I first met Bharat, the author, while staying in Princeton, (sounds much better than saying working in Hopewell, NJ). We worked together on a consulting project, and both shared the desire to explore the world.
Since those days Bharat has traveled through the much of the Middle East, India, Afghanistan, East Africa and the Sudan on both assignment and for adventure. He has seen much of the world I haven’t, so I asked him to share a story. He said yes and chose Petra.
Nothing anyone can say or write can describe how big, beautiful and improbable it all is. Nothing.
There is that winding wadi (Arabic for “valley”) that leads you to, who knows what. It is a ravine really – etched out into the porous rock my millennia of flash floods. You think you know what you are in for, but you really don’t… Not even that phantom caravan of camels led by a man (a trader?) and the hints of shrines in the wrong, allude to what is to come.
Often the sun just disappears, and one feels in the wadi that one is in a brightly lit room. The rocks glow red, luminescent. And there are the other tourists. But, with a bit of luck, it is slightly off-season, and there are not that many. The place feels peopled, like a well-walked museum. Pleasant, even.
And suddenly, we emerge. There it is, “The Treasury”. Breathtaking. The sunlight seems ever so much brighter. I grinned. I thought of Indiana Jones. Well, truthfully, you may have thought of him already. The posters at the entrance amidst all the souvenir shops remind you of him.
The Treasury was always famous, but then the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” gave it celebrity. (That is where Indiana found the Holy Grail, remember?)
But there it is. It is singularly beautiful and it is in front of us. We gaze, and gaze. And you look around. There is definitely a scene: the Jordanian police, quietly keeping order; offers of camel rides on beautifully saddled camels and donkeys.
And it is breathtaking. We walk a little to our right, and for as far as the eye can see you are in what appears to be a city of elaborate caves – caverns whose entrances are embellished by monuments of rock, patiently chiseled by unknown hands. The sun is beautiful and the sky clear, and it is mildly chilly. I realize what a lovely day it is, and how nice it is to be here.
But back to Petra. Al Petra, as the Arabs know if it. The guidebooks tells us that it is a necropolis carved out by the Nabateans to house their dead. It seemed improbable to me, but I remember the stories from the Gospels: Lazarus emerging from the tomb, a cave; Jesus and the empty tomb. I thought, well, it is possible. But why are entrances not blocked? I look inside, and speculate that perhaps there were ossuaries that have since disappeared. I speculate, but not for long. I am more amazed at the sheer beauty of the place, and the civilization that built it that suddenly disappeared. I shake my head, and I realize that I shall never really know – and all one can do is speculate.
My mind flits from Indiana Jones to Herod the Great, as I remember he proclaimed himself King of the Nabateans. And then, we move on.
We keep walking amazed at what at the vistas of caves – like so many mouths yawning at us, as far as the eye can see. I reflect that they look like doors of houses. I see that one such elaborate “mouth” beautifully adorned by what looked like Christian imagery, was dedicated by one Archbishop Jason. I laugh, and remember that indeed that in this area, once upon a time, to be Greek was to be cultured.
We keep walking… Our guidebook says that further along is something called the Monastery – and assures us the hike up several hundred steps (!) is worthwhile (not that we need convincing). I patiently walk, smilingly engaging the Bedouin merchants (often children) trying to sell me trinkets.
I purchased coins from one such vendor. It is no coincidence, I realize, that they all ply me with coins. The word got out among the syndicate of merchants of this foreigner who liked coins and was non ungenerous in payment, to boot.) My companions laugh at how they unfailingly they zero-in on me.
We walk up the valley for two hours, or so it seems, and we are assured that The Monastery is nearby. We turn a corner, and there it is.
How beautiful it is, and how unlikely a place! It is majestic, and monumental, and somehow holy in its aloofness. It is indeed all by itself. The Monastery is so-called because its last known occupants were Christian anchorites. (Archbishop Jason and friends?) No one really knows, what it housed before, or who really built it.
We lunch there on fruit, bread and water. And we resolve to make our way to “The End of the Earth”.
And what a vista that was… Here Nature did not seem to overshadow what man had wrought in the valley we had just visited, but truly put it into perspective. I don’t know how else to put it.
A Bedouin merchant invited us to tea in his tent, and we gratefully accepted. I have always appreciated Arab hospitality. Today, I was reminded yet again of it. A delightful tea too.
Our Bedouin hosts did not drink and in local places, alcohol is not served or consumed. But at the hotel the bar was generous and expansive. Petra’s beer – brewed locally and red – is delicious. And the beer after our return to the city of Petra was rather welcome indeed.
-All words and photos by Bharat Parihar. Bharat remains a consultant working in emerging destinations and often sends me post cards from his adventures. He is truly staying adventurous, and I hope he will write again for the site.
stay adventurous, Craig
-this post is also part of the A Taste of Asia Series this August.