In 1812, when the Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt entered As-Siq, the narrow gorge that runs into the heart of Petra, he was disguised as a Muslim and leading a sacrificial goat. He feigned lack of interest in rumours of a rock-cut city – knowing that local guides would be unwilling to reveal it to an outsider – and instead invented a pretext of making an offering at Aaron’s hilltop tomb. Nevertheless, he was unable to disguise his astonishment when he set eyes on the now-famous façade of the treasury (becoming the first European since the crusaders to do so), arousing the suspicions of his guide, who drew a rifle on him.
Today’s tourists need no such subterfuge. Instead they will find a visitor centre, rows of souvenir shops and numerous touts offering carriage rides through the Siq. It’s hardly the most atmospheric introduction to the site. But there is another way, a “back door” from the north rather than the east, one that can be reached at the end of a five-day trek along ancient Bedouin migration routes and shepherd trails.
The trek begins south of the Dead Sea at the Feynan Ecolodge, a romantic retreat on the edge of the Dana Biosphere Reserve, and a model of sustainable tourism. Unconnected to the electricity grid, it instead uses solar panels and is lit by candles made by local Bedouin women, who also make its soap and bread. Instead of plastic water bottles, clay pots are filled from a nearby spring, and meals are locally sourced.
Arriving at sunset where the tarmac road ends, my husband, son and I were driven the final bumpy five miles to the lodge in a 4x4 by a concerned young man. “Don’t go,” he pleaded, on hearing our plans to walk to Petra. “There will be rain. The mountains will not be safe.”
Residual qualms evaporated on meeting our guides in the bright light of the following morning. Murad Arslan was in charge and Abu Zaid, a Bedouin elder from Feynan, would be responsible for our safety en route, leading the way on his donkey, Shaafi, who doubled as our emergency ambulance. Our luggage was loaded on to the back of a Toyota pick-up, to be driven by two smiling young Bedouin men to an agreed camping spot each night. They would erect the tents, complete with deep foam mattresses, and prepare our evening meal. In the past the three of us had walked on Turkey’s St Paul Trail, carrying all our own food and water, and sleeping rough. Here, we surrendered to the pampering.
It all ran like clockwork, except for the weather. The first night, sitting round the fire, we watched distant lightning and thought how biblical the scene looked. Only gradually did we realise it was coming towards us. What followed was a storm the like of which I have never seen in 35 years’ experience of the Middle East. The sky was lit up by multiple lightning forks, followed by ever-mightier booms of thunder. When it was directly overhead a surge of wind came, bringing torrential rain. We dived for our tents and prayed they were waterproof.
Abu Zaid took it all in his stride, digging trenches to divert the flash flood that arrived in the night and altering our route for the following day. He led us safely round the mountains on trails he knew well and brewed up tea effortlessly on impromptu brushwood fires at elevenses and lunch. The faithful Shaafi was as obedient as a well-trained dog.
On the the third day, the rocks started to change shape and colour, gaining streaks of red, yellow and purple, as we reached the edge of the Sharra Mountains. We were shown gigantic stone-cut wine presses, relics of the wine-growing culture of the native Edomites, taken over by the Arabian Nabateans and then the Romans, who absorbed the local deities into a cult of Dionysus.
Finally, at lunchtime on the fifth day, we skirted the last mountain on a vertiginous ledge, with stunning views over the wadis (valleys) below, then strolled into the forecourt of Petra’s most imposing monument, the monastery. Dwarfed by its 50m-high façade were the first other tourists we had seen for five days. Our guide had previously bought tickets, which he gave out to us, but here there was no one to check them, no gate, no fence and certainly no visitor centre.
Before the Arab uprising, visitor numbers in Petra regularly reached 2,000 or 3,000 per day, but the perceived instability of the region has seen the figure drop to a few hundred at best. Yet, even aside from the lack of crowds, there has never been a better time to visit thanks to ongoing archeological work that is continuing to reveal more of the site’s secrets.
Once thought of as nothing more than a city of tombs, US-funded excavations led by Brown University and the American Center of Oriental Research have proved that Petra thrived as a trading centre for nearly 1,000 years. At its peak in the 1st century AD its population has been estimated at 30,000, a remarkable number in what appears today as an arid location.
Inevitably most people will still opt for a day trip, either from Amman, Aqaba or Israel, giving them a rushed experience of the site and contributing little to the local economy. Travel instead on foot and you have the knowledge that your enjoyment is helping support indigenous Bedouin families, while also allowing the secrets of Petra to unfold slowly before your eyes – a double joy.
Diana Darke’s trek was organised by Travel the Unknown (www.traveltheunknown.com), which offers an 11-day trip, Along Bedouin Trails, from £1,650 excluding flights