The Petra Pilgrimage; Part I.
Wadi Musa, Jordan; February 2013
Imagine, if you will, two Middle Eastern men sitting around a smoldering fire drinking tea and chatting. One looks at the other and says, “How about that mountainside there? Isn’t it nice. Maybe we should carve it into a great big temple.”
“Yeah,” says the other as he sips his tea and scratches his beard, “let’s do that. Let’s carve a big beautiful building out of that side of a mountain.”
It’s hard to say for sure because I slept most of the way but it was, I think, a three or four hour bus journey from Wadi Rum to Wadi Musa and I arrive there in the early afternoon. I go immediately to a previously recommended hostel called Valentine’s where I find a very nice cheap room. Perched on a steep hillside, my balcony overlooks the small town and the entire valley. I can almost make out Petra itself across the way.
Petra. That’s what I’m here for; the world famous archeological site. I am, by vocation, a stone-crazy man and for people of such a persuasion there is no place on the entire planet earth more appropriate for a pilgrimage. Indeed, I have wanted to come here since I first caught a glimpse of it in the Indiana Jones movie. I have seen hundreds of photos and read countless articles. My God, my Buddha, my Allah, my Shiva… my Petra! I’m finally going to go. Stone Heaven! Can it possibly live up to my expectations?
Unfortunately, I can’t find out just yet because it’s too late in the day to go to the ruins when I arrive in Wadi Musa. Instead, I spend the afternoon in a café smoking a shisha and drinking tea. I know, the tobacco smoke in the shisha is bad for me. But when in Jordan do as the Jordanians… I’m attempting to appreciate the local customs. Meanwhile, I am so giddy with anticipation I can hardly sit still. A smile stretches from ear to ear. I am here. I am smoking a shisha less that a mile from Petra. I am really going to go.
I awake before sunrise the following morning, have a big breakfast and catch the first shuttle from the hostel to the ruins. I buy a three day pass at the entrance. I guess it’s possible for some people to see all of Petra in a single day. But that is not realistic for a stone enthusiast such as myself. A friend who has been here and is aware of my obsessions told me in no uncertain terms that I would need at least three days. And truthfully I’m tempted to buy a week long pass. The price, however, is outrageous so I limit myself to three days.
It’s not very crowded when I go through the entrance. With Egypt on one side and Syria and Israel on the other, Jordan is surrounded by turmoil these days. And turmoil is bad for tourism. Good for me though. I rather like the absence of crowds. It’s nice to be able to explore such a place relatively alone. It feels like an oasis of peace in a tumultuous world. But that feeling is also a little bit eerie.
For the first half mile or so of the trail, there are several caves and buildings carved into the rocky hillside. It’s kind of cool but not exactly super spectacular. World traveling stone hound that I am, I’ve seen better…
But then; I reach the beginning of the Siq. Mind Blown! That’s all I can say. I’ve seen pictures and videos and heard stories and read accounts. But nothing can compare to the experience of walking through it. Absolutely, completely, totally freakin’ awesome. It’s a crack or crevasse in the earth with a trail or pathway that runs along the bottom of it. It runs for 1.2 kilometers or about .8 miles. The walls are several hundred feet high and sometimes it is so narrow you can almost touch both sides simultaneously. It’s barely wide enough for the horse and buggy that occasionally passes through. It really feels like the setting for a children’s book. Almost certainly strange creatures are lurking in the crevasses. Passing through this crack in the earth, every moment of existence feels somehow epic. Wow! Holy shit! I can’t believe I’m in here. I have awoken inside a fairy tale.
It takes about a half hour or forty five minutes to traverse the entire Siq. I stop frequently to shoot photos. But really, how do you capture this? A sacred passageway through solid rock that leads to an… oh my god…wow! Really, there are no other words to describe “The Treasury”. It’s the photo you always see as representational of Petra. This incredible, magnificent building; carved with hammer and chisel into the side of a mountain over 2000 years ago. Gasp! I mean really, you can’t describe it. I can show you a photo of course. But a photo can never capture the experience of passing through the sacred crack and emerging on the other side to see the great masterpiece rising up in front of you. The heart goes pitter patter boom… pitter patter boom. I wanna hammer. I wanna chisel. I wanna cliff to carve.
Not surprisingly, “The Treasury” has its share of tourist accessories. There are several locals dressed in “costume”, some very obedient camels and a professional photographer. The building itself is also roped off forbidding entry for insurance reasons and an armed guard keeps watch to make sure no one is breaking the rules. Fortunately, there is also a café and that is where I go to have my first of many warm and friendly beverages at Petra.
I’m a big fan of the warm and friendly beverage; coffee, tea and anything in between. Strangers become acquainted and acquaintances become friends. Its coffee I have at the friendly little café outside of “The Treasury” and it’s of the Turkish style with grounds at the bottom. Thankfully, it’s not a fancy high-end, over-the top tourist café. It’s obviously a local licensee with real live Bedouins serving up the drinks and snacks. The little table where I sit is set up outside with a nice view of the incredible building. As the Bedouin server smiles and the warm comforting coffee hits my gullet, I look up at the unbelievable carved mountainside. It sure is looking like a very good day.
Afterwards, I continue on down the trail towards greater Petra. I’m not really expecting too much more. I hit the peaks of “the Siq” and “The Treasury” early in the day and now I will meander my way through the lesser cool stuff. Little do I realize that the entire Petra complex is like the perfect playground for a guy with my enthusiasms. Holy Smokes! I am flabbergasted beyond words. The first thing I come across is the psychedelic caves. Seriously, how awesome can some places possibly be? The mountains and cliffs around here are made of stratified multicolored sandstone. The walls are honeycombed with carved out dwellings and tombs and storage chambers. There are staircases carved into cliff sides and secret passageways between caves. There’s no security and no prohibitions here either so I am free to climb around and crawl in and among the multi-colored caves. I envision a Dr. Seuss world of mini humanoids scurrying about all around me. It’s hard to explain the sensation exactly but these honeycombed caves with splashes of sunlight really seem like a fantasy land. Have I fallen in the proverbial rabbit hole? Where oh where is this story going to take me?
After the cliff dwellings, I have a choice: continue straight towards the royal tombs and the stadium or turn left and climb the steep path to the temple of high sacrifices. Liking the sound of a high sacrifice place, I take the left and head up. As it turns out, it’s a bit of a sacrifice just to get there because the steep but beautiful trail with lots of switchbacks makes it’s way ever upwards between the mountains. About half way up, I come across a Bedouin camp and a young woman who offers me a warm friendly beverage. It is a cup of tea and she insists that there is no charge because the tea is only for welcoming and friendship. I take the cup and sit upon the offered cushion and immediately the girl turns up the charm and starts trying to sell me trinkets. “No obligation to buy of course,” she says with a wry smile, “but how you like that warm cup of tea on this cool morning.” I buckle under the pressure and purchase a mini Petra replica. Something I totally don’t want. But that young Bedouin lady could probably sell toothpicks to a lumberjack.
I finally get to the top about twenty minutes later and there I meet another Bedouin woman. This one is a little older but she has the same sales strategy. She offers me tea and insists that it’s free but I see the trinkets she intends to sell me. “No thanks,” I say, “I just drank tea.”
There really is an amazing view of the whole valley of Petra from this spot. There are two stone monoliths pointing towards the sky and also a carved-out square seating area. It’s hard to say what goes on here but it sort of does look like a scene of sacrifice. I walk around to shoot photos for a while but then sit down on the bench and lean back to soak up the surroundings. That’s when the Bedouin woman comes over and sits next to me real close. She is missing several teeth but she smiles very big. She kind of seems to be flirting but in a mischievous rascally way not like she really means it.
“No want tea,” she says, “maybe you want some special Bedouin tobacco.” She pulls a small leather pouch from the folds of her clothes and opens it up to reveal a small quantity of dried leaves. She also has a rolling paper of some kind.
How special? I wonder. Because really, I’m not a bucket list kind of a guy. But if I was bucket list kind of guy and I did have a bucket list, smoking weed with a toothless Bedouin woman high atop a mountain overlooking Petra would be pretty gosh darn high on that bucket list.
But it doesn’t look like marijuana. As a matter of fact, it’s doesn’t look like tobacco either. It looks like dried sticks and leaves of random plants. Then, when she makes the cigarette or joint or whatever you call it, she uses way too much saliva. Do I really want to smoke a soggy wet paper full of mysterious herbs? Of course I do. Not surprisingly, it makes me gag and cough. Indeed, if not for the awesome character with whom I am smoking, the incredible background atmosphere and metaphorical implications, I would probably describe the experience as disgusting. But hey, when the universe presents the situation, sometimes you just have to go for it. In reality, there is probably no thc, marijuana or any other hallucinogenic substance in our soggy cigarette. Nevertheless, somehow or other, it makes me high as a hummingbird for the rest of the day.
When I leave my new very good friend behind in a cloud of smoke, I continue on the trail that circles around and goes down the back side of the mountain. I swear to the universe it is definitely a case of wandering in the wonderland. Steps are carved into the stones. There’s a fountain sculpted like a lion; there’s awesome natural rock formations and occasional sculpted details; there’s a long view of the mountainous valley and when the trail reaches the bottom, there are carved out temples and dwelling places. It’s the perfect place to find the wise man in the epic story. It’s like a hidden hermitage in a forgotten land. Yeah sure, there was no weed or thc in that Bedouin tobacco, but I have entered another world nonetheless.
Just beyond the enchanting caves, I come upon another Bedouin encampment. This time it’s a family; mother, father, and two small children. They offer me tea and try to sell me trinkets. I pay for the tea but buy nothing else. Nevertheless, they are super friendly. They hover around constantly repeating the English phrase they know, “welcome, welcome.”
I leave the encampment and continue my exploring of the wonderland; more awesome caves and carved out dwellings. More cool rock formations jut out along the path. I can’t help but wonder which formations are natural and which formations are human created. I pass through an interesting collection of boulders and find another encampment. Once again, another Bedouin family offers me tea and tries to sell me trinkets.
And so it goes… it seems as if my first full day at the Archaeological site of Petra somehow transforms into a quest to find the perfect hot friendly beverage. I even go to the big and fancy tourist complex luxury restaurant in the very center of the compound. It’s not my kind of place. But I want to see how the other half lives. I also have an ongoing curiosity about the organizational set ups of world famous archaeological sites. In Petra, it’s interesting. The modern developed world stuff is all clustered around the one center building. The further you get to the outskirts, the more it seems a local Bedouin world. Not surprisingly, I prefer the outskirts. I also can’t help but question how they divvy up the profits. The entry fee was more than twenty U.S. dollars a day and I will bet you dollars to donuts not much of that goes to the tea vendors in the encampments.
The tourist restaurant is ridiculously over-indulgent and unnecessarily fancy schmancy. There is a multi-course buffet, waiters in tuxes and prices through the roof. I only order a cup of coffee and it is crappy and expensive. The tuxedoed waiter, however, takes one look at me and knows that I’m an insider… one of the good guys. “My friend, my friend,” he whispers, “you want good coffee, you go Ali’s café in canyon there beyond museum.” He points to the wall of rock behind me in the distance.
Sure enough, a couple hours later, I’m outside the museum and I see a side trail that leads into a crack like canyon in a wall of rock. There’s a river down below and a carved trail that hugs the cliff. I follow the trail until it leads to a stone terrace in front of several carved out dwellings. There is a million dollar view of a cave speckled desert canyon. There is also some tables and a very friendly man named Ali who is happy to serve me coffee. And a fine cup of coffee it is; served in the Bedouin style with grounds at the bottom. Indeed, I dare say, if you consider all of the variables of atmosphere, service and flavor, it may very well be the best hot cup of joe I’ve ever had in my whole life.
My first full day at Petra concludes with another world class highlight. They call it “the Monastery” and it sits on top of a mountain so it’s a long hard hike to get there. I make the effort and arrive at sunset to see the building glowing gold in the setting sun. Holy Smokes! Wow! I was under the impression that “The Treasury” was supposed to be the highlight of Petra, but “The Monastery” is even more mind-bogglingly amazing. Words cannot describe and photos cannot show. But seriously, if you too, are a stone-crazy person, or someone who has carved stones or stacked stones or worked with stones. Do yourself a favor. Once in your life go on a pilgrimage. You can fly into Amman, Jordan and take a tour from there. Just go. If you can in any way possibly manage to do it. Go. That temple; that Monastery, that creation carved into that mountainside over 2000 years ago is really the ultimate expression of what human beings are capable of. As I stand there before it, a vision of the past unfolds rather clearly inside my head…
A couple of Bedouin dudes are sitting around, drinking tea, chatting. One looks at the other and says, “how about that mountain side there. Isn’t it nice? Maybe we should carve it into a great big temple.”
“Yeah,” says the other, as he sips his tea and scratches his beard, “that sounds like a good idea. Let’s do that. Let’s carve us a big beautiful building out of that side of a mountain.”