A ‘Petra-Fying’ Adventure in the Rose-Red City of Petra
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“No! Don’t try and climb the 850 steps to the Monastery! At your age, you will never make it!” My colleague advised when I asked her if I should try and make my way up to the Monastery atop one of the high points in Petra – Jordan’s number one tourist attraction. I was in my 80s and my colleague thought that I would never make it.
Jordan’s rose-red city of mystery and romance, this Nabataen city chiselled into the stone mountainside is a tourist site par excellence. Its builders, the Nabataeans, who hailed from the Yemen, beginning about 500 B.C., carved thousands of homes, temples and burial chambers to establish one of the most unique cities known to man. Today, thousands of tourists – in 2005 some 362,000 – from the four corners of the world travel to the ruins of this fantastic Nabatanean city.
Every morning for three days we entered its Siq – a 1,200 m (3,936 ft) awesome cleft in the pinkish sandstone, then made our way to explore what has been called ‘a rose-red city half as old as time’. However, there was still the Monastery high up on an outcrop of rock.
For three days I toyed with various ways to reach the Monastery. At first, I planned to walk up the hundreds of steps cut into solid rock, but I soon discarded the idea when I saw that the steps were broken, eroded, uneven, and did not exist in many places.
During my last day in Petra, I was standing surveying the steps when I heard some ask, “Do you want to climb up to the Monastery with a donkey?” I turned around to see a young man leading a small donkey. “How is this small animal going to carry me and climb these steep steps? It’s impossible!” I looked inquisitively at the young man. He laughed, “My donkey strong. Come! I take you to top for 10 dinars.” I thought for a while then concluded that it was my last chance – a chance I could not miss. I would try to reach the top on an ass. Bargaining in Arabic, we agreed on three dinars.
Atop the donkey with its owner Muquib behind urging it on we began the climb. I almost fell off as the donkey as it leaped like a rabbit from step to step. “Keep your balance! Keep your balance! Don’t be in fear! The donkey has made this trip many times before!” Muquib’s words somewhat allayed my fears until the donkey, seeing a path by the side of the steps, leaped on this narrow trail. I almost tumbled off the ass into the abysses below, but I soon recovered as the donkey continued his rabbit jumps up the steps.
After about 20 minutes we reached a small plateau. Muquib motioned me to step down from the donkey. “This is as far as my donkey can go.” I looked around me. The monastery was nowhere in sight. “But you said that you will be taking me to the top!” I was somewhat peeved. “It’s only a 5 minute walk from here. It’s an easy stroll!”
I paid him his three dinars plus one extra for a tip then walked around a corner. Before me were what appeared to be hundreds of steps. I was furious as I began to climb. I looked back. Muquib was gone. I was infuriated but to avail. Huffing and puffing I struggled upwards until almost dead with exhaustion I reached the Monastery.
Surprised, I found a number of my colleagues resting on the Monastery steps. I was elated. Now with their help, I was sure that I would have no trouble making my way downward. I felt relief as I explored and photographed the impressive Monastery.
The Monastery, known locally as Ad Deir (Monastery in Arabic) is Petra’s second most famed attraction. Huge in size yet beautifully awesome, it resembles, with less architectural embellishment, the well known beautiful Khaznah (Treasury) at the entrance to the ruins – the most famous monument in Petra. Totally Nabataean with no Greek or Roman influence, it was built either as a temple or a tomb. Later, in Byzantine times, it was turned into a church, hence, its name Monastery.
Rested and refreshed and accompanied by my female colleagues, we began the climb downward. At times, two of the women, one on each side, at other times, only one would help me to keep from slipping as we made our way down the treacherous steep and eroded steps. When we stopped a few moments to rest, I would survey the picturesque mountain scenes around us and beyond. They were vistas of natural beauty.
Women and young girls, some as young as four, were selling trinkets all along the sides of the steps. Sometimes they would just greet us; at other times they would ask us to buy their offerings. When we would decline, they would just smile – truly a gentle warm people.
On the other hand, the men sitting around would make amusing remarks. Since they had no idea that I understood Arabic, they joked about me, and my women colleagues. . “Look! He’s got four women with him! Do you think they’re his wives? A young man asked his friend. “I don’t know but he must take lots of Viagra”, his friend answered.
Another time as I slipped down one of the steps and one of the women grabbed me, a youth watching us remarked to his companion, “Look! A young woman is looking after him. He must be rich!”
Further down, as our group leader, who was known to the locals, was holding my hand, I heard a teenager ask his buddy, “Do you think she’s going after his money?” His friend replied, “No, I know her. She’s an honourable woman. She’s just kind hearted. ”
Some half an hour after beginning our descent we were back on solid ground safe and sound and I was elated. I had, in spite of my 82 years, navigated the 850 dangerous steps up to and down from the Monastery and lived to tell the tale.