Friday, November 6, 2015


Just the name Petra alone evokes magic, like Xanadu, Shangri-La, or Timbuktu. It's the boutonniere of the Middle East, a shimmering, illusory place, carved out of salmon-colored mountains. 
                                                                      ~Bruce Feiler, Walking the Bible

It's hard to talk about Petra, Jordan's most visited tourist attraction, without indulging in an over-abundance of adjectives and figurative language. It is, quite simply, indescribable, but it is so compelling that we visitors all try to convey our awe anyway.

It starts out like most tourist spots in the area, with the customary gauntlet of tourist shops, but even here the mysterious calm of the place permeates, and no shopkeepers jump out of the recesses to hawk their wares.
It's too bad that our time was so limited. I would have enjoyed a little shopping without someone in my face the whole time.
Our hike into the canyon began with interesting but not unusual scenery that included a shepherd and his grazing sheep:
We could see gaping maws carved into the rock, orifices evoking silent screams, but then we noticed that some of them were rimmed by intricate carving, as the one in the center of the photo below:
Petra was created and inhabited by the Nabateans, a wandering Arabic tribe, beginning as early as the 5th century BC. They became the ancient equivalent of our modern-day millionaires by controlling the transport of frankincense and myrrh (yep, same stuff the wisemen had--dried up sap used in perfumes and incense) from Southern Arabia through "their" desert to Gaza via what is now called the Incense Road. Some scholars say that in the 1st century, the Nabateans were the richest race on earth. It's no wonder that Petra, their capital city, is so ostentatious.

In Walking the Bible, Feiler describes the transition the Nabateans made from nomads to landowners:

First the tribe of shepherds became traders, then they began to see how much money they could make trading, then they began to travel for months at a time across the desert, then they realized the need to protect their trade routes, then they decided they needed a central power to organize their riches. "Sure enough, in a few years the Nabateans had a king," [Feiler's guide Avner] said, "and suddenly a society that was built around equal tribes, with people helping one another, now became a stratified society, with nobles, merchants, administrators, and so on. It became like an urban society. That is the same change that the Israelites went through when they came to the Holy Land."

The first structure we came upon, if you can call it a structure because it is not built but rather carved into the rocky hillside, was the 1st century Obelisk Tomb and Bab el-Siq Triclinium:
The Obelisk Tomb on the upper level consists of four elongated pyramids and a cavern where five bodies were once placed for burial. (They are gone now.) What makes the structure especially interesting is the Triclinium, or dining room, on the lower level. Annual celebrations to remember the dead were held in the large, bench-lined room, a custom borrowed from the Romans.  This structure dates to 25-70 AD, or about the time of the crucifixion of Christ.

Rather quickly we began to realize we were in for a long walk. The siq, a gorge that leads into Petra, would be a hot, tiring walk in July or August. Luckily we were visiting on an overcast day in March, and the temperature was quite pleasant.

There were lots of options for rides, including horse-drawn carriages, horses, donkeys, and camels, but we wanted to savor the scenery, and so we walked.

Just past the Obelisk Tomb is "The Tunnel," a 96-yard-long passageway built to divert water during flash floods:
The siq is a natural sandstone gorge that twists and turns for about a mile until it reaches the Treasury, one of the iconic structures at Petra. In some places the rock walls encasing the siq are as high as 600 feet, the equivalent of a 50- or 60-story building.
We made our way down the path between the vertical cliffs and past menacing guards in Nabatean garb:
There were places where the usually severe vertical rock faces looked like their curvy reflections in a fun house mirror:
Tear-track stripes added a melancholy emotion to the inanimate sandstone:

Speaking of tears and emotions, my poor sister went flying forearms-first down the gravel path. She did not cry or shout or scream but just let out a dainty "ouch." The combined contents of several first aid kits contributed by passers-by couldn't quite cover up the damage:
Like the rest of us, she must have not been watching her step. I can't say that I blame her, given the carvings in the tops of the cliffs that kept drawing all our eyes upward:
In some sections the walls gave way to pockets of open space and the siq was a wide boulevard. The paved road was built in the 1st century BC:
In other spots, the cliffs moved ominously together:

The view from the siq looked a little familiar. Perhaps Petra is a distant cousin of Utah's Canyonlands?
Miniature temple-like carvings floated ethereally in the rock above our heads:
So many of my photos are taken portrait-style in an attempt to capture the heights of these sky-scraping walls:
Landscape shots are reserved for ground shots, like this one of the road crew, moving rock from one place to another:
In places, the rock seemed to pulse with some inner fire:
Suddenly, through a final fissure, we could see a two story classical mansion:
Feiler writes:

By far the most magical spot in the Siq is . . . a dramatic split in the gorge, like a bolt of lightning through the rock. In between the cliffs, the red face of the Treasury appears, like the eager grin of civilization peering through a crack in the desert. The effect is sort of like Jack Nicholson leering through the splintered door in The Shining. Instead of fear, though, the reaction one gets is one of awe, tinged with apprehension. Is this civilization triumphing over the desert, or is it the other way around?

Coming upon the Treasury is a gasp-worthy moment. It is 80 feet wide and 127 feet tall, twice the height of Mount Rushmore:
Corinthian columns, statues, and architectural detail adorn the exterior, but the inside is a very plain room.
Its immensity is highlighted by these Lilliputian figures:
The Nabateans did not hew these buildings from the rock as temples, but rather as tombs and vaults for their treasures, which were long gone by the time the first European, a Swiss adventurer disguised as an Arab, made his way to Petra.  
I was reminded of  the Library at Ephesus, but while that is a free-standing structure, this building is cradled by the immovable sandstone that is millions of years old.

You might recognize the siq and the Treasury from the final scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The Treasury is considered the official entrance to Petra. Camels and donkeys were waiting for passengers who thought they had already walked far enough, but who had a long trail yet ahead:

This could be a Hollywood movie facade:
We wanted to make it to the Monastery, the jewel in Petra's crown, and our time was limited, so we continued (on foot) at a steady clip down the siq:
We could see more structures ahead:

I wish I had stopped to buy one of these trinkets that look like merry-go-rounds, but there wasn't time for business deals:
Next was the Street of Facades, dating to 50 BC - 50 AD:

These tombs were being meticulously chiseled into the rock during the time of Christ.
Influences of Assyrian, Helenistic, and Roman design are evident in the design.
This sign was very creative and had me asking myself, "Why NOT shop?"
I really did want a Limon With Mints and a Lunch Box of Local Food, but in spite of the promising ambiance of the restaurant . . . 
. . . there was just not time for a leisurely snack. We were forging onward, ever onward, in our quest to reach the Monastery.

Hundreds of openings in the rock must be the doorways of tombs:
In most places, there doesn't appear to be a pattern. They are located wherever they fit into the rock:
I learned after we got home that many of these caves were inhabited by the Bedouins until 1985, and they still retain control of the place.

The amphitheater, sliced into the rock row-by-row in the 1st century AD, seats 6,000:
While those holes in the back wall look a bit like projection windows in a movie theatre or loge seats in a sports arena, like most of the openings in the mountain face, they are actually tombs. 

I just couldn't get enough of these awkward, nerdy camels and their beautiful trappings:
There is so much to love in the picture below: the happy, laughing Muslim women in their black coats and bright scarves, the orangy-pink tennis shoes on one of them, the single pink outfit, the loaded donkey in the background, and (most of all) the blissfully unaware camel in front of them all:
Later on we watched some of the women take their seats in the saddles:
A camel master awaits more tired tourists:
In other places, tiny donkeys carry what seems to be passengers as big as they are:

These are work animals, not pets:

We saw groups of Muslim women everywhere. They must have been part of a girls' school on a field trip:
Further down the road we came upon another wayside inn, this one with an incongruous WiFi station (for all those Americans who just HAVE to tweet, IG, or FB their experience) and a little book store:
My eye was caught by a billboard for a book. I took a picture so that I could remember to order it when I got home. I didn't want to haul it up the mountain, and I was afraid I would have time to stop for it on the way back:
(See my review at the end of this post.)

Petra was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 1985 and was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. Archaeologists believe that as much as 85% of Petra still lies untouched underground. The 15% that is visible is substantial. There is so much to see!
A train of facades snakes its way along the cliffs:

This wide, colonnaded street, similar to what we saw at Jerash, was built by the Romans in the 2nd century AD and ran through the city center. In its heyday, the street was lined with hundreds of columns and bordered by a row of commercial shops:

Roman pavement
We met two more funky Nabatean guards:
I wish I'd stopped to pose for a picture with them.  No time, no time.

Instead, I stopped for a photo with my favorite personal bodyguard:
We also took a photo of Geneil and Terry:
. . . and of Chris and Stan:
We started on the final ascent to the Monastery. I don't recall how long it took us, but most sites say that it is around an hour's climb from the center of Petra. The trail includes roughly 800 steps hewn into the rock:
There were plenty of places to stop for a rest--if we wanted to share the ledge with a white dog or a white donkey. (Were they real, or were they ghosts?):
. . . or a black dog:

. . . or a tabby cat:
For the elderly and infirm (certainly not us), there were rides available for hire:

These animals have to be pretty sure-footed to ascend these uneven stones:
The delicate, curly patterns on the rock reminded me of muqarnas, a honeycomb-looking design often incorporated into the arches and ceilings of mosques:
It's hard to believe anything can grow on this desert-mountain, but this ancient pine is adorned with a few tufts of greenery:
At one point we came across this tiny puddle. Where did the water come from? The Nabateans had one of the most sophisticated water systems in the world in their day. They collected and stored every drop that fell and had a complex system of clay tubes and tunnels to transport it to where it was needed.
About two-thirds of the way to the top we longed after this rest station, but NO TIME, NO TIME:
Scarves are the international souvenir these days, even on the Trail to the Petra Monastery:
 In Jordan, however, there are also men's versions, called keffiyeh, available:
We ran into several "mini-marts" on our climb, which doesn't make a lot of sense. Who wants to be carrying those purchases up and down the mountain when they can be bought in the shops by the parking lot?
The sinuous lines in the sandstone formed a pattern more beautiful than a Persian carpet. They were like strands of Rapunzel's crimped hair flowing down the mountain:

And then suddenly we were at the top and there it was, luminous, breath-taking, and mind-boggling:
Dubbed "The Monastery" because of its remote location and a few crosses scratched onto the interior walls, this was more likely a temple built to honor the Nabatean king Obodas I, who reigned during the 1st century and was later deified.
The Treasury

Compared to the Treasury (shown on the right), the facade is similar, both having a central column topped by an urn and flanked by two half-pediments on the upper level, and having an entrance topped by a triangular pediment and flanked by columns.

While the Monastery is much less ornate than the Treasury, it is oh-so-much-more imposing. The Treasury, at 127 feet tall x 80 feet wide, is no match for the Monastery at 164 feet tall x 148 feet wide. (At 10 feet per story, that makes the Monastery the equivalent of a 16-story building, much taller than anything in my city.) The center urn alone is 32 feet tall, or over three stories.
The flat plaza in front of the Monastery is not natural; it was probably created to hold large crowds that would attend ceremonies here.

The perspective of this photo makes the Monastery look much smaller than it actually is, but I wanted to use it to show that we were not fighting thousands of other tourists for a photo. 
Besides, I had to prove I was there. It already seems like a dream.

Tourism peaked at over 975,000 in 2010, but has been steadily declining since. In 2014, the number of tourists was 596,000, less than two-thirds of what it had been four years before. Like everywhere else in the Middle East, Jordan has been hit hard by the pervasive unrest in the region.

The Bedouins, who appear to have exclusive rights to all shopping here, make do. Just across from the Monastery is a nice store that sold sodas--some familiar and some not--and fresh juices. It wasn't cheap, either. One JD (Jordanian dinar) equals about $1.40, so 4JD = $5.60.
On the other hand, there is no question that their drinks were fresh, and don't forget that every one of these crates was carried up those 800+ steps on a human or animal back:

Seating was arranged to give the best view of the Monastery:
We peeked over the edge to get a dizzying view of the valley far, far below:
Most of our group had not made the long hike up to the Monastery, and we knew it was time to get started on our way back to the bus, so we took one last look at the masterpiece and started our descent.
Last weekend my husband and I saw the movie The Martian, starring Matt Damon. It was no surprise to learn that the scenic shots on Mars were filmed just south of Petra at Wadi Rum.
This looks like the Red Planet, don't you think?
On our way down we stopped to take a few pictures of the Lion Triclinium (a fancy word for dining room), which dates to 200 BC - 200 AD. Look carefully at the sides of the base of the opening and you can see the two worn out lions that flank the entry:
Caves/tombs were everywhere we looked. There are over 800 in Petra:

Some of the caves look like they are being used for storage:

Well, after we made it down those 800 stairs without tripping and landing on our faces (even Chris), we still had a ways to go, and Bob was looking longingly at the camels. We didn't need a ride, but Bob really wanted to ride a camel again.
Of course, the Camel Masters really wanted to accommodate Bob's desires, and this guy in the knit hat made Bob an offer he couldn't refuse:
He told us he would take us the LONG WAY out, past parts of Petra that no one else got to see. "Oh, goody!" I thought. "We're going out in the desert where there are no other people with a strange man leading the way and with no way to escape if a band of robbers jumps out and attacks!" (Yes, that's really the way my sad little mind works.) It was a classic Bob Adventure.

Our guide got two camels ready for us:
If I ever feel bad about my knobby knees again, all I'll have to do is conjure up this image:
Those flattened, leathery joints and two-toed hoofs look like they could belong to an ostrich.
Of we went into the quiet, lonely, isolated desert, Bob in front with a big smile on his face as he scratched my camel's head because he couldn't reach my hand to pat it and say, "There, there. We'll be fine."
Say farewell to all of the other tourists:
Who/What is lurking in those caves?
At least we stayed on the road, and our Camel Master walked briskly alongside, making clicking noises to urge our noble steeds onward:
After a bit, I have to admit that the stunning views began to grow on me, made more rich by the quiet of our solitude:
We passed an olive orchard and were surprised that anything could grow here. Apparently the Nabateans were geniuses at channeling the little rain that fell for miles around into their haven. In fact, the oasis of Petra is known as :"the Las Vegas of the Ancient World" for that reason:
I don't know what the real name of this formation is, but I call it The Place of the Screaming Skull. It set back my nerve recovery:
At its peak, Petra had a population of 20,000 to 30,000 inhabitants, and it is mind-blowing to consider the level of skill and the number of hours required to carve out structure after structure after structure:
The one in the photo above had extensive writing engraved in the rock above the opening:
After about twenty minutes, we arrived at the guard house at the non-tourist entrance to Petra:
Incredibly, there was a field of solar panels nearby that must provide much of the power for this area:
Our guide was more than happy to strike a swashbuckler pose for us before we hopped in a car with another stranger who would drive us the few miles back to the parking lot. He did a wonderful job of taking us off the beaten path, and I repent of all my misguided musings:
In Walking the Bible, Feiler's guide tells him:

If you take people, outsiders, and take them on a trip . . . you educate them--not just about the Bible, not just about God. But about tolerance. You link them with other people, and in the end, you open their minds. There's an old saying in the Middle East: With a trail, the best way to keep it alive is to walk on it, because every time you walk on it, you create it again.

I hope someday we have the chance to rewalk and recreate this incredible trail through Petra. Amazing.

In 1978 a New Zealand born nurse, Marguerite van Geldermalsen, joined a friend on an extended backpacking trip through the ancient world. On their first night in Petra, they met a friendly Bedouin souvenir-seller named Mohammad Abdallah who offered them the experience of a lifetime: a night in his home, one of Petra's lofty Nabatean caves hewn into the rock. Marguerite was enchanted by both Petra and Mohammad, and when her friend continued on to catch a plane home, Marguerite stayed and married her Bedouin (every mother's nightmare--not the Bedouin, but the quick marriage to a foreigner in a foreign land). Married to a Bedouin describes both the courtship and the crazy but true "happily ever after" part of the story.

The book covers the first seven years of their marriage spent in Mohammad's 2,000-year-old cave before their family, by then expanded by two children, was relocated to a nearby village by the Jordanian government, where their third child was born. While Marguerite's reddish-blond hair and lack of Arabic made her an obvious outsider, her joyful spirit, willingness to learn, and love for her husband, coupled with a surprisingly warm welcome from the seventy other families in the tribe, made a permanent place for her among the people. She became the resident nurse. She took cooking lessons from the other women and adopted their culture. She embraced her new life with open arms.

Mohammad died in 2002, and Marguerite left Petra. However, it is still her home and she continues to spend much of her time in there. Apparently the place where I saw the billboard for this book is her souvenir shop and had I bought the book there, I would have an autographed copy. Note to future tourists: Buy your copy of Married to a Bedouin in Petra. It's worth carrying around in your backpack for the day. 

This journal of a lifestyle forever gone is a must-read for anyone traveling to Petra.


  1. I was so focused on getting to the Monastery that I didn't really see much of Petra. The way we did it was not ideal, drive from Amman, quickly run down the gully, then back up, drive back to Amman. Now that we have seen the beauty of Wadi Rum on the big screen, we may have to go back. I can see some more camels in our future!

  2. Oh what a glorious experience! How fun to have ended it with a camel ride. Such a great day!
    That looks like a fascinating book. I'll have to get a copy.

  3. Such a great adventure, Judy! I loved seeing all the "buildings" and the carved features, and certainly reading the narrative of your adventure. This is certainly one place to long for, to want to go to. Thanks for taking me there.