When this movie was filmed, the building chosen to house the Holy Grail was actually a real site in Petra, not just an elaborate set. One of my favorite parts of the movie is near the end when Harrison Ford and Sean Connery are riding on horses through the narrow pathway and all of a sudden they see this elaborate structure peaking out from the high rocky cliffs surrounding them.
I can’t emphasize exactly how much I wanted to see Petra. When I was accepted into the AUC study abroad program, I immediately started anticipating my travels, where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see. Jordan is so close to Egypt that I knew I would finally be able to see Petra!
Airfare was quite expensive, so I started looking at other alternatives. I found a great tour company that offered tours to Petra that would take you from Cairo to Petra and back again in a little bit more than a day. This was perfect for me, as it was the most inexpensive option and was a feasible trip when I just had a weekend to spare.
Ferry to Jordan
The tour company picked me up in an air-conditioned minivan from my dorms at 11 Thursday night. We drove through the Sinai peninsula and reached our destination, the Taba Marina, in about 6 hours. The Taba Marina is where the ferry boat leaves, taking travellers to Aqaba, Jordan. This is the best way to travel from Egypt to Jordan as it eliminates the need to travel though Israel’s borders. The ferry took about 45 minutes and the water was extremely choppy! I’m glad I don’t get seasick!
I arrived in the Aqaba port and was met by one of the tour company representatives holding a sign. His name was Mostafa, and when I told him I was American, he said “Best country in the world!” Off to a good start, we began our drive from the port to Petra, about two hours away. I learned that he had studied history both in Iraq and Syria, and while he loved studying there, he was one of 11 children, so his father did not have enough money to support his education.
The Jordanian desert was beautiful to drive through, but I was antsy to get to Petra. I was met by my guide, and we set off on a three-hour tour. There were tons of tourist groups, but Saml (my guide) told me that March was a much more popular month for tourists, and when it’s busy there are so many more people swarming the ancient city.
Only one path leads you into the city, so Saml and I followed it, stopping to look at interesting places on the way. One of the most interesting things I learned was that the ancient Nabateans built aqueducts to lead water into the city. Saml showed me how this was done by pouring a bottle of water down the side of the cliff. The water trickled down to accumulate in a carved gutter in the rock. That water then started traveling down in the direction of the city. In this way, the rainwater could have been collected and used by the Nabateans!
Along the way we saw shrines to the local deities, which looked nothing like those of ancient Egypt. They had huge eyes and block-like bodies. Unfortunately the rain has eroded a lot of the carvings. One carving showed a caravan bringing trade into the city. When I walked further along I saw another image of a caravan going the opposite direction!
I honestly had no idea we were close to the famous treasury. I was trying to get my guide to take a picture of me, and he told me he wanted to tell me something first. I couldn’t figure out why he was so insistent that he would take my picture after but I grudgingly agreed to wait.
He pointed me away from the ancient city and asked me what I saw. I thought about it for a while, unsure of what answer he wanted to hear. I answered “Well, I see the path we just came from. And a lot of rocky cliffs.” He was still looking at me so I continued with my unsure answer, “Oh … and that rock kind of looks like an eel or an eagle.”
He asked me, “Do you know what I see?” I shook my head and he continued, “I see a beautiful girl in front of one of the most amazing ancient sites.” I turned around and there it was. The treasury of Petra peeking out from little more than a fissure in between the two closely positioned cliffs.
We were standing in the darkness made possible by the shade of the colossal cliffs surrounding us. Yet the treasury was bright, glowing in fact, lit by the light of the sun. I stood there in awe, not wanting to move any closer quite yet because I wanted to make this experience last forever. As I approached this luminous structure, slowly more of it was revealed and the light bouncing off the rose-colored stone pervaded the entire space.
Like I was in a trance, I slowly staggered forward unable to control my motions. My mouth was gaping open, my feet were dragging in the sand, my mind could not think to control my words so I just kept saying “wow” “Oh my God!” “That’s so amazing” “I can’t believe it” over and over again. My guide just laughed at me, as he had seen it so many times that he was blase to its brilliance.
However, I think if I saw this every day for the rest of my life, I could never feel apathetic toward it. Tons of people were swarming the entranceway of this remarkable structure. Pushing toward the front, I finally was able to see what was inside. It was a shallow room with high ceilings. It had no decoration and only had one doorway in the back, although I’m not sure where that leads.
I learned from my guide that this was not a treasury at all. The Ottomans, when they found it, believed there was treasure in the globe-like decoration near the top. So they constantly tried to shoot and break this, so that they could gain access to the treasure. In fact, the building was instead originally used to prepare bodies before funerals and was where the priests would perform all necessary rituals.
This was only the beginning of the city, and we had so much more to see. A lot of it is a blur, as after seeing the treasury I was in a state of antiquity-induced euphoria.
Beyond the treasury
I learned that they carved the city entirely using flint stones. The only building that was not carved from the cliff was a palace built for a princess. It was far away from many other structures of the town. The rumor goes that she refused to marry any of her suitors. The only man she would marry, she said, would be the man who could extend the aqueduct to her palace, a task that no one had been able to do. A poor Greek man was able to do this, and they wed.
I learned that when the dead were buried they were buried with a vial of tears, something that has recently been analyzed and confirmed by scholars. And I learned about the Nabateans’ personal form of makeup, acquired from the multicolored rock.
I ate lunch and we continued on our journey. I had to meet Mostafa so he could drive me back to the port, so we thought of the best way to do this. Saml told me there was a lot to see if we chose to go a different way rather than just backtracking our steps. Only this way required a donkey ride.
Up for anything, I agreed. And we hopped on our respective donkeys and rode up the rocky landscape. My donkey was either very tired or extremely melodramatic as he wheezed continuously and moved at a snail’s pace. Perhaps, I wasn’t as threatening as the other donkey drivers!
I was only in Petra for a short time, but I am definitely glad I got to see it. The travel to and from Jordan was hectic and exhausting, but it was completely worth it. On the way back, I got two bodyguards to accompany me in the minivan all the way to Cairo. When I questioned why they were there, the tour company representative said, “They’re here because you’re American.”
I’m still not exactly sure why I got bodyguards, but I’m glad they were looking out for my safety. It made me feel like I was famous.