Spring Break 2015 Vol. 5: To the Monastery

Before going to Petra I had tried to do some research online about how long it would take to see the place. The consensus seemed to be that two days was the best, although it could be done in 1, but that three days was too much. I disagree. Even if my first day in Petra had been a full one, I still think I could not have seen everything in two days. There is a single long trail from the entrance to the Monastery and back. It takes about 3-4 hours to walk it (depending on how often you stop for photos or rests) and includes somewhere between 800-900 stairs. However there is no official park exit there, so you have to walk all the way back to the main gate. Considering rest stops, photo ops and lunch, that’s pretty much an entire day. Beyond this there are several side trails including the High Place of Sacrifice, a trail that goes up to the Royal Tombs, and several others throughout the park. I suspect one could easily spend another couple of days exploring these, and still not see everything. I suppose it depends on your motivation for visiting Petra, but I personally am looking forward to returning one day to see the things I missed.

My second day was not truly a full day since the bus back to Amman left at 4:30 sharp and my bag was stashed at the hostel. I knew I had to leave the park between 3:30 and 4 to get back to my bag and then to the bus stop in time, otherwise I would be stranded in Petra or have to pay a private taxi to drive me back to Amman. Thus it was that I wanted to start as early as possible. My hostel ran a shuttle service down to the gate at 7:30 and 8:30, but I knew it would take me 6-7 hours to get to the Monastery and back so I vowed to skimp on sleep again and catch the early shuttle. This had me awake at 6am trying to repack my bag and get upstairs for breakfast on the terrace.

I checked my phone for a message from Eagle, but still nothing about the price or arrangements needed to take the “back way”. I generally don’t fight the universe too hard about my adventures, so I figured it simply wasn’t meant to be and carried on with my front entrance plans.

Over a lovely Arabic breakfast of eggs, pita, lebnah (my new favorite dairy item), veggies, rusks and jam (lebnah and apricot jam on biscuits or toast is awesome btw, ate that with breakfast both days I was in Jordan) I met up with one of the guests from dinner the night before who was also staying in the hostel. He was another American with a travel bug, but rather than working abroad, he simply scheduled international vacations whenever he could. We exchanged some travel stories and headed down to catch the shuttle. Thus it was that Bernard became my walking buddy all the way to the Monastery.

I try to be conscious of not intruding on other travelers just because we happen to be in the same space. Some people (like me) love to meet fellow travelers and have erstwhile company, but not everyone does, so I’ve gotten in the habit of trying to watch for signs and give people polite outs if they don’t want my company. But Bernard stuck with me and was fun to talk to, plus it meant we could take pictures for each other which is always nice.

We got back into the park around 8am and began the long walk through the entrance and Siq, running the gauntlet of Bedouin horsemen and trinket sellers. Sure enough, they tried again to say that the price included with the entrance ticket was only good for that day. Bernard laughed appreciatively when I told him they’d said the same thing to me the day before.

The Treasury was no less stunning the second time, although the anticipation of seeing it around the corner was different from the unexpected surprise of the first day. I also took more time to really look at it today. Bernard told me that some locals had a legend that there was treasure in the round carving near the top, and that all the bullet holes were a result of them trying to shoot it open. I told him that in Madain Saleh the bullet holes were the result of people hiding out in war-time.

In front of the Treasury there is a pit, covered by a chain link fence allowing us to see in, but not fall/climb in. It showed yet more carvings and entrances below the ground level. We took turns taking pictures for each other in front of the monument, which is nice because it gives a great sense of scale and better scrapbook material.

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We fended off some more camel drivers and I ran into the boy who’d tried to sell me silver bracelets the day before. When he recognized me, I asked him why he wasn’t in school like he told me and he quickly ran off to find another tourist.

We toyed briefly with the idea of trying to climb up to the high place of sacrifice, having seen several tourists coming down the trail, but after a few minutes of really steep climbing, we thought it was best to save our strength for the 800-900 step climb to the real goal, the Monastery, and so continued along the main trail instead.

The Street of Facades, The Roman Theater and the Royal Tombs

I made a much more thorough inspection of the Street of Facades this time as well, actively comparing the facades to the carvings in Madain Saleh, and pointing out the similarities to my walking companion. Most of Petra actually looks very little like Madain Saleh, or at least the parts that are open. Since the city at Madain Saleh is still yet to be unearthed and all we can view are wells and tombs, there is no way for me to know what the city centers, government buildings or other public sites looked like. The Royal Tombs have several common traits, but the Facades really show the connection best.

The two pillars to either side of the cave mouth, the triangle peak above them, and the five stepped ziggurats at the top are clearly visible. The one on the left is Madain Saleh, and the one on the right is Petra.

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The way that they incorporate multiple tombs into a single cliff face is also very similar, although as I pointed out, in the Royal Tombs of Petra there is a much stronger Roman influence, and you can often see the architecture of the Treasury and Monastery echoed in the tomb faces. Below you can see a collection of tombs in Madain Saleh as compared to a similar collection in Petra, and further contrasted with the Royal Tomb’s very different construction. You can see all the pictures here.

As I was playing amateur archaeologist, admiring the nuances of carving along the street, a young girl approached me and began to chat. She was clearly selling postcards (several other small children were doing so as well, it seemed to be the starting trade for the younger children). This girl alone gets an honorable mention because her trick basically worked. Even after I turned her down, she chatted amicably, asking my name and where I was from, saying she wanted to take a picture with me. This happens to me a lot when I travel, so I didn’t actually give it any thought.

IMG_1335During the picture posing she pressed one of her books of postcards into my hand. There’s a horrible human reflex where we automatically grasp things put into our hands, and therein lies the trick. See, once it was in my hand, she let go. “A gift for you.” yeah. right. Then she asked me for a gift. I didn’t really want the postcards, but she’d worked very hard, and giving them back would have basically involved me dropping them on the ground and causing a scene (part of the plan, I’m sure) so I gave her 1 Dinar (the price the other children had quoted). She tried to ask for more, and when I refused she tried to get me to give her my hair clip in trade. The clip being worth rather more than the postcards which I had been tricked into holding, I was unwilling, and told her if she wasn’t happy with the exchange, she could take the cards back. With rather bad grace, she accepted the 1JD and slunk away. But at least there was no ensuing trouble from an older brother. In the end it turned out to be of some benefit, as I could then use the cards to ward off the dozen or so other small urchins selling the same thing.

IMG_1337I wish I could be more excited about Roman Theaters. I worry that by the time I get to Rome, I’ll be amphetheatered out. However, they all do kind of look the same, and since we couldn’t go climb on this one, it wasn’t terribly attractive compared to everything around it. The only real point of interest for me was that it was in direct sunlight as we passed, where it had been in shadow the day before.

The Royal Tombs had also all been in shadow, but in the morning as we passed by them again they still were. It wasn’t until the afternoon returning to the main gait that I really got to see them well, and there are more stories to be had at that time, so for now, we look onward to the Colonnaded Street.

The Colonnaded Street and the Temple Complex

I’d enjoyed the colonnaded street the day before, but not in any detail, since I was walking with Eagle and the sun had already fallen behind the high mountains.On this day I took more time to wander down the street and admire the detail in the ruins where the sunlight displayed what twilight had kept hidden in what was once the largest structure in all of Petra city.

It seems like only about half of the street remains, the rest having been lost to sand and time, and scarcely anything remains of the tremendous buildings off to the side. According to the signs, there was a lower area that consisted of a large paved courtyard flanked on either side by triple colonnades. This would have been the “street” we were walking on. Of the over 60 columns that once stood, only a half dozen or so stumps still lined the left hand side, and none at all stood on the right. Of the limestone caps carved in intricate shapes, only a small sample remained in disarray on the ground. The upper area was accessed by two sweeping staircases and contained a small semicircular theater which was most likely used for council meetings or judicial hearings. It seems as though Brown University may still be conducting ongoing excavations there, so we were unable to get up and explore the upper area, but it was nice to have some informative signs, nonetheless. Apparently, there were also underground drainage systems and some bath houses nearby.

I can imagine what it must have been like to enter the area, wide and smooth paving lined with giant pillars, carved and painted to display the wealth of the royal family and the glory of the gods. There were probably arches connecting the pillars, leaving a pedestrian feeling as though they were walking through some vast stone forest canopy with the great arch ahead leading to the Temple itself. For us, from the road, we could see the bases of a few remaining pillars, the beginning of the stairs that led to the upper area, and some fallen decorative carvings that had escaped destruction. (see more pictures here)

The Temenos Gate, or remains thereof, is intensely impressive in its own right. It stands as a barrier between the colonnaded street and the Temple Qasr al-Bint. This archway would surely have put anyone passing beneath it in appropriate awe of what was to come. Once it would have been the crowning jewel at the end of the long paved pavillion, now it stands out as the tallest remaining pillars in an otherwise open valley.

Qasr al-Bint, the Grand Temple itself, would once have stood about 34 m tall (a little over 11 stories high) making it taller than any other structure in the city. It’s remains are less than a third of that height, and from a distance it looks like nothing so much as a bombed out concrete high rise. There were no signs warding off trespassers and no fences either. This occurrence being somewhat unique on the main trail in Petra, we quickly diverted from the path and began exploring the temple grounds and interior.

Against one wall was a space so clearly reserved for idols that I would have known that was its purpose even if I hadn’t read where we were. I could almost see them, towering larger than life statues, painted and gilded and draped with fine cloth while plumes of pungent frankincense (the main export of the Nabatean empire) filled the air. The great arch of the main doorway still stood, although the wall above it was gone however, leaving just the archstones in the air.  Beneath its apex, my head tilted back to stare straight up, I could imagine the thrill of the sacred that a supplicant to the temple might feel when passing through the same arch.

IMG_1375In places the bare brick walls had a few patches of their facade still clinging, showing us that the walls of the temple would not have been mortared brick, but smooth expanses filled with raised geometrical shapes that were almost certainly painted or otherwise decorated. It’s easy to forget that our ancestors did not live in a world of earth tones. The ruins all appear sand beige or stone brown because the paints, precious metals and fine fabrics have not survived time and thieves. But traces found at many historical sites around the world tell us that they painted, gilded, dyed, lacquered, polished, inlayed or tapestried every surface they could afford to. There is no doubt that this temple matched or exceeded in grandeur and color the most ostentatious of Renaissance cathedrals.

It was hard to differentiate because of all the rubble, but I think there were several rooms. I don’t know very much about the Nabatean religion, but it seems like it’s not as well recorded as say, the Roman religions, so I don’t feel too bad. I have no idea what all the rooms were for. I have trouble imagining a 11 story building that didn’t have at least a few floors because vaulted ceilings only go so high, but I had to be content to stumble around the rubble and look at signs in the stones of the walls and floor for clues. In one corner, a lone pale grey donkey stood patiently waiting.

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To the Monastery

At the middle of the park, just past the Temple is a cute little restaurant (we didn’t go inside, but the outdoor seating we walked through was nice looking), and a surprisingly clean toilet. I’ve grown accustomed to the toilet facilities in remote places/tourist sites being pretty scungy, so when I walked into a large, bright, clean and fresh smelling restroom in Petra, I was pleasantly surprised. Also at this collection of buildings is a museum. I normally never pass up a museum, but I did want to make sure that I had enough time to get to the Monastery so I opted to press on and now alas, it is added to the list of things to see next time.

From this little rest area, the long climb to the main attraction commences. Although, I gathered from many tourists that a lot of visitors simply don’t bother because the climb is so long and the Treasury is so impressive, they seem to think it’s not worth it. I have mentioned in the past that I believe myself to be an achievement junkie, so climbing stuff because later I can say I did is more than a little appealing to me. Plus, I had two Taoist mountains full of Chinese stairs under my belt (7.5 hours to climb Hua Shan with oh so many rest breaks) so I was not about to miss out on the Monastery because of a mere 800-900 stairs. The number varied depending on the person telling us, and at first we thought the increasing numbers were a sales tactic by the mule drivers offering rides up the steps, but as we continued walking, it became clear that counting the steps is trickier than it seems since some of them are clearly carved, some made with stones and mortar and still others just natural rock formations that resembled stairs.

I’m not an athlete. I don’t charge down trails and bound up mountains. I walk at a measured pace with lots of breaks. What I lack in oomph I make up for in stubbornness. I was determined to walk the trail and not to ride. Many erstwhile hiking buddies have left me in the dust because they simply wanted to move faster. Some of it may also come from childhood hikes with my mother who would stop and admire flowers, leaves, rocks, birds, animals or insects wherever we went, pointing out nature’s wonders to us. Maybe it’s because I’m more intent on the journey than the destination. Or maybe I’m just out of shape. Either way, I stopped often on the climb to admire the view or chat with a traveler going the other way, or take pictures or just to catch my breath. Bernard stuck with me the whole way, so kudos to a very patient hiking buddy!

IMG_1394Around the halfway point, there were a couple little shops selling trinkets and snacks and after that an ever increasing number of little stands run by Bedouin women selling bits of new and antique jewelry, statuettes, stones and camel bone carvings, and other “native” sparklies. The women would call to us to stop and have a cup of tea, and eventually I lost track of how much tea I drank, but it certainly meant there was no hurry to climb. Of course all of them were hoping we would buy something from them, but their hospitality and offers for tea were ice breakers not tricks.

Bernard was a bit hesitant at first, I suppose watching me get conned by the postcard girl early on may have made him suspicious of “gifts” but I reassured him that tea was a custom all over the Arabic world and that it placed us under no obligation. There was one woman who made a particular impression. She offered tea and invited me to sit next to her, which I did being somewhat in need of a short rest. She also offered us some bread that she had made herself. It was the flat bread so common in the area, but had quite a nice flavor. We chatted about this and that, the normal questions of where are you from and what do you do. She commented on my hair which I’d worn in two long braids that day and said that she loved the color but could seem to get hers light enough for the henna to take.

She actually took her hijab off to show me her own hair, which was quite long, thick and black. I asked her what she’d been using and talked about different ways to lighten hair. She told me about a bad experience she’d had at a salon that had used bleach and damaged her hair quite badly, so she was reluctant to try again. Remembering the lemon grove from the day before I asked if she’d ever tried using lemon juice. Surprisingly, she had never heard of the idea of using lemon and sun to lighten hair. For me, this was one of my earliest hair transformation experiences, long before my mother would let me anywhere near bleach or dye, I would douse my hair in lemon juice and sit out in the backyard on sunny afternoons. So I told her about this method and she was very interested. I also suggested that she could use a little olive oil if it dried her hair out, since that’s another thing they have ready access to at the village.

After a while it was time to move on, but I promised to come look at her wares on our way back down. There were two other ladies who made good positive, if not as deep, impressions on the way up as well. I generally dislike souvenir stands, but I always like to support local business. These ladies all lived in the caves and village like the Bedouin I’d met the day before. And most of what they sold was handmade, if not by them personally, then likely by others in the community. I learned about Bedouin silver and the firing technique they use to color the camel bone. There were also some antique coins, and items carved from the rocks around Petra as well as an infinite supply of Pashmina scarves (which all the ladies themselves wore as hijab). So I decided I would make the effort to return to the three ladies who had been the nicest to us on our way up and find something to buy from them.

IMG_1395The last several shops told us cheerfully that we were almost there, and just as I was starting to doubt the translation of “almost”, the open area came into view. The first thing we noticed from that distance was the restaurant and rest area which lay just beneath another high peak with a large sign that read “view” atop it. We were debating how much further of a climb it was to that point, fairly sure that we would have to get there to see the main event when we rounded another bend and were struck silent by the looming mass of the Monastery.

The approach is from behind, so you cannot see the Monastery until you turn the final corner. The architects of Petra certainly had a great sense of the dramatic. I couldn’t help but wonder how religious pilgrims ascending through the mountains from the city below must have felt trekking the hundreds of steps through the majestic red rocks to be greeted by the vast bulk of grandiose carved stone. What rites took place in the wide open space in front of the cliff that housed the house of the gods? Was it a hushed and solemn place or a temple of color and music? Were the monks austere and grim or did a market bustle at their gates? As far as I can tell, the answers to these questions are not really available, but it’s quite magical to imagine.

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All thoughts of the climb or lunch or anything else simply fell away in the draw of the artifact. Although in photos the Treasury does indeed look more spectacular, because it is more intricately carved, the Monastery is much bigger and we were able to approach it much closer. There was no doubt for me that the climb had been worthwhile. We wandered around, admiring the work and taking photos.

Picture 159bSelfies are entirely impossible with such a monumentally large backdrop, but I’m including this one because you can see Bernard in the background right up close to the door. Yes, that little speck. When I approached the door myself I could barely see over the lintel because it’s about 5ft high.

However we did take some nice photos for each other as we had done at the Treasury, and after satisfying ourselves with the up-close views, we retired to the restaurant’s balcony seating to have a rest and enjoy the panorama.

I ordered us some fresh lemon mint juice because Bernard had never tried any before and broke out my packed lunch. Despite the very plain fare (cheese and tomato sandwich on pita), I think that lunch gets to go up on a special list of awesome lunches for the view. We were also instantly beset by a large community of cats who turned out not to be picky at all and enjoyed some of my tomatoes. The weather was absolutely glorious. Although I had gotten a little sweaty on the climb up, the combination of sunshine and cool breeze made the seating area a really pleasant place. I looked with some longing at the “view” sign behind us, but in the end, I decided to just relax and soak up the experience at hand.

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To be continued…

See all the photos from Petra on my Facebook Page, and read about my first day in Petra in Spring Break 2015 Vol. 4

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