I found Dakelallah Koblaan, his wife and most of their nine children sitting by their fire high above Jordan's once-lost city of Petra. Spread canopy-style behind them against the mountain was their home: three expansive, colorful Bedouin tents in which a few of the younger children already were bedded down for the night. Still awake, they peered wide-eyed at me and my guide from beneath bright rugs and thick, woven mats.
From this ancestral homesite Koblaan and his family command a view of the distant Wadi (valley) al 'Arabah, the pinnacles and gorges of the surrounding mountains and the mist-shrouded Monastery -- just across the ravine from their plateau -- that renders cliche's powerless: Awesome, breathtaking, spectacular don't come close.
It is better just to be silent and enjoy.
Little known and often overlooked by American tourists, Petra is a jewel of the Middle East. Its elaborate, hand-carved facades and winding canyons of caves and tombs evoke a sense of awe and mystery.
Only 166 miles from Jordan's bustling, modern capital, Amman, Petra opens a unique door to the Nabatean civilization that thrived in these remote ravines about 2,000 years ago. To visit here is like being hurled back through time, to take a fascinating history lesson -- replete with architectural imprints of Greek, Roman and Christian conquerors -- in a fantastic setting still peopled by Bedouins.
In fact, it is the very presence of Bedouins like Koblaan -- with his rough ways and unconditional hospitality around our late-night-supper fire -- that make the illusion that one has indeed traveled through time quite believable.
Behind Koblaan's tents, the Wadi al 'Arabah stretches its desert vastness 4,000 feet below, and on a clear day the mountains of Palestine and Sinai can be seen to the west and south. For the more adventurous, legend holds that the tomb of Moses' brother, Aaron, crowns a peak about a half-hour's steep climb to the southeast of Koblaan's camp.
Petra ("rock" in Greek) lies hidden in a craggy shaft of mountains that rise up abruptly out of the Jordanian desert about three hours south of Amman. The Nabateans, who as early as the 7th century B.C. were nomads roaming the Arabian desert, made the city their stronghold around 312 B.C. and extended their empire from Damascus on the north to Egypt on the south.
During its heyday between the 1st centuries B.C. and A.D., the Nabateans hand-sculpted elaborate facades for hundreds of houses and mausoleums into the rose-colored sandstone cliffs. Using crude tools they built the Monastery (the Deir) and carved the classically ornate Treasury, as well as temples for worship and caves for everyday life. Today, Bedouins occasionally still shoot at the stone lantern crowning the Treasury's ornately columned facade, believing gold is stored inside.
The Nabateans grew prosperous by collecting tariffs from caravans wending their way on the long, dusty trade route between Greece and Damascus. The city-fortress of Petra continued to flourish for several centuries after the Romans conquered it in 106 A.D., although gradually changing trade routes eventually precipitated its slow decline.
Except for a brief visit by the Crusaders in the 12th century, Petra's secrets remained unknown to the western world for hundreds of years, its mysteries locked away in this remote mountain fastness. Then, in 1812, John Burkhardt, a Swiss explorer who had disguised himself as a Bedouin, passed through a narrow gorge between soaring cliffs and rediscovered the striking ruins.
Unfortunately, today most tourists do not have the time to steep in Petra's history. They are bused in from Amman's hotels on a day tour and have barely four hours to explore Petra's valley floor with its amphitheater and old Roman prison. On this rigid schedule, little time is left to climb into the ornate caves of Petra's kings or prowl in the interconnected burial tombs, some five generations deep -- much less watch the sun play against the rose rocks to create a spectrum of ever-changing hues.
Too soon they are back in the bus, hurtling north on the Desert Highway toward Amman, not knowing they have missed one of most striking monuments of this lost civilization: the Monastery.
High above Petra on a spectacular perch overlooking the Wadi al 'Arabah, the Monastery is the most far-flung of Petra's ruins, one reason its presence escapes many visitors. Its vast, inner chamber reveals several distinct Christian crosses -- remnants of the Christian conversion that took hold in Petra in the 4th and 5th centuries.
Luckily, an Irish friend who had visited Petra several years before cautioned me not to leave without seeing the Monastery. I had also read accounts of Bedouin hospitality and heard that one family in particular living somewhere near the Monastery sometimes played host to foreign visitors. So when I set out for Petra, I was hoping to be able to meet them.
Hani Ali, the guide for our tour group, confirmed the existence of such a family. (He lived in nearby Wadi Musa' and was a family friend of Koblaan's.) He offered to accompany me to the Monastery that evening after he put the rest of the tour back on the bus to Amman. Not entirely naive, I hesitated trekking out alone at sunset with a male guide in search of a Bedouin family. But once I convinced Hani that the bottle of wine he brought was not going to blur the physical boundaries between us, he became the perfect host/guide and friend.
Petra is set in a canyon ringed on all sides by steep red sandstone mountains. The only way in is through a narrow, tortuous passage between sheer cliffs at one end. After walking the length of the canyon floor from this entrance, we set out to climb the steep, mile-long trail that winds up from behind a new restaurant at the farthest end from the entrance.
Anyone can find the crack in the ravine that leads up the mountain to the Deir, but few do because day-tour visitors see the main sights and caves on the valley floor and then turn back after a lunch at the restaurant.
The pathway tunnels under rock ledges where ancient cedars with their gnarled and twisted trunks jut out from the cliffs. Along the way is the Lion's Tomb -- a colossal burial place for one of the Nabateans' legendary warriors -- as well as several of Petra's so-called "high places," where leveled crags hold the ruins of sacrificial altars.
Hani had sent word with one of the village children that he would bring a guest, so when we arrived we were met by one of Koblaan's sons. The boy led us to a sheltered plateau where three open tents fanned out like awnings, a mountain forming their common back wall. Several small children peered curiously out from under the broad awning while Koblaan and his wife grilled seasoned meat over the fire. Soon we settled down to a simple meal of sizzled goat and chicken, vast quantities of thin, spongy North African bread made over the hot rocks and small ceramic cups of sugared tea.
Koblaan told me I was not the first foreigner to partake of his generous cuisine. Several years before, a few members of a British airline crew had wandered up, and a year ago a group of Danish students had found his camp.
After dinner I was given the choice of several large sleeping caves; some were about 20 by 30 feet and partly filled with winter grain stores, but most were small, humid and slightly claustrophobic caverns cut in the rock about 20 centuries ago. I opted instead to bed down outside on the plateau directly opposite the Monastery. The night was cloudless, the accommodations simple but perfect for the balmy night. I fell asleep counting a small shower of shooting stars.
At daybreak, a heavy mist sucked into the canyon overnight gave the dawn a celestial eeriness. The Monastery's facade kept appearing and then receding from view behind a veil of fog. While the sun was trying to pierce this natural shroud, Koblaan's children began their trek down the steep trail atop an assortment of burros, a chorus of bells ringing behind them. They were on their way to school in cave classrooms below near Petra's main valley, where teachers from Wadi Musa' come to teach Bedouin children.
After a breakfast of fried potatoes, olive oil, bread and zatar (a ground spice mixture of oregano and sesame seeds), Hani and I climbed down the trail and crossed over to the other wall of the ravine. We climbed the steps cut in the Monastery's 132-foot facade, using the same worn toeholds made by the original carvers. Peering over the ledge of the huge urn table in the center of the church's dome, it is hard to imagine the ancient stonecutters who chisled the face of this temple hundreds of years before Christ. Inside, the remnants of a small altar are still visible.
From this lofty perch it was an easy 40-minute walk back down the gorge through which we had come the night before to the ruins and tombs on the valley floor.
The Monastery and the Treasury are the most impressive and well-preserved -- but by no means the only -- monuments worth visiting. The Palace Tomb, a three-story carved imitation of a Roman palace, stretches around one side of the valley.
Visitors also can see the Nabateans' ingenious methods of collecting and storing water, which held the key to the city's survival for many centuries. Still visible are the narrow aqueduct channels etched into the rocks that drew water into the hidden city for storage in vast underground cisterns -- in case hostile forces cut off the supply from outside.
I was lucky enough to visit Petra in early October when the North African sun is hot but not withering. Tourists at this time of year are scarce enough to lend support to the illusion that Petra is a personal discovery. Visitors can either walk in through the same narrow, mile-long canyon that Burkhardt traversed (a brisk half hour) or ride broken, docile horses led by Bedouin boys.
Both groups catch their breath at exactly the same moment: when the narrow chasm, known as the Siq, bends and one glimpses the Treasury. The light strikes its elaborate, three-story facade and envelopes its niches and columns in a soft rose glow. This building, like the nearby prison and many of Petra's more ornate caves and tombs, was carved from top to bottom by craftsmen working with flint and balancing in footholds still visible on either side of most facades.
Across from the Roman amphitheater are caves that were inhabited by the most prosperous residents. Close by, ancient burial tombs of kings indent the mountain cliffs next to the Nabatean Hall of Justice -- turned into a prison by the Romans after the city fell in 106 A.D. when they finally managed to conquer the tribal rulers by cutting off Petra's water supply.
But it is the poor man's caves a short distance away that offer the most interesting backward glimpses into time and place. In some, there are stairways connecting a labyrinth of chambers and floors. In others, open family tombs are cut in the floors, layer upon layer, each large enough to accommodate a generation of cave dwellers.
Before leaving Petra, I decided to take one final tea with friends of Hani Ali. Outside their cave I met a young New Zealand woman who had come to Petra several years before and fallen under its spell. Much to the surprise of everyone, she married a Bedouin, and now, as their 2-year-old played with several small ceramic pots, she explained why she finds the slow pace of life and the teaching Bedouin children more rewarding than the pull of civilization.
After my stay with Koblaan's family on their enchanted ridge, I could understand her reluctance to leave.