Petra beyond the façades

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This post is part of the Digital Nomad project with National Geographic Traveller.

When we came to Petra for the first time in 2009, we spent the few hours we had at the site rushing to see the most famous parts of the site before making a premature exit and returning to Amman. We had more time to spend on our second visit, and although we visited most of the same sites that we’d previously seen, it proved a far more rewarding experience.

The first thing I noticed as a repeat visitor to Petra is just how quiet the place was. We came on the trail from Little Petra which enters the site at the Monastery, and even in mid-afternoon when the light makes it arguably the best time to make the climb to the site, there were around 15 tourists there. I asked around and the common consensus I heard was that visitor numbers are less than 10% of what they were in 2010.

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The lack of crowds is great news for those wanting to visit Petra and have much of the place to themselves; it’s tragic though for the many people who rely on a high number of visitors from whom they can make a living. Men with camels and donkeys were standing around trying to sell rides, stall holders were packing up early or hadn’t showed up at all, and cafe owners reported barely a handful of visitors on a typical day.

The relative emptiness gave us the chance to stop and talk to people working at the site, who were happy to chat if only to relieve their boredom. Led by a young boy called Mohammed and his mule, we climbed the steps to the High Place which overlooks the Treasury. It’s a 40-minute ascent which eventually leads around to a look-out point directly above and opposite Petra’s most recognisable landmark. There’s a makeshift tea shop there, and we stopped and chatted with the owner, a charismatic Johnny Depp lookalike. With him was a young Japanese lady; she is the fiancée of his uncle, and came to Petra as a visitor, finding a lot more than she’d expected. She now lives in the nearby Bedouin village of Umm Sayhoun, built to rehouse those who for many generations had lived in Petra’s caves.

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The story of New-Zealander Marguerite van Geldermalsen is even more unusual. She arrived as a tourist in 1978, also fell for a Bedouin man, and moved into one of Petra’s caves with him, raising a family and spending several years living in Petra, before moving to the new settlement. I read her book ‘Married to a Bedouin’ just before coming to Jordan, and I was delighted to meet Marguerite in Petra. She was standing by the stall where she sells jewellery made by local women according to her own unique Petra-themed designs.

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She also sells signed copies of her book, which has now been translated into 12 languages. I asked Marguerite if the visitor numbers now are similar to those when she first moved into Petra, over 35 years ago. She explained that in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Bedouin who worked in Petra also had animals, and money from tourism was a welcome extra. Now this is their only source of income, so it’s really hurting them. She told me that writing the book was an important project for her to do, as with the Bedouin moving out of Petra, she wanted to create a written record of what it was like to live within Petra’s ancient caves.

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A short walk away, a woman at a stall started chatting to us and in traditional Bedouin style we were soon sharing photos on our phones. She laughed at our Bedouin wedding story, and told us that people no longer have this sort of wedding in Umm Sayhoun, but it would have been typical in her parents’ time in Petra. I asked when the last Bedouin moved out of the caves, and she pointed over the hillside opposite and said that a few families still live here, albeit illegally.

Petra’s monuments are of course it’s most recognisable asset, but the people who have lived in and around its caves, tombs and carved façades, and who are still around and willing to share their stories, are every much as part of its fascination.

You can find other posts from the Digital Nomad project on the National Geographic Traveller website.

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