Petra: A Lost City Revealed

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The entrance to Petra is unassuming…small shops, a cafe or two, a visitor’s center.  The path widens and clouds of dust drift over the road, kicked up by the tourist-laden horse and carts clattering down the road to the Treasury.   It’s hard to contain the urge to race through the narrow, twisting Siq for my first glimpse of  Petra, but I know doing so would be a crime. Rachel and I decide to walk the 1.2km path through the Siq with our local guide, taking the time to admire the color-swirled rock on the towering canyon walls and absorbing the atmosphere and history of The Rose Red City. Around a corner and through the last narrow passage of the Siq, we see a glimpse of a glowing pillar, a sun-lit facade and hear the calls of the local Bedouin.  Petra.

Petra

I can’t describe the feeling that washed over me as we stood in the courtyard before the Treasury.  Awe, certainly.  There are no pictures or words that could capture that moment.  And so we stood, slack-jawed, surrounded by tourists, guides, camels, donkeys, carts and merchants, imagining this city as it was thousands of years before.

The Nabataeans established Petra as their capital city in 600BC, a center for trade and commerce for passing silk and spice caravans. Petra remained under Nabataean control until 106 AD when it was absorbed into the Roman Empire, marking the beginning of the city’s decline.  A powerful earthquake in 363AD destroyed many buildings and the complex water system that was essential to the city’s survival. Petra was abandoned and slowly slipped into obscurity.  The city remained “lost” to the western world until its rediscovery by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812, who disguised himself in traditional clothing and entered Petra under the guise of offering a sacrifice at a local temple. The “Lost City” was found once again.

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Al-Khazneh (commonly known as the Treasury) dominates the entrance to Petra. It is carved directly into the rock face and stands over 43 meters high.  Al-Khazneh’s purpose is uncertain, although archeologists suspect it was a temple or tomb. We could see bullet holes in the walls and damage to the magnificent urn left by gun-toting tomb raiders and treasure hunting visitors who hoped to find gold and treasures hidden within.  They all left empty handed.

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The local Bedouin merchants offered passerbys treasures of their own…beads, baubles, camel rides and hilarious commentary.

“You would like a camel ride?”

“No, thank you”

“Ah, but my camel is the Ferrari of the desert.”

“Haha. No, thank you.”

“Donkey?”

Our guide shooed the young entrepreneurs away with advice to accept if you were interested, decline politely if you were not, but to never say “maybe later” or “I’ll think about it” which is seen as a promise for you to return at some point.  Good advice.

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We continued along the Street of Facades, lined with tombs carved from the sandstone cliffs. We dipped in and out of the caves, contemplating the work involved in carving out a mountain of sandstone to create homes, temples and tombs.

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We left our guide at the Theater (poor man put up with us for 3.5 hours) and continued following the road to…the restaurant, of course.  My original plan was to return to our hotel for lunch, not realizing that the trek through the Siq was a serious commitment.  I was in “travel light” mode and brought a few bills and no credit cards. Our lunch consisted of a bottle of water and a turkish coffee, truly a lunch of champions. Thankfully, it  was enough to fuel our afternoon hike up the 800+ rock-cut steps to the Monastery. We set out along the road, accompanied by a few friendly locals offering a “taxi ride” to the top (read donkey).  We declined.  The path to the top was dotted with local women sitting outside their tents offering “Happy hour for you…half price!” specials on jewelry, pottery, beads and other trinkets. They also offered encouragement “Almost there!  Only 300 more steps!” It did tug on our heart strings to pass by tent after tent without buying anything, but I was dinar-less after our “lunch.”  The hike to the top wasn’t very strenuous and the rewards (and views) were spectacular.

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We reveled in our success as we hit the top step and rounded the corner to see The Monastery in all its glory.  It’s hard to comprehend the scale of the tomb, but if you look very closely, you can see one of the local kids (dressed in white, top right of the building) climbing up, out and around the top, entertaining and terrifying the tourists below.

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We ended our day at Petra, standing at the top of the mountain, listening to the bleats and bells of  goats grazing nearby, watching the canyon walls begin to glow in the fading afternoon light.  The local Bedouins encouraged us  to join them for a cup of tea in the growing shadows of the Monastery …”Tea, ice cream?  Come…take a break with a Kit Kat bar! Have a Coke and a smile!”  It sounded like a great idea, but for us, it was a long hike back through the canyon to civilization and a late, late lunch.

*All photos in this post are courtesy of Rachel Belt

Petra

It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,

by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;

But from the rock as if by magic grown,

eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!

Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,

where erst Athena held her rites divine;

Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,

that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;

But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,

that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;

The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,

which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,

match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,

a rose-red city half as old as time.

                                                                                       by John William Burgon (1813-1888)

 

Things to Know:

I didn’t stay long enough. I regret it and spend my days conspiring to return. Petra is huge.  One day is not enough to truly explore the 250km2 of caves, tombs and hiking trails.  We had a full day (10 hours!) and didn’t see many of the things we wanted to see.  Plan to spend a minimum of two days (three is better and more leisurely). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason. Explore the hidden tombs and caves, hike to the High Place ,visit the archeology museum, have tea, watch the sun set against the canyon walls and make sure you attend Petra by night (post pending!).

Ticket prices vary according to length and type of stay.  There are discounted rates for some categories and children under 12 are free.

Arrive early (it opens at 6am!) to enjoy a few uncrowded minutes standing in front of the Treasury before the tourists arrive.  Explore the streets of Petra early in the day and save the hike to the Monastery for the afternoon when the path is shaded by the canyon walls.

Bring cash 🙂 and water bottles.  Small bills are best for buying, tipping camel/donkey drivers and paying for the occasional cup of tea.

Hire a local guide.  Our guide was local, articulate and knowledgable.  We learned more about Petra in our half-day tour than I did reading my three guidebooks and scouring the internets for days. Our guide was arranged through UTA and Audley Travel, but local guides are available at the visitor center and offer tours in many different languages. Of course, if you prefer to wander on your own, you should!

Sit for a cup of tea.  You will most certainly be asked to join one of the local Bedouins for a cup of tea.  Accept (at least once)!  Sit and enjoy, talk to each other and ask questions about life within Petra.  You should consider a gift of 1 or 2 JD in exchange. It is greatly appreciated.

Dress accordingly.  This is a muslim country, so try to dress modestly. Wear comfortable hiking shoes and sunscreen and/or a hat.  The sun can be brutal no matter what time of year you tour Petra.

Know your fitness level and don’t underestimate the power of the sun and heat.  Petra requires a lot of walking and some hiking (if you choose to do so).

Where to stay

We stayed at the Movenpick Petra jut outside the entrance gates.  The hotel was beautiful, the food excellent and the staff efficient and friendly.  I would return in a heartbeat (the breakfast buffet is legendary). There are other hotels conveniently located in the small town and a few Bedouin camps that offer overnight stays nearby.  I only write about or support hotels where I’ve stayed, so I can’t really recommend other hotels.  My review on tripadvisor is pending. Do your research.

What to read/What to watch

Go ahead.  Watch Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade.

Read Married To a Bedouin , the tale of New Zealand born Marguerite, who married a Bedouin tribal member and raised her family within the walls and caves of ancient Petra.  

Read Petra:  The Rose Red City , a small and highly readable guide to Petra, written by two archeologists who worked in the region.

Peruse Jordan Jubilee, a website filled with information about Petra and other areas of interest in Jordan

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Ancient Roads and Crusader Castles

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Our drive from Amman to Petra was by way of the Kings Highway, an ancient route that winds past Crusader castles, rugged mountains, deep gorges and desert sands.

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The drive usually takes about 6 hours, but we lingered a bit at Mt. Nebo, the spot from which Moses saw the Promised Land (He must have had either better eyesight than I do or been there on a clearer day, because we could barely see across the valley).

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and saw the ancient Byzantine mosaics in the Orthodox church in Madaba.

We were also invited to see some spectacular mosaics at a private home.  Who could say no?  Note: The dark spots on the mosaic are due to the heat of a cooking fire.  The family lived in this home for generations, unaware that this spectacular Byzantine mosaic lay hidden beneath their feet until the day grandma decided to do some extra scrubbing and voila’!

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We also convinced Maher to stop the car and let us pet a donkey.  Hehe.

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During our lunch overlooking one of Jordan’s spectacular canyons, we found out our next stop, Shobak Castle, closed in 30 minutes. We were an hour away. Maher saw our disappointed faces and offered to make a phone call “to see what he could do.”

He returned to tell us that he phoned the guard at Shawbak Castle who agreed to hold the castle open for us. We knew it was our fault for adding stops for donkey petting and picture-posing along the King’s Highway and protested. Maher smiled and told us not to worry. I’m glad he didn’t listen to us. Our visit to Shobak ended up being a highlight of our trip to Jordan.

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road to shobak

Shawbak Castle sits high on a ledge overlooking wild and seemingly desolate surroundings. The sun was sliding behind the hills and there was a sharp wind  blowing through the abandoned villages along the approach to the castle.  We turned into the gravel lot and noted that we were the only people there. Rachel and I felt guilty about arriving late and  decided to forgo the local guide and tour the ruins ourselves. We thanked the gentleman who held the castle open for us and ran past the guard shack and up the hill, vowing to speed-tour the castle so everyone could go home.

We climbed over endless piles of rubble, found the foundations of ancient churches and looked for the catacombs, caves and passageways mentioned in our guidebook.

The self-exploration was not for the faint of heart…precipitious, unfenced ledges, dark, unlit passageways and pedestrian bridges made out of rickety wooden planks.  It was brilliant.

Eventually, high wind, cold and darkness drove us back down the hill to the exit where we were waved into the guard room for some tea.

The room was warm, cozy and filled with the haze of recently and frequently smoked cigarettes. The guard had a visitng friend who spoke a little English and they both clattered around arranging chairs and preparing the teapot and glasses.  They motioned for us to sit and poured scalding cups of cardamom and sage infused black tea into tiny, glass cups. His friend spoke a little English and asked about my family and if I had children.  He told me that in Jordan, I would be addressed according to the name of my oldest child.  I would be  “Umm Rachel” (Mother of Rachel).  This pleased Rachel immensely.  After we finished the first of many cups of tea, the guard pulled out a handmade instrument and proceeded to sing “a song of welcome” for us.  He also sang a song about Rachel’s beautiful hair :). And there we were, serenaded at sunset in a Crusader Castle high in the hills of Jordan.

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Jerash: Rome Away From Rome

We were groggy, disheveled and slightly jet-lagged after our late arrival from London. Our driver took one look at us slumped in the back seat on our way to our hotel in Amman, laughed, and  blessedly suggested a late morning start for our trip to Jerash. It turned out to be good advice. We visited the ruins of Jerash on a warm, spring day when the hills surrounding the city provided a backdrop of bright sunshine, grazing sheep and a carpet of wildflowers.  

Arch of Hadrian

Arch of Hadrian

Jerash, dubbed “Rome away from Rome” by the Jordanian Tourist Board, fascinated me. Americans consider something “old” when it exists for 100 or so years.  The Europeans hold the standard for  “old” at a respectable 300 or 400 years.  Middle Eastern countries start to consider something “old” when it dates back 1000 or more years.  Jerash certainly qualifies as ancient, even by Middle Eastern standards. The “city”, considered one of the largest and best preserved Roman ruins outside Italy, sits 45 minutes north of Amman on a site that contains evidence of human occupation dating back 6500 years.

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Cardo Maximus, the colonnaded street

Cardo Maximus, the colonnaded street

Ruts in the road made by Roman carts

Ruts in the road made by Roman carts

Archeologists  uncovered ruins exhibiting Greco-Roman, Mediterranean and Arab influences which suggested a long and complex  history of Jerash.

One of two theaters in Jerash

One of two theaters in Jerash

Seat numbers in the amphitheater.  These are the "expensive" seats.

Seat numbers in the amphitheater. These are the “expensive” seats.

Although Jerash (Gerasa) was an established and  relatively prosperous city in the 3rd century BC, it  came under Roman rule in 63 BC when conquered by the Roman General Pompey.  After the decline of the Roman Empire, Jerash was subjected to various invading forces and destructive earthquakes, which left the city abandoned and in ruins.

Tea for sale at the Temple of Artemis

Tea for sale at the Temple of Artemis

Temple of Artemis

Temple of Artemis

Mosaic floor of a Byzantine church

Mosaic floor of a Byzantine church

Oval Plaza, Jerash

Oval Plaza, Jerash

These magnificent ruins lay buried under endless meters of sand for 800 years before rediscovery by Ulrich Jasper Seetzen in 1806.  Excavation didn’t begin in earnest until 1925 and continues to this day as archeologists and historians are uncertain about how much of the original city remains buried.

We had a spectacular day at Jerash, culminating with our standing at top of the amphitheater as the call to prayer rang out over the ruins.  I don’t know if our guide actually planned this moment for us, but it was an unexpected ending to a spectacular day.

Things to Know:

We stayed at the Alqasr Metropole Hotel in Amman.  The rooms were basic, but clean.  I’m not sure if non-smoking rooms exist in the hotel, but you should check if that is a requirement.  The breakfast and serving staff were excellent and the hotel has a number of popular and well-regarded restaurants. 

Jerash is an easy trip by car and is located on a main road 30 miles north of Amman.

Wear good walking shoes and take a bottle of water for your visit.  Our tour was approximately 3 1/2 hours long and involved extended periods of walking and standing in the direct sun.

Consider using one of the local guides.  They are incredibly knowledgeable and charge a reasonable fee (negotiate before leaving the visitor’s center).   To hire a local guide, purchase your tickets, walk through “souk”, up the hill and through Hadrian’s Gate to the small building across from the restaurant.  Our Jerash guide was arranged through UTA travel prior to our arrival.  

Any implication of good planning is a result of Clair’s work at Audley Travel and their on-the-ground partners in Amman, UTA travel.

Information about opening times, etc. can be found here.

If you can’t make it all the way to Jerash, one of the “Whispering Columns of Jerash” stands in Flushing Meadows, New York.  King Hussein presented it as a gift from the Kingdom of Jordan for the World’s Fair in 1964.

Ir you have any questions about our stay in Amman or our day in Jerash, feel free to contact me!

Why Jordan?

The first question friends asked me when I told them I was planning a trip to Jordan was…”Why Jordan?”  The second question was “Is it safe?”

Both questions were easy to answer…

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I wanted to walk through Hadrian’s Gate in the ancient city of Jerash…

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dreamed about seeing the Pink City of Petra by night …

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obsessed about riding a camel in the Wadi Rum a la Lawrence of Arabia…

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and wondered if I really would be able to float weightlessly in the Dead Sea!

I managed to do every thing I wanted to do and more!  As I look back through my pictures (all 1000 of them…don’t worry, I won’t post them all) I am transported back to the beautiful sites and the wonderful people who shared them with me.  I hope the posts I’m working on inspire you to put Jordan on your bucket list.  I’m already plotting my return.

PS:  Jordan is safe and offers a perfect experience for anyone’s first trip to the Middle East.   Jordan’s welcoming nature and generous hospitality extends to refugees from neighboring countries and remains a safe haven for residents and tourists.