Tanja Radetic, Astoria archive
Probably most of us saw close-ups of Petra for the first time in the movie Indiana Jones, not believing that somewhere, there exists a city, in which the crusaders guard the Holy Grail. Still, in Jordan, somewhere between the Dead Sea and the Aqaba bay, there lies the real Petra, an antique metropolis of the Arabic tribe Nabataean that is increasingly becoming a tourist Mecca for European tourists.
It was built, better said, hewed out of solid rock in the Moses' valley. It is so well hidden that it cannot be seen from the road that leads to the new part of the city, Wadi Musa, with numerous hotels, different stores, restaurants and of course the unavoidable hammams. The Nabataeans, traders of spices and lumps of tars that they were collecting off the surface of the Dead Sea, built this magnificent town on the crossroad of caravan pathways about 2000 years ago, but the Europeans had forgotten about Petra until 200 years ago. Only rare scientists had a presentiment that somewhere in the Middle East there lay a legendary city hewed out of solid rock until, at the beginning of the 19th century, Burckhardt from Switzerland, travelling around Arabia, revealed this pearl of architecture.
There are two roads which lead to Petra. One of them is a long and narrow canyon, Bab as-Siq that spreads between the rocks over 100 metres high. The canyon itself is fascinating; the rocks change their colour from white, yellow, pink, red to blue. On one side of the canyon there is a channel through which the Nabataeans, from the nearby hill, brought water to Petra, so that even during siege they were never left without water.
A city you do not see
Walking through the canyon for less than half an hour, not knowing what is around the corner and where the end is, suddenly, through a cleft, the most celebrated building of Petra appears, the Al-Khaznah, the treasury. On exiting the canyon a small square is appearing and on the other end, hewed out of solid pink rock there is a magnificent building. The sight is breathtaking. And that is it, the time stops. Regardless of the Bedouin children running around, laughing and constantly trying to sell something, with some of them dressed in jeans, there is a feeling of a parallel world, one outside Petra which we came from, and one here in Petra, one into which we have just sunk. There is one place onto which one must climb and wait for the sun to come into the right position and light the treasury that then blazes up in all nuances of pink, red and orange colour.
Enjoying the play of light, we continue further on. On both sides of the path from the treasury to the city centre there are engraved buildings in the rocks, coloured in all nuances of red. According to the names of buildings we interpret that these amazing works of man and nature are actually - tombs. In the city there is an amphitheatre that was able to seat up to 5000 visitors and the steep path behind it leads to the altar. Outside Petra there is the hill Jebel Haroun and at its peak there is the tomb of Aron, Moses`s brother. From that peak, beside Aron`s tomb, an amazing view is spreading over the surroundings, to rocky hills in which a city is carved in. A city that cannot be seen, until you enter it.
The other entry into Petra leads through a narrow canyon and dry river beds, wadis, through which the central part of the city is reached from the northern side. This is where a paved street with columns begins, that leads to the monumental triumphal arch. Through a steep path and engraved stairs, departing from the central part of Petra one arrives to the convent at the hill top, Ed-Deir, a monumental building in which monks used to live. Whilst drinking a scented tea in the shade of an engraved rock, I am looking at a Bedouin climbing to the top of the urn and beginning to play a penny whistle. And as the sounds of the flute fill the air around us, I remember the words of Lawrence of Arabia in his work "Seven pillars of wisdom“: “Petra is the most wonderful place in the world“.
Shepherds of the red desert
The best way to get to know the desert is - on foot. Climbing the rocks shaped by time and wind, walking in the loose sand of all nuances, orange and red colour, sleeping under the starry sky. Attayak Ali, one of the best guides, a real desert wolf, did everything to bring the desert closer to us - its inhabitants and life in it, in order for us to get to know it and like it. Salem and Suleyman, Attayak's cousins and assistants, made sure we had enough tea every day, they spoiled us with delicacies of the Arabic cuisine and saw to it that we were missing nothing.
One day, walking around the desert in the vicinity of Petra, we came upon a Bedouin family. Since in this harsh land it is customary to invite a traveller into one’s home for refreshment, we were also invited for tea. Sitting down in the tent that was woven from goat hair with the tent floor covered with colourful carpets, in a moment before us there was a kettle with scented mint tea. The Bedouin tents are divided into a space for guests and a part for the family. The family is the foundation of the society, and several families form a clan, whilst several clans make a tribe. Bedouins (the word means inhabitants of the desert) that live in Wadi Rum, the only red desert outside Africa, still live a real nomadic way of life. They raise camels, goats, sheep, moving their tents about in search of grazing lands. Since our hosts were goat breeders, we were offered one goat. Discussions relating to money, trade or exchange must not be conducted in the tent, a space in which sincerity, honesty and understanding rule. At the moment when the conversation diverts into the field of material goods, one must leave the tent and the bargaining can begin. At the end of trading, all sides must be satisfied. The kid is coming with us. The Bedouins are satisfied, because they also need a fresh inflow of money and we shall have the kid for dinner, prepared in an autochthonous way. This means that the meat of the kid is cooked in yoghurt for several hours and is served with rice and Bedouin bread.
Dancers in Galabias
The moment the daily tourist groups leave, Petra and the surrounding desert become ruled by incredible peace, quietness and beauty. Everything in this huge museum has been created by nature: from the rocks of various colours, sand dunes, canyons and narrow passages, to the highest natural arch. At the peak of the rock, we await the sunset during which the desert is lighted by fireworks of the most vivid colours.
In the evening, beside the camp fire, with the sweet smoke of a water-pipe and countless cups of tea, we enjoy the company of our hosts. After dinner, Attayak`s friends would visit us, tall proud Bedouins in white or black Galabias, with their heads covered with chequered scarves. The music masters would come with their instruments that resemble mandolins, and they would play and dance whole night. They were extremely happy that they could show us that part of their tradition and culture as well.
And when they left and everything was calm, we lay down around the fire a little bit more and Attayak would tell us stories. These were stories that his grandmother told him and that her grandmother told her. Beside us, the antique Petra once again fell into its thousand-year-old sleep. Lying on the warm sand of this unique monument of nature, looking into the sky covered with thousands of stars, Suleyman asked: "Is the Moon the same back home??“ "No“, I replied shortly.