Monday, February 16, 2015

Into Petra and...then there were the camels

As we exited the Siq, only 9-13 ft. wide in some spots, we came upon the Treasury in Petra, estimated to be about 2,000 years old. Also known as Al-Khasneh, the Treasury, which is really a sculpture, is remarkably well-preserved, even to these untrained eyes. But, the face of it is marked by hundreds of bullet holes made by Bedouin tribes who believed there were riches within the walls and hoped that the bullets would dislodge them...all for naught. The Treasury is carved directly into the rock wall, with the carving starting at the top.  It was feared that if the carving began at the bottom, the rock would be too compromised to support what was above and that it might collapse.  It is believed that the Treasury was originally designed to be a mausoleum.  Notice the Greek influence in this architecture.  Petra was established possibly as early as 312 BC and has been described as "a rose-red city half as old as time"...simply breathtaking and so intriguing...Petra, the Rose City, named for the color of the rock.  Among the ruins of the Treasury, the prehistoric symbols, the ancient ancestors of the Nabateans, the Romans, Greeks, the Byzantine era, to name a few, were also children selling jewelry and gum, old men selling the same and opportunities were being offered to ride a camel or a donkey.  Some contemporary history: If these scenes looks familiar, it might be because there have been a number of movies filmed here:  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Arabian Nights, Mortal Combat, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, The Mummy Returns, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen...I might have seen the Indiana Jones movie!  Petra has also been recreated for some video games, as well, such as Lego Indiana Jones, Sonic Unleashed, and Knights of the Temple (none of which I am familiar!)  But, in many ways, it provides a look back into ancient times.

Young men were in charge of the camels and donkeys instructing us on how to manage winding up in the camel saddle without completely humiliating ourselves...or at least to provide some entertainment to other tourists standing around trying to decide if they, too, were going to become a public spectacle in the attempt.  We were also told to lean back, after settling into the saddle on the camel REALLY lean back as the camel stood prevent us from falling headfirst toward the desert floor...and to hold on!  Despite some serious rocking and rolling and the threat of becoming disengaged from this camel, I somehow managed to successfully get situated in the saddle and then it was Alison's turn...I wish I had a picture of what was to follow but I was holding on!  (To give you an idea of how tall these camels stood, I did take these photos while sitting on my upright camel.)  Meanwhile, Alison's camel was still in a crouching, resting position on the ground and we were all smiles...notice all of the young entrepreneurs hoping for that last transaction!

In all the commotion, Alison dropped the red bandanna that was tied onto her bag.  Our friendly camel-guy handed it back to her and Alison was tying it back onto her bag.  It was at that moment, and without warning, that her camel started to stand up.

Alison was not quite holding on when this happened.  Camels begin their ascent by partially raising their back end first catapulting the passenger forward...hence the warning to lean back and hold on...and my concern for Alison elevated as I realized that what I was seeing in front of me was the back end of her pants sticking straight up toward the sky!   Now, the camel begins to get onto it knees,  while Alison is still headed toward the ground...and the camel proceeds to complete the rear ascent and ends up standing up on all four legs.  During this process, Alison was thrown forward, head down, back end up off of the saddle...leaning dangerously to the side, almost falling off of the camel and somehow, she did not end up on the ground...although, there were "camel-keepers" who were at the ready to catch her if she started heading in that direction!  Naturally, this brought us much laughter...immediately and during the remainder of the trip...and came to be known as the potential "death by camel"!  (Even as I remember it, I am smiling and laughing!)  But, we both ended up securely on our camels and ready to continue our adventure...

Incidentally, Zaid managed a smooth and uneventful mount onto his camel...go figure...

I will tell you that my first camel ride can best be described as riding in a highly elevated, open convertible that had 4 different sized wheels! Back and forth, up and down, back and down, forth and up I went on my camel, over the uneven rock and dirt path, holding on for dear life, almost losing all the skin off the palm of my right hand while holding onto the short horn on the saddle making it nearly impossible to take photographs!  But...I wouldn't have given up this experience, regardless of the humiliation and discomfort!  It was fabulous! 

Petra - @the size of Manhattan -This capital city of the Nabateans is located between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea and was the crossroads between Arabia, Egypt and Syria serving as a caravan stop for the trading of silk from China, spices from India and the famed incense of Arabia.   We rode through Petra learning its history from Zaid (he was invaluable!), as he pointed out temples and tombs (over 800 of them!), churches and high religious places, homes, channels and tunnels, accompanied by stories of the indigenous people who lived here and their history of progress, defeat, and survival.  There are underground copper mines dating back to the 4th century BC, as well.  To address their water challenges, the people who lived here controlled seasonal rains with an "ingenious water-management system" of channels, dams and reservoirs, allowing this ancient civilization to flourish in the midst of the desert.  Salt from the Dead Sea is partially responsible for the erosion that continues to compromise the structures in Petra.  Photos below depict the approach to the Obelisk Tombs.  Really  - an amazing place!

To give you an idea of the eclectic historical influence held over this area:  There are Greco-Roman colonnaded street, arches, and baths, a Byzantine church and crusader fortresses...there is the foundation of a mosque and rock-cut tombs of the Assyrians, sacrificial places and Hellenistic architecture with Eastern influences...all are testimony to past civilizations...all part of the beauty and intrigue that is Petra...and thank you, Zaid, for introducing us to it all.  Remarkable...

Zaid and his younger brother...there were 6 boys in this family...all well educated and anxious to share with us their beautiful country and it's history.

We dismounted our camels  - undoubtedly a less than graceful and dignified vision - near a small, roughly-hewn store that benefited the Queen Noor Foundation, an organization that provides economic opportunities to underprivileged communities while encouraging self-reliance. There are stores throughout Jordan that are a part of this non-profit.  A percentage of each purchase is marked for the support of this foundation, which includes efforts of women and children.  It was a small store with very committed and motivated sales personnel.  We enjoyed some delicious and refreshing pomegranate juice while we shopped and recuperated from our camel rides.  The sales personnel tried desperately to separate us from our dinars and...hey...we simply had to comply!

There were a number of young men and boys in this area of Petra awaiting riders to return to the Siq.  Even the youngest ones were were especially secure in the saddles of both the donkeys and the camels.   Zaid had warned us that many of the school-aged children that were here had skipped school to make money from the tourists and that some of them used that money to purchase alcohol and cigarettes for, either themselves, or to sell.  While this was certainly not surprising, it was still sad to realize this attitude towards the merits of education for many of these people.  We did find that the more mature of the young men, including Zaid, were mentors, of sorts, guardians of these younger boys, disciplining them if they were aggressive with each other and in their approach to tourists.  Zaid, as well as our other guides throughout Jordan, were graduates of a state-sponsored school that trained them in the history of Jordan to prepare them to work as tour guides to visitors.  It is a rigorous 18-month program that produces intelligent, well-informed and high quality guides that certainly made our experience well worth the cost.  (Abu made sure we always had "the best"!)  In speaking with these guides, we found that most of them wanted to continue with their education, with many of them wanting to come to America to do just that. 

We continued our journey through the Colonnaded street, built @106 AD by the Romans and once lined with stores and shops.  This was the center of Petra.  Through the columns at the end of the street, you can see the Palace Tomb.  Hidden beneath this stone street lies almost 4 centuries of Nabatean domestic architecture, revealed by Peter Parr in a British excavation in the 1950's.  Zaid told us there were untold treasures in architecture and history lying in wait beneath the surface of Petra but that it was simply too expensive to excavate.  To date, only @2% of this site is excavated!

After some more exploring, we had to start our return trip back toward the entrance to the city as our time was limited.  Unbelievably, we decided to take the camels.  For me, Camel #2 was a much smoother ride...or, perhaps, I was now an experienced camel rider...and returning to the Treasury was a much less traumatic journey.  Surely, you can sense my command of the camel and my comfort in the saddle!  Hey...I was even leading the pack!

I included this picture below of random people (obviously Westerners, like us!)  to show that this lady looked as though she was headed in the direction that Alison took while getting on her wasn't easy, you know!  (I wonder how many vacation albums we are in!) 

As we emerged from Petra, we returned to the present...sort of.  The community surrounding Petra reflects any other small Jordanian town, except for the fact that it is outside one of the world's most spectacular, historic, archaeological sites.  Known mainly for two things, trade and it's hydraulic engineering system,  Wadi Musa  is named for its location, meaning in Arabic, "Valley of Moses".  It is believed that it was here in Wadi Musa that Moses struck a rock and produced water for his people at Ain Musa, or "Moses's Well".  Wadi Musa was also known as the "Guardian of Petra".  Aaron, the brother of Moses, is believed to be buried nearby.  The history of this area is impossible to simplify.  The population of ancient Petra is believed to have been between 20,000 and 30,000.  Their system of water conservation provided each person @2 liters of water per day.  I am only providing small tidbits to give the pictures some meaning!

Note the empty river is obviously not the rainy season, but is useful for goat grazing!

We continued to a local restaurant, Al Qantarah,  for a meal and were not disappointed. "Al Qantarah" is Arabic for "the bridge".  It was a delicious buffet of typical Jordanian foods, including, of course, hummus and pita, baba ganoush, chicken and rice,  many fresh local salads, dishes of lamb and goat, including some desserts, such as um ali and baklava.  A perfect end to our visit to Petra.

Our next stop was a shop with more opportunities to share our dinars! There were many traditional items, all made in Jordan or the Middle East, including hookahs, painted metal dishes and bowls, beautiful and ornate mosaic tables, and silk rugs, to name a few.  This time, we maintained a modicum of purchase-control...

It was a day we will never forget, a day that helped to fulfill so much curiosity and so much need to understand...tomorrow, it's the city of Amman and the Dead Sea!

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