Delayed Gratification at Petra

The Indiana Jones moment. I went to Jordan and did the obvious. It’s kissing the Blarney stone of Jordan and throwing the coins over your shoulder into its Trevi Fountain. Jordan’s most famous site rivals nearby Egypt’s pointy collection of stone blocks as a wonder of the world and we have pop culture in part to thank for that. An incredible archaeological site had to become the set of a Hollywood blockbuster to get noticed by more than the travel world’s version of hipsters. And now you’d be pretty hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard of, or seen pictures of, Petra.

(Click for the full Petra photo gallery on the main Mad Traveler site)

Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage site and while generally people only know that famous rock-carved façade known as the Treasury, it is a much larger archaeological site of a former city. While evidence of human presence goes back much further, the Nabataeans, originally a nomadic Arab people, settled in Petra – known to them as Reqem – in the late 4th century B.C.E. They did the carving we see today, but the names we hear now are all misleading nicknames from the people who rediscovered these structures many years later and could only guess at their original purpose. The Treasury (Al Khazneh) was not actually a treasury. But it is a national treasure for sure, and I couldn’t wait to finally lay eyes on it.

Full disclosure: I am very susceptible to disappointment when given high expectations. Ghostbusters 2 should have been the best movie ever! Meh. It was OK, I guess. The Pyramids? They were cool and all. I stood there nodding: “Yep, they look just like they do in the books. Cool. Very big. Say, who’s in the mood for ice cream?”

The entry to Petra is at the edge of the modern town to the east, and visitors begin down a long narrow cut in the sandstone (Al Siq) past what are in fact tombs. It could be a city of the dead if you never ventured beyond the Treasury which lies at the end of that passage, just beyond its narrowest point. All along the length of Al Siq are remains of an impressive water collection system that captured flash floods and stored them in cisterns to survive the long dry periods after the winter rains. It’s hard to imagine in this desert environment that this rock was cut by flowing water long ago.

Our guide Amer, arranged by Visit Jordan for me and fellow travel writer James Clark, stopped us just before we rounded the final bend and announced we were about to see the Treasury. I would have liked to have taken that first glimpse without knowing it was coming (despite, of course, knowing eventually it was coming.)

But bam, there it was. And there they were. Crowds of tourists stumbling into each other and into all photos. Hawkers by the dozens. Want to sit on a camel? Postcards? Pose with the guy in the tacky gladiator-looking costume? I tried to block all that out. I craned my neck to see the fine details of the façade high above. With the help of Amer, we noted the various nods by the Nabataeans to the various cultures that visited Petra as a crossroads on the caravan trail. Eagles near the top for the Assyrians, winged lions for Babylon, Isis from Egypt, Amazons from Greece.

But a couple of young German girls in shorty shorts stepped in front of me and handed me their camera with a request for a photo that sounded more like an order. And another one. And another. One more. They went through enough poses, leaps, and hand gestures to make even a Southeast Asian give them a strange look. James raised his camera to document it and one girl’s face peeled back to expose fangs and she raced right up to into his face to hiss Noooo! and wag her finger. Wow. The smiles came on again like a light bulb. One more photo. I cropped off a few body parts in the next few frames. As we were walking away I saw they found an uncertain Bedouin to do a better job.

It wasn’t exactly anti-climactic, but I felt a bit of relief in leaving the Treasury. The light wasn’t about to cooperate. The stone walls reverberated with voices from Babel. I stopped trying to reshape reality to fit 23 years of my imagination since seeing The Last Crusade, and we just moved on.

And as we did, we fully understood that the Treasury isn’t the end-all and be-all of Petra. As handsome as that structure is as it emerges into view incrementally as you pass through the twisted sandstone corridor of Al Siq, there is much more to see here and visitors might stay for two or even three days trying to take it all in.

Hiking trails or carved steps ascend the surrounding hills and cliffs bringing you to tombs and vistas and even connecting to long-range trails to other places such as Little Petra about 8 km away. An abundance of tombs, some nearly as ornate and bigger than the Treasury, emerge from the rock face all around. Another misnamed site, The Monastery (Ad Deir), lacks the fine details of The Treasury but swells to bigger proportions at the very top of a mountain after a 45-minute stomp up a ridiculous number of steps with several stopping points for panoramas to send home on postcards. (The Monastery also got some silver screen coverage in a Transformers installment.)

There were more facades, a theater cut into the mountainside, and more elaborate tombs carved high into the cliffs where the canyon opened up into the plain where the city of the living once thrived. Parts of Roman-period colonnades still line the remnants of a stone-paved avenue at the end of which is a ruined temple. A 5th-century Byzantine church, a nymphaeum, the monumental gate – it’s all laid out before you when you come out from the narrower passages around the Treasury.

We spent a few more hours under the beating sun, trying to see as much as we could, climbing to the Monastery and the tombs high on a cliff before heading back to meet Amer where he waited for us near the entrance.

It was nearing closing time, and as James and I shuffled through the dust back up the canyon, unable to drink water fast enough to rehydrate, chalking the excursion up as “done,” we were able to try that Treasury moment one more time.

The crowds had dispersed and only a couple camels, eternally patient, rested in the dirt. Visitors came in pairs rather than herds and spoke in low voices as if we were in a temple. The sun was too low in the west to enter the wider area in front of Petra’s centerpiece so what we got was the glow of it bouncing back off the rock high above. This brought a warmth that wasn’t there at high noon and removed the deep contrasts of that midday light.

Now I felt the “wow” moment. The rock glowed its famed rosy red and I was entranced. I fussed with the camera, as I always do, but also stopped for long moments to just take it all in. I returned to Al Siq walking backwards a bit until the Treasury was hidden, and then slowly moved forward. I was a kid squinting one eye shut to change the angle of the world. Back and forth, leaning to the side to slip the stone shutter back from that ornate façade.

I had the proper mindset now. I kept uttering “awesome” lamely under my breath. I shot the same photo over and over again as if by repetition that collection of pixels might become as large and potent as the real thing before me when I showed it to folks back home. And then I stopped in that narrow cleft in the rock wall and just stood there admiring that unique partial view.

We were out of time. Like taking leave from royalty or deity, I walked backwards from the masterpiece until it slipped once again into the folds of sandstone, and then I turned, satisfied, and started the hike back to town.

Click for the full Petra photo gallery on the main site
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Check out the cool hotel where I stayed in Petra. It was an Ottoman-period village!

Just as the Treasury is not the only reason to see Petra, Petra is by no means the only reason to visit Jordan. Those who make the day-trip run from Israel might have no idea what they are missing. Subscribe to my blog to see some of the other amazing experiences from my ten-day trip in Jordan.

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