Friday, June 12, 2009

Among the Red Ruins of Petra

PETRA, Jordan -- Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

I admit Petra would not have been on my must-do life list. I mean, yes, there is an article about this lost city of the Nabateans in an old copy of Smithsonian magazine that has been floating around my house for a while. Still...

Petra, which is about a three hour drive outside Amman, Jordan, was established as a trading crossroads more than two millenia ago by the Nabateans, a once-nomadic race that usually doesn't get top billing in world history. Over the years, they settled in and carved the facades of a magnificent city of tombs out of the native reddish sandstone. Thousands of living people also made their homes there, in an easily defended valley. They soaked in the influences of trading partners including Egypt, Greece and Rome. Around the time of the Crusades, the city was abandoned except for a relatively small tribe of Bedouins who moved into the mausoleum caves.

It was rediscovered by the outside world in about 1812, by one of those intrepid Victorian-era European gentleman explorers. In 1985, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and the Bedouins were relocated to a nearby village. In 1994, after Jordan signed its peace treaty with Israel, Petra began attracting increasing numbers of visitors. Hotels and the like were built in the village at the Petra main gate, called Wadi Musa.

Because we lost a day to our cancelled flight earlier this week, we decided to head straight from the airport to Petra, spend one night, then go straight back to the airport. Our expectations were low. Some of the guidebooks we read to prepare for this trip made Wadi Musa in particular sound like a grim, dirty tourist trap. (I'm guessing the main culprit was the Rough Guide, a series whose authors generally don't seem to actually like the countries they write about. That, or they're trying to scare away visitors.)We steeled ourselves for another experience like Agra, the grim, dirty tourist trap of a town that surrounds the Taj Mahal.

How wrong! Wadi Musa was small and dusty, but pleasant, with clean, clear air, smilling shopkeepers whiling away the time on the sidewalks, neatly dressed children playing in the streets, and the occasional small herd of goats wandering about. It was notably free of touts and beggars.

At the main gate of Petra, employees with badges nicely told us not to hire unlicensed guides, then set us up with a licensed guide. (After making it very clear that guides were optional.) Mahmoud was a young Bedouin man, born in the caves of Petra before his people were moved. He walked with us in the hot sun for more than three hours through the ruins of the old city, explaining the monuments and the history. He also chatted about how his people live now. (They lost their ancestral homes, but got the rights to the concessions in the park, tax-free.)The huge ruins were spectacular -- it was as if a race of classically influenced architects had carved bigger and bigger building facades out of the red rock desert of Sedona, Arizona.

We spent perhaps five hours in total poking about the park before dunking ourselves in the cold hotel pool. Once again, we were up before dawn the next day so we could be the first tourists back to the site, walking quietly so that we didn't wake the Bedouin shopkeepers who had spent the night sleeping in the shadows of the old tombs.

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