Petra's Red Rock – revisiting the legend

The walk into Aqaba was quite surrealistic with the giant billboards of a smiling King Abdullah and his son, Crown Prince Hussein, to greet us.

The famous Al Khazneh (Treasury) structure in Petra (photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
The famous Al Khazneh (Treasury) structure in Petra
(photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
On January 17, 1971, The New York Times published an article about an Israeli song called “Hasela Ha’adom” – the Red Rock. Ironically on that same day I boarded an El Al flight in Johannesburg bound for Israel ready to fulfill my Zionist dream of aliyah. I was a young 22-year-old full of romantic notions about returning to the Jewish homeland. The song was familiar to me because of my neighbors, who were staunch members of the right-wing Betar Zionist youth movement. The lyrics of the song were written in 1958 by Chaim Chefer, with the music by Yochanan Zarai and sung by Arik Lavi.
The song tells the story of the fatal attraction of the site to Israeli youngsters who, long before the peace with Jordan risked their lives to visit the place. As The New York Times article pointed out, most Israelis over 30 in 1971 would have had a very nostalgic connection to the song. Petra, the ancient Nabatean capital lies on the slope of Jabal-Al-Mada in a basin among the mountains that form the eastern flank of the Arava. The valley runs from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba in Jordan.
The story goes that in 1953 Capt. Meir Har-Zion, Israel’s paratrooper hero stole across the border with his girlfriend Rachel and got to Petra. He later wrote about his escapade to the forbidding cliffs of the Red Rock in his book Chapters of a Diary. Thus began a spate of reckless attempts by other Israeli youngsters to undertake the journey across enemy lines. The idea was to fulfill the Palmach fighters’ dream of getting to see and touch the magnificent Red Rock edifices of Petra with the cry of “next year in Petra”! Many Israelis managed to penetrate the border until the Jordanians got fed up with the carved Hebrew inscriptions left by the “invaders”. They tracked down and killed three kibbutznikim at which point the Israeli authorities took drastic action and even banned the song, “Hasela Ha’adom,” whose first verse goes:
Beyond the Edam Hills and far away, a rock, a red, red rock is said to lie; So beautiful and yet the legends say that anyone who looks at it will die. Oh, rock of evil fame,red as flame…
(English lyrics by J. Darlon)
Today reaching Petra is far less dangerous than it once was, although I must admit I was initially a little concerned about the prospect of travelling through an Arab country on an Israeli passport. With our fears and doubts assuaged, my wife and I eventually decided to join an overnight bus tour of 42 English speakers to Petra. The tour was led by veteran biblical tour guide Ezra Rosenfeld. We set out from Jerusalem at 8 a.m. one sunny Wednesday morning and made our way southwards to Eilat via Beer Sheva and the Negev desert.
As a group of predominantly observant Jews, we needed kosher meals and a place to hold the daily prayer services and so it was decided to spend the night in a hotel in Eilat. There we were briefed by Ezra’s tour coordinator about what to expect when we crossed into Jordan. Back in 2012 the Jordanian Tourism Ministry warned Israeli visitors not to wear “Jewish dress” or perform “religious rituals in public places so as to prevent an unfriendly reaction by Jordanian citizens.”
This meant that the men had to wear baseball caps rather than kippot. We were also told that taking prayer shawls and tefillin (phylacteries) into Jordan could cause problems with the customs officials, who were known to confiscate such items and so we were instructed to store everything in our overnight cases at the hotel.
The coordinator explained that we would be crossing into Jordan by foot at around 8 a.m. and that we would be transferring onto a Jordanian bus with a Jordanian driver, tour guide and an accompanying armed Jordanian policeman. Ezra also explained the mandatory rules concerning tour guides in Jordan.
“You have to use an officially registered Jordanian tour guide.” He told us and apologized for the fact that he would not be able to act as our guide once we were in Jordan.
The walk into Aqaba was quite surrealistic with the giant billboards of a smiling King Abdullah and his son, Crown Prince  Hussein, to greet us. The border control procedures and facilities in Jordan were quite primitive compared to the rather swish Israeli setup. This included the seatless toilets which raised a few eyebrows. Nevertheless we were delighted to meet our guide Ali, who was half-Muslim and half-Christian. He had lived in the former Soviet Union and later told us that his wife’s antecedents were of Jewish extraction.
Our Jordanian policeman was somewhat more introspective and kept himself to himself. We passed through passport control without incident and I received my first Jordanian border stamp in my passport. Once on the Jordanian bus, we set off on our journey passing through the resort town of Aqaba. We connected with the main highway and headed north through the Arava valley, which mirrors the Arava on the Israeli side. I was however, struck by the vastness of the desert and the very high elevation of the red mountains to the east.
It took almost two and a half hours to reach Petra. Our guide gave us a running commentary, including his narrative of the Old Testament in rather halting English. At one point we stopped to take in the views of Jabal Harun, the supposed site where Aaron, Moses’s brother was buried. Ezra was itching to intervene and apprise us of the Jewish archaeological viewpoint but he desisted and let Ali continue. We then visited a gift shop where we could buy refreshments, visit the restrooms, acquire souvenirs and admire the stunning views from 4,000 feet above sea level. We had been advised and almost coached by Ali to bargain with all vendors.
“It’s what they expect,” he told us. “You must not give them the first price they ask for.”
The local people in the gift shop were polite and welcoming. The store was stocked with typical handcrafted Bedouin items, including pottery, jewelry, handmade furniture and clothing. I could not help observing how fifty years ago when I first arrived in Israel as a young student, a “must have” item of clothing was a black and white or white and red keffiyeh to be worn as a scarf. Recent history, Yasser Arafat and the PLO have put paid to all that and most Jews, whether Israeli or from the Diaspora, would not be seen wearing one of these garments today!
All the while I was wondering what the locals thought of us. Did they see us as the enemy or were they taken in by our rather feeble attempts to disguise our origins? I decided that it was neither of the two – that they simply wanted to sell their wares and earn some money.
We finally arrived at our destination and began the steep descent by bus into the town of Petra. Almost immediately, the surroundings were transformed from the eerily quiet desert kingdom to a bustling tourist hub crammed with hotels and restaurants. There were cars, taxis and buses everywhere, all offloading tourists and day trippers. Once again Ali warned us about the pedlars.
“Don’t give money to the Bedouin pedlar children,” he told us. “The Jordanian government is trying to persuade them to go to school. By buying their wares you are only encouraging them to play truant.”
We soon found ourselves following Ali towards the impressive main entrance of the site.
The Petra Archaeological Park covers an area of 264 dunams (264,000 square meters) within Wadi Musa. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Entrance to the site costs 90 Jordanian dinars, which is roughly $130 per person. Upon leaving the super modern Visitors Center, one is instantly transported into a world that could easily be mistaken for a Hollywood film set, where you expect to see Indiana Jones or Lawrence of Arabia whizzing by on horseback. What makes one realize that the site is real and not a film set is the sheer size and scale of the place in all its jaw-dropping magnificence.
There are three ways of getting down to the famous carved rock face structure known as the Treasury or Al Khazneh. One possibility is to walk, or for $40 (one way or return) you can take a horse-drawn carriage or spend $15 sharing a horse with a Bedouin rider! Each step through the cavernous gorge yields more spectacular views. The towering red rock formations spiral heavenwards with patches of blue sky and sunlight breaking through. Even in October and despite our headgear, the heat was intense and we had to keep drinking from our water bottles. Accompanied by the clatter of horses’ hooves, most of us decided to walk the 1.2 kilometers through the narrow canyon.
Carriages and horses with their colorfully clad riders wearing traditional Bedouin dress kept passing us in both directions as they ferried passengers. The narrow walkway eventually opened up into a huge circular space. The climax of the entire experience was coming face to face with the carved façade of the 2,000 year-old Treasury.
No photograph or video could do justice to the actual experience of being there. The immensity of the rocky cliffs and the architectural wonders that have been created there are astonishing. Little wonder then that thousands of tourists from all over the world are drawn to this evocative and mysterious place, where the light reflects the different shades of red. I kept thinking of the song and the young Israelis who back in the 1950s risked life and limb to get a glimpse of it.
There are several references to the site in ancient Jewish literature beginning with the Book of Kings. The name Petra was a translation of the Hebrew word “sela,” meaning rock and the Christian name Peter is also derived from this. Later sources also refer to the place as Rekem, a derivation of the Nabatean name Raqmu. In 1961, Yigael Yadin discovered a bundle of 35 papyrus scrolls on the west coast of the Dead Sea. The cache turned out to be the valuable personal documents of a Jewish woman named Babatha, who lived and died in the second century CE. At the time of Babatha’s birth in Maoza, the area was part of the Nabatean kingdom. She was an only child and further research uncovered amazing facts, including legal documents showing that Babatha owned property in both Petra and Ein Gedi. When Babatha was born around 104 CE, Maoza was part of the Nabatean kingdom.
The Nabateans were Semites of Arab stock, who spoke Nabatean Aramaic. Petra was their capital. In the year 106 CE, the Roman emperor Trajan overran the Nabateans and made their land a Roman province, the Provincia Arabia. All this history is what makes Petra a “must-see” experience. One day does not do justice to the site, which includes both Roman and Byzantine excavations. Due to time limitations, heat and fatigue, we confined our visit to the Treasury and the Roman Theater.
After a grueling but fascinating day, we made our way back to Aqaba. The bus driver found us a place to stop.
The menfolk discreetly moved behind the bus and made up a minyan for the afternoon prayer service. By the time we reached the border crossing, darkness had fallen. Once again we stood in line waiting to be stamped out of Jordan by the surly border guards.
As we walked across the short strip of “no-man’s land,” the lights of Eilat beckoned. Soon we were back in Israel where we were warmly welcomed by the Israeli border guards, the biometric passport machines and the prospect of a delicious meal at the hotel, mitigating the somewhat daunting prospect of the five-hour bus journey to Jerusalem.