A Pilgrimage in Petra

2 Mar

The historical site where, according to the Nabataeans, a sanctuary was built in honor of King Obodas I called the Al-Deir (or Monastery) in Petra, Jordan, has been a religious pilgrimage for travellers for years.  The en-Nejr mountain in which the Monastery rests atop is a challenge in itself to reach as it is about a mile walk outside the small town of Ma’an in a dry, desert heat so intense it makes a sauna seem cold.  But once you arrive, the overwhelming sensation of being in another era surrounds you as you come face to face with one of the new Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  The “Lost City of Petra” (or “Rose-Red City” as some like to call), at the foot of the en-Nejr mountain is home to hundreds of half-built, half-carved rose hued rock temples, tombs, religious monuments and the popular el-Kazneh (or Pharaoh’s Treasury), where Indiana Jones once had his last crusade.


It was just after noon.  And my journey up the 3000 ft high mountain was about to begin.  While most people decided to take on the 800 step mountain by foot, I decided to be a bit more adventurous.  Upon my arrival, Adil, my Bedouin friend whom I had met the evening prior on the Petra by Night walk, was ready and waiting with my donkey, Samuel, as my main mode of transportation.
Before even digesting the fact that I was about to risk my well-travelled life by summiting a stony, colossal, desert-swept mountain on top of a donkey, I was still trying to conceive the notion that I first had to pitch all 110 pounds of myself onto his boney haunch.  My feet dangled on the ground, knees bent, as I sat on Samuel.  He was about as tall as an English Mastiff and hung his head low as if to avoid eye contact out of sheer embarrassment for the both of us.  “Habibi, it’s okay”, assured Adil, broken English, in his strong Arabic accent.  “He lifts all day, heavy things, up and down the mountain, around the village….he is a strong jahish”.  The re-assuring words and smiley, boyish face of Adil satisfied by hesitation and was enough for me to ensue forward.  I reminded myself that Adil was born and raised in the desert and fostered the growth and well-being of donkeys and camels every day (although I still secretly wished Samuel had come with a seatbelt).  “Yalla”, commanded Adil to Samuel.  My sun cap on, feet in the harness, we were off.
The first 100 steps were a misleading preface of what was to come.  Although Adil held the reins and led Samuel, shouting “yalla” every so often, it was my vigilant donkey that selectively chose his route on the shattered remains of the earthquake-stricken steps that once led the Romans to the sacred Monastery.  Once in a while Samuel would misjudge and step on an unsteady block, causing us to slip for only a second but which felt like an eternity, before quickly re-composing himself.  During those moments, although few and far between, I was positive that audacious occasion in my life was going to be my last. 
After a volatile half hour, we stopped for tea at a little green tent mid-mountain.  The longer we remained idle, the more the musty combination of sandstone rock and sun-singed donkey hair filled my nostrils and the weathered rocks and boulders all around me closed in.  The facade of eerie tombs showed sporadically in parts of the mountain wall while cliffs looming high above had impeded the comfort of the sun.  Feeling uneasy, I needed to keep moving. 
The rattling of pebbles under my donkey’s hoofs and the panting of Adil was almost therapeutic as the consistent collaboration of sounds soothed me.  We were on our way up the second half of the mountain and the contrast in scenes was like a juxtaposition sequence in a movie.  Our initial horizontal trek had suddenly turned vertical as the mountain became steeper.  What was once gritty sand became satin as Samuel’s hoofs slipped more easily.  Previously towering mountain walls no longer heightened my claustrophobia as they slowly shrank.  Large blocks of rock that was the floorboard of our path turned into tiny stones.  I knew that if I turned my head around to assess how far I’d come it would throw Samuel’s balance off and we would summersault backwards into oblivion.  There was an unspoken unity between Adil, Samuel and I in that we had to work in tandem as a team to keep the flow of our movements consistent until we reached the top.  Twisting around sharp turns and corners of rock wall, I looked above me to see the top of the mountain level off.  My thrill-seeking arrogance-turned-fear was almost conquered but my question was would I actually make it. 
It was approaching 1:30pm when we were finally introduced to the 120 ft Monastery.  Camera’s out, we suspended the glowing splendour, and seamless proportions of the sculpture, in time.  The pink and gold tinted rock face in which the Monastery was carved appeared weathered from wind, sand and rain.  The once sharp outlines of the sculpture were reduced to a soft contour.  Evidence of a small altar set in an alcove at the back of the one-room Monastery confirmed its designation.  The truly stunning vista that besieged the Monastery was like a picture window.  Peering down I saw the Wady Arabah and Adil’s nearby Bedouin village.  In the distance were the mountains of Palestine and Sinai.  The vast desert’s gold and crimson sand blended into crystal blue skies like a painter’s canvas.  I became un-regretting and thankful that I hadn’t demanded to turn around.  It was in that moment that my hideous trek all became worth it.
As we prepared to make our way back down the hour-long decent, Adil joined me on Samuel and I interlaced my fingers around him.  “Close your eyes and open your mind”, he whispered.  And I did.

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