Amman is a different kind of place. Though it is the capital of Jordan, it’s not always the metropolis that many may think. It’s located in a very hilly region where only the hardiest get by. Even the ploughed hillsides are dominated by submerged rocks, while other hillsides are pure rock and nothing else. The city itself is a contrast of old and new, rural and urban. It boasts all the amenities you’d expect to find, but at the same time is home to tents in the centre of small farm-like enclosures that host sheep or camels, and the occasional donkey. The sprawl of Amman is wide thanks to extensive and mostly ongoing construction work on the outskirts, and there are relatively few mosques compared to other cities in the region.
The drive to Petra takes you through different and varying terrain, painting a picture of this ages-old land. At the turn off to Madaba, there is the first evidence of slightly more arable land, which has deeper brown soil and greenhouses in the distance. This view doesn’t last long however; the further out of Amman, the sparser the vegetation becomes and the more obvious the clearing of the land for further construction and mining development. The one constant, of course, is the face of the King watching over your journey along the way. Nothing prepares you for Petra. It's unlike any other place and no pictures can do justice to the sights you'll behold.
Nothing prepares you for Petra. It's unlike any other place and no pictures can do justice to the sights you'll behold.
With the switch from south to west, closer to Petra, the landscape changes again – and again! – alternating between stony and sandy patches of land. It’s much flatter here, which offers up more distant and sometimes surreal views of the country, while most shrubs that grow do so close to the road. The sand is a yellowish-golden and you truly feel like you’re nowhere else. Just before Petra, visitors come upon a small township that is home to pines and grasses unlike any seen on the way, despite little evidence of rainfall. According to the driver, it had snowed two days earlier. Snow in the desert? Now THAT was truly different!
You know immediately that you’re nearing Petra. The roads begin to wind up through the mountains to great heights before sinking down into the ancient city. My driver stopped before we arrived and encouraged me to take pictures of the breathtaking view, but being naïve of desert travel in the Middle East, I never imagined it would be as cold as it was. Dry air, seemingly sub-zero temperatures and a biting wind await in winter, so travellers beware; forewarned is forearmed! I managed to snap a few memorable shots before getting back into the comfort of the car and making our way on to the site.
Nothing prepares you for Petra. It’s unlike any other place, and no pictures that you see online or in friends’ albums can do justice to the sights that you’ll behold. Once you make your way past the usual gaggle of locals peddling overpriced souvenirs and the occasional vendor of ‘antique’ coins, you descend into the cavernous corridor of sheer rock. The beauty of the rocks themselves is amazing; they are a variety of formations with layers of colour that compete with hazy sunsets into golden desert sands, with the occasional tree or shrub forcing its way out of a crack or two. But this only tells half the story.
From the perspective of Greek architecture, the structures are huge and grandiose, while from the Roman viewpoint, they enclose a vast expanse. Each twist and turn through the rock-walled paths compounds the Petra ‘wow factor’, as each new view seemingly tops the one before. The sounds are special, too; people stand aside when the clip-clopping sound of an approaching horse and carriage is heard, but the echo through the natural stone hallway is deceiving and the wait for the beast of burden to appear can take much longer than you expect.
Eventually you reach Al-Khazneh or the Treasury, the world renowned symbol of Petra and Jordan. It is an incredible, jaw-dropping moment that is shared by all who experience it. I personally felt dwarfed and insignificant standing in front of such ancient magnificence. Two ‘guards’ dressed in classic costumes protect the entrance to the Al-Khazneh, as they would have thousands of years ago. It also provides a photo op for visitors who want to take pictures of this great historic construction and show an accurate scale of its impressive size.
There is much more to this phenomenal site than the Treasury, and though you may be tempted to spend your day enjoying this breathtaking building, do get around to see and enjoy the rest. If you’re tired, cold or simply weary of feet, it’s not hard to find a local offering a ‘taxi’ ride around to the further reaches of the site. There are no meters on these taxis, or motors for that matter: you’re usually hitching a ride on a camel or a donkey – sometimes with a cart – that meanders its way through the terrain. Other spots on the site include a museum, the Monastery, the Hadrien Gate, numerous impressive tombs and several other dwellings that were carved out of the rock millennia ago.
Like most places as famous and as drawing as Petra, the souvenir hawkers and their kitschy wares can get a bit annoying, both for their brazen pushiness and their almost-criminal prices, but getting past them – both physically and mentally – is well worth the effort. Since being ‘discovered’ by the western world in the early 1800s and perhaps even more so since becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the mid-1980s, Petra has drawn millions of visitors to its extraordinary site. And the reason is clear: it truly is a different kind of place.