Tuesday 17 October

Your camel, sir

Wake briefly a few times. The sky is still dark when I look at my watch at 5.30 am. Time to get up, and it is not long before the first light of dawn begins to appear.

After breakfast, still well before the sun is visible above the rocks, the camels arrive. The saddles are different to the ones we had in Morocco, with a wooden post at the front and back. This means that I have to be careful to sit up straight and not lean against the rear post (which is rather uncomfortable) and it is not possible to sit side-saddle.

(magnify) Early morningCrossing the desert

The light is red on the rocks as we set off. We trek for about two hours back towards the highway. Just after the camp, we take a short detour into a narrow siq where the rocks frame a picture book view of the plains beyond lit by the early morning light. From there we retrace our steps a short way and then turn into the Siq Um Tawaqi where there is a camp and a rock bearing carvings of the heads of Lawrence of Arabia and Prince Abdullah, later to become King of Trans Jordan. The carvings commemorate the famous meeting (though not famous to me it has to be said) of the two in 1917. Sheer cliffs surround us on all sides.

The camels do not like lying down to enable us to climb on and off easily – they make their displeasure known with much groaning and grumbling at their handlers’ insistent instructions. We arrive near the railway and our Bedouin guides learn via the two-way radio that the bus won’t be with us for another half an hour, so we sit down in the middle of a scorching sandy plain and wait. The camel handlers immediately sit down in an circle and begin playing cards.

We drive to the Wadi Rum Visitors Centre from where we can see the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a natural rock feature opposite the centre. Hazim explains that he is normally not in favour of the building of visitors centres and the like in such areas of outstanding natural beauty, but actually they have done a good job on this one, using stone that blends in with the scenery. It is quite a recent construction.

View over the Araba Valley

We then drive back north, with a brief stop for the view over the Araba Valley before descending the steep streets through Wadi Mosa, the nearest town to Petra. We eat a hearty lunch at the “Red Cave” restaurant and then head across the road to the Petra Visitors Centre.

Going down into Petra

With the tickets sorted out, we walk down a wide valley past tombs cut on either side into the yellow sandstone. At the bottom, we enter the siq, the long winding chasm that leads into the city itself. Just at the entrance, there is a tunnel off to the right, which Hazim explains to us is to divert floodwater away from the city. After the place was abandoned by the Nabateans, the tunnel became blocked and it is only in recent years that it has been cleared and the raised wall reconstructed that protects the site from flash floods.

The path slopes down between sheer walls of richly coloured red, orange, and yellow rock, winding to the left and right as it goes. Occasionally the walls open out a little, and in places the walls come so close above as to almost touch.

There are many carvings on the walls, and details such as the ceramic channels at waist height to bring drinking water into the city. But it is the first glimpse of the Treasury at the end of the siq framed by the vertical walls, the iconic image of Petra, that takes our breath away both with its suddenness and its extravagant grandeur.

Entering the Siq
Half way down
(magnify) First glimpse…
The Treasury
Me and a pillar
Treasury detail

The Treasury is remarkably well preserved, its details sharp against the surrounding rock, reddish orange in colour, colossal in scale and carved in one single piece from the sandstone cliff face.

We spend a good while in front of it, listening to Hazim and taking photographs before we follow the siq onwards to the right and down into the main part of the city. The further in we go, the more the various facades, almost all tombs (the Nabateans who built them preferred to live in tents outside the ‘city’), crowd the hillside around us. The site opens up more and more and the scale is astonishing. The Treasury is the best preserved building due to its very sheltered location protecting it from rain and wind. Most of the other facades have softer outlines.

Left: Road leading down into the city from the Treasury
Right: Weathered tomb entrance
Left: Tombs in the hillside
Right: (magnify) Roman colonnade

Further down at the bottom of the valley the path bears left and we reach the colonnade, added much later by the Romans. Behind us, the carved facades of the Nabateans jostle for space on the hillside. In front are the free-standing buildings of the Romans.

We leave Petra by a narrow gorge as we head up into the surrounding mountains for our camp. There are beautiful colours in the sandstone - oranges, reds, yellows, greys, black, white, even purple in a few places. You could create an entire palette from the rock. There are more tombs and caves along this gorge, though mostly smaller in scale than those lower down the valley. Some appear to have been used as dwellings until quite recently.

Approaching camp

We emerge onto flatter terrain in time to see the sun light up the rocks in golden red. There is a moment of uncertainty as we try to locate the campsite, which turns out to be well-hidden in a small gully behind a rock with a very convincing camel silhouette on top.

Another delicious dinner. Afterwards, Hazim gives us his own wide-ranging perspective on the history of the Middle East. I try very hard to follow all of the twists and turns but it is mind-numbingly complicated. What is clear though is the frequently disastrous role that powers in the West have played in their attempts to shape history, and history repeating itself with a sickening predictability.

I choose a sleeping place outside on a rock ledge just above the camp. I lie there listening for a short while to the faint sounds of barking dogs in the distance, and look up at the stars.