Thursday 3 January 2013

In Petra, with a donkey


Image result for king hussein airport rabin cigarette

I did no research or planning, got to the bus stop at Nazareth at 8.00 and have just arrived at Petra now at five as it is about to get dark. With a taxi from Amman. I negotiated a price for the taxi of JD 150 coming today returning tomorrow night to Amman (leaving Petra after sunset) thinking the JD was US $0.60 when in fact the US dollar is JD 0.60, but it is still a very good price in my opinion.

I found this on the net:

Taxi fare from downtown Amman to Petra is around 80 JD.

So I am paying almost the going rate - which is a fraction of what it would cost in Israel. Plus I have the driver, Ali, for over 32 hours. Not a bad deal. The bus costs only JD 19 return but I had missed the buses for today.

Put up in the Cleopetra (thus spelt) Hotel, a comfortable place that costs JD 27 or somewhat over $40. The plump, kindly Filipino manageress is the only Christian in the little town and is sending money home to her mum and dad. Muslim men, she says, think women are below men and the Arab Christians think the same. She will turn up her nose at them and marry a Christian in some other country. She spent Christmas in Manila where there is a Catholic church.

I knew nothing whatsoever about Petra and told myself to mug up before bed but my Blue Guide and its lists of monuments and kings and unfamiliar deities completely defeated me. How much cleverer I was at eleven.

Woken an hour early because, it turns out, Jordan gave the world three days notice this autumn that she would stay on summer time all through the winter. This is national sovereignty, lest we forget. How recently we in my country could have done the same  but we English are less spontaneous. (In fact we did, one year, while I was at school, beofre the last Ice Age.) It reminds me though of the USSR, which fell 4 hours behind GMT for forty years because one autumn in Stalin's time no-one gave the order to put the clocks back an hour.


Nine and Ali the driver and i reach the entrance to the remains. My entrance ticket costs me JL 50 and Ali JL 1 because I am a foreigner. it is bitterly cold and i regret very much not having a coat. jacket and pullover are not enough but then the beauty of the Siq gorge makes me forget the cold, then the famous Treasury, which you have seen in pictures and then the sun came out.

The books say you need two or three days. Ali thinks three hours is enough. I gave Petra six and a half hours and do not feel I merely skimmed it, though I should certainly have preferred another day (it was impossible, if i am to have one last free day in Jerusalem). I took a donkey and my fear of heights made this seem like a very bad idea but then my sloth and stinginess persuaded me to stay on my mule. I was it seems committed to pay the JL 25 in any case and 900 steps upward seemed too many. It was fun, though not as much fun as it looked to observers. Petra feels exactly like a nineteenth-century lithograph and on a donkey you enter the lithograph. I wore my Ede and Ravenscroft suit jacket, a pair of khaki slacks and a Lewin shirt and was a reasonable simulacrum of the milord anglais, though I had deliberately abandoned my black umbrella (a cheap and shiny Nazarene one) in Jerusalem.

The Jordanians are much less pushy and practice the soft not hard sell, unlike Arabs in Israel. The man who provided my donkey ride told me he grew up in a cave and his mother still lived in one. The old lady gave me tea en route but did not insist on attempting to sell her handmade jewellery. She and her son both smoked Western cigarettes.

Petra really is quite astonishing and since you only see places for the first time once I advise everyone to give it two whole days, especially considering how remote it is and how much the admission ticket costs. The famous treasury is only one of dozens of tombs equally imposing. I strongly advise mounting a donkey too.

Why did Petra, which was a bishopric in Byzantine times and still existed in crusader times completely disappear and be forgotten until discovered by Burckhardt in 1812? Many other cities died or went tints severe decline under Muslim rule. This article suggests a possible combination of causes though I have no idea whether the theory would fit the specifics of Petra.

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