Your guide in Petra

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For Jordanian guide Mahmoud Twaissi (محمود الطويسي), Petra is in his blood. Literally. He was born and brought up in Petra, and although his work now takes him all over Jordan Mahmoud still calls the ancient Nabatean city home.

“I fell in love with Petra from the minute I was born,” says Mahmoud, now 44. “As a boy I spent most of my free time exploring the city. Later, at high school, I helped with the archaeological excavations around Petra in my summer holidays.” Mahmoud didn’t like the thought of working in an office when he grew up. “I much prefer fieldwork because it truly gives you the feeling of a place: you can touch it, you can smell it, you can taste it.”

The main reason Mahmoud chose to become a guide is Petra itself, and his admiration for the Nabateans, the civilisation that built the city around 2,000 years ago. At its zenith the Nabatean Empire extended to some 2.5 million square kilometres, with Petra as its capital. “Petra created my personality,” says Mahmoud. “It encouraged me to read about archaeology, history, geology, anthropology, ecology. It’s a living museum.”

But, despite his love of Petra, Mahmoud wasn’t always destined to be a guide. As the oldest son his father wished him to become a doctor. “When I finished high school my father wanted to send me to medical school at Jordan University. I wanted to study history or archaeology – something related to Petra – but he refused.”

Mahmoud duly went to Jordan University, but changed to archaeology without telling his father. “After a year my father discovered that I wasn’t studying medicine. He wasn’t pleased, but eventually agreed I should follow my interests.” Luckily, one of his brothers is now studying to be a doctor, whilst his other siblings include amongst them a vet, a dentist, a university lecturer, and several teachers.

After finishing university Mahmoud joined a postgraduate training course in the Ministry of Tourism to qualify as a licensed guide. With a required pass mark of 70%, including fluency in another language, the examinations were clearly no cake-walk.

From the beginning Mahmoud has preferred eco-tourism and hiking to bus tours. “You feel closer to nature, and to real people,” he comments. “On the bus tours you only meet the driver and the hotel staff, you go see the sites and return to the hotel.” Mahmoud is one of only around 35 hiking guides in Jordan. “Most guides prefer the bus tours as it’s easier!” he smiles. 

There may also be hereditary reasons why Mahmoud loves Petra so much. “In 1992 a Byzantine church, dating back to the 6th century AD, was discovered. In one of the rooms they found some papyrus documents, which included names of places: villages, springs, canyons. One of these mentioned a piece of land called Heno al-Twaissi ( حنو طويسي). This is my family name, and we still own that land in Wadi Musa, the town next to Petra.”

Indeed, it’s entirely possible that Mahmoud’s family has inhabited Petra since Nabatean times. His own tribe, the Laythneh (اللياثنه), lived in the ancient caves until around the 1950s, and in the 1980s the authorities moved the re-maining Bedouin out of the caves to protect the archaeological park, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Now Mahmoud lives in Wadi Musa with his teacher wife and three children, though he himself is one of 14 (ten broth-ers and four sisters). “This is the difference between my grandfather’s generation and my own. In the past we had large families, depended on agriculture, and were semi-nomadic. Now we have smaller families, live in houses and have professional jobs.”


For Mahmoud, the best part of his work as a guide is dealing with people from all over the world. “When you work with tourists it’s an opportunity to show them your country and heritage. But it’s also a good chance for you to learn from them. For example, I might meet a geologist and can learn from him, and I can improve my languages. And I also learn a lot about other people’s countries and customs.”

Mahmoud likes to see his clients as good ambassadors for Jordan, so when they return home they can tell people about the country. “Jordan has no major natural resources, such as oil, so tourism is very important.” And not just sightseeing, but eco-tourism such as hiking and bird-watching, and religious tourism to many of the country’s holy sites.

There’s no such thing as a typical day for Mahmoud. “As I work all over Jordan I don’t have any routine in my life, and this is one of the best things about my job. Sometimes I lead classic sightseeing tours, sometimes hiking trips, or camel riding in Wadi Rum. Sometimes I stay in five-star hotels, other times I camp in the desert. It’s the variety of the work – and the variety of the people I meet – that I love.”

Like all tourist guides in Jordan, Mahmoud is freelance, and this brings its own challenges. “The income is not stable, so you can’t easily plan for the long-term. We have two peak periods, spring and autumn, and the rest of the year is low-season.”

But Mahmoud is not one to sit back on his laurels when the tourists have gone home. He also catches up on his re-search and reading, which he doesn’t have time for when travelling, and undertakes voluntary work in his community. He is a member of the Friends of Petra, helps with the local youth club, and often returns to his old love, archaeology, volunteering at the excavations in Petra.

As he’s away working around eight months of the year he also likes to spend quality time with his family. When his two sons and daughter are on their holidays he takes them around the sites of Jordan and acts as a guide for them, too. “The problem is, they don’t pay me!” he laughs.

Mahmoud can be contacted on

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