We found shelter for the night inside the crumbling walls of a crusader castle. As dawn approached we made our descent, clamoring over rocks and sliding down cliffs of sandstone, there, hidden amidst towering hills we found the city of Petra.
The rising sun revealed rocks awash win a swirling mass of color, into which the ancient Nabataens had carved a huge city, complete with palaces, temples, tombs, houses and stables. Time has diminished the definition of the buildings and their elaborate facades, creating an effect like melting candle wax. Ripples of sandstone in shades of blue, white, red and pink give Petra its color, creating a marbled effect that is most dramatic at sunrise and sunset when the rocks glow as if burning from a fire within.
For the first two hours we saw no one and wandered, awe-struck through the valleys. It was almost as if we had crossed into another dimension, where everything was slightly unfocused and dream-like. It was the first time I had ever seen my friend Felix lost for words.
The sun started to heat up the desert and the effect of sleeping rough with little to eat or drink was beginning to take its toll. Salvation came in the form of a Bedouin who invited us for tea. Insisting I ride the donkey, he led us to a sheltered spot by a cave. With a handful of twigs he soon had a crackling fire. A little tea was added to the boiling water and a big bag of sugar. The resulting brew was sickly sweet and very reviving.
The Sands of Time
The Nabataens started to arrive in the third century BC and were soon policing the lucrative spice trade that passed through the area. They also indulged in their passion for carving and their city grew out of the rocks, rapidly becoming the capital of a flourishing empire. The city was eventually lost to the Romans in the second century AD and gradually diminished into obscurity.For hundreds of years Petra remained hidden from the outside world. Set on the edge of a giant wadi (canyon) it is surrounded by rugged mountain ranges which protect and hide the city. The Bedouins who made their home in the caves of the city were not eager to share its existence with outsiders, fearing that an influx of visitors would threaten their existence. It would seem that their fears were justified, for in the mid-eighties most of Petras’ inhabitants were relocated to a nearby village, although many still make a living selling souvenirs, antiquated coins and skillfully filled bottles of sand.
Most visitors enter Petra through the Siq, a two kilometer winding cleft in the rocks. Sheer walls of sandstone rise up sharply, at times almost touching overhead as the path narrows to six feet in places. At the end of the passage you emerge in bright sunlight and the Khazneh (Treasury Building) is revealed in all its splendor. It is the finest and best preserved of all the buildings in Petra.
My friend , having regained his power of speech entered every rock carved temple and chanted om………. He received some rather puzzled looks that soon turned to appreciation as the deep sounds reverberated around the walls and the acoustics of nature worked their wonder. Inside one temple a man seemed annoyed by Felixs’ chanting but as we walked away I realized he had just been waiting his turn, for his heartfelt rendition of the Hymn Jerusalem filled the valley.
The midday heat was intense and exhausting so we took shelter in a large goat-haired tent, known to the Bedouin as bayt ash-sha’ar (house of hair), and stretched out on the cushions for a siesta. As the shadows grew long with the late afternoon sun, we wandered back out into the ruins and came across a spring and plunged in to be completely revived in its icy depths.
Petra is blessed with an abundant water supply, without which habitation would be impossible. Eighty per cent of Jordan is desert, in parts stretching much further than the eye can see, creating optical illusions as it merges with the distant horizon. Its beauty lies in its starkness and its silence. There is almost a complete lack of vegetation and color, except in the spring when the desert comes alive with a profusion of wildflowers, including purple thistles, red poppies and black iris.
To the South of Petra lies Wadi Rum, a small Bedouin settlement with some of the most spectacular desert scenery in the world. Millions of years ago explosions beneath the earth’s surface thrust up giant mounds of granite and sandstone, what remains resembles tidal waves frozen in time. Like Petra the sandstone is predominantly pink although the colors are constantly changing as the sun moves overhead. We met a guide named Mohammed who offered to drive us out to Sunset Rock and to a well used by Lawrence of Arabia during the Arab revolt. After a brief stop to meet his family and drink the obligatory cup of tea we arrived at Sunset rock and what was indeed a remarkable sunset. The Well however turned out to be a rusty pipe that briefly emerged from the rocks and dripped. It was a nice place to camp though so we built a fire and slept under brilliant starlight. We were woken early the next morning by a small Bedouin girl who seemed to be inviting us for tea. We could see no form of life around us and wondered where she had come from, but as she led us around a hill we saw a large tent.
While successive civilizations have risen and fallen the lifestyle of the Bedouin has changed little over the centuries. For many the only concession to modernization being the addition of a Landrover. They are amazing people, adept at survival in such a harsh land. The nomadic still roam the desert in search of grazing lands and water, knowing no borders, only the vastness of the desert. The camel plays a vital role in sustaining life, resisting heat and dehydration it provides transport , milk , meat and clothing. Bedouin hospitality is a ritual. For people living in the desert it would be unthinkable to let a stranger pass without inviting them in, as any contact with the outside world is welcome. Such hospitality extends to all Jordanians and we were always treated as honored guests.
The Ruined City of Jerash
The dry climate has helped to preserve a number of ancient sites where the ground is often littered with pieces of mosaic ,shards of pottery and occasionally flint tools . The remarkable state of preservation of the Roman ruins at Jerash is due to their being covered in sand for hundreds of years.Situated just north of Amman it is considered to be one of the most complete of any Roman settlement in the world. Only ten per cent of the city has been excavated, including baths, theaters, a giant forum and the colonnaded street flanked by two hundred and fifty towering columns. The pavement is original and embedded with the marks of chariot wheels. It’s impressive now and must have been incredible in its heyday.
The capital, Amman lacks the old world grandeur of its neighboring capitals Jerusalem and Damascus. Its charm is due to an amiable atmosphere and friendly population. There is a well-restored Roman amphitheater in the center, surrounded by a tree lined plaza and a number of coffee shops. We would come here to enjoy the cool of the evening, passing the hours by playing backgammon and smoking apple tobacco from elaborate water pipes.
On a hill overlooking Amman there are the ruins of a second century AD castle and township. Bedouins now graze their goats between the crumbling walls, oblivious to the sprawling mass that lies below them, as always untouched by the world changing around them .