Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rock of ages...

All the guide books say the same thing: if you only see one place in Jordan, go to Petra.

Before I had ever even heard of Jordan I knew of Petra, if only thanks to the great scenes filmed outside the Treasury at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Petra is known as the Rose-Red City because it was literally carved out of the swirling multicolored rocks of all shades of reds and oranges by the Nabataens thousands of years ago.

We got the earliest start we could, and headed out through the Siq, a stunning chasm, which stretches quite a ways, down into Petra. I tried to imagine the excitement Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer, must have felt back in 1812, when, disguised as a sheikh, he talked his way into the city long hidden from outsiders. His heart must have been beating wildly.

The Siq was created by tectonics, not water, and it is believed that this is where Moses struck the rock with his staff and water flowed out for the Hebrews as they fled from Egypt, the Pharoh hot on their heels.


Here and there were carvings in the walls, a mystical, beautiful place, anticipation building for what we knew laid ahead. Then, finally, the walls opened up to reveal that place I think you'll recognise from the Indy movie:

The Treasury (Al-Khazneh), grand beyond description.

I was floored by the symmetry, the sophistication of the carvings, and the massive scale of the building. I was also really grateful to my old camera for dying before we got to Petra and couldn't replace it.

It took awhile for the awe to ebb enough to take stock of the rest of the area. This process was helped along by being persistantly informed, over and over again, that there were donkeys for hire. It was still relatively cool, and we are nearly as stubborn as any mule, so we determined to hike for at least some of the time.

The donkey riders, young men hardly more than boys on their short, sturdy, and colorfully rugged and tasseled equines followed us undaunted, calling out prices for rides, skillfully bringing the kids into the equation...didn't the little ones want a ride? Come ride my donkey baby (to Thomas and Bethy, not me!)...asserting us that we had no idea how difficult and steep the really good places were to get to.

Mike had an itinerary planned, and both he and I assured them that we'd use their services once it got hotter or steeper, but not before. There were few tourists at this hour, so we were in no hurry to secure a ride.

Mike led us North along the Road of the Fa├žades, where the living and the dead existed side by side in Nabatean times, and it seemed that every turn led to new buildings carved into the vividly striated rock. Some, like the Treasury were well preserved, others had been exposed to the elements and softened. There were staircases somehow carved into the steep walls above entryways that led up to nowhere, for the occupants of the tombs to find their way heavenward, and portals everywhere. The caves intrigued the kids (and kept us busy keeping the kids out) and the carvings interested us.

Further along was the Theatre (lower righthand):

Horizontal rows of seats cut out of the rock, through tombs and caves, and later enlarged by the Romans. See the tiny figures at the bottom on the steps, some a-donkeyback, to give you an idea of the scope of the place? All along were more donkeys, camel riders, and an incredible variety of different styles of architecture demonstated upon the walls, giving silent but persuasive testimony to the history of Petra. Roman, Hellenistic, Mesopotamiian, Assyrian, Egyptian, and classical Nabataean. How could this be, in the middle of the desert?

The Nabataens, an Arab people, thrived by first plundering, then in a more civilised sounding but equally effective manner, taxing and perhaps offering protection to traders along the Silk Road. Their society must have been a rich and complex one, judging by what remains, affected by the peoples of each time as they came along. Bedouins live here still, most of whom have been moved just outside of Petra to modern housing, though some still prefer cave life. Certainly they do their very best to make a living from the constant influx of visitors into their home, and I don't blame them one bit.

We did a lot of walking. The entire site was so extensive, so staggeringly huge, there was no way we'd be able to see more than select portions of it. We traded off kids and exploring, walking and walking along the sand and stones. With all the hiking I was especially happy there had been a few days between the half marathon and this and was also quite pleased that my vigilance with not allowing anyone in our family to touch lips to the tap water had paid off; while I had read over and over again in blogs and reviews about folks dragging themselves to the sites of Jordan, feeling awful, we were all feeling digestively great.

There were hawkers of everything from scarves and postcards to knick-nacks, water and rocks, though not as many merchants as I thought there might have been, and for which I was glad. One man offered me a wicked looking dagger "For you husband!" he said.

"No thank you!" I replied, "I like him and am going to keep him."

The seller looked confused but the woman merchant next to him's deeply lined face broke into the even deeper lines of laughter. She waggled a finger at me and made stabbing motions straight out of Psycho, grinning the sisterly grin of womanhood.

Thomas doing his very best "Hee-Haw!!!"

We had decided to miss the High Place of Sacrifice (Al-Madbah), what with our small children and the whole gravity thing. Further along was the Collonated Street, extensive ruins with a distinctly Roman look, a Crusader castle, (the Crusades "look" is best described as daunting) and here we agreed to let the kids get up on the donkeys that had been following us from the Treasury after, of course, a price and destination were negotiated, not terribly skillfully by us, and quite well by the two young Bedouins. They were old hands at the game, yet managed to come across as innocent while leaving no doubt as to their expertise.

Next stop, by donkey, Petra's mountaintop Monastery.


Julia said...

I KNEW I had seen that place in a movie. Sounds terribly "american" doesn't it, but it's true. This is probably one of the coolest places you've blogged about yet, and I really liked the others.

Natalie said...

It was very fitting to have Indiana Jones there, a perfect place for the climax of the best movie. Magnificent.

And yes, there were echos of the theme running through my head much of the time. No doubt helped along by the Indiana Jones gift stand at the entrance to Petra, or the truly geeky (but admirable in their geekiness) family who ALL wore Indy hats when they visited!

Also, humorously, according to her autobiography, the tabloids reported (much to the King's annoyance) that Sean Connery and Queen Noor had a passionate affair while the filming was going on! (She was a consultant for the movie and got to buddy buddy around with Spielberg and Harrison Ford). Too funny.