To climb a mountain

This was a journey and a half, on many levels. A memorable assignment for National Geographic Traveller in a place I know well – Petra, in Jordan – doing something I’d never done before. Original story page here.


Even now, weeks later, I’m not sure why I cried. The tears were flowing before I reached the summit: I remember looking up into the blurry blue. I also remember, further back down the trail, when the old, familiar voices started to sing to me about weakness and tiredness and failure – but even then I knew I’d already beaten them. This time I was going to make it. I remember pouring water into my hat and jamming it back on my head. I remember chocolate. I remember the last few steps – steep ones, cut through rock, with a white dome floating above, glimpsed through salty lashes.

It was a place out of reach. A place I’d been looking at for twenty years but had never visited. It was high on the mountain-top, and it was deep down inside myself.

So I cried for the views. I cried for my own achievement. I cried for the holy ground I stood on. I cried for my five-year-old son, who wanted to come with me because he thinks all mountains are white and climbing one to play snowballs with his dad would have been the best game ever. I cried because there was no snow. I cried because I was crying.

In truth, I didn’t want to come down. It was renewal. Sitting there, shaded, looking east, I’d unwittingly become a pilgrim.

My journey to the mountain took almost three years. Back in 2010 I realised an anniversary was approaching for Petra, the great 2000-year-old trading capital of the Nabatean people that is now Jordan’s top tourist attraction. I’d been to Petra maybe twenty times, over almost as many years. I’d been there at sunrise, at noon and after dark. I’d studied it, walked it, watched it, hated it and loved it. But the more I revisited, the less I knew it.

After its antique heyday Petra had lain undiscovered for centuries. Baybars, a Mamluk sultan, passed through in 1276, noting in his diary “most marvellous caves, the façades sculptured into the very rock face.”

But for five hundred years after Baybars – nothing. Knowledge of Petra’s whereabouts faded from outside memory. The locals, of course, knew exactly where it was – but they weren’t telling. At that time, the mountainous country between Damascus and the Red Sea was virtually impenetrable to outsiders. Wild, lawless and largely uninhabited, it lay beyond the reach of any government. There were few roads. Only a scattering of isolated settlements broke the rolling landscapes of stony hills and semi-arid plains that led into the vastnesses of the Arabian interior. Few, if any, travellers got through.

It was in that context that Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt travelled. A man of extraordinary resourcefulness, Burckhardt had been hired in 1809 by the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa to find the source of the River Niger. His plan – to get to Cairo, and from there join a caravan bound for the Sahara – hinged on disguising himself as a Muslim: Christians and other outsiders without protection would have been prey for bandits. Burckhardt adopted the persona of “Sheikh Ibrahim”, a merchant.

After two years in Syria, perfecting his Arabic and studying Quranic law, 27-year-old “Sheikh Ibrahim” set off for Cairo, keeping his meticulously updated journal hidden beneath flowing robes. On 22nd August 1812, crossing rough hills, he wrote: “I was desirous of visiting Wadi Musa [the Valley of Moses], of the antiquities of which I had heard the country people speak in terms of great admiration.”

Burckhardt, at that stage, had no idea that Wadi Musa – which lay well off his path – held the ruins of Petra. Moreover, it was a dangerous detour. “A person like myself,” he wrote, “without any papers to show who I was, or why I had taken that circuitous route, would have looked very suspicious. I therefore pretended to have made a vow to slaughter a goat in honour of Haroun [Aaron, Moses’s brother and a venerated prophet in Islam], whose tomb I knew was situated at the extremity of the valley. By this stratagem I thought that I should have the means of seeing the valley on my way to the tomb.”

It was a great idea. By playing the Haroun card Burckhardt was able to talk his way past tribal lookouts. Below Wadi Musa his guide led him into a canyon lined with carvings, and on through an ancient city – which Burckhardt describes in close detail, later identifying it as Petra – before reaching the foot of Aaron’s mountain. By then it was already sunset, and too dark to make the climb: they sacrificed a goat in sight of the tomb on the summit and turned back.

Burckhardt eventually made it to Cairo, staying five years, but in 1817 – shortly before his desert caravan was due to depart – he contracted dysentery and died. His diaries, published posthumously, sparked a worldwide resurgence of interest in Petra which continues to this day.

What a life. What an adventure. And the 200th anniversary of his epic discovery was approaching. I hatched a plan. I was going to walk the same route, down the slopes into Petra then over to Mount Aaron (Jabal Haroun in Arabic) – but then do what Burckhardt could not: I was going to climb the mountain.

According to the Old Testament, the Israelites passed through southern Jordan after their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Aaron died there, and Petra’s highest peak, soaring to 1,330 metres, has long been associated with him.

A millennium later the Nabateans, builders of Petra, who carved shrines to their gods on summits all round the region, cut a stepped processional way up the holy mountain. Ruins of a Byzantine monastery dedicated to Aaron stand on a col near the top. Legend has it that the Prophet Muhammad climbed the peak as a young boy, travelling with his uncle.

In 1338, the ruling sultan had a new shrine to Haroun built on the mountain-top, replacing a pre-existing chapel. The current incarnation – a modest one-room rectangular building, which dates from a 1495 restoration – is clearly visible from all round Petra, high against the sky. Its whitewashed walls are the first to catch the rays of the rising sun. Its low dome crowns Petra’s jagged horizon every evening in silhouette.

Wherever you go in Petra, Haroun is in constant view – but few make the effort to approach him. I laid plans. It would be an event. There would be donkeys. Camels. Friends jostled to join the trip. I knew August would be too hot – Burckhardt was made of tougher stuff – so I fixed a date in cooler February. Emails were sent. Deals done.

Then erratic 21st-century weather patterns intervened. A week before the big day, Jordanian forecasters predicted a cold front, with plunging temperatures and heavy rain. I called everyone I knew. Teeth were sucked. Voices warned of capricious conditions, out in the canyons.

I arrived into bitter cold: who thinks to pack gloves for Jordan? Hoteliers stayed huddled by gas heaters. Guides were stamping feet and cupping hands round lit cigarettes, snorting smoky steam. Snow blocked the high-altitude roads. Thick skies hid Haroun. I cancelled the camels.

All that summer Haroun filled my mind. On anniversary day, 22nd August 2012, I gave a talk about Burckhardt, and showed pictures of the mountain. It was becoming an obsession.

But something inside me had changed. Respect had grown, and a jolly jamboree now seemed wrong. The mountain, too, had grown. Was I biting off more than I could chew? I pondered going alone, so that I could fail in private. But then I worried about losing the way.

I sent some dates to Yamaan Safady, one of Jordan’s best guides. He climbs mountains – almost literally – every day of the week. He’d probably been up Jabal Haroun a dozen times; it would be a stroll in the park, the slowest walk he’d ever done. Would he be willing? Of course, he said, and we arranged to meet on the first day of December.

By seven in the morning, we were alone amongst the canyons. Rather than follow Burckhardt’s route, Yamaan had proposed a back trail he knew, approaching Petra from the north. We drove to the trailhead through silver streets, cockerels competing with the tinkling neck-bells of goats.

Then distractions faded as we started walking beneath a mackerel sky that pointed arrows to the mountain.

“I wonder why those bedouin haven’t moved down to the desert yet.”

Yamaan had spotted a black tent, pitched some distance away. His voice danced for a while between cliffs before vanishing into the ravine.

“Maybe they’re planting winter wheat. Then they’ll move,” he murmured.

There was a juniper tree – a young one, said Yamaan, only four or five hundred years old – and we paused on an outcrop for water and dried apricots. Buttery sunlight melted down the canyon’s pitted old face. Mesmeric views went past the sandstone ridges, bent on their igneous black foundations, an unfathomable thousand metres down to the desert floor and beyond, out to the Holy Land.

Past a ledge above a chasm – hug the cliff, ordered Yamaan, and feel for the way with your feet – the going became sandy. I stumbled over bulbs of sea squill, sprouting at the foot of a rocky climb.

“Goats hate them too,” grinned Yamaan. “But crested porcupines dig up one or two. I met some hunters a couple of weeks ago; they said they caught a porcupine as big as a lamb. Look!”

He broke off as an orange flash darted across the cliff-framed sky.

“Tristram’s grackle! Shiny black, but the male has orange patches on his wing.”

When Burckhardt hired a guide for the walk to Jabal Haroun, he paid him with a pair of old horseshoes. Burckhardt, you see, didn’t have Yamaan.

I thought I spied a cairn, silhouetted ahead. Then my jaw fell. As we approached, I realised it was the immense carved urn atop Petra’s largest façade, the Monastery. In twenty years I’d never seen the building from this angle. Wider and taller than the west front of Westminster Abbey, it was – like most of Petra – carved from solid rock two thousand years ago. Perhaps a royal tomb, or a gathering-place for religious ceremonies, though never a monastery, it defies scale. The doorway alone is taller than a house; the urn I saw towers fifty metres above the ground.

The Monastery is the furthest and highest that most tourists go in Petra. As we descended the main access route – comprising about 750 rock-cut steps – threads of trudgers were puffing their way up.

We came down into Petra from the back, crossing the central Colonnaded Street beside temples, tent cafés and loitering camels. The hubbub was like a service station on the motorway: brief, a little dizzying. It was a relief to walk through and re-establish the rhythm of the journey.

Beyond the Amud Faraoun, a lone column standing on the slopes, we encountered no more tourists. Views opened across undulating country, with the white shrine of Haroun always visible on its distant peak as we skirted the titanic cliffs of Umm al-Biyara, heading south out of Petra.

Past the Snake Monument, a huge block carved by the ancient Nabateans as a coiled serpent, the path descended into Wadi Sabra, vast, sunny and silent. It led us around to approach Jabal Haroun from the shadeless southwest. I’d been walking seven hours, and could now hear the voices of tiredness and defeat.

Everything was about putting feet in front of feet. Yamaan saw and walked ahead, letting me fight my own fights. There was no climbing, or even scrambling. It was just an uphill walk, partly on steps cut by the Nabateans. But it was, somehow, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Crystal sunlight poured from translucent skies. One switchback revealed views over the back of the mountain into unimaginably deep canyons, guarded by a single, luminous juniper. There was purity.

Near the top I heard a high, cracked voice. “This way!” it said. “I’ve been watching you the last two hours.”

After brewing us the sweetest, hottest tea at her shack by the fenced-in ruins of the Byzantine monastery, perched on a plateau below the final summit, brown-toothed Tamam wiped her hands on her old black dress, adjusted her headscarf, popped the key of Haroun’s tomb into a pocket and led us to the last few steps. We were going to meet a saint.

The whole Burckhardt anniversary, which had driven me onwards since the beginning, meant nothing now. He’d climbed his own mountains. This was me, climbing mine.

Back at home, a friend nodded when I told her I cried at the top.

“Some places do that to you,” she said.

That reminded me of what Rosalyn Maqsood wrote, in her excellent book on Petra (published by Garnet):

Believers accept that certain localities can be impregnated with the life-giving force of some saint or hero. Traces of their essential virtue would cling to their mortal leavings even though their spirits had passed to another world, and [would] be continually renewed by the constant stream of prayer and devotion emanating from the pilgrims who found their way there. These places are visited to gain healing, or fertility, or protection against dangers, or whatever is the desire of the heart. Jabal Haroun is such a place.

It is.