Petra, October 6, 2009., Tuesday
Trip Start Oct 01, 2009
10Trip End Oct 10, 2009
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So I bought myself a three-day ticket in the tourist & visitors’ centre, gave in disgust a wide berth to the „Indiana Jones cafe" and passed through the gate. Officially, I entered Petra.
However, it takes a while until you get to what the image of Petra is in the minds of those who are one notch up on the Indiana Jones lot
But Petra is much more than just that. And in order to know it, or to find it out, you either need to visit it or be obsessed with it, scholarly or otherwise.
So when you pass through the gate which officially admits you in Petra, you first find yourself on an evidently recent addition to it all – a gravel road through a wide valley for people, tourists mostly, both those on foot and horseback, and horse carts which were the only permitted wheeled means of transport past the entrance point for the lazy tourist subspecies. Seeing as it was three in the afternoon right now, I guess I won’t exaggerate if I say the ratio of those coming out to those like me who were going in was nearly fifty to one. But the sun was still very much high up in the sky and I was determined to have my first look of whatever there was inside.
And once you set out on that gravel road, you realise that the extent of Petra must be much larger than suspected
Once upon a time there were those guys Nabataeans whose kingdom flourished in these parts roughly until the time of the Roman Emperor Trajan who eventually conquered them and added them to his empire. Before that they were around pretty much on their own and independent for four or five centuries, even if history books and records mention them only sporadically. On and off, as it were. Arabs by ethnicity and Aramaeans by language and writing, or a strain of it, they had their capital in Petra. Of course, it took time for Petra to reach its size and its heyday as a cosmopolitan trade centre and all that is now there wasn’t built, or carved, overnight. But on its peak, before the Romans took it, it was the nerve centre of what once was Nabataean kingdom.
The Arabic name of that valley from Wadi Mousa to Petra is Bab as-Siq, which translates as „gateway to the gorge“, for it leads straight into that world-famous, great natural cleft in the rock known as the Siq, the most dramatic of the entrances to Petra. I may have been walking the exact way the traders would have arrived with their caravans in Nabataean times, filling the air with clouds of dust and the sounds of shouting men, grunting camels, braying donkeys and barking dogs
And that road is at least one kilometre long, perhaps even two and it’s not without its attractions. In the context of breathtaking splendour of the most famous Petra features, those things you tend to see first almost lose out completely and nearly tend to go unnoticed for an average tourist. But I’d bet that elsewhere, entirely on their own, people would pay good money to see them.
First to come are so-called Djinn Blocks carved off the rock in the form of square towers. The Djinn Blocks were given their fancy name after the malevolent spirits from Arabic folklore and are, in fact, tombs, believed to be the earliest ones in Petra. They say that some twenty six different Djinn Blocks are found throughout the park. I saw three and took their word for the rest.
Not far from there, more attractive in appearance than the blocks, there is the first major monument you encounter on your way. It’s on the opposite side of the road and basically the combination of two parts. The upper one is the striking carved façade of the Obelisk Tomb, and immediately below it the Bab as-Siq Triclinium
Some scholars say the two parts were carved out at different times, and therefore smack of different styles, i.e. display different stylistic ideas, but to someone like me it wasn’t a matter over which you lose that much of sleep. So I just went on down the Bab as-Siq, intent on seeing the postcard Petra during what was still left of the afternoon.
Bab as-Siq eventually gets you to a ridge with some modern-day plateau where you find a tourist-police booth and „3 Kings Shop“ peddling usual souvenir stuff. Off to the right, where you see some more Djinn blocks, you can – I suppose - follow up a rough trail through a tunnel cut out of the rock by the Nabataeans to divert flash floods from the Siq. This raised area is known as The Dam.
Or if you don’t want to go up the tunnel, which I believe nobody who has just arrived in Petra ever does, you go to the left into the Siq.
The Siq. Arguably the second most famous single feature of what is Petra in the mind of an average tourist. Basically, this is a narrow gorge, more than a kilometre long, which leads visitors by way of the most dramatic entries into Petra. Certainly, purists will argue that the Siq is no gorge at all, as the “Lonely Planet" duly points out, but rather a tectonic cleft. However, in the face of all the mythology that surrounds Petra, it sounds outright profane to talk of earthquakes and stuff
Unless caused by Moses himself, that is.
Here in Petra, it is said, having fled with his people from Egypt and the wrath of Pharaoh, Moses used his God-given magical powers when he struck a rock and released a spring of water. Faced with such a magic, it seems pedestrian to assert that the Siq was formed by a primeval and cataclysmic earthquake.
Allegedly, at the gorge at the beginning of the Siq there once stood an entrance arch spanning it. Today all that remains are the eroded sides which were carved into the rock-face, with statues adorning its niches. The whole structure must have presaged for those who entered something of the grandeur and strangeness that were in store farther on for them.
And when you step into the Siq, you are awed. I was awed, in any event. And I believe I was not in the minority. The sky above your head dwindles fast as the sides of the gorge steepen and rise. The slice of the blue high up gets eaten away by red brown stones and in places you are almost in semi-darkness.
There is an echo
Then the gorge widens up and its sides fall at lower angles, letting again some sunshine in, only to straighten up and squeeze on you again.
Along the Siq there are two water systems running, both in the shape of gravity-flow channels, which supplied the city of Petra with fresh water without interruption.
There is a profusion of votive niches – over fifty of them – carved at intervals on both sides of the cliffs, and they transform the Siq from a mere thoroughfare into a sacred way of the Nabataeans. It seems to have been sacred in the Roman period too, for some inscriptions are dated to the second and third centuries AD
If we are overawed today by the sheer scale of the towering cliffs which immure the narrow defile on its long and tortuous path – we who may have seen a wonder or two in our age that people back in Petra’s heyday could not – so too, and possibly even more, must the visitors in ancient times have been silenced as they made their way into Petra. The ever increasing range of colours of the rocks, sweeping through all shades of red, purple and ochre, only adds to the astonishment.
And when you almost start believing that the Siq will eventually close in on you and wall you off from the rest of the world, there’s suddenly this narrowest of all the clefts which releases you into a wide opening and one of the most spectacular sights the world of archaeology can offer anywhere on this planet.
You come out and find yourself, humbled all over, in front of the Al-Khazneh, symbol of Petra, its stupendously spectacular Treasury.
Yes, the sun had already disappeared behind those rocks, which here in the depths of Petra happens soon. So the place was all in shadow and, seeing as it was already decent afternoon, you’d be tempted to say in twilight, too. But who cared? The moment you saw Al-Khazneh, or the Treasury, you knew why it was – and justly so - the most famous single monument of Petra.
Of course, the impact of the first glimpse through that luminous strip at the end of the towering Siq, and then the second, proper look when you suddenly emerge into this natural courtyard, face to face with the glowing perfection of the Treasury – that all enhances the effect rendered on you
And most certainly, everyone knew it. So there was still the thick crowd, a melange of tourists, locals eager to cash in on them, camels, one or two horse-drawn carriages, souvenir stalls and even a makeshift café where one could have a sit, have a rest and have a drink, facing straight the six columns of Al-Khazneh. And when you give it a good look, past those columns which inevitably first draw your attention, you see that there is much more to it all. The moment you turn your eyes to it, its elaborately carved façade springs alive with a motley cast of Nabataean deities and mythological characters.
I suppose they were all in one way or another linked with afterlife and things related. But it didn’t prevent the local Bedouin from handing down a belief through the ages that this monument – hence the name Treasury – and not this monument alone, but the whole of Petra, was a storehouse of a Pharaoh’s wealth, deposited here by deep magic. And the same Pharaoh, at that, who had first let Moses and his people go and then chased them across the desert as a result of a sudden about-face. But this, the most sumptuous monument, must surely have housed his greatest riches and that’s why the name Al-Khazneh, the Treasury, stuck throughout the centuries
In any case, the Treasury’s original purpose remains elusive – except that it was not a Treasury. But whatever the purpose of this monument, its sitting at the end of the forbidding twilight of the Siq was clearly designed to strike wonder into all who entered the Nabataean capital – the effect it duly and unmistakeably achieves to this day.
The spot in front of Al-Khazneh glues your feet to the ground and just won’t let you go. But I had a three-day ticket and I knew I’d be coming for more. So, on the sheer strength of my will, I moved on.
From there the way leads you through so-called Outer Siq, another gorge which elsewhere would certainly draw more attention and come across as much more spectacular. But here, right on the heels of the Siq, it felt shallow, wide and short
Once through the Outer Siq, you find yourself at another spectacular spot in Petra, and yet in the mind of someone like me far less famous - the Street of Façades with the Theatre on the bottom of it. The “street” consists in fact of rows of Nabataean tombs carved out in the rock. Or at least some people claim they were tombs. And the theatre is, well, just that. A theatre.
The Theatre looks very Roman, in many ways resembling in its appearance what I saw in Amman and in Jerash, except that it’s not Roman at all. They say the Nabataeans just shaped it under a heavy Roman influence. And Romans later expanded it when they took over the land. Its largest section, same as obviously most of Petra monuments, was carved into solid rock and as a 7000-seater, I’ve seen smaller football venues. So pressing seemed to be the desire of citizens of Petra for a theatre that they were prepared to sacrifice some tombs, whose sliced remains still stare in an attempt to cast an evil eye out of the back wall
The whole space is wide enough, and yet all those things are still densely clustered, so it made for a perfect spot to set up one or two souvenir shops and a restaurant, and to also serve as an informal gathering point for camel owners who were looking and lurking for their tourist victims.
From there on, the path to follow was not that well defined any more. Up until that point, once you’d entered Petra, there was hardly any place to go but to follow in the footsteps of all those before you. But whoever wanted to go further on, they could choose from several different directions now. The setting sun didn’t offer me many options. Besides, I had two more days ahead of me, so I had enough time to do some longer treks. Taking all that into account, I decided to stay around and explore the nearest monuments off to the right.
And those were the Royal Tombs.
Which, in fact, may or may not be royal at all. But they look grand. They look spectacular – in the lack of a better word, as I’ve almost used up this one already
The nearest one is the largest one and it draws most attention. It is perched higher up, way above the ground level and the things I’ve seen so far, so even if the climb up there didn’t threaten to be too difficult, you did need to negotiate some altitude to reach it. As even those in an apparently poorer shape than me were doing it, so why wouldn’t I? Anyway, that particular one was called the Urn Tomb. It first consists of two rows of vaults. And then, on top of those vaults, rising up from the terrace on the upper vault, there’s this tall, narrow façade that towers above the city.
And so, people were going up all the way to the terrace on top of the upper vault, and so did I. The higher I climbed, the more magnificent the view of the city of Petra grew. Looking way down, I only began to understand how much more there was to it than what you knew before you visited the place. Even if the best time to visit Petra was soon going to expire for today, there were still many people milling around in all possible directions, looking ever tinier the farther you cast your eye. If your interest reached just a bit beyond the Siq and the Treasury, you had enough to do here to fill three days, indeed
Up there on the second vault, having inspected everything there was to see in and around the Urn Tomb, I spotted an interesting sight higher up to my left. At the very edge of a steep, sheer rock, some distance away from me, there were three guys and two donkeys behind their back. The fact that there were two donkeys, as well, led me to a conclusion that they were another terrace, maybe this one natural, with enough space to accommodate at least another human being, should one choose to go up there. So I volunteered.
In fact, the climb to that spot was much more difficult in psychological sense than in reality. If you had fear of heights, you might be in trouble. I couldn’t claim to be like an eagle as I was not. But even if I may have a slight phobia, as many – or even most – people do, it wasn’t strong enough to stop me from reaching that ledge.
There is this steadily climbing path, maybe one hundred metres long, carved – as just about everything else - into the solid rock and in places hardly a metre wide. With no protection on the free side, with tens of metres below you, it was easy to imagine, even to see vividly in your mind, what would happen if you slipped
They welcomed me cordially. They were just in the process of making tea and I was immediately offered a cup. Two guys were sitting right at the edge, their feet dangling right above the abyss below, entirely unfazed by the height. One of them played some kind of local flute and they just took it easy. They spoke some English, as almost every local here in Petra did. How else would they earn their living if they didn’t? Even if, true, nowadays you could find the Bedouin who possessed a working knowledge of, say, Russian, too.
One of the guys, the flutist, told me he’d been born in one of the Petra caves. He still remembered how the life had been there. But some time ago authorities had resettled all those cave Bedouin and now he was living in a house, like most of us. After some more chat, they offered to put together a tailor-made tour of Petra, just for me. When?
„What would it cost me?“ I asked
„Not much,“ he answered. „Twenty five JD.“
I said it was too much. He promised he would take me to places that most of the tourists never saw. I was non-committed, at best. Even leaning towards declining their offer altogether. But for starters I just left it at a ten-o’clock appointment tomorrow morning. I figured I’d have enough time to think it over until then. Who knows, maybe I’d find reasons to go along after all? And if I didn’t, nobody could force me into it.
They seemed to be content with the arrangement.
I stayed with them for a while, drank my tea and then rose and left. Back down the same narrow path along the rock face, I made it to the Urn Tomb again. An old Bedouin, who had a souvenir shop inside the tomb, had just started his late afternoon prayer on one of the carpets he had on hand. At that particular moment, I couldn’t be of less importance to him than I was. The sun was quite low on the horizon now.
It was time to start leaving Petra.
Back down near the restaurant and the Street of Façades, one of the camel-riding Bedouin asked me if I was up for a ride. I laughed and said:
„That’s for the old and lazy. I’m none of them.“
„But you’re rich!“ he insisted. „You should help me.“
„Me rich?! I’m sure you’re richer than me,“ I countered.
„How much do you earn?“ he went straight at me.
I told him honestly, just rounding it up. When he heard what I worked for, his face distorted in disdain and he said haughtily:
„I make that here in just three days with my camel!“
„You see!“ I took it cheerfully
As my income obviously relegated me to the class below his level of perception, he rode off without as much as saying bye.
Passing by the „Why Not?“ souvenir shop, one of the vendors asked me to check his merchandise.
„Tomorrow,“ I said.
„Tomorrow, tomorrow!“ he shot back impatiently. „Tomorrow may be too late!“
I stopped for a moment and told him:
„Haven’t you heard of an old saying? 'Don’t do today what you can leave for tomorrow’.“
He looked at me, completely bemused, not knowing what to make of it. I winked at him and left. Ten paces further on, I heard him yell after me:
“That’s not how it goes!”
I laughed again and waved good-bye in his direction.
And in the direction of Petra for today.