Published: May 3rd 2009May 10th 2008
Wadi Musa, Jordan
Somewhere in the Middle East, south of the Dead Sea, on the edge of the Jordanian desert, hidden and surrounded by a ring of mountains, is a place unique and bizarre, a city carved into the rocks, a wonderland of temples, tombs and caves. Even though its life, colours and structure are long fallen to dust, its magic stayed alive throughout the centuries and legend became mystery, and one of the strangest, most fascinating places in the world... or how a poet once said: "Match me such a marvel, save in Eastern clime, a rose-red city, half as old as time...!" ...Petra! - The Kingdom of Jordan or the land of wonders -
All travellers on the popular landroute Istanbul-Cairo or the other way around will have to pass through the Kingdom of Jordan. Coming from Egypt, most people will probably feel relieved and less hassled than in the land of the pharaos. Coming from the north and countries like Syria or Lebanon, people say that Jordanians are not as friendly and warmhearted as Syrians and despite the fact that Jordan offers quite some unique sights such as, “Wadi Rum”, a silent, timeless and starkly beautiful desert, “Jerash” with
its spectacular Greco-Roman remains, the “Dead Sea”, one of the most spectacular natural and spiritual landscapes in the whole world and of course “Petra”, the rose red city, set deep inside a narrow desert gorge - but then just a few travellers stay longer than a couple days in this land of the Old and New Testaments or as some tourist advertisements claim “the land of wonders”.
For me it was the second time on Jordanian sole, a few years ago I entered Jordan from Egypt by ferry via Aqaba, visited Petra and Amman and continued my trip to Israel. This time I came from the north. Not that I am really into Jordan, but I skipped the chance to sleep in the Jordanian desert last time, so I decided to pick it up on this journey.
Leaving Syria with its friendly people wasn’t an easy decision. But it was time to move on farther south to Jordan. We took a nightbus from Hama via Damascus to Amman, which took us about 10hours including the border crossing. In Amman we met up with another traveller whom we met in Beirut 2 weeks before and continued our way straight down to
Petra together, which took us another 4hours by bus. - Petra, the City half as old as time -
Petra has been voted as one of the new world wonders and lies about 3-5 hours south of Amman, about 2 hours north of Aqaba, on the edges of the mountainous desert of the Wadi Araba. It’s an ancient city founded in the 6th century B.C. by the Nabateans. The city inhabits an extensive valley defended by a narrow canyon called the Siq. The Nabateans carved open channels into the canyon walls to bring irrigation water into the city, and covered channels for drinking water. In this way they were able to defend against numerous invaders over the centuries, establishing Petra as an important center of commerce on the trading routes between Arabia and the Mediterranean. Petra finally fell to Rome in A.D. 106 after a lengthy siege, but continued as an important population center until being crippled by an earthquake in 363, and then forgotten by the world for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1812 by the Swiss traveler, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who tricked his way into the fiercely guarded site by pretending to be an Arab
from India wishing to make a sacrifice at the tomb of the Prophet Aaron - that’s why Petra is sometimes called the ‘Lost City’!
Petra is surrounded by towering hills of rust-coloured sandstone which gave the city some natural protection against invaders. Nearby is a small town "Wadi Musa" perched on the mountainsides and valley floor of the region and the landscape alone is stunning before you even consider the ancient grandeur that lies hidden within its keep.
Some places on this planet can be categorized with “Where words are wasted”. Petra is a place where you can climb, scramble and tunnel and visit every site in the guidebook and do every walk and track they recommend, but really that's a waste of your time. It is a mythical place - a place to go a little off the beaten path and spend some time breathing in millennia and just be stunned by the colours and sheer beauty of the entire landscape.
If you visit Petra, you better start in the cool early morning, when temperatures are still relatively mild, so that you have a few hours before the heat of the midday starts to dry you
out and the sun burns into your skin!
From our hostel in the little town of Wadi Musa, we decided to walk our way down to Petra, which took us about 20minutes. The entrance fee was pretty expensive, 21JD (35USD) for a day per person (2days/26JD and 3days/31JD), and - no matter what your guidebook might say - they have no student discount anymore.
Arriving in Petra is as mystical as the city's legend. Surrounded by a ring of mountains, the only way to enter Petra is through the Siq, a naturally hewn passage, only 3-5m wide in places, which snakes through the mountain rock. The desert sun almost disappears on entering the Siq, so high are its narrow walls. The walls, swirling with colour, are sometimes so close they threaten to swallow you. The sound of your footsteps on the ancient paving is thrown back at you, bouncing and echoing from the enclosing cliffs. Eventually the gloom is pierced by a shaft of bright light as the mountains drop away into great rift valley where Petra was built. Visible before even emerging from the Siq is the Treasury, a staggering ornate building carved out of the mountain
The Treasury is certainly Petra's most-well known attraction, it’s known by most people as the exterior of the temple containing the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is what the postcards, photos and cover of all the guidebooks anticipated and, yet, nothing like. It is expected and still, step by step, enchanting.
Our first glimpse of the Treasury, a sliver of rosy sandstone architecture between jagged cliffs, was heart-stopping. After a goodly amount of time exploring there we moved on past the Treasury, onto the main route through the city, the walls of the canyon ripple between almost purple red to palest cream. It is a beautiful, alien place.
In comparison to a few years ago, Petra itself (of course) haven’t changed, as solid rocks do not change their forms within that short period, but the surrounding have changed. There were a way more souvenir stalls and bedouin style cafes along the path than back then. Walking pass them I had to travel back the memory line, remembering how I was sitting under a tiny bedouin tent, sipping on a glass a sweet tea while trying to hide from the heat… when
a bunch of Japanese girls passed by, one of them with a towel on her head! I can still clearly see that image in front of me and as you never know what life will bring you next, I happened to bump into the same girl a few days later in Amman and later in Jerusalem - and still until today, we are in contact and good friends, regardless the fact that I still call her “Towel-girl”! Anyway, as I am sure you will read this, I hope you are fine Shiho - it has been a while, hasn’t it!? :-)
We continued along to the Royal Tombs, the Amphitheatre, the colonnaded Roman road, and beyond through the valley and climbed to the Monastery. All the way fending off bedouin ladies with jewelry stalls and bedouin lads with sad little donkeys who would be more tortured than our legs for carrying us to the top. The climb, along a winding route of 900 stairs cut into the mountain rock, took us about 45 minutes. I don't think either of us knew what to expect from the Monastery, but even if we had it would have exceeded our expectations. Much
larger than the facade of the Treasury, the Monastery is more weathered and not so elaborately carved, but is still overwhelming in its size. Like most of the structures in Petra, there's only really one big bare room carved out behind the facade, but that facade is amazing.
After climbing further to overlook the vertiginous mountainous we had our late lunch on the mountain top and then decided to head back! Petra is a way more than what I described here, it’s huge with hundreds of different temples, tombs and caves, so that one can easily spend a week without seeing all of them!
Some people told me that “Petra” was the highlight of their Middle-East trip, and I would agree that it’s definitely one of the must see places in this region! So, if you ever make it to the Middle East, make sure you won’t miss it! To be continued… next: Jordan - The Silence of the Desert...
There are more photos below