Sitting, Seeing Petra

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A peek of “Al Khazneh,” the Treasury, from the Siq

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Swirling red sandstone walls are eye-candy every step of the way

We all see what we want to see,

A small shift in perspective changes reality;

At first, I just paid the entry fee,

But then, I sat to learn; to be.

It was our second day in Petra, Jordan. The morning sun was just starting to peak over the canyon walls. Swirling red sandstone, shaped by millions of years of erosion and mother nature was illuminated by the new day’s light. We ambled through the Siq, the slot canyon that leads to the iconic “Al Khazneh,” or Treasury, in awe; with each twist and turn the walls became more vibrant. Not until the canyon narrowed to a couple meters wide did the building appear through the slit in the rocks.

The Treasury, though it was really a funerary temple which got its popular name because bandits supposedly hid treasure in the urn above the entrance, is the first of many structures, tombs, temples, and facades you encounter as you make your way through the ancient city. As far back as 7000 B.C., the area was inhabited by Neolithic villages. Nabataeans arrived from Arabia in the 6th century B.C. and began carving the famous city into the rocks; they transformed the quiet canyon into a thriving center of trade. By 1st century A.D. Petra had become part of the Roman empire; though it underwent changes and additions in architecture, it still was a thriving area of commerce and was known all over the world for its natural beauty. After it was mostly destroyed in 3rd and 5th centuries A.D. by earthquakes, the local Bedouin tribes (Bdoul) remained in the area. Not until Petra was re-discovered in 1812 by a Swiss man, Jean Louis Burkhardt, did it regain attention outside Arabia.

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The “High Place of Sacrifice”

After its “discovery” by an outsider, Petra was thrust into the world’s consciousness once again. Over the last 200 years people have been fascinated with this magical place. Around 1985, the local Bedouin tribes were forcibly resettled en-masse to neighboring villages to make way for the onslaught of tourism. Soon after the resettlement of locals, Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage site. Twenty-two years later it would become one of the new “Seven Wonders of the World.”

Each year, almost half a million people visit Petra (www.petranationaltrust.org). My friend Emily and I joined the throngs to see the wondrous place as well. Our intention was to take in the beautiful rocks and walk on the trails; we wanted to learn about the place firsthand.

We left the Treasury and made our way towards the Monastery; it was a quagmire. We gazed at ancient buildings carved into the sandstone, all the while talking with local Bedouins, smiling at the various animals, dodging other tourists, and stopping here and there to chat and have juice, coffee, or tea at cafes.

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Camels on the path in front of the Royal tombs

Eventually we made it to the end of the canyon and headed uphill towards the Monastery. We had been walking for about twenty minutes when two little girls and one boy rode up to us on their donkeys and asked if we wanted a ride up the path. We smiled and told them “La, shukran,” “No thanks,” and kept climbing the steps. Though locals had approached us about every hundred meters along the route already, this encounter was unique; most Bedouin families leave the managing of animals (as far as tourists go) to the men, so seeing two girls doing business was a treat.

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Mr. Donkey takes a rest near some facades and ruins

But my happiness about these empowered girls was short-lived.

Three minutes later, we saw one of the girls we had just met, galloping down the steps with a boy on his own donkey, hot on her tail. He was yelling at her, and she was crying, trying to get away from him whacking her with the stick he used to prod his animal. As I watched the siblings fight, a European man set up in a stance to take a picture of the two Bedouin teens.

About 15 meters from the family’s jewelry stand, the man crouched down and focused his camera. As the girl rode towards him and made it to lower ground than her brother, the European man came into view of the Bedouin boy. The boy shouted at the photographer:

“No photos! We are NOT A MUSEUM! The museum is at the visitor center.”

I watched with a broken heart as the girl jumped off the donkey and ran to her mother; the boy explaining what had happened, while us foreigners found ourselves intruding in this private moment.

My friend and I looked at each other a felt sad. We felt sad for the girl, for the boy, for the tribes who had to adjust their lives to cater to tourists. We also felt sad for the European man who didn’t feel sad at all.

We see what we want to see.

Tourists come to Petra to experience the natural beauty of the place and to observe the people, the culture, and the rhythm of life. But just as any well-intentioned observer interrupts the flow of that which they are observing, so do they affect the lives, land, and people that they came to enjoy.

Petra is home to thousands (if not millions geologically) of years of history, yet with each passing day we disrespect the place by not leaving it alone. We have moved the inhabitants out of their homes for the pleasure of preserving the land to see it for ourselves.

How are we to enjoy Petra, but still respect the people who live around there?

It is a good question, and one I have struggled with quite frequently while working in developing countries. I’d like to learn as much as possible about the land, its people, and the culture, yet I don’t want to intrude; I want to make the people’s lives better. Sometimes though, I must admit that I can’t give anything.

Emily and I made it to the Monastery. We enjoyed the quiet moments at higher altitude, drank some juice, then headed back down the mountain.

As we walked at a leisurely pace, many of the local women wanted us to join them for tea, so we did. The first lady was with her husband and he left when we came into their space. We sat with the lady and talked for a moment about life and what we were doing in Jordan. She told us “thank you for being teachers” and taught us that the tea we were drinking was called “chai bedu” Bedouin tea.

We continued down the path.

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View of Petra from a trail-side stand

When we were almost to the bottom of the canyon, another family urged us to drink tea with them. They were a family of three women and two little boys. We had seen the youngest boy earlier riding his donkey in circles, not yet able to control the animal. He had offered us a ride.

Sitting down to drink tea with this family was my favorite part of the day. They spent time talking to us about Eid; telling us traditions and asking us questions about our teeth (how are they so white?), my husband (where is he?) and California (is it hot?). When we were done talking, we left them a bag of pretzels and 4 hard boiled eggs. They thanked us and we continued on our way.

As we finished our visit to Petra, I reflected on my question above. I know that at first I went to Petra and wandered into the Siq feeling annoyed that I was bothered so much to buy things. I ignored the people and rushed past all of the sights. The second day though, I decided to just be. Putting my camera away and becoming one with the flow of the place made it better. Actually seeing the people for who they were, and learning from them was much more enjoyable than rushing past everything.

All that I encountered, the aggressive sales tactics, the swirling sandstone, the skinny dogs, the ancient structures, the sibling fights, the unaware tourists, the families crowded in shady trail-side stands, the hospitality and the chai; this is what Petra has become.

At first I bought the ticket and saw what I wanted to see…but when I sat and listened, I saw Petra for what it is.

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The Monastery

24 thoughts on “Sitting, Seeing Petra

  • This is a terrific post. Love the inclusion of history into the experience and the photos are beautiful. I’ll definitely be coming back to read more of your posts. Safe and happy travels!

  • I really do want to experience the beautiful sight of Jordan through your eyes. Thank you. I would love to go there but your poetry of beautiful places will be the next best trip. I will continue to see the world through your eyes.

  • Really enjoy the historical essence you’ve captured in your story above. The years of erosion have created a beautifully characterised the High Place of Sacrifice and the Royal tombs, with some really nice layers of stone flattened together. Hope the rest of your stay at Petra, Jordan goes well!

  • Petra is high on our list of must see places! Really enjoyed the historical input you shared. I was saddened reading about the young siblings fighting and the fact that tourism has become more and more desensitized to other cultures. I, too, have felt that feeling of wanting to be aware of diversity in other cultures and respect locals and their customs but have worried it would seem like I was “trying to hard” or had alternate motives.

    • Thanks for the comment Kallsy; I think just slowing down, greeting people in the local language, and noticing is enough and not “trying too hard.” Tourists places are meant to be that, but we can tread more lightly and try to learn more.

  • Loved the way you have intertwined your travel story with historical significance of the place as well as psychological waves of travelers 🙂 Petra is on our travel bucket list, we will return back again to this post when we are ready to travel.

    • Thanks Christina! Petra is a beautiful place, as are the people and the Wadis around there. I hope you get to visit one day.

  • Petra is on my travel bucket list, too!
    Such a lovely way of writing. I feel like I’m part of your journey there. When I get there one day, I’ll be sure to remember to take away my camera and enjoy the sights as it is 🙂

    • Hi Hanani! But take pictures too! The geological formations are amazing. I would just keep in mind that people don’t like their photos taken…but it is completely ok to take pictures of the beautiful scenery and the animals. Hope you have a nice visit when you get there!

  • Petra is just so full of history, and as something of an enthusiastic amateur, somewhere I really hope to visit. What I enjoyed most about this post however were the odd little interactions with locals you had. A great insight into life in modern day Jordan that is thoroughly well written

  • I’ve always wanted to visit Petra, now even more so. I love history, archaeology & culture and there seems so much to learn & appreciate here, despite the hassles. A great insight & perspective on what we want to see vs reality.

  • Good post. I too “like to learn as much as possible about the land, its people, and the culture, yet I don’t want to intrude” it is hard sometimes to know how to balance a desire for knowledge, discovery and adventure with not making the inhabitants of the places, you want to explore, into part of the scenery – a side show if you know what I mean.

  • Petra is pretty high up there on my bucket list (though I’m sure much like you guys this list is seemingly never ending). Loved the information you guys shared, I didn’t have a strong background of knowledge for the history of this place so I definitely learned a lot with this post! I’m curious what was your favorite part of traveling Jordan if you had to pick one?? I know I know it’s a hard hitting question! 😏

    • I have lived in Jordan for almost 8 months now and honestly I love many places! Umm Qais ruins in the north, Ajloun Castle and wildlife reserve, then the Roman amphitheater and temple of Hercules in Amman, Jerash, Petra, Wadi Rum…all of them are amazing! It also worth it to float in the Dead Sea; a once in a lifetime experience!

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