We pass through the make shift ticket booth and enter a cluster of nondescript shops; vendors pushing their assortment of T-shirts, stuffed camels and sand art. Confused, we look about for a sign. Surely there must be a sign? A man dozing in the sun anticipates our confusion and points lackadaisically, “Petra, that way.” Bedouins line the dusty, gravel route cajoling us with their well honed sales pitches; “Free horse ride to Petra. Included in ticket. Only tip required.” We dodge a horse and rider galloping full speed back up the path to nab the next customer. Under the beating sun, the horse is already lathered, the rider grips his hat, his hair blows wildly. Time is money, especially in January when tourists are few and far between.
Eventually the road narrows, slicing into the blood-red rock to form the slot canyon, The Siq. Twists and turns obscure the view straight ahead. Horse drawn buggies fly past, the clatter of hooves and clamor of wheels sound a warning. We plaster ourselves safely against the stone wall. As I round each bend, my anticipation builds, until I spy a sliver of the iconic Al Kahaznen facade, the Treasury. “Oh my God. Look. There it is.”
In the courtyard, tourists scramble about the cramped space, craning their heads in a near futile attempt to fit the massive treasury facade into a photograph. Bedouins chant, “Ride to the monastery in 30 minutes versus two hours. Avoid 1000 steps.” They repeat their sales call over and over, trance like. I imagine them drifting off to sleep in one of Petra’s hundreds of caves unable to stop, a Bedouin version of counting sheep. Few tourists pay heed – too excited finally to be inside Petra, in front of the most iconic of monuments. My daughter, Taylor, snaps a few pictures of her own. We peek across a barrier blocking access to the treasury, and Taylor pets a camel or two. The ornately carved treasury face is merely a front for a simple cave. Like the rest of Petra, there are no guards or warning signs – actually no signs of any type. We head down the rocky path, forego the donkey ride, preferring to hike two hours and 1000 steps to the monastery.
The history of Petra is vague, a secret still being unveiled as only 15% of the ancient city has been excavated. Petra existed as a major trade center and capital of the Nabataen Empire from approximately 400 BC. Arab lore claims Petra as a sacred place, the biblical location where Moses struck a rock and created a spout of water. By 100 AD, Petra floundered after falling to Romans conquerors. Trade routes moved to the sea which further accelerated the decline. Earthquakes devastated Petra in the fourth century. Finally, the last inhabitants left in the mid 600s A.D. after which Petra remained dormant, except for the occasional explorer during the Middle Ages. It was discovered again by the Swiss in 1812. In the last several decades, tourism in Petra has exploded, fueled by UNESCO naming it a world heritage site in 1985, The Smithsonian declaring Petra one of the 28 places to visit before you die, global voters selecting Petra as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and Hollywood choosing it as the film location for the movie, Indiana Jones.
As we venture further, the pathway physically expands. Rock walls dotted with caves and tombs line both sides. Trails cut off the path and up around the tomb entrances. We pass remnants of a temple, an amphitheater and a Byzantine mosaic church floor. There are more working Bedouins than tourists. Some offer rides out of Petra in horse pulled carriages. Others continue to offer rides to the monastery. And many just simple ask “Please stop, enjoy tea with a Bedouin” as they stoke the twig fueled flames under a charred black tea-pot. I greet each person in turn, but then politely decline their proposed service. Yet despite my repeated “No thank you” each responds with a smile, “Welcome to Petra.”
The path turns to sand. The hiking becomes more strenuous. I am thankful I lugged my hiking boots for this single day. We cut through the valley surrounded by imperial tombs wasting no time. We plan to return for more detailed exploration tomorrow. The path to the monastery, as is the case throughout Petra, is not obvious or marked, and our map is marginally helpful. Yet women and children sit in the shade under tarps everywhere; working, selling and each points us towards the right trail. Young boys of perhaps 8 or 10 fly down the mountain on donkeys, returning to entice their next customers. The stairs meander up the hillside, worn red rock cutting around trees – at times more ramp-like than steps. Hikers break down and hire the donkeys which are always lurking nearby as their Bedouin owners linger, in anticipation of these inevitable opportunities to sell their services as the reality of the effort sinks in.
We push on, past make shift souvenir shops selling artifacts, rocks and jewelry. A boy of no more than five sits in the sun at his tiny table, his round face is smudged with dirt as he plays with a pile of rocks which I assume are for sale. He is too young, hasn’t yet learned the art of the sales pitch and attracts no one to even browse. As we round a bend, a man calls over and over “Let me give you a break. Buy a KitKat.” We laugh and decide to stop and buy a snickers bar and a water. He offers us a seat in the shade. We listen to him repeat his sales call throughout our rest until we push on. As his voice fades away, now and then the braying of a donkey echoes off the canyon walls, the rock amplifying the call to distorted proportions. Then we hear bursts of gun fire. More times than not, the sole sound is the wind rustling branches, our own heavy breathing or the noise of donkey hooves clattering down the red rock steps.
Just as I begin to tire of the walk, we arrive. The monastery is similar to the treasury, though even more massive and golden, no hint of red. Bedouin boys hoist tourists up the four foot, single step entryway – no doubt working for tips. We hike to a lookout point, lay on the rocks to rest, drink our water and gaze at the view. Jagged mountains extend as far as we can see with no sign of civilization, a study in remoteness and desolation. The topography reminds me of the monochromatic, desert mountains shown on news reports from Afghanistan or Pakistan – fearful hiding places. I imagine Egyptians stumbling around this barren land, lost for 40 years.
The walk out is tiring, a gradual up and up. We considered returning for “Petra by Night” but one trip down into the valley is enough for today. Tomorrow we will return to explore the tombs and the Byzantine mosaic floor of the blue church. We are fortunate that our two days in early January are crowd free yet with perfect weather; sunny, warm enough to lie in the sun, cool enough to hike the shaded monastery path. We linger a bit more the second day and try to imprint the memory of Petra on our minds; the carved cave facades, the conglomeration of desert and mountains and the Bedouin people everywhere. When I think of Petra, I will remember the Bedouins.
The last day, we leave Petra at eight in the evening to catch our very late flight from Amman. In the airport, I buy a book, “Married to a Bedouin” by Marguerite van Geldermalsen. The book is a memoir of a New Zealand woman who visits Petra, falls in love with and marries a Bedouin man and raises their children in a Petra cave amidst other Bedouin families. She describes a life of sacrifice, simplicity, joy and love while hustling tourist for sales in order to eke out a meager life. I left Petra with one regret. I wish I had drunk tea with a Bedouin, bought some bauble for a memory and hired a horse-drawn carriage to carry me out. On the other hand, I did not regret hiking to the monastery as both donkeys and passengers passed, forlorn, united in a shared misery.
Petra, like the Bedouin people, is transforming. Many of the Bedouins have been relocated to housing outside the ancient city. Global archeologists are working to secure Petra from the damage inflicted by too many tourists and too few controls. A large, modern visitors center stands completed but not yet opened. I assume it will replace the ticket hut. I envision more guards (we saw none), controls and access limitations. Given the increase in tourism and the fragile nature of the 1500 year old city, I understand this need for change, progress. Yet I am happy we saw Petra while the Bedouins and tourists roamed freely through the ancient ruins.
Do it yourself:
Arrival: We flew into Amman airport and spent the beginning of our trip in Amman (a worthwhile destination and one I plan to write about). Any hotel in Petra or Amman can arrange car transport wherever you want to go in the country. Expect to pay about 125 US dollars for a ride (no matter the number of people) from Petra to the airport (off season, prices are negotiable). From our hotel in Amman, some tourists shared the cost of a car to Petra making it more affordable.
Hotel: We stayed at the Petra Moon near the site entrance. The rooms were clean, serviceable and recently refurbished. The beds were extremely firm and not terrible comfortable. The town of Wada Musa is built on a hill. After trudging out of Petra, we welcomed our nearby hotel. That said, taxis line the street at the opening of Petra, and a taxi back to one of the more distant hotels is, I am told, quite inexpensive – though certainly far less convenient.
Petra Entrance Fees: The cost of a 1 day Petra ticket is 50 JOD and a two day is 55 JOD. (roughly 75 dollars for a one day ticket). If I returned to Petra, I would arrive in the afternoon, buy a two day ticket and reserve Petra by Night (an incremental cost on top of the ticket fee). On arrival day, I would only go into Petra by Night. The second day I would hike to the monastery and spend explore the valley (Blue Church and surrounding tombs). Then, I would buy a ride out of the valley in a horse drawn carriage, eat dinner, and catch a taxi out of Wadi Musa that evening.
Meals: Breakfast at the Petra Moon was included – a perfect assortment of cooked and cold options. We carried snacks into Petra. Restaurants exist in Petra which appeared adequate, nothing special. We ate our last meal at the Moevenpick Hotel next to the Petra Moon. Our meal was expensive and mediocre (OK, I admit, I went for the wine – few restaurants in Wadi Musa serve any alcohol) . In general, our meals were adequate, but none were special. Staying further up in Wadi Musa may have afforded more and cheaper options.
Precautions: Before our trip, I wonder if Petra, the greater Jordan and Amman were safe. We had no issues – even when touring close to the Syria border. Petra, in particular, is in a very remote and safe location.
Categories: The Middle East