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  • Tom Blower

Depends who's asking: The Wonder/Authenticity is a Con


I can’t remember where I saw Petra first, but whether it was a glossy full-page spread or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the images of a city carven in stone captured my tiny child mind, and I told myself that someday I would see that city with my own eyes. Whilst I had some reservations about the cost and efficacy of coming to Jordan from Israel almost solely for the purpose of seeing the former capital of the ancient Nabatean civilisation, I’d had a tip-off from a colleague that with a Jordan Pass you could get your visa fee waived and entry to over forty cultural sites for only a little more than the price of an ordinary single-entry visa, including a day pass to Petra. (Insert cynical comment about the benefits of working in international development.) I’d also been a little confused by the Israeli Airport Authority’s confusing website, but even more concerned when I’d turned up at the Yitzhak Rabin/Wadi Araba border crossing to find sheets (which hadn’t been available online) informing me that “Crossing with motorcycle/bike into Jordan is prohibited.” Pretending not to have read the sheet I quickly tossed it in a bin and wheeled my bike slowly through the border security, hoping that my plans wouldn’t be thwarted by my choice of vehicle. Luckily neither the Israeli nor the Jordanian border authorities seemed remotely concerned by it (on the Jordanian side they didn’t even bother checking it), and I was soon pedalling into downtown Aqaba. I’d abandoned my rather hubristic hopes of cycling over eighty miles uphill through the desert in a headwind, so was relieved to find that within thirty seconds of having arrived at the Aqaba minibus stand I found myself an offer of a shared taxi to Wadi Musa, the settlement near – and largely funded by tourists – to the ancient city. After a delightful three-hour ride in the back of a taxi with a newlywed couple, a cap-sporting muscleman in the front seat, and a driver who hardly ceased for breath the entire journey, I arrived at my hostel and walked around the town, sampling the delights of the local shops (strawberry milk and imported Chinese sweetcorn). Evening came and the sun sank over the rose-coloured mountains which sloped down into the Jordan Valley.

During the afternoon I’d met Hayden and Trey, two Virginia boys who had just finished cycling from Lisbon to Istanbul, and Xavi, a Spanish party animal with an itchy trigger finger on his camera. We made plans to be the first people through the gate and into the site, partially to beat the heat, but also – in that greedy, hypocritical, touristic way – to try and get some pictures without people in them. We rose at 5:30 and were at the entrance to the Siq (the narrow eroded canyon which served as the entrance to the city) before it opened at 6:30, but were greeted by a large group of Russian tourists who had made it there ahead of us. I thanked my luck that there were a lot of them, as we powerwalked past them, and then a group of rather disappointed Americans (“Oh, now they’re in the way of the shot!”). The canyon in which we walked nearly closed like a roof over us, the red sandstone metres above us beginning to glow in the rising sun. Suddenly we rounded a corner, and there it was: Al Khazneh (The Treasury), the symbol of the city lost to the desert and the privileged knowledge of local Bedouin herders for over a millennia, abandoned after earthquakes in the fourth and sixth centuries.

Indiana Jones eat your heart out.

At forty metres tall, cut into a near vertical face of sandstone, the façade towered before us, the inspiration of hundreds of artworks and poems since its ‘discovery’ in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. We stood for a few moments before we were caught up again by the throng coming down the Siq behind us, then hurried onwards, hiring a guide named Kasim to guide us up to a viewpoint over the Treasury and across towards the southern part of the site via the Place of High Sacrifice. We passed a couple of panting Arabic-speaking tourists as we climbed atop the jutting red promontories which led to a spectacular panorama of rock shining in the morning light. The higher the sun climbed, the easier it was to see why Petra is known as the Rose City.

I found it strange, however, to be exploring this modern wonder of the world with people I’d known barely more than twelve hours. I take great pleasure in travelling alone, and ordinarily the idea of any travel with others would have made me feel uneasy and a restricted. Yet as we scrambled over the rocks and down ancient hand-cut stone staircases, discussing history, religion, sustainable tourism, and of course, the incredible sights before us, I felt glad that we were together. We spoke in familiar ways, moved at the same speed, sensing at once the need to stop and appreciate and the opposing drive to be alone in the landscape. That said, I felt as if a good quarter of my vocabulary that day consisted simply of the word “Wow.”

Not too bad a view for a north-facing property

Even the more out-of-the-way sights I found fascinating. The silence, save a few sandy footfalls and the distant chirp of a bird, lent an austere majesty to the pillars and carvings, and to step inside the carven doorways into the half-light of a tomb where even a heavy breath would ring out, a sense of all that had come and passed at once enveloped and evaded the imagination. This had city once of an estimated 20,000 people now lay empty, with the exception of a few Bedouins who inhabit nearby cave dwellings, and a tenacious destruction (I promise that this is the collective noun, dear reader) of feral cats. Revered in Islam by even Muhammad himself, these latter residents strolled through the sandy streets and in and out of the way of photographically ambitious tourists.

I don't care how many hadiths are written singing cats' praises: they might understand your emotions but they have no sense of framing whatsoever

The Bedouin who traditionally lived in and around the abandoned city were forcibly relocated from the site in 1985 just before Petra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since then, many have resettled in caves around the edge of the site, just beyond the jurisdiction of the Petra Development And Tourism Region Authority, and come to the site as guides to tourists, offering donkey and camel rides along the main concourses and up the rocky stairs to the site’s furthest reaches, and hawking their wares from the sparse shade of cloth-covered stands of plaster fridge magnets, beaded necklaces, and forged coins. Theirs seemed a hard existence, waiting under the hot sun to make their living from the generosity - or naïvety and laziness - of wealthy tourists like me. Yet, as in several of the developing countries in which I have travelled, an appreciation of the hardships faced by people trying to support themselves mixed with a pinch of cynicism, as I questioned whether it is ever possible to conduct a ‘fair’ transaction between myself and the person I am buying from. Is it ‘fair’ that they try their luck and try to charge me more because I’m not a local and don’t know the market value of their goods? Is the higher price I pay some kind of recompense for the vast inequalities between our lives? Or should this burden be more indirectly shouldered through taxation and programmes of development? A woman I attempted to buy a coin from sensed my cynicism as I tried to discern which of the coins she was selling were fake and which possessed ‘value’. She took a small pill bottle from the back of her stand and emptied its contents into her hand. “These are the real. I find them when the rain wash them”, she said, looking furtively from her palm to me. “And these?” I asked, indicating a small pile of flat, almost entirely smooth pieces of metal near the front of the stand. She picked one at random. “No, these are fake. Just piece of metal, like battery-” The ‘coin’ fell from her hand and skittered under the stand into the shadows with a dull ticking sound. She did not bother to retrieve it, dismissing it with a wave. “You see? Fake. Now what you want for this?” I looked at the coins in her other hand, looking for discernable shapes, eventually picking one with a pair of faces and two cornucopias. The woman smiled, revealing teeth that would make even Britons look good on the comparative international dental scale. “Ah, this? I give you good price. Thirty-five dinar.” I am not a good haggler, but did my best to fix her with an unimpressed stare. “Thirty-five? That’s too much. I just paid two dinar for this.” I showed her a coin of alleged Roman origin that I’d paid a hash-smoking man the equivalent of just over £2 for. “I can give you seven.” I had checked my diminishing sum of dinar and knew my limits.

“Ok, ok, ok. I make you discount. Fifteen.”

“I’m sorry, seven is all I can offer.”

“Ok, I give you twelve.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that. Ma’salaam.”

I began to walk away. I got twenty paces before a voice shouted back to me. “Ok, ok. Seven.” I handed her the money and pocketed the coin with a sense of satisfaction and confusion. If it were really authentic, an actual Nabatean coin hidden and then exposed by the elements, would she really have parted with it for as little as seven dinar? Or was that still a lot? Or had I paid for a fake? My brow furrowed in the bright sunlight. The question, I realise now, is: did it even matter? If the coin was a fake, it still represented an incredible experience I’d had in the company of some great people, and could never take away from the fact that I was standing in the midst of somewhere I’d dreamed of for more than a decade. To search for something ‘authentic’ in a tourist location like this was, perhaps, a fallacy, and I realised that to trouble myself with the search for the ‘real’, the ‘genuine’ would not only be a wild goose chase but also ruin my experience of something truly amazing. Whether or not the coin was truly ‘worth’ the £7.34 that I paid for it, it sits on my shelf, a token of an incredible day. Though Petra as a site is now under threat from the humid breath, the greasy hands, and the treasure-robbing desires of humanity, this coin, fake or not, symbolises a treasure lost to the ages, and a reminder that such grand monuments will live longer than me, or you, and that when the tourists are all gone and the cats roam through the ruins of the city’s former life, the pillars and doorways will stand, telling their truths to the wind.

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 Graphics and design by Tom Blower and Ellie Newis. Created using Wix