Monday, July 11, 2011

البتراء -- The rose-red city

They seem no work of Man's creative hand,
Where Labour wrought as wayward Fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
Eternal—silent—beautiful—alone!...
Match me such marvel, save in Eastern clime,—
A rose-red city—'half as old as time!'

-- John William Burgon

It was populated as early as 1550 B.C. and has since showed up in the Bible, the accounts of Josephus, and of course Indiana Jones--among other things! So you can imagine my excitement when I found out I'd be visiting the otherworldly-beautiful ancient city of Petra, located in southern Jordan. I could try and tell you in words that my high expectations were not disappointed, but I'll never manage. Let's just suffice it to say that you should make a point to visit it for yourself someday. :)

We left for Petra on Thursday after classes, and wasted little time in making the 4-hour drive to our campsite. On the way, we stopped at a tourist trap souvenir place, where I definitely did not buy anything, instead befriending some local kids riding their bikes in the parking lot along with a few other friends from my program. As we were chatting, one of the kids kept talking about the necklace I was wearing, a $5 Forever 21 impulse buy in the shape of an elephant, and asking where it was from.

I knew already that in Jordan's ever-generous culture, it's not uncommon for someone to simply give away a possession if another person shows unusual interest in it, so I was not surprised when my new 7-year-old friend asked, "a3tinni?" (give it to me?). I don't know why exactly, but I did. I guess I figured that if a cheap necklace could make my new friend's day, then it was the least I could do. Sure enough, he immediately placed it around his neck, tucked it into his soccer jersey, and grinned like it was Christmas morning. It was adorable.

Shortly thereafter, we departed to trek the rest of the way to our hotel in Wadi Musa. Something about looking out the window onto those winding roads and seemingly endless stretches of desert was the closest I've felt to limitless in a long time. Later, when we neared even closer to Petra, we stopped at an outcrop overlooking the valley of Wadi Musa to watch the sun set, twice its normal size, dripping like an overripe plum behind the mountains, and bringing to mind Walt Whitman's immortal words "I am large; I contain multitudes."

After we arrived at our hotel, the extremely Swiss and extremely fancy Moevenpick, I unpacked my stuff, enjoyed a scrumptious buffet dinner (like I said, extremely fancy) and explored the area nearby. The town near Petra has festivals with live music every Thursday and Friday night, so I ventured out for a bit to hear some of the tunes before heading up to the hotel's rooftop cafe to have a drink and smoke some arghile with a few friends from the program before finally calling it a night.

The next morning began our Petra blitz. After packing for the day and grabbing some breakfast, our group set off towards the site entrance. Immediately we were descended upon by myriad salesmen hawking postcards and pony rides--but I was a little too distracted by the amazing rock formations to pay very much attention.



Once inside Petra, we wandered through the Siq, a narrow passage cut deep into the salmon-colored sandstone by thousands of years of water erosion. Petra is prone to flash floods, which have helped to carve its unique landscape and once provided water and income for Petra's ancient inhabitants. This path ultimately opens into a wide clearing, where we catch our first glimpse of the breathtaking Nabataean treasury, surrounded by camels and Bedouin merchants.





The path continues in many directions, since Petra is more of a landscape than a specific site. This particular day, we started the hike towards the Monastery, another one of Petra's largest ancient structures. After climbing nearly 1000 stairs carved into the hill and scrambling over a few rock faces, we finally made it to the site--and although the 100+ degree heat certainly did not make our job very easy, it was absolutely worth it.


The rest of my day was spent enjoying the mountain overlooks, chatting with some Bedouin guys in a cafe, and playing with these adorable kittens that seemed to be running around everywhere. A two-hour trek back out of molten hot Petra was then followed promptly by the most refreshing shower of my entire life, a nap, and a feast of musakhan, tabbouleh, baba ghannouj and more live music in town. Life just sucks sometimes, right?

I spent most of the next day chilling in town and hanging out by the pool. I really enjoyed venturing into some of the shops to meet some of the merchants and practice my Arabic. The folks around those parts are certainly used to white tourists, but after observing some of my fellow Petra visitors, I could tell that they don't often see white tourists who speak Arabic. And seeing as how most foreign tourists tend to assume that everyone will just adapt to them instead of the other way around, I got the sense that even my meager attempts to speak their language and assimilate to their culture were appreciated. One of the shop owners insisted on giving me tea, told me repeatedly that I looked like a queen, and offered to find me a nice Jordanian husband if I ever decided to stay. Jordanians are just that generous, I s'pose. :P

So that's the scoop on Petra. Again, I can try my hardest to convey the sheer grandeur of the place, but I will undoubtedly fail. So if anything, may my experiences help inspire you to visit for yourself. Yalla! :)

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