The hot tarmac said it all.
The desert wind blew in from the edge of town and lifted the dust into a small vortex that weaved drunkenly around the car park. The taxi drivers tried half-heartedly to coax a fare from Aqaba to Petra but at ten times the price of the bus it was never going to happen.
The price of the bus included a complimentary hour broiling in the heat, waiting for the seats to fill up. Clare sat sweltering on the back seat, fiddling with the workshy air vents and I kicked a piece of card board around the waiting buses, searching for the breeze that periodically funnelled between the passenger shed and the adjoining police headquarters.
Eventually, the bus pulled out, driven by a Jordanian Asterix gone to seed. The air-conditioning did not function despite the 2010 number plate, but the stereo did and bass heavy Arabic music punctuated the featureless desert as we left the coast and headed inland. Desert gave way to mountains before we entered Wadi Rum.
Lawrence of Arabia fought the encroaching Germans amongst the wind formed stone stacks that rise somewhat artificially from the sand. The 55 degree day time temperatures dissuaded us from the desert experience where the slightest exertion darkens the shirt. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom passed us by and as we began the final climb to Petra, the road started to wind and the signs ceased to promise camels and instead warned of rock falls; and it was no empty promise. The reinforced steel fences erected to contain the frequent cascades were battered and torn. In places, boulders the size of cars had smashed through the defences and their remnants lay strewn across the highway. Asterix spotted these from afar and plotted wide arcs across the lanes to bypass them without losing speed.
I have used the word too many times but the approach to Petra is breath-taking. The road rises and rises. The windswept uplands are arid and rocky but still, Bedouin tents dot the moonscape and herds of goats roam amongst the undulations. The only change here since the time of Moses, is the arrival of the Mitsubishi. The goats have taken to the flatbed truck and rock happily in the traffic, heads lolling curiously over the side panels at passing cars.
Petra could be an elaborate theme park. The plateau gives way suddenly to a steep sided bowl, at the bottom of which the geological fault from which Petra was constructed, sits squat and menacing. Like an Indiana Jones inspired thrill ride, it appears rugged but perfectly proportioned; wild but somehow contained. It is only in need of a hero and a villain to complete the montage. New Petra town tumbles down the scree slopes and old Petra collects at the bottom like some long forgotten landslide of antiquities. Asterix negotiated the steeply descending switch backs and our ears popped with the reducing altitude. We exchanged sweets and crisps with the hijabbed lady in the seat in front and I clutched ‘The Pot’ as it tried to slide to its doom down the central aisle.
Deposited at the Petra Gate hotel, the panoramic view over the town was immediate as was the infectious air of enthusiasm that Lea, the manageress exuded. Whoops emanated from the lounge as Phillipines equalised against Kuwait in the country’s first outing in World Cup pre-qualifiers.
‘Last year’ she cried breathlessly ‘we didn’t even have a football team’. It probably wasn’t true but somehow I believed that she believed it.
As we were to discover, Lea’s irrepressible joy was almost single-handedly responsible for Petra Gate’s pre-eminence as Jordan’s favourite hostel since 2008. It wasn’t that nothing was too much trouble; it wasn’t that she smiled even when complaining. It was that she perpetually fizzed with an excitement that was impossible to dislike and, thinking about her, I smile broadly as I am writing this.
Dumping the bags in the customary fashion, we headed out for Lea’s recommended lunch of the unpromisingly sounding Foul (pronounced fool and consisting of stewed favar beans), goat of some description and flat bread, at Cleopatra’s behind the mosque. After a brief snooze we headed to the roof top for the sunset of all sunsets when the rocky silhouette of the Petra gorge genuinely appears to be concealing an inferno to make Dante proud.
Lea only hit one bum note during our stay and that was the shrug of indifference she offered when we asked about the ‘Petra by Night’ experience. Wrong, wrong, wrong Lea – but we forgive you! Against her advice we ventured further downhill to the unprepossessing gate to Petra. For a place endowed with the status of one of the seven modern wonders of the world in 2006, and a ticket price hiked by 500% six months ago, the football terrace entrance was poor. The ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ gift shop did little to redeem the situation and combined with Lea’s lukewarm response, I was fully prepared to be disappointed.
But they do say low expectations rarely lead to disappointment.
One thousand five hundred and sixty seven candles are said to light the 2km way through the Siq and into the Treasury, each housed in a small brown paper bag which diffuses the low light perfectly. The stone walls of the canyon glowed with an aching beauty. The highly polished lozenges of stone that have paved the way for twenty three centuries, reflected the light. Alone in the half darkness, the sounds of dripping water and the calls of wild cats roaming the canyon echoed in the void that threw an envelope of darkness just a few feet beyond each candle.
With barely enough light to see the floor, we were quickly left behind by the small crowd, rushing ahead, eager to reach the Treasury first. Left alone in the canyon with only a thin slice of stars visible above our heads, the weight of the ages pressed in on us from all sides. The darkness heightened our senses as the voices ahead receded into the distance.
We started as an unseen horse whinnied close by but the magnificence of the sensory deprivation in the Siq was matched by the majesty of the Treasury. Lit with two hundred candles, the soft glow was just enough to show the outline of the columns, pediment and crowning diadem. A flute and safaa played hauntingly in the half-light. An Omar Sharif stand in intoned portentously of the Nabataean forebears who carved the city of Petra from the living rock three hundred years before the birth of Christ, only to flee after a sixth century earthquake ruptured the water supply.
Perhaps to call it a 'modern' wonder is just a little misleading; but either way - how could you shrug your shoulders at this ?