Thursday, December 5, 2013

An unforgettable day in ancient Petra

Bright and early the next morning we were back in Petra retracing our footsteps of the previous night. The giant red mountains and vast mausoleums of a departed race have nothing in common with modern civilization, and ask nothing of it except to be appreciated at their true value. Although much has been written about Petra, nothing really prepares you for this amazing place. It has to be seen to be believed.

Petra, the world wonder, is without a doubt Jordan’s most valuable treasure and greatest tourist attraction. It is a vast, unique city, carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled here more than 2,000 years ago, turning it into an important junction for the silk, spice and other trade routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome.

Entrance to the city is through the Siq, a narrow gorge, over 1km in length, which is flanked on either side by soaring, 80m-high cliffs. Just walking through the Siq is an experience in itself. The colours and formations of the rocks are dazzling. As you reach the end of the Siq you catch your first glimpse of Al-Khazneh, the Treasury.

This is an awe-inspiring experience by day or night. A massive façade, 30m wide and 43m high, carved out of the sheer, dusky-pink rock face and dwarfing everything around it. It was carved in the early 1st century as the tomb of an important Nabataean king and represents the engineering genius of these ancient people.

The Treasury is merely the first of the many wonders that make up Petra. There are hundreds of elaborate rock-cut tombs with intricate carvings. Unlike the houses, which were destroyed mostly by earthquakes, the tombs were carved to last throughout the afterlife and 500 have survived, empty but bewitching as you file past their dark openings. Here also is a massive Nabataean-built, Roman-style theatre, which could seat 3,000 people. There are obelisks, temples, sacrificial altars and colonnaded streets, and high above, overlooking the valley, is the impressive Ad-Deir Monastery – a flight of 800 rock cut steps takes you there.

You have a choice to walk or to take a donkey. In fact for much of the day, boys and men would ask if you would like to take the donkey up the steps or they would call out to you, "Taxi?" Even on the gruelling climb there were people offering taxi rides. One lady we met took the donkey option and as she passed us she told us that she was terrified. She certainly looked it.

Inside the site, several artisans from the town of Wadi Musa and a nearby Bedouin settlement have set up small stalls selling local handicrafts, such as pottery and Bedouin jewellery, and bottles of striated multi-coloured sands from the area. Since the sun was beating down and it was very hot, Seamus bought a shemagh to keep the sun off his head. The lady kindly tied the scarf in true Arab fashion for him. We were very happy to buy some water from her as well, we were parched.

After passing marvellous mountain scenes we finally arrived at the Monastery, Ad-Deir. It is huge. This used to be an important pilgrimage site. During the Byzantine period, it was probably used as a church.

It was lovely to sit down at the restaurant and have a most refreshing pomegranate juice. Since we were running out of time Seamus went ahead to a viewpoint that was even higher up. There were actually two lookout points. Unfortunately, I took the other fork in the road and climbed towards the huge Jordanian flag where I was rewarded with a magnificent view over the desert and mountains. I returned to the restaurant, but no Seamus so I decided to start out on the steep return path. By the time I knew I was nearly halfway down, I was getting worried as I still hadn't spotted Seamus. Finally, I reached the lady who sold us the shemagh and there was Seamus sipping mint tea with her and discussing her goats, who soon would be living in a cave on the mountain for the winter. It is amazing that the goats can survive since there is practically no vegetation at all.

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