Cited among the most amazing places on earth, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Petra is an archaeologist’s delight and explorer’s love.
Words & photographs: Ambica Gulati
Some call it the rose city, others an erstwhile traders market, yet others know it as a place where rest the souls of many Nabateans, Petra has awed and floored generations since its discovery in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. This was my second visit to the magnificent red hills which house tombs of the Nabateans and where lie millions of secrets. But not many know those, not even the bedouins who live there.
Our journey began with a trip to Little Petra which is a beautiful drive through the magnificent landscape, a little away from Petra. While Little Petra is the well known name, it is actually called Siq al-Barid meaning ‘cold canyon’. The high walls and narrow canyon path make it difficult for the sunlight to penetrate fully, hence the name.
The first thing that caught the eyes was the stark surroundings with patches of grass on which sheep were grazing. A signboard said ‘Neolithic Village 8500-5500 BC’. Walking through the narrow path into the realms of the Nabateans, Little Petra has a room of records. This is where traders visiting the area would register before proceeding ahead. The narrow canyon path actually leads into Petra but has been closed off due to safety reasons. As I craned my neck through the crevices and up into the high walls, I wondered what the Nabateans were like. The only answer was some openings carved into these walls. There is a dining hall with some frescoes though which I didn’t climb up to. As the sun began to go down and the landscape burst into shades of reds, it was time to head back for there was a night show at Petra.
Back at the Petra Guest House hotel, it was just time for a quick shower. With a shawarma and coke in our hands, we were standing in the queue to enter Petra at night. The lights in the distance flickered and stories of others who had been to Petra did the rounds.
Finally, it was time to take the two-kilometre walk. Little flickers in the distance compelled us and the stillness of the dark was broken by sounds of feet, in a hurry to hear the secrets of the bedouins. Little candles kept in sand lit the narrow canyon path and the shadows flickered along the high walls. With slow steps and whispered hushes, we reached the treasury.
Lights changed the colours of this marvelous carving in stone and we sat on the ground to listen to the tales of the bedouins. Cats walked through, uncaring about the humans, probably upset at this invasion but then the sound of bedouin flute floated through the air. Sipping the hot Arabic black tea, it could have been eternity trying to whisper its secrets. But we heard only a short tale and then began the two-km walk back.
The next morning, the glory of the rose city, Petra, unfolded. With the tombs of the rich and famous now clearly standing before us, it was time to take a peak into the lives of the ancient inhabitants. We peaked into some tombs, curious to find some traces and moved to meet the gods residing in the narrow path leading to the famous treasury.
And up above was the clearest blue sky, shrubs and some flowers grew in the crevices, adding more colour to the red sandstone hills. There is even a place to get married in on this path.
After many twists and turns, the path opened out into the treasury which is the magnificent carving in stone with three rooms, a calendar and mythological figures and even an urn. The city’s main marvel beckoned. More walk through the city takes one to more tombs, more hills, more carvings, an amphitheatre. And an hour’s walk can take one higher up to a monastery. The beauty of Petra lies in the natural shapes and impressions of nature. As the wind rustled through my hair, I sat down to watch the sheep grazing, eyes going up to where tourists were climbing to see more tombs, carrying more experiences in their hearts.
The area is inhabited by the bedouins whom the government has been rehabilitating into urban life. They now trade souvenirs and have small cafes inside. There is even a bookshop run by Marguerite van Geldermalsen. This New Zealand-born nurse married Mohammad Abdallah Othman, a Bedouin souvenir-seller from Petra in 1978 and wrote the book ‘Married to a Bedouin’. She sits there and you can buy a signed copy and hear her tale live! What I enjoyed was a glass of fresh orange juice in the scorching sun. Though there are donkeys, camels and horse carts here, walking back slowly, savouring every bit of the red hills is an unforgettable experience.
Some things help
- Begin the day early, as the sun rises high, it’s too hot to move around.
- Carry something to cover your head with.
- Always have a bottle of water.
- Don’t patronize the children as the government is trying to rehabilitate them with housing and good education. In fact, the bedouins have been given homes on the road behind the ancient city.
- Wear good walking shoes.
- You can go in on a donkey or horse cart if you find the walk too strenuous. You can even enjoy a camel ride inside.
- You can buy souvenirs inside, as it helps the bedouins. The cafes inside offer fresh snacks and juices.
- Carry your power banks as the place will make you click more pictures, shoot more videos than you thought.
- Bedouins dressed as soldiers do allow you to take pictures.
- Entry into Little Petra is free but there is a ticket for the night show and in the day in Petra.