Most people go to Jordan to go to Petra. I am not an exception to this. Petra is one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, after all. Built as early as the 5 century BC, the ancient Nabataean city is one of the only civilizations to fend of the Roman Empire. Now, it is crawling with foreigners.
The journey into Petra begins at the Siq. The Siq is not unlike a tunnel—a narrow path, deep between two stone walls. It’s really beautiful and very impressive. The colors and stripes in the sandy stone are simply fantastic. Throughout the Siq are clues of a very clever civilization. There are terracotta tubes that run along the sides of the Siq—set into the walls are cut to an angle to optimally bring whatever rain may fall into the tubes. That’s just the collection method– the tubes lead into the city and contain filtration systems. It’s really cool, still functional engineering. There are also the remains of sculptures (my favorite is a caravan of camel feet) and what are thought to be religious totems and sites.
One of the more modern features of the Siq is a laser monitoring system affixed to some of the more precarious stone features. Though the walls could get very close together, there was always enough space for pedestrians to doge the horse drawn carriages that carry people from the entrance to the Treasury.
Speaking of the Treasury, it’s easily the most famous feature of Petra. And it’s misnamed. The ~discoverers~ of Petra assumed it was where the Nabataeans kept all their money from their trading. This turned out to be false—it’s a tomb—but the name stuck. The scale and detail with which this building was constructed is incredible. It is several stories high and the carving at the top is ornate. The open space at the foot of the treasury is enormous and crowded. Full of tourists, salesmen, and camels, the opening from the Siq is loud and colorful. A few paces away, though, is a small set of shops with public tables out front, in the sun. There lives a colony of cats whose fur matches the stone valley they live in. We took a small break from walking and petted the cats.
During our respite, we studied the map of Petra and decided to try to make it all the way to the Monastery. To make better time through the rest of the city, it was decided we would take camels. Now, some of you may remember that my track record for riding other
creatures is spotty at best, so riding a camel was not something I was confident about. However, it was something I was interested in doing, if only for the sake of the experience and the story. I was not told my camel was going to stand up, so suddenly being ten feet in the air put me and my relationship with my leggy friend was off to a rocky start. As I took many deep breaths, one of the guides tied my camel up to the rest of the caravan and we headed further into the city.
Camels are one helluva ride. They sway and rock and are very high up. It was stressful. I saw the rest of the city as we passed through it, but I have no pictures because I was clinging to a saddle. In the meantime between buildings, I mostly looked at the ground, at the camel’s feet. (Camel feet are cool, for the record. They’re very large in comparison the skinny, knobby legs and they’re very wide and flat.)
If I wasn’t so panicked, I might have been more outwardly amused by the puffs of dust that each step produced. By the time I got used to the wave like rhythm of the ride we were passing through a gate. My camel walked very close to the archway, slamming my left leg into a detailing on the wall. The nausea and numbness was immediate. I shouted to Jennifer that I needed to dismount and she told me that we were stopping here anyway. So I hyperventilated while the camels were brought down one by one. Once off my camel, I peeled back my leggings to examine what felt like a seeping wound on my shin. Instead, I found a minor scrape, swelling, and a bruise taking form.
It eventually spread to be about the size of a deck of cards and around 30 shades of purple. I still have this injury, about two and a half months later… So yeah, the camel inadvertently did a job on me. But since there was no dripping blood, we carried on.
Now if you fall off the horse, or get a three month injury from a careless camel, you have to get back in the saddle. However, camels have a pretty tough time getting up the roughly 1,000 steps to the Monastery, so we all switched to donkeys and mules. I only got on a donkey named Jack Sparrow with the stipulation that I would be allowed to dismount if I wasn’t comfortable. It turns out that this is most of the climb up to the Monastery. The steps have been worn by weather and thousands of feet leaving them soft and sloping. Additionally, several portions of the path hug cliffs on one side and fall into a sandy abyss on the other. If I was going to make a precipitous fall, it was going to be my fault and not Jack Sparrow’s. So I ended up climbing most of the way to the Monastery myself. And even though I was on my way to an ancient temple, I did not feel any more godly than usual.
Anyway, the natural beauty of Petra is all around on this hike. The strata in the stone is a veritable rainbow—mostly oranges, sandy yellows, and ruddy browns, but it’s still vibrant. Less enchanting than the desert were stalls at every wide spot on the path whose owners will promise you their wares are unique even though they are all identical.
We finally made it to the top of the trail where our guides (the guys in charge of the herd we were riding) knew the shopkeeper and her friends. Tired and dusty, we accepted “Kate’s” invitation to stop for tea.
While the tea bubbled to a boil we listened to our host as she told us about her business and her family. Eventually, the conversation split into several and I ended up talking to our youngest guide who informed me that he spoke Spanish. In Spanish, he told me about all the languages he speaks –at least four—and how much he uses them, and with whom. The kid should probably be in school, but he’s more educated than a lot of people in at least one way.
After our short break, we made the final paces over a stone crest and into a sandy clearing on the other side. Before we saw the Monastery, though, to left is the view over the mountains that we had just meandered through to the top: this is the natural majesty of Petra. To the right, is the feat of humanity. The Treasury is cool, but it had nothing on the Monastery. It is truly massive. And beautiful. And isolated. Very few people make the hike all the way up to the top, so it’s much more quiet, peaceful, and sunny. I loved it.
After exploring and taking lots of pictures it was time to slide back down the mountain. Jen tried to convince me that riding a donkey down the steps would be faster… But I was pretty sure that I could fall down ancient steps about as well, if not better than, a donkey. So that’s what my cousin and I did. While her parents and brother tested their ability to stay zen, she and I ran down the steps, occasionally stopping to take pictures and call back to see if the caravan was close to catching up with us.
Once at the bottom, we all remounted and began the trek out the “back door” of Petra. It’s a paved road that sort of cuts sideways out of the park and is far less traveled. This is partly because a lot of it is under construction. I have no pictures from this part of the trip, but it was great. It was calm and not super busy. Our caravan got pretty spread out, and so I ended up riding with my younger cousin and our youngest guide (the multi lingual one). And so while I did my best yoga breathing, this kid full on stood on his donkey, Shakira. Just, hanging out, walking in place on the makeshift saddle. I was impressed and figured that if this kid could be so at ease so could I and finally eased into riding.
Of course, as soon as soon as I was getting the hang of this method of transportation, we were at the top of the hill and leaving the park. We said good-bye to out guides and our beasts and headed off to the next adventure.
By the way, Petra is pretty warm in the winter, but I hear it kills in the summer.