A few days ago, a friend who’s planning a trip to Jordan soon, asked me: Petra, is it truly worth it or it’s more like photoshop?
Years ago I saw for the first time, in some newspaper, an image of the Treasury, the most iconic facade in Petra, with its columns carved into the high cliff. I thought seeing this place is a dream too big for me. Expensive, far away, arab country, not safe and difficult to get to… But I never thought it might be photoshop. Instead I instinctively hoped I could get there one day. Maybe…
Five months ago, one morning in June. I was probably the most excited tourist at the Petra Visitor Centre, the starting point for the visits to the lost city. From our hotel restaurant, in that early morning, I could see the panoramic top view of the sandstone canyon which has been hiding the city of Petra for more than 2000 years. Rounded cliffs of different heights, all gathered together, as far as you can see. No clue of what’s inside.
We followed a dusty large path in a valley, among other groups of tourists, carriages and horses carrying those who didn’t wanna walk. I wanted to step on every centimetre. My brand new walking sandals, bought especially for my first journey in the Middle East, were made for this trip. We started seeing cave tombs carved into the wall stones, perfectly round shaped, what was left of once imposing statues of gods and two huge columns marking the majestic entrance of the city. We followed the path guiding us deeper and deeper inside the canyon. This 1,2 km long gorge is called the Siq.
Its walls of sandstone, high and straight, looked as if they were all polished with sandpaper. A true nature masterpiece, shaped by the floods that sometimes, in spring or winter, are covering this place. In the old times as well as in the present ones, the water continues to take the lives of those accidently caught inside the canyon in a bad time. People are describing these events as torrents of water coming suddenly and silently from the top, pouring down like rivers, out of nowhere, giving no chance to anything that’s breathing down. Besides these, are the earthquakes. In 693 A.D. Petra was hit by a devastating earthquake that destroyed most of its amazing water management system and deep canals built to control the floods, left the city in ruin, forcing large numbers of its inhabitants to flee. And so the city was forgotten for more than 1000 years, until 1812.
The more we walk inside, the more stories I heard about the Nabataeans, the ancient Arab tribe that founded this wonder rock-cut city, once a flourishing caravan centre for the scents of Arabia, the silks of China and the spices of India, at the very crossroads of Arabia, Egypt and Phoenicia. Their commercial skills, knowledge and beliefs, together with the courage they stand up against the brave Greeks and the conqueror Roman Empire are now amazing stories to listen or read about. This enigmatic city, half built, half carved into the mountains, among passages and gorges, continues to amaze the modern world. Not only they were fighting the drought to survive, but recent discoveries brought to light proofs of existing gardens, crops and even a large swimming pull. All these 2000 years ago, in the middle of the desert. Our imagination can’t even reconstruct now the greatness that this place once had.
The deeper we went inside the canyon, the narrow the path was becoming. Looking far up, all what was left to see of the sky was a tight blue line. The sunlight has now found its way down to us. It was midday. Two bedouins were resting in the shade, on a few rocks, listening to a Rihanna song played on a phone. Dressed in jeans and t-shirts, with their head covered with turbans and smokey eyes from kohl makeup, a technique they still use to protect the eyes from the sun light.
As sun rays were now coming down the sandstone walls, the entire place was transforming, changing its color. The light brown walls from before were now turning reddish, with the curved lines in different colors becoming more visible. The reason for the other name of Petra, The Rose City, was now revealing.
It was spectacular. As most of the tourists were already ahead, also my group, I was lucky to catch a few moments when I was all alone, among the walls of the canyon. And it was almost silence. And like that, was perfect.
This natural beauty was only preparing me for the best to come. I entered an area of the path so narrow that the sunlight couldn’t get to. In front it appeared unexpectedly the shape of the iconic image I once saw in a newspaper. Half of the immense facade of the Treasury, while the rest of it was still hidden behind the corner. In a few other steps the narrow path of the canyon ended into an open large space, surrounded by rocks and flooded by sunlight. In the middle, the Treasury was sitting like a king. Was bigger than I expected. The facade with huge columns is impressive, in the middle of what was once the centre of Petra.
Bedouins with dark eyes and colored turbans, riding camels covered with colorful rugs, chariots pulled by beautiful horses, donkeys, marchands selling souvenirs or bedouins style jouleries, tourists posing for photos that will make their friends back home so jealous, others climbing a cliff for an even better photo. I couldn’t decide in which direction to look first. It was another world and with an effort of imagination, if I could exclude the tourists and keep only Petra and the bedouins and camels, I wasn’t in 2018 but hundreds years in the past. This was the best feeling that Petra gave me: of time traveling.
My new Aussie friend and a guy from the group, Australian too, we were on a mission called the Monastery. We turned left, leaving the Treasury behind and we continue straight, following the way in an open valley. This must have once been like a main boulevard. The high straight cliffs around were housing round shaped caves with 2-3 rooms inside, that served as houses for the rich people of Petra, in front was the Amphitheatre, with all 15000 seats carved into stone, a little further the columns of the ancient temple, with pink oleander growing next to. We were asked many times if we want a ride by bedouins with donkeys or camels, but a polite: no thank you very much, convinced even the most insisting ones. We were advised by our guide not to make promises in vain. If you want a ride, take the ride, if not, say it as you too believe it. The bedouins are making a living out of this, they might seem pushy to the more sensitive tourists, but we had no problem.
I couldn’t resist not petting a camel in a group of 5, resting in the shade. I asked someone there for directions. We were on the right way and soon we reached the first steps. They were “only” 800 more. And so it started. It was so hot and dry now, no shade. I had my new red and white keffiyeh tied on my head, by our guide, Wael, in a very Jordanian style. It didn’t seem impossible to replicate, but I would need a few tries for a pretty close result. This people definitely know best how to deal with extreme heat and wearing it felt so good and so local.
On our way we met a few merchants with stalls improvised among the rocks, in tents, with colorful rugs on the ground, selling handmade bedouin jewelry or just water. I bought a regular stone from a little girl with the most beautiful eyes.
The large steps were carved into the stone, going up as a large spiral. Rainbow steps, I called them, because of the many coloured lines in the sandstone. As we were going up following these never ending stairs, the views were fantastic, changing constantly as we could see the canyon beneath from different angles. The more I saw, the more I understood why this place is one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, but also a nature work of art.
I felt my heart beating like crazy and the sweat running down my face. The people we met, total strangers, were encouraging us now with: you’re close, almost there, totally worth it. Probably we looked like in need of that. We passed by an improvised bar selling cold lemonade, where our guy abandoned us for a cold drink. All I needed was to finally see the Monastery. A few steps more ended in an open plateau and in the right, there it was! Even bigger than the Treasury, or at least it seemed so then, the beautiful Monastery, with huge columns carved into the mountain that make your eyes reach the sky when you try to follow their structure from bottom all the way up to the top, is just astonishing. Now I believed those saying you won’t see Petra unless you see the Monastery and you climb the 800 stairs to get there. Only a few people were around.
As if 800 steps were not enough, we followed Wael advise and climbed the rock in front of the Monastery. It was one of the best 360 views I was ever blessed to see. The canyon, the Monastery, the deep valleys, the mountains with sharp cliffs, covered in green, contrasting the rose shade of the canyon.
Petra, who’s name comes from the word stone in Greek, truly let me “stoned”.
The lost city, the found city, the rose city, for me the dream city, Petra is now one of my favourite beautiful places. A historic treasure for us all, this place it’s indescribable. I felt like I haven’t seen anything before coming here. It is not so expensive as I once thought, not that far, not at all difficult to get to, people are amazing and I got closer to a culture that is beyond fascination. In Petra, time traveling is possible.
next: My first trip in the desert – Wadi rum