Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Call of the Red Desert

Unknown to the Western world until the early 1800s, Petra was first depicted by an English poet as “a rose-red city, half as old as time." A few years ago, UNESCO described the site as "one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage. The BBC dubbed it as one of "the 40 places you have to see before you die."

None of it is an overstatement.

Petra derives its name from the Greek word petrae, meaning rock, an apt word for this reddish-pink city that looks as if it were carved by hand from out of the sandstone in the great rift valley east of Wadi Araba, about 60 miles south of the Dead Sea. Getting to Petra is as exciting as being there. The access is through a Siq – a deep, narrow gorge that meanders through the rock until a narrow opening suddenly looms ahead, signaling the city entrance. The passage is rather long and can be quite a hike, especially due to the desert heat. If you choose to do it by foot like I did, stock up on water. If you opt for a camel or donkey ride, which the local Bedouins gladly offer you for a few bucks, you’ll save some vim, but may feel akin to a well-whipped milkshake after riding the ancient pavement.

Once inside the city, you can spend the whole day wandering from Al-Khazneh – The Treasury, with a beautifully chiseled well-preserved front, to The Temenos Gate, which once was an entrance to the city’s main temple to the “Roman” theater, which was built by the Nabateans and is not Roman at all. There is also a monastery – the second most famous building in Petra. It sits on a mountaintop and requires quite a steep climb to reach.

Nabateans, a trading race of Arabic-speaking Semitics who controlled the trade routes stretching form Africa to India to China, settled in the Petra Siqs about two thousand years ago. In 1,200 BCE, the area was known as Edom (red) and was populated by Edomites, known for their wisdom, writing, textile, and ceramics industries as well as their skilled metal work.

Nowadays, the city and the nearby area are inhabited by Bedouins, namely a tribe called Dulles, which, after the UNESCO’s proclamation, found its simple life suddenly disrupted by thousands of camera-snapping tourists eager to climb the rocks and explore the gorges. Dulles’ elementary school kids speak English well enough to converse with tourists about donkey rides and prices of rustic jewelry. Older teenage boys try to flirt with Western girls. Blanched from time, grandmas eye the foreigners with malcontent – many of them do not welcome the invasion of the Occident. Neither do they welcome the recent government offer to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and move into subsidized houses. More so, the ancient city hasn’t yet adjusted to tourists: there are only a few small hotels in Petra, and the nearest city that offers lodging is far away.

It’s hard to tell what I found more exciting about Petra – the sites or their inhabitants. The flocks of children in mismatched clothing covered with unavoidable reddish dust, the young striplings patting their camels, and the old grandmas twiddling their prayer beads were just as picturesque and enigmatic as the pink stones they leaned against. I wanted to put myself in their shoes, minds, and headscarves – just to see life through their eyes, perpetually squinting in the sun. I tried. And I succeeded. In my head, I brought back home a story of a Bedouin woman who, by a noble gesture of the Jordanian government, was moved from the goat hair tent she lived in all her life to an apartment with running water. Only she didn’t see it as a blessing for she could no longer watch the sun rise over her beloved red cliffs. I titled it "The Call of the Red Desert" and didn’t think the world would like it as much as I did, but it won first place in a literary contest at Moondance this year.

Sunrise in Petra is praised as the most unforgettable sightseeing moment, because the rocks gradually change color in the sun’s evanescent rays. Knowing that lodging was scarce, I booked my room months in advance, but the Jordan Royal family interfered. The king and his entire entourage decided to stay in Petra on the same night, so every hotel canceled its other reservations and, with profuse apologies, relocated the disappointed globetrotters elsewhere. Alas, it was too far to see the sunrise over the Pink City. Which only means I have to make another trip. And bring back more stories.


  1. I want to go to Petra now. And I want to read "The Call of the Red Desert" too! So fascinating.

  2. I've long wanted to go to Petra, so it's nice to learn that its among the top forty must see places. You make it seem even more intriguing than I imagined. Another place where human activity continues all around an ancient site and fills it with life.

  3. For me too, Lina. Sounds fascinating. How do we get our hands on the story your visit inspired? Your fans want to know...