I had missed Petra on my last visit to Jordan twelve years ago so this visit was planned with Petra in mind. Wadi Rum and Aqaba were afterthoughts. Petra (Al Bathra in Arabic) is among the New Seven Wonders of the World. Tourists from all over the world flock to see the ancient Rose-Red city of the Nabataens.
A few days before our arrival there had been flash floods in Jordan and we’d heard that tourists had to be hurriedly evacuated from Petra and Wadi Rum. It was still raining in Amman on the day of our arrival but for some strange reason we were unconcerned. Coming from a rain-drenched tropical paradise that was just recovering from the century’s worst flood in August this year, I felt the rain-gods wouldn’t do me a double injustice. I was right. Once we were on our way to Petra the skies cleared and all was beautiful.
We took the King’s Highway which is the scenic route. Our first stop was at the Kerak Castle, which turned out to be an interesting place. We drove on to the Dana Reserve area where we witnessed spectacular views of the mountains. Our cabbie told us it’s Jordan’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon. To tell the truth there’s some similarity in appearance but the scale and uniqueness of the Grand Canyon have no parallel anywhere in the world.
We went on to the Showbak Castle, which is an unimpressive ruin and frankly I thought it was waste of time. Five miles north of Petra is Al Beidha or Little Petra, originally a suburb of Petra, and a commercial hub. We decided to give it the miss.
Petra (the village is called Wadi Musa) was our last stop. We stayed at the Petra Sella which wasn’t too bad but we soon realized the Movenpick Hotel is right at the site entrance, so it would have been better to stay there. It’s more expensive though.
It was evening when we landed at the hotel. Our plan was to visit the Treasury early the next morning. We decided to have dinner at a local restaurant. When I ordered mansaf, the local delicacy, the Pakistani waiter asked me, “Are you from India?” When I said ‘yes’ he told me, “You won’t like it. You better ordered something else.” Then he added, “Who will eat lamb cooked in milk and yoghurt?” I thought that made sense. My Indian palate is very similar to the Pakistani one, I realized. The restaurant had rice but no yoghurt but the waiter dashed across to a nearby store and brought some for us. We enjoyed our Jordanian-Indian dinner and returned to the hotel for a night’s rest.
The next morning we were at the site by sunrise, ahead of all other tourists. We were waved through because we had the Jordan Pass. The walk was very pleasant because the weather was cool. The region was dry and treeless but once we entered the canyon or Siq, the walk became more and more interesting. We didn’t think we needed a guide. Everything is pretty well charted out. And if you hire a mule the guide comes free anyway.
Internet sources had told us the walk is 8 hours. That was an exaggeration. You can certainly hang around there all day but you don’t need so much time unless you want to follow every single trail at a leisurely pace. For us it was a brisk walk to the Treasury (Al Khazneh), a leisurely walk beyond, and then the climb to the monastery with me on a mule and Tanuja walking behind. The return walk didn’t take us too much time and we were back in our hotel in time for lunch. On the whole we spent a little over 5 hours at Petra.
The Treasury suddenly emerged at the end of the narrow gorge and made a stunning impression. Did the Romans design their towering columns following this Nabataean pattern? One can never tell. Was this a tomb or resting place? Why is it called Al Khazneh or Treasury? What exactly did these ancient builders do here? The facade is all there is. You cannot go inside the building and it doesn’t seem to have much depth anyway. The place was popularized by the Hollywood film ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’.
Petra, carved out of the red sandstone of Mount Hor in the 5th-6th century B.C by the Nabataens, had a sophisticated water conservation and control system that was perhaps a precursor of the Roam aqueducts. The city was a trading centre for spices and silks from India and China which arrived through Arabia and went on to Greece, Rome Syria and Egypt. The Romans captured Petra in AD 106. From 400 B.C. to 106 AD Petra was the capital of the Nabataean kingdom.
Petra by Night is a candle-light walk to the Treasury from 8-30 p.m. to 10 p.m. three nights a week. You are charged 17 JOD for the experience. Though the show was available on that particular day we opted not to go because I didn’t feel like repeating the long walk.
Beyond the Treasury
Once we moved beyond the Treasury we realized there were many other trails and much more to see. There were many tombs cut into the rock face, a place of high sacrifice, and several other trails that needed climbing.
In this area there were quite few mules and a few horses with beduoins escorting them. We were offered rides but we politely refused. Most people seemed to prefer walking, though the sun was now gradually rising and making its presence felt. The Siq had been rather cold and we were wearing jackets with hoods.
Beyond the Treasury lie the obelisk tomb, the High Place of Sacrifice, the Street of Facades, the royal tombs, the theatre, the colonnaded street, the Byzantine Church and the Monastery, the last being the cherry atop the ice-cream cone. We headed for the Monastery right after reaching the Treasury so we got there before the crowds came in and before the weather became too hot. We were there by 10 a.m.