Half as Old as Time

Precious Moments
Wednesday 8th March 2023

 

I got up at 6am,  dressed and washed as quietly as possible as not to disturb Julie. I made sure that her passport and entry ticket were on the bedside table then whispered "see you later" before heading downstairs for breakfast.

Officially it wasn't served until 6:30am but I was there a few minutes early. It was an impressive spread. I went for the usual suspects of hummus, mutabal, labneh, falafel, & foul medames. All were good quality offerings. 

It was a grey day and much cooler this morning. Good weather for a hike, I thought as I set off striding with purpose towards the entrance gate of Petra, with a slight detour to a refuse skip to dispose of the empty winebottles we had accmulated over the last few days.

At the booth I showed my ticket. They didn't want to see my passport but did ask me "what's your name?"  I passed the test. What I said matched what was on the ticket and I was in! 

I checked the time. It was now 6:52am. 

.

The horses and their handlers were not offering rides this early, so I marched down towards the siq. I wasn't the only early riser.  There were plenty of other people strolling through the canyon. Most were taking their time, stopping to take photographs but I hurried along. 

For the majority of the time I was on my own, which felt incredibly exciting. Every now and then I took a few snapshots but I didn't stop. So I didn't break my stride. I didn't want to waste time. I was developing this idea of reaching the Monastery as soon as possible. 

Even when I reached the Treasury I kept on walking, I had seen it all before. I was now a man on a mission.

I continued down the street of facades. The stalls were still there, under tarpaulin covers but the shopkeepers were still tucked up in bed.

The mist was rolling over the top of Jebel al-Habis. There was still a smattering of people walking down the street, past the theatre and the Great Temple towards Qasr al-bint at the end. One by one they either headed off in different directions or stopped to look at something. I found myself with only two other couples ahead of me. 

Then one of the couples, two young lads, got drawn to explore the Grand Temple, so I moved up to second place. It was at this point I began thinking of it as a race. I was now catching up with the leaders, a mother and daughter. We were neck and neck when we reached a cafe at the end of the road. 

There no signs for the monastery, or Ad Deir in Arabic.

At this point we took different paths. They veered off to the right and I turned off into a grassy wadi.  I quickly realised there were no steps here, there wasn't even a path to follow, so I returned to the cafe to ask for directions.

I thought I had blown the race but the other couple, a mother and daugher, were sat down having a drink.

I asked the guy behind the counter, busy squeezing oranges, and he told me to follow the path behind the restaurant, aiming for the tall tree, then keep on walking straight, don't turn into the grassy wadi.

I thanked him profusely and followed his directions. I came to an open canyon. There still were no steps but at least there was a path to follow. This time I felt confident I was going the right way.

Along the way I passed many caves. Several had been repurposed, one had been turned into a stable for mules. 

Eventually I came to start of the steps. It looked incredible, like some ancient stairway to heaven. Ahead of me there were over 800 steps carved into the rock to reach the top. A processional way to the tomb.

 I turned around to have a look and saw the two young lads, not far behind. So I began the climb up in a quick march.

It wasn't steep nor precarious, two of Julie's main concerns, although care and attention was needed. Many of the steps had been worn down smooth. It wasn't all steps either. There were often long stretches of path up a gentle incline.

I continued onwards and upwards, and as before, did not stop for any reason.

Before I knew it I had already reached a significant height. The views back down the canyon were spectacular but I knew I had plenty of time to admire them on my return.

When I looked back I could see no one following me. I was on my own.

That spured me on. I didn't even stop my march when I took my bottle of water out of my bag. I kept on putting one foot in front of the next. 

The steps were getting steeper now, and it was taking considerable effort to maintain my pace. The heart was certainly pounding as I was breathing heavily.

Just as I was feeling impressed with myself two young runners came down the hill, bounding down at ease, talking to each other. I was so out of breath I couldn't say "hello" and just grunted a greeting towards them.

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The steps then levelled out as I walked through a covered market. None had opened yet, despite it being after 8am. At the end this row of stalls the steps began to go down for the first time. "Is this it? the end?" I thought, with my excitement building with every step.

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And then, as the view opened out over a plateau, there it was, to my right, Ad Deir, the monastery.  I almost cried I was so happy to have made it. I was even happier when I realised that I was totally on my own. I had the entire place to myself.

I stood in the centre of the courtyard in front of the facade and gazed at it in perfect silence. It was a magical moment. One I wanted to share with Julie, so I face-timed her, so she could virtually be here with me. 

She was just having breakfast. With her were the family of six, they couldn't believe that I was already here. I must admit I felt a great sense of acheivment. It had taken me less than 1 hour 15 minutes to reach here from the entrance and only twenty minutes up the steps. That was good going!

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"You should probably get some photographs done quickly before anyone else arrives" suggested Julie. "Good idea, dear" I replied. 

It looked similar to the Treasury but its features were well worn away because of its exposed location. They believe it was the tomb of the Nabatean King Obodas I.

It was huge, built on a monumental scale. The doorway alone was almost 10 metres tall. I walked up to it. There was a no entry sign, so I didn't attempt to climb inside, eventhough there wasn't anyone here to see me.

I didn't spend long that close to the tomb. The further away you stood the increasingly impressive it became, so I walked backwards, taking snapshots as I went.

With the cloud brushing the top of the mountain and the fact I was here on my own, it created an eerie atmosphere. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and my skin was all goosebumps. I couldn't believe how lucky I was.

It was such an awesome experience. 

After I exhausted all the options for photographs I saw a hand-written sign pointing to a "view". I was a little unsure to begin with. Was I being lured up to some hard sell scam?

My eyes followed the signs and I saw, high up on another mountain a few more home made "VIEW" signs, a large man-made cave, several Jordanian flags and at the very top there was a tarpaulin covered structure. 

Despite it involving many more steps I decided to follow it.

The climb up was relatively staightforward but when I reached the top the view was mostly obscured by cloud. Although, I was far from disappointed. It all added to this special aura.

Every now and then the cloud thinned out enough to see Ad Deir, and my heart raced. I stood there for what felt like a long while but in reality was only a couple of minutes before returning back down.

On my way I saw another person. It came as a bit of a shock. My complete solitude had come to an end. He didn't arrive from the path up from Petra but came down the hill from behind where I was walking.

By the time I reached the cafe in front of the monastery he had settled down to a coffee, with his feet up on the table. I joined him, although I kept my dirty feet on the floor.

He introduced himself as Jack, a Texan. He had been "staying with Bedouins" overnight and pointed in the direction from where he arrived. I imagined him sleeping rough in a cave with welcoming locals but it was more likely an AirBnB in Umm Sayhoun, a town known for being the "back-door" into Petra.

Others began to arrive soon afterwards. The silence was now broken. I felt so privileged for those twenty magical minutes alone here at the Monastery but it was time to leave and return down those 800 steps.

Storekeepers were slowly arriving, with donkeys carrying their loads of new supplies. It was interesting to see how these beasts of burden were finding their own way up. They weren't being pulled up nor pushed, no carrot, no stick. Instead they were simply walking up of their own accord, treading a familiar path they probably do every day. 

Walking down at a slower pace allowed me to stop and admire the stunning landscape all around me. I also admired the actual path itself, how it was cut into the rock overlooking Wadi Kharrubeh as it meandered its way down.

Even at this late time of the moring (9am) there wasn't many tourist making their way up to the monastery. Most guide books suggest late in the afternoon when the sun is low on the horizon and shines its warmth across the facade of Ad Deir.

I imagined there would be some congestion on the path during this time. I don't know if that is the case? I only know of my own experience, and what a phenomenal experience it was!

(Qasr al-bint)

I reached the end of the steps aroun 9:15am and stopped at the orange squeezer's cafe for a glass of juice and a coffee to repay his directions earlier.

A short distance away was Qasr al-bint. In the grand scheme of things it wasn't especially exciting. It's archiectural merits were limited to say the least, however as one of the only surviving free-standing structures in Petra, surviving two thousand years and multiple earthquakes, it deserved a moment of my time.

The moment quickly passed and I moved on, walking towards the colonaded street. I entered through monumental gates, with a breathtaking view of the Royal tombs in the distance.

The security at the gates, dressed in full Nabataean uniform, allowed my entry back into the city without even challenging me. No wonder their empire was conquered by the  Romans!

I took a detour into the Grand Temple, taking a unorthodox route, clambering over walls to the side of the main staircased entrance. Once again I found myself alone.

My thoughts drifted to a memory of our daughter's primary school teacher who fell whilst exploring ruins in Pompeii and severely injured his spine, never able to walk again. I was suddenly stricken with extreme caution, a feeling I'm unfamiliar with.

Having survived the adventurous route stopping only briefly to gawk at either a two metre base of a column or a fabulous phallous carving, I finally made it safely to the forecourt. It was laid with multi-coloured hexagonal floor tiles. It was incredible to think they had kept their colour, to a certain degree, now two thousand years later. 

Many of the columns still stood tall, at least partially, only one or two were complete. Some of them had collapsed, and a few had neatly toppled over showing us exactly how they were built, with these large discs of stone.

Not much is known about the complex. It's called the Great Temple but there's no evidence of it being a religious site. I continued from the forecourt up to a higher level.

Here there was a small theatre, probably for debating rather than theatrical performances. So perhaps this was a senate, or a parliament building.

Anyway, having reached the top of the top, as far as I could go, I returned back down the easy way using the gentle sweeping staircase to the colonnaded street.

From there I decided to find the Byzantine Church, following the path up the hill directly opposite. When I reached this large tent-like structure sheltering the remains of the church I looked back across the valley and was blown away by a great expansive view of the entire Great Temple complex. It was only then I realised how huge it was.

Back to the church, I entered a small enclosed courtyard. It dated back to the fifth century CE  but there wasn't much left. There were parts of a wall, a few columns, but the main attraction were the floor mosaics inside.

The conservation effort had restored the tiles. They were in amazing condition. One side had several images of animals. One reminded me of a Crested Crane with its spectacular headress. Another looked like a badly drawn cross between a giraffe and a camel. There was even two types of this giramel with different spots.

On the other side they were mostly images of people, saints I suppose. I guessed one must have been the patron saint of sailors as it was an image of a man standing on a shell holding a boat in one hand. 

I always find the Byzantine period of history fascinating.

The Romans converted to Christianity with Emperor Constantine I at the turn of the 4th century. He also moved the seat of power from Rome to Constantinople (Istanbul).  This was the catalyst that began the split of the Roman empire into East and West.

By the end of the 5th century the Western division had fallen but the Eastern division flourished into the long and succesful Byzantine era. They continued to rule these parts for a thousand years until the empire fell in the mid-fifteenth century when the Ottomans sacked Constantinople.

By then Petra had been abandoned. 

I left the church, walked up towards a pair of columns nearby. They looked striking, made from two different stones, the capital was a yellow local limestone but the columns were a grey granite.

I decided to take the bridge over the ravine to cross over towards the Royal Tombs. We didn't get this far yesterday, which was fortunate. Julie would never have been able to walk across it. It looked so rickety.

But in reality it was quite a sturdy iron structure and perfectly safe. Even so, Julie would have struggled.

I walked straight for the Royal Tombs, navigating my way around a few free-range donkeys who were also on the path. I didn't spend long here, as I had seen all I needed yesterday.

I was aiming for the top of a hill overlooking the theatre. From here I could really appreciate the scale of the auditorium. It was worth the effort of reaching this viewpoint.

It was here that Julie phoned me to say she had reached the Treasury and was about to walk down the Street of Facades. We arranged to meet by the theatre.

We smiled as an overwhelming feeling of love and joy came over us both when we met. We had only been apart three hours but we embraced like long lost lovers. She was so pleased for my experience at the monastery and I was so thankful for her suggesting it.

There was plenty more of Petra to explore, like the Temple of the Winged Lion, or the High Place of Sacrifice, even Little Petra, a smaller settlment half an hour walk away but after a very brief discussion we returned to the Treasury for a cup of tea.

The whole place was a hive of activity. We ordered our cup of tea each and people watched for a while.

There was a lot flamboyant posturing in front of the camels. Young pouting women contorted themselves into odd positions in an attempt to look seductive for their instagram followers.

One woman, who was sat on a camel, was really going for it. We found her oddly ridiculous and awesome in equal measures. 

Eventually we decided to leave Petra and return to Wadi Musa for some lunch.

By the time we reached the exit I had spent five hours and over 20,ooo steps marching around Petra. When I sat down on the steps of the museum to have my photo taken with the "I love Petra" sign I could hardly get back up again. I was absolutely knackered!

Back on my feet I took off my head scarf, dusted myself down and made myself presentable as we returned to the Movepick for another attempt to find their roof top terrace.

It was much calmer than yesterday and we were able to ask reception for directions. Unfortunately the terrace was closed due to the colder weather. Julie and I looked at each other in disbelief.

They suggested we could eat in the lounge instead.

So we walked through the central atrium which reminded me of a medersa with some beautiful lattice wooden windows and this traditional lighting hanging down in the middle, looking like an alien spaceship.

Just off the atrium was the beautifully decorated lounge bar. The celing and a feature wall were a golden spectacular bringing palatial oppulence to the room. The other three walls were disappointing, plain and simple in comparrison so we made sure we sat looking at the bling.     

Julie ordered a club sandwich which arrived quartered, skewered and filled with hard boiled egg! Undettered she picked out the offending oeuf and tucked in. 

I was pleased to see a vegetarian option on their burger menu. Top marks for trying but when it arrived it turned out to be just mashed potato in a bun! Not much thought had gone into coming up with that dish. Clearly no one from the kitchen had eaten it either. One bite and all the mash was sqeezed out onto the tray.

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It didn't matter, it tased good and I was so hungry I would have eaten anything to be honest. The local Petra beer did help wash it all down. 

After lunch we headed back towards the newly built Petra Museum. It was only opened in 2019! Then a year later the Covid pandemic happened.

It was a large modern building surounded by a shallow water feature. It didn't come as a surprise to learn that it was designed by a Japanese architect.

There were about 300 artefacts inside. The one that was by far the most impressive was a huge bust of a Nabataean god called Dushara. A mass of curly beard and hair that looked was the equivalent of the Greek god Zeus or Roman god Jupiter.

Apparently the bust was found in rubble at the foot of the temple Qasr al-bint and believed to have been part of a large pediment.

It wasn't all Nabataean artefacts. There were several neolithic items dating back 7000 BC. The most striking was a necklace found on a child buried in a small tomb. 

At the heart of the museum was a large circular room with large fragments of stone pieces displayed around the edge. In the centre of this room there was a floor projection showing an animation on a loop describing the "Endless Times of Nabataea"

It was all very interesting and free to enter so it was well worth a visit.

We left through the gift shop. We browsed briefly without buying.

With time on our hands we decided it was the perfect time for a siesta, returning to our room and retiring to bed. It felt really indulgent falling asleep in the afternoon but I needed the rest.

A few hours later we left our room and walked back to the museum gift shop. Julie had seen a book that Musa had recommended called "Married to a Bedouin" written by Marguerite van Geldermalsen about her life . She used to sell her books inside Petra, on the Street of Facades.

We also bought some fascinating postcards with images of Petra painted by Scottish artist David Roberts in 1839.  

Completing our spending spree I also bought an Iraqi bank note with the face of Sadam Hussein on it for my father's collection.

We decided to return to the Cave Bar. This time we sat inside one of the caves. I don't know if it was an original Nabataean or a more recent reconstruction but the cave had been carved by hand with two columns fashioned out of the rock to support the entrance.

We sat on low chairs decorated in that stripey geometric Bedouin style and ordered a mezze plater to keep us going until supper.

After taking our order the waiter walked towards one of those tables inside a perspex dome. He went to walk inside through the door only to find that it wasn't the door and went smack right into the hard plastic. I couldn't stop laughing as he staggered around holding his nose in his hand before regaining his composure.

I had to think sad thoughts, like United losing 7-0 to Liverpool to regain my own composure!

The mezze platter arrived and I was most impressed. It was of course just the usual selection of dips hummus, muttabal and labneh but they were absolutely delicious. It also came with a portion of tabbouleh and some pickles.

The bottle of local white wine was also exceptionally good. It was a Sauvignon Blanc from a lable called JR, Jordan River.

We got talking to a young couple who had been travelling across Jordan. They had already been to the Dead Sea and were heading to Madaba tomorrow. We recommended a restaurant in Madaba that we hadn't even tried ourselves but was on our list of places to eat! 

We returned to the hotel lobby for 7pm, dropping off a few of the postcards in a post box outside the museum along the way. We had a good chortle about the time we posted a load of postcards outside a museum in Stone Town, Zanzibar. They never arrived. The postbox was an actual museum piece!

Musa was there waiting for us. The meeting was mostly to arrange our schedule for tomorrow. Thankfully it wasn't going to be an early start.

He was also here to take the family and Tiffany to the Petra at Night experience, a candle lit walk through the siq to the Treasury. Ceri, Alex and Stuart had opted out, choosing to spend the evening together at My Mom's Recipe, where we had eaten last night.

Julie and I had also opted out of the candlelight show, deciding instead to try another recommended restaurant called Red Cave.

It wasn't far, only a few doors down from last night's restaurant but unlike the Bedouin tent of My Mom's Recipe, The Red Cave was simply decorated, going for the local cafe vibe.

The bare walls were only livened up by these framed black and white photographs, most of whom I didn't recognise. I assumed they were all actors, however in the middle of them all there was the unmistakable image of William Shakespeare. Most random.

Adding to the local cafe vibe was a television on the wall. Normally it would have been showing a popular TV soap opera but in here they were showing Go-pro footage from someone doing all the hikes in Petra!

We ordered. Julie had chicken and chips.

It was however elevated into something special with a huge amount of garlic.

I went for a Bedouin Shepherd salad, which was basically a simple salad of chopped tomatoes and cucumber with lemon juice and fresh mint, bound together in labneh yogurt. It was really refreshing.

My favourite dish however was the Muhhamarra. I had made this red pepper & walnut dip myself at home, however this delicious version also contained bulgur wheat which made for a completly different taste experience.

We were about to ask for the bill when the waiter brought dessert. I had earlier made a comment to Julie like "oh look, they have knafe in the menu" which he must have taken as "I would like to order one of these please".

Anyway, I ate it and it was nice but not as amazing as the one we had in Amman.  

We paid the bill and were just about to leave when the hiker on the TV was just reaching the start of the steps up to the monastery. A part of me I wanted to stay for twenty minutes, perhaps order a coffee and watch the footage but we decided in the end to leave.

It wasn't late but we returned to our room to pack our bags ready to leave tomorrow.


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