Half as Old as Time

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January 24th 2009
Published: January 24th 2009
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Just like every traveler who returns from their first big journey with the travel bug, I sat for months pondering how I should proceed from my first humble steps as an explorer of the world. One thing was sure though - after my first big journey I was in no way prepared financially for a return to the road so quickly. And so while I hastened to finish off my university degree, numerous ideas ran through my head. First of all I considered an exploration of the United States. After all Canada’s partner to the south while very similar, nonetheless contains a vast amount of this intangible entity known as Americana. This journey was not meant to be as it turned out. The American transport system upon closer inspection was not what I had become accustomed to in Europe and I foresaw hours waiting in boring American cities for a bus that wasn’t coming. So my attention was drawn to the local travel section at the bookstore. Looking around the books for inexpensive travel I saw one for the jungle remains of Tikal. But this too would prove to be an elusive target. When I eventually decided that I would like to go there and was looking for someone to give my all my shots, it so happened that any immunologist that I could find in the city of Ottawa was on vacation.
So one day I sat in my apartment and as I often did I watched the travel channel looking for inspiration. While this channel detailed an extensive amount of travel destinations it nonetheless left me uninspired. Most of these places appealed to the mainstream vacationers looking for a good winter break or chic European destination, not to the intrepid traveler in waiting. So as I lazily watched the channel one day, on came a show which made general lists and filled those lists with what it thought was the best the world had to offer. I had seen this show many times before and so I was used to “The World’s Best Bathrooms” or “America’s Best Swimming Pools”, but this show sought to describe the world’s best ancient sites, and so it immediately had my attention. It began to run down a number of places, some of which were new to me and some of which were not, but when it got to number three I was amazed. It included both Jerusalem and Petra together. Jerusalem I knew existed, Petra I did not. I saw it and instantly recognized it from one of my favorite movies as a child. I had assumed always that this was just an intricately designed set or a painting, but I discovered that this place in fact existed and that it was Petra.
So from this day on every inclination to travel ended at this red rocked city hewn from the desert stone over two thousand years ago. And so a plan began to formulate. Part of my attempts to finish off university was a course on Ancient Greece and another was a course on Ancient Rome. The two combined together to make the obvious jumping off point for my overland journey - it would be from Rome to Cairo. And so after two weeks touring around Italy and another week touring Rome I entered the Muslim world in Istanbul for the first time since I left Tunisia two years previously. While the former capital of Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire was of great interest to me, I was nonetheless excited to get to my end goal. And so after three busy days in Istanbul I was off to Jordan by way of Syria. A couple more Roman cities in Syria and Jordan only added to my desire to see this spectacular place. By this time I was already carrying with me books bought along the way for some of the world’s great Archaeological sites - Epidaurus, Pompeii, Herculaneum and more. And while my back strained under the weight of these books I knew that I yearned for one more, that for Petra.
So after over four weeks traveling I finally came to my destination. In the morning I impatiently got off the bus and vainly sought a ride to the hotel I had chosen from my book. There were no taxis and only touts, the beguiled enemy of the budget traveler, waiting for unsuspecting prey. Here they had me at a disadvantage. I wanted to get to Petra as soon as possible and so I quickly agreed to the first man’s offer, a little place with one dorm room called the Valentine Hotel. After checking in I set out almost immediately for my goal.
If there are places in the world that defy the nature of surprise Petra is not one of them. Anyone aspiring to climb the Empire State Building can see it a mile away, and the fanciful spray of Niagara Falls is betrayed by the roar of the falling water. Petra however lies hidden in wait for those seeking to find it. And so after thirty minutes of walking downhill I arrived at the entrance to the siq, the narrow rift valley which provides the visitor the entrance to the famous location. Petra’s greatest marvel, the Treasury, lies hidden behind one of these turns. But which one? As one walks down the narrow passageway, every turn in the rock is expected to be the first glimpse, and seemingly every one disappoints, until it comes to the point where the uninitiated visitor loses hope, and it is then that is when it appears. At first it appears like nothing at all. The human eye is overloaded with the overabundance of light shining on the surface of the building following the cruel darker corners of the siq. And so the first image most people have is a blur, but when the eye adjusts it indeed is happy with the image it formulates. Here before it lies among the most alluring visions in the world. A red sliver of the façade comes into view. The beholder is drawn forward, almost instinctually as the mind desires to see what the remaining rocky obtrusions of the siq attempts to hide. And so some thirty paces more one finds themselves in front of the majestic building, not actually a treasury, rather a tomb.
The remainder of the city lies ahead waiting to be discovered, and while Petra is positioned such that its premier attraction lies at the beginning, it is perfectly situated as the second best lies almost at the opposite end. And so the visitor traverses past the amphitheater, some small museums and continues an uphill climb all the way to the monastery, again this time also not actually the building that its name implies, and again is instead a tomb. And so with this initial journey over, I descended from the monastery back downhill and when I reached the central part of the city I realized it would be all uphill back to the hotel. After an hour spent climbing a modest incline I arrived back at the hotel to find that some local Bedouin would be providing a meal and entertainment that night. The spread of food they put on was very impressive, it contained a number of staples of the Arabic diet. The entertainment as well was very worthwhile. And so with a stomach full of food, an ear full of music and a mind full of wonder, I set off to sleep for the night.
The next day of exploration allowed a quieter pace for the city. While others came and went to the main sites I explored in more depth. I set off for an obscure monument on a walkway named the Snake Path. After a while I was tiring in the heat so I decided on a different course of action. Instead of exploring the city I would enjoy its more peaceful side. I went and sat at the top of the amphitheater and watched people scurry around below. As I kicked the ground in front of me little pieces of pottery appeared. While I was not foolish enough to believe that these had been here since ancient times, and that they were more likely the former property of some Bedouin in the area, I nonetheless figured they would be of greater interest to someone else and so moved on. I walked back up towards the Treasury, but at the mid-day rush it was swarmed with tourists. Out of the corner of my eye I witnessed that tourist that wanted the same thing that I did. At the far wall to this small opening in the earth’s crust lay a somewhat uneven and difficult way to climb to the top of a small rocky outcropping and view the Treasury unhindered. While the person I saw go ahead of me gave up after attempting to venture up a rock wall a little too large for them, I figured that I should take a chance and see if it was too much of a barrier for me as well. Indeed when I arrived to it, it was a difficult way forward. With as much effort as I could muster I leapt up and on top of the wall. From here the route to my lookout was easy. And so I sat 100 feet over the heads of the unsuspecting tourists below. Some other courageous traveler made his way up as well, but only to snap a few pictures then leave. I had the treasury to myself for over thirty minutes before I came back down.
I am sure no such statistics exist but I would venture a guess that on leaving Petra most people see the exact thing as when they entered, the Treasury through the siq. And while the same visitors had this as their introduction to Petra, it also exists for almost all of them as their goodbye as well. Petra leaves the eye’s image as readily as it entered. But for anyone who has seen this wonder, the mind’s eye is all one needs. As the Swiss poet John William Burton described Petra as half as old as time, it seems like the memories of this place will last equally as long.


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