There we were, stopped on the side of a highway in the middle of the desert. Mohammed’s cab wasn’t a fan of the heat any more than we were and apparently it requires water just like us. Mohammed emptied a 2-liter bottle of water into the engine and off we went. Before I tell you about the second time we broke down and our favorite Jordanian cabbie with his P.O.S. mobile let me explain how we had this chance encounter.
My family decided to skip the planned tour that picked us up at our hotel in Eilat, Israel and instead we drove to the Jordanian border. At the border crossing we saw signs that screamed “warning of death: live minefield” in Arabic, English, Hebrew and Russian and were screened by foreign security who didn’t speak English. Once across there was a lively gentleman who appeared to be pimping out the taxis. He set us up with one of his hoes, Mohammed, and promised a 2 hour cab ride to Petra including stops for pictures with camels & sand. The taxi would return 5 hours later to drive us from Petra back to the border which, our guidebook said closed at 9PM.
So, our favorite cab was overheating again when Mohammed pulled into the petrol station and switched out some rusty part for a new shiny one in his “trunk full o’ shit that deals with heat”. We passed on the free camel photos, made a quick ATM stop for some Dinar, and an hour later we were at Petra. Street vendors lined the road with Indiana Jone’s Last Crusade memorabilia reminding us that Petra tourism had a resurgence thanks to Indy’s visit. We bought tickets and entered Petra National Park, immediately being offered horseback rides through the few miles of desert before a few miles of slot canyon carved by millennia of floods. Declining, we set off on our journey.
Within minutes we found Djinn Blocks and other structures carved into the massive rocks lining the road. Djinn Blocks are massive sandstone cubes decorated thousands of years ago. Legend has it that they contain magical creatures that can grant wishes. Archaeologists think they were some kind of tomb, but to us, they were the first of many ancient gifts this beautiful desert had to offer. The massive blocks were plainly decorated yet still had an exquisite quality about them. We were in an area known as Bab el-Siq meaning “gate to the Siq.” The road, lined with obelisk tombs, the Bab el-Siq Triclinium and Djinn Blocks, followed Wadi Musa, or Valley of Moses. The riverbed began at Ain Musa, or Spring of Moses, and the native Bedouin people believe this spring was formed when Moses smote a rock in Biblical times.
Continuing down the sandy path, we passed chariots and Arabian horses mounted by brightly clothed Bedouins. Their seemingly carefree attitude was infectious and they regularly let out cries of joy with the wind blowing through their hair as they urged their steeds onward. The road wound past more Djinn Blocks as the walls grew higher and higher when the dried riverbed suddenly turned into the Siq, a massive slot canyon.
We paused for a moment, in awe at the entrance to this natural wonder. This has been here for thousands of years; we were about to follow the paths of an ancient Nabataean people who’s tradition lived on in the modern Bedouin. Continuing on, we took in every hint of beauty that the river carved into this gorgeous chasm. Passing other tourists, the trail went from barely large enough for three to walk abreast to suddenly opening up with a beautiful view of the light blue sky. The occasional Bedouin would stop and offer to sell us jewelry or ancient coins.
We followed the path another few miles through this pristine passage, pausing to take a closer look at the ancient glyphs carved into the wall or to take a photo as the sun came over the precipice above. Suddenly, we heard a thunderous echo. The thumping grew louder when all of the sudden a train of chariots burst around the corner. One stopped to offer us a ride as another taking two tourists out of the city zoomed past. The driver let out an ecstatic cry; saw our cameras and promptly threw up a peace sign. The carefree, fun-loving people of this ancient land had an infectious positive attitude shared by the wild cats that roamed the area.
Continuing on our hike we began to wonder how far until we arrived at the actual city. This natural wonder was beautiful and in any other park would have been enough to captivate our attention. But, we were drawn here by stories of ancient buildings carved into the massive rock walls that lined our journey. I paused for some water and turned to look behind us and took a few choice photos.
Turning back around to continue our trek we passed the next turn and suddenly there it was before us. The famous Al-Khazna, treasury of Petra. Standing 14 stories tall this massive monument was carved into the walls between 60 BC and 50 AD with beautiful decorations running down the sides. We were finally here at Petra, one of the ancient world’s “lost cities” until its rediscovery in 1812.
All around us were tourists, horses, mules, camels, chariots and Bedouins. We were suddenly in a bustling city! Children approached us to sell jewelry and proved to have better English than anyone we had yet to meet in this dusty desert of a country. We paused for photos with my mom’s new friends covered in handmade bracelets, necklaces and rings. Bedouin people have large families and this was apparently a family industry that brought a steady income paying for their simple life in the desert.
We wandered further down the road and declined the Arabian horse ride in order to soak in the beauty as we traversed deeper into the city. The chasm, still on either side, now had holes up and down the walls. As we crept closer it became apparent that those holes were in fact ancient dwellings, perhaps still used by the people who hawked their goods to travelers like us. The rich blue sky framed each red-rock structure beautifully in this yellow expanse.
Around the next bend the chasm walls melted away into sand dunes and broad blue sky. While the road grew wider mountains with even more buildings were clear in the distance. Our attention was drawn towards the humongous arena on our left. This theater was built prior to Rome’s 500 year occupation of Petra which began in 106AD. It could hold 8500 spectators for performances of all kinds. No longer an active stage this beautiful amphitheater is testament to the engineering prowess of ancient man.
Before continuing onward we decided to climb the paths leading up the mountains on either side. There we found a stunning panorama of the city and a closer look at the Urn Tomb. Modern Bedouin believe that this was a court and refer to it as Al Mahkama but archaeologists believe it to be a Nabataean tomb holding the remains of one of the original Nabataean kings of Petra. In 447 AD it was re-purposed by Bishop Jason as a church.
Walking back towards the valley we could see more temples and hovels in the mountains beyond. We began to see more tourists heading out of the city as the sun continued creeping toward the horizon. Checking how much time we had left we realized we wouldn’t be able to take in much more of the city . We agreed to get a closer view of the mountains in the distance and then turn back.
Along the way we passed a few remaining street vendors, most notably two adorable girls proudly displaying their family’s hard work. I bought a carved elephant off them and continued down the road where we found the remains of the Petra Great Temple; a monument built over two thousand years ago and what is believed to be the largest free standing structure in the ancient city.
Soaking in the beauty and enjoying the sites as much as the Bedouin children enjoyed standing on their horses, we reluctantly agreed that it was time to head back. Along the way we took our last few photographs as we found the once bustling city now empty save for a few camels and horses awaiting their master. Others led their herd back home for the evening, likely thinking about a traditional Bedouin meal that awaited their return.
We found our friend Mohammed impatiently waiting for us at the entrance and he ushered us into his cab. He cranked the radio and floored it as we flew through the desert; only my father in the passenger seat realized that his dashboard was a Christmas Tree of warnings while he flew down the highway. Upon arriving at the border we realized the reason for his haste; the border now closed at 7 PM, 2 hours earlier than we expected. We narrowly made it across with Jordanian guards ushering us through to the Israeli side a matter of minutes before they shut down for the night. What an adventure!