Today we went to Petra – the rose red city of the ancient world – and a long time entry on our bucket list of “must sees”. Note to self: 1 day, even a very long day, is nowhere near long enough….. 3 days is probably the minimum amount of time to spend, to really get a feeling for Petra. It’s massive. Absolutely huge. And note to everyone: you have to be able to walk, walk over rough stony ground, walk up and down slopes….. we walked 10 miles today just getting about half way in and then back out. There’s no getting around this. You can ride a horse some of the way. Or, a camel….. Or take a horse and buggy in what looked frankly to be the most frightening option of all, much akin to Mr Toad’s Wild Ride!!!! However, probably the best is to walk…. So be prepared!
Petra is a good 2 hours drive from Aqaba. We had booked a private small group tour with a company called Wonder Travels who got a good rep on CruiseCritic and other forums. Well deserved as it turned out. We were 15 in a nice minibus that would have sat 30, so plenty of room. The weather in Aqaba was around 20C and sunny but we’d been told that Petra would be much colder, probably around 6C, so everyone dressed in appropriate layers. We really didn’t have much in the way of warm layers. Bob had a thick t shirt and a sweater. I really had nothing. So, I borrowed a pair of his Indian trousers, one of his heavyweight Indian kurtas and one of our tablemates lent me a massive sweater. I had a pashmina as an extra shawl. It would have to do.
The drive is extremely scenic, much of it along the King’s Road, an ancient trading track, now a good road across a ridge, that overlooks the area known as the Grand Canyon of Jordan. The valleys and peaks of granite and sandstone are very beautiful, quite stark, multi colours, and colours that change with the sun and the cloud. Fascinating to observe. It appears very empty and apparently southern Jordan is. They are struggling against large influxes of refugees from Iraq and Syria which as caused great hardship in their small country. Unemployment has risen to 18% and Amman has now become one of the top three most expensive places to live in the Middle East because the Iraqis who have settled there have a lot of money and have driven house prices up massively into the millions of dollar range. Interesting. Still, we got a really good impression of Jordan, everyone seemed so friendly and genuine. No hard selling or pushiness, lots of humour, politeness and kindness.
On arrival at Petra, our guide issued our tickets and we set off down the ravine that leads to the wider parts of the city. It was cold. I had the sweater on over my kurta and the pashmina wrapped around my head and shoulders. After a while I took the shawl off, but the sweater stayed on till we started to walk back up the ravine at about 230. Strange and unusual weather.
No one really knows how long the site has been settled. The Bible says that Abraham died in Petra and that Aaron, the brother of Moses was buried there. It certainly was flourishing as the capital of the Nabataean Empire from the 1st century BC and grew rich as a result of trade in frankincense, myrrh and spices. It was annexed by Rome in the 1st Century AD and this protection continued into the 4th century AD. By the 7th Century AD, the city was abandoned, mainly as a result of changes in the trade routes as well as the fall of the Byzantine Empire which still protected the Nabataeans. It wasn’t rediscovered by the west until 1812, when a Swiss explorer persuaded local Arabs to show him the site. Until quite recently, Bedouins lived in the caves in the valley.
Petra is termed the rose red city because of the extraordinary colours of the sandstone from which the buildings are carved. The Nabataeans did not build structures, they carved them. This is how you determine their buildings from the Roman ones. Roman ones are built, Nabataean ones are carved. Much of the buildings that remain are tombs, temples, two Roman theatres, a colonnaded street, one of the largest temples found in the Eastern Mediterranean, churches, homes, a sacrificial site, and much that remains to be discovered. It is all spread over a massive area.
Petra is entered by a long, descending, very narrow canyon which bends around and back again for about 2 miles, completely obscuring the city and also making it easier to defend. The Nabataeans could just dislodge some large rocks and effectively block entry through the canyon. The walls extend up to 60m, quite impenetrable. In ancient times there were streams and springs within the valley which were channelled into waterways and which powered fountains and pools. There is still water, and the site is vulnerable to flash floods in modern times. We don’t know that much about the Nabataeans but a very similar city has been found in Saudi Arabia, which they also built.
When we first arrived, it was pretty crowded. There was a Costa ship in port as well as the QM2, and the QM had 32 coachloads (large) going to Petra today. It wasn’t as bad as I feared though, and as the day went on, the crowd thinned out which was great. Apparently you can stay overnight in some caves on occasion. That would be an amazing experience. On the way down our guide pointed out tombs cut into the walls and also some houses, the water course, statues….. Wonderful rock formations. Eventually we emerged from the narrow entry canyon into the wide area where the Treasurer’s House is. Probably the most famous sight in Petra thanks to Indiana Jones which featured it in the film’s finale. Lots to see here in the carvings which incorporate the days of the week, month and year, months of the year, weeks of the year in symbolic terms within the design. From there we proceeded on down the widening canyon which had shop facades carved into the sides of the canyon, carvings of Bedouin traders and camel trains, emerging into the more Roman area where there is a fantastic theatre, one of the few where all the seats are carved into the mountainside rather than built or constructed in any way. We also saw the Royal tombs, huge structures, a large church with a carved ceiling, and we climbed up to look over a lower area of the city which contained a nymphaeum, a colonnaded long street with shops, a forum/agora, a huge temple and a large palace. There was so much to see. We were on site for 6 hours and barely scratched the surface. Some of the areas require you to climb hundreds of steps, which we did not do today, some involve a hike of 3 or 4 hours. As I say, you need days to really explore Petra. It is much more extensive than Pompeii, for example, although not so densely built at all.
2 of our number should not really have been there. We had 2 American ladies accompanied by their families who were in their 80s and not in good shape at all. They could barely walk and really struggled. In the end we had to leave them sitting with one of their family members. It really wasn’t safe at all and I did feel that they should have done a bit more research/taken advice before booking. We knew it was a lot of walking. Even if the ground was flat and smooth, it would have been beyond them, let alone the rocky, hilly terrain. Bob and I were pretty tired by the time we’d climbed back up the ravine and reached the visitor centre. It was definitely enough for the day, but as I say, there was so much more to see. We would definitely plan to return and visit other areas before we get too crinkly ourselves.
By 330 we were staggering out, and we were taken for lunch in a local restaurant. Nice lunch of typical middle eastern meze style dishes. It was good to sit down. We set off for Aqaba at 4 and got back just after 6pm. Bob and I didn’t get back on the ship at that point but went into Aqaba centre to find some wifi. We set up base camp in a restaurant and did some catch up over a couple of glasses of wine. In fact the wifi was disappointing but we managed to get some things done. Sadly not all my photos transferred. I have some great ones of the day but they will mostly have to wait till we get to Cyprus on April 4th.