The old Nabataean city of Petra is considered one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, but for many of us its fame goes back to one man: Indiana Jones.
My Indiana Jones Moment
Dating back to before the 1st century BC, Petra may well be one of the world's most famous archaeological sites.
A visit to this ancient city is an unforgettable experience but be aware of the following: the entrance fee is pricey (around $70 US), the grounds are vast (plan for a whole day) and it can be fiercely hot in summer (a hat and sunscreen are a must).
I had the privilege to be shown around by Mohammed Nawafleh Gabaah. Gabaah - that's how he prefers to be called - is not only a local but has worked on pretty much every major film production that was shot in Jordan in the past three decades, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Mortal Combat, Mission to Mars, The Hurt Locker and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
We started our day at 6am. I'm definitely not a morning person, but thankfully my hotel (Mövenpick Resort) was very close to the entrance. Gabaah quickly took care of the ticket formalities and we were off on a gravel path leading us deeper into the rose-coloured sandstone formations that surround Petra on all sides. Gabaah seemed to know every single Beduin who was waiting for the tourists to turn up in order to sell them drinks, crafts and donkey rides. Speaking of which, we were pretty much the only visitors at this point. We followed the path down the relatively wide gorge, past a number of monuments hewn into the soft rock.
It took roughly 15 minutes before we reached the entrance to the Siq, the famed passageway that provides the only access point into Petra itself. The Siq is roughly 1.2 kilometres long and at certain points only three metres wide. You certainly feel very small when gazing up at the sheer walls above you.
The solitude made this an unforgettable part of my visit, yet my anticipation grew after every corner. Ultimately, I was here for the Indiana Jones moment - the first glimpse of Al-Khazna, the Treasury, through the last cleft of the gorge.
Coming out of the Siq, I was as much in awe of the 'temple' before me as Indy and his friends were. The facade of the Treasury loomed high and the morning sun cast its piercing rays over one half of the rock wall. So there it was, my very own Indiana Jones moment.
Thanks to my guide Gabaah, we were allowed to climb up some hidden steps to view the scenery from above.
After a cup of sweet peppermint tea we made our way into the main part of Petra. Once we had passed the Street of Facades, the valley opened up to a vast landscape of sandstone formations, temples and century-old monuments stretching in all directions. The immediate area was used for several scenes in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.
To our left was the theatre, basking in the morning sun, whereas on our right, some of the local men had sought refuge under a shady tree. Gabaah pointed towards a nearby craft stall: "See that man over there? The one reading a book?" I nodded and Gabaah continued: "Can you see any of the other Bedouins reading a book? No, that's because he's half-Kiwi!" This certainly sparked my curiosity.
We walked over to the friendly-looking man who was reading a crime novel by the British author Elizabeth George. Gabaah introduced him as Raami and quickly added that his New Zealand-born mother Marguerite van Geldermalsen had married a Bedouin from Petra over three decades ago and decided to stay. In 2006, she published her story in the book "Married to a Bedouin", which to date has been translated into more than fifteen languages.
Raami and Marguerite sell locally designed jewellery at their stall and Raami runs sightseeing tours through his company Raami Tours. You can also buy one of Marguerite's books, most of which are personally signed by her. Given that my wife Pennie is a New Zealander, naturally, this was the perfect souvenir for me to bring home from this trip.
We ploughed on and climbed the steps towards Jabal Umm al-Amr where we had a look at some of the Royal Tombs. The views from up there were breathtaking.
Gabaah persuaded me to have my photo taken with the guard who watched over the tombs. Normally not my cup of tea, but this guy looked amazing in his traditional uniform.
After the obligatory peppermint tea and a delicious glass of mint lemonade, we strolled along the colonnaded street towards the Great Temple when we were approached by two heavy-set locals in light armour. At first I thought that this must be an ambush in order to get me to pose with them for a photo in return for some Baksheesh. But it turned out that these guys, and there were lots more of them, perform a Nabataean military-style re-enactment show four times daily - completely free of charge. The performance is run by the publicly funded Jordan Heritage Revival Company, whose mission is to preserve Jordan's history and to bring it alive to international visitors.
Needless to say that Gabaah knew all of the men, so we were invited to share their delicious lunch - consisting of a tomato stew scooped up with bits of Arabic flatbread, followed by yet more super-sweet peppermint tea.
The last part of our tour was going to be the hardest bit, especially with a full belly. The walk up to the Monastery (Ad Deir) requires a climb of 850 steps and there is virtually no shade the entire way up. We managed all right though, despite the 38 degree heat. Plan on 3.5 hours for the return trip. Drinking water is offered by the Bedouins at numerous stalls.
The Monastery came into view quite suddenly and I have to say that the monument is impressive, measuring 47m in width and 48 metres in height, layer by layer carved out of the sandstone.
What few people know is that the building also features in the movie Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in the scene where the main protagonists Sam (Shia LaBeouf), Mikaela (Megan Fox), Simmons (John Turturro) and the twin Autobots discover the Tomb of the Primes.
While I was busy getting my sceneframing shots done, Gabaah sat down with some friends and had - you guessed it - another cup of peppermint tea. When I joined them a little while later, Gabaah told me that all the gear for the shoot had to be brought up by big army helicopters.
I was sad to say goodbye to this very special place. My one consolation was that going back down was a lot easier than the climb up.
Having a local with me brought Petra to life, not just because of the fantastic storytelling but also due to the many personal encounters we had along the way. Thank you Gabaah, you made this visit an experience I won't forget. Hopefully, our paths will cross again in the future.
Useful sources of information for planning your visit:
My Indiana Jones Moment
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