In 1812 the Swiss traveller and orientalist Jean Louis Burckhardt was making his way from Damascus to Cairo dressed as a Muslim sheikh from India. In the area of Wadi Musa, in what is now Jordan, he overheard locals talking about an ancient city locked away behind an impenetrable mountain. He was dying to see it, but had to avoid looking suspicious: a true Muslim would consider such ruins to be the work of infidels and therefore uninteresting.
He told his guide he wanted to sacrifice a goat on Jebel Haroun, the biblical Mt. Hor where Moses’s brother Aaron was buried during the exodus from Egypt. His guide was suspicious but agreed to take him, leading him down a narrow gorge, the Siq, only to emerge at the foot of an ornate façade carved out of the sandstone cliff – the Treasury.
Burckhardt could hardly contain his excitement. He was almost sure that he had found the ruins of Petra, the capital of the once-great Nabataean civilisation that had collapsed toward the end of the 1st century AD. The city had been deserted and gradually forgotten until Burckhardt unveiled it to the world.
Having read Burckhardt’s story we are eager to see this magical place for ourselves. We are up at the crack of dawn and we are the first visitors of the day to enter the Siq at 6am. Being here all on our own is an amazing experience – we feel a bit like Burckhardt himself! We want to go further though, get off the beaten track and reach the Monastery, a shrine hidden away high up in the mountains on the other side of the site.
What a climb! Silence, no signs, nothing, just us, huge rocks, buildings in rocks, some temple ruins, steps, canyons and the 360-degree views… Every so often we meet a lone camel or a donkey, but that’s about it.
At times we are not sure we are heading in the right direction, but we carry on. The higher we get, the more spectacular the views. Looking back is incredible: we are crossing whole canyons.
We meet a Bedouin woman who says we are about halfway up. We hope she is kidding, but soon find she isn’t. We keep on climbing until we reach a point where the path ends. We look up and see the urn that rises on top of the Monastery peeking out from behind a rock – nearly there! We carve out a path between the rocks that still separate us from the shrine: down a bit, a sharp right – we are almost running to cover the last metres.
And then there it is – unbelievable! A 50-metre-tall golden-red sandstone facade, carved from the rock wall. There is a makeshift Bedouin café in a cave across from the Monastery where we sit down. The sun is slowly creeping up in the sky and illuminating the monastery inch by inch – it is truly a magical atmosphere. Imagine the people who lived and worshipped here thousands of years ago… it is really awe-inspiring.
The teashop owner pours us a refill as we continue to gaze and daydream. He smiles and acknowledges: “Petra is the most beautiful place in the world. It is not like heaven, it is more than that!” But then again, he never has left Petra in his life…