Hiking from Little Petra to Petra
I count today as our first real day in Jordan. The forecast improved as it called for sunny weather with a temperature around 50 degrees. Much better than the fog, rain and snow of yesterday. Our guide planned to meet us at the hotel at 7:00am, so we went upstairs to breakfast when it opened at 6:30am. They cooked us tasty scrambled eggs to go with a buffet of pita bread, hummus, olives, jams, and za’atar (my new favorite spice).
We filled our bellies, met our guide (Ramiz), picked up our to-go lunch at the front desk, bought water (3 litres for only 1JD) at the convenience store and prepared for our long day at Little Petra and Petra which included a 6-mile hike between the two, not counting exploring both sites. We didn’t know what we were getting into!
Large Cistern Near Little Petra
After purchasing tickets, a two-day pass and entrance to the night show for $106 at the visitor’s center, we returned to meet our guide who had a truck for transporting us to our first stop, a large cistern on the side of the road that held rain water for irrigating the land and watering the animals. From the outside, the cistern we visited didn’t look that big, but once we followed the stairs inside, we were quite shocked to see such a sophisticated chamber covered in cement so that the water didn’t seep through the soft sandstone native to the mountains. The Nabateans, who settled Little Petra and Petra in the first century are known for constructing impressive water systems. The Nabateans built cisterns to catch rain water, they built aqueducts to transport the water, and even dams to control flooding. In fact, the verb Nabat in Arabic translates to water percolating from underground to the surface.
From the cistern, we walked down the road to Little Petra. On the way, we discussed the rules. Don’t pay the kids as they should be in school. The merchants will ask our guide to sell us items. He will explain to us what they are, but we were only to buy what we wanted. Just as soon as we passed through a small lot where local Bedouins sold their wares, a young boy approached our guide and asked if he could show us a dance. We said, “No, thank you” which became a repetitive phrase later in the afternoon upon arriving in Petra.
In Little Petra, however, the atmosphere was very quiet with few visitors. Also known as Al-Beida, Little Petra is located north of Petra in a town called Wadi Musa (meaning the Valley of Moses). While the purpose of some buildings carved into the sandstone is unclear, the Nabatean site is thought to a complex that housed visiting traders on the Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes.
In the open area of the canyon, before we entered the narrow Siq al-Barid (meaning cold canyon) we saw our first Nabatean building. Ramiz told us the soldiers used this as a lookout to warn of any danger. The Nabateans built the rest of their city at Little Petra behind a very narrow entrance to stay protected from enemy forces.
We walked through the narrow opening to find a wider area which included caves, stairs, cisterns, and a colonnaded triclinium. It is thought the kitchen was on the ground floor of the triclinium and the food was carried up the stairs to the dining area to entertain guests.
The caves may have housed their animals, but it is hard to know as after the area was abandoned during the Nabatean decline in the 7th Century, the only people who knew of the site were traveling Bedouins who lit many camp fires in the covered areas which destroyed much of the art and paintings.
Paintings from the Nabateans are extremely rare and can’t even be found in Petra. In Little Petra, however, a fresco was discovered on the ceiling and recently restored. The fresco is very detailed and depicts many images related to wine consumption, possibly reflecting the worship of the Greek God of Wine, Dionysus. Three varieties of grapes and two types of birds were found among the gold leaf and translucent glazes. This room is now referred to as the Painted House.
Places to See in Petra
Hiking to Petra
After tea and a toilet break, we began our hike. In the beginning, we followed a dirt road through the desert that took us past a mine, caves, Bedouin tents, recently planted barley fields, and countless rock formations. Most of the natural vegetation, which was limited, was poisonous. It didn’t take long before we reached the middle of nowhere. We left the road, crossed a plowed field, and reached another road where we met an Arab who checked our Petra ticket. It was kind of funny to find a ticket taker out in the desert miles away from the Petra entrance.
We continued our hike along mountain ledges, we ate lunch next to women selling goods on a cliff over-looking the maze of canyons, and we passed men working on the trail. The weather seemed to change like Colorado. One minute we were hot in the sun and shedding layers. The next minute we were adding them back on as we stood in the shade with a breeze.
At one point we had to climb the mountain via stairs. Syreeta, not too keen on hiking, asked Ramiz, “How many?”
He replied, “Not more than 300.”
In disbelief, she exclaimed, “I’m counting.” Upon completion, she concluded there were 287 stairs.
The stairs were not the last incline. We slogged up another hill, this time off trail through the sand which winded us. At the top, we could see a mosque atop the mountain peak across the way. Preferring to know the plan, Syreeta asked, “Where to next?”
Ramiz calculated, “We have about a mile to the monastery.”
Ok, we prepared for our next jaunt, and as we turned the corner, there was the monastery. We let out oohs and ahs in astonishment! Not one of clued in that our fit bits read 6+ miles and 13,500 steps! What a tricky guide we had!
It was SO exciting to see the absolutely massive monastery. Margaret and Syreeta were jumping in celebration for a picture with the monastery in the background. Little did they know, we still had four hours of hiking ahead of us!
The hike from Little Petra to Petra had us entering Petra from the back way and the monastery doesn’t even show on the map provided by the visitor’s center despite its grandeur. The monastery was built as a Nabatean temple in the 3rd Century BC. It derived its name much later from crosses carved on the inside walls suggestive that it was used as a church during the Byzantine times. I can’t easily describe its size and the thought of the entire building 45m high and 50m wide being carved out of rock is simply mind blowing. We sat in amazement while enjoying a refreshing drink by the fire in the café situated across from this magnificent site. For the movie buffs out there, the Monastery was used in the filming of Transformers 3.
From the Monastery, we hiked at least an hour toward the city center. Fortunately, it was mostly downhill. We followed the crowded steps and dodged donkeys carrying tourists at an uncontrolled speed. The path was lined with merchants and their cats. For every ten cats there was one dog. We were consistently greeted with, “Free to look, good price, happy hour, only 1 dinar.” And we consistently replied, “No thank you,” despite the amazing deals. I really don’t know how they could have made any money selling their wares which included shawls, jewelry, and knick knacks for only one dinar. For bargains, visit Petra in the off-season like we did, though keep in mind if it is foggy and rainy, the complex is likely to be closed! We got lucky and only had to one day of bad weather which was mostly driving.
Our next stop along the path was at the Lion Triclinium which dates back to 200 AD. It is off the path and secluded in a canyon which can easily be missed. The structure derives its name from the two lions carved at the base of the façade. We could see tombs in distance from here. Ramiz told us that the way we could tell that they were tombs was two sets of stairs were carved above the entrance. One set was for the soul to go to heaven and the other set was for the soul to go to hell.
From there we finally reached Petra’s main trail. Petra is one of the seven new wonders of the world, so noted in 2000. More than 2,000 years old, Petra was the capital of the Nabatean Empire which began to prosper through trade in frankincense, myrrh, and spices in the first century BC. In its heyday, under King Aretas IV, the city was home to 30,000 people.
By AD 106 the trade routes shifted from Petra to Palmyra and new trade routes via the Red Sea to Rome. This weakened the Nabatean Empire and the Romans took control of the city. The Romans added familiar Roman features to the city such as colonnaded streets and baths. The city continued to thrive until a large earthquake in 363 destroyed most of it and it was ultimately abandoned by the 7th Century. Petra was lost to all except the local Bedouin. It wasn’t until 1812 when a Swiss explorer dressed as an Arab convinced his Bedouin guide to take him to the city that Petra was rediscovered.
Qsar Al-Bint and the Great Temple
Our first stop on the main trail was at Qsar Al-Bint, the only free standing Nabatean building in the complex, as the rest were carved out of the colorful sandstone. We continued past the colonnaded street and the Great Temple, of which only columns and steps remained. Next, we stopped at the church which was built around the 5th Century AD where well preserved mosaics covered both sides of the church’s floor. The mosaics are not colored. They simply take on the natural colors of the sandstone created by the minerals inside.
The Royal Tombs
Soon we reached the Royal Tombs which was quite spectacular. The four adjoining facades of the Royal Tombs are known as the Urn Tomb, the Silk Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb, and The Palace Monument.
Of all the structures in Petra, Ramiz likes the Urn Tomb because of its loud echo inside and the amazing sandstone colors. Margaret, Syreeta and I liked the Monastery the best, and Suman liked the Treasury the best, as ever since she saw Idiana Jones and the Last Crusade, she had wanted to visit the site.
It was approaching sunset around 4:30, and we still hadn’t even seen the Treasury! Ramiz gave us the option to watch the sunset, but Suman was all about seeing the Treasury so we continued past the Theatre and the Street of Facades to FINALLY lay eyes on another magnificent site. We simply admired the treasury and snapped some photos as dusk fell upon us, and we decided to let Ramiz tell us about it in the morning when we returned as we had soaked up enough information for the day. In addition, we still had a 45 minute walk to reach the exit!
Bab Al Siq
We passed through the Bab Al Siq, another narrow gorge lined with aqueducts and dams which protected Petra before reaching another open area of structures. With jet lag set in and our brains shut off, we walked in silence until we reached the exit. The night show in Petra was not going to happen for us…all we wanted was dinner!!
We stopped at the Red Cave Restaurant which received four stars on Trip Advisor and was recommended in the guide book, but we didn’t find it quite as good as the hole in the wall we went to yesterday. It didn’t matter. The people were nice, the service was good, and we were hungry! What I found most humorous of all, however, was the sign in the bathroom.
After a 13-mile day, we were asleep before the night show started! But we will be ready for more tomorrow. ETB