Ok, so, Petra doesn’t have as strong a claim on a “Lands of the Bible” study tour as some of the other places we’ve visited, but it is by far one of the most impressive.
It is associated with several of the sites mentioned as stopping stations for the Israelites during the Exodus. It’s also the subject of a rather lovely poem by John William Burgon. And of course, it is notorious as one of the settings for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Guess which one of those three I knew about before today?
The approach to Petra descends through a crack in the rock, called the Siq. You walk down the gorge, marvelling at the very beautiful stone, and passing traces of some ancient culture–niches carved into rocks for god idols, things like that–and then the gorge narrows, and when you emerge, there’s the Treasury, one of Petra’s most beautiful sights.
Petra is a city literally carved out of the rose-red sandstone gorges and hills of western Jordan. The most common archaeological sight are these old tombs, in various states of splendor and decay. There are many, many tombs, and a notable absence of places for living people to hang out. That’s a little surreal.
Petra flourished for as long as it was part of the trade route connecting India and Arabia to the Mediterranean Sea, but sometime during the Roman Empire, that route shifted south, from Petra to Palmyra. Petra dwindled while Palmyra grew, and suffered a couple of serious earthquakes that it never quite recovered from. It was last heard of as an object of curiosity to the medieval period, until it was brought to the attention of the Western world in 1812 by a Swiss explorer.
The ruins just seem to go on forever. One of the people who works there told me that it takes a week for fully explore Petra. I can totally believe that.
Incidentally, we had four hours.
So, the other things about Petra, aside from the astonishing beauty and archaeological significance, were the animals. Petra is crowded with horses, donkeys, cats, dogs, and camels. There were even passing herds of goats to decorate the ruins.
And it is here, friends, that at long last, I finally got my camel ride! Here’s my camel-eye view:
Guys, I think I found my animal soul-mate. Like me, the camel has awkwardly long legs that it’s had to learn to deal with, and it does so with style and an air of mystery: I still don’t understand how camels fold and unfold their legs, but I do know that it’s quite the event to experience when perched atop one’s hump. (You know how camels are called “ships of the desert?” I found the back-and-forth heaving to be a bit reminiscent of a boat in rough seas.)
Also great: when I rode horses, I sometimes had trouble giving them leg cues because my heels were usually dangling below the belly. NOT A PROBLEM with camels. That hump is just right!
And have you every heard a camel express discontent? The growly, gargling, “yyaaaarghagh” that is makes? It’s like the cry of the camel gives expression to everything my soul feels early on Monday mornings….or when council meetings run more than two hours….or when dealing with the IRS….but doesn’t have the vocal cords to express.
I also got a horse ride in, because this was included in the ticket. I have mixed feelings about this experience, folks, because it combined much awesomeness and one terrible thing. I caught a horse to ride along with another fella from our tour group, and we started up the path with the horse man walking behind us. Seeing another person pass us at a canter, I asked the horse man if I could do that, and he said yes. So I did. And that was glorious. Being on top of a galloping horse is one of the happiest places that I know. I can’t even describe it–this feeling of fierce joy that is always there waiting on the back of a running horse.
Unfortunately, when my friend’s horse saw my horse run, it decided that it wanted to do that too. This wouldn’t have been a problem normally, because this friend is a good rider, but the guide had apparently not tightened the girth recently (if at all), so the saddle slipped and my friend tumbled down. He had the wind knocked out of him and a bump on the head, but has been exceptionally kind-spirited about the whole thing, insisting that it’s not the first time he’s fallen off a horse. Oof. I still feel guilty.
This may be because the guide ran up behind us just after the fall and yelled at me for passing my friend, because the two horses were pals and of course one would run to be with the other. It would have been helpful to know that before, pal. And also, for you to have tightened the girth. But I still feel like I should have known better. Boo.
The whole of Petra was actually a bit of a mixed experience like that. The ruins were beautiful, but surreal–a city of tombs. It wasn’t where people lived. It was where people were dead. And it was filled with all those animals whose welfare I kept wondering about even as I fed the machine that kept them making their rounds. A couple of the men–always men, with the animals–were visibly rough with them. I saw one boy flick a chain at a donkey’s face, and catch him in his eye. The donkey hee-hawed his protest loudly, and it echoed all up and down the gorge. It wasn’t the only donkey wail we heard that day, and I kept wondering whether every one we heard was because an animal had suffered cruelty at the hands of its keeper.
We were also one of the first tour groups there that day, which meant that we were followed during every step of our journey by salespeople who wanted to sell us donkey/camel/horse rides, or postcards, or magnets, or “Real silver, one dollar!” Which was incredibly annoying, of course, but crossed the line into heartbreaking when we got down to the less crowded reaches of Petra and started seeing kids, as young as 3, selling pretty rocks that they’d obviously found themselves by the side of the dusty path. Two immediate, visceral, and totally opposite reactions arise: 1) Who would want to enable a kid to do that? and 2) How could you stand to pass by?
The youngest kids were the hardest to see, but school-aged kids were everywhere on Petra, doing business, and acting like they did it all the time. I don’t know what school is like here, but I wonder whether these kids do either.
Oy. So many solemn thoughts for a post with camel riding in it. Well, I’ll close. Tonight we’re back on the shores of the Dead Sea, and tomorrow we hope to see it up close, and to hit Jabbok and Jaresh as well. It will be our last day!