Jordan (2012)

                          Petra – The Rose Red City Half as Old as Time

Located amid rugged desert canyons and craggy mountains in the southwestern corner of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Petra is the seventh and last of the new wonders of the world that we have visited.  It is a vast, unique city, carved into a sheer rock face by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled there more than 2,000 years ago, turning it into an important junction for the camel caravan trade routes which stretched as far as China.  The stunning first sight of the Treasury Building, as one emerges from the narrow canyon entrance and gazes up unto the massive façade carved out of the sheer, dusky pink rock-face, is one of the world’s most awe-inspiring travel experiences.

This trip was coupled with a nostalgic return to Italy, where we spent time with our oldest and dearest Italian friends – Gina and Sandra Rossello on the Italian Riviera, and Silvia Tavella in Rome. 

                  The Siq                                                     The First Sight of the. .                                                         Treasury Building                                                        

The year 2012 was a special year for a visit to Petra.  The site had been discovered by a Swiss explorer exactly 200 years ago and the epic movie “Lawrence of Arabia” was released 50 years ago.  However, the specific timing of our visit was not the most propitious, arriving during a week of violent, anti-American riots in the Middle East protesting a provocative anti-Muslim video originating in the U.S., which resulted in thirty deaths in eight countries, including the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya.  Fortunately, it was relatively calm in Jordan, although our drive past the U.S. embassy, with the armed U.S. marines in full battle dress manning their armored vehicles, was a stark reminder for us of the potential seriousness of the situation.

We were met at our hotel the next morning by our guide, Murad Ali, and his driver, Raed.  Both stayed with us throughout our stay.  We departed with them in our comfortable van for the 160 mile drive south to Petra, which gave us a chance to see a bit of the Jordanian landscape as well as an opportunity to learn more about Jordan from Murad, who was eager to tell us about his country.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (its official name) is a relatively small country about the size of the state of Indiana.  It is sandwiched between Saudi Arabia in the south and east, Syria and Iraq in the north and Israel in the west.  Its population is just over six million people, half of whom live in the capital city of Amman.   It is a constitutional monarchy led by King Abdullah II and his attractive, Palestinian-born wife, Queen Rania. 

The Jordanian population is almost entirely Arab with close to half of its people of Palestinian origin.  It is one of the more politically and economically stable countries in the Arab world.  By granting modest concessions like dismissing government ministers and preserving popular subsidies, King Abdullah has managed to avoid the kind of recent “Arab Spring” turmoil that has upended other Arab countries. Jordan maintains good relations with both Israel and the United States.

From Amman, we took the King’s Highway south to Petra, the same road once traveled by Moses and the Israelites in Biblical times. The drive included stops at several fascinating tourist sites along the way including: Madaba, known as the City of Mosaics; Mount Nebo, from which the Bible says Moses looked down on the Promised Land; and the village of Kerak, with its 12th century Crusader castle overlooking the Dead Sea.

                           Crusader Castle at Kerak                                                                             Hadrian’s Arch at Jerash                                                                                          

Returning north on the Desert Highway at the end of our stay, we had a chance to visit the ancient city of Jerash, the second most visited tourist destination in Jordan, which boasts an unbroken chain of human occupation dating back more than 6,500 years.  Located 30 miles outside of Amman, Jerash is one of the best-preserved Roman provincial towns in the world and is filled with paved and colonnaded streets, soaring hilltop temples, handsome theaters, spacious public squares and fabulous plazas, baths, fountains and city walls pierced by towers and gates.

Founded by the soldiers of Alexander the Great during the 4th century BC, it was hidden for centuries under the sand before being excavated and restored in just the past 70 years. Like the Roman ruins in the Italian city of Rome, the ruins of Jerash include a triumphal arch, an oval-shaped forum and two large amphitheaters.  Some have called Jerash the “Rome Away from Rome”.

Without a doubt, though, Petra is Jordan’s greatest tourist attraction and its most valuable treasure. Although we’d seen pictures and movies of the entrance to Petra, it was with great anticipation that we made the long, hot, dusty walk down the mile long gorge (called the Siq), through a narrow canyon, in places less than ten feet wide between towering red and ochre cliffs. Suddenly, a narrow sliver of a monument appeared in the sunlight framed by flowering oleanders.  The next moment the massive façade of the Treasury building burst into view.  It was as tall as a twelve story building and over one hundred feet wide, chiseled out of the sheer, dusky pink rock-face and dwarfing everything around it.  It was a magic moment.

The Treasury, the iconic symbol of Petra, looms 130 feet high, with six Corinthian columns in its portico and a giant stone urn adorning its second story. The sandy red walls of its single interior chamber have been worn smooth by the winds and sands of time. As we stood in the shade of the canyon walls, Murad told us that this second-century structure took more than 100 years to finish. It was christened El-Khazneh or "The Pharaoh’s Treasury" by Petra's l9th-century inhabitants, who mistakenly believed that the urn contained the Pharaoh’s fortune and tried to break it open with gunfire, but the building's original purpose remains an archaeological mystery.

More than 800 examples of the Nabataeans’  towering handiwork sprawl across 100 square miles of this hidden valley in Jordan's desert, where 2,000 years ago, ancient craftsmen set upon the hillsides and began carving deep into them, hollowing out two-story temples propped on Corinthian columns; carving tombs bedecked with obelisks and statues of gods; and constructing courts, reservoirs, staircases, and aqueducts, all chiseled out of the giant, sandstone cliffs and all without the benefit of drills, jackhammers or even picks.

We were offered the option of camels, donkeys or horse carts for our tour but we chose to walk the six mile trek in order to be able to wander freely through the ancient city.   Despite the 90 degree heat, we were stunned by the natural beauty of the site with its extraordinary architectural achievements.  Some of the site highlights included a massive 6,000 seat, Nabataean-built, Roman-style theatre; the Royal Tombs; and the impressive Ad-Deir Monastery, high above the valley. Archaeologists are still continuing to make major discoveries at Petra but estimate that as much as 85 percent of the city remains hidden under debris.

                    Nabataean Tombs                                                                       Roman Colonnaded Street Leading the Sanctuary

Petra’s excellent state of preservation can be attributed to the fact that almost all of its hundreds of "buildings" have been hewn out of solid rock. There are scores of elaborate, rock-cut tombs decorated with intricate carvings.  Unlike the houses, which were destroyed mostly by earthquakes, the tombs were carved to last throughout the afterlife. Over 500 have survived, empty and mysterious as you file past their dark openings.  Until 1984, many of these tomb-caves were home to the local Bedouins. Out of concern for the monuments, however, the government outlawed this and relocated the Bedouins to new housing constructed near the adjacent town of Wadi Mousa.

                          Bedouin Girls                                                                                             Ships of the Desert

Recent excavations have shown that it was the ability of the Nabataeans to capture and channel the precious water supply that led to the rise of the desert city by, in effect, creating an artificial oasis. The surrounding area is subject to flash floods but archaeological evidence suggests that the Nabataeans were able to control these floods by the ingenious use of dams, cisterns and water conduits. Thus, stored water could be employed even during prolonged periods of drought, and the city prospered by selling this precious commodity.

Walled in by impressive towering rocks and watered year-round by a stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress, but it controlled the main commercial routes which linked China, India and Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome. It continued to flourish until an earthquake in the 7th century crippled the ingeniously planned water supply.  It was completely abandoned after the 12th century Muslim conquest of the Middle East.  Not unlike other “lost cities” that we’ve visited, (i.e. Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Tikal),  Petra was lost into the mists of legend.  Its existence was a guarded secret known only to local Bedouins.

Finally in 1812, exactly 200 years ago, a young Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt heard locals talking about a “lost city” hidden in the mountains of Wadi Mousa (The Valley of Moses).  In order to enter the site without arousing suspicion, Burckhardt disguised himself as a Muslim pilgrim seeking to make a sacrifice at the tomb of Aaron.  He managed to bluff his way into the city successfully and the secret of Petra was revealed to the modern Western world.  In 1985, the Petra Archaeological Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and in 1989 it was featured in the popular movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.

We capped our day in Petra with a late afternoon drive out into Wadi Rum, one of the largest and most dramatic of the Jordanian desert landscapes, where T.E. Lawrence once made camp. Lawrence became a legend during World War I by helping Arab troops overthrow the Ottoman Empire and thus shaping the modern Middle East.  Nearly three decades after his death, Lawrence gained another kind of immorality when he became the subject of David Lean's classic movie “Lawrence of Arabia”, one of the greatest epic stories ever put onto film. Having watched the movie again just before leaving Minnesota, we could feel the presence of this legendary figure in the mountains and valleys of Wadi Rum.

We drove out into the dunes on an open bed, four wheel drive pickup truck driven by a young Bedouin, circling this way and that through the giant rocky outcrops and finally stopping to await the coming sunset at the edge of a giant sandstone cliff, where we were joined by a score of desert travelers and their camels.  We watched as the sun set behind the distant mountains and the desert beyond merged into the fading red skies.  The stars appeared in the evening sky and the light from the lanterns in the Bedouin camp twinkled in the dark.


                        Wadi Rum                                                                                             Camel Driver at Dusk


In the blackness of night, we could sense the vastness of the desert around us and could imagine the Bedouins of long ago watering their camels and setting up their tents nearby as they made their way through the Arabian Desert.  And if we listened closely, we could hear the muted voices of the Arab Legion as Lawrence prepared them for the next day’s battle with the Turks.  We could even hear the distant hoof beats Indiana Jones’ horse, as Indy rode up the Canyon of the Crescent Moon in his search for the Holy Grail.

It was a perfect ending to a perfect day in the desert.