We saw Petra for the first time at night.
Inky blueblack sky above, punctuated by a mesh of stars. Deep black in front, behind and around us, candles in paper bags lighting the path beside our feet but little else as we followed the Bedouin leader down the ceremonial Siq. As we entered the rock gorge and started to zigzag through the mountain the chattering of the 150 or so people walking in single file fell to a murmur.
In and in we travelled, aware of the sheer mass of rock on either side of us, but seeing nothing except the nightlights spaced along the path, shadowy figures and a glimpse of starry skies far above. The path turned abruptly right and through the slit in the rock the candlelit Treasury appeared.
It was surely the way thousands of pilgrims before us had entered this most ancient and peaceable city, and as we took our seats on the sand and the Bedouin piper started to play, it felt time had skipped backwards a couple of thousand years.
The following day we explored the Siq itself, which was a revelation after the night time journey the previous day – “It’s so big!’ the children kept saying, and so busy – with people streaming in both directions (on a ‘good’ year half a million people visit Petra) camels, and horse drawn carriages rattling up and down.
The colours of the sandstone were mesmerizing, and the water channels carved out on either side as well as the pools set at intervals along the 3km route and the ‘God slots’ where statues of deities were, or had been, set, were clear and present evidence that this had been a planned and important ‘Sacred Way’ into one of the major cities of its time, culminating in the famous and stunning-every-time glimpse of the Treasury through the slit in the rock.
There was a different atmosphere this time as we entered the courtyard and stood to take in the complete faced glimpse the night before. The reverence was still there, the carved facade is so amazing that it catches you somewhere in the bottom of your throat every time, but this time it was join and mixed with commerce as the sandy courtyard was now filled traders and camels, visitors and refreshments, again probably as it would have been thousands of years ago.
Another day, another echo of the past, although it is unlikely that the gaggles of Japanese tourists complete with fluorescent yellow hats would have been quite so evident in Nabataean times…
The Treasury is actually no such thing – it is a tomb façade carved for King Aretas III (c 100 BC) – but the Bedouins who lived in Petra for centuries between its demise in the 6th century and it’s new role as one of the World’s best loved antiquities at the end of the 20th century, believed that an Egyptian Pharaoh hid his treasure here in the large urn in the centre of the room, and it’s pockmarked by the bullets they shot at it to try and crack it open!
This lies half a mile down towards the city centre from the Treasury. In its heyday it was a proper working amphitheatre, complete with orchestra section, three entrances for the actors (still partly visible) on to the stage, and a slot through which the curtain could be raised. After the Romans arrived in AD 106 they enlarged it, making more upper seating tiers, so eventually it could accommodate 8500 people, about 30% of Petra’s total population.
On one of the days we were there the tiers were visited by a herd of lively goats, led by the inquisitive kids, a mix of colours from black to fawn, followed by their mothers, bleating as if in chastisement, and finally their Bedouin boy, his donkey ‘parked’ in the dry stream bed below.
Most people don’t venture beyond this point, which is shame as they’ve barely scratched the surface of Petra, which covers 38sq miles (nearly 100 sq km) and was home to nearly 30,000 people at its height. The site is crammed with the glorious remains of their temples, colonnaded shopping streets, baths, archways and tomb facades, all carved or constructed from the soft local sandstone with its pink and yellow stripy rock, which glows in the sunlight and which, together with the amazing carvings of animals, birds, gods, and mythological beings, give the city a heightened, almost supernatural feel.
The Monastery up on the mountain above Petra is a case in point – a huge and spectacular monument that was constructed in the 3rd century BC as a tomb and subsequently used in sacred ceremonies. It’s tucked away near the head of a mountainous peak above the Petra valley, a good 40 minute walk up very steep slopes from the Museum – donkeys are available – that is best done in the afternoon when there is some shade on the path.
Petra was a cultured and international city, as is evident from the Nabataean style, which is very trans-Mediterranean, including identifiable Greek, Roman, and Egyptian architecture and motifs amongst others, such as Assyrian. That it was a cultured international city is in no doubt: Petra was renowned in the 1st centuries BC and AD for it’s advanced legal and justice system, humane monarchy and technological and commercial skill.
If you have time in your itinerary, a visit to Siq al-Bayda, also known as Little Petra, is a must. It lies 8km or so north east of Petra central and was the main Nabataean ‘camel motel’ – well, if you live in a city carved out of the heart of the mountain and you survive on trade, with thousands and thousands of camels stopping and staying every year, where to put them becomes an issue, not to mention entertaining, accommodating and feeding the traders themselves as their goods are bought and sold. The Nabataeans solved it perfectly by carving a mini Petra in a valley (‘The Cold Valley’) that opens on to wide camel-friendly grasslands, and connecting it to the heart of the city via a path across the high mountains.
Here more than anywhere I could feel the life force of this trading city, as we explored the numerous dining halls and rooms, decorated with faded but still vivid frescos, and visualised the hungry merchants and travelers lounging on the couches, gossiping about their journey and shaking hands on deals.
• Do allow at least two days and get off the main beaten track if you can. Early morning and late afternoon will help you avoid the worse of the crowds.
• Contact Petra Moon in Wadi Musa (00962 03 215 6665 firstname.lastname@example.org) for the best advice of hotels, what’s on and to book guides or excursions – we cooked an authentic Jordanian meal with Petra Kitchen (highly recommended) and had our hands henna’d at a local family’s home. The owner, Wendy Botham, is from Texas. She said of Wadi Musa, “It reminded me of home!”
• Try visiting Petra at night – www.pntours.com
• Do visit Little Petra – it’s usually practically deserted and lets you imagine how the city would have really worked. Take a picnic and dine in one the Nabataean dining halls!
• Wear flat shoes, take a hat, sunblock and a bottle of water, and pace yourself – hiring a donkey up to the Monastery is a good idea, it’s a long way to the top!
• Don’t say yes to the hawkers at the entrance of the Siq or at the Treasury – the stalls further in have a really good mix of jewellery and souvenirs at a much more reasonable price – visit Firouz’s stall in front of the Silk Tomb for a really nice selection, she speaks excellent English and, like us, you might get invited to have cup of mint tea with her and her young daughters. Priceless.
• For the best ‘sand pictures’ – you’ll see the glass jars of coloured sand pictures sold everywhere in Jordan – made from authentic Petra ground rock, then Ali Hamadeen at the Petra Magic Bazaar in Wadi Musa (00962 777 949160 email@example.com) is your man. He is a true craftsman and also gives demonstrations showing you how it is done.