We set off bright and early for what promised to be the highlight of our trip – we were not to be disappointed.
We planned to spend two nights in the Crowne Plaza just outside the Nabatean site, in the lap of semi luxury thanks to my business trip garnered loyalty points.
En route we decided to stop off at Kerak Crusader Castle 116 km south of our Madaba hotel, via the Desert Highway. From there we would take a public minibus all the way to Petra, a further 177 km south.
Our taxi driver ceded to our request to stop on the way to the castle as we wanted to take in the breathtaking views across the Jordan Valley and down to a large dam. The road down had been a series of hairpins, with the Mujib Dam coming in and out of view several times.
The castle itself was fun to clamber around, which we did for around an hour. Construction had started in about 1140 and the strategically important battlements had seen many skirmishes and changes of command in its 877 year history, as well as unfortunately a later terrorist attack in 2016.
After lunch we found the bus stand and boarded a diaplidated vehicle that had two seats left unoccupied. We were now full and this was the signal that it was time to leave.
We were the only Westerners on board and as we sped down the potholed highway through the dusty land, ropy & distorted Arabic pop blared out of the indequate speakers.
We were counting down the km to our goal when, about 30 km for our destination, we suddenly pulled over into the dirt and the engine stopped. ‘Oh no, we have broken down’, I opined.
This seemed to be confirmed when everybody else alighted from the bus. Expecting too see smoke billowing from under the bonnet or the forlorn sight of a flat tyre, a scene to no doubt be followed by much consternation, head scratching and frantic action, instead everybody serenely filed across the road and into a tin hut.
This turned out to be a ramshackle prayer hall and it was now time to get out the prayer mats.
Relieved that it was not anything more serious, we were however somewhat perturbed to have to sit and wait for 45 minutes until duty had been fulfilled and we were able to continue.
We eventually arrived around 4pm and checked into our spacious hotel. Leaflets on display told of nighttime walks in the main site and down to the famous Treasury (Al-Khazneh).
Off to the ticket office we went to investigate and secured entry for that night and next day. Even better, all tickets were half price in recognition of Ramadan nearing.
With the night walk starting at 9pm, we had plenty of time to relax and eat, before we gathered at the entrance to the Rose City.
There were around 100 of us who strolled down the siq towards the iconic silhouette of the immense Treasury building. The siq once carried the water down a channel that irrigated the land and was the lifeblood to the ancient civilisation who called Petra home from around 210 BC.
After twenty-five minutes, the head of the snake reached the end of the siq. The gasps of wonder were heard by all as their eyes feasted on the sight before them.
Hundreds of paper lanterns flickered, their flames giving a warm orange glow to the base of the monolithic building carved out of the rock. The majority of the structure remained in moonlit shadow, an enticing peak into what awaited us in the next day’s bright sunshine.
The scene was unforgettable. The facts espoused about the site in general and the Treasury in particular washed over me. I didn’t care for information at that particular time. That could wait until the morrow, this was a moment to cherish, like sunrise at Machu Picchu or sunset over the Taj.
One of our guides read some poetry, first in Arabic and then in English. The prose was lovely, the Bedouin tongue even better. We left the site in a happy, reflective mood, excited for what lay ahead.
The BIG one did not disappoint. In fact I will go as far to say it was one of my greatest ever visits to a site. We started by retracing our previous night’s steps down the decline of the siq to the Treasury. You never forget your first daylight view of the Treasury!
The structure is magnificent, carved straight out of the imposing sandstone rock face. It is one of those moments that you just stand and stare in wonder. You have seen the pictures, but to be there in the presence of greatness is an awesome experience. A special moment that is hard to tear yourself away from.
Originally built as a mausoleum and crypt, as the name suggests it became the place that the Nabateans stored their wealth – precious metals, jewels, ceremonial dress & weaponry, although some say it was so named as it had been used by bandits & pirates to hide their ill-gotten gains. Nowadays the base is just an empty cavernous room rather than a huge ‘Gringotts Bank’ style vault, the walls just bare reminders of what they once housed.
Having drunk our fill of early morning amazement, we set off in the bright sunlight to explore the rest of the complex. Cave dwellings & shops carved out of the rock, a striking array of tombs of the good and the great, the remains of an amphitheatre, ancient colonnaded pathways, the columns of the Great Temple, a lone prison cell.
Petra is still a living, breathing city, with some caves still occupied alongside tented extensions. We watched some Bedouin shepherds moving their large flock of multi-coloured goats in search of grass, viewed excited children played with a beaten up old football and shook our heads at men with tanned leather faces who beckoned you to ride a camel. All wonderful stuff.
We strode up to the top of a large rock for a wonderful view across the site and got our first view of Petra’s second most celebrated structure, The Monastery (El Deir). For a small fee, an old Arabic entrepreneur let you blow a few notes from his bugle. I couldn’t resist, imagining that I was calling my clan to prayer.
We then headed up around 800 stone steps to El Deir for a lunch stop, detouring on the way to take in the remains of a holy place with impressive mosaic frescoes.
The exterior of the Monastery was almost as impressive as the Treasury, well worthy of a long gaze and a fair few pictures. Similar in design to the Treasury, it is much larger (50m high x 45m wide) but much less decorated. More likely a temple than a monastery, the vast interior is pretty barren nowadays.
After our latest awesome viewing, we then went on a LONG walk. Hamish had read about some impressive rock formations, so off we set. When we had walked for over an hour well away from the main attractions, we surmised that we had gone wrong and were very lost!
We actually stumbled across an encampment and the locals looked at us with a combination of puzzlement and unease at our presence on their territory. Even the camels started bellowing – it was time to turn on our heels and find our way back to the beaten track.
Finally after another good hour, the Monastery honed into view. The sun had long since set and the site was deserted – we feared a lock-in and upped the pace from purposeful walking to giant strides. We hardly even stopped for a last loving look at the Treasury. It was only as we traversed up the siq that the pace slackened. We were bushed, hot & sticky and the pathway seemed far steeper and longer than it had the previous night. Finally we staggered out of the exit gate.
The cave bar that came to our immediate salvation was horribly kitsch. The walls had been built to resemble the Nabatean caves we had viewed. They looked about as realistic as an ‘ancient’ monument off the Vegas Strip. We did not care a jot though, downing a litre of beer each without it ‘touching the sides’. I now recall this as my second most satisfying beer ever behind one drunk in Jerusalem old town.
We slept very well that night – next day we would be off to the desert…….