Perfect Petra

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Nothing prepares you for the sheer drama of your first entrance to
Petra, the pink city of the Nabateans (c. 100 to 200 A.D.) After a
dusty kilometre trek from the ticket office, you enter the Siq a 1.2
kilometre slit in the rock which narrows and widens but is never more
than a few metres wide at the top, where only a slit of sky is visible
150 metres above your head. The rock is striated with shades of pink,
ochre, dust, and taupe. Its colours appear to have been painted on,
its swirling design giving a sense of movement to the rock.

When you finally emerge from the Siq, you are face to face with the
giant façade of the Treasury, as this monument is called. All of the
names for the various main sites come from Bedouin legends about the
place which actually have very little to do with what archaeologists
have pieced together about the Nabatean city it was. I should note
that the whole city was carved, not built. None of the structures was
free standing, all were carved into the natural rock.
Everyone pauses in front of the Treasury to take a deep breath. It is
a stunning sight but in arriving there you have barely scratched the
surface of Petra. Around every bend, or more likely, at the top of
every precipitate set of steps, is another carved façade, or a
stunning view or both!

Our first experience of this magnificent spectacle was in the dark on
the evening we arrived. A couple of times a week, Petra by Night is
staged. We walked in through the Siq with the only light being
provided by hundreds and hundreds of flicking candles in paper bag
lanterns set along the footpath. Although there were a lot of people
there, it was very quiet and everyone seemed awe struck by the
experience. We had a three quarter moon so the moonlight came through
the slit at the top of the Siq which added to the magic of the
experience. When we emerged from the Siq our first view of the
Treasury was lit by hundreds more of the candle lanterns set in the
sand in front. Everyone sat down silently, and men came around with
cups of tea. Two Bedouin men rose and played haunting and seemingly
plaintive melodies, one on a flute, the other on a stringed instrument
that is traditional here – kind of a square shaped box, t with curved
sides, the narrow stringed neck of which is played with a horsehair
bow. A man in Salt had kindly demonstrated it to us, but he was not a

maestro like the Bedouin performer that night. After a time, we all got up and filed out silently. It was a lovely introduction to the place .

We plan to spend three full days here. If you are buying a day ticket
which is fairly expensive, you might as well add the few dinars it is
to have 3 days, and if you do the fourth day is free. People seem to
either come here for 4 or 5 hours with a tour, or they stay 2 or 3
days. There is certainly more than enough to explore to keep you
exhausted for 4 full days.

Our first day we hiked up a steep trail, mostly with stair treads,
rather eroded but fine, to the Sacrifical High Place. The views out
over Petra and the surrounding rocky mountains are wonderful. We then
clambered down a longer trail to leave by the other side of the rise.
There are many caves in all the rock faces, and we scrambled up into a
couple of them, including a particularly nice high one where we sat on
the edge as we ate our pita bread and cheese sandwiches and shared our
litre of juice. Getting enough fluid in the day is a real issue, as
is the sun exposure, luckily it is so dry that for the first time in
our travels sunscreen actually seems worthwhile since we don’t sweat
it off in the first five minutes. Hot though, never come here in
summer.

Just before we came away I read a really interesting book called
“Married to a Bedouin.” In 1976 a young New Zealand backpacker came
to Petra. In those days all the caves were inhabited by the Bdoul
tribe of the Bedouin, and tents were set up in all the flat areas.
Traditionally they had lived like that for hundreds of years. At that
time there was no charge to enter Petra and no closing time so young
backpackers often spent the night or a couple of days living in a cave
with a family. She and her friend did that, she fell in love with
Mohammed the guy who lived alone in the cave they stayed in, her
friend moved on and she stayed and married him. They had 3 children
and continued living in the cave until the government moved all the
Bedouin out of the site in 1985 to an instant village just at the back
of Petra. When Mohammed died in 2002 she decided to leave Petra,
which is when she wrote the memoir of cave life. She said it would
have been impossible to write it in Petra as Bedouin culture allows no
privacy or opportunity to complete a solitary project. After a couple
of years though, she and her children came back and she is still here
living in the village from which the Bedouin come into Petra each day
to sell trinkets, exhort tourists to have tea, and give donkey rides
up the steep staircases to those who can’t quite manage the exertion
or don’t have time.

As a result of reading the book, I was fascinated by the caves and
their evidence of habitation. Judging from the map in the book we had
figured out where we thought her cave was and we scrambled up a very
slippery and difficult slope to reach it – it might have been the
right one or maybe not, but it still gave a real feel for what it
might have been like perched up there on the hillside trying to keep
your children from falling off the cliff. Keep in mind that it
actually snows in Petra in winter, and she had to fetch all her water,
a task made easier when they eventually got a donkey. What a trooper!
Many of the walls are very eroded (the whole city is carved from soft
limestone so the wind erodes it constantly) and in places the walls
look like they are melting and hanging from the sides. No matter how
exhausted we are from the climbing there is always something amazing
to look up at or down at, and we don’t realize how worn out we are
until we have left the Siq and are walking the long hot path out. I
should add that the Siq and the approach from the ticket office are
markedly uphill on the return which seemed endless to your footsore,
weary correspondents after their first day. More tomorrow.

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