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Pink and practically perfect Petra

Seeing is believing. The Rose Red City. The highlight of Jordan. Probably the highlight of the Middle East. Possibly the most fantastic place made by human beings in the world. I kid you not. It has all the features that make the jaw drop: vast scale, grandeur, beauty, surprise, location, supreme human effort, natural wonder, history, romance, magic.

I had seen photos of Petra in books from my childhood. A pink city in a desert carved out of rock during the two centuries BC. Just think about that for moment! Then imagine that such a place could be 'lost' for almost two millennia. I felt sure that one day I would see it for myself. The day was 6 September 2005. I had always imagined myself riding to it. So I did!

Riding past rock cut chambers and djinn towers towards the Siq

I dismounted and left the horse at the top of As-Siq, a long, extraordinary gorge down which you walk to reach the city. 1.2km long, at times only two metres wide, the sheer sandstone walls rise all around you, creating fantastic plastic shapes where the stone has been weathered by water, time and sand.

And the rock is multi-coloured! Pink, orange, sulphur yellow, manganese blue, white, red, maroon, crimson... changing all the time as the light and shadow plays on it.

I had read the guidebooks, heard people tell me how unreal the gorge is but nothing prepares you for the sheer fantastical madness of this crazy canyon. All the way along the bottom you follow a deep channel carved into the rock, down which ran the water to supply the city.

The first view
Just before we reached the end of the Siq the guide stopped us to 'warn' us that around the next corner we would see our first glimpse of Petra's best known view. I was already blown away, so the warning seemed all rather melodramatic. However... we rounded the corner and moving into view I finally saw it.

It was as if a bolt of pure, beautiful electricity had exploded in my chest. I wept like a child. And I wasn't the only one in our group blubbing. I stood for sometime unable to look again as if this wonderful apparation was just some fabulous trick in my mind and if I peeped it would be gone. But no, it was real!

Pink perfection
The perfect facade of the Treasury, as it is called, is 43ms high and cut out of the rock face and glowed pink and orange and is only one of EIGHT HUNDRED rock cut temples, tombs, houses, market places, amphitheatres, public and private dwellings that make up the city.

Many are badly eroded, being carved of sandstone, but the Treasury's position has protected it well.

Many facades are crumbling and worn by water and weather and appear to be, in some wacky Dali-esque way, melting away in front of your eyes. And everywhere as the grain of the rock is exposed, the stone appears to be marbled in gorgeous colours.

We shuffled slowly down the main 'street' (actually a sandstone gorge) marvelling at the edifices which leave you lost in wonder.

The Monastery
After lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant, a number of us decided to go up The Monstery, a temple carved around 300BC high up away from the main drag, about an hour's walk uphill in 40 degrees of heat. Sod that. I'd probably trip and fall down some steep gorge to certain and bloody death. Much safer to hire a nice comfortable sure-footed donkey. This would allow me time to paint at the top, too.

Me and my white ass clatter down rock cut steps
My big strong white ass knew the way and tore off ahead of the walkers. On the way up, away from the main city complex, you get a really strong sense of how vast this ancient city was. The little gorge leading to the Monastery was pock marked with carved caves and tombs, houses and niches, steps and irrigation channels.

Finally reaching the Monastery is quite a shock. Having left behind the main area, that something so large and utterly beautiful could apparently be so easily carved out of a fucking mountainside right up here is truly staggering. I tried to imagine to planning process.:"Hey, Ibrahim! How about you and yer mates carve a 45 metre grand facade out of the mountain up there?" Perhaps not. The facade is bigger than the Treasury and appears to be carved out of melt-resistant butter. I moored the donkey and sat in the shade strategically positioned drinks stall and got out my sketchbook.

Next day Moth and Carole planned to hike up to the High Place of Sacrifice. I could've taken another donkey and gone with them but I wanted to sit and paint.

I had my sights set on the facade of the Treasury in the early morning light as is glowed.

I'd love to spend a month in Petra painting! As it was, I only had the morning. I did this in 50 minutes:

Little Petra (Siq Barid)
Little Petra is the sort of place that if it weren't overshadowed by its famous neighbour would have visitors flocking in thousands. It's not as extensive as the main site or even as dramatic, but it is enchanting and somehow more approachable than Petra. It consists of one main gorge which opens out and in the rock on each side tombs, rooms and facades have been carved. Water channels and collection tanks are clearly visible and inside the chambers are carved platforms for sitting, dining and living. It reminded me very strongly of Cala Morrell in Menorca, only more ornate and twice as hot.

Al-Beidha neolithic village
Just around the hillside (a merciful ten minute walk) from Little Petra is Al-Beidha neolithic village, dated at 9,000 years old. "Skara Brae" we cried!

Thick walls of stone rubble have been excavated of a settlement of a small early farming community. A couple of neolithic houses have been mocked up to show the trickle of visitors what it would have once been like.

The bedouin children from the nearby tents danced around us and demonstrated how to use the various genuine 9,000 year old quern stones littering the place. Just 50ms away are some standing stones, but because we didn't read the sign we missed them. Grrr!

Petra by night
Petra by night is an event is billed in the tourist blurb as: 'an unforgettable experience evoking a unique atmosphere of Petra by candlelight... a magical way to see the old city'. It seemed unmissable! We booked. But when you go to Petra, don't be tempted to do it...

We walked the 1.5km toward the entrance to the Siq from our hotel and then walked the 1.2kms down the Siq - all lit up by candles flickering in paper bags. It was very pretty - looking up you could see the impossibly starry sky above the top of the gorge. The long walk led you to believe there might be some spectacle at the end. But what a disappointment! The space in front of the Treasury was lit with hundreds more candles in paper bags among which a bedouin man sat singing and playing a stringed
instrument. It sounded awful. Later, another man played the pipes. That was a bit nicer. A man got a torch and shone the weak beam round the Treasury's massive facade. It was pathetic. Soon after, a lengthy introduction was made in Spanish. The same speech was made in English. As the speaker began limbering up in German, Moth and I could take no more. We left feeling badly let down by the Petra authorities.

Is it safe to go?
The Iraqi invasion has hit the Jordanian tourist industry hard. People believe - quite wrongly - that Jordan is somehow 'dangerous' being a neighbour of Iraq. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is politically stable, at peace with Israel, has a thriving economy, industrious and kind people and its biggest attraction, Petra, is Jordan's main source of tourist income. There were many fewer tourists than usual. Good for us perhaps, but the local bedouin (who actually lived among these ancient rocks until 1995 until the government rehoused them nearby away from the site) rely on tourists' dinars to make a living.

- N O T E S -
Access for the disabled and less confident walkers
Petra is quite accessible for disabled people and less confidentwalkers. You can ride a horse to the Siq (as I did) or hire a calesh (a two-person horse-drawn carriage) which will take you both down the entrance road AND the Siq. Caleshs can also be used around the main street. The Siq is paved and smooth most of the way so suitable for wheelchairs. Donkeys and mules can be hired for moving around the main site and getting up the high paths to the mountain tops and remote sites. Camels are also available but these are only really for decorative purposes and getting up and down the main drag. Wheelchairs would find it difficult to get over the dusty flat paths of the main drag, but certainly not impossible.

Animal welfare: though worked hard, all the animals at Petra I saw looked to be in good health and well-fed. All the horses were adequately shod.

There are toilets built into a rock cut chamber which are spectacularly clean and flush, too! And restaurants and stalls (selling gorgeous locally crafted jewellery) can be found intermittantly throughout the site. Two restaurants at the western end of the Colonnaded street are wonderful. The desserts at The Basin restaurant would please the fussiest of Scottish megaraks.

Jane Posted by Jane
19th September 2005ce
Edited 24th November 2005ce

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