You’ve seen this picture, right? A Roman-ish building carved out of rose-colored sandstone? The Nabatean city of Petra is the number one attraction in Jordan, and for good reason.
You walk gently downhill along what feels like a slot canyon for a half hour. Longer if you stop and gape at the immense beauty around every bend. Even when it rains.
The rain came late in the day, even though they’d run the desert zamboni that morning to keep the dust down. Even at the time, it had seemed like a waste of water to us. Your shoes are going to be beige with dust by the end of the day, anyhow.
On our way down to the city, we stopped to have coffee in front of what locals call The Treasury, because of a rumor that money was hidden inside. It was actually a tomb, carved–like everything in Petra–right into the mountainside.
We love Arabic coffee! Later we stopped at a tiny shop where a friendly coffee-artist did the temperature-sensitive brewing with very hot sand, rather than an open flame. Like Greek and Turkish coffee, it’s made from very finely ground coffee and cardamom, and needs a bit of sugar. We have tried to order it with milk, but That Is Wrong.
Petra was once a city of 20,000. The citizens mostly lived in carved caves. This one is now more of a garage.
The Nabatean builders of Petra created ingenious water systems. After walking in through the mile-long narrow passage, which has water channels carved into the walls, you find yourself in the main, open area, where once upon a time a broad Roman road and irrigated gardens sprawled across a flat valley floor. Temples, a theatre, and residences, all carved into the rock, face onto the center of the town. High above, you see tiny figures of people who’ve climbed up to the three or four “High Places.”
We climbed one day to the Altar of Sacrifice, which is about an hour’s hike, and the next day climbed to the Monastery, which is a little longer. All along the way, seemingly at the top of every carved staircase, there are friendly Bedouin folks selling souvenirs. Since we carry everything on our backs, at least between airports, cabs, and guest houses, we don’t buy souvenirs. About every hundred yards is another friendly Bedouin, saying:
“want to have a cup of tea?”
“come just have a look. Looking is free.”
“scarf for you, Madame? Only one dinar!”
“business very bad. Why tourists no buy?”
“please, my friend, very old coins.”
The vendors are members of a single tribe, allowed to live in what’s basically a National Archaeological Park. They number between “a few families” and “hundreds,” depending on who you ask. But we weren’t buying, so we tried not to make eye contact or look at any of the merchandise. I took this picture furtively, having made sure no one could see me:
One woman put a cup of tea in Lynnell’s hands, and when she tried to say no, reminded Lynnell, quite accurately, “it’s not polite to refuse tea.” After taking a sip, Lynnell said thank you and kept walking down the steps cut into the mountainside.
So we were nearing the end of our climb to the monastery when we met a big American man who was coming back down. He wryly observed, “keep climbing. It’s only about ten no, thank you’s to go.” In fact, it was only nine. Then we got to the monastery near the top:
Back when this part of the world was Christian, young men were encouraged to spend at least a few months, if not years, in a monastery. Learn self-control. Develop constructive habits of cooperative work and regular prayer and meditation. Stay away from temptations. Monasteries were located far from distractions, and often way up in the air, closer to the heavens. It was a lot of work to get there, and plenty of tiring exercise to schlepp supplies to the top. The most extreme version of this monastic isolation we’ve seen was a pair of pillars in Umm Arrasas, Jordan. The hermit lived alone on top for a long time. Food was hauled up by rope. No one knows how toileting worked.
Our climbs to the top at Petra were tiring, but the higher you get, the more the view opens up on this amazing Archaeological canyon-city. People look like ants, walking along the Roman road or riding donkeys and camels 30 stories below. For Lynnell, the reward near the top of the first day’s hike was not the glass of tea, but this Bedouin family’s puppy:
But everyone does not love Petra. We had breakfast this morning with a woman from Europe, traveling on her own, whose travel agent had booked a bunch of tours and hotels for her. She’s been to Egypt, too, and plenty of other places, but nothing in Jordan seemed worth the trip. OK, so the Dead Sea is very salty and you float more. She knew that. OK, the Roman ruins are big, but most of the columns have fallen down. And the food is always the same: the bus stops, and there is a tourist buffet. Chicken and lots of salads and things to dip bread in (hummus and cheese). And Petra, she complained, is too much walking and the animals leave piles behind them. And yes, the Treasury is nice, and carved out of stone, but after that, it’s just more of the same. Luxor (Egypt) was up here (hand gesture above her head) and Jordan is down here (hand gesture at table level). And then, one time, their van dropped them off for the optional excursion by 4 x 4 into the desert. They drove you for twenty minutes and you could climb a sand dune, and there was a gift shop. Then another fifteen minutes to a place where there was a castle, and more things for sale. Then some temple that was in Lawrence of Arabia, with more people selling things. And then back to the van to find the next tourist buffet. And the prices in Jordan….. It reminds me of Eric Idle’s genius Travel Agent sketch in Monty Python.
But the European woman was not “wrong.”
- The temples and tombs in Egypt are more remarkable.
- There is a limited menu of Middle Eastern foods, but of course we don’t mind: we love them all, and she does not.
- After a while, it’s true: if you’ve seen one great castle, others won’t measure up.
- And there’s no doubt that Jordan is more expensive than Egypt, India, Morocco, or even Spain.
- For that matter, here in the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, where we’re savoring our last two days in Jordan, the snorkeling is not as good as it used to be, twenty years ago, in the US Virgin Islands.
But if you want to keep traveling (and we do), you have to let go of comparisons and let each temple, museum, castle, meal, and hotel be itself. Let Jordan be Jordan. Enjoy the smaller fish in the Red Sea. Sometimes it’s better not to read the guidebook or placards and just look. And smell, like the ubiquitous fragrance of Bedouin incense in Petra.
Jordanians want tourists to come. They have welcomed refugees: millions of Palestinians, Iraqis, and Syrians who may never be able to go home. They have a prosperous economy and a fine tourist infrastructure. Enough people speak English, and smiles and gestures take care of the rest.
We leave you with a picture of Lynnell and our hotel manager, Mr. Farijat, at the Cleopetra Hotel (It’s not a pun in Arabic). He helped us with maps, internet, directions, restaurants, laundry, translation, and travel ideas. He believes his family-run hotel will still be going strong when it reaches its 100th anniversary. He’s a man of faith: it’s about to celebrate its 25th.