Ever since first learning about the ancient city of Petra, nowadays located in the Kingdom of Jordan, we wanted to go there. Seeing the vibrant photographs and reading about Petra’s history and “discovery” at a special exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec whet our appetite to travel there and explore.
Not satisfied with pictures and descriptions we wanted an experience beyond what a museum display can provide – we wanted to go to Petra and become explorers ourselves. Our visit turned out to be more than we had expected, however, with a unanticipated mix of good, bad and ugly.
Without a doubt, the ancient Nabatean city of Petra is one of the most awe-inspiring places on earth. Carved into the solid rock of the surrounding sandstone mountains, the building façades are architectural marvels.
At the top of our list was the Monastery (Ad-Deir), which absolutely took our breath away.
Another highlight was winding our way through the 1.2 kilometer As-Siq, the narrow gorge that serves as the entrance to Petra, and emerging from it to face the dazzling Treasury (Al-Khazneh).
To wander around Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s simply amazing to imagine the city as it was about 2000 years ago, as a bustling commercial center. Walking along the Colonnaded Street transported us to a time when the Nabatean citizens showcased their wares.
The colors of the cave walls were tremendously vibrant, a surprising find even after all these years, and we loved exploring the ins and outs of the ancient tombs.
Being in the mountains, we were also able to enjoy some wonderful hikes through the red sandstone landscape. The first day, we hiked up to the Monastery and the next day, we walked up to the High Place of Sacrifice, where we were able to catch a glimpse of Aaron’s Tomb in the distance.
Touts, touts and more touts! Makeshift souvenir shops, with shopkeepers calling out to you to buy stuff for a “good price”, have been set up within meters of each other. We were surprised to even find them lining the popular routes up to the Place of High Sacrifice and the Monastery, making these hikes a bit like walking through a strip mall.
The items for sale varied from plastic bottles of water to handmade jewelry that is the same at every single shop and stranger things like a goat skull. Because we visited Petra during the slow season, we were lucky enough to pass several of these shops covered in tarps and would only come to life with the presence of more tourists.
Sprinkle in children walking around selling various items and older Bedouin women approaching you about old coins and visiting Petra can be quite annoying. On our first day we found ourselves saying “no, thank you” at least once every two minutes but on the second day we simply ignored them until they went away.
Another disappointing aspect to visiting Petra was the graffiti and large amounts of garbage in several of the caves, which were otherwise gorgeous. The trash varied from paper, plastic containers and bottles in caves to larger items like a kitchen sink on the mountain side. We found this a real shame as it detracted from the overall beauty and seemed disrespectful to the historical significance of the location.
In addition to the touts mentioned above, from the moment you walk through the gate, you are approached all day long to ride a horse, a donkey or a camel, especially along the main drag, up or down the mountains and back to the front gate at the end of the day. Donkeys and horses were jokingly referred to as “taxis” and camels as “Lamborghinis”.
The treatment of these animals was horrible as they were tied together or to trees for long stretches of time, often in the hot sun, and they, especially the camels, showed signs of terror when their owners approached them. Many of them had obvious scars from abuse.
We saw donkeys being beaten with a stick and when a horse didn’t want to pull the carriage anymore was whipped and hit with a stick. Some looked thin and sickly and all of them looked downtrodden, clearly having been made into slaves from a very young age. We also saw evidence that the donkeys were tied up in some of the caves at night.
The best way to avoid hearing people shouting “good price”, “handmade jewelry” and “donkey up the mountain?” is to get there when the park opens at 6:00am and climb a mountain. Enjoy the views and the photographic light at that hour. By the time you come back down the mountain Petra will be a very different place.