„…and you know, we could also try – ouhh!“ Natascha suddenly stops. Between the high vertical walls of the gorge we catch the first glimpse of the pink classicistic facade of Al-Khazneh, the “treasure house”, a 2000-year-old tomb, carved out of the sandstone over a height of 40 m. When we started this morning we had been full of anticipation to see the famous rose-red city of Petra. But from our hotel to the ticket office it was a 2 km downhill walk, and then another kilometre until we reached the Siq, the narrow winding passage through a rock barrier blocking the entrance to the valley. By the time we had passed through this 1200 m long corridor our anticipation had given way to another discussion how we could possibly cross Libya. Although numerous promotion leaflets and posters had prepared us for this sight the famous view without any “50 m to Al-Khazneh” warning was absolutely stunning.
Before the Romans conquered the area in the 1st century AD, the Nabateans, an Arab tribe of caravan traders, controlled the important trade routes for frankincense and myrrh. These resins from trees that only grow in the Southern part of the Arab peninsula and in Somalia were in high demand in the pagan cults of the European antique. Accordingly, the Nabateans grew rich, and they chose this valley concealed from the outside world to build their capital city of Petra.
Although they had originally been nomads, they buillt their monuments to last: hundreds of grave chambers hewn from the soft rocks and decorated with opulent facades. Nabatean engineers diverted a river through an enormous tunnel to ward off flash floods and flattened the top of a 1035 m high mountain to build a high altar for sacrifices. Their main achievement, however, was to construct an elaborate system of water channels and cisterns to collect every drop of rainwater, thus enabling life and even agriculture in this extremely arid climate.
Petra – No 1 tourist attraction
Today, gaping tourists are the main source of income in the region. About 1000 people per day visit Petra, even in the off-season, and it stands a fair chance of being chosen as one of the “Seven New Wonders of the World”. It also is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985. Most of the tourists come for a day trip from the cruise ships that harbour in nearby Aqaba twice per week. “You want to ride camel? Cheap price! How much would you pay?” The young Bedouin guys offering their services have pomaded hair and wear fake designer Jeans and mirrored sunglasses. “I was born in a cave nearby,” every one of them insists.
This is also what Dak tells us. Dak is running a grocery shop in the village but likes to recount his life in the United States. In the 1950s he emigrated to Kansas, where he soon found a job in a meat factory. “I’m a Bedouin, I know about animals! Give me a cow, and I make it into little pieces!” He was naturalized in the early 1960s and after a spell in Vietnam Army provisions (“I’m a Muslim, I can’t kill people”) he worked as an Army scout in the Texan desert looking for illegal immigrants. Skilled in reading tracks he soon was the leader of a 6 person unit. With his American pension he returned to Jordan to sell us tomatoes at twice the normal price. “Cheap price” he grins, knowing well that everything in this village costs four times as much for tourists as for the locals.
Hiking in Petra
We spent 4 days exploring the ancient city. After seeing the main tourist attractions – among them the Siq and El-Khazneh, the theatre, the Royal tombs, the Great Temple and a huge structure called “the monastery” that may have been a temple – we moved to more distant and less visited sites. One day we scrambled through a narrow gorge that looked like scenery out of “Dr Caligari,” another day we hiked up to Jebel Haroun, the mountain where Mose’s brother Aaron is buried. On a steep rock called Umm el-Biyara we met only a herd of goats but had a beautiful view over the pink ruins.
In the evening of our last day, when we walk back through the Siq in an exhausted procession of tourists, the foul-smelling refuse collection car passes us. A Japanese woman ahead of us reaches for her handkerchief to cover her mouth and nose and grabs her friend by the arm to draw her to the edge of the path. For here the ravine is only a few meters wide, and the rubbish left by tourists in this beautiful rose city requires a big truck every day.