A Very Long Day in Petra

October 6, 2012

Photo set on Flickr

Introduction

Although with Google around this doesn’t serve much purpose, nonetheless here is a very brief background on Petra:

Petra was founded in the 4th century BC by the Nabataeans, a nomadic people who over a few centuries founded a small empire in the Arabic Peninsula from Yemen to Jordan. The Nabataeans generated great amount of wealth from frankincense trading, which provided the source to building some of the most magnificent buildings and monuments in the region, with Petra being their crown jewel. After being annexed into the Roman Empire by Trajan, the Nabataeans and Petra experienced a rapid decline.

Nowadays not much is known about the Nabataeans as very limited amount of written record on this ancient civilization has been found.

Morning

The Treasury in the early morning

If there is any unfailing tip on visiting famous icons, it is no doubt to get up early and stay late (Angkor Wat excepted). Given Petra’s fame, this rule is a must in order to have a brief moment of serenity at the site. We stayed at Petra Palace, located a few minutes’ walk from Petra’s entrance, where we bought the heftily priced one-day tickets (50 JD each).

At 6:30 am, the sun was firmly fixed in the sky, yet amazingly there were scarcely any people in sight. The feeling that I had genuinely arrived at Petra began to sink in when we reached the Siq, the mile-long naturally formed gorge that serves as the entrance to the ancient city. Initially we set out to be at the Treasury on the other end of the Siq as quickly as possible before the crowd showed up, but soon our pace was compromised by the beauty of the narrow gorge (3 meters wide at the narrowest point). Each twist and turn revealed subtle differences in colour, formation and shape in the rock. In the absolute silence our full attention was captured by the various shades of red of the rock and the soft layer of sun ray that was shining on the tip of the towering walls of rock.

The sound of trailing footsteps snapped us out of our complacency as we picked up our pace again. After a final twist there it was – the Treasury framed by the walls of the Siq. After seeing similar images hundreds of times beforehand, I almost always find these classic postcard views to be a little anticlimactic. Cliché or not, I was determined to take one of my own, but by my estimation the light would not shine on the Treasury until ten. That’s 2.5 hours later. Our early start was still highly rewarding as I got a clear shot of the famous structure without any tour group getting in my way.

To have the Treasury all to ourselves was an unexpected luxury. A fleeting one too, as a cluster of noise was emerging behind us from the Siq, signaling it was time for us to move on.

Street of the Facades

Adjacent to the Treasury is the Street of Facades, with large tombs lined up on both sides. Petra is synonymous with the soft and gentle colour of pink because of John Burgon’s famous poem – a rose-pink city that is half as old as time. What I saw was markedly different. The morning sun divided the basin’s red sandstone into two extreme halves. The side blessed with the bright morning light emitted a fiery blend of orange while long shadow engulfed the other side, robbing all the colours that existed underneath the darkness.

Our early start did come with a price – we were in the middle of a barren valley on empty stomachs. The time was 8:45 and our hotel’s buffet would end at 10:00. My wife kindly made her way back so she could get some food for the two of us. I would meet up with her at the hotel after taking some more photos of the Treasury.

I walked my wife back to the entrance to the Siq. Predictably, package tour groups were arriving in full force at this time, clogging up the small plaza in front of the Treasury and eliminating any possibility of developing an uncompromised perspective of Petra free of random conversations and chatters.

Adding more hassle to the scene was the emergence of touts who were eager to cash in on the massive amount of tourists by offering them horseback ride to the Monastery or back to the entrance. This is my only complaint about Petra – walking along the city’s network of narrow roads and trails was regrettably turned into an exasperating exercise of dodging and rejecting the countless amount of touts on horseback or carriages.

High Place of Sacrifice

On my own now, the High Place of Sacrifice was my next stop; a no-brainer as the trail to the altar provided welcome relief to the ever-increasing number of tourists who congregated at the Treasury and along the Street of Facades. The trail might have very few tourists, but there was no avoiding the omnipresent donkey-riding touts – I was knocked to the ground by one just a few minutes on my ascent. Between the donkeys and their excrement, climbing the 800 steps to the High Place of Sacrifice required walking in a zigzag pattern that doubled the necessary time and energy.

Morning is an ideal time for this climb as most of the trail is shaded from the sun. I got to the top in a little more than half an hour. The reward for my effort was two obelisks and a few altars, none of which were particularly interesting. It was not a lost cause, however, as I enjoyed a majestic view over the surrounding valley.

The Treasury at 10:09

Instead of heading down to Wadi Farasa and the Garden Tomb, I descended the same steps and returned back to the Treasury at exactly ten o’clock. The iconic rock-cut structure at this moment was completely covered by a flood of sunlight – the cold sandstone from a few hours ago now seemingly glowed like a giant LED panel. If not for the crowd I wouldn’t mind staying awhile longer, alas the stream of tourists showed no sign of relenting. Time for some food and a quick nap at the hotel.

Afternoon

The Siq

From our hotel to the Treasury required almost an hour. All the back and forth might not seem like an efficient use of time on paper, but the noontime nap did wonder to remedy our early rise. Another benefit was we got to walk through the Siq again. Along the Siq’s considerable distance we often found ourselves all alone, an improbable feat given the vast majority of visitors enter Petra through the passageway.

Unlike in the early morning, the light from the afternoon sun could be seen even at the very bottom of the gorge. With the addition of light, the Siq became something very different from the one I remembered from the morning. Being at Petra hammered home the idea of how the positioning of light could turn an accustomed sight into an unanticipated revelation.

“Monastery? Entrance? Horse fast, walk slow.” The all-too-familiar greetings from the same touts once again welcomed us upon our arrival at the Treasury. Seeing our lack of interest, they would habitually beat their houses into the canter gait and left behind a cloud of dust. Hiring a ride is not so much about getting to the destination faster as having a hassle-free journey along the way.

Our main goal for the afternoon was climbing to the Monastery, probably the second best-known structure in Petra after the Treasury. My wife, who has acrophobia, waited for at the museum because we were told the climb to the Monastery is a bit rough. A few worn-out steps and the by now expected donkey excrement aside, the trail was easy, well-shaded and provided much better view of Petra than the one to the High Place of Sacrifice. Here, on the surprisingly empty trail, I could at last gather my thought and admire the bewildering mix of nature and human artistry before my eyes.

The Monastery

At first sight, the Monastery couldn’t hold a candle to the Treasury. Without the grand lead-in from the Siq or elaborate decorations, the Monastery has seemingly been banished to this forsaken part of Petra on purpose to spare it from the constant comparison to its more celebrated counterpart. Upon further inspection, however, the Monastery proved to be even more photogenic, its sturdiness a natural fit with the wilderness it happens to be upon.

Even given its location the Monastery is supposed to draw its fair share of visitors, but there I was, standing all alone in front of its huge doorway, feeding my ego with a sense of unjustified self-grandeur even though I knew tens of thousands of others had stood at the very same spot before.

I sat down and did nothing but looked at the sky for the next 20 minutes. Time, as always, was in limited quantity. Between not wanting to keep my wife waiting for too long and that I had to find a good spot for sunset I was unwillingly on the move again.

Sunset at the Royal Tombs

For non-photographers the notion of sunset watching invariably means finding an unobstructed viewing spot, usually high up on a mountain or by the seaside, and wait patiently to see the sun gradually sinks below the horizon. The sun is obviously a captivating object, but more often than not the most interesting subjects to photograph lay upon the direction of the golden sunlight.

For Petra, the general consensus is that the Royal Tombs is one of the better places for sunset, given its accessibility in the heart of the compound and a wide surface facing the west. I climbed up to a cliff on the opposing side of the valley, again leaving my considerate but slightly upset wife below. Not wanting to test her limit, I quickly finished taking the panoramic photo I had in mind.

The streets of Petra were again completely empty, just like how it was in the early morning. Seeing the ancient city in this state again felt like coming full circle to where we began, only this time we were heading towards the opposite direction, carrying with us not anticipation but satisfaction. The elated feeling was instantly interrupted and dampened, however, when the disturbing screams of a small puppy echoed across the valley. In front of the Treasury a few Bedouin kids were playing a repulsive game of slashing and kicking the clearly frightened dog; their uncontrollable laughter contrasted sharply to the dog’s dismay.

Our response was an emphatic silence. Above the sky was swiftly darkening – the road back to the hotel couldn’t seem further away.

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