Rosy views

They're letting just about anyone into Petra these days.

Petra treasury 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Petra treasury 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Literally pinching myself, I entered the legendary siq gorge and began the slow dreamy descent to Petra. Suddenly a breeze wafting through the angelic rose-lit hills of the ancient Nabatean city brought the earthly smells of horse dung mingled with the sweat of thousands of tourists - a much more efficient reality check than a pinch. Much like my first trip to New York as a 14-year-old Midwestern girl, everything seemed a little too familiar, a little too surreally deja-vu-ish for this, my virgin voyage to Jordan. "Are we really here?" I asked my patient husband once again. Since I am seven months pregnant, have three kids under age five and work full time, my reality checks, as melodramatic as they sound, are not entirely out of place. But if I can explore Petra, just about anyone can. For the past several years my husband has been working on his Sisyphean doctorate. This summer, as the looming deadline approached, his extremely generous aunt and uncle in Haifa (may their names long be praised!) offered a true reward: to watch the kids while we took a quick trip to Petra. So PhD submitted, MD approval for me (providing I was my own beast of burden and didn't ride on anything with four legs), travel insurance obtained and kids provided for, we were off for two nights, kid-free. Although I was feeling footloose and fancy free, we decided to play it safe and made Eilat our base for the one-day excursion. Having always had great experiences with Isrotel, I looked to the chain's Red Sea Sports Club, which my parents have used in the past for diving (it's the only PADI outlet there). A quick Internet check showed the club offers a variety of jeep tours in the Negev and Sinai, and also provides one- or two-day tours to Jordan. A couple of painless phone calls and e-mails later, and the 12-hour day tour was booked. We were picked up at 6:45 a.m. from our hotel on a recent Friday morning by a feisty older British gentleman named Dave who has worked with the outfit for decades. With us were several Russian tourists who were joining a larger Russian-speaking tour, one of dozens we later encountered. Dave entertained us with witticisms as we waited in the ever-growing queue, alternately sitting on the ground and standing, ahead of the 8 a.m. border opening. (Tip: during the week the border opens at 6 a.m.) The Jordanian guards, lazily smoking cigarette after cigarette, finally opened the gates and the Israeli stampede swept us to the no-man's land between the two countries. There is something very thrilling in crossing a border by foot - especially in this part of the world - and we duly photographed each other with "Welcome to Jordan" as a backdrop. Alas, it was a case of "hurry up and wait" and we were stuck on the Jordanian side for more than an hour (without our passports as the tour company had collected them) while our English-speaking tour slowly assembled. But two hours and a scenic tour of "cosmopolitan" Aqaba ("On your right, a Kentucky Fried Chicken; on your left, McDonald's; straight ahead, the Safeway supermarket") later, we were in Petra! REARED ON the famous "Hasela Ha'adom" anthem about intrepid youth who risked every peril to reach Petra's red rocks, my Israeli husband scoffed at what seems at first glance a Jordanian Disney World. Paved paths, trinket stands selling anything from Indiana Jones hats to keffiyehs, and soft drink vendors line the entrance. I told him he's still my hero and we began the descent with our group (remembering that at the end of the tour we must defeat gravity and what goes down, must go up). Our guide, Riyadh, a Christian Jordanian who began leading tours in 1995 after teaching children English for many decades, led the way, holding aloft a collapsible antenna with a red plastic bag at the tip. Though well past normal retirement age, he was by no means the oldest of the group: Ours was a motley collection of Israelis and Irishmen in their early 20s to late 30s, an elderly Bulgarian and his middle-aged daughter and an assortment of Americans, the majority of whom were in their late 60s through 80s. Petra is truly accessible for all. The most elderly of our group chose to ride down in a carriage and walked very little while his 80-year-old girlfriend did manage most of it by foot. Others used the horses, donkeys and camels as conveyance. We hoofed it. Riyadh was like a well-worn record and kept up a continuous stream of interesting facts that I dipped in and out of while taking in the Flintstones-like surroundings on our way to the famous narrow gorge, the siq. According to our guide, Petra was inhabited by Beduin and nearby Wadi Musa villagers until the 1980s when King Hussein decided it should be developed for tourism. In 1985 it was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site and just last year it was ranked No. 2 in the new seven-wonders-of-the-world list. Today a few Beduin still use some tombs as stables. Petra is Greek for rock, but "rekem" is another ancient name that appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Greek literature for the Nabatean capital, founded in the sixth century BCE. According to Riyadh, at its peak some 2,000 years ago, more than 30,000 inhabitants dwelt at this trade crossroads for silk, spice and other goods, the same number of Wadi Musa villagers today. Petra, like the rest of the region, was conquered several times, including a relatively short Roman period which is still widely in evidence today. The secret to the Nabateans' success was water control and the ability to divert the flash floods that threatened the town's destruction every winter. All along the long descent you can still see remnants of an aqueduct, which was used both by the Nabateans and their various conquerors. Although the site deteriorated following earthquakes and neglect, it was still known to the outside world well into the medieval period when Crusaders built a fort there only to quickly withdraw, the last Westerners to see the site for centuries. It wasn't until 1812 that it was famously rediscovered by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt and later documented by 19th-century Holy Land painter David Roberts. There are masses of people visiting today and at times we felt we were back at Paul McCartney's Tel Aviv show, surrounded by smoking Israelis chattering in Hebrew and singing, instead of Beatles' tunes, "Hasela Ha'adom." Russian-speakers, Europeans and Arabic-speakers also have strong representations, often with babies on their backs or even in strollers. Upon leaving the gorge, we entered the Treasury (famously used in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and its courtyard. After feasting our eyes on the magnificent building, which, like all the other structures was carved from the top down out of the cliff, we turned the corner and were even more blown away by the scope of the rest of the site. Roman roads and columns, a theater, monastery and many other hand-carved tombs and temples are all found on the roadway. It is the upper slope, however, that gave me a fresh thrill: building after carved building, all in a row; a true city in stone overlooking a valley, high in the hills, fortified and serenely beautiful. Only one-twentieth of Petra has been excavated and our day trip was too short to see even that. After having merely tasted from the ruddy city before our long climb back to modernity, I know we'll be back. But next time we'll share it with the kids. The writer was a guest of the Red Sea Sports Club.