Petra: Rock of Ages
Review by Fiona Duncan, published 14th June 2009.
We stand on the brink. My expectations of a long-anticipated journey to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (to give the country its proper name) are about to be dramatically fulfilled, or equally dramatically disappointed.
Petra is, of course, the centrepiece and main focus of our trip, and I feel genuine nerves at the prospect of seeing it: the result of childhood tales that have lingered in my memory.
It was a doughty great aunt who kindled my dreams of the "rose red city, half as old as time". An intrepid solo traveller, she was forever hitching rides on tramp steamers and accompanying huskies across the frozen tundra, but it was for Petra that she reserved the accolade of the most astonishing, most exhilarating and most magical sight she had ever seen.
And so, here I am at last, in her footsteps. Her visit in the early Fifties was by mule, with Bedouin guides and few other tourists. As we will discover tomorrow, the Bedouin are still here in force with their gaily bridled Arab horses, their camels and donkeys, but for now, it seems, there are only visitors.
Some 500 of us are herded together outside the visitor centre for "Petra by Night" during which, we are told, we will walk in silence and single file along the specially candlelit Siq, the narrow, near mile-long hidden gorge that makes a deep slash in Petra's protective ring of sandstone mountains and creates surely the most inspired entrance to any city, past or present, on earth.
If the route into Petra is far more extraordinary than even my stoked-up imagination had allowed, I remain tight with tension at what lies beyond. Will it live up to expectations?
It will but, if truth be told, not tonight. Emerging from the Siq in ones and twos, we are seated in the gathering dark on hastily laid carpets in front of the magnificent Treasury, the best preserved of Petra's 1,000 or so ancient, classically designed tombs, and we watch dolefully as the carefully orchestrated event loses its way. Chilly and somewhat tired, we shift uncomfortably on the stony ground, forced to listen to the endless wailing of an unseen Bedouin flute and the discordant strains of a one-stringed violin. When a rambling, inaudible lecture on Bedouin music begins, we dive for the safety of the Siq and make for our hotel. We are not alone.
Next morning, we begin our proper exploration of Petra, and this time we are moved and astonished in equal measure. Again we walk the cool and shadowy Siq, but now a sudden burst of sunlight ahead heralds its end and there in front of us, almost on top of us, is the colossal, overwhelming façade of the Treasury, glowing red in the light, as if ablaze.
Petra, the mysterious city of the Nabataeans, came to prominence as a powerful trading post on the Silk Route, reaching its zenith around the first century AD before disappearing into the mists of legend after the fall of the Roman Empire. Known only to local Bedouin, it was rediscovered by Swiss traveller Johann Burckhardt in 1812.
Hearing talk of a lost city, young Burckhardt disguised himself as an Arab and persuaded guides to take him there on the pretext of making a sacrifice at the tomb of Aaron. The white tomb, visible from miles around, sits on top of Jabal Haroun (Mount Aaron), a reminder that it was in this region not only that Aaron died, but that his brother, Moses, was said to have struck a rock with his staff to extract water. Apart from its natural defences, it was the presence of several springs that had initially persuaded the nomadic Nabataeans to settle at Petra.
Water is everything in Jordan. In the Siq, visitors marvel at the Nabataean's hydro-engineering, especially the water supply channels that follow every twist and curve of the gorge. They are entranced, too, by the multicoloured mineralised rock face, patterned by time to resemble marbled paper, and by monuments, inscriptions and altars to the gods that line the way.
It takes at least two days and a stout pair of walking shoes to discover Petra, recently voted one of the seven new wonders of the world, and a knowledgeable guide is invaluable. The sheer scale of the site makes the most lasting impact. It spreads over seven square miles, and its sand and limestone geology upstages even the blurred, wind-eroded grandeur of the rock hewn, classical tomb and temple façades.
The 2,000-year-old city of traders and kings easily absorbs up to 6,000 visitors a day, and the Bedouin extended family who used to live in the caves and tombs – and now live in a purpose built village nearby – add a carnival atmosphere, with camel and donkey rides for those too tired to climb to the High Place of Sacrifice or the Monastery of El-Deir. Petra today is a far cry from the place, inhabited only by Bedouin and unknown to the outside world, that Burckhardt found and David Roberts captured in a celebrated series of romantic watercolours in 1839, but despite the tourists and the trinkets its effect is still powerful.
If "Petra by Night" was a good idea poorly executed, our evening in the Petra Kitchen, part café, part (excellent) gift shop, part cookery school, is a good idea brilliantly executed.
By now in high spirits, our party of four helped to cook and then eat a middle eastern feast, including Jordanian national dish, maqlouba.
We began our first visit to Jordan in the soothing surroundings of the Amman branch of Four Seasons Hotels, which surely have the most deliberately intuitive service of all the top end hotel chains. Our three nights in Petra (and enchanting Little Petra, a miniature version of the larger city, down to its own mini Siq) are spent in the Mövenpick, the most conveniently located of the hotels in Wadi Musa, the town that has grown up on the edge of the site.
En route to Petra, accompanied – greatest luxury of all – by our own guide, Rami, and driver, Khaled, for the entire six days, we view, as Moses had done, the promised land beyond the River Jordan from the top of Mount Nebo, wandered among the grim living quarters at Karak crusader castle, and trod carefully between the remains of the great mosaic map in the Greek Orthodox church in Madaba.
Petra, the four of us agree, is unforgettable, but it is to Wadi Rum that we are all determined to return, next time on camels to camp under the stars and see for ourselves the flaming sunsets lighting up the rocky outcrops rising from the desert floor.
Again, our expectations, thanks to Lawrence of Arabia, were heightened. And again, driving from Petra to the desert valley, they are easily exceeded. The place where T E Lawrence lived and rallied the Bedouin for the Arab Revolt is one of searing, multicoloured beauty.
Even Amman, written off as an uninteresting city, fails to disappoint. Led by Rami, sensitive and intelligent, we detect a safe, calm capital. As to the sights, they extend no further than a fine Roman amphitheatre, a smattering of archaeology and folklore museums, and King Hussein's proudly presented collection of cars. Not forgetting the splendid sight, from our bedroom windows, of a herd of 100 sheep being guided by a Bedouin shepherd straight across the traffic-clogged roundabout below.
"Impossible," declares Rami, when we tell him, "it's illegal to graze sheep inside the city." But just as some of Petra's Bedouin Badul family told us that they had returned, against the rules, to live in its caves, so one suspects that a city roundabout is not going to stop a Bedouin farmer from reaching a patch of fresh grass.
Two thirds of Jordan is desert but most inhabitants live in the cities. Of those who remain in the desert, one per cent – around 60,000 – still live in tents.
In a fitting end to our visit, we are invited to dine with the Kiswanis, an ordinary Jordanian couple with three immaculately behaved children, in their edge-of-city apartment. Arranged as part of the tour, those few hours spent eating maqlouba and drinking cardamom-scented Bedouin coffee tell us more about life in Jordan than we could have guessed possible in such a short time – not just about coping with water shortages, but about the Muslim faith and about the open-hearted, tolerant attitudes of a people who seem notably at ease in a country that is, if expensive, calm, ordered and welcoming.
Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2203; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers a Jordan itinerary, including economy flights with BMI, b & b for three nights in the Four Seasons Amman and three nights in Mövenpick Petra, an English-speaking guide with car and driver, and all excursions, from £2,239 per person, based on two people sharing.
For further information on Jordan visit www.visitjordan.com.