Not everyone has a ‘bucket list‘. I do. Jordan and the places T.E. Lawrence haunted have always been high on mine. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, the movie by David Lean, and the books such as ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom', by Lawrence himself are things I have gone back to many times.
When we decided to join our friends Joanne and Bruce in Oman on our way home from Kenya, we knew they were coming from Jordan and the magical Petra. We decided it wasn’t that far to add it in. Well, far enough as it is nearly a 5 hour flight north.
We left Oman in the evening landing in Amman late. We smartly arranged a Four Seasons hotel car to avoid confusion at the airport. All worked out nicely and courtesy of Tablet Hotels booking service, we were upgraded to a suite. Lots of nice upgrades this trip.
In the morning we headed for ‘Citadel Hill'. The highest point in Amman, it has been occupied since the Bronze Age. More recent occupants were the Romans who built the Temple of Hercules on the site. Great views of Amman including the 6,000 seat Roman theatre below the hill. There is a fantastic little museum where every single piece on exhibit is, quite frankly, amazing. One sculpture of two heads is carbon dated to 6,500 BC.!!! Since you are surrounded on all sides by Amman there was a moment when the Call to Prayer went out at the same time from what must have been hundreds of mosques. Surround sound.
Amman, known as the ‘White City' due to the use of local white limestone for building is the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and is home to 2 million people. It feels like more, as the traffic is horrible. More touring to ‘Rainbow Street', supposedly a center for shops and cafes was a bust. It felt like there was nothing much else to see in Amman. But, there is a whole lot to see in the rest of Jordan.
After an excellent dinner at The Four Seasons ‘Capitale Brasserie’, early the next morning we headed off in the direction of Petra with our guide Aladdin. Yes, his name was really Aladdin. We had two possible routes. The Desert Highway is pretty much featureless but will get you to Petra in just over 3 hours. The Kings Highway, an old trading route that meanders up and down mountains, through villages and historic sites, takes twice as long or more.
Well worth it.
Our first stop was the village of Madaba. Here you find a Christian church famous for its 6th century mosaic floor map of Jerusalem and all of the Holy Lands. Made from over 2 million pieces of coloured mosaic stones the map accurately places all the familiar spots (Dead Sea, Israel, Palestine, The River Jordan, etc.) in a remarkably accurate map. No drone overhead views in the 6th century unless those pesky aliens did it.
Onward to Mount Nebo. This is the spot where God spoke to Moses and told him he could finally die at the ripe old age of 120. He had spent 40 years leading the Israelites out of Egypt and another 40 settling them down in their new digs. It is a drop dead gorgeous restored church with views up the Rift Valley to Hebron, Jerusalem and even Palestine. And yes, it is the Rift Valley. A continuation of the same one we were at in Kenya just 10 days before and thousands of miles away. Once again a gorgeous little museum on site (Jordan does this very well) and the views are just amazing. We missed the spot past here where Salome tricked King Herod’s son to ‘bring me the head of John the Baptist’. Ah, well.
Touring on from Nebo, we noticed a number of burned out houses - four or five. Commenting on the fires, Aladdin told us these were ‘revenge' killings. This area remains very tribal and if your father kills my son then a vendetta against the family is begun that can go on for years. Many other houses had permanently parked police cars out front as they were targeted for ‘revenge'. Jordanian authorities have tried to eliminate this for decades but it continues to this day.
Our next stop is Kerak, a famous Crusaders palace. It is better known than others, as it is the place where the vicious French Commander Reynald de Chatillon held off a siege by the Sultan Salladin. Kerak is also known for the terrorist attack of December 18th, 2016 where five ISIS terrorists occupied the castle after getting in a shootout with local police in the nearby town. There were tourists in the castle at the time but in another section. Still, a Canadian woman tourist was killed and several more injured before authorities killed all the terrorists losing over a dozen of their own men in the process. Some things change in the Middle East and some never do. There were horrible killings here 5,000 years ago and again 2 years ago as the bullet marks on the entrance wall confirm. Senseless yes, but we always felt completely safe in Jordan. This attack was a rare occurrence.
Descending into the valley from Kerak, we passed nothing. There is nothing but rocks, sand and the occasional Bedouin camp and their goatherds. After an hour we reached the Dead Sea and stopped for lunch at one of the many resorts. Ellen and I walked down to the beach and I dipped one finger in the water as we watched a few folks floating unassisted reading a paper. The taste was a shock as the water is 34% salt. We also noticed great containers full of Dead Sea Mud that is supposed to have curing properties. We abstained.
From The Dead Sea we drove for hours passing huge potash mines and processing plants, a mainstay of the Jordanian economy. An economy that is pretty much shipwrecked by the over 2 million Syrian refugees in camps on its northern and western borders. Delayed hanging out at Kerak, we pulled into Wadi Nusa, the town fronting the Petra site after dark, missing the view from the killer road up from the valley. We moved to the only lux hotel in town, the Movenpick. Too late for anything but a snack. We pulled out all the winter clothes we had been carting around for 3 weeks. It was cold, less than 10 degrees.
Morning in Petra. The warnings about the weather seemed to be true. At 8:00 am it was cold and very grey. But, by the time Aladdin showed up an hour later, patches of blue sky appeared and when we began the long walk down to The ‘Siq’, it was blue skies all the way. The ‘Siq’ is a natural cut in the limestone running downhill at a 5% grade. ‘Siq’ means ‘Shaft‘ in Arabic. It is an awesome experience to walk the 1.2 km's with sandstone walls over 150 feet tall and the width in places narrowing to just 3-4 meters. The sandstone floor has been supplemented by flagstone in places to stop erosion and the clip clop of the donkey led carriages can be heard long before they bear down on you. Actually, you can smell them about the same time you can hear them.
The Nabatean’s built Petra in the 4th century BC. Enterprising people, they took advantage of the overland trading routes and made Petra a hub and themselves rich in the process. They grew Petra until in the 1st century AD, it had 20,000 inhabitants. It didn’t last long. In 108 AD the Romans, jealous of Petra’s success, invaded and captured the city. After an earthquake in 363 AD severely damaged the site, and sea routes were replacing the old overland trade routes, Petra was largely abandoned by 700 AD. It wasn’t until more than 1,100 years later in 1812 that a Swiss explorer named Johann Burkhardt disguised himself as a Bedouin, snuck into Petra and his notes and drawings were made public. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it used to get 1 million visitors a year. The instability of the region cut that in half and only last year did visits hit 600,000.
The Nabateans survived and thrived due to their ability to manage the limited water they had. On average, this area only gets 9 inches of rain a year. So, they carved elaborate channels into the base of the ‘Siq’ to capture every drop of water that fell. These channels led to 80 cisterns at the bottom of the natural 5% grade. Normal rainfall was supplemented by very occasional flash floods where the locals also captured every drop. The channels are still there, remarkably intact and running, on both sides of the ‘Siq’ for the full 1.2 KM’s of its length.
The ‘Siq’ opens up abruptly at the signature photo op: The Treasury. Carved into the sandstone face it is almost perfect from a distance as erosion was reduced by setting it back in the face and facing away from wind and rain. They also channeled water from above it, away from the carving. Close up you can tell one of the six columns has been replaced (you can tell because it doesn’t look as good as the 5 original columns still standing). It is also pockmarked by centuries of bullet holes by raiders trying to get to the wealth hidden inside. Except, there wasn’t any. The Treasury is misnamed, it was actually thought to be a tomb as additional excavation revealed a number of large tombs one level below.
It is January and while we are under pure blue skies and peeling off layers of winter clothes in the sun there is nothing that can be done about the smell. On this day about 200 people milled about in front of the Treasury but there were also at least 40 donkeys and almost the same number of camels. And, this is low season! I can’t imagine summer with 10 or 20 times the tourists, many more animals and temperatures that can hit 50 Degrees C. Going in winter is a risk but summer must simply be awful.
We were surprised that off to the right of The Treasury, the valley opens up and you walk downhill for at least another 2 km's. First thing you see is a massive theatre cut into the stone that seats 4,000. It sits at the widest point of the valley facing the giant tombs cut into the hillside opposite. There are four tombs, each with doorways big enough to take a double decker bus side by side. Farther up the valley is a colonnade of the Great Temple, the real focal point of Petra’s government. High in the hills above is the Monastery, the religious center accessible either by donkey or a brutal 2 hour uphill climb. We passed as it was going to be a very long walk back up to Wadi Musa.
We met a British guy who lives in the ruins. He sells spices packaged up for the tourists. It was here that I realized the pungent smell (not donkeys) that followed us around Jordan was Frankincense. The sweet, musty aroma is one I came to really like and we bought small chunk that came from Yemen for $30 dollars. By small I mean about ¼ of a bar of soap. We also came upon a small jewelry shop run by a New Zealand woman, a nurse who came to Petra in 1978 and married a Bedouin. She had three children with him and they still live in a 2,000 year old cave in the valley. She wasn’t about but we met one of her sons and bought her book, aptly named “Married to a Bedouin“.
The walk back up the valley and then up the Siq was tough on old knees but SO much better than being behind one of those damn donkeys. The sandstone takes on fantastic colours in the afternoon light and it was all framed by an azure blue sky. Petra. Fantastic.
The next morning we packed up again and headed south to Wadi Rum. This is the desert area where Lawrence of Arabia roamed. The movie was partly shot there, as was 'The Martian'. Ellen was skeptical. Just more desert? On arrival an hour later we knew this was something very special. You stop at a quite nicely done visitors center where Aladdin met up with our tour guy and his open back 4WD pick up with benches in the back. In a few minutes we left civilization behind (not that there was much of it) and headed into towering sandstone cliff-lined sand valleys under those same gorgeous blue skies. Colder today, we finally got to wear all the winter clothes we carted around for the last 3 weeks.
How to describe it? Moonscape? Martian-scape? Film set? Here, quite different from Petra, the sandstone cliffs have eroded in a way that makes them look exactly like melted candles. There are no trees, no bushes really, no people except for a small Bedouin camp and a few goats. There are other 4WD’s, about a dozen, but in the summers there can be many, many times more. We all stop at an outcrop of rock with a natural sand ramp to the top on the backside. I am not one for slogging uphill in sand but Ellen went for it. She reached the top in acute muscle pain but did it for the perfect photo waving from the top of the outcrop.
It was all about the same after that. We drove down valleys and around mountains ending at a natural blockage where we stared out on to the sand and rock walls looking toward Saudi Arabia 50 km’s away. But, there was one last treat in store.
We stopped at a Bedouin camp for their delicious tea. Aladdin told me that Lawrence of Arabia used this little canyon as a hideout in between attacking Ottoman Turk trains with his Arab army. He took me to a huge sandstone rock where Lawrence’s face was carved into the face with an inscription in Arabic: “Lawrence – Arabia – 1917"
I had my Lawrence moment.
Four Season - not one of the best in the chain's hotels but some rooms are much better than others.
Capitale Brasserie - classic French brasserie. Very good and price to match.
Movenpick Petra - it is not a 5-star hotel as per its billing but location location, it is located right across the street from entrance to Petra
Ala' Abu Amara (aka Aladdin) - seasoned freelance tour guide for Four Season. firstname.lastname@example.org
Our Itinerary of 4-5 days:
Amman (1 day) - explore Citadel Hill, which offers views across the Old City and is the site of the ruins of the Temple of Hercules, the Umayyad Palace (an Arab castle dating from the 7th century), a Byzantine church, and the remains of Roman walls. At the foot of the Citadel, carved into the hill, lies a 6,000-seat Roman amphitheater resembling a deep-sided bowl world. Drive north to Jerash, one of the best-preserved Greco- Roman provincial cities in the Middle East.
Amman to Madaba to Petra (1 day) - drive along the 5,000-year-old Kings ́ Highway to Madaba, "the City of Mosaics."Famous for the 6th century mosaic map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Continue onto Mt. Nebo, thought to be the burial place of Moses, and from where he viewed the Promised Land. See across the Jordan Valley to Jerusalem, and over the Great Rift Valley and the Dead Sea. Continue to Kerak Castle, one of the impressive castles in a chain of fortresses constructed by the Crusaders. Arrive in the ancient rose-red city of Petra late in the afternoon.
Petra (1 day) - walk or horseback through the Siq, and then continue on foot to the Corinthian Tombs and the exquisite towering facade of the Treasury, which appears dramatically at the end of the chasm. Explore the myriad of archaeological wonders at Petra – there are literally hundreds of buildings, tombs, temples, a 3,000-seat open- air amphitheater, as well as an archeological museum. If you are adventurous, climb to the top of the Monastery.
Petra to Wadi Rum to Amman (1 day) - drive to visit Wadi Rum, also known as ‘The Valley of the Moon.’ Travel by 4-wheel drive jeep to explore this maze of monolithic rockscapes that rise up from the desert floor to heights of 5,700 feet, towering between the canyons and water holes. Stop for tea at a typical Bedouin camp.