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a Jordanian Trekking Adventure

by Fred Steinberg

They were not the nicest people – those third century BC Nabataens. From Petra they dominated the trade routes from Damascus to Arabia with links to China, India, Greece and Rome for caravans carrying slaves, spices and silk. Masters of iron production, copper refining, stone carving and hydraulic engineering, which enabled them to provide sufficient water in the desert, they built a thriving city financed by collecting tribute, taxes, protection money and slaves from the passing caravans. And it was those slaves who helped build this spectacular city out of sheer rock -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the new “7 World Wonders” and selected by Travel and Leisure magazine as one of its 2017 “Trips of A Lifetime.”

In 1845, the poet John William Burgon won the Newdigate Prize for his sonnet about Petra:

It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if magic grown,
Eternal, silent, beautify, alone!

Not a virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly gray, like many a minister’s fane,
that crowns the hills and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if 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that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;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.

How could my wife and I not put Petra on our travel bucket list to add to Ephesus and Pompeii, especially when we were reminded by friends that it was featured in scenes in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? So, this past August we flew to Jordan and planned to start our Petra trek in mid-afternoon after the three plus-hour trip from Amman in the hope the late afternoon would provide some relief from the heat and the summer sun. Alas it was not to be as we faced a four-hour trek and climb in eighty-plus-degree heat under a cloudless sky.

You approach the 100-sq mile Petra valley through a 1.5-mile descending pathway which includes a ¾-mile, narrow gorge or “Siq” whose vertical walls are the result of natural mountain splitting by violent tectonic forces. Not wanting to exhaust ourselves before the hiking and climbing to come, we hired a donkey cart to take us to the valley floor. Big mistake. The driver, no doubt anxious to get in as many daily fares as possible, drove the rickety donkey cart over the cobblestone path as though he was training for Le Mans. With the first bump I slumped violently to port, resulting in my hanging half way out of the cart and holding on to the seat bar and my wife for dear life. I continued to shout “slower, slower” to the driver who obviously never looked back and speaking little English likely thought I was yelling “faster, faster” and proceeded to do just that. By the end of the 10-minute ride, I could hardly move no less exit the cart on my own. The driver got down and showed great surprise at my predicament as he and my wife helped me down. After I paid him, he kept saying “tip, tip.” I answered: “My tip to you is drive slower.” This response did not seem to satisfy him and, as a-number-of drivers were standing around at the entrance to the valley floor also did not look like they appreciated my response, I added another $5 to the $35 already paid.

After resting and trying to reset my back, we started to traverse the two-mile valley floor which is the heart of Petra. You start with Petra’s most breathtaking site, the façade of the Treasury, some 130-ft. high and decorated with figures, friezes and other carvings. Likely a temple and tomb, the Treasury got its name from the mistaken belief an Egyptian pharaoh hid his treasure in the highest urn.

We proceeded to hike through the Street of Tombs, viewing the intricate wall carvings of some 50 giant tombs sculptured into the canyon’s cliffs and topped with crow-steps, pilasters and cavettos. We skipped the 45-minute climb to the adjacent High Place of Sacrifice, given our time and energy constraints. Next, we spent some time at Petra’s second most dramatic site, the 5,000-plus seat Roman-style Amphitheater, the only one in the world carved into a giant rock. We passed the Royal Tombs, the most impressive burial places in Petra. Their four adjacent facades are cut into steep cliffs and represent some of the finest carvings in the valley. Passing the Temple of the winged Lions and the Great Temple, we stopped for a while at the Nabataean Temple, one of the few free-standing structures in Petra.

We soon reached the end of the valley and the start of the winding uphill path to Petra’s third most impressive sites, the “Ad Deir” Monastery. The path includes an 850-step staircase, a daunting one-hour plus challenge. But we had come a long way and were not to be easily deterred. ($75 donkey rides were available, but I would have preferred to crawl up to the Monastery rather then get near another donkey, no less sit on its back.)

Climbing slowly, making many stops, sweating profusely, panting and backing against the wall to let climbing donkey’s and their riders pass, we made our way up. My body was not happy as we passed the half way point. My legs turned unsteady and the piercing sun played tricks with my eyes. We found a partially shaded area, consumed a great deal of the water we carried, rested and soldiered on. Luckily, the last few minutes of the climb fell in the shade from the late afternoon sun. At the top of the final ascent sat a small, wizened-looking old lady who smiled and said something in Arabic. I did not feel capable of responding but would have liked to ask her how she got up there.

Built around 86 BC, and Petra’s largest monument, the Monastery’s giant façade was a church entrance. The interior contains benches and an alter used for religious ceremonies and meetings. Crosses were carved in the rear wall when the hall was used as a Christian chapel. After a rest and drink at a small café across from the Monastery, we headed back. Going down the path and back across the valley was not difficult as the early evening cooling had set in. But climbing back up the 1.5-mile pathway and Siq proved another body-testing challenge. Moving slowly, stopping continually where the path-side rock provided shade and a resting spot and holding on to whatever rock extrusions I could, I struggled to the top. As the path leveled near the entrance, I could spot our hotel – the Movenpick Resort just 50 yards further. It was likely that only the thought of making it to the hotel’s rooftop Al Ghadir bar and toasting the sunset with a glass of wine, kept me going.

All in all, the Nabataeans did a good thing. For archeologists, Petra is a gold mine of material to study about the era around three thousand BC, for the Jordanians, it’s their most popular tourist site and for tourists with a bit of adventure in their hearts, it’s a fascinating journey through antiquity and an exciting and adventurous challenge to boot.

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