Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jordan: Picturesque Petra

Chapter Seven - Petra (of Indiana Jones fame)

From Shobak it's only a short distance to the most famous site in Jordan : Petra. Petra was the capital of the Nabataeans, an Arab kingdom in pre-Roman times. It was conquered by the Romans and expanded and adjusted by them. Petra was hewn out of a sandstone terrace. The varying colours of the rocks make it very picturesque. It occupies a considerable area, including numerous individual sites often separated by several hundred metres, not only in horizontal distance but also in height. There is plenty to see ! The sights vary in size from smaller carvings on the outer walls of the rocks, to rock tombs and huge, monumental temple facades, for which Petra is best known.

If it wasn't for Petra, Jordan would be a lot less popular with tourists than it is now. And if it wasn't for the movie 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', Petra would be virtually unknown to the public and a lot less crowded! Anyway, crowded or not, it's still a very, very nice place to visit although most of the magic is probably gone.

The magic goes completely when you realise that the entrance price to the site is an amazing, scandalous JD20! However, most visitors would probably need at least two days to feel they had explored enough of the site - just a day would leave one wondering what else one had missed - and then the two- or three-day passes are certainly much better value for money: JD25 and 30 respectively. The price makes it one of the most expensive historical sites in the world. Jordanians pay JD1. I can live with a two-tiered price system, but this is really pushing it! It is not just very expensive for a developing country, it's bloody expensive even for a Western country! Maybe tourists should pay more, but where does one set the upper limit ? If they would ask me JD100 to enter the site, I'm sure I coùld pay it, but should I ? Of course this is a totally exaggerated amount of money, but in my opinion so is JD20. JD10 would be fair, with JD5 for every day extra. Unfortunately, with all the tour buses arriving, the price is much more likely to go up, instead of coming down as the government once promised.
We bought a two-day pass (but I'll describe the visit as if it was on one and the same day to avoid unnecessary confusion).

The tickets must be dated and signed before entering the site. The date and signature match are not properly checked. The man just looks to see if it is signed. If it is, you can pass. However, problems can arise when entering the Siq. There the ticket is checked again, and if it is one of your consecutive days, a counterfoil is torn off. The date is thoroughly checked but the signature isn't. So it is possible for visitors to pass on their tickets. Probably one could buy a three-day ticket for JD30, and then sell it to another traveller for JD10 or even 15, keeping the cost reasonable for both. Question is, will there be someone wanting to buy it from you? And the officials just might pick yours for a date check...

The Visitors' Centre was only interesting to me because there was a toilet. The tourist policeman manning the info desk is uninformative and unfriendly. The centre is open until 10pm, not until 5. You can only hire guides until 5pm, but the centre is definitely open until 10. Guides are officially required for the hikes to Sabra, Jebel Numair, Jebel Haroun (Mt Hor) and the Snake Monument, because it is 'too dangerous' on your own.

Food and drink within the site is hellishly expensive. It's much cheaper to stock up on snacks and water at one of the Wadi Moussa supermarkets, but do you really want to lug all that stuff around ? On our first day we were at the site from roughly dawn 'til dusk, and needed a lot (!) of water during that period. I was already carrying a bigger-than-average photo bag (a necessary evil as it's one of my hobbies). The second day, I bought what I needed in Petra and felt much more comfortable. I saw many young people entering Petra with backpacks loaded with stuff from the supermarket and hiring a horse. For the JD7 they forked out, they could easily have bought Coke or water inside and saved themselves the hassle of carrying their packs around.
Even in ancient times there were only a couple of entrances to the rock city. The famous Siq (a gorge through the rock, created by tectonic forces) was the main one, and is the entrance which all visitors today have to use.
The Khazneh, Petra
The Siq, however, is not immediately behind the ticket booth. A sand track, 500 metres in length, leads to it. There are only a few attractions along the way. First, one arrives at the Djinn Blocks, big square stone blocks, which were supposed to contain Djinns, spirits which protected the city from evil entering it. Further, on the opposite side, is the rather beautiful Obelisk Tomb.
Hiring a horse to take you to the Siq entrance is JD7. It's certainly not worth it. And besides I wouldn't hire one of those unfortunate animals, even if I was tired enough to drop. It's not a coincidence that there is an animal clinic near the entrance! On the way back, we were offered rides on horses (and in carriages) for as 'low' as JD2. Still a lot of money for a 500-metre ride/drive !
The walk through the Siq took quite a while. It's rather plain inside, but you should keep an eye out for some statues hewn from the living rock and cut over the water channels one can also still see. I think many people miss the statues because they think there is nothing inside the Siq and because they are heavily eroded. There are some other things too, such as engraved stones.
Just when I started thinking "When will this ever end ?", the stunningly beautiful Khazneh (Treasury), illuminated by the sun light, came into sight. Even amid the presence of the many other tourists I had to share the site with, I was still very impressed. Most of the magic is unfortunately gone. One should definitely not expect to find the solitude seen in the final sequence of 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', although the Jordanian tourist offices try to make you believe that. Never mind, it's great!

If you want a drink after you've seen the Khazneh, walk on to the corner after which the theatre comes into sight (just before the start of the trail to the High Place of Sacrifice). A Coke in the tent at the very corner is 500 fils (ask for a bottle, not a can), which is not bad (the supermarket price is 350 fils). In the adjacent shop, you can bargain well down on the asking price of the guidebooks. I got as low as the price asked in Amman, which must make this the 'cheap' area of Petra (if you visit the giant drinks stand past the Qasr al-Bint, you'll be hit with JD1 for a Coke or large bottle of mineral water).

The Theatre is great too. It's not built but hewn from the solid rock, an incredible achievement ! Nearby are a necropolis, consisting of many rock tombs, and the so-called King's Wall, also known as the Street of Facades because that's where the monumental, 'royal', rock tombs are located. A visit to these tombs with names such as the Urn Tomb, Palace Tomb and Corinthian Tomb, involved climbing quite a few stairs, but the rewards were high. Apart from the beautifully coloured sandstone they're plain inside, but extremely beautiful on the outside. I was very impressed ! There are more monuments on the expanse to the north; the Mausoleum of Sextius Florentinus is the most remarkable of those.

The Bedouin women selling necklaces, rings and other jewellery near the street with the facades are very persistent. If you do want something from them, just ignore them for a long time. I didn't want anything, but the prices asked dropped by at least 60%!
We backtracked past the theatre. A short but tough hike brought us up to the High Place of Sacrifice. We made it in 20 minutes, ignoring the two drinks stands on the way. Before the final ascent to the sacrificial platform, we passed a couple of stone obelisks and a building which looks like a ruined watchtower. The views from everywhere up there are truly stunning. The Sacrificial Place is very plain, though still interesting enough. You can see the place where victims (most probably also humans) were sacrificed to the greater glory of the Nabataean gods. There are a couple of small altars, one with a drain for the blood, which is constructed in such a way that the blood would run all over the rock (The Nabataean gods were often represented by rocks).

The best thing about this hike is the descent. The path winds its way past several monuments and offers views of nice scenery almost all the way. We made some diversions off the beaten track too, so in the end this little trip took up the best of our day. It was very much worth it. Following the path down from the High Place of Sacrifice, there are two more monuments after the Triclinium, namely the Renaissance Tomb and the Broken Pediment Tomb. The former is the most architecturally complex tomb. The latter has - as the name suggests - a broken pediment, possibly caused by an earthquake. They're both worth a look.

A sometimes not so easy to spot sand track leads down to the Colonnaded Street, which is lined with monuments : a marketplace, Nymphaeum, Byzantine church, baths and a couple of temples. None of these is very interesting and mainly for serious archaeologists. The Temple of the Winged Lions may be of importance, but it's also a big disappointment in terms of what is to be seen. On the other hand, nobody seems to visit it, so we had the place to ourselves, for once.

At the end of the Colonnaded Street is the Temenos Gateway, the elaborate entrance to what lies behind it : the Qasr al-Bint Firaun, translated as the Castle of the Daughter of the Pharao. It's certainly not a castle, but a temple which was very likely dedicated to the main Nabataean deity Dushara. It was probably the most important temple of the rock city. It's not incredibly spectacular, but it is very interesting because it was built instead of hewn, a remarkable thing in Petra.

We continued past Qasr al-Bint and two museums. The only one worth visiting (in my opinion) is the Nabataean Museum. The collection is small but good. The collection in the Forum Museum is rather meagre; one room wasn't even lit.

We climbed to ad-Deir (the Monastery). This requires some effort. On the way, there are at least four drinks stands. On the way up is a sign to the Lion Tomb. It's not that impressive, but it's not a long climb either.

At the end the path, the Monastery was on our right. A short stroll through the loose sand, and we could admire the majestic facade in all its glory. This was truly the most impressive monument in Petra, in my opinion. Even better than the Khazneh. It's really huge!, although it doesn't appear to be. Only when I saw my mate standing in the eight metre high doorway, I realised how big it really was. I could verify that when we climbed up to the urn at the top. If I were to do it again, I'd give it a miss; the climb is far too dangerous. For the first five or six metres, there are no steps or anything. You just have to climb the bare rock. Later there are steps but they are sometimes heavily eroded and sprinkled with fine white sand. A couple of youngsters who were ahead of us nearly found out what this can lead to - a 40-metre vertical drop! On the last section, one has to clamber over some boulders but it is not as dangerous. I think as long as you're not scrambling around all over the hilltop or the urn not much damage is done to the monument - though possibly to yourself. Once at the top, the view is great. It's only up there that you can see how big the urn really is; people are totally dwarfed by it. It is really impressive, but even so does not outweigh the danger of the climb. Not recommended.
We followed several other paths in the area, but none of these took us to interesting monuments. They did offer some spectacular scenery though.

The Sand Bottles made in Petra were the most beautiful I saw anywhere in Jordan. They're also the most expensive. A small, simple one is JD5; one with a a more complex design is JD8. A medium sized bottle (they àre specially, but not particularly great, blown glass bottles here, not empty whisky flasks) is JD15, and a large one JD25-30. The sellers here won't come down much initially, but after a period of constant haggling you can have the medium sized one for JD10, but that's really it. They do make nice souvenirs!

We stayed in Wadi Moussa in the Peace Way Hotel, which was excellent. The rooms are very nice. The price was JD25 per night for a double room, excluding taxes and breakfast (JD2 per person extra). I managed to get them included in the price, but I'm sure that when business is brisk (e.g. in mid-summer) you won't be able to bargain. The hotel is worth the money, compared with most other places to stay in Jordan. Breakfast consisted of the usual flat bread, an egg, processed cheese and just enough marmalade for two slices of bread. If you can avoid it, don't make telephone calls from this (or any) hotel. It will cost you dearly! I couldn't avoid it, and had to pay JD10 for a 4-minute call to Belgium. The same applies to changing money, although the rate was not thàt bad: 680 fils to the $1 in the hotel as against the Bank rate of 700. There is, however, an exchange office of the Arab Bank not far from the Petra Palace Hotel, heading towards Wadi Moussa. I didn't check, but a sign at the office said it was open 24 hours.
It was in the Peace Way Hotel that I had the most unfortunate experience of my whole trip. The bathroom was equipped with a nice big bathtub. One problem though: no plug. "Oh well", I thought, "Let's just shower then." I got shampoo in my eyes and while reaching for my towel missed my footing and took a massive tumble. During the fall I instinctively reached for support, and somehow jammed my middle finger under the bathroom door, causing the flesh to tear away from the first knuckle-bone. I pulled my finger back, but because it was jammed I simply opened the wound even more. I had to disinfect and even stitch the cut (three, if you really want to know). Not exactly an evening to remember. When I was a child, my parents always told me never to stand upright in a bathtub. The one time I ignore their advice ... Oh well!
One cannot eat in the Peace Way Hotel. They recommended the Arabian House restaurant, just after going right at the central roundabout heading for Petra. Apparently the restaurant is owned by a relative of the Peace Way Hotel manager. We checked it out and found the food excellent and cheap. How about this? Three 'pieces' of felafel each (on the house), 12 more pieces ordered by us, two generous plates of shish kebab, three portions of chips, a side dish and four Cokes for JD10. That's JD5 per person! The waiter was a great bloke, a Tunisian who had become stranded in this part of the world; his plane ticket and money had been stolen in Antakya, Turkey and he was working in the Arabian House to buy a new ticket.
The Petra Burger joint near the Petra Palace Hotel has apparently been closed. One can get excellent hamburgers at the snack bar in the parking area at the Petra site. They're expensive at JD1.50 each, but soooo tasty!

In Wadi Moussa, we also took a look at 'Ain Moussa, the 'Moses Spring'. It's Biblically important. I'm avoiding the term 'historically', because it's not quite possible to prove that Moses indeed did strike the rock here. So it's a 'must-see'. What can one say about it? Well, it's a spring and the water is reported to be drinkable.

Conclusion : Petra is more than worth a visit. Although it has to be shared with a big tourist crowd, the ancient rock city is, in a word, fabulous! It is the absolute highlight of a visit to the country, and should be at the top of everyone's list, even if visiting several Middle Eastern states.

1 comment:

Walid said...

Most of your article was about money.What you paid while in Petra matches what you might pay for a taxi ride from airport to city in your home country.