If she climbed the hill on foot, she might be thinking about alternate routes to get down to the valley without falling; if she made it up there on a donkey, she might be wondering what she would do if her beast were to break a limb. Either way, climbing down the mountain is the least of her problems. She lives in a nearby village, where every day she has to walk to a well to fetch water; where life is hard, where all she sees as soon as she opens her eyes are rocks and sand, sand and rocks. But she gets up anyway, makes bread and tea for her family and herself, wraps in a cloth bag the trinkets she sells to tourists in Petra, and rides the donkey up the cliff, all the way to this very spot, where a bag of chips is all there is to eat under the shade of a squalid tree.
Along the processional way up, there are plenty of places to rest, including a holy spring, a shrine, a ceremonial dining room, and this cool ledge overlooking a deep ravine below: this woman's work place. While hikers stop at this enchanted mossy grotto to take in the views and catch their breath, the woman gets to work offering donkey rides to the summit, “Air-condition taxi, mister?”
Does she know that she is working right where the biblical Nabateans lived more than 2000 years ago? Does she know that the archaeological authorities want to shut her business down because the donkeys' hooves are degrading the sandstone steps on the route up? Maybe she does, maybe she doesn't. I don't think she cares. From where she works, she has stupendous views over the entire Petra basin and the Wadi Araba. And in the afternoon, the sun moves around enough to hit the facade of the mountain full-on before plunging into the horizon, leaving the basin suspended in a twilight moment. And I'm sure, at this moment, everything else seems unimportant.
I knew we were reaching the top when we spotted two prominent obelisks, both over 18 feet-high, which supposedly represent Dushara and al-Uzza, the Nabatean deities. The obelisks, despite being solid, were not placed there; instead, the entire side of the mountain-top was leveled to leave them exposed and erect. Consequently, the place is known as the Phallus of Mercy, a place visited by barren women praying for fertility.
Other than the obelisks, the other sign that we were nearing the top was her voice. A woman chanted in Arabic and whistled stridently, sending her high pitch intonations down the cliff. She was up there, walking around the platform--used in biblical times as the venue for religious ceremonies-- oriented towards an altar, on which it is believed stood a table of offerings.
As soon as we reached the top, she grabbed my hand and led me from corner to corner of the summit. She looked rough. Her leathery skin seemed like life and the lives of others have left their mark on her face, and her hands were thick with callosities. She looked a little bit crazy, a little bit dangerous, a great deal like she was not the woman I wanted to be left alone with at the edge of a cliff. She showed me the altar and gave me the slash-throat sign, letting me know without words what it was for. She chanted some some more, whistled louder, and showed me everything there was to see up there. At some point, we held hands as we admired the vastness of Petra’s mountain terrain and from there, she pointed at the tomb of Aaron atop Jabal Haroun, in clear sight in the distance.
I don't know what she wanted from me. She didn't ask for money or water (I had neither). She just sang and whistled as she showed me around as if this mountain top were her own house. Before I started the descent she instructed me to sit next to her by the sacrificial altar. She showed me a picture of a man, caressed his face on the torn paper, and using body language told me he was dead. The hard edges of her contours softened. We sat there in silence and from there we saw the city of Petra standing in a broad valley down below. She put the picture of her deceased husband away and whistled some more.