We have barely managed to pass the entrance gate before the onslaught begins. Our first impression of Petra, is a shoddy scramble for business.
It will get worse than this as we proceed further into the site. More insistent. In the late afternoon heat, with the dust whirling around in the air in great puffs of orange sand, the barrage seems more irritating than perhaps it would be in some other, less demanding climate.
“Come, come. Just twenty dollars madam. Twenty dollars to Al Khazerna.”
I check my ticket. The price of a horse ride is included in the entry price.
“It says here I already paid.”
“No that is for a horse. Not a carriage.”
My four year old daughter is already walking determinedly towards the horses tied up nearby and has eyed a beautiful chestnut Arab. No mere carriage for her.
“We’ll just take one of the horses. Thanks all the same.”
I point to Helena as she descends upon her chosen steed and for an instant the Bedouin’s eyes flash with laughter. He seems impressed that she has taken to horses so young.
In the end, the horse ride last barely five minutes, taking us along the dirt track to the start of the Siq – the magnificent gorge that leads to the Al Khazema, where we dismount.
From deep within the chasm we hear the sound of hooves as they echo down the Siq, clattering and reverberating and the sound entices us in.
And how do you describe a place that overawes the senses in such a way? This is the question that vexes me as we start to walk through this magnificent natural wonder.
The rose, striated rock rises up all around us, the coolness of its long shadows a welcome relief from the glaring midday sun.
When we had entered, I had imagined the narrow chasm would feel somewhat claustrophobic. That those high, rocky walls would be intimidating and overbearing.
But in the shade of the chasm, the relief of the coolness ensures that the looming presence of the rose coloured rock feels soothing, and welcoming. It embraces and shelters the traveller that walks there.
The rapid clatter of horses hooves and the jangling of bells as a carriage canters past shatters the serenity and we jump aside to ensure we are not trodden under, and it is only then that I become aware of the silence.
For despite the fact that there are a good few tourists walking through the Siq, the place is strangely quiet. Now and then a voice will rise up, reverberate, then dissipate in an echo. Then silence.
We walk on and no-one speaks, save for he odd sigh or occasional wow as we pass by various carved out hollows in the rock that once served as Nabatean dwellings. The sight of the cool sanctuary strikes me as something clever and elegant. Simple, yes, but far from primitive.
Following the Siq I note the channels and watering holes that have been built there. Feats of engineering that bear testament to the ingenuity of man, even when confronted with such daunting surroundings.
And then, through a chink in the rock we see the light pour in. We walk on and it is Helena that breaks the silence. Her tiny voice rising up with genuine delight.
The Al Khazema.
Wow doesn’t even begin to describe it.
I have seen it often, of course. On posters, in guide books, on television. But nothing prepares you for the sheer grandeur of the thing. The height, the warmth of the colours. The elaborate carvings of the columns and the arches.
A building that says “here I am”. I wonder at that now. How it must have been to behold such a place at the height of the Nabatean age. How imposing would this place have seemed then? This testament to wealth and power?
Even the soothing colours of the rose stone cannot soften the emphatic triumph of the place.
Perhaps Helena is right after all. Wow sums it up perfectly.
I take out the map and try to get a sense of how vast the site is. It is impossible for us to see it all but more than anything I long to see the Monastery, the largest building on the site.
It’s along way off. But the ever prestn guides have spotted me and they hone in on their target.
“Where do you want to go?”
I point to the monastery on the map, then look down at Helena.
“I don’t think she can make it. It’s too far.”
“Oh no, no problem. She can sit on the donkey. Twenty dollars.”
I am a lousy negotiator and Paolo knows it. he steps in to take over.
“Ten and you have a deal.” I hang around for a bit and marvel at the way the two negotiate and haggle a decent price. Why is it I can never manage such a thing? I cringe with embarrassment at the mere thought of having to haggle.
“Fifteen?” I hear as I walk away and take a look at the striated Nabatean cave dwellings that surround us. I climb inside of one and admire the colours of the stone. Rose and cream coloured stripes that swirl in delightful lines around the hollowed out dwelling. Here, inside, it feels comfortable, the colour of the stone, those patterns, lending the place a charm that is surprising. No mere cave, this.
Outside I see that Helena is now astride her donkey and that, prices now settled, we are set to leave.
The guide happily informs Helena that she is now astride Michael Jackson as we set off on the long pull up towards the monastery.
She is happy with this. She may only be four, but the King of Pop has already made an impression. So it goes.
I wander behind her, along a trail that takes us up steep, winding stairs that seem never ending. With each footfall the beat of Billie Jean rattles around in my head and I cannot shake it.
Such is life. All this way in search of archaeological wonder only to be attacked by an ear worm.
As we climb we pass various stalls selling souvenirs and tat. Each one is manned by a family of local Bedouins and it is impossible to pass by without being accosted.
“Come for some tea madam? Souvenir? Come, take a look. Beautiful things for your daughter.”
I nod and carry on walking. Feeling the scowls as they burn into my back.
The guide wants to know if I am okay.
Throughout the journey so far, the omnipresent gaze of the current royal family has been firmly fixed upon us. The young king with his beautiful wife and happy children.
From time to time I catch their gaze as it stares out at me from the bric-a-brac stalls and food stands, trying to figure out what it is about their presence that is beginning to disconcert me.
Here, in this ancient Nabatean city, their happy smiling faces are too modern, too westernised, too sanitised and sterile to seem truly a part of this place. Perhaps it is simply this that is making me confused.
“The photo of the new King is everywhere I look.”
At first he seems perplexed as to why this should be bothering me.
“You don’t like the King?”
From his tone I can tell that he will not be too troubled if I am truthful and voice my concern.
“They seem out of place here is all. Too modern.”
“The old king was better. He was a brave man.”
He watches me to gauge my reaction. Will I play the polite tourist?
“I have heard that here before. A few days ago. People seem to miss King Hussein.”
“They prefer him to his son.”
It’s a subtle response. They prefer him. The inference being that the old king is not so sorely missed as it first seemed.
Across the Arab world, uprisings are unfolding and the future is uncertain. Will Jordan follow, I wonder. There certainly seems to be an unspoken undercurrent of unease in the country. The smiles a facade that could easily tumble.
When I get home I will read about the unease. Jordan Trembles is the headline. And I will think back to the look on the Bedouin’s face as he watched me absorb his assessment of King Abdullah.
“I guess it always takes time to get used to a new King.” is all I can offer in the end.
The guide simply shrugs. Clearly the King means little more than this.
And once again, Petra throws a surprise our way as we reach the top of the climb and scramble out into an open space and turn to see the monastery looming up before us.
If I was staggered before, I am truly astonished now.
The sheer size of the monastery inspires awe and as I take it in I notice tiny figures standing in the doorway, small and insignificant as ants. Their miniscule forms seem fitting.
I take a seat on the ground and marvel at the sight while Helena scurries around with her donkey, oblivious to the magnificence of the structure in her midst.
Then, from far off I hear a whoop and a cry.
I scan the site trying to pinpoint the source and finally spot him. High above perched atop the dome, whooping and laughing. How he got there I can only imagine. The climb to the top must have been precarious. He spots me and waves and I wave back enjoying his small triumphant conquest of this most intimidating of structures.
The tiny ant like figures in the doorway scurry down to take a look and holler back towards the intrepid climber.
“Time to go”.
I am lost in the moment, unaware how long we have been there.
“It will be dark soon.”
I nod and the guide mistakes my pensiveness for tiredness.
“Such a shame. I have another donkey that could have taken you back.”
I simply shrug.
I am thrown for a moment. Did he say Johnny Depp? What on earth could Johnny Depp have to do with anything.
“The donkey. My other donkey. Johnny Depp.”
I let out a guffaw.
“You mean I just missed my chance to ride Johnny Depp?”
The glint in his eye flashes wickedly at me and we both laugh.
“Never mind” is all he says.
“Yeah, never mind…”