Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Jordan: Temples and tea parties

The Monastery at Petra. Photo / Jill Worrall
The Monastery at Petra. Photo / Jill Worrall

The 800-step climb to the Monastery in Petra is thronged with tourists during the high season. It's a river of humanity from around the globe and well worth the effort, crowds or not.

However, if you're going to attempt the route used by the very builders of Petra, the Nabateans, about 2000 years ago it helps to have someone with you who knows the way. If that someone also has access to a four-wheel-drive that's a bonus too.

I was fortunate enough to strike the jackpot. Harbi is a local Bedouin who was born in the hills not far from Petra and who has spent almost all his working life as a guide in Petra.

He has been exploring it since he was a small boy, long before it became the tourist attraction it is today. Already this year between January and April 321,000 people visited, a nearly 50 per cent increase on the same time the previous year.

Harbi and I met more than two years ago and over that time I've explored several off-the beaten-track sites around the Rose Red city with him.

As we've clambered over Petra's beautiful sandstones of striped pinks, ochres and terracottas, he's told me about his childhood: waking in the morning to the sight of his grandmother opening up the tent to let the dawn light shine in and having freshly-baked bread and warm goats' milk for breakfast before riding horses to school.

It was almost inevitable that the extrovert Harbi would gravitate to guiding. Being a guide in Petra gives plenty of scope for someone like Harbi who has a sense of the dramatic, a deep knowledge of the area and a genuine passion for its archaeological treasures. Add a degree in international relations and French and you have a complex personality; a microcosm of how contemporary Bedouin weave together ancient heritages and the demands of modern life.

Harbi has made it his mission to show me parts of the extensive Petra site not visited by most tourists, some of whom only spend half a day here.

Since Petra was named one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World it has attracted even more tourists, some of whom are bussed in from cruise ships which berth in Jordan's only port, Aqaba on the Red Sea.

Most follow a well-worn route through the sinuous Siq (narrow canyon) to the spectacular Treasury and then past the Roman theatre and the royal tombs.

But some of Petra's most atmospheric and memorable monuments lie above, on the summits of the deeply incised sandstone mountains.

On this day we are taking the alternative route to the Monastery, Petra's largest monument - a magnificent rock-cut temple, normally reached by a taxing 800-step climb from near Petra's museum.

As usual, I was given few details about just where we were going - it's a Bedouin man thing I suspect.

Harbi had bought a picnic lunch in town and I was put in charge of the bulging plastic bags as we climbed into a battered and rusting Hilux owned by an equally venerable, bewhiskered Bedouin.

The 4WD graunched and lurched across the arid, harsh terrain that for centuries protected Petra from the outside world.

Harbi and the driver seemed oblivious to the sounds of complaint from under the bonnet and scraping sounds that suggested we may have left parts of the exhaust system behind us.

Eventually the Hilux came to rest at the base of a daunting flight of steps that zigzagged up the cliff face. It was close to noon and the rocks were starting to radiate heat.

We began to climb, with me carrying a supermarket bag of drinks that threatened to split at every step. We paused at house-sized boulder into which a doorway had been hewn long ago.

"It's a Nabatean ticket office," Harbi said, tongue in cheek.

The Nabateans, who are credited with creating most of Petra's most astonishing monuments, are thought to have come from the Arabian Peninsula. They probably migrated to Petra abut the 5th or 6th century BC, creating a city among the natural caves and using their ability to collect, channel and store precious water to sustain what would become a thriving trading city.

The path we were following was probably made by the Nabateans as an alternative access into Petra.

We wound up the steps through groves of stunted juniper trees until the steps petered out leaving only a narrow ledge running across a sheer cliff face - not the easiest of routes to negotiate burdened with a two-litre bottle of water, four cans of cola and a fear of heights.

The ledge widened out into a platform that seemed to hang in mid-air, below us a precipitous drop into canyons and tumbles of boulders.

Beyond this shimmered Wadi Araba, the valley that stretches from the Dead to the Red seas and that separates Jordan from Israel.

Crouched in the shade of the cliff overhang was a man in a red-checked headdress and a small girl with matted hair and hand-me-down clothes. They had been waiting all day for tourists to whom they could sell tea and a small array of jewellery. We were their first customers.

Harbi unpacked the picnic on a flat rock and invited father and daughter to join us. There were two still-warm rotisserie chickens, pottles of yoghurt, salad and rice. We dissected the chicken with our fingers and dug spoons into the communal rice.

"This man's name is Sa'ud and his brother built all the new steps we have just climbed. By next year he will have finished the pathway all the way to the monastery," Harbi told me, in between mouthfuls.

Just a few kilometres over the mountain thousands of tourists were taking photos, haggling with touts. Here it was completely silent save for the sound of scraping spoons.

Sa'ud's daughter brought us water to wash away the chicken grease while he made tea. The picnic remains were carefully packed up for him to take home to the rest of the family. The little girl had numerous brothers and sisters; Sa'ud seemed rather alarmed to discover I had managed only two children.

"Buy something from their stall," Harbi ordered.

I had been planning to but didn't bother trying to tell him. When among the Bedouin... I suspected that he knew really that I would leave the little girl something.

Only a few metres beyond our lunch spot the path began to descend into a gully and on the skyline we spotted the first tourists - dozens of silhouettes making their way to the precarious rocky outcrops beyond the monastery that look out over Wadi Araba.

From the gully floor there was an extraordinary first view of the Monastery - the carved urn at the pinnacle of its carved roof rising up above the hillside - one perfect man-made shape amongst a tumult of rocks.

Soon we were amidst the hordes - Jordanians and Israelis, Aussies and South Africans, Japanese and Chinese, Spanish and Italians - Harbi saying hello to everyone in their own language.

"You know what I tell Israeli tourists? I say you need a guide more than anyone else because it was your people who got lost in the wilderness for 40 years."

And then the monastery - 50 metres high, 45 metres wide, columns, pediments and a massive gallery carved directly into the mountain two millennia ago.

Despite its name the Monastery (known as Ad-Dayr in Arabic) is thought to be a temple to the Nabatean king Obodas I, who was later worshipped as a god. During the 4th century and the time of the Byzantines it was converted into a church.

Harbi explained that the monastery's name probably refers to the fact that monks may have lived in the many surrounding caves.

Despite the fact that hundreds - if not thousands - of people climb up here daily, there was no one on the platform in front of the temple.

We stood in front of the yawning shadows inside the open doorway, dwarfed by the stonework, awed by the astonishing feat of carving.

Harbi pointed out the Christian crosses faintly etched on the pediment facades on either side of the 10-metre high urn. I was uncharacteristically quiet.

Once again Petra had stunned me with its splendours and its ability to somehow retain its aura of mystery and ancient glory, despite the overwhelming attention it now attracts.

We descended by the main steps. At the bottom of the steps Harbi hired donkeys to take us back to his car and we trotted up the road past Nabatean tombs set in the cliffs behind pink swathes of flowering oleander.

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


Have your say

1200 characters left

By and large our readers' comments are respectful and courteous. We're sure you'll fit in well.
View commenting guidelines.

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 25 May 2017 07:54:08 Processing Time: 1750ms