27.12.1964 - 29.12.1964
We tried all morning to get a lift to Petra, but no luck. We finally gave up and came back into town. We went to the Syrian Embassy to get visas. No luck again - “come back tomorrow”. British Embassy to get student certificate. Holiday there. We got lost trying to get back to the club. Finally got there. Completely wasted day. Accomplished nothing.
Monday 28-12-64 and Tuesday 29-12-64
We decided to go down to Ma’an by service car, but it broke down half way. Had to take a truck the rest of the distance, and the bus we could have got instead of the car, for 200 fils less, arrived before us. We then had to take another service car on from Ma’an to Wadi Musa, the only way of getting there, and paid 375 fils each. Expensive journey.
The first inkling of Petra is when you see the ring of rocky mountains that surround it, and which are completely different in character from the rest of the countryside - beforehand it is flat desert, and bare undulating hills.
The car drove on through the village of Wadi Musa, and at the bottom of the valley, past the spring which the driver said was the first spring of Moses (doubtless only legendary), came to the new Petra Rest House, which we found to be very smart and modern, and very expensive as well. We got out and registered in the police tent, and then set off on foot for the ancient Nabataean city itself, through the famous gorge entrance. The lesser caves began almost immediately, which surprised me, as I had always thought that the first sight would be of the Treasury. We walked on down the rocky trail, which is the bed of the waterless wadi, and came to the recently constructed dam, which is supposed to divert any flash flood that could pass through the chasm; as it did a few years ago, drowning some tourists. We trudged on along the path, which became only a few yards wide now, and looking up, I could just see the sky through the narrow opening at the top of the sheer walls on either side. They were hundreds of feet high. Running along the left hand side of the trail, a few feet off the ground, were the discernable remains of the ancient city’s water supply channel. Every so often, when the afternoon sun hit the rocks, the famous orange red glow was there and the contrast of light and shade was beautiful in the extreme.
The trail wound through the crevice, sometimes wide, sometimes narrow, sometimes under an overhanging ledge. There was the blue sky - really blue, vermilion sunlit rock, becoming dark brown rock in the shade, and the stony grey trail. Then came the half view of the Treasury. We were at the end of the crevice.
The Treasury was as fine as I expected, and it was pock-marked with bullet holes, made by Bedouins of T. E. Lawrence’s time and others, no doubt, who believed that the stone urn at the top was filled with treasure. We were a little disappointed that the rose red colour was not so pronounced inside Petra at first. It was not really at its best until sunset. Walking on past the Treasury, we passed countless caves, some hewn roughly out of the rock and obviously Nabataean dwellings, others with fine facades and evidently from the Roman period. They were quite badly worn, and much of the rock had crumbled away. To carve them in the first place, the rock must have been quite soft, and it has not weathered very well with time. It is strange that the Treasury is quite well preserved. We passed the rock hewn Roman theatre on the left, which has had its stage partly reconstructed. This is the first we have seen. We noticed a ring of caves overlooking it from the sheer rock face behind - maybe the cheap seats.
High on a cliff face to the right were the prison and many of the more important caves. The afternoon sun was bathing these, but the colouring was not particularly striking. We turned a corner in the valley and saw the remains of the Roman road, with its triumphal arch and temple further down.
It struck me at this part as being rather like I imagine Pompei might be. The temple was for the most part standing, but most of the buildings that have not been carved out of the cliff are just a heap of rubble.
There is an expensive camp hotel next to the temple, the only sign of commercialism within Petra. No private cars are allowed in, though the road is wide enough, and the whole scene is made timeless by the peace and quiet of the place. There is an odd lack of time in Petra. It seems cut off completely from the outside world, which it virtually is, and which is why it was such an impregnable natural fortress. There are pottery shards everywhere, but whether they are authentic Nabataean, Roman, or just plain Bedouin, I do not know. Just before sunset, Petra was a most beautiful sight. Most of the valley was in semi-darkness, but a distant mountain and the furthest of the rock carved cliff faces was truly aglow.
To change the quote “A rose red city half as old as time” and be rather less poetic, I would say that Petra is a timeless place, sometimes bathed in an extraordinary vermilion light.
When the night had fallen, I saw one of the most perfect night skies I have seen in a long while. The whole solar system was as clear as it could be to the naked eye. An American woman there said it reminded her of a planetarium, but it is just such a sky that a planetarium makes an artificial attempt to capture. We slept the night in a closed off cave, free of charge, with nine others. I felt dreadfully hungry when I went to sleep. I had only had a few apples and some biscuits with peanut butter on them. In the morning, the sun was lighting the western side of Petra, which was fortunate for photographic purposes. On the way out, I looked at some of the caves more closely and found a few graves with bones in them, though I think they were only animal bones. I also took a closer look at the Treasury before heading back out through that great crevice. I glanced behind for a moment, and then, as I rounded a corner in the trail, the timeless city of Petra closed its doors to me.
Outside we spent 7 hours trying to get a lift back to Amman. With nothing better to do, Ade went for a short ride on the back of a somewhat spirited horse that hadn’t been hired out for the day. The keepers seemed highly amused, and I felt sure it would throw him off, but it didn’t thank God or we might have been in a real mess. Late in the afternoon we finally talked our way into a lift, though the people were terribly reluctant, and then dropped us 3 K’s outside Amman. They were going on to Jerusalem. We got a taxi to the Gazeira Club and I was damn glad to be back.