Siq Al-Barid: Little Petra
A pleasant sleep behind us, we were served a simple breakfast by our Bedouin hosts this morning (that appeared to come almost entirely from the plants and animals the family keeps). A pile of homemade bread and a kettle of tea (brewed with local herbs) were set beside a tray containing hardboiled eggs, cheese, oil, za'atar, and salt.
Talal chatted with us as we fed Aidric and indulged in the meal ourselves. Before excusing himself from the room he mentioned that he'd be occupied until sometime later in the afternoon, and really suggested walk down the road to Siq al-Barid—referred to as 'Little Petra' by tourists and locals alike.
The Nabataeans constructed Petra as their capital city around 100 BCE, and just a mile from the Bedouin village that we're staying in, Siq al-Barid (Cold Canyon, in Arabic) was thought to have served as an agricultural center, trading suburb and resupply post for camel caravans.
Side note: The word 'siq' has been popping up regularly in the resources I've been reading, including in the Arabic name of Little Petra. Siq translates into the word "shaft," and refers to "a natural geological fault produced by tectonic forces and worn smooth by water erosion."
Just beyond the informal car park (which looks like it could easily host a dozen or more mammoth tour buses), a Nabataean temple that archaeologists know little about freezes arriving visitors in their tracks.
I read in advance that no admission fee is currently being charged, and without any other tourists around were sort of scratching our head wondering if this impressive, yet solitary, Nabataean relic was the only thing to be seen.
As I proceeded further into the wide opening of the siq, I encountered a large padlocked gate. Turning around to rejoin Tatiana and Aidric (now being observed by the innards of a tour bus that arrived and dumped its load), I was flagged down by an approaching security guard/park ranger-looking fellow.
He was being accompanied by a Bedouin that he was chatting with, and motioned to bring Tatiana and Aidric over to us at the gate. In some very, very bad English I was lead to believe that the security guard had to make a routine check of the off-limits area behind the gate, and was inviting us to take a little peek.
As we passed through the narrow sandstone gap, the 400m-long canyon suddenly opened into a much wider space, revealing the true gems of Little Petra. We continued to proceed into the siq, with the Bedouin next to us, attempting to explain things with his four words of English.
Still thinking that we were getting treated to something, I allowed the presence of the unwanted "guide."
"Nabataean… water… cistern… look here…." The uninvited Bedouin continued, rushing us along, as the tourists began pouring into the canyon through the narrow gap, ushered by their own French-speaking guide. Clearly we weren't so special after all.
"Perhaps we're required to have a guided escort," I said to Tatiana, having noticed the guard didn't walk much more than a few feet into the canyon. "This use to be a long backdoor into Petra that people would use to get in for free, but now it's supposedly patrolled."
Out of sheer confrontational laziness and our lack of understanding of the guidelines for being back in the siq (if there were any at all), we continued to be lead at a brisk pace by the unwanted Bedouin to the end of the canyon, all the while listening to him repeat this favorite two English words: "Nabataean… water…"
But despite the pace and the presence of the increasingly annoying man, I was still quite astonished by the Nabataean's 2,000-year-old engineering accomplishments. Large water reservoirs had been cut deep into the rock (some around 12-14 feet deep), while a complex system of worn water channels cut into the stone directed the rainfall into the appropriate basins or cisterns.
Many of these ingenious water channels verged on something Rube Goldberg might engineer in style and complexity.
Some caves were once dining rooms to feed hungry merchants and travelers. Upon inspection, many of these chambers now looked like the inside of a lifelong smoker's lungs. Heavy, black tar coats not only the ceilings but that most every wall—a result from centuries of Bedouin campfires. Not a very romantic sight up close.
Tatiana and I discussed (in Spanish) if we should tip the Bedouin who'd hurried us through the site or not, and finally decided that we'd rather spend that money feeding Aidric than on the man who entered into our company uninvited. I shook his hand, and he inspected it as the grip loosened, wanting for cash.
Unimpressed with his whimpers for money, we walked out of the siq without the "guide" and back towards the village, which now sported a massive thunderstorm on its periphery (blowing in towards us from the east).
For a moment, I thought of the rarity of rainfall in this region, and how amazing it would be to see the ancient Nabataean water channels at work… but decided it'd certainly be better of me to get the family home/sheltered.