It takes a hike up more than eight hundred long, hot and sweaty steps to reach one of Petra’s most beautiful sights, the Monastery, also know as El Deir. This is perhaps Petra’s finest and grandest building, even outshining the Treasury or Al Khazneh; but those eight hundred steps mean it receives only a fraction of the visitors that crowd into the space in front of Al Khazneh.
The Monastery probably got its name from the fact that during Byzantine times it was used as a church, but there is little doubt that the Nabataeans who carved it out of the solid rock built it as a tomb. Its location, far from the centre of ancient Petra and high in the hills that ring the city, gives it a feeling of isolation, fitting perfectly the line from John William Burgon’s poem, Petra: “eternal, silent, beautiful, alone”.
At the bottom of the trail that climbs up towards the Monastery are a collection of Bedouin and donkeys; the first offering a ride up the route, the latter looking much less keen on giving you a ride up the mountain. I decided to walk and earn a sweet tea when I eventually arrived at the top, I’m glad I did as it allowed me to make a diversion into a gully when the Lion Tomb can be found.
Trekking onwards and upwards I met a few other travellers, some donkeys and several Bedouin who had stalls selling souvenirs and refreshments. Maybe it was because it was late afternoon, but the trail was very quiet. Even when I reached the Monastery there were very few people, and I had unobstructed views of this majestic structure.
At this point the weather was still glorious, and I lingered at the small cafe near the Monastery to have a freshly pressed pomegranate juice. Refreshed I set off up one final hill to get panoramic views over the area. As I clambered up it was clear that on the other side of the mountains the weather was changing: a huge storm was brewing and the winds were bringing it in my direction.
The last time I was in the Middle East it snowed, an unexpected thunderstorm seemed pretty normal by comparison. It didn’t take long for the storm to reach me. The rain came down in big heavy drops and I sat in the tent of a Bedouin stall on the hill top, drank sweet tea flavoured with sage and admired Petra’s Monastery as it got a soaking. The smell of the rain was extraordinary.
After chatting to my Bedouin host and drinking more sage-infused tea than was entirely necessary, I decided that if I didn’t want to spend the night on a hillside I’d have to brave the rain. A lull in the downpour presented an opportunity to make my escape, but I didn’t get far before the rain started again. I took shelter in an unfinished but not empty tomb. My companion? A very smelly donkey.
The storm stayed overhead for the rest of the afternoon and all through the night. It was still raining the next day and the wadis, dry as a bone when I arrived, were in flood. I got to see the famed Nabataean water channels inside Petra working, but decided to cut my losses and head north towards Jordan’s eastern desert.