Your guide in Petra
Written by Gail Simmons
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.”
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.
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.”
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 www.mahmoudtwaissi.com
Chosen in 2007 to be one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, Petra is undoubtedly Jordan’s chief tourist attraction. Famed for Al-Khazneh (the treasury), its most iconic ‘building’, the ancient capital of the Nabatean empire is actually carved from the rock faces of the surrounding wadis (canyons), its name deriving from the Greek word ‘petra’, for ‘rock’. But the Treasury is just one of many such monumental sculptures, which include the El-Deir (the monastery), and the theatre for 4,000 spectators. Hidden from the world until rediscovered by Swiss explorer Jean Burckhardt in 1812, Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
The Jordanian Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) is a pioneering organisation in the Middle East, dedicated to safeguarding Jordan’s natural resources. Living up to its motto ‘helping nature, helping people’, the RSCN has established several protected areas throughout Jordan, raising awareness of environmental issues whilst creating job opportunities through eco-tourism, crafts, and other nature-based businesses. From the wooded Ajloun in the north of Jordan, to the wetland reserve at Azraq oasis in the east, Dana nature reserve in the centre of the country and Wadi Rum in the south, there are plenty of opportunities to see the RSCN at work.
HIKING IN JORDAN
With its mountains, canyons, and deserts, Jordan is the ideal landscape for hiking. Although a relatively small country, Jordan is rich with historic sites, archaeological remains, nature reserves, and villages where you can meet the local people. Jordan’s climate is ideal for hiking at all times of the year. In winter you can walk in the Jordan Rift Valley where it is still warm, in summer you can hike in the cool of the mountains, and in the spring and autumn you can trek in the desert. It’s also one of the safest countries in the world for tourists.