Sunday, September 26, 2010




In a previous story you read about Masada, but before Masada there existed another biblical stronghold.  As the crow flies this legendary fortress was not all that far away;  in fact just mere miles across the other side of the Dead Sea, an entire city  hidden deep in wild craggy desert country in the land we now call Jordan.  That place was Petra.

The city of Petra was built by the Nabateans around 100 BC on the slope of Mount Hor. It’s located in a basin winding among mountains that form the eastern flank of Wadi Araba, a large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. The western world thought it had rediscovered its existence in the 19th century, but in reality this city had never been lost.  Since time began Petra has always been known to antiquity, to ancient scholars and to local tribes.

  • It was for instance mentioned in the ancient Egyptian Amarna letters written in cuneiform in the 14th century BCE (before Christian era; 
  • Petra was one of the Stations in the List of Exodus; 
  • Aaron, the brother of Moses is buried on Mt Hor above the city of Petra;  
  • Christianity founds its way into Petra in the 4th Century AD;  following the Islamic Conquest of 629-632 , Christianity in Petra as in most of Arabia gave way to Islam;  
  • During the First Crusade the city was occupied by King Baldwin 1 of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and remained in the hands of the Franks until 1189; 
  • And curiously Petra is still listed as a Titular See of the Roman Catholic Church.
 As you can see the city of Petra played an active part in much of the early history of the Middle East; the old world always knew it was there, only the modern world had conveniently forgotten it ever existed.

This archaeological and historical treasure slumbered on, lived in and known by local tribes but hidden to the western world for nearly two thousand years until in 1812 when a Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt stumbled upon ‘a rose red city half as old as time...’ In these words of the poet John William Burgon the magic and splendour of a city carved into rock sprang suddenly to life, its neglected history rediscovered, it’s site suddenly becoming the world’s must see destination.

To view the place of Petra on a television screen is amazing, but to experience it first hand is life changing.

On my first visit to Petra I stayed at a small hostel in Wadi Musa, an old Arab village a short but healthy walk from the entrance to the ancient site.  I had been driven there from Amman by car and the Jordanian driver had warned me rather sternly not to trust the Bedouins, especially the young horse boys who touted for business alongside their carefully tended horses.  ‘They are not good, these boys, be very careful around them.’

I listened to Hassan, my driver, and smiled.  Arab men can be overly protective of lone women, but figured I would carry on as I always had, being sensible and taking people as they came.

Entry to Petra is by a long and narrow twisting gorge through towering 80 metre cliffs.  It can be walked but in the heat even of the morning, the wise traveller opts for horseback or for the
elderly a horse driven cart.  There were no motor vehicles in  Petra back then.

Through the narrow Siq...

 On that first visit I entered into the bargaining game with light hearted humour, some of the boys were in their teens, but some were very small.  And all of them were under the stewardship of an older man, the horse master. 

I can’t imagine why Hassan thought there was need to warn me.  The horse master appraised my riding ability, agreed that it was indeed nonexistent and chose for me a placid solid specimen and a young boy on a magnificent white stallion to accompany me.  The young boy, no more than 9 or 10 years old was Suleiman of the cheeky grin and flashing brown eyes.  His older brother tagged along and together they proved not only excellent companions but fonts of knowledge as they explained the history and purpose of the narrow Siq we were now entering.

Only a few feet into the gorge the temperature dropped, the high rock walls providing welcome relief from the sun.  The rock walls were colours of dazzling pinks and apricots and deep shades of ochre red.  Over a distance of one kilometre the path twisted and turned; above, just evident beyond the cliffs, the sky was blue, below, quiet, only the sound of the horses hoofs clip clopping along.  The boys pointed to the marks on the rock wall where ancient aquifer conduits had been laid centuries past to provide water to the old city.

We rode on with each turn showing another distant rock wall until I noticed the boys had dropped behind me, just a little, until at a final turn I glimpsed a sight that brought a startled gasp.  I will never forget that first moment when I saw in front of me, suddenly revealed at the end of the winding tunnel the magnificent carved facade that was the Treasury, Al Khazneh. 

I turned to share the moment with Suleiman and his brother and I could see my pleasure reflected in their smiles.

Here I dismounted, the boys would return to the entrance with the horses while I would delve and explore at my own pace.  At an agreed hour they would wait for me further on into the old city, at a spot I would recognize near the Roman ampitheatre.  Armed with a supply of bananas and a bottle of water I set off to explore the ruins of Petra.

Horsemen of Petra - photo by Mehdi Hassanet

The city area itself was vast; it was once an important junction for the silk and trade routes that linked China, India and Arabia with Egypt, Greece and Rome.   Over the centuries the houses and streets had been destroyed by earthquakes and natural disasters and it was difficult to see where they once existed, but many of the hand carved facades like the Treasury survived.

In the case of the Al Khazneh facade, all of 30 metres wide and 43 metres high, it had been carved into the rock face in the first century as the tomb of an early Nabataean king. These ancient artisans created these huge structures that stretch back into cliff walls to include large galleries by chiselling the intricate columns and architraves from the top of the edifice down.  A bit like Leonardo da Vinci beginning the Mona Lisa from the topmost part of the canvas.

I puzzled on that slim bit of information for some time, and I still do.  They had after all no modern tools, no calculators and no time saving computers to determine a precise measurement. Could builders of today achieve such results with so little to hand?
The wonder of Petra unrolled in a never ending pageant as I wandered through the vast open arena with only a guide book and a lively imagination. Bedouins were camped at various sites selling drinks and tea, some even sold shards of ancient pottery that littered the mountainside.  

...dazzling pinks and apricot....

None of these men and the few women with them were intrusive, many camped in the old ruins at night; a practice frowned on by tourist officials but a tolerated right they had inherited from centuries past.

Petra had so much to see and absorb, it would need days, not hours to fully appreciate its splendour. When, nearly a year later I made my second visit to Jordan I determined to revisit Petra and this time take in the High Place of Sacrifice.

On this second visit Jordan’s Tourist Bureau appointed a senior guide to accompany me into Petra.  He was a charming man who obviously had made the history of Petra his life.  He pointed out the digging sites where archaeologists were uncovering new artefacts, showed me the colonnaded  road and the remains of buildings that proved Petra had once been a major town of importance.

As we rode on horseback through the Siq he casually mentioned the flash flood that tore through the ancient waterway killing a number of foreign tourists.  That had been something Suleiman and his brother had neglected to tell me.  I looked now at the towering walls with new respect and vowed never to return in the rainy season. 

I had the services of the senior guide for just that one visit and told him I intended returning next day to climb to the High Place and perhaps make the round trip by way of Wadi Farasi.  When I told him this I could see he was concerned, he probably thought he should make himself available to accompany me.  But that was the last thing I wanted.  I didn’t want anyone tagging along; I wanted to move about at my own pace.

He gave me a small map, suggesting I make an early start in the cool of the morning and take care along the way; some of the paths were extremely steep and littered with unsteady shards of stone. 

I followed his advice and entered the Siq next morning so early that I beat even the horse boys and their horse master. Petra was just stirring, the Bedouins were tidying their secret encampments, visitors would see no evidence of their nightly stay.  Smoke was hovering over tea pots, the sun slowly rising and the rose red city of Petra was readying itself for another influx of tourists.

The climb to the High Place revealed just how unfit I really was, 800 steps cut into the stone, a steep climb from the amphitheatre up to the High Place of Sacrifice on the summit of the Attuf Ridge.  I was glad there was no one to see me huffing and puffing and struggling for breath.

This High Place had been levelled presenting an almost flat surface.  The Circular stone altar used for killing sacrificial animals allowed blood to drain down a carved channel while the priest cleansed his hands in the cistern cut into the rock. The High Altar, a few feet to the right, was where the actual burning and offering of sacrifices took place. 

Standing at 3,400 feet the views from this high place took in the entire valley of Petra. It felt strangely eerie to realise that human sacrifices had perhaps been made here, that the last sight these unfortunates had was the incredible beauty of Petra unfolding beneath them.  I sat there for some time, on the edge of the rock, staring down below me to the roman theatre, to the carved rock face pinnacles, to the tourists and activity of the 20th century.  And then a group of three such tourists staggered up the trail and I thought it time to move along on my solitary trek. 

Behind me a sheer drop

After consulting the map I set off in what I hoped was the right direction until I realised this couldn’t possibly be the way, by now I should be climbing down another rock cut section.  I retraced my steps coming across a rough tent where a young Bedouin woman was tending a kettle and rocking a small baby in a crib.

We conversed in sign language; she was waiting for passing tourists, apparently I was her first customer and I settled down for a mug of tea.  The baby was indeed small, perhaps just a few months old, its eyes already underlined in dark kohl.  I hoped she had been helped up those steep steps, it seemed impossible for such a load.  But there again mother and child probably came from one of the Bedouin encampments further along on the route I had mistakenly taken and retreated from.

After that brief respite I continued on, and on, and on, how much further;  perhaps the senior guide had good reason to question my solo trek, but I’d come too far to turn back so I soldiered on.  It wasn’t easy, the path disappeared at times and I wondered if at some point I had made a wrong turn, then I would come across a pile of stacked rocks left as a marker; much less intrusive than a sign on a post with an arrow pointing the way..

At times I double backed to reconnoitre the path wondering whether to go left or right, hoping I’d guessed right, until eventually the trail began to descend. By the time I came to the rock cut and started down I realised just how dangerous the track was.  Large boulders, missing sections, and even a rock fall that had me really worried. If anything happened would anyone miss me; I very much doubted it.

All this had taken far longer than I expected. I was just so pleased and relieved when I finally emerged near the colonnaded street. 

There was so much more to see of Petra, the Ad Deir Monastery was one section, a long, long hike that I knew I wasn’t capable of achieving.  It’s something I regret, like a job only half completed, an intimacy not achieved.

My bananas were all eaten, my water bottle empty when hot, red faced and dusty I came down on to the even level ground of Petra.  A group of young horse boys were close by and I begged a lift. They were eager to oblige but could take me only as far as the amphitheatre because ‘the horse master would not be pleased’. 

I shook their hands and gave them some coins in thanks and began the long trudge back to the Treasury and the steady rising climb through the Siq.  I had only gone a little distance when I saw ahead of me a familiar figure on a white horse.

‘Suleiman’, I called and he turned his horse, his face slowly beaming in recognition.  I’ll always remember that smile.  ‘Suleiman, I have been up there,’ I pointed ‘to the High Place, and I have seen the soldier’s tomb.  It has been a long walk’.

He turned his horse toward me and I could see he remembered me too, and he said, ‘but you are alone, you were up there, alone.’

And when I nodded he smiled again and dismounted and insisted I climb up on his horse, no mean feat I assure you, and led me back through the Siq, to the entrance, back to the modern world...and when I started to thank him, trying to think of some way to pay him and not belittle his kindness, he took my hand and shook his head.  I think he read my mind.  Then he jumped back on his horse and with a cheeky grin and a wave, trotted back to his friends and work mates in the holding paddocks by the entrance.

Suleiman embodied for me all the spirit and kindness I had found in Jordan.  

 I was befriended by men and women from all walks of life, policemen, Kurdish taxi drivers, Palestinian refugees, school teachers, doctors, Jordanians and Bedouins, all were friendly, helpful in the extreme, a pleasure to meet and live with; and despite Hassan’s warning to the contrary I would trust a Bedouin with my life, especially if he was Suleiman the young horse boy of Petra..


Robyn Mortimer ©2011