Aqaba, Jordan (Day 2) – Petra 2022
Happy Halloween in Jordan! After a restful night and an early breakfast at the Petra Moon we headed down just after daybreak on October 31 to the Petra welcome center where you obtain entry tickets. Petra, of course, is an ancient city whose building facades are carved into the rocky cliffs on the other side of a narrow canyon of reddish rock. In the Bible this area is called Edom but Petra was actually built somewhat later by a civilization called the Nabateans. The Romans conquered them and after they left it slowly deteriorated into a backwater inhabited by some Bedouins. It was “rediscovered” by Europeans in the 19th century. You have seen it in Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade and may have read about it in Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, which was partially set here. This is a unique and beautiful place to visit. We have been here once before and you can read more about it here:
Petra can get very crowded with tourists during the day but because we spent the night here we were able to get a very early start, before the day visitors arrived. From the welcome center it is about a mile’s walk to the entry to the Siq, a deep and narrow canyon, probably created by an earthquake and wind and water erosion. Even before reaching the Siq we encountered Nabatean carved stones and caves. The road to the Siq has been upgraded since our last visit and divided to permit horses to pass on a separate path. Although Petra can get very hot, in the early morning it was actually chilly (another advantage of starting early).
We were very lucky in having with us our guide, Mamoun Nawafleh, who was born and raised in Wadi Musa and has spent some 30 years studying Petra, about which he has published several books with another to be published soon. His father and grandfather have been among the top administrators of the site and Mamoun is currently a college astronomy teacher. Although there seem to be no definitive contemporary records, Petra’s buildings have traditionally been interpreted as mostly tombs and temples. But Mamoud has concluded that many of the building facades and cliffside carvings were actually used for scientific purposes, such as astronomy, weather prediction and measurement of time and seasons. For example, he explained why he believes the building below that we encountered on our walk to the Siq was actually a scientific post (the pointed stones on top operate as sundials) rather than a temple or tomb. Obviously we lack the expertise to evaluate his theories, but Mamoun explained the basis for his interpretations of many of these items and he was very articulate and convincing in his presentation of his theories, which are entirely different from what we have encountered before. Sadly, by the time I am writing this I can no longer recall most of the details of his explanations so you will have to take my word for it that his theories are elegant and convincing.
The Siq was quite beautiful in the early morning with the sun lighting the tops of the walls and the lower part still in shade.
As we walked through the Siq we encountered man made carvings, some looking like buildings and some like decorations, including a well worn depiction of a camel driver with, I think, a camel whose legs are gone but feet are still there (Mamoun had different interpretations of these artifacts but I don’t remember them well enough to explain them).
The Nabateans were innovative engineers. Their city was situated at the bottom of a steep canyon which made it susceptible to flooding. At the entry to the Siq they built a dam and channels to divert flood waters away from the Siq where it would do no harm (below right). Since their city was in a desert sources of water were essential. They built a long aqueduct into one wall of the Siq to bring water from the top down to the people in the city who needed it (below left).
As one approaches the end of the Siq the Treasury, the most famous building in Petra (where Indiana Jones found the holy grail), begins to come into view between the walls of the canyon. This is a very dramatic moment.
Carved into the rockface of a cliff, the facade of the Treasury is elaborate and impressive. It has a small chamber inside, nothing like what Indiana Jones found there. This building was not a “treasury” at all; many say it was a tomb but Mamoun identified a number of astronomical and weather related items in the facade including relief images that represent constellations. It later became known as the “Treasury” after a legend arose that the stone ball at the top contained a vast treasure, some say left there by the Egyptian pharaoh when chasing the Israelites. Since the Bible says the pharaoh never made it through the sea to what is now Jordan that seems pretty anomalous, and it is hard to envision the pharaoh taking his treasure with him to chase down his slaves in any event. Nonetheless, you can still see the holes made by gunfire in attempts to unlock this supposed treasure over the years.
One thing we noticed that was different from our last visit 4.5 years ago (and not in a good way) was the proliferation of souvenir stands throughout the grounds, often in front of buildings you might want to photograph. There were a few of these in 2018, but not nearly as many or as obstructive. The souvenirs seemed pretty generic and they, or some like them, were available for purchase at the gift shops at the welcome center where you wouldn’t have to carry them around the site and back up the steep hill. Since almost all the visitors walked by the shops at the welcome center on their way into Petra it was hard to understand how all these vendors actually make a living down here.
From the Treasury we walked down the hill to the rest of the town. We passed more building facades carved into the cliffs and saw a number of them higher on a hillside across the valley. In several places donkeys and horses were waiting for visitors to buy a ride up or down the hill.
Further down the openings in the rock looked more like caves than buildings. We understand that during the time Petra was “lost” Bedouins lived in these caves. Beyond that was a vast open space thought to have been full of houses of some kind. Mamoun led some of our party beyond that area to some more facades built in a hillside about half a mile away but we were already pretty tired and had the return ascent still to look forward to, with a deadline of 2:00 to meet the bus back to the ship. So we decided to turn back instead.
On our way back up the hill we had a nice view of the old theater, carved out of the rock in the 1st century CE. We understand that most of the original is still intact, with a Roman upgrade to the stage area and some more modern finishing to the seats. We also passed again the monolithic stone carvings we had seen on the way down.
Arriving back at the Treasury we found one of the most important changes since our last visit, this one a very welcome improvement. It used to be that the only way to ascend the hill to the welcome center without a 2 mile uphill slog was to rent either a horse or a horse cart. These were quire expensive (more than $100 for the horse cart plus a very substantial expected tip, if memory serves) and they weren’t always readily available for folks who had walked (rather than ridden) down the Siq. We had read that the horse carts had been replaced by large golf carts at a much more reasonable price, but it was our impression that these could only be engaged round trip, down the Siq and then back up again when you were finished. The last part was not (or no longer) true, though, for we were able to hop onto the back of one of several waiting golf carts, which took us to the welcome center without wear and tear on our legs. We sat on the back facing where we had come. We took a few pictures as we drove up the hill, one-handed because we had to hang onto the cart to keep from slipping off the back.
We all stopped for a much needed drink at a cafe in the welcome center; some had beer and others had a very refreshing green local drink with lime and mint in it. We had a buffet lunch at the old Petra Moon hotel (not far from the new Petra Moon where we had slept), then drove back to the port.
As evening approached we were able to take some pictures from the ship of Aqaba (with the big flag pole) and also of the Israeli city of Eilat on the other side of the bay, looking almost like an extension of Aqaba. Close, but you would have to cross a difficult international border to get there.