This past weekend I took the trip of a lifetime to the amazing, ancient, stone-carved Lost City of Petra in southwest Jordan. It was breathtakingly gorgeous and seemingly incomprehensible in its existence, and the whole weekend made me feel like one little kid, wandering around wonder-struck in one huge sandbox. I’ll write here about all the stuff I saw and did there – including running and climbing up cliffs over ravines, riding a donkey up and down a mountain, and running some really miserable miles through the desert.
So I have now seen 2 out of the 7 new Wonders of the World – Petra and the Coliseum in Rome! And by the end of October, I will have also seen the only remaining Wonder of the Ancient World – the pyramids at Giza.
Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
Our trip started bright and early on Thursday with a taxi ride from our neighborhood to our study center, where we met our program and got on a big coach bus together. We rode about 4 hours southwest of Amman down the Desert Highway to Petra, where we all slathered on some sunscreen, grabbed our hats and scarves and walked down to the entrance. After obtaining our tickets (50 JD for tourists, but just 1 JD for Jordanian citizens!) we began the long, winding downhill walk through the desert, surrounded on either side by huge walls of stone. The Nabateans ingenious methods of controlling and storing the little water they received all year from rain allowed them to become a prosperous and successful society, almost an artificial oasis in the middle of the Jordanian desert – known to them as Raqmu. We saw their dams, cisterns, and other means of controlling water throughout our day.
To get to the Lost City, you first have to walk miles down through a steep and twisting natural gorge in the sandstone, known as the Siq (the shaft) which in some places the Nabateans had even paved with cobblestone. Horse drawn carriages take some people all the way from the visitor’s center down through the Siq to the Treasury, but it was an incredible and jaw-dropping walk filled with the beautiful scenery of ever-changing rose rock colors and occasionally, ancient carvings in the rock.
But the real shock comes when you reach the end of the Siq – the passage narrows and becomes dark, and you can see light shining from the end of it. As you get closer, the light takes shape and color and you can see the edge of the beautifully carved, incredible preserved, ancient Nabatean Treasury. As you walk out, the full height and majesty of the Treasury grows before your eyes until you are standing right in front of it – surrounded by camels.
It is a truly incredible and breath-taking sight. It stands over two stories high, and its impressive Greek-influenced architecture is outstandingly well preserved. You can see bullet-holes in the giant sandstone urn at the top where later travelers shot at it, hoping to dislodge the Pharoah’s treasure rumored to be inside, when in actuality the “Treasury” was built as an elaborate mausoleum by the Nabateans. It is an incredible (and very photogenic) sight to see, and I had to keep picking my jaw up off the ground at how truly impressive and beautiful it was. It was also very cliche to see this incredible world monument in the middle of the desert, surrounded by tourists in Hawaiian shirts and camels waiting to haul them through the Nabateans’ maze-like civilization.
After the Treasury, we continued to wind through the canyons that the Nabateans lived amongst, coming upon the ruins of their ancient civilization – columns, destroyed walls, doors, impressive archways, windows, and shopfronts carved out of rock and long forgotten by their owners. We also saw the enormous theater, totally carved out of sheer rockface, that the Nabateans had built to fit as many as possible and whose view encompasses as many tombs as possible – an optimistic culture, for sure. Up on a tall hill, we could see other majestic rock structures with people climbing up to, on, and above in the desert heat, an incredible sight. Each of the hikers started quite quickly, very motivated, but at the top all we could see were slow-moving, fatigued, multicolored ants trudging up rosy rock steps.
Our group had lunch at the Petra Museum restaurant, a welcome break from heat and a delicious meal. We all planned what we would do with our (extremely limited) free time after lunch and before our bus departed for the next stop. A trusted recommendation from Facebook tipped us off that taking a donkey/mule ride up to the Monastery was the way to go, so after lunch Michaela, Phoebe, and I hired some of the local Bedouin donkey guides to take us there.
The ride was fun, scary, and totally worth it. The young man (just 15 years old) steadied the donkey as I jumped up on to it. He led them, clucking and cooing at them, up the thousands of shaky stone stairs through a deep canyon to the Monastery. More than once I was afraid that my donkey had taken a wrong step, and that I would sway just a little too far to one side and send us toppling down the steep stairs. Sometimes the donkeys would seem to head straight towards the edge, tricking me into believing my time had come at any second. On our way back down, the donkey walked right along the edge of the cliff, and I made the terrible mistake of looking down.
But the ride was totally worth it. It dropped us off about 100 meters from the Monastery, as the steps were too steep for the donkeys. We practically ran up the cliff, and almost thought we had been duped – at the top was just a little restaurant and some more cliffs. Then we turned around.
The Monastery was a spectacular sight! It is at least twice as large as the Treasury, and seems to simply burst forth from the rock of its own accord. It was huge and exhilarating and exciting, especially after the “thrilling” donkey ride. We ran around it like children, taking pictures and reveling in the moment. Then, we saw our friends Clay and Jade who were headed towards the cliff faces and a sign that said “BEST VIEW!” at the tippy-top of a far-away cliff. We looked at our watches, thought about how irresponsible it would be to spend more time there, and then made a run for it. We ran towards the cliff and then up as far as we could until we had to climb vertically to reach a flat place. We rested for a second, until the breath we had just retrieved was snatched away again by the insane and terrifying view ahead of us – a deep ravine with a steep drop-off. We took pictures, and then slowly climbed down.
Then we snagged a few last pictures of the incredible Monastery and then started running back down those steep, jagged, rock steps carved by the Nabateans all those thousands of years ago towards our donkeys. We jumped on the donkeys, which went much faster (and stumblier) down than they had going up – it seemed certain that at any moment the donkey would lose his footing and me, Phoebe, our guide, and both donkeys would be sent somersaulting down into the canyon. They did slip a few times – but regained their footing quickly.
Until we got to the bottom and were headed back to the Treasury through the relatively much flatter desert plain. Phoebe’s donkey stepped just wrong enough on a stone that it started tripping and falling, and Phoebe lost her balance, falling off the donkey as it fell on to her, until they were both laying on the ground in pain. Both Phoebe and the donkey recovered quickly like champions! No bruises or tears to be found. However, after that, our guide cautiously wouldn’t allow us to ride quickly back to the Treasury, so we were left in the dust of Clay, Jade, and Michaela, who galloped back to the Treasury.
We arrived at the Treasury at 4pm – and we were supposed to be at our bus at 4pm. We jumped off our donkeys, threw some dinars at our guides, and then started sprinting the FOUR MILES of uphill, hot, desert through the Siq from the Treasury back to the start. It was truly, incredibly, mind-numbingly horrible to try to run, all the while feeling guilty for keeping our peers waiting/worried.
After an extremely sweaty 30 minutes of running and walking uphill through the desert, we reached the bus, half-dead of dehydration. But, we were greeted like heroes, and had a great story to tell. A memory I will never forget!