Petra is of course the reason to visit Jordan. And the Treasury, the first structure you see after walking through the Siq (canyon) and the one made famous by the Indiana Jones movie, is often the reason we know anything about Petra. We rose early, determined to make the most of our day, to get there before the hordes of tourists, and to get the bulk of walking behind us in the morning, before the real heat of the day hit.
We were lucky. We had the luxury of time, allocating a full day to sightseeing in Petra itself, and with a flexible departure time the next day, we decided to buy a two day pass, so we could go back the next morning if necessary. As it was, our tired legs willingly made the hike in a second time to ensure that we saw the Treasury, and got photographs, when the sun was on it. Yes, it was wonderful, and yes, we got some decent shots, but one of my favourites is this one, a simple shot I took the day before, with the Treasury in half sun half shadow.
But Petra is more than the Treasury . The number of people we saw leaving after seeing the Treasury astounded us. Were they short of time, had they gone in very early (like we did on the first day) or did they not know of the wonders that lay beyond? The Nabateans, who built Petra and who had the glorious and ridiculous and astoundingly difficult idea to carve their buildings and tombs out of rock, created an extensive city. And the Romans built even more. Did they not know this? Didn’t they want to explore it? Or had they seen what they wanted to see, and were happy with that?
The walk through the Siq itself was one of the highlights of our trip. On our first day, we walked in at 7 am, almost completely alone. It was magical. We were walking the path where visitors, traders and conquerors to this city had travelled, over two thousand years ago. The Siq was quiet and serene, and we were glad we had set the alarm early, been the first in to breakfast, and headed down to the gate to be amongst the first visitors. (Gates open at 6 am, so we could have been earlier, but we’re not crazy!) On the second day, we walked through the Siq closer to 9 am, along with loud tour groups, and louder horse carriages, the clattering of their hooves against the stone pavement echoing discordantly through the Siq. Even then, the magic of the Siq walls got to us. We could only imagine what it was like to be a traveller arriving here 2000 years ago, and the wonder and awe that both the Siq, and arriving at the Treasury, would have inspired.
The furthermost monument from the Siq is the Monastery. You walk through all of Petra, then begin the climb up about 950 stairs (estimates vary – I choose to go with the highest estimate, as we then climbed to the viewing spot above it). As you head determinedly towards the Monastery, the donkey hawkers, mule peddlers and camel pimps all approach us with tales of doom, repeating the number of steps (more each time) and how long it would take us to get there (at least an hour was the consensus). Clearly we looked out of shape, easy targets. But we were determined. One mule guy thought we were particularly unlikely to make the climb and followed us for some distance, chatting to us, tempting us with both his two mules. He was clearly a betting man, and had his money on us. Eventually though he realised we were yet another couple of foolhardy (or cheap) foreigners, and gave up on us, off in search of easy prey.
On the way we were both pestered and amused by Bedouin women trying to sell trinkets. Scaling the first of the steps, we heard a wild shrieking. Once we rounded a corner, we saw a young Bedouin woman, shouting up the rocks to a woman in the distance. The valley and rock amplified her voice, carrying it all the way to the woman. It sounded like a wild argument. The young woman looked at us and shrugged: “My mother lives up there, in a cave,” she said by way of explanation. But perhaps mainly to get a bit of sympathy, as she immediately started promoting her stall. “Come and visit me on the way down,” she urged. A few yards later we saw another woman opening up her stall. “Come and visit me,” she said. “I will give you a good deal. And I don’t have any sisters or mothers further up!”
We made it to the top, only two people there before us (we passed them as they were on their return, downward leg). The sight was worth the effort, as we caught our breaths and sucked down another bottle of water. We looked at the monastery and wondered which of our culture’s achievements would still inspire awe in 2000 years. We are so good at knocking things down these days, will anything of the Burj Khalifa or other buildings or monuments or bridges remain?
Proud of ourselves, and restored a little by the water, we even climbed higher to get a good view back to the Monastery. On the way we passed the last of the Bedouin souvenir sellers. “Where are you from?” she asked. “New Zealand,” we replied, expecting the usual blank look. “Oh yes,” she said. “Do you know of Marguerite?” Yes, in fact I did, having heard an interview with this New Zealand woman who had gone to Petra, fallen in love with a Bedouin souvenir seller, married him, and stayed. “Marguerite is my cousin,” said this bright young woman, desperate to sell some of her necklaces and souvenirs. Whether or not Marguerite was her cousin was irrelevant. She spoke excellent English, and we felt very sad having to disappoint her on the way down, by not buying anything. She was not however the only souvenir seller we disappointed that day. I’d been having physiotherapy on my foot before leaving home, so was not surprised that it became tired as we started our descent, and I lagged behind Darryl. Like the weak gazelle at the edge of the herd that is always targeted by the lions, I became a prime target for the Bedouin women hungry for a sale. But frankly, there was no way I was going to buy and carry anything extra, and after refusing one or two of the women (including “Noelle Christmas” and “Turquoise” – names designed to get us to remember them), I couldn’t bring myself to choose one over the others.
On the journey down, we passed perhaps wiser foreigners climbing the steps on mules. And others, half-way up, looking exhausted and wondering how far they had to go, and thinking “that mule looks really good about now.” I knew how they felt.
We recuperated in a tent with lemon mint and some very welcome fans. And we visited the final monuments, before making the hike out of Petra. What seemed to be a gentle walk in turned out in fact to be a one in five slope, uphill. That’s after the six kilometres or so that we’d already hiked (much of it vertical). We resisted the horse carriages, the donkey hawkers, mule peddlers and camel pimps, even though we were obviously in a much worse physical state than when we’d first walked through 5-6 hours earlier. One man, wearing a risque T-shirt and chatting on his cellphone astride his camel, confidently declared that both his camels were strong, and would take us to the gate. “You can be a caravan,” he said.
We were constantly asked if we wanted souvenirs, or the various forms of transport. Old men approached us trying to sell silver bracelets, and some young boys sat next to a pile of rocks, trying to sell us one of the patterned red rocks from Petra for about NZ$2. (You can see the boys in the photo of the camel rider below). I’ve seen people in more dire straits, so I was surprised how hard I found it to see the women, the dignified old men wearing their red scarf head-dress, and the little kids, spending all day in the hot sun and dust, trying to make a few dinar.
The Siq now was noisy now, with a lot of horse traffic (riders, and carriages). We judgementally but enviously looked at the tourists in the carriages, as we plodded back. The donkeys we’d seen during the day had always looked sad and exhausted, their eyes blank. Darryl says by now, I looked exactly like that. The next day, due to time constraints (we assured ourselves), we availed ourselves of a horse carriage for the ride back. So we’ve done the Siq both ways. I have to say, I preferred it on foot. In the early morning. In silence.