Petra is Jordan’s most famous archaeological site.
Jordan Tourism North Americaby Margie Goldsmith Chiseled out of the rock 2,200 years ago in southern Jordan’s desert, Petra is justifiably considered a wonder of the ancient world. Like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, and hundreds of thousands of real visitors over time, I entered the city through the siq, a long narrow gorge that separates two massive rock cliffs. Dramatically, this opens onto a pink sandstone monolith with an ornate façade and columns glinting in the sunlight, all so ethereal that you can only stand and gape.
I tagged along ancient colonnaded streets with a small tour group and Ali, our Jordanian guide, while learning about the ancient Nabateans, Arabian nomads who controlled the incense and spice trade, and settled in Petra in the third century B.C. But I confess that my interest in archaeology and history, even wonders of the world, has its limits. After a while, I felt Petra-fied.
The narrow weather-sculpted gorge leading into Petra made it easily defendable by the Nabateans who settled there. Jordan Tourism North America
The tour plan included lunch, then either walking up to a building known as the Monastery or exploring on our own, meeting back at 5 pm. Ali also mentioned the possibility of climbing 1,500-foot (458-meter) Jebel Haroun – Aaron’s Mount – the resting place of Moses’ brother Aaron, and considered one of Petra’s holiest and most spiritual places. I was intrigued even though Ali advised that it was a hard four-hour hike and would mean leaving now, skipping lunch. My tour-mate, Natalie, and I decided we were up for the adventure.
We grabbed water and fruit and headed for the trailhead. It was silent except for our footsteps crunching on the gravel path, the sun napping behind a cloud, and a slight breeze: ideal hiking conditions. As we climbed, we noticed caves similar to those we had seen in the city below, except these were smaller and didn’t have the ornately-carved features of the others.In front of us was a sandstone mound the size of a two-car garage that looked like a giant igloo with a door and windows.
A small boy of about five ran out of the cave and stood above us on a slab of rock that served as his front lawn. He grinned and waved. “Marhaba!” we called out, “Hello!”
Many Bedouin families still prefer to live in traditional style in cave houses. Margie Goldsmith
Bedouin women are proud of their distinctive dress. Margie Goldsmith
Three Bedouin women appeared in traditional dress and headscarf. We exchanged greetings. Earlier, Ali had told us that the late King Hussein (father of the present King) built the Bedouins modern homes, but these nomadic people still prefer to live in tents and caves as they have for centuries.
Further up the trail goats and sheep grazed. We passed more caves with doors and windows. Off to the side of the trail was a black goat-haired tent where camels rested out of the sun. It was like being transported back in time. Then the trail disappeared, the hills and sandstone formations gave way to granite rocks, and we picked our way around large boulders.
An hour later, the trail was getting steeper and we still couldn’t see the summit or Aaron’s shrine. Was this really a four-hour hike or had I misunderstood and it was four hours each way? Usually, I have a terrible sense of direction and I panic when lost, but I was strangely calm. I wondered, is that what it means to be a spiritual mountain? Finally, we saw a faded “Tea Shop” sign in Arabic and English. Two Bedouin men sat under a small tarp in rickety chairs, drinking tea.
“Marhaba!” I said. “Is it far to the top?”
“A Salam Alakim. Not far. Tea?” they asked.
“No, thank you,” we said.
“Where is your guide?”
“We are our own guide!” I grinned.
Another half hour and we could finally see the dome above us. My legs ached as we climbed a long flight of stairs recently cemented into the mountainside. A platform offered an unobstructed view as far as the horizon, to Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, all of which border Jordan.
Atop Mount Aaron, a 360-degree vista to Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia rewards the persistent. Margie Goldsmith
Beside Aaron’s shrine, a moment of hiker’s triumph for author, Margie Goldsmith.
A door led to a small room with a table, guest book, and not much else. As we signed our names, a teenaged Arab boy entered, startling us. He led us up a final staircase onto the roof, next to the white dome. We sat quietly, contemplating the craggy rocks, arid plains and sandstone formations below, for all too short a time after such a challenging pilgrimage.
Bedouin hospitality extends to inviting visitors to dinner. Margie Goldsmith
It was late, time to head down – past the tea drinkers, past the tents and camels, past the herds of goats and sheep to the spot where we had seen the families. The same children and mothers came running out to greet us. In front of the cave sat a Bedouin man in western dress. Next to him was a huge black pot where a lamb he was skinning hung from a tripod.
Did we want to stay to dinner, he asked? I looked at my watch: it was almost 5 pm, time to meet the others back at the van. If we stayed, we’d miss our ride. And even if there were taxis, I didn’t remember the name of our hotel because it was in Arabic.
Regretfully, I shook my head, putting my palms together to thank him for the invitation. As we continued down the track to our Petra rendevous, I realized we had spent our time trying to reach the top of the mountain when the real journey was right here.
Jordan Tourism Board of North America, www.seejordan.org.
Enjoy Margie Goldsmith’s heart-warming and thoughtful reflections on Jewish, Moslem and Christian common ground as shared in a conversation with her Jordanian guide.
Margie Goldsmith is a NYC-based travel writer who has visited 111 countries on 6 continents. She is a contributing editor of Elite Traveler and writes for National Geographic Traveler, Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun, and Christian Science Monitor, among others. Berkley Press published her novel, Screw Up, and her essays appear in Travelers Tales, The Walker Within, and In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.