The Nabatean ‘Siq’ - my First Glimpse of Petra

By the time we arrive in Wadi Musa we’ve been on the road 14 hours - It’s cold and dark and we’re exhausted. We check into our hotel, which isn’t bad (comfy beds, a power shower and small flatscreen tv in which I can watch Lebanese films and Kuwaiti news). But we’re also starving - and I mean starving - because we’ve been living on Israeli snacks (that I cunningly packed) for what seems like forever. We trudge down into the ‘centre’ of the place (it’s really just a couple of streets - well, we are in the desert after all) and eat dinner in an ‘upmarket’ restaurant, with racks of meat hanging outside to tempt the potential diners.

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Eduardo tries the camel meat, I settle for rice and vegetables. The real bummer, of course, is that we can’t have a beer with our meal, this being conservative Jordan. I have a hip flask in my pocket, and try in vain to take a shluck of whisky from it, but the manager of the restaurant has eyes like a hawk and I sense it’s better to put it back in my bag and wait until I’m back in the privacy of my room.

We collapse into our beds and sleep like the dead. I’ve set our alarm for 5.30 am since I’m hoping to get to Petra for sunrise, but apart from the fact that I wake, still exhausted, and Eduardo is dead to the world, when I peek outside my window I see an angry, dark sky with flecks of red in it. There is no sign whatsoever of the sun! I check the weather forecast and am told that it’s going to be a rainy morning (a hangover from yesterday’s flash floods) and the decide this is God’s way of telling us to sleep in.

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I wake with a start and realise it’s almost 9 am. I really needed that sleep but now it’s time to rock and roll. The bed linen was surprisingly soft and the mattress wonderfully firm, and the shower is fantastically hot (after having let the water run for 15 minutes). Downstairs, still waiting for my travel companion (who loves long showers) I tuck into a hot breakfast and inadvertently anger my waiter, who is pleasant and friendly until he discovers that I’ve come from Israel. I’m not entirely surprised (almost 70% of Jordanians have Palestinian heritage and tend to view my country somewhat negatively) but I don’t feel like passing myself off as a bona fide Brit (even though I was born there).

After half an hour of scowls, Eduardo arrives and then he gets a mouthful, after the waiter asks him what he thinks of the United States and he casually answers that he likes the place. I’m half-amused and half-exhausted - I like a good political discussion but I haven’t even had a second cup of coffee yet. The joke is that my friend has got to be the most apolitical person I’ve ever known (he refuses to vote in elections and, whilst liberal in his nature, has no interest whatsoever in current affairs - he just wants to travel and take photos!) But, still, it’s a timely reminder to me that the conflict in the Middle East is alive and kicking (not that I don’t feel that every day, in Tel Aviv).

Since Petra is open until sundown (around 5-6 pm?) we figure that we may as well splash out on a two or three day ticket (they aren’t much more costly than visiting for one day alone) and wait for the dark clouds to pass, as the weather says they will. And they do. By midday the sun is out and we walk down the hill to the visitor’s entrance, where several vendors try their best to sell us an assortment of wares (most of it pretty junky). The queue isn’t long - we’ve arrived long after the masses - and soon, clutching our tickets (a cool 60 JD each) we head to the Siq.

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The Siq is the main entrance to this ancient Nabatean city and actually means ‘gorge’. I’ve been told it is a kilometre long, in this case means gorge and at first sight is not particularly impressive - simply a gravel road with a wadi running beside it. Trudging along, the two of us are accosted at every turn by both young men and teenage boys, all trying to sell us something - postcards, a guided walk up in the mountains "(“Indiana Jones style, Miss”) and, of course, a donkey ride. I look at the donkeys - they look old and tired and I feel nothing but pity for them…carrying young kids and (overweight) American tourists back and forth for 10 hours a day. I’ve already been warned that this is a sure-fire way of losing big bucks, even though their catch phrase is “Free donkey ride included in the ticket price.” (The misery begins after the donkey ride, when you’re aggressively hunted down for a generous tip).

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There are also carriages up for rent - not ‘Cinderella-like’ by any means but still, consisting of four ok-ish wheels to get you to your destination super fast. But I’m in no hurry. And as we walk further along the Siq, suddenly I realise why all those who have come before me have found it so impressive. The path drops down, and suddenly I’m flanked on both sides by enormous rocks that soar high into the sky (my guess is more than 60 metres!) The colours are astonishing and the formations are like nothing I have ever seen before.

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At certain moments, the path is so narrow, almost all of the light is blocked out. At other points the passage widens and the light hits the sandstone, turning it red, orange, pink, brown…and it is simply dazzling. I am astounded - walking this path is already exceeding my expectations and I haven’t yet reached the Treasury. Onwards and upwards…