Dust rose from the ground as the horse thundered past and the sun began its ablutions. It painted pinks and pomegranates, amber, pistachio, charcoal and soft apricot rust across the walls of Petra before calling it a day and turning in for an early night.
A donkey stamped its foot in the chalky rock. Colour faded to grey, while my muscles trembled with fatigue.
Petra at sunset isn’t a place you want to leave. It looks beautiful, you feel hot and tired and there’s a professional army of touts with a menagerie of animals whose job it is to make you stay. Donkeys, camels, horses, chariots. They all promise to make your journey easier and to let you stretch out time itself.
Time has a habit of playing tricks on you in Petra, not to mention the truth. When I first saw The Treasury, strawberry stone columns peering between a tear of jagged darkness, I felt thrilled. As though I was uncovering an ancient legend myself.
In a way, I was. The legend part, that is. It turns out that despite the bullet marks and the odd Hollywood film, the Treasury isn’t really a treasury. Never was. Debate continues as to what its true role involved, but most scholars plump for the label of “ceremonial tomb.”
As for the ancient part, well, like the fast-growing ivy colleges in the US, it turns out that Petra’s not as old as it looks. The Treasury has celebrated a mere two thousand or so birthdays, a cheeky child with freckles when compared to the crumbly Egyptian Pyramids or the rocky giants of Stonehenge.
Right now, though, I have more than a few thousand years to worry about. I have about fifteen minutes.
The flashlight from an official brings me back to the present and I rally the sinews of my less than heroic muscles and attempt to stride but tend to hobble towards the exit.
Petra, as you probably don’t need me to tell you, is incredible. You may need me to tell you that it is vast. This city, built by the Naboteans, “inherited” by the Romans, lived in by the Bedouins and “discovered” by the Swiss – is colossal. Huge. A Roman-style theatre designed for around 3000 people registers as something of an afterthought, dwarfed as it is by everything else there is to see.
Petra spreads over 250 square kilometres (depending upon your source) – and the only realistic way in – and out – is by foot.
In fact, transport in Petra has become something of a political circus, with a near farcical arrangement of options. In the past, local Bedouin on horseback would charge through the kilometre-long gorge, with travellers crammed into their wagons behind. As Petra’s fame and popularity grew, however, problems arose since the gorge, or siq did not grow one inch.
Horse manure, accidents, rumours of hustling and intimidation…
“Eventually, authorities decided to ban horses in the siq altogether,” said my guide, perhaps an unreliable source himself as a horse-drawn chariot stormed past us into the gorge, drowning out his words.
“That’s different,” he said, although he never explained why.
The official line seems to be that Bedouin horses can travel the few hundred metres from the ticket gate to the entrance of the Petra gorge, with approval for a few carriages to travel on further than that. A short – and rather stunted – effort.
The situation has irritated many, exasperated that the cost of the ride is now factored into the ticket price, regardless of whether you climb on and shout “tally ho!” (For the sake of accuracy, I should point out that the actual pronunciation of “tally-ho!” has no bearing on the ticket cost, the ride, or, well, anything at all. I just threw it in for effect.)
As a first time visitor, though, I found the sight of the horses incredibly atmospheric. They’re ridden with a ferocity and abandon I’d not seen before. Flowing robes and jet black hair streaming into the wind. Clouds of purple-pink Petra dust thrown into spirals and hanging in the heat-soaked air.
It’s what dreams and legends are made of.
But perhaps not thin cotton trousers. To preserve the skin on my thighs, I staggered on towards the gate, feeling a mixture of both gratitude and joy.
For my time in Petra wasn’t over yet. I would soon be back – for Petra at Night.