standing. I felt so appreciative that I just knew I had to buy something from her stall. I didn’t really want anything, but if she hadn’t helped us, we would have missed something special. I selected a bracelet I liked and we were on our way again.
After descending about twenty steps or so, I regretted not asking the woman if I could take her photo. I felt that since I had purchased one of her bracelets, she would probably agree. Anil was understanding enough to wait while I climbed back up the stairs and took the photo. She was sitting by her fire, and I will always remember the gracious smile she gave me when I gestured that I would like to take her picture.
The rest of the descent was amazing; the rock face was indescribably beautiful with the various layers showing colours I have never seen in rocks before. At last we were down onto relatively level ground and it was a pleasant walk back into the valley where the ruins of Petra City are located. I cannot tell you how elated I felt to have managed the hike so well. I think all the walking we have been doing as we traveled around the Mediterranean has given me the strength to hike like I have never been able to do before.
We were feeling so good that after a short break to eat a snack and drink plenty of water, we were ready to tackle the other major hike at Petra, the 1000 steps to the mountain top on the opposite side of the valley, to visit Al-Deir (Monastery). My friend Cathy Moreau had just visited Petra ten days earlier and had given us some tips on Petra. She told us that she had ridden a donkey up the steps to the Monastery and that once she reached the place where you dismount, it is still quite a climb to the very top most view point.
Now I love donkeys, almost as much as my son-in-law Geoff (though I don’t think anyone could love them as much as he does, he even has a T-shirt that has DONKEY across the chest!). But knowing what I did about how the rock steps are cut on these staircases, there was no way I was going to trust myself not to fall off the donkey and down into an abyss. I trusted the sure-footedness of the poor donkey; I just didn’t trust my ability to say on board. Now Anil and I have a little history here that made us particularly wary. It wasn’t just our concern about heights.
Ten years ago, in 1999 we were travelling with that self-same Cathy Moreau in the foothills of the Himalayas. We ventured even higher into the mountains one day and rode horses up to 8000 ft in order to look across to the Chinese border. While coming down on horseback, Anil’s saddle began to slip. He didn’t know what to do, but hung on for dear life. You can imagine the scene when he ended up, up-side-down, hanging below the horse’s belly, too afraid to let go. We were so lucky the horse stayed calm and didn’t trample him when his arms couldn’t support him any longer. I think that was the last time Anil was ever on a horse; there was no way he was getting on a donkey. I wasn’t either.
We climbed and climbed and climbed and I continued to be surprised at how strong I was feeling. We had a good sense of the distance we had to go and paced ourselves accordingly. Now and then, we were passed by people on donkeys and though none of them were hanging up-side-down, they didn’t look too pleased with the experience. I was happy to put each foot on solid rock and stick close to the wall when there was a drop-off to one side. We finally reached the Monastery, and it was so indescribably rewarding. This was probably the hardest I have ever pushed myself physically, and I had done it. I was happy to turn to Anil and remind him that I was the one to carry the daypack, on my back, all the way up. It was probably the adrenalin-rush that made me feel so good.
As Cathy had mentioned, there was still another climb awaiting us once we had enjoyed the views of the Monastery. In reality, it was another Nabataean tomb, a little like the Treasury, but much bigger. Built in the 3rd century BC, it had been given the nickname because of the Christian crosses that were found on the interior walls. It is thought that the massive monument had been used as a church during Byzantine times. Another rock face sits opposite the Monastery and there are small tombs dug into it with stairs that take you to the very top for splendid views off into the distance.
After a short rest, we decided to continue to the top, we just didn’t feel like we wanted to stop short of the summit. It was about 2:00pm and there was plenty of time for us to enjoy the views and then begin our long trek to the valley floor and then the equally long walk back to the beginning of the siq near the Treasury and the additional distance to the park gates. We felt we had enough energy to make it back on our own steam, but knew that we would take a taxi from the gates to our hotel, another steep 2km climb through Wadi Musa.
The sun was getting low as we walked through the valley. Most of the other visitors were long gone as the tour groups come early and leave after only a few hours. There is no time allotted for those who wish to hike around Petra, so we were especially happy that we had come on our own, free from the tight schedules necessitated by organized tours. Anil was really feeling the effects of the huge climbs we had made and my left knee was ‘twinging’, but I was so very proud of my two hikes that I felt I was walking on air. We were back at our hotel shortly after 4:30pm and snoring by 7:00pm. Nothing to be ashamed of in that!
Petra: Day Two
We dawdled even longer over breakfast the following morning. No major hikes in store for us. We planned to enjoy a third walk through the siq, and then we would take our time visiting the ruins of Petra City before climbing above the Nabataean Museum to have tea with the last remaining resident of the ancient city. There is no getting over the beauty of the rocks and the light shining on them. We were surprised to see even fewer people at Petra that day, though we knew that the end of the high season was approaching. Spring and fall are the best times to visit Jordan, and with the fact that it was almost the end of November, most visitors for 2009 had come and gone.
We explored the ruins and enjoyed them for what they had to offer, but we really liked the idea of spending a little time with a local personality, so we pushed on to climb the small Al-Habis. The stairs begin on the opposite side of the dry river-bed from where the hike to the Monastery begins. We saw the visitors beginning their climb to the Monastery and remembered the tough hike they were undertaking. My knee was feeling just fine after a night’s rest, but I didn’t want to strain it any further.
Before we knew it, we had arrived at a small terrace cut into the hillside, in front of the cave home of Bdoul Mofleh. The ancient Bedouin man was standing with a big smile, ready to greet us and welcome us to his home. We plunked our pack down and ordered a mint tea. Shortly after we settled in, a solo traveler arrived and we started chatting. She was from Toronto, and had broken away from her fellow travellers for a small hike on her own. She was friendly and chatted gaily to our host. A few minutes later, another female hiker arrived and joined us for a glass of tea. Before long, we had come up with a plan to continue the hike around Al-Habis and back down to the Petra ruins.
It was wonderful to chat with Bdoul Mofleh and learn that he had refused to leave the ancient city when the other residents were relocated to a nearby town. He had been born in a cave below his terrace and didn’t feel he should be made to leave. We are all grateful that this colourful character was allowed to stay in his simple dwelling, with a view to die for. He will probably live out the remainder of his life at Petra, though he did inform us that he spends a few months each year visiting his only child, a daughter, in Switzerland.
It was great completing the short hike with our two companions, but the nurse from Toronto had to hurry off to join her friends. I regret that I cannot remember her name. She was born in the Philippines, and the name is not a familiar one to me. Our other new friend, Asuko from Australia, was in no rush; she was travelling on her own and seemed to enjoy our company. I told her we were thinking to make what is considered a moderate hike out of Petra, one that bypasses the siq at the entrance and skirts the mountain to the north. Did she want to join us?
Now, I had an ulterior motive. We had read about the hike in our guidebook and wanted to do it, but it is considered a little tricky because it follows the path of a narrow riverbed that cuts through a mountain. It is not always possible to hike along this route as flash floods have deposited huge boulders in the narrow gorge and it is hard for one person to scale the rocks. When we inquired about the hike earlier in the day, the tourist police had said it was not wise to hike into Petra along that route, but would be safe to come out that way. We had read that it is dangerous to hike there if it has been raining, is raining, or if it is threatening to rain. The skies were bright blue, with not a cloud in sight, if we had a fellow hiker; we felt we wanted to give it a try.
Asuko was only too happy to be invited along. I told her about the warnings in the Lonely Planet, but she had read them too. She knew she couldn’t do it alone because of the obstacles, but was more than game to join us. We set off along the trail that starts below the Royal Tombs. We would have liked to explore them, but we didn’t want to set off too late in the afternoon, the hike had to be our focus and we wanted to finish it while the sun was still shining brightly.
The trail wasn’t as well marked as we would have liked it to be, and for the first part, we were walking on the valley floor, skirting around the base of the huge mountain. A couple of times we strayed away from the rock face but then Asuko and Anil both commented that they were keen to follow some tracks in the dust; footsteps that had a distinctive circle where the ball of the foot hit the ground. You will laugh, but I stopped to take a photo of the footprint in the sand. This print, one that we decided was made by a woman, was our guide for the rest of the hike. She did not let us down. We felt that a sensible woman wouldn’t take unnecessary risks and we would arrive safely at our destination.
At last we reached the entry into the narrow passage carved by water rushing between a crack in the mountain. The walls were much closer together than I expected they would be and I had to talk to myself a little to overcome the feelings of claustrophobia washing over me. Asuko and Anil pushed on ahead and we managed to climb the first boulder blockage with relative ease. A little further on, the gorge widened and a lone Bedouin stood watching our progress. He motioned for us to follow him, and we were only too happy to have a guide. If the boulders we faced ahead of us were too much for us to navigate, another pair of hands would be most welcome.
It was tough slogging in places but what an experience! I couldn’t keep from thinking about a flash flood engulfing us and sweeping us to our deaths. Thanks goodness we had checked with the tourist police and they had not suggested we avoid the route. In the end, we probably hiked twice as far as we would have if we had returned to the entrance along the well-travelled route, but the experience will stay with us forever. At the end of the hike, there is a huge tunnel we had to pass through. I had my small ‘turtle’ light from Mountain Equipment Co-op in my hand, but I am happy to report that there was light at the end of the tunnel, in more ways than one.
Just as we were emerging from the tunnel, a group of about twelve French tourists caught up to us. We were so exhilarated with finishing our adventure that we smiled and waved at the hikers, hoping to share the special moment with them. To our surprise, they barely responded with even a nod in our direction. Maybe it is the group mentality that froze their response, but I will never understand why they could appear to be so cold. We were over the moon to be safely through what for us was a wee bit dangerous situation. There was no feeling tired that afternoon.
We bade Asuko a fond farewell and promised to send her the photos I had taken along the way. Her husband is not a traveller, he prefers to spend his vacation time working on his family ranch in Australia. I was happy for Asuko that she didn’t hold back from travelling the world and experiencing the wonders of Petra and the Middle East. But quietly, to myself, I thanked my lucky stars that Anil is as passionate about travel as I am and that I don’t have to travel alone. There’s nothing like having your best-friend-forever along for the ride.
Wadi Musa: Day Three
The sore throat that had begun during the night after we did the walking tour of Amman, got the better of me by our third day at Petra. We had hoped to hire a car and driver to travel to nearby Wadi Rum to tour the spectacular landscape where one of our favorite movies Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. Anil had experienced a sore throat as well, so we had just put it down to the pollution from the traffic in Amman, a city of 2.5 million.
However, Anil’s throat recovered quickly once we were out of the city, mine only got worse. It was so sore in the middle of the night that I could hardly sleep so we were glad that we hadn’t pre-booked a day tour. I managed to get up for breakfast, but went straight back to bed afterwards and slept soundly for four hours straight. We stayed in our hotel room for the balance of the day; not a bad thing in the end as we were tired from all our adventures in Petra and we didn’t want to arrive too worn out in India later in the week.
The sore throat subsided but it was clear that I was coming down with a bad cold. Oddly enough, the last time I had a bad cold was the last time I was travelling to India. Even more strange was the fact that I’ve had the same sort of cough and cold every time I’ve come to India. The climate and vegetation in the area is very similar to those of the region around Delhi, so I began to wonder anew if it’s an allergy that gets me and not some kind of germ. Who knows, it’s just awful to have to suffer through the coughing and nose blowing when it does happen.
The following morning, I was feeling marginally better, better enough to make the trip back to Amman. We went straight back to the Toledo Hotel, had a hot shower and I nursed both my cold and my disappointment at not having the opportunity to visit Wadi Musa.