My travel motto lately is: Start with low expectations; high expectations just ruin things. I thought Petra would be the highlight of our trip. I’ve read so many descriptions that try to prepare you by saying nothing can prepare you for its magnificence. I imagined my kids in awe of the impossibly massive and mysterious city carved into rock. Imagine seeing that as a kid! I was giddy with excitement. But more on that later.
We left Amman and made a few stops along the way en route to Petra. We went to Mount Nebo, where it is said that Moses saw the Promised Land, which God had forbidden him to enter. Jews and Christians believe when he died he was buried here, but Muslims (who view him as a prophet) believe he was buried in a tomb across the river.
Sign from viewing platform. We could easily see the Dead Sea. Jerusalem is visible on a clear day.
Modern sculpture of a serpentine cross that has become a symbol of Mount Nebo. Inspired by Jesus’ words in John 3: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
Old mosaics in the church from around 530
After Mount Nebo, we stopped at St. George’s church, a Greek orthodox church that houses the fragments of a famous mosaic that depicts a map of the region, probably created between 542 and 570. It originally was comprised of over 2 million pieces.
Interior of St. George’s Church in Madaba
Then we stopped at a touristy but fascinating shop that displays some of the local crafts. Artists were busy creating some pretty pieces in the workshop.
The Tree of Life was a popular motif displayed in the mosaics. I really liked this simple one.
I was so excited to actually take a picture of a woman in the region and was encouraged by her warm smile. (have you noticed how there are never pictures of women on the blog, unless it’s taken from the back? I’m too shy to ask.) Unfortunately I have a special talent for taking blurry portraits when it’s one I really like.
Look at that detail! Amazing!
The kids were amazed by this man and could have watched him all afternoon. It was amazing how with a simple change in hand position, the pot immediately changed from this shape to the one in the next photo.
We set off to Petra after this stop. I’m a low maintenance kind of gal, so I kept an open mind about our bare-bones hotel when we first checked in. I don’t require much but I do like a clean bathroom. It didn’t look especially dirty, but it was smelly, which convinced me it was in fact very dirty so I tried to keep everyone from touching anything. The people who ran the hotel were very nice, offering us tea after coming in from a long walk one evening, so criticizing them seems ungrateful. Instead, I offer a piece of advice to any and all hotels: please invest in fitted sheets. No, a flat sheet simply won’t do when trying to cover a mattress that hundreds of people sleep on. One that stays in place is mandatory; one that creeps up and exposes that well-used mattress underneath with any slightest movement is not acceptable. Yuck! The thought still sends shivers down my spine. Oh well, we wouldn’t be spending much time in the hotel, right?
Our visit to the site was challenging for reasons I didn’t expect. I thought the baby would give us the most problems, but with kids you never know. First, my son had an allergic reaction to the horse he was riding which necessitated a trip back to the hotel for a shower and medicine, and then a long walk back to meet up with the rest of the crew who was waiting on us. A lot of unproductive walking plus sleep-inducing medicine is not a good combination for a rigorous day of sight-seeing. Second, the guide, who I didn’t even know we’d have, talked and talked and talked more. It was the type of jam-packed commentary that causes eyes to glaze over and hearing to fade. We politely hinted and then outright suggested that we speed up a little because the children were losing steam (to put it politely), yet no detail was spared in his long lecture about the rocks. I kept thinking the siq (that famous entrance of the façade peeking through the crack of rocks) must be right around the corner … surely it’s right around that bend…. It wasn’t.
By the time we got to the treasury which is essentially the entrance, the beginning, the kids were finished. Yes, done for the day. The 45 minute walk that took at least 2 1/2 hours thanks to our guide undoubtedly felt like all day to the kids. At that moment, the sun beat down with unforgiving determination while the return walk loomed over us. They’re not easily fooled, these little ones. They were understandably exhausted, and if we continued further, it meant a longer walk back. They could not be convinced to continue, even just a bit. Our very informative guide failed to mention there was a little café just around the corner, complete with fruit, drinks and most importantly, shade. So we set off back to the entrance. I trailed behind trying to snap a few pictures, feeling like a terrible wife and mother as my husband carried the little one on his back, and at times one of the boys on his shoulders at the same time, while the other son literally limped. The midday heat was an unwelcome companion on the hike, causing us to desperately scan the path for the next shaded patch of relief.
Obviously, the experience was disappointing, mostly because I had envisioned the experience quite differently. Instead of pondering the achievements of ancient civilizations and admiring multicolored geological formations, we’d spend the afternoon in our dingy, stinky hotel room recuperating. Sigh. Despite all of this, there is no denying the beauty and impressive ingenuity on display at every turn. Petra really is spectacular.
That evening was redeeming. We took a long, leisurely walk around the town. We stopped for juice and people-watched, and then we ate a lovely meal. One of the waiters offered the children a lollipop but realized he only had two. He ran off down the street to buy a third before I could protest. I thought that was so sweet! We made it back to our hotel and had tea in the lobby with a group of French women while the kids played hide-and-seek. We finally went to sleep before leaving for the Dead Sea the next day. Here are some pictures from our visit.
The fam with the guide. They look like one big happy family, don’t they? Appearances can be deceiving…
One of the cool things the guide pointed out – this rock that looks like a fish. The next photo is the same rock viewed from the front, and it looks like an elephant.
I loved the stripes here. The green light is the guide pointing something out. Of course I was zoning out most of the time, but maybe this is where he was showing us the cameras installed to monitor any shifts in the rocks.
There it is – finally! Despite leaving at 7 am, we arrived around noon, so unfortunately we didn’t see it in the early, forgiving morning light.
the camel guys at the treasury
another camel profile to add to my collection
Another blurry portrait – argh! I had heard that there can be a lot of pressure to buy things at Petra. I didn’t find that at all. In our experience, if you told someone no, they did not persist. This little girl was selling postcards but didn’t ask us to buy any. We shared some snacks with her, and she offered her postcards in return. I thought that was endearing.
Fun facts about Petra
The city was the capital for the Nabateans more than 2,000 years ago, serving as an important center for trade. It was later absorbed into the Roman Empire. The Nabateans created an innovative water management system that allowed them to settle in such a dry climate.
The site was largely unknown to the much of the world until a 27-year-old Swiss explorer disguised himself as a Bedouin and rediscovered the site in 1812.
The facade of the treasury is in remarkably good condition, but bullet holes are visible from when Bedouins shot at it, hoping to discover treasures that were rumored to exist inside.
Aside from what is pictured in the post, the site features tombs, temples, buildings, arched gateways and colonnaded streets that were carved from the beautiful sandstone. Despite all of this, it is estimated that 85% of the site has not been excavated.
Featured in Smithsonian Magazine as one of the “28 Places to See Before you Die.” Named as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and is designated as a World Heritage Site.
President Obama toured Petra in March 2013.
For more info on Petra, click here and here.
For more info on Mount Nebo, click here.
** Thanks to wikipedia and my travel book The Rough Guide for some of the factual information in this post.