Petra : From dawn 'til dusk and beyond in the rose-red city.
Petra Travel Blog› entry 61 of 268 › view all entries
[09/04/09 - photos here kindly donated through the generosity of Cameron and Nicole. I thank you both. ]
"ALLAAAAAAAAAAAAH U AKBAR!!!!!"
"Who the?... wha' the?.... huh?!!"
"AAALLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH U AKBAAAR!!!!"
"Oh my word! Wha' time izzit? zzz..."
"Man, that suckszzzz....."
The Orient Gate hotel is situated - I now know - right next to what has to be the loooouuudest mosque in Wadi Musa, if not the world. I nearly jump 3 feet outta my bedsheets as the call to prayer hammers into my cerebellum at ten thousand dawn-shattering decibels.
An hour or so more sleep snatched and its time for breakfast (the who can down as many coffees in 5 minutes contest) and off to the gates of Petra after we convince the hotel owner that "yes you really did offer us free transfer to Petra when we booked last night!".
For the modern day invador - the tourist - Petra is a deathly still, immensely poignant and beautiful architectural tableau that pays homage, through the passage of time to acts of hard human endeavour; creative genius; the potential for something once strong and grand to appear at once timeless but fragile, softened and vulnerable; erradicable in the face of Nature's eternal wearing march. I'm not well enough travelled in the world yet to make such a statement but I'd bet my bottom dollar that Petra does possess one of the most spectacularly dramatic 'opening sequences' of any such site (UNESCO tagged or otherwise) in the world. Starting in the wide open, small rock carvings, stone relief tomb markers and a hint of what's to come in a 4 columned temple-tomb facade up on the hill face introduce themselves.
Still few other people to disturb us we continue to stroll and pose our way along this great gorge. Large cobbled sections of the ancient Roman roadway lying 9 feet above the original Nabatean pass. Every now and then the clatter of a horse and trap can be heard echoing down the gorge, closer and closer and then rattling past you.
It really is a beautiful thing. Carved cleanly out of the sandstone cliff wall. Its pillars and other finely carved architectural features still remarkably crisp and intact despite the ravages of time evident in ways here and much more noticably at other sites around Petra. Mostly the Treasury seems to have been protected from the worst excesses of wind and rain errosion but eerily the two large bas-relief carvings of well-muscled humans on horseback have been worn well away, reduced and half anhilated by Time and Nature. Again I stand and think this testamont to the fact that the twin powers of Time and Nature will always remove us first and with great ease, and then the remainders of our acts and monuments later. But all will pass in time.
We've got here just in the nick of time today as people now start to flood out of the arterial gorge entrance. The tourist deluge has begun. Bedouin souvenir hawkers and donkey and camel owners start to jostle and vie for your attention and business. The silence, the magic (the clear camera shots) start to slip but there is too much of awe and wonder to behold here I think even for the worst excesses of Tourist Tsunami to ruin the moment. The three of us move on. There is so much to see in Petra and depending on who you ask or read you will get varied opinions of how long; how many days you need here to "really see or do Petra", the emphasis often being on a bare minimum of 2 days, but probably 3. And in reality only you will know how long you want to walk, to climb and clamber, to observe, to breathe as much of its magnificence in as you can. Whilst I will never ever be an advocate for 'speed tourism', in the relating of this particular day for you I would want you to be assured though that it is possible to take your time, see the overwhelming majority of Petra's treasures at your own pace, climb to its high points, clamber in its craggy stairways and cave-homes and see many varied scenes of breathtaking natural light and beauty in a relaxed manner all in one day if you have to - provided you get there good and early and make sure you don't miss the best moments (dawn, sunset & nightfall) by arriving too lazily late or scurrying out too early with all the tired, impatient tidal ebb of organised tourism. It is also easy to spend almost all of your day far away from the madding crowd. You would be amazed at how unadventurous about 99% of the daily visitors here are. Petra is your playground if you have the spirit (and the calf muscles) for the job.
There is the Roman Theatre hewn into the mountain side, the innumerable little cave-carved homes that proliferate the slopes (many sadly spoilt by being dumping zones or toilets for itinerant bedouin), other vast temples and rooms, the Street of Facades (lots of smaller temple entrance ways carved out of the rock, but only the frontices for reasons that are beyond me) the street of colonnades, the Petra Museum (small, and didn't do this), the artisan (souvenir trinket) shops, the ramains of larger complexes and grand temples. Beyond the eastern gorge the rock here as you move further into the Petra valley seems to blush a deeper and deeper red. Often likened to shades of burnished roses, I feel the tones too reminiscent of rust or blood drying, darkening in the sun. Beautiful, marbled striations of colour and rock forms. Eerie effects of Time and Nature abound all around. Many of the tomb facades once as sharp and clear no doubt as The Treasury have been softened; blunted to near non-recognisibility by wind and water errosion. All lines have shallowed and begun to smooth back into the rock face. The mountain is reclaiming man. Sometimes barely perceptible after the several millennia that have passed since first they were hewn. Beautiful. Man may leave his mark on Mother Nature for a time. Scar her surfaces and effect a certain union (never dominance) for a brief fleeting moment in time, but only the rockbed from whence our forms were once conjoured and now return as if into quicksand will stand for anything approximating 'forever'.
Kylie, Thu and I are privileged to some very lucky, special moments in our time in Petra. As we amble around the echoey interior of one of the larger temples of the valley basin beautiful, melodious music suddenly swirls all around us. Three young Phillipino girls have struck up the most beautiful series of Christian verse, arias and/ or hymns. The acoustics in here are incredible and their voices too! They sing in bursts for 5 - 10 miuntes or so for no other reason than to amuse themselves, their patron (a Phillipino ex-pat working for the Vatican Library and to help socially disadvantaged Phillipino domestic 'slaves' in Jordan) and their tiny, impromptu audience. The music breathes life into this acnient, silent rock monument and into our day in ways I cannot describe.
We now try to head around the back of the valley and eventually alight upon the start of a large staircase hewn into the mountainside that over the course of much climbing, clambering and hiking in the next hour or so will get us to a wonderful, perfect vantage point back down from on high to The Treasury below us. Along the way I am cursed by a stern Bedouin lady (Thu translates "sin be upon you!") for declining to accept a tea from her 3 times successively. It sounds dramatic but really she's just pissed that I won't be buying any of her trinkets today. She has the most incredible dark, bedouin eyes though. The true stuff of the orientalist fantasies of Western men so I shuffle off before she hypnotizes me into buying a carved alabaster donkey or something. When we finally reach the stunning viewpoint opposite and above the Treasury a chilled out, grissled and desert-worn Bedouin guide who introduces himself as Promise sits listening to music, smoking and offers us some sweet Bedouin chai. He's a donkey owner (often referred to as "taxis" by their owners in Petra) on his day off. A very informative man. He has two donkeys named Michael Jackson and Monica Lewinsky. There ya go. I bet the infamous dress-stashing one never thought that performing extra administrative duties for Old Billy Boy would lead to a shonky old donkey in an UNESCO World Heritage Site being named after her. The acts some people will commit for such posterity! ;D Promise shows us dog-eared passport photos of his family members and a former Italian girlfriend.
The other highlight of Petra is the Abu Deir Monestary. A far larger near replica of the Treasury it sits facing west far up in the mountain reaches of Petra. A grand monument staring out across the expanse of the Wadi Arabia desertscape. It's quite a haul up many, many hundreds of stone steps to get there but don't believe the endless 'taxi' drivers who try to convince you it's 2 or 3 hours walk without their assistance. Frankly having been up there and back I find the concept of trekking up there on a rickety old Lewinski far more terrifying than sticking to my feet... although slipping in the constant stream of their green, overly aromatic faeces is a constant threat to ones foothold on the way up.
Recommendation : whatever time of year you visit Petra make sure you've done your research and have a good idea of when sunset occurs. Leave at least 45 mins for your ascent to the monestary and aim to be there at least half and hour before sundown. Almost nobody does it (I know not why?) but you are gonna want to be up there at sundown for the perfect finale to the Petra Symphony of rock, desert, colour and light! Advice : take a torch, headlamp or other lightsource just to be safe for the descent back down at twilight. The monestary is huge and at this time of day (only 16.00 ish) bathed in perfect evening gold. The sandstone colours are set off so perfectly by the ultra-marine, cloudless blue sky that again I want to cry for having lost my camera, but the movie camera within my soul continues to capture it all. We are pleasantly surprised to be reunited at this moment with Cameron and Nicole from the Nuweiba ferry trip who've trudged up just behind us. We all take it in, walk to the rocky pinacle outcrops that form viewing points over the Wadi Arabia desert. The sun is descending. We snack, snap away and talk. The few Bedouin 'store' owners up here are packing up for the day and dispersing. Not wanting to head down in the dark Cam and Nic depart ahead of us. Kylie, Thu and I sit and watch as the sun turns vermilion red and the speed of its descent into the sand sea picks up. We are fortunate once again to have an extra measure of magic sewn into the perfect tapestry of our day here. A young bedouin man on the next peak along has taken up on his small traditional 'shebaba' pipe and as the sun sets he blows beautiful, ethereal, high-tone bedouin music into the evening desert winds. The notes he forms echo off and around the mountain walls before disappearing over the Wadi Arabia. Perfect.
The final sliver of red disappears beneath the desert horizon. The great 'Stand By' button of the world switched off for another day, Thu, Kylie and I - totally alone - commence our descent as the stars and the fattening, nearly now full moon begin to bloom above our heads. Careful going on the way back down, Thu & I stumbling occasionally, Kylie clearly the sturdier and steadier on her feet. The light of her mobile phone is called for for safety and assistance for the final leg of the descent. Walking back through the Petra valley, night now fallen in totality, but it is still quite light owing to the size of the moon right now. The cobbled Street of Collonades reflects silvery beneath us like a moon-bathed Yellow Brick Road. A stray bedouin dog follows us most of the ways. Camels hunker down, asleep in the sand and rocks. The quiet mutterings of bedouin residents unseen are heard from further afield. Back past the Roman Theatre, the Street of Facades and we catch up with two policeman who are doing a final nonchelant 'walk out' check. There to assist any stragglers or strays lost in Petra after dark. We keep amiable company all the way to the gate. The Treasury beautiful again in a different tone by moonlight and the gorge, now our exit path, astonishingly pretty and a little spooky by starlight. Moments of deep shadow and then lazer-beams of moonlight cutting onto the floor from above where you can stare up and momentarily glimpse her, bright up above.
At the exit we are drawn to the sound of friendly chatter from within a small guard building. Peaking through the window, lo and behold it's only Nic and Cameron again! Laughing and smiling and sharing cups of bedouin chai with an incredibly amiable old Petra soul Haroun. It seems the little Nuweiba Ferry Gang are well-fated to remain, gravitating back towards one another, making firm friends along the way during our time in Jordan. We join them and are treated to what is - for me - bar none, the most beautiful cup of tea/ chai in my whole life. not a great fan of sweet, hot teas and coffees this is something else! Divine. Liquid bliss and perfectly complemented by the warmth and humour of Haroun and his infinite anecdotes of happiness and generosity over his years on watch here. We all fall in love with Haroun. The tales just keep on coming. The cheeky smiles and life affirming sentinments he expresses story after story. Haroun and the Sea of Stories.* He is the a fine example of several fabulous, friendly people that make Jordan such an ejoyable country to be in. Whilst I feel rather cruel in saying it, its a level of friendliness, genuine kindness and hospitality', joy in the easy company of guests and ones fellow man that pervades this country but in my experience was mostly entirely absent from my innumerable interactions with the Egyptian populace. Such a change. Such a relief!
A fine meal, my first good one in a while, with all the gang at the Red Cave Reastaurant and then back to The Orient Gate one and all for we wish to be up even earlier for Petra tomorrow. Today has been a near perfect day in my life. Beauty and good company beyond deserve.
* title of a Rushdie novel.