It was 1991 and the world had just seen the end of the first Gulf War and the political maps of the globe was being rewritten,the 1980’s were now a distant memory and the future and the unknown beckoned.I was 20 years of age and had been fully enjoying one of the best periods that teenagers have,that wonderful time between working in any meaningful career and being tied down by any commitments and with just enough cash in your pocket to set off on shoestring expeditions to wherever caught your eye on the world map.I had a few years previously set off on a backpacking trip to Morocco that had taken me traveling by train and rickety bus across Europe and into the African continent by ferry and on a circular route that took me to cities with fabled and exotic names, Fez,Ouarzazate,Tangiers,Marrakech.
The trip took me into the Sahara on the back of a camel and gave me many great experiences of world travel along the way.
I was bitten by wanderlust and there was no way of stopping me.It was simply a matter of putting together a small amount of money and finding another destination worthy of heading off to,the more exotic the better and if it was harder to get to then even more so.
On this occasion I had set my target on Petra the legendary rose red city half as old as time.Such a fantastic place certainly fired up the imagination. I had spent the last few weeks traveling down the Nile from Cairo by train and had taken in many of the well trodden sights along the way.The Pyramids,Luxor and Abu Simbel among a few.
I had crossed the Sinai on a local bus and found myself at the coast port of Nuweiba.I had bought a ticket for passage to the Jordanian port of Aqaba on board a ferry full of migrational workers and was now heading towards my destination.On board I had been chatting with a few fellow Europeans,a German backpacker and a travelling artist who had more than a passing resemblance to the great Dutch artist Rembrandt.
The two were enthusiastically discussing their journey and Rembrandt was showing his remarkable sketches,collected over several weeks while traveling leisurely down the Nile.Rembrandt(as I will refer to him from now on) had been sketching both the locals and the remarkable Egyptian monuments along the way and had gathered a stunning portfolio of work.We were all and very much traveling on a shoestring and after several hours the ships horn announced our arrival at the port of Aqaba and we all joined the immigration line for entry to Jordan.After getting our visa stamped (and unbeknown to me our Egyptian Visa Cancelled) our German colleague made it clear he was going to spend the week in Aqaba and Rembrandt was heading to Petra like myself so we set off to find a guest house and split the costs.
Aqaba was a lively town,the evening was spent telling tales of our journeys and chatting with the friendly locals in french style cafe’s usually with the odd picture of Saddam Hussein on the wall.One shop owner had a well practiced tale to tell of his time working with Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif when they had filmed Lawrence of Arabia at the nearby Wadi Rum.I spent that night keeping a sharp eye on a mosquito on the roof and listening to the cockroaches clicking under the bed,comforted in the knowledge that the previous night in Nuweiba it had been 20 cockroaches living in my shower pan clicking a concerto all night and now it was only the one,luck me!
The next day we ate a french style breakfast of bread and cheese and tracked down a minibus driver who agreed to take us the Petra.At this time the were very few tourists in Aqaba as it was just after the Gulf War and there was still the climate of fear affecting the tourist industry.The locals were very glad for any trade they could drum up and we had the rickety old minibus to ourselves for a half decent barter. Rumbling into Petra late that evening after nightfall we found a small guest house with room and settled in for the evening.There was time for exploring in the morning.And even better no Cockroaches. With the abrupt awakening of soaring desert temperatures and a cockerel crowing next door I ate breakfast quickly and wandered outside.The excitement to view this fabled destination was at a peak.Men in colourful traditional garb were herding horses up and down in the small village road outside and it was very clear that this wasn’t going to be another tourist trap experience like Egypt where you have to fight off an army hustlers the moment you stagger out of your hotel.Here everyone was very laid back and seemed unbothered that you were a westerner.If they had something to sell you the Bedouin would ask you several times and let you be.It was going to be a great few days after several weeks in the land of the Pharaoh and not a papyrus scroll in sight!
It is no surprise that nobody had known the way to this legendary Nabatean city until it was found by a 27-year-old Swiss explorer called Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Burckhardt’s great ambition was to discover the source of the River Niger. In England in 1809 he secured the backing of the Royal Society for a journey across the Sahara from Cairo. Burckhardt went to Cambridge to start learning Arabic so that he could pass himself off as a Muslim. On his way east, in Malta, he heard of a Dr Seetzen, who had set out from Egypt into Arabia in search of the lost city of Petra, but had been murdered and took up the challenge himself, only this time disguised as a local.While on his way south from Nazareth to Cairo,along with a group of traders and some sheep and goats.Local people were chatting about ruins in a narrow mountain valley a short distance off the road that passed through the desert.It was near the supposed tomb of Aaron the brother of Moses.Burckhardt disguised as an Arab explained that he wanted to make a sacrifice of a goat to Aaron and persuaded a local guide to take him to the ruins.On arrival he was awestruck at what he saw,but left in a hurry heading for Cairo fearing that his true identity may be discovered and that he would meet the same fate as Dr Seetzen. Every now and then as we headed down the desert track a tribal horseman would ride past us bidding us “Salaam!” as they rode past.We marvelled at the bizarre rock formations and the Obelisk Tomb as we passed it on our left.It was sensory overload and we most certainly were out of our comfort zone toto!
Looking around, and scanning the horizon the landscape was unlike any I had seen before,it was almost like the setting from a fantasy of science fiction epic.Vast rolling hills of epic proportions in the distance with a stunning spread of colours.I wouldn’t have been surprised if characters from Star Wars had pottered around in front of me,such was the alienation of the spectacle in front of me.Indeed Petra was chosen as the main film set in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and one can see why. Wandering down a dusty path we made our way down into the area that was originally the Grand Caravan trail into the city known as the Siq, a narrow canyon approximately 3/4 of a mile long that leads the traveller into the heart of the city of Petra.As we approached the Siq entrance, we notice an ancient dam on the left that had protected the ancient city from flash floods and enabled it to prosper.The Nabateans were masters of water control and this is what made the city work.The rock walls that lead this canyon into the city are literally scored with small water channels and cisterns that would have provided free flowing water here in the desert. Walking down this cobble stoned road over 2000 years old is one of those moments in life to relish.The excitement builds as the canyon winds and twists and slowly narrows and you notice carved offering alcoves to ancient Gods along the trail.
And then you see it…..!
Slowly but surely the light in the distance changes and the stunning facades of one of the most remarkable buildings in the ancient world opens up in front of you! The sight of the rose red Treasury building in Petra is simply priceless. There was not a sound at this time,no tourist buses and ipad waving tour groups that are the curse of modern day travel ,world events had made this destination very much off the beaten track and therefore not an option for the average package tourist at this time. We had it to ourselves.
Just two people standing there and connecting with an age old scene reaching across time and…… silence!
A short walk to the right of the treasury we wandered our way past the street of facades lined with tombs galore.The Treasury is but one of the amazing sights in the lost city and it would take days to fully explore the region.All along the surrounding mountains are thousands of tombs ranging from the common people to huge megalithic Royal Tomb structures giving a taste of how amazing this marvel of ancient civilisation must have been in its glory days. Established as long ago as the 300BC this town has seen a lot of history. The home of the Nabateans,an ancient Aramaic people that controlled much of the spice trade routes through the area and worshipped gods such as Dushara and al Uzza,faceless block gods that later became more human like as the Romans eventually dominated the region. Facing us was the splendour of an ancient amphitheatre carved out of the rock,surprisingly Roman in appearance but very much Nabatean.My companion,Rembrandt ,couldn’t help but fulfil one of his wishes and recite the poem by John Burgon,an ode to the ancient city.
It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.
John Burgon, 1845
Overwhelmed by the sights of that day we retired back to our hotel for food and drink and an evening of Chess a game much liked by the locals. The following day ,refreshed,I wandered alone along the ancient colonnade street ,a once grand spectacle now in ruins because of flash floods over the centuries this old high street even shows the old chariot tracks in its ancient cobbled road and reminds me of the ancient and tragic city of Pompeii. Rembrandt at this time was endeavouring to sketch the ancient ruins and I went canon EOS600 film camera in hand wandering alone in this ancient valley. Along the way a young girl and her little brother came out of what appeared to be a cave and showed me her herd of goats.We communicated as best we could and wandered on our way with a salute of “Salaam!”
Photographically the region holds a picture on every corner and I cannot over estimate how overwhelming it is with words alone,it truly has to be seen to be believed. Later that afternoon we clambered up the carved steps that led into the mountains and passed an old lady serving mint tea.heaven knows how she got there but after quite a climb her mint tea was very welcome.At the top of these rather precarious steps is another ancient wonder very much like the Petra treasury known as the Deir or Hermits Cell.From here you can also get splendid views into the nearby valley Wadi Araba. As we viewed the splendid structure a thunder storm rolled in out of nowhere and we took cover in the Hermits lair.
The following day I bid farewell to Rembrandt as he continued on his epic journey back to Europe through Damascus and Turkey sketching as he went.I was heading back to Cairo and back on the migrant boat.He sent me a postcard when he completed his journey.
I have travelled a lot working as a photojournalist over the years since then,however one thing that will always be fixed in my memory is that first sight of Petra that rose red city half as old as time.
Twenty years later while wandering around the Egyptian section of the British Museum I bumped into Rembrandt again by coincidence,still sketching Egyptian monuments in the main Egyptian hall.
Tags: 1991, aaron brother of moses, ancient history, aqaba, arab, arabian horses, artist, backpacking, bacpacking, cockroaches, egypt, fez, johann ludwig burckhardt, jordan, lawrence of arabia, legendary, luxor, marrakech, middle east, nabatean, nile, nuweiba, omar sharif, ouarzazate, peter o'Toole, petra, pyramids, rose red city half as old as time, royal tombs, shoestring travel, sketch, tangiers, tombs, travel exotic, treasury, tribal