Prelude: the day and night before
The longest ride
On the first day of 2017, a taxi ferried me from Jordan’s capital city of Amman to Petra. You may wonder why I’d arranged for a taxi to cover the approximately 150 mile driving distance between Amman and Petra, when an inexpensive bus serves the same route. Well, the only bus between the two cities that runs in the Petra-bound direction departs from Amman daily at 6:30 a.m. I’m so not a morning person, and waking up sufficiently early to catch a bus at 6:30 in the morning was a non-starter for me — particularly given that the night prior to my departure for Petra was New Year’s Eve, and I’d been up fairly late ringing in the new 12-month period. So I’d said ixnay to the bus and decided instead to embark on the longest taxi ride of my life. It wasn’t bad, though; I was treated to some pretty scenery along the way, and my taxi had free wi-fi! What could have been an at-times monotonous ride flew by with the help of my constant Facebooking and Instagramming. 🙂 Moreover, I became excited as we began to pass a series of road signs that marked the diminishing distance to my destination.
Before I knew it, I was checking in to my hotel in Wadi Musa, a town nearby to the Petra archaeological site. Most of the area hotels are in Wadi Musa.
A very special sunset
After getting settled in at my hotel, I popped into the hotel restaurant where I grabbed a snack and chatted for a while with a German tourist. Then I decided to step out onto the terrace to get some fresh air and take in the view. Scanning my surroundings, I was overwhelmed by the sight of rock formations that didn’t look like any landscape I’d ever beheld before. And then it got even better, when the topography was bathed in the glow of the sunset. I lingered until the solar disc had dipped below the horizon and then lingered some more, gazing upon the otherworldly vista at dusk.
A Jordanian dinner, and a pub inside a cave
For dinner I ended up at a restaurant called Deretna, where I consumed the traditional Jordanian dish of mansaf. (This entree can be described in a simplified manner as lamb cooked in yogurt and served with rice or bulgur.) I don’t know why I neglected to photograph my meal, as normally I’m all about food porn. 🙂 But you’ll just have to take my word as to the excellence of the repast. By the way, a note to the owner of Deretna, if you’re reading this: I’m sorry I haven’t yet reviewed your eatery on TripAdvisor like I promised to. Luckily, even without the benefit of a rating from me, you’re still ranked number one among all restaurants in Wadi Musa. 🙂 Also in my defense, when every bar, restaurant, and tour guide asks you to submit a TripAdvisor review on their behalf and your trip lasts for 2 1/2 weeks, the backlog can become overwhelming.
After a hearty meal at the restaurant that deserves a 5-circle review from me, I headed over to the Cave Bar. Located close by to the Petra Visitor Center, the Cave Bar is a watering hole in an approximately 2,000-year-old man-made cave. That cave was originally built as a tomb by the Nabataeans — who, as we’ll see, are the same people responsible for the famous ruins at the arachaeological site. The Cave Bar is a fun place to put down some drinks and listen to live music, so long as you don’t think about the fact that there used to be dead people inside. (The establishment also offers some alfresco tables; but if you ask me, sitting outside kind of defeats the purpose of going to a cave bar.)
If you’d like to get a sense of the atmosphere of the Cave Bar beyond what still photos can convey, here’s a video of a local singer performing some Frank Sinatra inside:
I’d like to say that the Cave Bar is the best nightlife option in the Petra / Wadi Musa area; but such a statement wouldn’t mean much, as the Cave Bar is pretty much the only nightspot in that area. 🙂
Exploring Petra’s timeless wonders
A brief history of Petra, and its connection to a Steven Spielberg movie
Petra compares favourably to just about anywhere else I’ve been to in the metric of blowing me away. Not for nothing was it voted one of the new seven wonders of the world in 2007. What you can see there today are remnants of a city built by the Nabataeans well over 2 millennia ago; it’s thought that the ancient metropolis, which the Nabataeans called Raqmu, came into being as early as the 4th century B.C. Originally a nomadic tribe in the Arabian desert, the Nabataeans evolved into a kingdom that constructed several settlements; and Petra was the crown jewel and capital of the kingdom. In its prime, it was an entrepôt for international trade and housed a population of roughly 20,000.
Its ruins abound with examples of the Nabataeans’ trademark architectural technique: the carving of buildings into sandstone cliffs. Due to the reddish colouration of the buildings under the right lighting conditions, as well as their advanced age, the 19th-century poet John William Burgon described Petra as “a rose-red city half as old as time.” Several decades earlier, in 1812, the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt had become the first Westerner to set foot in Petra. It would be inaccurate to credit Burckhardt, as some do, with “discovering” the site, which had been known to denizens of the surrounding desert. Similarly, Petra isn’t a former “lost city,” although it’s sometimes described as such. Although Petra was taken over by the Romans in 106 A.D. and mysteriously abandoned around the beginning of the seventh century, it never faded into a period of oblivion; its existence always remained known to at least a tiny sliver of humanity.
In modern times, tell someone that you’re visiting Petra and you’ll likely be met with a reference to Indiana Jones. Petra has appeared in numerous motion pictures and television shows, but perhaps the most beloved of its screen appearances came in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (although in that third Indiana Jones flick, the site wasn’t identified as Petra, but — spoiler alert — was depicted as a fictitious locale called the “Canyon of the Crescent Moon,” where Mr. Jones and his father found the Holy Grail.)
How not to find a guide for Petra
Since I’m not an eminent arachaeologist as was Harrison Ford’s swashbuckling silver-screen character, I needed someone familiar with, and knowledgeable about, the ancient city to accompany me on my exploration. To make the most of a walk through Petra, you can hire a licensed guide at the Visitors Center at the entrance to the grounds. Don’t do what I did, which is to hire the brother of a random local whom you met in a grocery store. 🙂 My “unofficial” guide was familiar enough with the site and did a passable job taking me through the most important landmarks, but he knew next to nothing about the historical background of anything we were seeing. I was forced to research the history of Petra and its buildings on my own, subsequent to my tour. Moreover, because the price of my informal tour wasn’t fixed by the government (as is the case when a licensed guide shows you around, I got into a big argument with the two brothers at the end of the day regarding how much I owed them. Things got pretty heated before I was rescued by a young German couple who fortuitously wandered by.
The Treasury: Petra’s most iconic structure
If you’ve seen an image of only one of Petra’s buildings, chances are it’s the Treasury (Al-Khazneh). Despite its name, the Treasury was a mausoleum that later became a temple. Its sobriquet derives principally from a legend that a long-ago band of pirates secreted their booty inside, although there’s no evidence for the truth of that story. (An alternate legend holds that the building was used as a treasury by the Egyptian Pharaoh during the time of the Biblical Moses; this tale is even more definitively false, as the building isn’t nearly old enough to have existed in Moses’s day. And that’s assuming that Moses was even a real person, which is doubtful. Even if the Moses described in the Old Testament did walk the Earth, he would have been dead by 1200 B.C. — and perhaps much earlier, depending on which source you choose to believe. In contrast, historians estimate that the Treasury was built in the first century A.D.)
When you’re making your way through Petra, you approach the Treasury via a lengthy trek through a narrow gorge known as Al-Siq (meaning “the Shaft” in Arabic). One of the more memorable moments you can experience anywhere occurs when you emerge from the Siq and suddenly the Treasury is revealed to you, dead ahead.
Incidentally, a stream originally flowed through the Siq; but the Nabataeans diverted the water through a tunnel, and the floor of the gorge remains dry to this day. Well, except on days when it rains, but you know what I mean. 🙂
If you’re curious as to what the Treasury is like on the inside, I have no firsthand knowledge to impart to you. Since 1997, ordinary visitors haven’t been permitted to enter the Treasury. (Similarly, the interiors of Petra’s other buildings are also off-limits to tourists.) You can find photos of the Treasury’s interior online; here’s a particularly good one that I came across. I don’t know whether the operator of the website on which it appears flouted the no-entry rule to obtain it, since it almost certainly was taken after 1997. 🙂
The road not taken: in which I miss out after giving in to fear
During the approach to the Treasury, prior to entering the Siq it’s possible to depart from the main route, climb some stairs, and access a meandering path that culminates in a killer aerial view of the Treasury from atop a cliff. A glimpse of that overhead perspective appears in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (although that scene is purely a camera shot; Indy himself reaches the Treasury at ground level.) Guides refer to this alternative path as the “Indiana Jones trail.”
During my second full day at Petra, I considered hiking the Indiana Jones trail. However, due to my acrophobia, I succumbed to cowardice and skipped that hike. The impetus for this decision: in speaking with some of the official guides in their office, I was told that completing the final 150 feet or so of the Indiana Jones trail involves traversing the top of a sheer cliff face — and that during parts of this last segment of the journey, the walking path is so narrow (with nothing but sky to one side of it) that you have to walk sideways while facing a rock wall, with your hands on the wall and your back to the cliffside. Thus, i was concerned that I might spend a considerable amount of time progressing along the Indiana Jones trail, only to feel compelled to turn back at a point tantalizingly close to the finish. So rather than embark on that trail and risk wasting my time, I opted for a tour of a nearby site informally called Little Petra (which I’ll discuss in detail below).
I quickly came to regret foregoing the Indiana Jones trail — partly because later that day, on my bus ride from Petra back to Amman, I met a British man who showed me spectacular photos looking down upon the Treasury from the clifftop. It goes without saying that my own camera could have captured similar photos if I’d been a little more intrepid. He also told me that, despite what the guides at the Visitors Center had told me, his path to the rocks overlooking the Treasury had not included a harrowing cliffside passage. Maybe there’s more than one trail that leads to the overhead vantage point of the Treasury; or perhaps, for whatever reason, the guides had misinformed me.
Here’s a stock photo of the bird’s-eye view of the Treasury that’s available to adventurous souls who aren’t too terrified to tackle the Indiana Jones trail. I wish I’d seen this view with my own eyes, and taken my own pictures from the location where this one was taken. If I ever get back to Petra, the trail that scared me off in January will be at the top of my to-do list.
The Roman Amphiteatre: I don’t have much to say about it
Not far beyond the Treasury is a Roman amphitheatre that, when it was in active use, seated thousands. It’s carved into the hillside in the same way that Petra’s buildings are etched into the rock faces. Very little information about the amphitheatre is available online; and it’s not like my guide was able to tell me anything about it, such as what sorts of events were held in it. One tidbit that I did discover on the interwebs is that the theatre was built in the first instance by the Nabataeans, but was expanded significantly after the city was absorbed into the Roman empire.
The Monastery: a climb that’s good for the soul
Surely the second most-recognizable building at Petra (runner-up in Q-Rating to the Treasury) is the Monastery (“Al-Deir” in Arabic), which is the biggest building in all of Petra. It’s not easy to get to, however. First you have to traverse several miles (although if you’re loath to hoof it for that distance, you have the option of hiring a donkey or horse to convey you.) Then you have to ascend some 800 stairs, some of which are quite steep, and many of which are slippery. (This ascent may also be made via donkey.) I rode a donkey part of the way on the ground, but mounted the steps on foot.
The climb was arduous, but it helped that the temperatures on the early-January day on which I made it were quite chilly. Even with the cold weather and my frequent sips from a water bottle, I felt hot and exhausted by the time I reached the top of the stairs. I could only imagine how enervated I would have been if I’d made the same ascent in the summertime when the mercury in this desert location can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Winded though I was, I’d made it to the Monastery. A word about its name: unlike other edifices that bear “monastic” monikers, the Monastery at Petra has never been a residence for monks. It acquired its appellation, long after it came into being, due to the presence of crosses carved into its interior walls. Those cruciform carvings suggested that the building had been utilized as a church during the Byzantine era (basically, during late antiquity or the early medieval period). Why it was dubbed “the Monastery” rather than “the Church,” I can’t say.
While I was hanging out in the Monastery’s courtyard, I witnessed a couple of daredevils who ascended to the Monastery’s highest point — over 150 feet above the ground. These young men evidently didn’t share my fear of heights. 🙂 To summit the Monastery, they needed to make some perilous jumps that, if not properly timed and executed, would have led to their certain demises. Then they needed to repeat those jumps, in the opposite direction, to descend from their lofty perch. Fortunately, they successfully completed all of the necessary leaps, and I was spared the traumatizing sight of any fatal plunges and ensuing splatterings.
Much less nerve-wracking than watching the daredevils atop the monastery, was taking in some of the eye candy supplied by nature. On the hill on which the Monastery stands, you can find several scenic lookout points. Here’s the scene that my eyes (and camera) surveyed from one of them:
Other highlights of Petra
Here are a couple of other landmarks that I glimpsed after descending from the hill and heading back towards the Visitors Center: the market, and the King’s Wall.
Petra after dark
After concluding my daytime visit to Petra, I briefly stopped at my hotel to freshen up and grab a quick dinner in the hotel restaurant. Then I returned to Petra for a special nighttime event that’s held on three evenings per week. The approximately two kilometre path to the Treasury building was lined with lanterns. Well, not so much “lanterns” as candles in paper bags, but the effect was still magical and serene. The other attendees and I walked the path, in pitch darkness except for the light generated by the candles (and the stars overhead). Finally, after a long stroll, we reached the Treasury building; there, we were greeted by the scene of the courtyard in front of it dramatically filled with more of the “lanterns.” Here’s a photo of the Treasury that I took at this point; the lighting for it was generated entirely by the candles.
After the crowd had filed in, everyone was seated on the ground — some at the back of the courtyard and some in paths between clusters of lanterns. A guy played music from a flute-type instrument and engaged in some Middle Eastern-sounding singing. He then asked audience members to close their eyes and each make a wish. My wish may or may not have involved a certain televised quiz show, whose name begins with “J,” that I’ve been trying to become a contestant on. 🙂
Next, some floodlights aimed at the Treasury were switched on, and they illuminated their target stunningly. I would have been able to get a really good long-exposure shot at that point, but the actions of the audience made that impossible. On that evening, the show was far more packed than usual; over 350 folks had shown up for a presentation in a relatively small courtyard. (The man who ran the show attributed that night’s high attendance to an influx of visitors to Petra in the days surrounding New Year’s.) The mere presence of a large number of guests didn’t sabotaged my photo opportunity; but as soon as the floodlights were lit up, the patrons were permitted to move freely through the courtyard (which they hadn’t been allowed to do prior to that point). Suddenly, dozens of people were running amok among the lanterns, and destroying many of them in the process. (Some attendees picked up lanterns, thinking it would actually make for an interesting photo to have a picture of themselves taken holding a candle in a paper bag. Moreover, in many of those cases, the person who’d just posed with the lantern was careless in placing it back down on the ground, and the paper bag caught on fire — thereby necessitating the extinguishment of the candle inside it.)
This melee was a vivid demonstration of why we can’t have nice things. Also, all of those people frolicking in front of the Treasury made it impossible for me to set up an unobstructed photo of the illuminated Treasury building before the floodlights were powered off. Still, despite the display of People Behaving Badly at the end, I had a great time at the night show.
Little Petra and Beidha: more rock-carved buildings, and a staggeringly ancient settlement
On the following day at Petra, after deciding not to venture along the Indiana Jones trail, I opted to leave the site entirely and go somewhere else. I hired a guide (one of the licensed guides this time) to drive me several kilometres to a much less heralded archaeological site called Siq al-Barid (popularly dubbed “Little Petra”), as well as the remnants of an adjacent Stone Age village called Beidha. En route to these twin attractions, we passed a unique formation on the roadside, which bears an uncanny resemblance to an elephant. This stone pachyderm is entirely the product of natural forces. Nature is one hell of an artist!
Little Petra: like Petra, only smaller and without the crowds
Similar to its “big” namesake, Little Petra features buildings carved into rock faces by the Nabataeans. Little Petra occupies much less real estate than “Big Petra” and is almost completely devoid of the bustle of tourists (as well as all the donkeys, horses, and camels that you see at Big Petra) — making for a much more tranquil and contemplative experience. Indeed, while I ambled through Little Petra with my guide, we saw only one other human being: a solitary sightseer. Have a look at a few images from Little Petra:
You’ll note that in contrast to the reddish hues that characterize the rock-carved buildings at Petra, the buildings at Little Petra appear with a whitish-yellow tint, reflecting the different colouration of the rock faces at that location. An additional way in which Little Petra differs from Petra is a consequence of the lack of any attendants to monitor the premises: you can freely enter into the buildings at Little Petra. This access pays especial dividends in the triclinium, in which you can stare up at magnificent ceiling frescoes. Those frescoes are remarkably well-preserved after some twenty centuries:
Beidha: a settlement more than twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids
The village of Beidha (sometimes rendered as Bayda) was founded circa 8500 B.C. According to my guide, that makes it the second-oldest settlement in the world, behind only Jericho. That assertion has proved difficult to fact-check, as I haven’t come up with google hits to confirm or refute the claim of Beidha’s “second-oldest” status. Regardless, it’s safe to say that Beidha was among the very first permanent places of human habitation, and that it dates back to the era when human societies were first surrendering the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favour of agriculture. (Note: Wikipedia provides a somewhat later date for Beidha’s genesis, placing that event at circa 7200 B.C. And I’m fully aware that Wikipedia is completely infallible. 🙂 But in this case, I’m going to trust the signage at Beidha, which presumably reflects the latest archaeological consensus, and which indicates that the village was created in the vicinity of 8500 B.C.)
Re-creations of the original dwellings help us to imagine what daily life was like for the inhabitants:
But Beidha doesn’t solely consist of reconstructions of its former self. Vestiges of some of its original structures still survive:
It was mind-blowing to walk through a town that people were residing in over 10,000 years ago — even if all that remains are scattered aggregations of rubble. Beidha’s age is substantially more than double that of the pyramids in Giza, Egypt, which are themselves sort of the prototypical “really old man-made objects”; the Egyptian pyramids rose from the desert during a period spanning approximately 2550 B.C. to 2490 B.C., making them barely over 4,500 years old. Think about it: at the time when labourers on the Giza Plain first began joining limestone blocks with cement to erect the pyramids, over 5,000 years had elapsed since the establishment of Beidha 250 miles to the east. When you visit Beidha, you’re confronted with time scales that are difficult to wrap your brain around.
. . . but no karaoke
During my visit to the ancient cities of Petra and Little Petra and the even more ancient settlement of Beidha, I didn’t partake in the relatively recently invented activity of karaoke. As mentioned in my previous post, several days prior to my entry into Jordan, Israel had become the 44th country in which I’ve karaoked; but I wasn’t destined to find karaoke in Jordan. Neither in the Petra/ Wadi Musa area, nor in the capital city of Amman where I spent a few days, did I find a venue to sing at. Thus, to add the next country to my World Karaoke Tour, I would have to wait until my Middle Eastern trip continued in Doha, Qatar.