I’ll never tire of visiting Petra. It’s such an amazing place chock full of history, scenery, handicrafts, and Johnny Depp look-a-like pirates. I wish I could post pictures to back up the pirate claim, but you’ll just have to take my word for it. Petra’s swash-buckling pirates wield neither swords nor ill will, but they swagger about in skinny jeans, line their eyes in black kohl, and sport dreadlocks and Lawrence of Arabia style head scarves, all adding to the allure these rakish young men. They proffer rides on horses, camels, and donkeys to tourists with sales pitches that include, “Your wife will love you more” or “Free air conditioning.” Raj never seems too interested in getting me to love him any more than I already do and on this day it was just too cold to justify air conditioning. We walked.
Since I’ve already posted not one, but TWO detailed accounts of Petra, I’ll spare you the details and cut to the chase. This post is not about the beauty of Petra or the pirates that inhabit it; it’s about the purchases. Similar to a swap meet, once you make it to the second row of vendors, you’ve pretty much seen everything for sale. Petra is no different. You’ll find knives, jewelry (from silver to camel bone to plastic), ‘antiques,’ (reproduction Roman coins, etc) and more. It’s ALL the same. However, this time I saw something truly unique, handmade AND adorable–a first in Petra. The object of my affection was a handmade doll made by an older Bedouin woman selling her wares on the side of the road laid out on a cloth. She had the usual plastic necklaces along with four of the cutest, handmade dolls dressed in velvet and silk and with faces that had been drawn on by hand. I thought of my sister immediately and knew I had to buy one for her. (Notice that my first inclination was to be generous towards Nicole, my sister). I asked Raj to intervene (bargain) on my behalf (keep in mind that he’s still reeling about getting ripped off in Egypt over saffron). The woman told him the doll cost $5 JDs. I thought, “What a bargain! I’ll take ALL four of them!” Raj thought, “Too much.” He got her down to $2 JDs for one–all the change we had left (other than a ten dinar bill) and felt vindicated. I felt sad.
We walked away triumphantly until my selfish side got the better of me. While we walked, I admired the workmanship of the doll and decided I’d keep it. I couldn’t part with it and it was much too cute to give away. I mentioned this to Raj and he said, “That’s bad karma!” Whatever. Luckily for me (karmically speaking and for my sister) on the walk back, the three remaining dolls remained untouched. (Am I the only tourist to admire a real, hand-made handicraft? Apparently.) I picked up the doll and Raj handed the woman our ten dinar bill and asked for change ($8 in change for the $2 doll). Obviously she didn’t have change. No big deal I thought, “We’ll just buy the remaining three for $10 and walk away.” Nope! Raj wanted change and we only needed ONE doll. She left her make-shift shop and took off down the path for change. While we were waiting, Raj joked, “I bet she comes back with two fives.” That’s exactly what she did! She gave him the two fives. He handed her back one of the fives and asked for change again. Who cares, “She can keep the change,” I said. Nope. Raj wanted his three dinars back. She pulled out an old and worn chip bag (the kind you eat) that held her change and handed him his $3. I felt sad and cheap, but what could I do? I was happy that I had TWO dolls–one to keep and one to give to Nicole. Raj felt no such guilt, just pride in his bargaining skills.
There’s too much history related to Petra to even begin to do it justice so I’ll paraphrase thousands of years of history into one short snippet. Petra is located in the southern part of Jordan, in the midst of the Shara mountains. Due to the impenetrable towering barriers of rock, it’s not surprising that it wasn’t discovered sooner. (In 1812, a Swiss explorer entered the Siq in heavy disguise in the company of a local guide).
The Nabateans are the people who settled Petra, originally known for raiding caravans that passed through on the valley floors but eventually changing tactics by offering safe passage and a place to do business for merchants. Petra’s golden age was in the first century BC and AD. The Roman author Strabo describes Petra as a “wealthy, cosmopolitan city, full of fine buildings and villas, gardens and watercourses, with Romans and other foreigners thronging the streets, and a democratic king.” Despite Petra’s wealth and power, the discovery of the monsoon winds began to cause a shift in trade patterns. Overland routes from Arabia were being abandoned in favor of transport by sea, leaving Petra hard hit. Additionally, Rome was sponsoring the diversion of inland trade away from Petra and directing it into Egypt and Syria. Eventually, Petra fell into Roman hands and became a principle center of the new Provincia Arabia. Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the empire in 324, but for many decades the Nabateans mingled elements of the new faith with remnants of their own pagan heritage. There was a massive earthquake in Petra in 363, leveling half of it. By the time of the Islamic invasion during the seventh century, Petra was more or less deserted. In 747, another earthquake hit, possibly forcing the remaining stragglers to leave.
The Bdul tribe has been occupying Petra’s caves for as long as anyone can remember. In the early 1980s, the Bdul tribe was offered (more like forced) to move out to a settlement offering the prospect of electricity, running water, health care, and better education. The Bdul eventually departed, but their caves are still visible throughout the landscape.
Petra by Day
Petra by Night left me excited to venture into the park by day. It was even better by day and the natural beauty of the landscape and grandeur of the structures leaves you in awe of the ingenuity of mankind. One day is certainly not enough time for exploring in any thorough fashion. We plan on returning, hopefully soon, to go beyond the four hours that we alloted ourselves before turning back. Rather than walking you through the pictures, I’ll post them below in a gallery. The pictures do more justice of the site than my words can convey.
And breaking from the usual historical commentary, I’ve decided to include some personal highlights, the kind that aren’t fit for printing anywhere other than my blog. You may need these quips if you’re ever in this part of the world.
Personal Highlights Not Fit for a Guidebook:
There are cats and kitties EVERYWHERE and they are extremely friendly. If you are a cat lover, you are in HEAVEN. If you mildly like cats (as I do), then you’ll be happy too because they want affection.
Lots of dogs live in Petra too. They live a sadder life than the cats. They are super skinny, still friendly, but you’ll feel sad for them because you can see ALL of their ribs (and one was limping too).
Donkeys, camels and horses rule to roads here. What I liked reading in the guidebook was that if you see any cruelty going on with the animals, you can report it to a ranger. I didn’t see any rangers and they’d probably laugh at me or pretend to make a report, but making a note of this, I vigilantly watched for ANY animal cruelty, ready to report.
I asked Raj if there were bathrooms in the park. He said no (he’s only been there once without me) and so I went before we entered. Something I really dislike here are the unofficial bathroom attendants. Yeah, I know, it’s very sad that women have to make a living this way, but I hate having to tip a woman for sitting in the corner of the bathroom who supposedly keeps the place clean. After an hour of walking, I was desperate–despite using the facilities before we walked in. Replaying what Raj had said about there not being any bathrooms inside, I got VERY excited when I saw a port-a-potty. I went in and was disgusted by the liquid you know what on the seat…AND there was an ATTENDANT outside who I gave money to. I’m not sure why because I can tell you she wasn’t keeping anything clean. Just so you know, I found two more bathrooms further down the path–of the REAL kind (not port-a-potties), that were decent, with running water (ok, not a flushing toilet). These too had attendants.
Children here are charlatans. And they are EVERYWHERE selling EVERYTHING imaginable. Alright, this falls into the sad category too and had my sister been here, she would have left the park with cats, kittens, curs and hundreds of ugly necklaces and postcards from the throngs of children shilling their wares (she might have taken the children too). My favorite tactic was from a tenacious tween named Aiysha. She approached us while we were viewing the theater. She came up to us speaking perfect English, asked where we were from and if we wanted to buy any of her “beautiful necklaces.” We both quickly said, “No, thanks.” She told Raj, “Buy one for your beautiful wife.” Raj said, “No, thanks,” again. Didn’t work. She sidled up to me and handed Raj a necklace, “For your wife.” Raj said, “No,” again firmly and she said, “For free because I like your wife.” The handing of the necklace went back and forth about six times until we were forced to walk away. Alright, I know, I felt really sad. She mentioned that she “wanted to start her own business…” Didn’t work on Raj. As we were walking away, she asked Raj, “On the way back, for only 1 JD?” Raj said, “On the way back.” “You promise,” she shouted back. “Yes!” I was dreading the way back and rightly so. On the return, she immediately spotted us, running up to Raj. Before she had a chance to plea he said, “$1 JD for the necklace.” “No, $2 JD,” she responded, changing the agreed upon price. Oh, no. Raj did not like this sweet siq urchin switching her prices! To get her back for “lying” about the price for the necklace I didn’t even want, he said, “No! Give me 2 necklaces for $1 JD.” (“On principle, he told me.) Good God, I thought. He’s trying to rip her off now and she wants to start her own business! We didn’t buy any necklaces from her. Raj’s feeling were hurt because she lied to him. She was hurt because she didn’t sell anything. I was happy that I didn’t have the necklace that would have reminded me how sad the situation was.
People watching is at a premium here. I liked seeing all of the people dressed up in dresses, some in heels, lots of purses, for the trail walking. I’m not sure where they thought they were headed, but sand, dirt, and hiking do not go well with leather handbags and heels.
The locals have American colloquialism down. I can’t tell you how many of the vendors told us it was “Happy hour,” trying to sell us drinks (water, that is). The camel and donkey peddlers offered, “Air conditioned rides,” and “Lamborghini’s.” One camel guy made an offer of, “You want a @#$%ing camel ride?” I’m not sure if this was meant to be funny, mean, or if he didn’t know what he was saying. Lastly, on the way out of the park, I overheard a guide trying to hustle a woman into hiring a horses. She obviously didn’t like the prices quoted and said, “No thanks,” to which the guide said, “No money, no honey.” A few seconds later he added, “No chicken, no curry.” I’m not sure about the second one…but I love the locals’ command of the English language.
I FINALLY convinced Raj to take me to Petra. He’s been telling me for the past three months that it’s too hot and we’d go…later…With nothing to do and nowhere to go NOW, we finally made it happen this weekend.
Petra by Night
I was insistent that we go during the week because I really wanted to see “Petra by Night,” an after-dark guided excursion through the canyon (only offered three times a week, Monday, Wednesday & Thursday), lit only by candles (luminaries). Keep in mind, this is no “Lights of Liberty” tour where you have to wear headphones while emotive music is played to enhance your experience as you’re walking through historic sites, nor is it a pre-recorded, laser light extravaganza like the kind you see at the Mayan Pyramids in Mexico where a booming voice recounts the glories of the past while lasers and sound effects pollute the night sky. I found Petra by Night to be an amazing experience precisely for its lack of pomp and commercialism.
The gates open at 8:30 and you’re welcomed into the main gate. The walk takes about twenty minutes, mostly in silence if you’re lucky enough to be in the right company, which enhances the experience. It takes a little while for your eyes to adjust, but once they do, the night sky and the shadows flickering off the canyon walls are magical. When you finally reach the Treasury plaza (best known as the temple from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), the facade of the Treasury is illuminated from hundreds of candles in the sand. A guide seats you, either onto carpet on the sand in front of the plaza, or on a bench along the canyon wall, and then everyone is served Bedouin tea. Once everyone is seated, a Bedouin musician sings a folk song, followed by a another one on a pipe, and then a little bit of history is recounted by a guide. The whole “show” lasts approximately 45 minutes, just the right amount of time without making it too long or too short. Guests are invited to linger a little longer, and then walk back out along the candle lit path, back to the entrance.