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The BBC lists the archaeological site of Petra as “one of the 40 places you must see before you die,” and at 9am on a Sunday morning, it often appears that half of the BBCs readership has taken this to heart, all clamouring for photo ops in front of the massive Treasury, a 40 metre high temple carved completely out of rock by the ancient Nabataean people during the 1st Century BC.
The Treasury, or al-Khazneh as it is called in Arabic, was one of TE Lawrence’s (Lawrence of Arabia) stopovers while assisting Arab tribes battling Turkish rule, and the enchanting site, dramatically appearing out of red and pink rock canyons, has been featured in dozens of films, including the well watched Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, so it is no wonder that Petra is so heavily visited. However, going in with the local Bedouins at 6am I have the entire site to myself and can marvel at just how overwhelmed Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, the Swiss explorer who was the first westerner to discover the ancient red-rose city (in 1812) must have been when he first emerged from the twisting sandstone canyons to see this magical spot.
Mohammed, my Bedouin guide, comes from a lineage and culture almost as old as the Treasury itself. The Bedouins are nomads, originating from the Arabian peninsula, whose traditional way of life has been threatened by government policies, warfare, and international borders in the Middle East. Today, they have become settled citizens, rather than stateless herders, in places like Syria, Israel and Egypt. But in Jordan, they still cling to their life in the desert, although adapting when necessary, realising that four wheel drive jeeps have their place alongside of camels.
Mohammed leads me through pink and red slot canyons, where boulders often block one’s passage, and tiny Nabataean steps cut into the cliff sides are the only way over and through the maze. These side canyons bypass the standard route into Petra, the Siq, a narrow passage and traditional waterway into the temple complex, which is often packed with tour groups and horse carriages making their way into the sacred site.
The Bedouins here know every wadi (canyon) and passageway through the harsh desert terrain, and are often a lifeline for stranded travellers (in nearby Wadi Rum, a group of Israeli rock climbers were recently rescued by a local Bedouin team after becoming stranded on an attempted climb). Despite the fact that Petra is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Bedouins told that they must move out of the temple complex and into the adjacent Wadi Musa township, many of the locals I am introduced to tell me they still prefer to sleep in the desert, and they often spend the starlit nights under the overhangs of the thousands of caves that are part of the Petra landscape, with nothing but a thin blanket and a teapot for comfort.
Tea is an integral part of Bedouin life and hospitality, and it is hard to pass even the simplest of cave dwellings without being invited to stop by local inhabitants for several glasses of sweet tea, mixed with the local desert herbs habuck and marmaraya. The Bedouin believe that any guest is a guest of Allah, and thus to be hospitable to the guest is to be hospitable to God. On a more practical level, in the hot desert climate, having a cup of tea in the shade is just a way to slow down and enjoy the surroundings.
Climbing up 800 rock cut steps over a mountain to the Monastery, an immense tomb monument topped by a magnificent urn, we are invited for tea by Mohammed’s cousin Noora. She tells me that her small business selling homemade jewellery to tourists has not been faring well, due to the Icelandic ash cloud that has cancelled hundreds of flights from Europe.
Noora and Mohammed grew up herding goats in the canyons of Petra, their family living a mostly subsistence lifestyle. That has changed with the arrival of tourism and local inflation, and these days the two use their extensive knowledge of the area to guide visitors around. When I ask them if the changes around them have been good or bad, Mohammed tells me that he worries at times whether his son will grow up with a strong sense of Bedouin culture, being exposed almost daily to an influx of wealthy Europeans seemingly on an endless holiday. But Noora chips in that as long as they have the desert with its space and solitude, along with time for tea, things will work out for the best.
Fifty kilometres down the road, the Bedouins in Wadi Rum think the same thing. Wadi Rum is a red desert area filled with huge sandstone mountains that has recently been made into a protected area. Brought to western attention in the 1960’s when the movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in Rum, the desert peaks and canyons were later explored by a British climbing team and today Wadi Rum has become one of the top adventure climbing spots in the world.
The Zalabia Bedouin have cashed in on their home’s newfound fame, some of them learning how to be top climbing guides, and most families now operate their Bedouin tents out in the desert for overnight hospitality along with 4WD and camel tours. The overnight camps are basic but comfortable, and any inconveniences are made up for by the incredible star filled skies enhanced by a complete absence of noise.
As in Petra, the Zalabia have adapted. They now arrange tour bookings on their mobile phones while driving new jeeps through sand dunes and canyons. And in tiny Rum Township, laptops have replaced camel messengers as the fastest form of communication. Yet given the harsh and remote desert surroundings, the children of Rum still grow up learning all the native plants and their uses, how to navigate the labyrinthine canyons, and all the skills needed for desert survival. With this knowledge intact, along with a few good cups of tea, their survival should be ensured for at least another generation.
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