“Jordan has a strange, haunting beauty and a sense of timelessness. Dotted with the ruins of empires once great, it is the last resort of yesterday in the world of tomorrow. I love every inch of it.” ~ King Hussein I
The Dead Sea and Fun-loving Minako
Saturday, November 5: Nihad from the Jordan Tower Hotel picked me up from Queen Alia Airport, cigarette in hand. He had a face with grayish stubble and a mustache. I found throughout my trip that Jordanians love to smoke, and he was no exception. We drove through the quiet outer streets, through the sharp cliffs and hills topped with old and decaying granite houses, into the city center. Everyone was shopping for the Eid, and most of the shoppers were men; they were shopping for new clothes, food, electronics, you name it. These streets had a similar holiday vibe to our Christmas season: crowds and utter frenzy reigned. Male mannequins displayed western clothing in open-air shop entryways. Weathered men sold used and broken furniture on the asphalt streets. A huge traffic jam knotted the center of the city and no police were present to sort it out. Some enterprising young men got out of their cars and directed the traffic to clear up the tangled jam, while drivers honked and hollered in frustration.
At the hotel, my room wasn’t ready yet. I was anxious to get started exploring Jordan so I asked the advice of the hotel staff. They told me a Japanese girl was going to the Dead Sea so if I wanted to share a ride with her, the cost would be 25 JD. She would stay the night in the Movenpick, but I could go to another resort where they charged 15 dinar to use their facilities and swim in the Dead Sea. It sounded like as good a way as any to begin my time in Jordan.
Minako was a 30-year-old Japanese girl who lived in Tokyo but was originally from Okinawa. She finished her university studies and had worked at Accenture for 8 years. She’d decided to study medicine and was trying to find the right university. She had a boyfriend, but they had broken up 3 months before. I was sure that in Japanese culture, she was probably an anomaly, being 30 years old and not married. Minako was happy and upbeat and her mood was infectious. I loved this kind of person who was not at all shy and befriended everyone. I so wished I was like this myself, but I have always been more reticent and wait for other people to reach out in friendship.
She asked me all about my situation and found it quite amusing and “coo….” Though her English was excellent, she had the typical Asian problem with pronunciation of “l” and “r,” so every time she said “cool,” which was A LOT, she said “coo…” It was endearing. She found my marital situation interesting (my husband and I had been separated for four years and would remain so for three more years until 2014, when we would reconcile) and said, “I think your husband still loves you if he accepts what you’re doing.” I said I didn’t know about that. We took an immediate liking to each other.
The Dead Sea is at the lowest point on earth, about 1300 feet below sea level, and has such high salt content (over 33%) that nothing but the most microscopic life forms can survive in it. It’s 42 miles long and 11 miles wide and lies in the Jordan Rift Valley. Its main tributary is the Jordan River; it borders Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west. From the Hebrew Bible, it was likely that Jericho was just north of the Dead Sea. Somewhere, perhaps on the southeast shore, would be the cities mentioned in the Book of Genesis which were said to have been destroyed in the time of Abraham: Sodom and Gomorra (Genesis 18). The rich Biblical heritage of this area in Jordan literally took my breath away, even though I wasn’t a particularly religious person.
We shared the ride with Nihad to the Dead Sea, and made him stop at a number of spots along the way to take pictures of the views. We dropped Minako at the top-notch Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea.
Nihad took me down the road a bit to the O Beach Hotel, which was nice in its own right. I paid my 15 dinar and changed into my bathing suit. I walked around admiring the views, the infinity pool stretching into the Dead Sea, the bar sunk into the infinity pool, the cushioned lounge chairs and umbrellas and cabanas.
Down on the beach below a small group of young people were swimming in the Dead Sea. It was little chilly, so I wasn’t too anxious to jump in. Feeling hungry, I ordered a glass of red wine and a turkey sandwich and relaxed on a lounge chair. The only annoying detraction were the flies, swarming all over the bar and all over me as I tried to relax; they were all over my glass of wine and my turkey and pickle sandwich. Luckily the flies didn’t seem to bite, but they were hugely annoying.
Finally, with some trepidation, I climbed in over the rocks and hardened calcified salt and dipped into the sea. It was very strange, the sensation of floating in this salt-dense sea. There was no need to tread water or to make any motion at all to stay afloat. My body immediately moved into a “sitting in a chair” position, and it was next-to-impossible to move out of this position. It was like the sea was an armchair and all I did was sink into it. No movement was required at all.
I made an attempt to swim a modified crawl, with my head above the water, but it was difficult to swim because my legs popped out of the water behind me. In addition, the water was a little choppy and I swallowed a mouthful of salt water, which was so thick with salt it was like a salt-water gargle. I also had a cut on my lip which burned from the salt-on-a-wound effect.
I didn’t stay in long because it felt too bizarre. When I got out, I had a slimy film all over my skin and I dipped into the ice cold infinity pool to wash off the salt water. It didn’t come off and actually the beads of water didn’t dry up in the sun.
An exotic Iraqi woman named Tonya approached me and told me she did massages. Always a sucker for a massage, I succumbed to the temptation for a half-body mud massage for 33 dinar. We went into an open air room with mats hanging over the opening for semi-privacy. When I lay face-down on the massage table, there was a mirror below that let me see the Dead Sea as I got my massage. After the lovely massage and cold shower, I met Nihad for my hour-long ride back to Amman.
Outside in Amman, the weather was cold and rainy, a total switch from the Dead Sea. I opted to eat a light snack of mushroom soup, bread and mint tea in the hotel and to sit in the common room writing notes about my day. I felt chilled, so I got cozy early in my room, where I cranked up the heat to toasty, toastier, toastiest. Outside my window, on the busy streets below, was a cacophony of noise that grated on my senses. People enthusiastically shopping for Eid were shouting, cars were honking, loud Arabic music was blaring. But worst of all there was a loudspeaker right below my window that repeated a sales pitch in Arabic that sounded like this: Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla.
All freaking night long.
Before Minako and I had taken off that morning, she had warned me, laughing her infectious laugh: “You’ll probably get my room. It was so noisy! I’ve never heard anything like it.” Without a doubt.
The King’s Highway to the Bedouin Camp at Petra
Sunday, November 6: I woke up at 2 a.m. to the same loudspeaker I heard when I went to sleep. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Blah blah blah, blablablablabla. Unbelievable! Somehow I did manage to go back to sleep, but I was wondering how the owners of this shop, selling whatever “enticing” goods they were selling for whatever bargain price, could even stand this obnoxious announcement themselves. I couldn’t imagine this sound lured shoppers to buy anything!
Later I awoke around 4-4:30 to hear that the loudspeaker had stopped. Sweet heavenly relief! FINALLY that damn thing had quit its bellowing. I was beginning to think I was in some episode of the Twilight Zone. There was still a buzz of activity on the street below but it was a gentle buzz, like static. I rolled over and drifted off again….only to be awakened a half hour later by the call to prayer from the mosque! It never ended, this noise in Amman!
In the morning, I ate an omelet, cucumbers and tomatoes, bread and cheese, followed by hot coffee in the lobby. Our driver for today, Aboud, brought his tiny sedan, already carrying a Turkish couple, to the Jordan Tower Hotel. The Turkish couple, Emre and Zeynap, were friendly but Emre’s English was rudimentary. Zeynap’s was excellent. Of course I had to tell them how much I adored Turkey, how it was my favorite country ever, how I loved Cappadoccia and Istanbul.
The plan was to drive from Amman back to the Dead Sea where we would pick up Minako from the Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea. Then, all four of us tourists plus Aboud would take a long meandering drive along the King’s Highway. This drive would take about 11 hours, including numerous stops along the way, with the destination being Petra. The direct drive from Amman to Petra was only 3 hours, but we wanted to stop and see the sights along the way.
At the Movenpick, I ran in to find Minako and she took me out back to the magnificent view. She told me how she spent all yesterday afternoon relaxing by the pool and swimming in the Dead Sea. I asked her how she put up with the flies. She said, “Flies? What flies?” I told her I never had a moment’s relief from them at the O Beach Hotel.
Then I asked her if she had a massage or any spa treatments. “I didn’t have time!” she said. “I was only there one afternoon and overnight.” I said, “I was only at the O Beach Hotel for 2 1/2 hours and I had a massage!” She found that hilarious, that I managed to squeeze in a massage in my short time at the Dead Sea, while she was at her hotel overnight and “didn’t have time.” I guess it all boiled down to priorities. The rest of the day, she joked about this ridiculous situation.
Our route today was along the King’s Highway, a trade route of vital importance to the ancient Middle East. Aboud told us this road was the oldest road in Jordan, going back thousands of years. It began in Egypt, and stretched across the Sinai Peninsula to Aqaba. From there it turned northward across Jordan, leading to Damascus and the Euphrates River. The Nabataeans used this road as a trade route for luxury goods such as frankincense and spices from southern Arabia. The Highway has also been used as an important pilgrimage route for Christians as it passed numerous sites important in Christianity, including Mount Nebo and “the Baptism Site” at the Jordan River, where Jesus is believed to have been baptized by John the Baptist.
Our first stop was the Wadi Mujib Nature Reserve which was established for the captive breeding of the Nubian ibex, a desert-dwelling goat species found in the mountainous areas of Jordan, among other places. These goats were even found in Oman! We walked a bit down the canyon, or the Siq Trail, a gorge with a river that flowed into the Dead Sea. Guides called this place “Petra with Water.”
After we explored the canyon for a bit, we climbed back up a metal ladder and walked back to our tiny box of a car and squeezed in again. Our next stop was Lot’s Cave. In the hills east of Ghor as-Safi (ancient Zoar) a cave was found in 1991 with Early and Middle Bronze Age pottery inside. Speculation linked the finds with Abraham’s nephew Lot who, according to the Bible, moved to a cave in the hills above Zoar after Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.
We all know the story of Sodom and Gomorrah: Sodom and Gomorrah were two of the wickedest cities in the world. God therefore decided to destroy them both, but there was just one good family in the city, so God decided to save them. Lot and his family were told to flee the city, but not to look back. Unfortunately his wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt. After escaping, Lot and his daughters hid in a cave where they watched the awesome destruction of the wicked cities. This was apparently that cave.
We climbed to the top of a small mountain overlooking the Dead Sea, where we found the aforementioned cave. We enjoyed an amazing view of the Dead Sea and the valley below. Breathless and tired, we climbed back into the car for a long drive to Karak.
The ancient Crusader castle of Karak (or Kerak) was the setting for 12th century battles between the Crusaders and the Muslim armies of Salah-ad-Din (Saladin). Karak is only one in a long line of castles built by the Crusaders stretching from Aqaba in southern Jordan to Turkey in the north.
A particularly evil Crusader, Renauld de Chatillon, arrived from France in 1148 to take part in the Crusades. He took delight in torturing prisoners and throwing them off the walls into the valley 450 meters below. It is said he fastened wooden boxes over his victims’ heads so they wouldn’t lose consciousness before hitting the ground.
We entered through the Ottoman Gate and crossed a bridge over a dry moat. Karak sat impressively at the top of a large cliff. The castle itself was not that impressive, considering that only parts of walls were still standing, but the views were phenomenal, especially the golden valley below dotted with farmhouses, bushes and cloud shadows.
After we explored the rest of the castle grounds, we met Aboud at a local restaurant called Al-Fid’a, where we had the most delicious food I’d had in Jordan so far: a Spanish omelet and lemon with mint and some lentil soup. Minako had a mixed grill with lamb and chicken. It was all delicious; the sun was amber-glowing and the air was as cool and crisp as a cucumber.
Our next stop was Jafar Bin Abi Taleb Shrine. Aboud told Zeynap, Minako and me that we needed to wear headscarves into the mosque, so we put some on. He told Minako, since she was wearing only shorts and tights, that she should put on an abaya, but she never seemed to find her way into one. She was so funny when Aboud told her to hurry out of the mosque so the Iman didn’t get angry. She did a hilarious high-step tiptoe out of the mosque.
Later, we drove further along the King’s Highway, where trees were permanently leaning in an easterly direction, due to the continual winds from the west. It was strange to see every single tree along this road leaning at 45 degree angles.
Our last stop was at a lookout point in the Dana Nature Reserve. This is the largest reserve in Jordan, with landscapes ranging from sandstone cliffs to the below-sea-level Wadi Araba. Of course, we didn’t have time for hiking in this reserve. The view alone was breathtaking. It looked like a fantasy landscape, otherworldly.
We finally arrived in Wadi Musa as the sun was setting. Wadi Musa (Moses’ Valley) is the village that has sprung up around Petra. Aboud dropped Minako and me off at the Rocky Mountain Hotel, run by Jane and Atef. Jane was a pretty blonde New Zealander and Atef was her younger, and gorgeous, Bedouin boyfriend. They also owned the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp, where I was due to stay on Tuesday night. My colleague from the university had sent three gift packages of Omani dates with me to give to the staff at Rocky Mountain, so I unloaded my bag and handed them over to Jane upon my arrival. Jane was a little stressed because she said there was no hot water in the hotel and she was trying to get the situation resolved. She thanked me for the dates and I said I’d tell Willem she liked them. Then she mentioned to me that she didn’t know why she got involved with someone ridiculously younger than her. “I would have been happy to just be business partners; I don’t need all these problems with a younger man.”
I settled in to my room to relax a bit while the staff gave Minako a ride to the Bedouin camp, where she planned to stay tonight. I told her I’d join her for dinner at the camp, making a stop along the way to buy a bottle of wine, around 7 p.m. A young and skinny Jordanian guy named Sammy picked me up and stopped to pick up a friend. He was yapping on his cell phone and sending messages the whole time he was driving. He picked up the friend and sent that friend into some hotel to buy the wine, instructing him numerous times that it should be red wine. The guy came back with a bottle of wine, but I could see it was clear. I protested, “No, no, that’s white wine! I want red!” As much as I was paying, 20 dinar, I insisted on getting what I wanted. Then they had to go on a circuitous route to find the red wine. Finally, they found me two half-liter bottles for 13 dinar each and I agreed that it was fine. We didn’t arrive at the camp until 8:30, and I feared Minako had given up on me!
At the Bedouin camp, I met Minako already halfway through her dinner. It was quite cold in the dining tent. I was so happy I bought a winter vest and heavy sweater in Muscat before I left! It was freezing. We shivered and huddled over our food, which was mostly cold salads, with some lukewarm chicken and rice and lukewarm lentil soup served buffet-style. Luckily the wine added some warmth to the meal, and we downed that quite heartily.
After dinner we went into another long rectangular tent where there was a nice fire in a metal grill. We brought the rest of our wine with us and ordered some shisha. Some Bedouin guys played a stringed musical instrument like a guitar and sang songs in Arabic. We smoked our apple-flavored shisha and drank our wine and warmed ourselves by the fire.
Minako told me she was not happy with her “room;” her tent was tiny, unheated, with no bathroom. She showed it to me, and it was in fact all of those things she described. In the center of the camp was one public bathroom, with two toilets and two showers, unheated. Much like a bathroom in an American campground. It was so cold, I decided then and there that I would cancel my reservation for the camp Tuesday night and just stay my third night in the Rocky Mountain Hotel.
The Ancient Rose-Red City of Petra
Monday, November 7: Petra was more awesome than I could have ever imagined. I had traveled extensively in the previous two years, and often I’d found that national treasures were a bit of a letdown because their “tourist attraction” aspect was so inescapable. I felt especially this way about the Taj Mahal. But Petra, even though tourists abounded, did not disappoint. Its natural beauty is so unreal and fantastical and its man-made imprints so classic and imposing that even pictures don’t do it justice. Just the magnitude of the sheer terra-cotta painted walls on the path leading to the surprising Treasury took my breath away. There was no easy way in or out of this hidden treasure, and the exertion was definitely worth every hard-earned step. I loved this place.
I started my morning with breakfast at the Rocky Mountain Hotel and in the lobby I met, purely by accident, Matt, a colleague from the University of Nizwa, where I’d just started teaching English in Oman. He had come alone to Jordan for the Eid, as I had, and he was planning to go back to Petra to climb to the High Place of Sacrifice. He said he could accompany me until he had to turn off to make his climb.
I was going for the first time and so was looking forward to taking it all in by myself. I loved going to a place like this on my own, with no one to distract me with chatter. I would take my time, soak it in, move at my pace and in my way. I was finding that I mostly preferred to travel this way, alone. I did enjoy meeting fellow travelers along the way, and I loved time with them if they had a certain zest for life and an adventurous outlook. The nice thing about traveling this way was that I was never tied to anyone and if I found someone difficult, boring or not to my liking, I could take off in my own direction and be done with them.
This was awkward. Matt was a nice guy but he talked nonstop. And he was a colleague so I didn’t want to be rude. The worst part of his talk was that a great deal of it was about sports. When Matt started talking about the Redskins and the Bills and God knows who else, I told him the same thing I tell everyone I know: I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO INTEREST IN SPORTS! Did that stop him? NO! Funny thing, this. I find that most sports fanatics, even if you tell them you have NO INTEREST IN SPORTS, will keep talking about them ad infinitum as if you never said such a thing. Maybe they just don’t believe such a thing is possible, for a person not to care about sports.
Soon after the main gate to Petra, we came upon some men offering horse rides down a long path to As-Siq, the ancient main entrance. It was quite a long walk to As-Siq and I loved to ride horses, so I took one up on his offer. Matt walked on. I rode the little horse for a leisurely walk down the trail for about 3 dinar. I hopped off, and there was Matt waiting for me.
We walked into As-Siq, which is an impressive and breathtaking 1200 meter long, deep and narrow sandstone gorge. It towered over us up to 80 meters. This is apparently not really a canyon, though it looks like one. It’s really a rock landmass that was ripped apart by tectonic forces. We saw colorful rocks, bizarre-looking geological formations, agricultural terraces, and water channels cut into the cliffs (what we call aflaj in Oman). We saw tombs, facades, theaters and stairways carved into the rocky cliffs. The sunlight spilled like shimmery liquid into the gorge and highlighted parts of the high cliff faces, artfully gilding the already painted walls. It was stunning.
In the early morning there weren’t many tourists. I wished Matt would stop talking. I wanted to be silent, to soak it in, but there was this chatter, non-stop. I wished so much I was all alone. To contemplate, to linger, to appreciate the natural beauty and the history.
And oh, what a history. Petra is the ancient rose-red city of the Nabataeans, ancient Arab tribes who controlled the region’s trade routes, levying tolls and protecting caravans filled with Arabian frankincense and myrrh, Indian spices and silks, African ivory and animal hides. Profits from their caravan business enabled them to establish a powerful kingdom that stretched to Damascus and included parts of the Sinai and Negev deserts, effectively ruling the greater part of Arabia. This wasn’t an easy task as the region at the time was dominated by rival Greek factions, the Hasmonaeans and later the Romans. The city itself was built in the 3rd century BC by these enterprising people who carved palaces, temples, storerooms, tombs and stables from the cliffs.
Despite fierce battles to protect their independence, the Roman Empire annexed the Nabataean kingdom in 106 AD. Petra and the Nabataean kingdom managed to prosper for many more years until trade routes shifted and demand for frankincense declined as Christianity replaced pagan religions. Archeologists believe that several earthquakes, including a massive one in AD 555, forced the inhabitants to abandon the city. A Swiss traveler named Johann Ludwing Burckhardt rediscovered it in 1812.
I honestly didn’t know about the Nabataeans before I came to Petra, but I was impressed by their architectural and artistic sensibility. What they managed to add to an already beautiful and impenetrable landscape is of fairy-tale quality and explains why movie-makers picked this place as the setting for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s simply unreal what they created here. Yet. They did indeed imagine it. And then they ran with this vision to chisel the towering rock facades into a city that lasted, and flourished, for hundreds of years.
We meandered along through the curvaceous As-Siq and I was waiting for the surprise of the Treasury. I could imagine it from pictures. And then, around a bend, there it was, looming before us, through a sliver in the gorge, yes, there was a slice. Al-Khazneh, the Treasury, with its Alexandrian Hellenistic columns, its unique Nabataean facade. I felt dwarfed by its height, its immensity, and struck by its proportions, by its elaborate carvings. It was carved in the 1st century BC as a tomb of an important Nabataean King. Some scholars believe it was later used as a temple. Locals believed, mistakenly, that an Egyptian pharaoh hid his treasure in the top urn, thus the misnomer “The Treasury.”
At the Treasury, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get on a camel and have my picture taken. Part of the problem with traveling alone is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get pictures of yourself. I asked Matt if he would mind taking a picture of me on the camel, and he grudgingly did so. He also had me take a picture of one camel’s blanket that had The Bills on it.
After the camel photo shoot, we continued and the way broadened into the Outer Siq. This was the Street of Facades, with over 40 tombs.
Then we came upon a 7,000-seat Theatre. To the left of that were the steps that led to the High Place of Sacrifice, a hill-top altar, where Matt planned to climb. We parted ways, saying we would meet for lunch later, and I headed further back into the depths of Petra.
Across from the Theatre were the Royal Tombs, a set of tomb facades cut into the cliffs.
I continued to walk along a colonnaded street that used to be lined with shops toward the Great Temple and the Temple of the Winged Lions. At the end of the street, on the left, was the Nabataean temple known as Qasr al-Bint.
I kept walking until I came to an area where boys were offering donkey rides up the 800-step rock-cut staircase to the Monastery. I thought of this as a kind of adventure, to ride the donkey upstairs. There were magnificent views of the mountains as we climbed. Once he dropped me off, there was still plenty of walking to be done.
At the top was Petra’s second most famous attraction, Ad-Deir, or the Monastery. The proportions of this are much bulkier and gargantuan than the Treasury, whose columns are much more delicate and intricately carved. The architectural embellishment is much simpler than the Treasury. But it’s overpowering in its sheer magnitude.
After reaching the Monastery, I sat at an outdoor coffee shop, sipped some tea and took in the view.
After, I walked up to one of the viewpoints on a cliff top, where I could see the rock formations of Petra from above, Jebel Haroun, and even Wadi Araba. A Jordanian guy was sitting at the top playing some kind of guitar-like musical instrument. He did double-duty as a shopkeeper, selling jewelry made by local artisans.
On the way down from the Sacrifice View, I passed by the Monastery again.
Finally, I had to walk down and this was the worst of all. Down the 800 steps was hard on my knees, and surprisingly painful to my toes. I was wearing Keds tennis shoes, and going down, my toes were jamming up against the end of these shoes. By about halfway down, with all the walking I did just to get to the area near the Theatre, plus the difficult walk down, my legs and toes were killing me. I thought someone would have to come and carry me out.
By the time I got to the bottom, I was starving and dead tired. I went into the only restaurant around which happened to charge an exorbitant 10 dinar for a buffet lunch. At the lunch counter, who did I find but Matt, who had haphazardly arrived. We sat at an outdoor table and ate lunch. I was hesitant to get up and walk again, because I knew the way out was still a long one.
Finally, after eating, we wandered into the museum and there I bought two rings, one with amethyst and one in turquoise and coral. A little further on, Matt decided to go explore the Royal Tombs, and I continued on by myself. He was disappointed I wouldn’t go to the tombs with him because he wanted to share a taxi back to the hotel, but I didn’t care about the cost of the taxi. I was ready to go and I wanted some peace and solitude. I said it was best that we parted ways. I continued the long journey out, which seemed to take another hour at least.
Finally, I hobbled out the entrance and hailed a taxi which I took to the Rocky Mountain Hotel. I could hardly move my legs. They were throbbing with pain. Pure misery.
After a warm shower and a nice nap, I ventured to the Mövenpick Resort Petra near the entrance to Petra and enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine. Then I went to the Oriental Restaurant, where I had a veggie pizza. I was tired and the wine made me sleepy, so I returned to the hotel so I could rest for my trip the next day to Wadi Rum.
A Day in the Red Desert of Wadi Rum & an evening at Little Petra
Tuesday, November 8: Yesterday while we were at Petra, my colleague Matt asked if I’d like to share a trip to Wadi Rum today. Since it cost 90 dinar (~$127) to take a car there alone, we agreed to share the trip and split the cost. He desperately wanted to go to Aqaba as well, in southern Jordan, but I had no interest in Aqaba nor did I have any interest in paying the extra 30 dinar to go there. Around 9 a.m., Atef’s brother Hussein came to pick us up and we were on our way.
It took about 1 1/2 hours each way to get there. When we arrived, after stopping several times to let herds of sheep cross the road, we climbed into the back of an ancient Nissan pick-up truck and begin our drive around Wadi Rum. Our driver was Najas, and that was all he turns out to be, just a driver. Not a guide of any kind. It was quite cold as we headed out into the desert, and I was bundled up in a sweater and my down vest. The sun was beating down on us and with the cool air combined with the sun, the weather was spectacular.
The desert and mountain landscape of Wadi Rum were immortalized in TE Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the early 20th century. The film Lawrence of Arabia was partially filmed here and contributed not only to the legend of the man who took part in the Arab revolt but also shone a spotlight on Wadi Rum itself.
We began our exploration at Lawrence’s Spring, where Lawrence of Arabia reputedly washed during the Arab Revolt. The Arab Revolt took place from 1916-1918. It’s aim was to secure independence from the ruling Ottoman Turks and create a single unified Arab state spanning from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen. Young officer Captain T.E. Lawrence was sent by the British government in Egypt to work with the Hashemite forces in the Hejaz in October 1916. The British historian David Murphy wrote that through Lawrence was just one of out many British and French officers serving in Arabia, historians often write like it was Lawrence alone who represented the Allied cause in Arabia.
We stopped and looked up at the small mountain from which the spring supposedly flowed, but we didn’t climb up to see it. My legs were too sore from Petra yesterday. We wandered around in the desert and saw a Bedouin camp set up in the shadow of the mountain. A Bedouin boy sat under the shade of a tree with his camels. We also saw some Alameleh inscriptions on the rocks at the bottom. These were ancient rock drawings showing camels and wildlife.
We hopped back in our crusty Nissan and headed to the Red Sand Dunes, where families were sitting and children were running and rolling down the hills. These deep red sand dunes seemed to catch fire on the slopes of Jebel Umm Ulaydiyya.
Next we went to Khazali Canyon, a deep narrow fissure in the mountainside, containing more rock inscriptions. One of the inscriptions here said “I miss my GMC car,” and I snapped a photo of it, since right before I left for Jordan I had put a 100 rial deposit down on a 2008 GMC Terrain in Oman. This canyon was beautiful with its red rocks and its walls that aspired to touch the sky.
We drove all over the sand in our Nissan, bouncing along in the breezy sunlight. This desert was lovely with its red sand, its looming sculpted and weathered rocks, and the slant of light throughout the day. We spent 3 hours driving around and stopping at various sights. Before returning, we made a stop at the ruins of the Nabatean Temple, used by the Nabateans to worship ALLAT (Goddess). This temple was built on the ruins of Allat Temple of the AAD Tribe.
It was stunning and I halfway wished I had arranged to spend the night in one of the Bedouin encampments. However, it was freezing cold at night in Jordan and I already cancelled my other Bedouin camp-out for tonight in Petra just for this reason.
We headed back toward Wadi Musa near Petra and stopped at the Petra overlook where we saw the folds of red stone that made up the Petra canyons below. It was amazing to see it from above and I was surprised it all looked so small from this height. From the canyon floor it was so overwhelming that it swallowed you up. But from above, we couldn’t even make out more than wrinkled folds of red rocks.
Back at the Rocky Mountain Hotel, I felt hungry and was ready to go down to the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp where I would meet two of my colleagues, David and Mario, for dinner. Hussein drove me to a little restaurant where I bought a delicious chicken schwarma and then he took me to see Little Petra, a short distance north of Petra. Wild and beautiful outcrops of rock, the color of pale honey, form what is called al-Beidha in Arabic, ‘the white one’. It was beautiful but I didn’t have much time as the sun was ready to set and I wanted to get to the Bedouin camp by sunset.
At the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp, the Bedouin boys, including Atef from the Rocky Mountain Hotel, had built a toasty fire. I sat around the campfire with other travelers, then went inside a partially enclosed tent with a toasty campfire. There the Bedouin boys sang and danced and finally David and Mario arrived and we all sat and enjoyed the music. We had dinner then in the communal tent where David told his story that was every traveler’s nightmare, how he got to the airport in Muscat and tried to use the ATM, only to have the ATM eat his card, his only source of money for his trip!! Luckily he had his friend Mario along who was able to lend him money along the way.
A Brief and Blessedly Quiet Return to Petra
Wednesday, November 9: This morning I lounged in my warm bed at the Rocky Mountain Hotel and thought about what to do with my day. On my first day in Petra, I had to make a decision, without even knowing how much time it would take to see the place, whether to buy the one- , two- , or three-day pass. It was 50 dinar (~$70) to buy the ticket for one day, 55 dinar (~$77) for two days, and 60 (~$84) for three. Since I knew I’d be in Wadi Musa, the town next to Petra, for 3 days, I went ahead and got the ticket for 3 days, just in case. Yesterday, I went to Wadi Rum so I didn’t use my 2nd day pass.
This time, Matt would not be along as he had headed back to Madaba, home of Byzantine-era mosaics. So, this time I could go alone, soak in the ambiance and beauty that was Petra in peace and quiet, and make the long climb up to the High Place of Sacrifice.
I packed my bag, got a ride with a couple from the hotel down to Petra, rode the horse to the entrance, and walked through As-Siq again. This time, as it was later in the morning, the light was gorgeous, richer, the walls of the canyon more of a deep terra-cotta. I took my time, watched the people, absorbed nature’s striated paintings of color on the vertical rock faces. I looked up at the blue sky coming through the crevasses, the sunlight streaming in. I stepped aside to let the horse buggies clatter past. I took pictures in a different light and in fact I saw the place all afresh, silently, without incessant chatter about sports to mar my experience.
Again, by the time I got to the Treasury and then to the place where you start the climb to the High Place of Sacrifice, my legs were already tired so I took another donkey to the top. These steps were much steeper but not as far distance-wise, so I was at the top in no time flat.
At the top of the High Place of Sacrifice, I had good views of Petra down below, but not as good as the views I saw near the other sacrifice lookout near the Monastery on Monday. The High Place was the venue for important religious ceremonies honoring Nabataean gods. It was perhaps also used for funeral rites.
After wandering around a bit at the top, I walked back down the steep steps back to the Street of Facades, where I began the long walk back out of Petra, past the Treasury again, and down As-Siq and then took the horse again from the entrance to the main gate.
At that point I took a walk in the streets looking for the Red Cave Restaurant so I could have some lunch. The restaurant had walls of smooth stones and was spacious and cool and had local Bedouin specialties. I ordered some beef keftah with vegetables which was excellent.
After lunch I looked briefly into the little gift shops and came away empty-handed. I caught a taxi back to the hotel, where I soon grabbed another taxi with a young lady from the hotel to the bus station. We got on the bus to Amman and rode for 3-4 hours until we reached the center of the city again. Luckily the Eid holiday was winding down and the noise level had subsided greatly.
At least this time it wasn’t raining in Amman, so I ventured out, at the hotel staff’s suggestion, to a restaurant called Hashem about a 10-minute walk away. There, in a dirty little alley, was a dirty little restaurant with plastic tables. The owner, noting that I was alone, stuck me at a table with a young couple from Spain. The Spanish couple was teaching in Palestine; he taught Spanish and she taught English. They were also in Jordan for the Eid. I ordered Jordanian foul: Fava beans, salt, garlic, green peppers, lemon. It was delectable. I ate it all, every last bite, soaking it up with my pita bread. For such a dive of a restaurant, the food was out of this world!!
When I arrived back at the hotel, I asked whether the staff was able to find anyone going to Jerash and the north tomorrow. In fact, he told me, two Italian men were going to Jerash and I could accompany them. Fun times!
Jerash, Ajloun and Umm Qais
Thursday, November 10: This morning I met my two traveling companions in the breakfast room at the Jordan Tower Hotel. Andrea and Guido, two Italian men from Genoa who were about my age, would be taking the trip with me to the north of Jordan. Guido spoke English quickly and with a thick Italian accent. He even sprinkled Italian words into the conversation randomly, so I was never quite sure what language he was speaking or what he was saying. Andrea, barely spoke any English at all. No matter. We would probably go our own ways once we got to our destinations. It wouldn’t matter if the two of them were speaking in Italian to each other all day long. I was used to this situation from living in Korea for a year, and at the time, in Oman.
Our driver today was Khalid, a handsome Jordanian who smoked heavily and whose teeth were quite rotten. We drove out of Amman and were in the car for about an hour, 51 km. In the car, Andrea told me in his limited English that I was “bella,” that my face was beautiful. Andrea was apparently a lifeguard and an artist, a photographer, and had exhibits in Genoa. Guido worked at a marina keeping it maintained and cleaned. Guido told about all his travels and his frequent trips to Mexico, where apparently he had a long-time girlfriend who got pregnant with another man. Guido apparently helped support her during and after this pregnancy, but he says he was not “with her” now. He said he’d never been married. I wasn’t sure I understand his whole story with all the convolutions and the mangled English.
Soon we arrived at Jerash, some beautifully preserved Roman ruins. Though excavations had been ongoing for 85 years, it was estimated that 90% of the city was still unexcavated. The city was at one time known as Gerasa and once was a thriving metropolis of 15,000 people. The city rose to prominence from the time of Alexander the Great (333 BC) and reached its peak at the beginning of the 3rd century AD, when it was ranked a Colony. It began to decline as trade routes shifted.
By the middle of the 5th century AD, Christianity was the region’s major religion and churches were being built right and left. After the Sassanian invasion from Persia in 614, the Muslim conquest in 636, and a crushing earthquake in 747, Jerash’s population dwindled to about a fourth of its former size.
We passed first by the Hippodrome where chariot races took place in bygone days. Then we came to the lovely Oval Plaza (Forum), unusual because of its oval shape and huge size (90 m long and 80 m wide).
Historians thought the Romans hoped to gracefully link the main north-south axis with the Temple of Zeus. The paved limestone plaza was surrounded by 56 Ionic columns. The Temple of Zeus sat on the south side of the Forum, and was currently being restored. We climbed around here for a while until we entered the South Theater, built to seat 5,000 spectators in the 1st century. Here some Jordanians were playing bagpipes and I got caught up in the festive mood and did a little dance.
We then took the long walk along the cardo maximus, the city’s main thoroughfare, also known as the colonnaded street. It stretched for 800 meters from the Forum to the North Gate and was still paved with the original stones. The stones were placed on the diagonal so chariots could easily negotiate them and we could still see the ruts worn by thousands of vehicles using this road.
We walked up to the Temple of Artemis though a monumental gateway and a staircase.
We then went to see Our Lady of the Mount Shrine in Ajloun. Apparently, someone came upon this statue of Mary one day and the blessed lady was shedding tears of blood that were later analyzed to be human. We also saw the colorfully painted church at the site.
We then headed to Qala-at ar-Rabad, also known as Ajloun Castle, an Islamic military fort built in AD 1184-88 by the Arabs as protection against the Crusaders. The castle had fine views of the Jordan Valley and was one in a chain of beacons and pigeon posts that allowed messages to be transmitted from Damascus to Cairo in a single day. Mongol invaders destroyed it in 1260 and then it was rebuilt almost immediately by the Mamluks. In the 17th century, the Ottomans were stationed here, and then the locals used it. Earthquakes in 1837 and 1927 badly damaged the castle, but a slow restoration was progressing to bring the castle back to life.
Finally we took the long drive to Umm Qais, at the far northwest corner of Jordan. There were ruins of the ancient Roman city of Gadara and an Ottoman-era village. At the edge of a hill, we enjoyed amazing views of the Golan Heights in Syria, the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberius) in Israel, the Palestinian Territories to the north, and the Jordan Valley to the south. Khalid did an amazing job of bringing us here right as the sun was setting. It brought tears to my eyes to see these places that the Arabs and Israelis have been fighting over for years and years. The history in Jordan blew me away, between the Romans, the Crusaders, the Biblical sites, and the present day struggles between Israel and Palestine.
On the long drive back to Amman, Guido was talking again non-stop and at this time I was too tired to decipher what he was saying. At one point he asked me, “How is my English?” I told him I had a hard time understanding his accent.
Later in the evening, at the Arab Tower Hotel, I met my colleagues David and Mario. We planned to share a taxi to the airport. I found them both sprawled out on their beds passing the time. Our taxi driver arrived, and suddenly we were all piling our suitcases into the taxi. We took off to the airport to return back to Muscat, and back to work.
*Saturday, November 5 – Thursday, November 10, 2011*
Jordan was one of my top travel destinations ever, ranking in the top ten (in this order).
- Camino de Santiago in Spain
“ON RETURNING HOME” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about returning home from one particular destination or, alternately, from a long journey encompassing many stops. How do you linger over your wanderings and create something from them? How have you changed? Did the place live up to its hype, or was it disappointing? Feel free to address any aspect of your journey and how it influences you upon your return. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments.
For some ideas on this, you can check out the original post about this subject: on returning home.
Include the link in the comments below by Sunday, May 31 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Monday, June 1, I’ll include your links in that post.
This will be an ongoing invitation on the first Monday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time.
the ~ wander.essence ~ community
I invite you all to settle in and read a few posts from our wandering community. I promise, you’ll be inspired!
- Indra, of TravTrails, writes about her trip to the magical Bay of Fundy.
Thanks to all of you who shared posts on the “returning home” invitation.
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