Petra astounds. Tucked away in a remote valley basin in the heart of southern Jordan’s Shara mountains and shielded from the outside world behind an impenetrable barrier of rock, this ancient city remains wreathed in mystery. Since a Western adventurer stumbled on the site in 1812, it has fired imaginations, its grandeur and dramatic setting pushing it – like the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal – into the realms of legend. Today, it’s almost as if time has literally drawn a veil over the once-great city, which grew wealthy enough on the caravan trade to challenge the might of Rome: two millennia of wind and rain have blurred the sharp edges of its ornate classical facades and rubbed away at its soft sandstone to expose vivid bands of colour beneath, putting the whole scene into soft focus.
The highlights of the ancient city do not disappoint. The epic walk in, through the tall, echoing Siq canyon, precedes a jaw-dropping encounter with the Treasury, Petra’s iconic facade, its columns and exquisite detailing carved directly from the cliff face. Further on, past the huge Theatre, you reach the giant Royal Tombs, gazing out over the hidden valley that shelters Petra’s city centre. Walk along the Colonnaded Street, then tackle the stepped climb to Petra’s largest monument, the Monastery, carved from a mountain summit. Budget some downtime to take in the extraordinary late-afternoon views from the Qasr al-Bint temple up the Colonnaded Street towards the fiery East Cliff. Visiting these core sites, walking on stony (or, sometimes, sandy) footpaths the whole way, would fill a fairly exhausting full day. Many people take longer over it than that.
Stay longer – most package tours allow a couple of days in Petra at least – and possibilities abound for wider exploration. The High Place of Sacrifice offers spectacular views from a mountain-top altar, easily reached by a stepped path. Walking in an outlying wadi – Wadi Turkmaniyyeh is a prime example – takes you out of the tourist hubbub into still landscapes of barren peaks and wild canyons, while “Little Petra”, a few kilometres to the north, hides a mini-Siq and carved facades of its own, far from the main site.
Where Petra sits, in a valley basin between two lines of jagged peaks, there’s only one route in and out, and that passes through the modern town of Wadi Musa on the eastern side of the mountains. In the last few decades Wadi Musa has grown to serve the lucrative tourist trade to Petra; it has all the services, including hotels and restaurants: there’s nowhere to stay within the ancient city itself, and virtually nowhere to eat either. The single entrance gate into Petra is in Wadi Musa, but once you’ve crossed that barrier you’re immediately thrown into the rocky landscape of the desert. Within Petra there is no urban development of any kind, and the local culture is all rural.
Spending a few days here is a constant to-and-fro – down-at-heel Wadi Musa providing all the necessities of life, majestic Petra all the historical and natural drama.
The history of Petra – a Greek word meaning “rock” – encompasses more than a hundred centuries of human settlement. In prehistory, the Petra region saw some of the first experiments in farming. The hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic Age gave way, over nine thousand years ago, to settled communities living in walled farming villages such as at Beidha, just north of Petra. Nomadic tribes passed through the Petra basin in the millennia following, but the spur to its development came with attempts at contact between the two great ancient powers of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The desert plateaux of Mesopotamia, to the east of the King’s Highway, were sealed off by high mountains from the routes both across the Naqab (Negev) to Gaza and across the Sinai to Egypt; somehow a caravan route across the barrier had to be found if contact was to be made. Petra, where abundant springs tumble down into the Wadi Araba through a natural fault in the mountains, was prime choice, marking the spot on the north–south King’s Highway where an east–west passage could connect the two empires.
The Biblical era
The first significant mention of Petra is in the Old Testament, as the Israelites approached Edom after their forty years in the desert. Local legend – running against the geographical evidence – maintains that it was in the hills just above Petra that God ordered Moses to produce water for the Israelites by speaking to a rock. Moses instead struck the rock, and the spring that gushed is today named Ain Musa (Spring of Moses), its outflow housed beneath a small domed building at the eastern entrance to the town of Wadi Musa. King Reqem of Edom (Reqem was the Semitic name for Petra, and he was probably just a local chieftain) refused permission to the Israelites to pass through his territory, but before they departed Moses’ brother Aaron (Haroun in Arabic) died, and was buried supposedly on top of Jabal Haroun overlooking Petra. A white shrine atop the mountain is still a site of pilgrimage.
Just after 1000 BC, the Israelite King David moved to take control of Petra and the whole of Edom – by now rich on the proceeds of copper production as well as trade. His son Solomon consolidated the Israelite grip on trade and technology, and for fifty years diverted Petra’s profits into his own coffers. However, after his death, the Israelite kingdom collapsed and feuding erupted. Some Edomites withdrew to a settlement on top of the impregnable Umm al-Biyara mountain overlooking central Petra and to a village at Tawilan above Ain Musa. Fluctuations in regional power soon after led to Petra passing from Edomite hands to Assyrian to Babylonian to Persian: such instability left the way open for a new people to stamp their authority on the land and stake a claim to its future.
The first mention of the Nabateans was in 647 BC, when they were listed as one of the enemies of Ashurbanipal, last king of Assyria; at that stage, they were still a tribe of bedouin nomads inhabiting northern and northwestern Arabia. When the Babylonians depopulated much of Palestine during the sixth century BC, many Edomites came down from Petra to claim the empty land to the west. In turn, the Nabateans migrated out of the arid Arabian desert to the lusher and more temperate mountains of Edom, and, specifically, to the well-watered and easily defended prize of Petra. Whereas the Edomites had occupied the hills above Petra, the Nabateans quickly saw the potential for developing the central bowl of the valley floor. The migrants arrived slowly, though, and for several centuries it seems that most stuck to their bedouin lifestyle, building little other than a temple and refuge atop Umm al-Biyara. However, displaying the adaptability that was to become their trademark, the Nabateans soon gave up the traditional occupation of raiding the plentiful caravans that passed to and fro in favour of charging the merchants for safe passage and a place to do business. It was probably around this time that the first organized, permanent trading emporium was established at Petra, and Edom became known as Arabia Petrea.
The Roman author Diodorus Siculus reports that the Greek Seleucid ruler of Syria, Antigonus, attacked the Nabateans in 312 BC – though whether at Petra itself or another well-defended rocky hideout nearby is unknown; Sela is a candidate. Either way, his troops sneaked in under cover of darkness, and found that all the Nabatean men were away. The Greeks slaughtered a few women and children and made off with as much booty as they could carry – silver, myrrh and frankincense. However, someone managed to raise the alarm, since within an hour, the Nabateans were in pursuit. They rapidly caught up with the complacent army, massacred all but fifty, recovered the valuables and returned home. In true merchant style, though, the Nabateans instinctively recognized that war would do no good to their flourishing business, and so sent a mollifying letter of explanation to Antigonus. The general let some time pass before attacking again – only to be easily repelled. Comfortably ensconced in their unassailable headquarters, the Nabateans this time acted the wealthy tycoon: they bought peace from the humiliated Greeks.
Growth of Nabatean power
Over the following two centuries, the battling between Seleucid Syria and Ptolemaic Egypt for control of Alexander’s empire enabled the Nabateans to fill the power vacuum in Transjordan and extend their kingdom far beyond Petra. By 80 BC they controlled Damascus. Petra grew ever more wealthy on its profits from trade, standing at the pivots between Egypt, Arabia and Syria, and between East Asia and the Mediterranean. Traditional commodities such as copper, iron and Dead Sea bitumen, used for embalming in Egypt, were losing ground to spices from the southern Arabian coast – myrrh, balsam and frankincense, the last of which was central to religious ritual all over the Hellenistic world. Pepper, ginger, sugar and cotton arrived from India for onward distribution. Chinese documents even talk of imports of silk, glass, gold, silver, henna and frankincense from a place known as Li-Kan, taken to be a corruption of “Reqem”. Nabatean power seemed limitless. When Pompey sent troops against Petra in 62 BC, the Nabateans were even able to buy peace from the Roman Empire. Petran prosperity grew and grew.
Petra’s golden age
The first centuries BC and AD saw Petra at its zenith, with a settled population of perhaps as many as thirty thousand. The Roman author Strabo describes it as a wealthy, cosmopolitan city, full of fine buildings and villas, gardens and watercourses, with Romans and other foreigners thronging the streets, and a democratic king. “The Nabateans,” reported Strabo, “are so acquisitive that they give honours to those who increase their possessions, and publicly fine those who lose them.”
However, the writing was on the wall. The discovery of the monsoon winds had begun to cause a shift in trade patterns: overland routes from Arabia were being abandoned in favour of transport by sea. In addition, Rome was diverting inland trade away from the upstart Petra, instead directing it into Egypt and Syria, presaging the rise of Palmyra. The pressure on Nabatea was inexorable. The last Nabatean king, Rabbel II, tried moving his capital from Petra north to Bosra, but eventually had to strike a deal with Rome. On his death in 106 AD the entire Nabatean kingdom passed peacefully into Roman hands.
The Romans and after
After the Roman annexation, Petra became a principal centre of the new Provincia Arabia, and seems to have undergone something of a cultural renaissance, with the theatre and Colonnaded Street both being renovated. The city was important enough to be visited by Emperor Hadrian in 130 AD, and possibly also by Emperor Severus in 199. However, the tide of history was turning, and by 300 Petra was in serious decline, with houses and temples falling derelict through lack of maintenance. Palmyra, an oasis entrepôt in the eastern Syrian desert, was on the ascendant, and sea trade into Egypt was well established; Petra was stuck between the two, and there was no reason to keep it alive. Roman patronage began to drift away from the city, and money followed.
Petra’s decline was drawn out. Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the empire in 324, but for many decades afterwards the proud Nabateans mingled elements of the new faith with remnants of their own pagan heritage. An earthquake in 363, according to the contemporary bishop of Jerusalem, levelled half of Petra, although the city limped on for another couple of centuries. In 447, the Urn Tomb was converted into a huge church, and both the lavishly decorated Petra Church and plainer Ridge Church were built within the following century or so. Nonetheless, by the time of the seventh-century Islamic invasion, Petra was more or less deserted, and the earthquake of 749 probably forced the final stragglers to depart the crumbling city.
The Crusader era
On their push through Transjordan in the early twelfth century, the Crusaders built small forts within Petra at Al-Habees and Wu’ayra, though these were tiny outposts of their headquarters at nearby Shobak and were abandoned less than a century later. In 1276, the Mamluke sultan Baybars – on his way from Cairo to suppress a revolt in Karak – entered Petra from the southwest and proceeded through the deserted city “amidst most marvellous caves, the facades sculptured into the very rock face”. He emerged from the Siq on June 6, 1276, and, as far as records show, was the last person, other than the local bedouin, to see Petra for over five hundred years.
Petra in the nineteenth century
On August 22, 1812, a Swiss explorer, Jean Louis Burckhardt, entered the Siq in heavy Arab disguise in the company of a local guide. His short visit, and the notes and sketches he managed to make, brought the fable of Petra to the attention of the world once again. In 1818, two commanders of the British Royal Navy, Charles Irby and James Mangles, spent some days sightseeing in the ancient city, but it was the visits of Léon de Laborde in 1826 and the British artist David Roberts in 1839 that first brought plentiful images of Petra to the West. Laborde’s engravings were often fanciful and over-romanticized, but Roberts’s drawings were relatively accurate. As well as helping to shape the legend of Petra in Western minds – Burgon’s oft-quoted line about the “rose-red city” appeared within a few years – they also launched tourism to the place. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a steady trickle of earnest visitors, even though Petra could still be reached only with extreme hardship by horse or camel from Jerusalem. Serious archeological investigation began at the turn of the century, with specialists cataloguing all Petra’s monuments in 1898 and producing the first accurate maps in 1925. The adjacent village – long known as Elji, then Wadi Musa (Moses Valley) – got its first telephone line in 1926.
The modern era
In 1931 the Thomas Cook travel company set up a camp in Petra for European tourists, offering the choice of tent or cave accommodation. It was followed in the 1950s by the first tourist hotel, the government-run Rest House. Nonetheless, until a regular bus service from Amman began in 1980, facilities around the site remained minimal. Wadi Musa town was a backwater, despite the designation of Petra as a national park. In the early 1980s the government ordered the Bdul tribe, who had been resident in Petra’s caves for as long as anyone could remember, to move out to Umm Sayhoun, a purpose-built settlement of small breezeblock houses 4km away. The prospect of electricity, running water, health care and better education for the kids proved irresistible, and, in dribs and drabs, the Bdul departed. Development of the site and archeological exploration then took off: Petra was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, and four years later a group of concerned local establishment figures set up the Petra National Trust (PNT; w petranationaltrust.org), a not-for-profit NGO campaigning on issues of the environment, antiquities and the region’s cultural heritage.
Today a buffer zone of over 750 square kilometres of land, from Shobak to well south of Rajif, is formally protected, while a core 264 square kilometres around the site itself is defined as the strictly regulated Petra Archeological Park (w petrapark.com). Recent years have seen a host of new projects, ranging from ongoing digs at several locations to major engineering works repaving the Siq, installing upgraded tourist facilities around the site and beautifying Wadi Musa town.Read More
“Sheikh Ibrahim” Burckhardt
“Sheikh Ibrahim” Burckhardt
Jean Louis Burckhardt was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1784. He travelled to London when he was 22 and shortly after came under the wing of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, which offered him the mission of locating the source of the River Niger. Burckhardt accepted. Then, as now, Egypt was the gateway into Africa, and so he devised a plan to familiarize himself with Islam and Arab culture in preparation for the expedition. Journeys into the Middle East at this time were extremely dangerous: the territory was virtually unknown and local people (few of whom had ever seen Europeans) were engaged in continuous tribal skirmishing and were highly suspicious of outsiders. While still in England, Burckhardt embarked on crash courses in Arabic, astronomy and medicine, and took to sleeping on the ground and eating nothing but vegetables to toughen himself up.
On his arrival in Aleppo in 1809, locals immediately questioned him about his strange accent. Burckhardt told his cover story: that he was a Muslim trader from India and his mother tongue wasn’t Arabic but Hindustani. Suspicion persisted, and he was pressed to say something in Hindustani, whereupon he let loose a volley of fluent Swiss-German – which seemed to satisfy the doubters. Burckhardt spent over two years in Aleppo, adopting local customs, taking the name Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdallah, perfecting his Arabic and becoming an expert in Quranic law.
In 1812, Burckhardt set off for Cairo, recording everything that he saw in a secret journal: had he been found out, no doubt he would have been killed as a spy. Around Karak, he heard the locals talking of an ancient city locked away in the heart of an impenetrable mountain. His curiosity was aroused, but there was no way he could openly declare an interest without bringing suspicion onto himself: a genuine devotee of Islam would know that such ruins were the work of infidels and of no concern. Burckhardt made up a story that he had vowed to sacrifice a goat at the shrine of the Prophet Aaron atop Jabal Haroun near the ruins: an unimpeachably honourable motive for pressing on.
As he and his guide approached Wadi Musa (then known by its old name of Elji), they were stopped by the Liyathneh tribe, camped near Ain Musa, who tried to persuade them to sacrifice their goat there and then, with the white shrine in plain view on the distant summit. But Sheikh Ibrahim insisted on going on, much to the irritation of his guide. They went down the steep hill, on into the Siq, and arrived at the Treasury. Burckhardt somehow managed to make detailed notes and a sketch of the facade, and they continued throughout the city in this way, Burckhardt writing and sketching in secret, his guide becoming ever more suspicious. They reached the foot of Jabal Haroun as dusk was falling, and Burckhardt finally submitted to his guide’s insistence that they make the sacrifice and turn back.
Burckhardt’s adventures continued: he arrived in Cairo to prepare for his great African expedition, but quickly got tangled in bureaucracy. In the meantime he travelled deep into Nubia, crossed the Red Sea to Jeddah (and was probably the first Christian ever to enter Mecca, where his Quranic learning deeply impressed the city’s religious judge), and explored Sinai, but back in Egypt in 1817, he contracted dysentery and died in eleven days, with his journey to the Niger not even begun. All Burckhardt’s journals were published after his death, Travels in Nubia and Travels in Arabia overshadowed by the news of his rediscovery of Petra, published in 1822 in Travels in Syria and the Holy Land. His grave, bearing his pseudonym Sheikh Ibrahim, is visitable in a Muslim cemetery in Cairo. Its existence shows that, far from being simply a game or ploy, Burckhardt’s alter ego took on a genuine life of its own.
Married to a bedouin
Married to a bedouin
When New Zealander Marguerite van Geldermalsen came to Petra on holiday in 1978, she fell in love with a local souvenir-seller – and then stayed with him to get married, settle down and raise a family. In 2006 she published Married To A Bedouin (w marriedtoabedouin.com), a wonderfully evocative account of their life together; we give more details in “Books”. Here, Marguerite reflects on the changes she has witnessed.
“I started writing Married To A Bedouin when I realised how much our way of life had changed.
When Mohammad and I were married in Petra in 1978, about seventy families lived in the ancient site; some in tents of woven goat-hair and others, like us, in 2000-year-old caves. They herded goats, planted winter crops and sold trinkets and old coins to the tourists. I learned to live like them – carting water from the spring, baking bread on an open fire and using kerosene for our lamps.
In 1985 we were moved to the overlooking hillside of Umm Sayhoon, partly to protect the archeological site but also to improve our quality of life with running water and electricity. Our children attended the village school and we became commuters – going into Petra to tend our souvenir and coffee shops, then riding home on camels and donkeys to turn on our televisions, put laundry into our washing machines and, eventually, hook up to the internet.
Mohammad and I had been married 24 years when he died. Soon after, I left Jordan. I felt my reason for living there had gone.
Now I understand that I left to write my story; I needed the distance to see clearly. Although Mohammad is no longer in Petra, through him I have become woven into the fabric of the place. In 2007 I returned – and settled straight back in.”
Today Marguerite – known as Umm Raami – still lives and works in Petra. You might see her jewellery stall by the path as you walk down from the theatre. It offers a perfect opportunity (among many) to inject a little cash into the local economy.
One of the most breathtaking aspects of Petra – for many people surpassing even the architecture – is its colourful sandstone, famously celebrated in a particular tourist’s memoirs almost 150 years ago. As the artist Edward Lear strolled up the Colonnaded Street on a visit in 1858, coolly noting “the tint of the stone… brilliant and gay beyond my anticipation”, his manservant and cook, Giorgio Kokali, burst out in delight, “Oh master, we have come into a world of chocolate, ham, curry powder and salmon!”
Agatha Christie, who visited in the 1930s, preferred to see the rocks as “blood-red”. A character in her Appointment with Death, set in Petra, comes out with a line describing the place as “very much the colour of raw beef”.
Unfortunately for posterity, however, the most famous lines on Petra’s colours are less engaging. In 1845, John William Burgon, later to become Dean of Chichester, wrote in his poem Petra:
It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
By labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
Eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
Where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minister fane,
That crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn
That first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
Which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city half as old as Time.
No advertising copywriter could have dreamt up a better final line, and Burgon’s words have hung over Petra ever since: you’ll be sick of reading “rose-red city” on every map, poster and booklet by the time you leave. Tellingly, Burgon had never been to Petra when he wrote it; he finally went sixteen years later, and at least then had the humility to write, if only in a letter to his sister, “there is nothing rosy about Petra”.
Over the centuries, wind has rubbed away at the soft sandstone of Petra’s cliffs to reveal an extraordinary array of colours streaking through the stone. The most colourful facades are the Silk Tomb and the Carmine Tomb, both on the East Cliff and bedecked in bands of rainbow colours, while the cafés on the path below are set in caves no less breathtaking. Elsewhere, the lower walls of the Wadi Farasa are streaked with colour, and the Siq cliffs are striped with everything from scarlet to yellow to purple to brown, to complement the green foliage on the trees, the pink of the oleander flowers, and the deep-blue sky. The one place in Petra that’s truly “rose-red” is the Treasury, lit in the afternoons by low reflected sunlight off the pinkish walls.
Images of Nabatean Petra
Images of Nabatean Petra
It is often very difficult to grasp what Petra must have looked like in its Nabatean “golden age”, when it was an extravagantly wealthy city, home to tens of thousands of people. What today are rubbly excavation sites were once grand temples and public buildings, soaring to their full height. Watercourses flowed to irrigate lush gardens in what looks now like dusty waste-ground. Natural earth tones in the landscape were tempered with brightly coloured plasterwork adorning many of the buildings.
Many architects and artists have tried to depict Petra’s ancient reality, with varying degrees of accuracy. One in particular – Chrysanthos Kanellopoulos, an archeologist in his own right – has worked over many years with a number of teams in Petra and around Jordan. Google his name to find his vivid, full-colour renderings of what Petra would have looked like two thousand years ago. As an impression of original Nabatean architecture, they are remarkable – though bear in mind that since archeological work is ongoing, some details may now have been superseded by new discoveries.
The Petra scrolls
The Petra scrolls
A hugely significant archeological find was made by accident in a storage room at the northeast corner of the Petra Church on December 4, 1993: archeologists stumbled on a cache of 152 papyrus scrolls, tumbled higgledy-piggledy from the shelves that presumably once carried them, which had lain buried beneath 4m of rubble. Analysis of the scrolls is still incomplete, but they have given tantalizing glimpses of life in Byzantine Petra, a period that is rarely accounted for.
The whole archive seems to have belonged to one Theodore, born in 514, who at the age of 24 married a young woman from a family already connected with his own by marriage in a previous generation. Theodore became archdeacon of the “Most Holy Church of NN in the metropolis” – presumably the Petra Church. Most of the documents date from a sixty-year period, roughly 528 to 588, and comprise property contracts, out-of-court settlements and tax receipts, providing a wealth of detail about everyday life. Transfers from one family to another of vineyards, arable land, orchards, living quarters and stables within a 50km radius of Petra were all dutifully recorded. One man’s will specifies that after his mother’s death, all her assets were to be donated to the “House of Aron”, the Byzantine monastery atop Jabal Haroun. Farmers, tailors, doctors, slaves and soldiers are all mentioned by name, including one Abu Karib ibn Jabala, known to have been a military commander of the Arab tribes.
Petra was decisively Christian at this time, and monks and priests feature prominently, not least a Bishop Theodore, who may have been the same Theodore who took part in a synod at Jerusalem in 536. Another reference is to a priest “of her, our All-Holy, Praised Lady, the Glorious God-Bearing and Eternally Virgin Mary”, indicating that there may be a church to Mary yet to be uncovered in Petra. Only once the content of the scrolls has been fully published can investigation proceed any further, but this is just another sign that archeologists have only just begun to scratch Petra’s surface.
Separately, Jane Taylor’s fine book Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans includes a fascinating chapter on an earlier Nabatean archive, left in a cave above the Dead Sea by Babatha, a Jewish woman living in the second century AD. Worth a read.
The bedouin named for changing
The bedouin named for changing
From time immemorial, the caves and dens of Petra have been occupied by one of Jordan’s poorest and most downtrodden tribes, the Bdul. Surrounded by tribes living traditional tent-based lifestyles (the Saidiyeen to the south and west, the Ammareen to the north, and the Liyathneh to the east), the Bdul remain a community apart, looked down upon for their poverty, small numbers (only about three hundred families) and cave-centred lifestyle.
Most bedouin tribes can trace their lineage back to a single founding father (whether real or fictitious), but mystery surrounds the origin of the Bdul. Some Bdul, naturally enough, claim descent from the Nabateans, but this may just be wishful thinking. Most claim that the name Bdul derives from the Arabic word badal, meaning to swap or change, and was given to the tribe after the survivors of a massacre at the hands of Moses and the Israelites had agreed to convert to Judaism; at some point in the centuries following, the tribe converted again, this time to Islam. Much more plausible is the possibility that the Bdul earned their name from being a nomadic tribe that decided to settle in the ruins of Petra, changing their habits to suit a more stable existence.
The Bdul were slow to benefit from the growth in tourism in Petra, largely because of cut-throat competition with the more cosmopolitan and better-educated Liyathneh of Wadi Musa. When the Resthouse hotel opened in the 1950s, Liyathneh were hired as construction workers, hotel staff, book- and postcard-sellers and even to provide horses for rides into Petra; their near-monopoly on tourist facilities in Wadi Musa has persisted to this day. Adding insult to injury, a USAID report dating from the establishment of Petra as a National Park in 1968 acknowledged that the Bdul held traditional rights over park lands, but nonetheless recommended that they be resettled elsewhere. This sparked a twenty-year battle to oust the Bdul from Petra, which saw the tribe’s traditional lifestyle of agriculture and goatherding decimated, income instead dribbling in from the refreshment cafés within Petra and the few individuals offering crafts and antiquities – real and fake – to tourists. In the mid-1980s, tempted by material comforts in the new, purpose-built village of Umm Sayhoun, many Bdul families finally left the caves of Petra for the breezeblock houses on the ridge. Some still herd a few goats, others cultivate small plots, but most Bdul make their living providing services to tourists. You’ll meet Bdul adults and kids in all corners of Petra, running the tent cafés or offering tea and trinkets in the hills, and often happy to chat (in surprisingly fluent English). The “bedouin named for changing”, as archeologist Kenneth Russell dubbed them, are embracing change yet again.
The best modern account of Bdul life in Petra is Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen. There’s some excellent background on the Bdul by anthropologist Rami Sajdi at w acacialand.com – and also see Ruth Caswell’s pages about the tribes of Wadi Musa at w jordanjubilee.com.
Of all Jordan’s tourist destinations Petra is the most celebrated – and the most packaged. A modern gateway marks entry to the site; you follow a path neatly laid with gravel and defined with kerbstones; you pass standardized souvenir kiosks; you explore on pre-defined trails. Yet less than twenty years ago you could roam at will – there were no trails and no kiosks – and twenty years before that you could spend the night in the ancient city. Tourism has forced the pace of change, but there are still many unusual perspectives to explore.
Petra by night
One of the most powerful – and, oddly, easiest – ways of capturing some of the old magic of exploring Petra is to book for the locally run “Petra By Night” walking excursion.
Although Petra is visually stunning even if you know nothing of the site’s history, a little knowledge of who built these monuments (and why) can add hugely to your experience of the site – and allows your imagination to recreate some of what Petra must have felt like in its heyday. What today appear to us to be heaps of dusty ruins at one time formed a graceful, elegant city. Grand temples and busy shops lined the main streets. Fountains played alongside lush gardens. A cosmopolitan mix of merchants and townspeople relaxed in cool, shady spots out of the sun. Learning about Petra’s past enriches any stroll through its present.
Through the back door
Almost everybody who visits Petra stays in a hotel in the adjacent town of Wadi Musa, walks in and out through the main gateway, follows the main path for most of the day and sees Petra’s major monuments – the Treasury, the Theatre, the Monastery, and so on – in the same order. This works fine if you have limited time, but if you have more than one day there is much to be said for tackling some new approaches.
There’s no need to stay in Wadi Musa: you may find small, locally run guesthouses opening soon in the neighbouring Bdul village of Umm Sayhoun, or you could opt to stay with the Ammarin tribe, who operate an excellent camp near Little Petra. Staying with the Ammarin takes you completely out of Petra’s usual run of packaged experiences, and also gains you access to Ammarin guides, who are able to lead you on their own paths through the hills and into the ancient city the back way –so that you walk through the site against the tide. The epic Dana–Petra trek often includes this route, too.
In future years look out for a new nature reserve, due to be established by Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature around Shobak, north of Petra. As well as new walking trails and lodge-style accommodation, this may offer more unusual approaches – riding into Petra on horseback or camel, perhaps.