Arrival: Exploring Wadi Musa
As our car sped along the desert highway, we could see the word PETRA sprawled across the mountain side. This was the city! We couldn’t believe this was it! Akram, our driver cum guide in Jordan told us that the rose coloured city we were looking for was nestled along the other side of the mountains, and we’d visit there the next day. The entrance to the lost city that had been named Petra by the modern world, had its entrance in this place known as Wadi Musa (or the valley of Moses).
The evening was, as a result, left for us to explore around, which we did as soon as we checked into the hotel, and threw in our baggage. The evening had caught an edge of chill, and the rolling mountains already looked a gold hued rose, under the last rays of the setting sun.
We don’t know what nostalgia caught us there, but the setting looked like an illustration come alive out of some 1980s children’s story book. The comparatively scant effect of urbanization combined with sparse population and an occasional smattering of stores, was like the kind of world we knew in our childhood.
It was good because this meant we could look forward to at least having a proper meal in a real eatery, which much to our relief weren’t that scarce after all! The arterial avenue that eventually led to the old city, was thankfully lined with a number of bistro style eateries. They looked promising enough to serve us a wholesome dinner within reasonable budgets (the Jordanian Dinar is one of the strongest currencies in the world, and was more than a hundred rupee at the time). Not going into the details of the meal, (that is for another blog) all we could feel was that it had been an evening well spent.
We started at 06.00 hours the next morning, and were surprised to find that we’d been within a few hundred meters from one of the seven wonders all the while! The eatery from the previous evening was just a stone’s throw away from the entrance!
- Petra is a given name derived from the Greek word for stone – ‘Petros’. Remember petroleum or the oil obtained from stones?
- Petra is the feminine form of Peter!
- Petra was originally known to its inhabitants as Raqmu.
- Petra as historians believe, might have been established by the Nabataeans (nomadic Arabs) around ninth century B.C. and had already gained importance as a major trade route during fourth century B.C.
- The decline of Petra as a city began with emergence of sea routes for trading, until it fell somewhere during first century A.D.
- During its peak period, the city is thought to have been inhabited by more than 20,000 people, and is spread around more than 60 sq Km!
- The city was forgotten for more than sixteen centuries, until it was rediscovered in 1812.
- The year 2007 saw Petra gaining a place in the new 7 Wonders of the world.
- Petra has been the site of shooting for several films, the most famous of those being ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ and ‘The Mummy’.
- Petra has also been the setting of various literary works, most prominently Agatha Christie’s ‘Appointment with Death’, and ‘The Red Sea Sharks’ from the Tintin series.
- Agatha Christie is also believed to have lived there briefly while married to her second husband, Sir Max Mallowan, an archaeologist, though there exists no solid proof that she did.
- The most famous landmark, Al Khazneh or The Treasury is actually not a treasury at all! There isn’t even enough book that it ever served as one.
The trek began on foot at around seven in the morning, and our guide for the day, Muhammad quickly escorted us past hordes of tourists, who’d assembled around their respective guides to listen to bits and pieces about the lost city.
The ‘Siq’ or avenue that winded around the mountainside ran past a stretch of land that could have easily been a Star Treks movie location. The elaborate shades etched on the stone faces was exquisite.
“Long years of winds and flash floods, like the Grand Canyon”, said Muhammad. He waved his hand towards a row of low huts cut into the stone. “Those are tombs”, he said.
The first stop was at the entrance to the actual gorge nestled between two adjacent mountains. We heard someone exclaim, “Oh, so Harrison Ford rode around here!” A couple of shops exhibited an array of things including earthenware, hand-painted pottery, metal wine dispensers, casks and carpets.
It was in one such shop that we came across small cases containing small crystalline bits that looked like amber. ‘Frankincense’, said the young bearded shopkeeper. We nodded in agreement because here in India, we too were accustomed with the substance. After he felt that he hadn’t been able to impress us, he went on to show what looked like grey waxy cakes. This was something new indeed; it was was ‘Ambergis’, or the waxy secretion found in the intestines of male sperm whales. Considering that the species was one of the endangered ones, it felt bad to think of all the cruelty probably partaken to extract this precious oil. The fragrance was musky and alluring, but ambergris wasn’t our kind of thing.
Trekking along the Siq, we were enthralled with all the detailed architecture around us. Schools were housed atop higher altitudes. The students, as per the settlers’ belief, had to work hard to obtain education, and therefore such planning! We kept walking, occasionally stopping to gawk at the marvel around us, until we found a clearing that thronged with activity.
Lo and behold! This was the most spectacular sight in front of us. The Khazneh stood in all its resplendent glory, surrounded by tourists from all over the world. A mob of Bedouin children peddled handcrafted ornaments, and we got to purchase a dozen or so of etched bangles for quite an awesome bargain! It didn’t matter if the things weren’t actually handcrafted, or hadn’t even been made in Jordan. What mattered to tourists like us, was that these tiny mementos would help us relive those moments over and over replete with memories of the modern sights, sounds and smells juxtaposed against another space and age.
After having had our regular photo session, we continued towards the massive theatre positioned at the foot of a mountain named en-Nejr, which had the first clear widespread view of maximum number of tombs. The striking effect that this panorama had, was clearly something to be experienced in person. To top our intrigue, Muhammad pointed to a fig tree that the locals believed had been standing since Moses’ time. That probably made it the oldest tree on the face of the planet, or so. We weren’t sure, and neither did we want to enter into any contest, but the fact that our steps had once been traced by Moses and Aaron, was enough to give us goose bumps.
We came across a house that stood to the left of the avenue that led to the open air restaurant where tourists could settle in for some light refreshment, considering that they had to look forward to climbing nearly thousand steps that ascended all the way to the biggest structure in Petra, the Monastery, known as ‘El Deir’. This, Muhammadsaid in a conspiratorial whisper, was probably where Dame Agatha Christie herself lived while she wrote… “Appointment with Death” I chipped in, and he nodded vigorously. It was evident that he felt happy that some visitors cared to read about this UNESCO World Heritage Site, before actually visiting there.
With that, he called it a day at the foot of the stone stairs that already looked frightening at the prospect of climbing them. This would onwards be our trek, a pilgrimage rather, to be paid to some unknown God, who resided atop a rose-hued universe. The first thing we found was that centuries of winds and rain had eroded the steps in places. So it would be a tougher job descending this stairway of heaven.
Even as we started our ascent, we could see mules and horses carrying tourists up those steps. Many of the animals looked worn out and tired. Some even had wounds and it pained us how misery always walked hand-in-hand with luxury. We decided that come whatever may, this would be a journey we’d take on foot. It proved that the mountaintop God wanted to test our forbearance because within a few minutes of commencement of out trek, the weather changed from the sunny countenance to a more sombre windy one, until it frankly started snowing. The steep steps were becoming more and more dangerous and slippery!
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally emerged on the top and in front of the monastery. By then, it had become a day of hailstorm and winds and I being the less adventurous of the two, sought shelter in a nearby eatery cum tea shop. The owner was a Bedouin like the camel herders from below the mountain.
We heard that this blizzard was the result of severe snowstorm raging through Siberia. The winds had crossed thousands of miles before getting here and we trembled as we thought about the severity of the fabled Siberian winter.
If the ascent had been assiduous, the descent was treacherous and painstaking. The effect of snowfall had only worsened the situation. The stones were slippery, the air rarefied and the visibility almost gone. It almost took us double the time for us to climb back to even ground. Some breathing problems were also there because of the severity of the weather. As we went past our trajectory once more, and gazed back at the Khazneh, the ruins almost exuded that familiar melancholic strain.
And making our exit through the main gate, the lines from Longfellow’s ‘The Fire of Driftwood’ echoed behind us…..
“The leaves of memory seemed to make a mornful rustle in the dark”…