Jordan’s jewel carved in sandstone rocks


Warm and welcoming, Jordanians living in and around the country’s ancient rose pink city of Petra carved out of the surrounding sandstone rocks play a major role in its success as a tourist destination.

“Taxi?” asked the 20 something Bedouin Ameer as he skillfully steered his donkey Jack over the crumbling sandstone pebbles. “Air conditioned!” he added, white teeth flashing in a brown face. By the time visitors have walked through Petra’s tomb fronted Street of Facades, past the still utilised 6,000 seat Roman theatre and climbed the 900 steps cut into the rocks leading to the Monastery and back down again, they are grateful for the use of a donkey’s back.
Petra is a very special place. The city’s imposing facades featuring large columns, tombs, carved figures and square blocks cut into the rocks in 6th Century BC by the Nabataean Arab people takes away the breath of even hardened travellers. Set on the edge of Wadi Araba, the 264 square kilometres designated “archaeological park” of rugged sandstone cliffs changes moods depending on the time of day. The rocks range in colour from red to orange to pink to golden hues with slashes of white, grey and black indispersed periodically.
Strongly supporting Jordan’s jewel are the people that live, work and play in the ancient city itself as well as those living in the modern town of Wadi Musa on its outskirts. Some 35,000 residents of Wadi Musa have a fierce pride in Petra in particular and Jordan in general. “Welcome to Jordan” is the most common greeting. It hasn’t yet been spoiled by the indifference of mass tourism where mediocre cuisine and bad service are expected, because if you don’t like it, there will be hundreds of others who will fill your place.
The cosmopolitan mix of people all have a story to tell and if you take the time to listen and not be irritated by the constant touting for business you will discover the real Jordan.
There are the carefree Bedouin horsemen that dramatically scoop up weary tourists into and out of the ancient city. There are the donkey “taxi” owners who have their designated patch to operate in and go no further lest they incur the wrath of another Beduin also trying to make a living.
There are also the horse and cart operators who speed through the As-Siq, a 1.2 kilometre long narrow sandstone gorge that links Petra to the outside world.
(There will be stricter regulations for these people, the Ministry of Tourism stated recently, ranging from the welfare of their animals, to rates charged and their attire.)
At the end of the As-Siq is Al Khazneh or the Treasury, one of the most elaborate buildings in the ancient city. Its classical Roman influenced architecture featured in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the exterior of the Holy Temple where the Holy Grail was located. And of course, the shrewd curio sellers touting for business know Harrison Ford as an old mate – some even have his hat, and if you believe that, you believe anything.
Many of these curio sellers were born in the surrounding caves where their fathers before them were born too. A new village of neat flat roof concrete houses with running water and electricity glistened in the distance. It was made especially for the Bedouins by the Jordanian government but it obviously didn’t suit all tastes.
While their constant jostling for business can be annoying some have to be admired for their unique selling points. There’s an old toothless man behind a tiny stall packed with trinkets within the Street of Facades who offers tourists “genuine” ancient Nabataean bones. “Here!” he thrusts out his hand excitedly, as if discovering it for the first time. “This is a genuine 6,000 year old finger bone!” Talking to him reveals a hard life in the ancient city, yet a refusal to move into the government housing and a deep love of Petra.
The tour guide who spoke about Petra’s magic during a scheduled Thursday candle light night tour of the ancient city had strict demands for total silence - and these were adhered to - from the 300 visitors while walking in the As-Siq gorge and in the candle strewn clearing in front of The Treasury.
Other tour guides based in Wadi Musa such as Aiman Al Hassanat who organises trips further afield to Wadi Rum and Aquaba even offers tailor made bicycle tours within the region. Mohammad Asri Hamadeen – so knowledgeable about his desert he can drive through it at night without headlights – takes guests to Wadi Rum where remnants of the film set of the original Laurence of Arabia pierce dramatically into the sky. Our guide is deeply passionate about Wadi Rum, its weather etched rock formations and sweeping landscapes of red sand turning into yellow turning into black.
The carefree horsemen too, like Abraham Naoflh, are happiest when leading seven day horseback safaris into this desert.
The town’s hotel managers and staff from the three star Petra Inn to the five star Taybet Zaman aim to please and make every guest feel welcome. Palestinian Ibrahim Samhouri, owner of the Sandstone Restaurant set among the many open air cafes along Wadi Musa’s main road can arrange “whatever you like”.
“As you like” and “It’s up to you” are also favourite sayings, because basically it’s your decision what you want to do – the rest can be arranged.
Without its supporting cast, Petra would still be magnificent – but soulless.
by Cheryl Mandy