Unveiling the secrets of Petra
If the stretch from the Treasury to Qasr al-Bint is Petra’s high street, these outlying hills are the city’s suburbs. Though the weather-worn rockface is still peppered with ancient dwellings and sepulchres, many are more modest. Some grander efforts lie unfinished – vestiges of an urban sprawl that came to an abrupt halt – and with these edifices it is possible to see the Nabataean technique of carving from top to bottom. Ascending further into the hills, we come across what must be one of the last tombs still used as a Bedouin family home. Small but ornate, its dark entranceway has been filled with a solid door, and there’s a garden of plants and fruit trees. With the sun directly above us in the sky, we reach Haroun’s Terrace. From here, a small white mosque is visible. This is Jebel Haroun, thought to be biblical Mount Hor, where Moses’ brother Aaron (Haroun to Muslims) is buried – a sacred place for both Christians and Muslims. Burckhardt, arriving here at sunset, realised it was too late to reach the tomb and sacrificed his goat on the spot with a few hasty incantations. The sounds here today are gentler – the wind whistling across the desolate plain, and the clanking bells of a whole herd of goats, which I follow to a sheltered Bedouin camp.
A woman wearing a headscarf and long dress emerges from a rectangular tent covered in black cloth made from goat’s hair. She invites us in for coffee. Her home is cool in the midday heat, and she shows us into a room covered with woven carpets. On the wall hang posters of sites of Muslim pilgrimage – Mecca, and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem – and strings of brightly-coloured tassels. We sit cross-legged on the floor as coffee beans roast in a pan over an open fire. Gasamah has eight children and the three youngest congregate on her lap to stare at the visitors. Two-yearold twins Mohamed and Amal occasionally stray to help themselves to cups of tea from a kettle that sits in the corner of the room. Gasamah’s home-life is typical of local families’, most of whom – like her – belong to the Bdoul tribe. Her husband has a donkey and a small souvenir stall in Petra, so she stays at home to look after the children, the 20 goats and a small garden sown with bamboo, apricots and grapes.
Though she clearly has little, Gasamah is happy to share with her guests. Hospitality is an important part of Bedouin culture, something Burckhardt relied upon heavily during his travels in the Middle East. An old Bedouin saying, ‘When a guest comes he’s a prince; when he leaves he’s a poet,’ shows not only the importance of a proper welcome, but the value placed on reputation – essential for survival in the desert. Though Gasamah admits that life here can be hard, she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. ‘All our life is in this place,’ she says. ‘Here we are free.’