June 5, 2014
Our day in Petra started early in the morning with a beautiful sunrise over the cliffs. From the hotel balcony we could see the hazy, dusty sky lit up by the hot Jordanian sun.
Breakfast featured some of my favorite foods: dates and apricots.
We packed our bags and left the hotel for Petra. Now, obviously Petra is one of those places that if you are anywhere in the Middle East, you can’t pass it up visiting it. It’s one of those things that people just do, like going to Times Square if you’re in New York or the Eiffel Tower if you’re in France. You can tell yourself that it’s a tourist trap, that it will be packed with people and cost way too much money, but you go anyway because it’s one of the seven wonders of the world and when are you going to be in the Middle East ever again?
I think a lot of people have some misconceptions about Petra– namely that this is Petra.
This is not Petra. This is a structure inside of Petra. Petra is a huge park that covers several miles and features hundreds of huge stone carvings into steep, solid cliff faces. It would seriously take days to explore this whole place. I know I have the habit of saying that I could have spent “days” at a particular place exploring every nook and cranny, but in this case I’m not exaggerating in the slightest. Do not even try to attempt visiting Petra if you only have a few hours to spare. We were there for almost an entire day and still only saw about 20% of the park.
We entered the park and received a crash course in ancient history. The city was once home to the Nabataeans, who chose the area for its frequent flash flooding because water is hard to come by in the middle of the desert. The structures that remain from the city are not houses or palaces, but graves. The Nabataeans believed that in order for a person to experience the afterlife the body could not be destroyed. Because of this, they carved tombs into the rocks where they could not be eaten by insects and animals. Today, Petra is essentially a graveyard.
We made our way quickly from the entrance of the park to the Siq. The Siq is the canyon path that leads to the main part of the city. This narrow opening served as a road for them to ceremonially carry their dead as well as defend the city from attacks. It is fairly narrow but wide enough for several people to pass through at once. In some parts you can see the places where the cliff faces once fit together, before an earthquake ripped them apart. We turned down the horse and carriage rides in favor of walking, but I was surprised by the amount of people who charged through that narrow path in a horse drawn carriage without regard for the people in the way. And apparently, the drivers are not required to pick up their horses’ waste because there was poop everywhere and it attracted flies so thick and vicious they would land on your face and hands without moving when you tried to brush them away.
Almost immediately after entering the Siq, we were accosted by people trying to sell us souvenirs. Often it was easy to resist the obviously fake trinkets. It was much more difficult when the small children come up to me and asked me buy things. “Please, please, only one dollar,” they said, holding out necklaces or postcards. And they are just so cute and small that I had a really hard time saying no to them. We learned very quickly though, that these kids are not adorable for no reason. They may be small, but they are serious business people. When a girl in my group asked to take a picture with one of them, she was told, “My postcards are one dollar, but my smiles are free.”
“Ma’am, here. I give you this as a gift,” the little boy told me after we took a picture together, draping a necklace around my arm.
“Really? Thank you so much! This necklace is beautiful.”
I reached out to give him a hug. When I went to return to my group, he stopped me. “Two dinar,” he said, pointing to the necklace.
“What? You said it was a gift!”
The boy smiled. “Yes, but where is your gift for me?”
I pushed the necklace back into his hands and walked away.
The road to the main city is filled with amazing things and remarkable structures but honestly they were all wiped from my mind the moment I reached the end of the canyon. The Siq took an hour, maybe an hour and a half to get through because we stopped to look at everything along the way. There were so many beautiful carvings and huge boulders and mind-blogging architectural feats in that narrow space that I got used to being totally surrounded by thick stone walls and narrow passageways and corners that I couldn’t quite see around and was lulled into thinking that’s all the park was. That’s how the treasury snuck up on me. One minute I was walking down the canyon as usual, and the next minute I saw something peaking out from between the rocks just a few steps ahead of me. I couldn’t quite make out what it was.
Then I stepped out of the canyon and into the clearing.
I wouldn’t be able to describe what it was like to be here. Words wouldn’t be able to capture it. It was like accidentally stumbling into heaven, but with lots of tourists taking pictures.
The treasury is massive, like large enough for giants to live comfortably inside. I felt like an ant standing next to it.
And the whole thing was hand carved as early as the 5th century BCE. Considering I can’t even put together IKEA furniture, I was a little more than impressed.
Even though it’s called the treasury, it never held money. Sam told us that back in the day people would store their coins in huge clay jars like the one carved at the top of the structure. When Petra was rediscovered, they thought that since there was a huge clay pot on top that this must have been a treasury and the jar must hold the riches of a king. Naturally, it didn’t, because it wasn’t a clay jar representing treasure. It was an urn representing the resting place of the city’s cremated dead. I suppose “the treasury” is a bit catchier name than the crematorium, though.
We took lots of pictures (and way too many selfies) before moving on to the next part of the part. I’m sure there are people who visit Petra and go straight to the treasury and then leave because they think there can’t be anything better than that in the park. To a degree, I suppose they’re right. Most the park pales in comparison to the treasury but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Plus we paid, like, $80 a ticket and I was sure going to get my money’s worth.
The horse rides didn’t stop after the canyon stopped, but they did change for the most part to donkey and camel rides. Before setting foot in the Middle East I had told myself I was going to ride on a camel at some point on the trip, and now seemed a good a time as any. The group stopped for a minute to recoup and go to the bathroom, and I approached a man with a few camels to ask about a ride. When he told me the price for a ride on the camel, I turned and walked away in shock, but he followed me persistently. He promised me it would follow my group and take me all the way down to the end of road, but honestly I just wanted to sit on the camel and take pictures and walk around in the circle. Begrudgingly, he agreed, and let me clamber up on the back of one of the camels.
I had imagined riding a camel to be a lot like riding a horse, but surprisingly it was not even comparable. Camels hold a lot of their water in their feet and knees, so when they step it’s kind of squishy and wobbly and not very solid-feeling. Whereas horses mostly bounce around and practically throw you out of the saddle, camels just kinda saunter casually to where ever they need to go and don’t threaten your life, unless they decide they hate you and spit on you.
Close by were a few shops with little trinkets and scarves and jewelry. Sam led us to a special one, sort of hidden from the others, run by a very sweet woman unlike any of the other shopkeepers. With a thick New Zealand accent, she introduced herself as Marguerite van Geldermalsen, the author of the book Married to a Bedouin. In 1978 she had come to Petra as a tourist and met a Bedouin man and they had fallen in love– she gave up her old life to live in a cave and bake bread every day. She was a fascinating person to talk to and several of us bought signed copies of her book.
Nearby at another shop I bought a scarf and Sam tied it around my head.
Sam had promised to take us to a really cool hidden part of the park. Unfortunately recent flooding had destroyed part of the path to get there, so we took a different route up a little hill and went treasure hunting instead. There was pottery everywhere around Petra. The ground was just littered with it. My pockets were so full of rocks and pottery shards they actually started getting little holes in them because I just had so much crammed into my pockets.
Sam flipped over a few rocks to reveal the tiniest, cutest scorpion I had ever seen (not to mention the only one I had ever seen).
I was so busy staring at the ground, looking for cool pieces of pottery, I almost forgot to look up when we got to the top of the hill.
At this point it was getting close to noon. The sun was beating down and the air was dry and hot. We were all getting pretty tired and running out of water, not to mention hungry. That’s when Sam announced we would be climbing up the 800 steps to the monastery at the top of the park, you know, to work up an appetite for lunch.
The climb wasn’t so hard, especially because it was steps and not just a straight uphill. Along the way were shops and as we passed by, huffing and puffing and thinking we wouldn’t be able to make it, they would yell out at us, “Happy hour special! Special deal for you! Only one dinar! I give you good price!” and we would just kinda squeak out something about stopping on the way down and slowly march past them.
There were some great views on the way to the top and we could see the beautiful colors in the cliffs that give Petra it’s nickname The Rose City. I think it should be called the Rainbow City because of all the swirly rocks.
We finally reached the top and saw the monastery, or El Deir. While not as big as the treasury, it’s still quite massive, but the excitement and awe and wonder are somewhat diluted by the fact that you’re struggling to breathe and just want to collapse onto the ground. I thought the monastery was a lot more fun to visit though, because security is not as tight and you can climb all over and inside the structure.
We explored for a little while and then headed back down to the bottom because most of us were almost out of water and pretty exhausted. At this point it was the hottest part of the day and the sun was baking down on us. Everyone was moving sluggishly, even the shopkeepers and kids. As we approached the bottom of the steps, I saw a little boy, passed out belly side up on a large rock with his eyes partially closed. He started to mumble something unintelligible at us. “One dinar…” he croaked, maybe on instinct since we were tourists, because I did a double take and saw he wasn’t even selling anything. “One dinar…” he repeated pathetically, and I couldn’t help but laugh at his attempt to sell me nothing.
After that adventure, most of us weren’t even hungry anymore, but we stopped and ate at a nice restaurant. The flies had figured out there was better stuff to eat here rather than in the Siq, and there were so many buzzing around my face and my food that I couldn’t even enjoy it.
We packed up our bags and headed toward the exit, going back the way we had come. By the time we reached the end, I was beat and felt like I couldn’t go on anymore. That’s when Sam announced that our day wasn’t yet over. We had to drive back to Amman today to get to our hotel, so we were stopping along the way at the Shoubak Castle, a Crusader castle. Because of how exhausted I was, I managed to sleep on the way there, so I felt a little better once we finally arrived. Unfortunately, I had taken so many pictures inside Petra that my camera battery was totally dead and the only picture I got of Shoubak was this.
Shoubak was pretty interesting, although not as cool as Karak. Karak was better preserved than Shoubak, but it was less touristy so we pretty much had the place to ourselves, except for one other group. We passed a large group of American high school students as we were touring. They all had headlamps and flashlights. Sam asked them where they were going, and they said that deep under the castle was a tunnel that led to the bottom of the mountain to a spring. They were going to go all the way down to the bottom of the mountain through the tunnel. Sam did not look happy.
“It is extremely dangerous down there, huge drop off on either side. If you fall, you are dead,” he said sternly.
The teacher in charge of the group said that he had done it before, and that they were going to be fine. After a brief argument Sam left them and came back over to us, trying to continue our tour, but he was not himself. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “But that is so dangerous. I can’t imagine taking a group of kids down there. It is slippery and there are cliffs on both sides. If you step wrong, then you are dead.”
“Have you been down there before?” I asked.
“Once,” he replied. “Once I was stupid enough to do it.” He shook his head. “And to take kids down there? Do you know how much trouble kids get into? One time, I have a group of American students. In high school. I know they like to get into trouble and do dangerous things so I try to take them to the least dangerous place I can think of. I take them to the sand dunes. Do you know what is out at the sand dunes for you to hurt yourself on? Nothing! It is just sand!” he exclaimed. “But somehow, one kid managed to break his collar bone. His collar bone! On sand!”
Sam looked really upset. After a while he separated himself from the group and we heard him talking on his phone very quickly and loudly. “What’s he doing?” someone asked.
“Calling the tourist police on those kids,” was the reply. I think it’s great that Jordan has an entire police department for taking care of tourists, but I would not want to be that teacher when the cops showed up. After finishing up our tour we loaded back on the bus and drove back to our original hotel in Amman. I was super exhausted and fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.