The Long Read: At Petra, the Real Riches lay beyond the Treasury

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“Excuse me, mister,” a young boy of perhaps seven or eight blurted out in weak, but practiced English as I meandered through the canyon. Curious, I turned around in the direction of the lad’s voice. His auburn eyes sparkled when the sun’s rays found their way through the leering overhangs and weathered gullies of the red rock, adorned with different hues of ancient stratigraphy. “Yes,” I replied in a manner that was polite, but lathered in a sort of default reserve acquired after years of foreign travel (and from being conned once or twice before). “You’ve dropped something,” he continued with a smile that was as wide as the Arabic-style hammocks one sees in the desert. I looked back, hoping it wasn’t something valuable (and patting my pockets in mild paranoia). The confusion on my face was the cue for the next line in the young salesman’s pitch: “Your smile!” He says. I laugh, of course; I had not heard that line before. Then came the crescendo of the subterfuge: “One dinar!” the boy implored as he tried to palm his wares to me (in this case a set of ten Petra themed postcards.) I declined on that occasion, but it would not be the last time during my visit to Petra that I would have to act in a similar performance. In the cool of the winding valley, I left that boy for the wonders—and the malign heat—that lay before me. Besides, there were others to sucker.

Of course, this old pathway is well trodden: ancient Greeks, imperial Romans, and modern film crews, have all wandered snake-like through the canyon that careens towards the impressive Treasury building. Yet, this carved marvel—built at the beginning of the 1st century AD—was too tardy in its construction to join Antipater of Sidon’s illustrious list of ancient wonders compiled two hundred years before, but it's an honour that many sandal-wearing, shutter-speed adjusting, water-quaffing tourists dispute today. Petra is a wonder that justifies its inclusion into the Greek’s famous catalogue of ancient splendor; its beauty and commanding majesty rival anything in the classical world.

Despite Petra’s iconic serpentine trail towards its star architectural attraction, the site itself feels that it is on the periphery of the western world (and indeed the ancient world). Petra’s colours, the desert climate, and the language of its modern inhabitants can feel distant and alien, yet Amman is little more than a five hour flight from London. Excusing this initial western perspective, however, Petra has long been implanted within our consciousness. In 1989, the large rock-hued centerpiece was transported from Jordan to the big screen and then to our rather more manageable television sets, where it became immortalized in celluloid and enshrined in the role-call of cinematic history as part of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, inspiring hordes of tourists--and archaeologists--to the site for more than two decades (a theme that some locals have been busy exploiting with equal gusto).

Like Indy, most tourists today adventuring towards Petra will head south from the capital Amman, but with Aqaba’s airport becoming an international route rather than just a domestic one (as of 2013), the UK-based culture-seeker has an alternative path. For sure, Amman has a certain charm and a wealth of Roman and Crusader-era half-day trips to Jeresh and Ajlun respectively, but it comes at cost: the capital is 4-6 hours by bus to the ancient Nabataean capital (though closer to 4 if one travels as part of a tour). Taking a cab is possible, but it’s an expensive option, especially during the high season.

Aqaba’s airport is located about 18 kilometers (and no more than a 15-20 dinar cab-ride) from Jordan’s second city—and only seaport. While Aqaba might be viewed merely as a different route to Amman, it is a little treasure that is well-worth investigating. Replete with its own gems that include a well-kept beach, bijou souks, and the fort that Lawrence of Arabia successfully captured—helping to bellow the flames of his own legend as he rallied the Arabs against the crumbling Ottoman Empire is the process. A beer or two can also be enjoyed in one of a sprinkling of bars clustered near the centrally located McDonald’s—only a short jaunt from most hotels. Of note, is the decent (but culturally out-of-place) Rover’s Return (yes, of Coronation Street fame), which has an array of good quality beers and familiar meals (the fish and chips is, surprising, rather exquisite) that compare favorably to those served in chillier Blightly. A pint is a refreshing treat that prepares one well for the rather more arid site at Petra and its environs.

T.S Lawrence didn’t linger here, nor do most tourists: it’s quant and interesting, providing a certain spacious respite from the legions of tourists in more traditional Jordanian honey-pots, but there’s not enough on offer for more than a few days.  Lawrence called the Arab Revolt a "side-show of a side-show," and while Aqaba has its merits, the old city will likely be viewed in the same way.

To get to Petra from Aqaba, one can take the bus which leaves every 30-60 minutes during the summer peak season, when one can expect to pay around 6-8 dinars for the four hour (128 kilometer) journey; or splash out on one of the infinitely more spacious taxis, circling for foreign tourists to take to the country’s popular enclaves. They are the pricier way to go, of course, but drivers will stop for emphatic desert photographs, essential refreshments, and let passengers indulge in their smoking habits. Travellers should pay no more than 40 dinars for this exclusive privilege, but should be able to negotiate a fare closer to 30 during the low season.

The desert has a particular majesty. It conjures the same emotions as the ocean: wide natural expanses, devoid not just of visible life, but of man’s influence. But there is also a beauty in the solitude, in the barrenness of sand dunes, rock, and road. The desert is tranquility. The colours and the space that line the way prepare you for Petra where these elements exist too, but are interjected by hordes of tourists armed with their cameras and guidebooks, and that invigorating emptiness is filled with the adjoining town of Wadi Musa, which is little more than an assemblage of mediocre hotels and restaurants of limited quality (main meals are best enjoyed in the hotels).

The town is, regrettably, forgettable. But the site is the primary motivation of this desert expedition. Once you pass through the ticket area—after spending 50 dinars for a one day pass, or the more sensible 55 for two days—and into this extensive site with its initial horseshoe assembly of convenience stores selling everything from cold drinks to tourist tat, the visitor has barely any time to dramatically declare “the Canyon of the Crescent Moon” (in the appropriate Austrian accent with accompanying hand expressions) before you’ll be greeted—or perhaps accosted—by the locals (both man and beast). Keep your wits about you from the locals offering ‘free donkey rides’ during the kilometer walk towards the canyon. They will persist and assure you that the service is “part of the ticket.” Politely decline and head for the valley—nature’s own triumphal arch awaits.

With dirt, sand, and irregular pebbles underfoot; geological marvels above one’s head, and the narrow, almost other worldly walkway with steep flanks (al Siq to the Arabs), one is 'warmed-up' for the spectacles ahead. A sense of wonder builds within like the tension in a horror movie, but there are no previews until the end. It’s not just the natural geology of this section of the pathway, it’s the light and the darkness of the canyon that is so impressive; I think of Caravaggio paintings.

And it was within this crack of the sandstone mountain that I met the boy who told me I had dropped my smile. Here, it is easy to observe that peddling is patriarchal at Petra: the Digital Traveller might see a whole dynasty of sellers. With each passing day, the boy can see his future, for it remains constant and present. The youth is not far from his grandfather, who might be reclining with strong coffee out of the heat, or straddling his camel—the prize family asset—as his tatty red and white checkered headdress dances with a soft wind. His face looks upon his grandson with his silver-speckled beard, while the grin of his irregular teeth conjures images of the castellated top of Aqaba’s coastal fort. Either activity is a permanent reminder of the boy’s future, who is learning the family trade during his formative years as his face slowly becomes hirsute before it too turns grey in old age. The middle generation, his son, meanwhile, drums-up business, offering donkey and camel rides to tired western tourists and floundering Asian snappers; skills that the grandfather had long ago mastered during more precarious times.

But times change - Petra is evidence to that arcane cliché. The older folk still wear the traditional long shirts of the region—thobes to Arabs of the peninsula, long shirts to many of those above it—desperately trying to hold on to this desert culture while the younger men drape themselves in clothing more familiar to the west: worn jeans and t-shirts that have all but lost their picture-transfers, and jackets of very different materials and shades weathered by hardy work and the environment; shades that were as varied as the rock and the skies that nestled on the horizon of this country that was raised from the sand by Churchill’s busy pen.

While the men scout for business for what, in many ways are the last vestiges of a more ancient way of life, the portly women of the family serve the hot (and expensive) local tea to passersby, taking orders from behind colourful scarfs that vary in pattern and hue as much as the males of the family. My own scarf, bought for an agreeable 5 dinars at a souq in Aqaba, was a lizard green and pallid ivory pattern that came in handy against the dust, as well as in providing protection from the constant celestial body (always carry something that can achieve these two necessities!).

One will find themselves lingering around the Treasury (al Khazneh) admiring the craftsmanship and the wealth that brought so many artisans to this desert enclave, before heading towards the larger Monastery (El Deir) some three kilometers away (the second major attraction here). It is, however, immeasurably disappointing that one can’t enter the building and "cross the Great Seal," as one hopes to do in the movie in our own search for the Holy Grail. Security—dressed in period Nabataean costume, prevent entrance to Jordan’s golden cultural asset.

But the disappointment soon subsides, as there is much more to see. Beyond the Treasury, the site then opens up and expands into a great natural vista of vertical rock faces and distant scrub, with much of the sandstone façade peppered with crude hacked-out caves installed by peasant architects over the centuries. These sunken portals forced into the natural edifices of rock exist in stark contrast to the ornate tombs of prominent Romans, which are adorned with images and iconography from Mesopotamian, Nabataean and Classical cultures: a true representation of Romanization in a land far beyond the Eternal City. These chambers—both large and small (funerary and residential)—flank the open space below, an area that is frequently and quickly filled in the middle-distance with a haze of ascending dust, rock, and sand. The cloudy plumes invariably accompany shaken ground, though not to the same ferocity as from the devastating earthquake that leveled the resurgent 4th century Roman city, but by the fast-trotting of underfed and overworked donkeys, by the swift hooves of whipped camels, and by the frightening speed of the make-shift chariot carriages that are pushed hard and jump when driven over large stones that were once the cobbled streets of empire.

The irregular remains of Roman insulae are interspersed with ancient rubble, most notably on the colonnaded street that lines the main Roman district parallel to a monumental Roman temple excavated a little more than a decade ago. The surviving columns have a resemblance to stacked hallumi cheese, but are seldom standing after the great tremor that toppled these stone monoliths signaling the final fall of the resurrected city. Here at Petra, Neptune’s trident caused great damage to this place leading to its near-abandonment in the ruinous aftermath, and all that seems to have flourished here are the green shrubs that spouted from the desert floor between the festooned debris. The displaced capitals and the dressed masonry (now nucleated around the street haphazardly) occupy much of the floor space of this area and offer a somber insight to this modern tourist attraction: it was once a thriving trade-centre; now visitors walk through a dead city.

I cleared the reconstructed archway of Hadrian (a valiant attempt at illustrating the past without the effort becoming an abhorrent project a la Knossos, Crete), guarded by another brace of leather and bronze armoured Nabeteans, and headed towards the enticing café one hundred meters or so ahead. And then it came: “Ferrari? You want to ride a Ferrari, mister?” The bobbing voice from atop a colossal pack animal asked with a smile that was more than a little hopeful. Nevertheless, my interest was piqued, though more because I wondered how one would squeeze a sports car down the narrow entrance. It quickly became apparent with gestures and simple language that the Ferrari in question was rather more organic than one usually expects the Italian supercar to be, smellier and beiger, too. He was, of course, referring to the camel that he was perched upon, adorned in a colourful patchwork saddle. “20 dinars!” came the proclamation. “Long way; very hot.” I decline again before a third offer substituted the beige beast for a brown donkey. Equally, I declined before he rode off in search of alternative custom. One must admire their persistence, which if nothing else provides interesting comparisons to the notion of customer service back in the UK.

The street through the archway has temples on its sides, with dedication to different gods, built by civilizations that span several prosperous centuries. These temples to the lion deity and the Sun of more classical times, are the unsung heroes of the city, offering a keyhole glimpse into the past, showing the continuity of an impressive site that supported such wonderful architectural feats.

Petra is not a classical site with but two standing buildings. Between the monuments that bookend the ‘tourist landscape,’ there is a flurry of other intrigues that provide allure for anyone with an interest in ancient history, geology, or a dozen other fields. The Treasury is impressive for its majestic workmanship, carved from the warming red-rock while the Monastery is a welcome vision after the walk through the mountain pass. The size of the Monastery towers, but it lacks the ornamentation of the later Treasury. The real treasures of this site are often overlooked by the determined Facebook-cover-picture-hunter. To understand Petra, one must engage with the other remains at Petra, where one can often interact with this open site and peer into the city’s heyday in a way that merely staring at the Treasury’s façade impedes. The space between the two destinations, is, arguably, a richer experience than the Treasury.

Thomas Dowling

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