November 23, 2010

My First Visit to Petra

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Posing with some rocks, Petra, Fall 1999.

I cannot resist one last post about Petra before I return to the Geology Word of the Week tomorrow. I first visited Petra in the Fall of 1999 when I was fifteen. At the time, I was an exchange student living in Amman, the capital city of Jordan. I visited Petra as part of a class field trip. If it is possible to fall in love with a place, that is what happened on my first visit to Petra. My visit to Petra was one of many factors that influenced my decision to study geology in college.
Below is an email–pretty much verbatim, though I corrected the worst horrors of grammar– that I sent to my family and a few friends shortly after I first visited Petra. The writing is dramatic and lacks polish, but remember that I was a young teenager at the time.

I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to live in Jordan when I was fifteen.Thank you to everyone who made this possible: my American and Jordanian high schools, my host family, my parents, and the Jordanian Royal Family, especially Princess Zein and the late King Hussein.

Date: Sat, 13 Nov 1999 12:43:11 -088 (PST)
From: Evelyn
To: Friends & Family
Marhaba [hello in Arabic] to all,
I write with new eyes. I feel as if my entire perspective on life has changed…  as if I have visited another solar system and returned all within one day! Indeed, Petra, the remarkable Nabatean city hidden within a strange and beautiful formation of rocks (rather like the Grand Canyon, for those who have been there*), is just like another universe. The instant you leave the tourist shops and main gate behind and begin walking down the magical, mysterious Siq– the crevace-like entrance to Petra– you leave everything you ever thought you knew behind.
One does not simply enter Petra. There is a short walk from the bus to the main gate and then a reasonable walk before one reaches the Siq… yet the anticipation begins the moment the strikingly gargantuan rock formations which hide Petra are seen from the bus. I kept watching, searching, not really knowing quite what to expect as we walked toward the Siq. I had been forbidden to speak near the gate as English-speaking tourists pay a 25 JD [Jordanian Dinar] entrance fee while Jordanian students are allowed to enter for less than 8, but even though I was allowed to speak again, I found myself unable to. I simply walked, unable to believe I was really walking on that timeless soil, even though I had yet to be struck by the true wonders of Petra.
I ended up riding a horse the last few yards to the Siq. Horses are not generally allowed in through the Siq, so I dismounted and paid the horse’s owner a dinar. Then, saying goodbye to the last tourist shop outside Petra, I entered.
As I said time and time again on the bus ride home, I would fly thousands of miles to Amman and drive the 3-4 hours to Petra just to see the Siq. One underestimates this amazing entrance to the great city when one reads National Geographic or other magazine articles about Petra. The rock formations are magnificent… brilliant colors soar high above one’s head and, if one keeps a watchful eye, various carvings can be seen spotting the two tall cliff faces. About halfway through the Siq there are even the remains of several statues, carved out of the hard stone. All that remains of three statues is their feet, but the effect is nonetheless surprising. As if one entered the grand canyon and suddenly encountered some ancient civilization. Indeed, although I have never been to the Grand Canyon**, I am not afraid to boast that I believe Petra to be at least a thousand times more magnificent! [I have to agree with my fifteen-year-old self here. Though the Grand Canyon is pretty mangificent.]
I was distracted as we approached the end of the Siq, so when I turned my head and saw the Khasneh, or the famous Treasury, just visible through the Siq, my breath literally caught in my throat. I gasped, but I did not run. I do not think I could have. I simply walked slowly, camera in hand, and tried to enter as gracefully as if I were an ancient Nabatean on her way to the city center. Nevertheless, I was awestruck. The Treasury must be seen– not simply on a cheap souveni or a postcard or even a book, but really SEEN to be imagined. Even now I do not entirely trust my memory. What detail have I missed? What subtle curve or color of the rich rocks do I not remember? Petra cannot be experience through words or photographs or even memories… one must BE there.
And, oh what a place! I heard on the way back to Amman that it takes 16 days to really see all of Petra thoroughly. We spent five hours at Petra, perhaps 3 1/2 of them walking, and only saw the smallest, although juiciest, parts. Today I can proudly say that I not only rode a camel (one of my major accomplishments thus far! I only hope the photographs turn out well!) and horses and went through two rolls of film [Heh. Film. Remember those days?], but also ate at the most beautiful dining hall in the world: on top of one of the tall rock formations with a beautiful view of the small valley below and temples carved into the swirling rocks in the distance. Below me: tents, tourists, and camels. Above me: The endless stretch of rocks against a lucid blue sky.
I think Westover [my high school back in America] should import a little bit of Petra for their dining room. Perhaps I’ll make a suggestion to the food committee… if I could only eat my lunch in Petra every day I should be content with all of life! Food ceases to be important… one only thinks of the landscape. Of a different age and world. Of life itself…
Well, I think that my photographs shall have to do for the rest of Petra as I have already made this email much too long. All I can say is that I have just spent five of the most wonder-filled hours of my life. Never, never shall I look at anything the same. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, I have a new standard of beauty to judge by, and I have not even seen all of Petra.. only a very small piece! Never shall I look at anything in quite the same way- oh, I felt like I was in heaven today!
Well, I had better leave everyone for now with the encouragement to look over my slides, photographs, and books [about Petra… tourist type books] when I return. However, these do NOT do Petra justice. My real encouragement lies in actually visiting Petra yourself… I should not wish to die before having seen this wonder at least one more time myself! [Note to self: Done x3. Time for a fifth visit…]
I encourage EVERYONE to visit Petra. It is an experience you shall not easily regret and shall NEVER regret.
Ma’a salama [Goodbye in Arabic] for now,

*This was clearly speculation since I didn’t visit the Grand Canyon until I was 21.
**Ah-hah! I admit it here.