Indiana Jones wouldn’t be caught dead on this thing. My life is in the hands of a seven year old boy. This animal is way too small for me. I’m in Petra, Jordan and these are the thoughts running through my mind as I’m sitting on the back of the smallest donkey I’ve ever seen. The stirrups are sized to fit the boy, so my legs dangle clumsily at the animal’s side and I can’t find my balance. I’m trying to secure my Nikon as the donkey begins a swaying descent down a dry ravine covered in smooth, round river rocks. Suddenly the inevitable happens: the donkey zigs, I zag, and next thing I know I’m on my ass instead of on my donkey. I’m a little banged up, but nothing is bruised so badly as my pride. Clearly I’m no Indiana Jones.
Petra, the lost city of the ancient Nabatean people, is enormous: including hiking trails that run up mountains and into canyons, Petra covers nearly 60 square kilometers. Some of the hikes are grueling, yet all but one of the most popular attractions can be reached on flat trails – some paved by Romans, others covered in sand. Still, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and I have only one day to do it – thus the decision to have the donkey take me to the top of the Monastery at the far end of the park. Big mistake.
Besides donkeys, the biggest hazard in the park are the vendors. Selling everything from trinkets to guided tours to donkey rides, these vendors are like buzzards. They’re everywhere, and they’re very aggressive. When I finally get rid of one, another is right on his tail. They’re harmless, but they’re a hassle, especially since I have no time to waste.
My goal is at the far end of Petra: Al Deir, the Monastery, but there are plenty of stunning distractions before I get there. The first is the kilometer-long narrow canyon I walk through, which leads to El Khasneh, the Treasury building. The Treasury, which is actually a king’s tomb and stands 40 meters high, is entirely carved out of the sandstone mountain. It’s where Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed in 1989. Its ornate decorations and well-preserved columns make it the most famous building in Petra.
Petra is located between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea and at an altitude of about 1500 meters, the air is pleasantly cool, even in the middle of a September day. At its height during the first century AD, Petra was an important trading center and stopping point on the Silk Road, offering opportunities to trade incense from Arabia for spices from India and silks from China. Petra is half-built, half-carved into the rock, and is surrounded by mountains riddled with passages and gorges. It gets its nickname “Rose City” from the red sandstone prominent in the landscape. A series of earthquakes prompted the eventual abandonment of the city.
I pass the stunning ruins of the Great Temple, although historians believe that rather than a temple, this building was probably used as the seat of the Nabataean government.
Finally it’s time to start up the trail to the Monastery, and because I’m several hours behind schedule I agree to my short-lived donkey ride. After my little mishap I decide that an hour’s walk up 900 steps doesn’t sound too bad after all, and I huff and puff my way up the mountain. Along the way I meet a sweet British couple living in Amman, Jordan, and we leapfrog each other the rest of the way up the trail, joking about the shape we’re in and comparing step counts (you’d think counting stairs would be easy, but our tallies never match).
Although the trail sounds daunting, it’s really not bad at all. There’s only one steep spot at the very end, otherwise it’s a fairly gentle climb. And the reward at the end makes it all worth it.
From the top you can see forever – endless views of mountainous desert so untouched you can practically see ancient Bedouins living in the caves, and camel caravans slowly making their way across the harsh terrain. On the other side is the Monastery itself. Although not as ornately decorated as the Treasury building, it’s just as impressive. The Monastery is carved out of the mountain and at over 50 meters high it dwarfs everything else in Petra. As with all things in Petra, the Monastery’s name is misleading. Historians believe the building was originally used as a tomb for a leader and may eventually have been used as a religious building.
Things to know about Petra:
- Petra deserves more than just one day to see it properly.
- A one day ticket costs 50 dinar ($75 US); two days costs 55 dinar and three days is 60 dinar.
- Don’t ride the donkeys – not just because of my little mishap, but what I didn’t know until later is that the donkeys’ hooves accelerate erosion of the already fragile trail.
- You can hire a guide at the entrance or within the park. A good guide can add entertaining stories and important information to your visit.
- You can find more information about Petra here at Jordan’s tourism site