Half as Old as Time

Half as Old as Time
Tuesday 7th March 2023

 

We got up early for breakfast this morning and were rewarded by catching the sun as it was just rising from behind the hills.

I then stepped out of our tent bare footed and forgot about the door mats. They were made from a rigid plastic with short rounded spikes designed to get the sand from your boots and not for bare feet. It bloody hurt! 

Trying my best not to swear I limped my way across the sand to the communial tent for a tasty and plentiful breakfast. Julie had her bread and cream cheese as I filled my boots wth hummus, mutabal and foul.

We all gathered together with our luggage ready to leave. Before we did there was a little matter of paying our bar bill. It was only 10 dinars for several waters, a diet coke and one awful non-alcoholic beer we drank during our stay here.

Despite our early start Musa wasn't in a rush to leave. Ahead of us was a three hour drive to Petra and getting there by lunch was probably his objective. So it was gone 8:30am when we finally set off along the dirt tracks, past Jebel Qattar, through the village of Rum and on to the Visitor's Centre.

Here we said goodbye to our Bedouin hosts and transfered our luggage back to our minibus which was waiting for us. It was only here that the 4G mobile phone signal returned. The first thing I did was to check the football results. Was it true that United lost 7-0 to Liverpool?

Unfortunately it was.

From the visitor's centre we could see the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a rock formation of Jebel Um Ishrin. I felt as the universe was rubbing salt into my United wounds. Why did it have to be seven!

The name  comes from the book which T.E. Lawrence wrote about his time here helping the Arab Revolt take Aqaba. It's obviously a twist on the Five Pillars of Islam. 

I've started reading the book and had brought it with me but not found the time to read it here yet.

We were given some time to have a look around, take some photos, use the facilities.

Julie had a look around a store selling local products made by the Burdah Womens Cooperative. She bought this lovely blue scarf with an intricate pattern.

After a quick photo shoot with Musa as the cameraman we returned to the minibus and travelled a short distance to a train station.

 It wasn't a proper train station but a memorial to the Arab Revolt and their tactic of disrupting the supply lines to Aqaba by attacking the Hejaz railway. This guerilla warfare proved effective and a decisive factor in capturing the Red Sea port.

The station building was closed, the doors were locked, so we peered inside at a display of old black & white images on the wall. A few train carriages stood on the tracks and a little further away was the steam engine. We walked around them, taking photographs.

Musa found the manager who was more than happy to invite us to have a closer look at the engine. He unlocked a large padlock and released the chains that held the barrier shut.

"Who would like to have a look?" asked Musa. I was like an excitable child and was up there in a flash.

It was a confusing set up. The furnace was in the centre surrounded by a mind boggling twist of pipes with an array of levers, dials and wheels. Unfortunately I didn't have much time to admire the remarkable workings of a steam engine.  

Before I knew it, a train driver's hat was thrusted in my hand and I was made to sit in the window to have my photograph taken. To make matters even more embarassing the hat was too small (I do have a big head) so it was perched on top.

I grinned and bared it, said "cheese" and I may even have said "choo-choo".

With the photograph taken I left so that others could have theirs. Alex and Tiffany took their turn before the station master decided enough was enough and he locked the engine back up again.

Back in the minibus we rejoined the Desert Highway and drove North. At the junction for Al-Rajif we turned onto the King's Highway, an ancient mountain pass. It's even mentioned in the bible! Of course today it's a modern tarmac road.

The landscape was definitely changing, becoming more moutainous. Out to the West even the type of rock was changing. The Sharah mountain range had a darker sometimes redder almost pink hue that's associated with Petra. We were getting closer!

We came to the town of Taybet Zaman which Musa explained as meaning "Once upon a time"  the classic first line of any good fairy tale.

He didn't elaborate on where the name came from but seemed more interested in telling us about how the local mayor at the time had this idea where the old town would be leased to a property developer to build a five star hotel. It's a popular idea in Italy called Albergo Diffusi, where ghost towns are transformed into a hotel spreading the rooms across the town.

The proceeds from the lease would in turn help fund local community projects.

For some reason we left the tarmac road and drove down a bumpy track, where we waited a while whilst a herd of goats were ushered past us, before rejoining the King's Highway, completely by-passing the town of Taybet.

We continued our journey.

Musa pointed out the tomb of Aaron, the brother of Moses on the 4780 feet above sea level summit of the Jebel Harun. It's name simply means Mount Aaron.

"It is possible to hike there" he said.

There was a small 14th century Islamic mausoleum at the top for pilgrims of all faiths and none make the hike up for.

Julie gave me the look that spoke "Don't you even think about it!"   

A few minutes later we pulled over next to a small park with a large concrete candle in its centre. It wasn't the reason why we stopped.

Musa lead us to the edge overlooking the valley below. We could see the town of Wadi Musa or "the valley of Moses". It was smaller than I expected. After all this was the town nearest to the country's premier attraction.  But it was nice to see.

Musa pointed out the location of Petra. We all looked and couldn't see any famliar landmark. We could see the point where the lighter stone became darker rock. That was Petra. In fact the word Petra comes from the Greek for rock.

He drew our eyes to a crack in the rock, a narrow canyon or a siq . "That is the entrance" he explained. No wonder Petra became known as the "lost city". Unless you knew it was there you would never find it, even standing this close!

Of course the locals knew all about it, but it was brought to the world's attention when it was "discovered" in 1812 by the Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt whilst on his journey down through Syria to Medina and Mecca.

After that he continued his journey to Timbuktu but never made it. Whilst in Egypt he discovered Abu Simbel and then died of dysentry in Cairo in 1817.

Back in the minibus we rolled downhill into town. Musa suggested we stopped for a quick lunch before dropping our luggage off at the hotel. He gave us the option of grabbing a few snacks from a convenience store or a falafel wrap from the restaurant next door.

I wanted the falafel and went inside to get one to take-out. Before I knew it we were all inside ordering full sit down meals.

The interior design was a bit whacky, made to look like the inside of a cave, with a huge flatscreen tv to one side showing a sermon. At first I thought it was a live broadcast but everytime I turned to look at the preacher he wore a different colour. "He's had more costume changes than Madonna" I joked to Julie. It was only later we noticed the exact moment the colour changed and found it be an edit of several different sermons. 

I ordered their falafel sandwich meal which was a wrap served with crinkle-cut chips and a few dips. The sandwich was chopped up into bite-size pieces, making it a meal and forcing me to eat it with a knife and fork.

Julie had the chicken shawarma sandwich meal served in the same style. There was plenty of food on the plate and it was all fresh and tasty.

After lunch we all got back into our minibus and literally drove 200m around the corner to our hotel, La Maison.

We were too early to check-in but we dropped off our luggage. We were given labels with our room numbers to stick on our bags, which wasn't easy on our fabric rucksacks.

Our hotel was in a great location, within walking distance from the entrance to Petra.  

So we followed Musa down the hill to the visitors centre. Whilst he went to the ticket office we walked around the large square browsing the various souvenir shops. One shop sold fedora style hats and whips. I had forgotten that Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, the third movie in the franchise, was filmed here.

Musa returned with our tickets, each one had our names printed on them. We had to have our passports with us, to check our ID.  As it was 50 dinars for a one day pass and only 55 dinars for a two day pass, I suppose they didn't want anyone to resell the ticket for the second day.

Our tickets were scanned at the turnstile then a hole punch through it to show it had been used.

We were offered a horse ride from the entrance to the begining of the siq. Musa confirmed that they were actually included in the ticket price, but the horse handlers would expect a good tip. None of us took up the offer. After four hours of sitting down it was nice to stretch the legs a bit.

Whillst the horses cantered away down a sandy track that ran parallel to our path,  we slowly walked towards the narrow gorge and the real entrance to the lost city.

It wasn't long before we came to the first rock carvings. They were called the Djinn blocks. The word Djinn is Arabic for genie, a spirit ghost. The Bedouins believed these  decorated cubes cut from the sandstone were symbolic houses for the genies.

However they were probably only tombs. At least most agree that they are some of the oldest structures in Petra.  

Next up was the Obelisk tomb and triclinium. There was no need for guesswork here as a nearby inscripton in both Greek and Nabataean told us it was the tomb of Abdmanku and his family, and constructed some time between 40-70AD.  The triclinium refered to the lower level reception room.

It was well-weathered, being exposed to the elements, but it certainly began to stir the excitement and anticipation of what was to come.

When we reached the end of the road to the siq there was a troop of Nabataean soldiers reinacting "standing at ease" before jumping to it, grasping their spears and shields in order and marching up and down in formation.

The Nabataean empire developed during the 4th century BC as their wealth and power accumulated more from controlling the trade routes from Arabia rather than invading other countries. But even so, they still needed an army to defend themselves.

We entered the siq. It was instantly dramatic. The 70 metre tall cliffs twisted and turned their way, cutting through the mountain for over a kilometer. 

The path had a slight incline, a feature used to advantage with water channels cut into the rock. Every now and then an ingenious filtration system was created with deep basins capturing sediment as the water flowed over.

It was busy with people, both arriving and leaving but this hussle and bussle didn't detract from the awesomeness of this gorge. Each corner we took revealed another spectacular view. As glorious as this gorge was, it was difficult not to rush knowing that each step we took we got us closer to seeing one of the wonders of the world.  

There were plenty of features that could easily have been missed. Luckily for us we had our trusted guide by our side pointing out all the niches and carvings along the way. 

In a relatively wide section of the siq there was a lump of rock that looked like a pair of elephants. They must have been carved that way but I thought they were pointing the wrong way for the entrance. They faced you as you left the city.

Further along we came to a very worn out carving of a camel. The only detailed part distinguishable were the legs of its driver. It took our Musa assisted imagination to visualise the rest of it.

A few local bedouins were milling around the crowds offering to be guides and to show you where to get the best view. We had been pre-warned that they were unauthorised and often take tourists up dangerous paths to reach a viewpoint.

We had been walking down the siq for half an hour. It seemed to be getting deeper and  narrower. At some point it narrowed to only three metres wide, creating the best condition for light and shade.

With every corner we turned the anticipation stepped up a level. The heart was racing, our pace was quickening. We felt we must be getting closer, Musa had been quiet for quite a few minutes now.

And then, there it was! The famous Treasury, or Al-Khazneh of Petra revealed itself through a slender gap. We slowed our walk to almost a standstill to appreciate this moment. It was overwhelming.

We stepped out of the siq into the vast open space. Our jaws dropped.  It was an incredible sight, unlike anything we had ever seen before. It was essentialy a large sculpture of a temple miraculously coming out of the rock. 

Musa gathered us together to give a quick talk about it.

It was given the name Al-Khazneh el Far'oun, the treasury of the pharaoh, because of a legend that it was built by an Egyptian pharaoh, possibly during the time of Moses and that all his gold and treasures were hidden inside the urn and statues carved on the upper level.

"If you look carefully" he said "you can see bullet holes where the Bedouins tried to break them". True enough, the urn was pockmarked, shot to pieces. 

A poem by John Burgon in 1845 romantically describes it as the rose red city half as old as time. This was of course when the world mistakenly believed the earth was only 6000 year old. 

It's now generally believed to have been the mausoleum of King Aretas IV, a Nabatean ruler who died in 40AD. His daughter, Phasa'el, was married to who was known in the Bible as King Herod. 

It's position here, surrounded by cliffs on all four sides, protected from the wind and the rain. Much of it was in surprisingly good condition, the columns, capitals, architrave, and all those classic Greco-Roman temple features were in fine detail.

I couldn't get over the fact it was just a facade, a temple literally carved out of the rock. There was an interior, a few plain rooms but nothing of importance, regardless of what Indiana Jones told you, but that didn't matter. It was stunning and an incredible architectural acheivement!

The Corinthian style capitals with their intricate acanthus leaves were still very much intact but sadly most of the icons carved into the recesses had been either eroded away or shot to pieces.

On the walls ghostly figures, headless and shapeless, ravaged by man and time added to the Treasury's mystery. Although it hasn't stopped the scholars from attempting to identify them.

On either side of the main door they believe were images of B-list legends of Greek mythology, Castor and Pollux, the Gemini twins standing with their horses. It didn't take too much imagination to visualise them. 

Others were a little more difficult to decypher. On the upper level axe wielding Amazons appeared and right at the top there would have been four eagles to carry the soul away. 

It was interesting to see these square holes, a row of two from the top of the columns upwards. They were possibly holes in which to secure scaffolding or footholds for the sculptors and they gave clues to how it was built.

The general thought is that work would have begun on the top half, cutting into the rock, creating the blank canvas, before the sculptors got to work on it. Scaffolding would have been needed.

Then at the point where the squares stopped they must have been able to stand freely on the rock face. From there, they would quarry down a level at a time.  

In order to stay together as a group we all arranged to meet Musa at the cafe in the corner in half an hour. It gave us time to experience the area on our own. 

Of course we weren't alone, there were hundreds of people gathered in front of the Treasury. Although most of them weren't looking at the temple but instead were standing in a queue for a buggy to take them back to the exit.

There was another queue, a much smaller queue waiting to get a camel ride further into the city. I was impressed by how calm the camels were, sat in the middle of this crowded canyon.

Julie joined Musa for a cup of tea whilst I did another walk around taking photos of every square inch of the Treasury. I didn't have long before our half an hour was up.

We could easily have spent longer here but Musa reminded us that we had a whole day to ourselves tomorrow and there was more of Petra he wanted to show us today.

So we followed him towards another narrow siq to the right of the Treasury. It quickly opened out into what was known as the Street of Facades. 

Here traders set up their stalls to sell their trinkets and souvenirs in front of the weathered rock carvings. The poor condition of these facades made us realise how miracluous it was for the Treasury to remain so well preserved.

These didn't have a name, only a catalogue number.  Tomb BD69 and tomb BD70 were really impressive. Despite the lack of detail in the carvings these tombs were beautiful because of these layers of various shades of sandstone.

We almost made it through the siq of souvenirs without stopping but a stall selling sand filled bottles caught the attention of some from our group. A guy who made them was giving a demonstration. It was interesting to see how he layered sand of many colours, then somehow drew images of camels or the word Petra in black sand.

Despite his mastery they didn't interest us. Julie even said out loud "I can't think of anything worse!" just when Andrea was about to buy one.

 

Another hazard of the siq were the camels. Every so often we had to step aside as a couple of camels were galloped through. Their handlers raced them to the end of the road where at this time of the day they were more likely to offer rides back to the Treasury.

The path continued gradually downhill towards a large theatre. Along the way the rock continued to grab our attention. The coloured layers weren't just linear but swirled around creating some mesmerising patterns.

In addition there were many caves in this area that had over the years become inhabited.  However today's inhabitants craved attention rather than refuge.

Petra, or Raqmu as it was known to the Nabataeans went though a construction boom during the first century AD transforming it into a city to rival anything the Greek and Roman empires could offer.

It was also during this period the theatre was cut into the Jebel en-Nejr. It was the first sign of a place where people lived and not just a tomb filled necropolis.

Apparenlty the theatre is estimated to seat 8500 making it much larger than the one we saw in Amman although it didn't look like it. Along the back wall, in what looked like executive hospitality boxes were in fact exposed tombs as the expansion of the theatre sliced through them.

By the second century the all conquering Romans annexed the Nabataean kingdom and  Petra became the capital of the Roman province of Arabia Petraea.

Our journey continued to what's collectively known as the Royal Tombs. The identity of those once buried inside the four tombs are not known so instead they were known as the Silk, the Urn, the Corinthian and the Palace tombs.

They were set up on the hill of Jebel al-Khubtha to the right. We could see the arches beneath the Urn tomb. The others were tucked away around the corner. I desperately wanted to explore this area but Musa wanted to give us a quick orientation of the site before leaving us to our own devices.  

So we crossed over a wide channel which looked like a dry riverbed. In 2018 Petra suffered some horrendous flash foods where 20 people died. Even a few months ago in December it flooded again, fortunately with no casualties.

The path we took ran parallel to a colonaded street in front of the Great Temple. Here Musa brought us to a stop, looking across to its multitude of columns. He recomended exploring it tomorrow.

He then pointed out the mountains to the West, towards Jebel al-Habis and others, and tried his best to show us where to find an old Crusader castle.  We all nodded as if we could see it but I couldn't. Also, somewhere up there, not in view, was the Monastery or Al-Deir, probably the second most photographed tomb of Petra. It was too far to reach this afternoon. By all accounts it would take over an hour to walk up and the site shut at sunset, which today was only two hours away.

He also pointed out the small but important temple ruin of Qasr al-Bint or the "castle of the pharaoh's daughter"  Its significance is that it is one of the few free-standing buildings still intact in Petra.   

That was the end of Musa's guided tour. We discussed our plans for the evening. Either we could eat a buffet meal offered at the hotel or he recommended a few restaurants we could try.

We liked the sound of one of the restaurants and couldn't bare the thought of a buffet for supper. Although it was Tiffany's birthday today and perhaps Musa had arranged a cake or something!

In the end we all decided to go our separate ways, which we prefered.

Tomorrow was also a day where we could make our own plans, so we all arranged to meet back at the hotel 6pm tomorrow. 

Julie and I began our walk back by heading straight to the Royal Tombs. The path we took was up hill through a field of stones, which was all that remained of the residential district. Petra had been rocked by several earthquakes over the centuries, the most devastating was recorded in 363CE, bringing down almost all of its buildings.

We were getting closer but between us and the Royal Tombs was a small ravine and the only way to the other side was over a narrow bridge which Julie simply couldn't bring herself to cross. So we had to double-back on ourselves.

Determined to get to the Royal Tombs we followed the main path back to the foot of Jebel al-Khubtha then followed steps up. It was obviously a popular route as traders had setup shop all along its path.

We first came to the Urn tomb. It had one of the largest interiors of all the tombs in Petra and the only one to have a colonaded courtyard to the front with a two-storey vaulted structure leading up to it. It was impressive.

We didn't explore it. "We'll do that one tomorrow" I said.  

Next along the path came the  Silk tomb also known as the streaked tomb because of its incredible coloured sandstone. It was like it was touched by an artist's brush!

Next along was the Corinthian tomb. It was  in a very exposed position and badly eroded by the weather. The main doorway had even collapsed.

It was named the Corinthian simply because of the style of the column capitals. We didn't stop. Instead we marched on.  

The final and the best of the Royal tombs was the monumental Palace tomb. It was also in poor condition but standing at 46m tall at its highest and 49m wide it was one of the largest in Petra.

It was best seen from a distance so we continued along the path for a while until we reached a point directly opposite. The view from there was a classic image of Petra.

 

After several minutes of gazing at the tombs I went exploring, climbing inside through the largest of the doorways. There was nothing of note to see, just a hollowed out cave.

It smelt of urine which ruined the experience. I don't know if someone was sheltering there or was it disrespectful tourists relieving themselves. Either way it was unpleasant.

There was a great view of the valley below from the Royal tomb.

When I rejoined Julie we talked about tomorrow and the climb up to the Monastery. She was concerned that she would not only slow me down but also injure herself in the process. So we agreed that I should get up at sunrise and do it on my own. Then we would arrange to meet up by the Treasury later in the day.

It was now around 5:30pm and we were probably and hour's walk away from the exit so it was time to leave. We followed the path back down the way we came.

We waited for this mule riding bedouin to cross our path. He was dressed in this flamboyant fur coat and wore a bandana on his head looking more like a pirate of the Carribean than a bedouin of the desert. 

As we continued on our return journey it was interesting to see things from a different perspective. Features that we hadn't noticed when walking down the street of facades earlier, such as a castle-like facade high up the hill.

When we came back to the Treasury it was a lot quieter. It was even empty enough to easily get a photo without anyone standing in the way!

We took a minute or two to appreciate the relative tranquility before continuing our march to the exit.

We entered the siq and often found ourselves alone. This feeling of being the only people in the gorge, no one ahead of us, no one behind us, was surprisingly powerful. It gave us the goosebumps!

It was a thrill, with every corner we turned, multiple magical moments as we walked through the siq alone.  

 The sun was now setting, we could see the orange glow against the rock high above the siq.  It was still light enough to see our way through the gorge.

We wondered how they ensured the site was clear of visitors before it got dark. It's not as if we saw any staff ushering tourists out of the park.

We emerged from the siq shortly after 6pm. There was a small souvenir shop to the left. Feeling parched we stopped to buy a cold drink and sat down on a low wall for a few minutes. I'm glad we did as we saw the glorious view of the sun setting behind the siq.

It was 6:30pm precisely as we walked through the exit gates of Petra. Perfectly timed.

Instead of heading straight back to the hotel we decided to visit the Cave Bar. It was part of the Petra Guest House, a hotel literally at the entrance to Petra.

The caves looked authentic and the main restaurant appeared to be inside a tomb. It may have been partly an elaborate reconstruction but it looked great.

The only thing that didn't look right were these plastic domes, isolations pods left over from the covid pandemic. People were sat inside, eating, looking odd.

Other than that the bar had a lovely chilled out vibe. It was a pleasant evening so we sat outside looking out over Wadi Musa sipping a glass of wine and a cold beer. It felt so good to take the weight off our feet and relax.

Moving on we walked the short distance across to the Movenpick hotel. We had heard that it had a roof top terrace. Unfortunately the reception desk was too busy for us to  ask for directions and there were no signs. So we gave up on finding it and returned to our hotel.   

We picked up the keys to our room. Our cases had already been delivered. We were pleasantly surprised by a spacious corner room, done to a relatively high standard. Certainly by Intrepid's "Basix" standard it was the best room yet.

With the air con turned to 18C we spent a few hours literally chilling and unwinding . It had been another long day.

At 9pm we forced ourselves to leave our room and search for a restaurant called My Mom's Recipe. It was easy to find with a large bright sign outside.  Inside was an explosion of colour. Fabric was draped from the walls and the ceilings creating this crazy Bedouin tent vibe. 

The theme continued up the stairs and into their restaurant. It looked fabulous with the entire ceiling covered in traditional patterns.

It was very popular and we didn't have a reservation so we crossed our fingers and hoped they had a table for two available. We were in luck and were shown to a table in the middle of the room. There were several large groups eating, and another just arrived after us. It all created a lively atmosphere.

 I opened the menu and was absolutely cock-a-hoop to see a vegetarian section. For a change I had plenty of choice. Too much in fact, as I wanted to try them all!

We began with some flatbread served with olive oil and dukkah, a dry combination of seeds and spices, which would stick to a piece of oil soaked bread. So delicious I would have been happy with that alone.

Next up we had tabouleh and some mutabal with more flatbread. They also tried to serve a bowl of hummus which we hadn't ordered but we sent it back. I was already getting full. We also had deep-fried haloumi cheese, three thick fingers fried to a golden brown. They were so good!

For my main course I decided to try a dish known as Shakrieh, potato, cauliflower and rice in a yogurt and tahini sauce. It was a peculiar dish because all the ingredients were white, so it lacked any colour. It was a very beige dish and looked unappetising.

To be honest, it also lacked any real flavour which was disappointing. I thought about trying to make the dish myself at home, but roasting the potatoes and cauliflower first and introducing some spice.

Julie had the lamb chops with fries which was the total opposite of beige as it arrived served on a golden chest as if it were some holy grail. It was the strangest way of presenting a dish we had ever seen!

At least Julie enjoyed the chops, cooked nicely with plenty of meat on the bone.

The service was efficient and friendly and we were back in our hotel room less than an hour after we left.

It was lights out by 10pm, I had an early start in the morning.

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