The one slight reservation I had about Petra was having to make the same 5km walk as yesterday to get to the point where we could make the 2km climb to the Monastery, the second major architectural masterpiece in the area. Luckily, an alternative was on hand in the form of horses at the gate. The entrance fee includes a short horse ride and we didn’t redeem ours yesterday, so we took advantage of them this morning. As we were riding down, the handler offered to take us further on, along a “secret path” that would bring us above the Treasury and finish up near the steps to the Monastery. After some judicious bargaining which saw the price rapidly fall from 100 dinar to 40, we agreed and set off, a little skeptical of all that was promised, but happy enough not to be walking.
In what was to become a theme of Petra, it did not disappoint. A one hour ride along the back paths of Petra, up and down hills, during which time we saw no-one at all, brought us to a cliff face overlooking the High Place of Sacrifice. Clambering down, we were ushered along by our guide and encouraged to start a steep descent down the side of the rock. Following carefully behind our sure-footed guide, we edged along narrow paths, under outcrops of rock, scrambled down through brush and scree, dropped from the occasional ledge and pushed through bushes. We saw precisely two other people here, an Australian and his guide, coming back up having done the same route. In a site that is visited by more than a million people a year, this really was about as secret as you could get.
Our guide asked us to close our eyes, which was potentially a little perilous, but we had a little faith and followed cautiously, linking hands and picking our way over the small rocks. On his command, we opened our eyes, and he smiled as our jaws dropped. We were indeed directly above the Treasury, looking down and to the right, with people just small dots on the ground. I doubt very much that very many people ever get to see that and I felt very privileged.
Climbing back up, we said our goodbyes to the guides and beautiful horses and began making our way towards the Monastery. We weren’t quite as close as had been explained, but it gave us a chance to see yet another high point in Petra. The High Place of Sacrifice offered yet more fantastic views of the area and only 2 hours after entering Petra, I needed to change my camera battery for the spare. Jamie’s 6th law of travelling: the awesomeness of a location is directly proportional to the number of photos taken, even after controlling for poor photography skills. Across the two days, Petra was to be a full four batteries, placing it high on the scale.
While orienting ourselves to find the steps down that would take us to the steps up to the Monastery, we came again upon the Australian, Jayesh, and his guide, Mohammed, from earlier. Mohammed, it turned out, was not a formal guide, but was helping his brother out by showing Jayesh around. His English was very good, but when he told us he had won 6 Oscars, I thought something had been lost in translation. Not so.
Do you know Katherine Bigelow? I worked with her on that Iraq movie she just did.
The Hurt Locker?!
Yes, that’s the one.
He was in film production, it turned out, and had previously worked with Brian De Palma, Val Kilmer and many others in a career spanning 20 years. Parts of Jordan have been used for The Red Planet, Mission To Mars – pretty much every Martian movie ever really, apart from perhaps Mars Attacks, and if filming happened in Jordan, it probably happened through Mohammed.
By the time we had made our descent, past the Garden Temple and the well preserved Tomb of Roman Soldiers, we were pretty spent and the prospect of 800 steps to take us to the Monastery didn’t seem that appealing, especially with a further 7km walk back to get out of the valley to follow, so we cheated and took donkeys up. The animals make the trek so often that they don’t even need guiding, so with the controls set to autopilot, off we trotted. It was a little strange to be putting your trust into the hooves of an animal derided for its assumed stupidity, but our dependable steeds didn’t let us down. We did pass people three times our age making the climb on foot, but at least had the decency to be slightly ashamed.
The Monastery eclipsed the Treasury in every aspect apart from perhaps romance. The intimate setting of the Treasury in an enclosed plaza gives it a certain magic, which the Monastery can’t quite match, but in terms of scale and of clarity, the Monastery is superior. Cut 45m high and 50m wide into the rock and rising above an open, windswept plaza, at the top of a mountain offering views of the valley below, it is the largest monument in Petra and is an even bigger achievement than the Treasury. We sat and stared in front of it for about 15 minutes, just marvelling at its grandeur. Set back in a recess, it has avoided a lot of the erosion from wind and sand that the Treasury has suffered, and though it is less detailed none of that original detail has been lost. There are only a couple of places higher in the area, one of which was a further 50 or so steps up a hillside behind the plaza, and climbing that we got about as high as possible, taking in the plains and mountains that lie beyond Petra, and seeing all the way into Israel. It looked a lot like Jordan.
All in all, we covered perhaps 25km on foot in the one and half days we were here. Tired and sore, with knees and muscles protesting, we head to Wadi Rum tomorrow, where we can hopefully take advantage of a jeep tour to give our legs a break. Overnighting in a desert is certain to be another experience.
Petra is certainly expensive – we spent maybe $350 in two days between us – and can be quite a strain on the body, but it is an experience like no other I’ve had. The Grand Canyon remained the most spectacular thing I’d ever seen for 9 years. I wonder how long Petra will hold the crown.