Petra

Posted on April 29, 2008
Filed Under travel | 1 Comment

Petra

I knew it would be an interesting ride when the taxi driver handed me a large bunch of flowering basil he’d picked from the weeds growing at the side of the road. We were still 150 kilometres from Petra, it was the middle of Ramadan, I couldn’t speak Arabic, our driver couldn’t speak English and I was completely unfamiliar with local custom. Had he just insulted me? Proposed marriage? Initiated a sexual liason? Or was it meant to keep me calm as he drove the car at a 150 kmh through the pot holed, snake winding roads of the Jordanian mountains? Its impossible to know, but every time he’d pass a double B tanker on a blind curve he’d give me a friendly pat on the thigh as if to say ,”inshallah, God willing we will survive this”. Needless to say I arrived in Petra well ahead of schedule, basil still in hand, grateful the trip had been so short and that we survived.

Travelling in Jordan is unique. English is rare, tourism not widely developed and the people aren’t like the people at home. Though its certainly not as comfortable as a beach in Phuket it is rewarding in a way that the packaged tourist trail can never be. There’s a renegade element to negotiations that sees you constantly changing direction, seeing things you never thought you’d see, eating things you’d never thought you’d eat or travelling at incredibly high speeds in a cab carrying a bunch of basil. We had decided to go to Jordan on a whim and found, despite the government advisory warning, that people were friendly and welcoming.

Modern Petra has two parts, the Arabic section on the hill which consists of a few disordered streets wending their way to a concrete round-about that forms the focus for a handful of banks, stores and restaurants. Like much of the middle east there is a sense of cluttered, messy order to the town, with butcher shops in the open air and over stuffed bazaars whose products spill out onto the road. From here the main street flows down the hill through the tourist village, with the usual collection of hotels, tourist shops, travel agents and restaurants that you’d expect to see outside any tourist attraction. We were booked to stay at the “sunset motel” which is Jordan’s answer to the Holiday inn, though their lifts had no internal doors, allowing you a view of the mechanics of the building as you ascended to the carpet worn corridors above. After a decent nights sleep we had an intriguingly cross cultural breakfast, then, dressed in our best archaeological clothes, ventured to the ruins.

Getting to Petra begins with a long walk through a very narrow ravine, the wind, carved sandstone walls blushing gold in the steep shadows of the morning sun. The canyon seems to go on forever its walls getting higher as it narrows, till you can practically touch each side with your outstretched hands. After a kilometre of walking you round the final corner to find yourself face to face with “The treasury building” one of the world’s most beautiful facades, its lilac pink sandstone framed by the shadowed walls of the canyon. This is the first and one of the most spectacular of more than a thousand tombs that line the main valley of Petra.

Known to the West since the early 19th century, Petra, “a rose-red city half as old as time” is an enormous collection of sandstone and marble ruins that are the remains of the ancient capital of the Aramaic speaking semitic people, known as the Nabeateeans. Its history was long and complex following the fortunes of the era from its first habitation in the sixth century BC through to its decline under Roman rule and a final devastating earthquake in 363AD. Today local Bedouins still live amongst its caves and ruins offering camel and donkey rides to tourists as well as the inevitable trinkets, scarves and rugs.

For the western tourist it is an impressive historical site offering, mountain vistas, dust storms and a remarkable collection of buildings from amphitheatres and temples to colonnaded walks. But it is the magnificent tombs for which it has become famous. Petra seems to have been an important religious site, essentially a city for the dead in which increasingly elaborate and enormous facades were carved into the soft sandstone walls of the Petra valley to house the remains of generations of families and social groups. Over time the construction of these facades, gained in sophistication becoming follies of extravagant decoration and perfect architectural proportions that combined elements of Greek, Etruscan and Roman design. Today their soft sandstone has deteriorated under the elements, lending a delicious, dreamlike, sculptural quality to the buildings which seem to revel in their decline, the banded colours of the sandstone rippling across their surface.

After a morning wandering the length of this valley we were fortunate to find a very nice restaurant serving a buffet of Jordanian salads, soups and breads and some of the best falafels on the planet. Thankfully their interpretation of Islam was not so strict as to prohibit the serving of incredibly cold, delicious Lowenbrau lager. After such a large and satisfactory lunch a long walk was needed.

The final “must see tomb” known as the monastery, was at the top of a rather large and craggy mountain. It’s a strenuous walk up roughly hewn sandstone steps, each corner of which reveals breathtaking views down the valley and out into the Jordanian desert. The monastery is worth the climb. An enormous façade, the largest in Petra, carved from a giant sandstone cliff, its yellow and crimson colours glowing like candy in the afternoon sun. A small café offers mint tea and more trinkets and a group of Jordanian musicians play heartbreakingly beautiful music on traditional instruments. A short walk will take you to the mountains peak where you can look out over the whole of Jordan.

After a such a strenuous days walking, the trip back through the valley can be too much for some. A few members of our party elected to take up the offer of camel and donkey rides from the local Bedouins, immune to the undignified quality of their mounts. Not all of the donkeys were well behaved, some even going so far as to scare their riders with a daring attitude to heights, whilst the camels were lazy belligerent creatures all to ready to bite their handlers as continue in their role as beasts of burden. Just outside the gates of the reserve, we found a delightfully contemporary bar known as the cave, a sandstone bunker kitted out with ultra hip furniture, gorgeous old rugs and water pipes. We enjoyed a number of refreshing drinks and watched locals and tourists fraternise till the wee hours.

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One Response to “Petra”

  1. Greek » Petra on April 29th, 2008 6:25 pm

    [...] LikeItHateIt wrote an interesting post today on PetraHere’s a quick excerpt … lements of Greek, Etruscan and Roman design…. [...]

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