Unveiling the secrets of Petra
His plan worked. Upon entering the city he was barely able to conceal his wonder from his guide. As the two made their way deeper into the valley, Burckhardt was gobsmacked by the sight of countless tombs and the great amphitheatre carved into the rock. He couldn’t resist scrambling up to explore. Then, as now, these caves were utterly bare; unadorned but for the veins of colour striped through the rock like a sort of natural wallpaper. Having surprised his guide with his incursions, Burckhardt was hurried to the city’s parched core, the Colonnaded Street and the temple of Qasr al-Bint. His attempt to wander the ruins of the latter was the final straw. ‘I see now clearly that you are an infidel!’ his guide exclaimed. ‘But depend upon it that we shall not suffer you to take out a single [one] of all the treasures hidden therein!’ Fearing that further aggravation might lead to the discovery of his own most treasured possession, his diary, Burckhardt dared venture no further. After a few stolen hours, his exploration of Petra was over.
Others have spent a lifetime navigating the city. 27-year-old Laith Odah was born in one of the caves carved into the mountains behind the Theatre. He and his ten siblings spent their childhood among the ruins, playing football and a Bedouin game not unlike pick-up-sticks. ‘It was a good place to grow up,’ he tells me over sweet, spiced tea, served in dainty glasses. But he wasn’t sorry to leave when, in 1985, the Jordanian government decided to re-house Petra’s Bedouin families away from the most significant Nabataean monuments, in a purpose-built village behind the archaeological site. ‘Living in a cave, it wasn’t easy,’ he says, smiling broadly. Still, Laith spends every day in Petra. Until recently he earned a living offering tourists the services of his donkey, Casanova. ‘He was strong, could carry four people at once, but he got sick. I nursed him for days, feeding him camel’s milk, but he died.’ With two fingers, Laith traces tears from his kohl-lined eyes. Until he can afford a new animal – a donkey costs between 200 and 400 Jordanian dinar (between £175 and £350) – Laith works as a guide. Today, in his keffiyeh scarf and Arabic robe, known as a desh dash, he’s to lead the way to Haroun’s Terrace: the last stop on Burckhardt’s all-too brief tour of Petra.
The steep climb in searing heat, is a good moment to make use of one the city’s many beasts of burden. Young men handling donkeys, mules, horses and camels pace Petra’s ancient streets from dawn until dusk, exalting the benefits of an ‘air-conditioned taxi’ or ‘Bedouin Ferrari’. Camels have acquired a sort of exotic majesty among Petra’s visitors, but in Burckhardt’s time they were the Ford Fiesta of the Bedouin transport world – utterly unremarkable, and therefore the perfect choice for the incognito explorer. My steed’s long legs pick their way through the archaeological rubble that surrounds Qasr al-Bint – fragments of Hellenic columns, lined up like slices of salami, and the bricks that once made up its walls. Few tourists venture beyond Petra’s main sites, and with every hoof-step away from the city we are more alone – until there isn’t a single other person in sight.