Saturday, March 27, 2010


Map picture

“A Rose Red City Half As Old As Time”

Petra, Jordan

One of the highlights of this trip, for Lisa and I, was to finally see the ancient city of Petra. It was only discovered in 1812. The BBC has listed Petra as one of the 40 places that should be seen before you die. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and last but not least, in 2007, it was listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of The World.

The city was built by the Nabataeans in the 6th Century BC. It gained its prominence because of the unique engineering skills of its builders who were able to tap into the water supply from the surrounding hills, and with a series of conduits and canals, provide the city with a constant supply of fresh water amidst a landscape of otherwise desert dryness. Petra was strategically located along the supply route between Rome and the Persian Gulf, and as the appetite among the Roman elite grew for imported luxury goods, so too did the fortunes of Petra. As an aside, we attended a lecture about Petra, and our speaker made the point that the inability of the Romans to control their spending eventually led to their downfall because in the end, they could not afford the military necessary to defend the empire.

Let me place Petra on the map for you. If you travel North on the Red Sea and stay to your left, you will eventually enter the Suez Canal, and the land on both sides will belong to Egypt. However, at the very northern portion of the Red Sea, if you stay to your right there is a small Gulf, called the Gulf of Aqaba. At the northern most tip of this Gulf is the Jordanian city of Aqaba. Just a few miles to the East is the Israeli city of Eliat. These two countries share the northern portion of this Gulf, while just to the South of Eliat is Egypt, and just to the South of Aqaba is Saudi Arabia. All four countries were clearly visible from our dock in Aqaba.

Our drive to Petra took about two hours, the first hour of which was spent travelling due north, and the second hour of which headed us to the north-east. The mountainous scenery was breathtaking. Sadly our bus did not stop along the way for pictures, but that was just as well because the valleys were covered in an early morning fog, and also we had a very long day ahead of us.

On our arrival at the ruins, our group started a 2 mile long walk into the city. Lisa was worried about making the trek because of her knees, and so our guide provided her a horse and a handler to take her down to the entrance of the park itself. So off Lisa goes in a bust of smiles, while the rest of us begin the long trek. IMG_7193 However, it is still cool and the walk is downhill, so all is good. The entrance, into the city itself, is through a narrow slit in the towering sandstone. The slit, or “Siq,” as it is called, at times is no more than 9 feet wide, with the sandstone cliffs literally towering over us. This is one of the most impressive walks I have ever encountered.IMG_7244 It is all downhill, and running along the side of the slit are carefully constructed conduits along which the builders funneled water into the city. During Roman times, they built a road of marble blocks so that heavily loaded carriages could pass, and in many places these huge marble blocks still remain. All along this walk, the steep red sandstone cliffs were carved with ancient markings, niches, and the remains of giant sculptures. The entire experience was awesome, but the best is literally to come.

As we neared the end of the slit, a sharp turn was up ahead. Our guide asked that we form into a line and hold onto each other as we slowly walked forward with our eyes closed, until he told us we could open them. When I finally opened my eyes, I experienced one of those “WOW” moments. In front of me the towering slit came to an end and beyond was a massive red edifice that rose to the sky – nothing short of awe inspiring. IMG_7266 I could imagine how this must have looked to weary travelers 2000 years ago after a long trek across the desert.

The majestic edifice before me has been called “The Treasury,” and has been featured in many films. It is quite simply one of the most unique monuments in the world. To give you some idea of its size – it is twice as wide and twice as high as the front of Winchester Abby in London. IMG_7267 It is not however a “Treasury” at all, but rather a tomb. This fact alone was the most amazing thing I learned about Petra. While Petra was a great city in its day, what now remains are these wonderful and unique rock cut edifices, which are themselves merely the outside of family tombs. Inside the entrance is a relatively small chamber where the walls are covered with niches; in these niches the dead were buried. Wealthy families competed to see who could erect the most impressive tomb.

Our tour stopped at this first edifice. It had taken us an hour to negotiate the narrow gorge, and we had one hour on our own before we were to meet for lunch all the way back up at the entrance. Now I did not travel all this way just to stand at this one spot in Petra, so I said the hell with lunch which gave me a good two hours or more to explore on my own before I had to be back at the bus. Meanwhile Lisa decided she wanted to get one of the few horse drawn buggy’s to ride back up, and our guide offered to help her do so. Therefore, I set off downhill to see what there was to see. I walked downhill past amazing towering carvings until I reached what is known as “The Amphitheater.” IMG_7301 This was a Greek style structure carved out of the surrounding rock which had a seating capacity of over 4,000. At this point, the heat of the day was starting to build, and looking at my watch, I wondered just how long it would take for me to get to the entrance – on the other hand, when I looked downhill I could clearly see that there was more to be seen. So I stood there, looking uphill and then looking downhill trying to decide what to do, when a kid on a camel appeared with another camel in tow. Now this is the point when I usually get myself in trouble and without so much as thinking I asked the kid how much he would charge to give me a ride to the bottom of the hill and then back uphill to the entrance. Well, he wanted $50, and he could only take me as far as the Treasury, since he was not permitted to go any further. This seemed pretty steep to me, but there was not another means of transport around, and having come all this way, I really wanted to see everything, and so I agreed. Now, I have no business trying to get on a camel. No one was around to help, and I could just see me falling or better yet, dropping my camera and having it shatter. However, the kid somehow got me up safely, and with me holding on for dear life, we set off towards the bottom of the hill. More than once I almost dropped my camera, but we made the bottom where I got to see the majestic edifice called the Urn Tomb.IMG_7326 I shot a picture or two, and we headed back on what proved to be a much longer climb than I imagined up to the Treasury.

Believe it or not, after all this time, Lisa and our guide were still standing there trying to get her a carriage back to the top. There are only 8 carriages and a huge crowd of people who wanted to rent one, so as you can imagine, the scene was bedlam. However, our guide was hanging in there and determined to get her on one, so it was obvious to me that my only choice at this point was to walk up myself. I set out confidently enough, but I quickly came to realize that the heat of the day, combined with the upward slope was a little more difficult than I had reckoned with.IMG_7337 After what seemed forever, Lisa came by in her carriage all smiles and such, and as she faded into the distance, I looked forlornly at the walk still ahead. My stops became more frequent, but finally I exited the slit and sat for awhile. Then I turned around and looked up the steep hill to the bus park far above. Funny, in the excitement of the morning, I did not remember this walk as being very long or steep, but right now it looked as if I still had a mountain yet to climb. Looking at my watch, I was becoming terribly short on time, when I spied a guy on a horse, pulling a horse behind him. Once again I charge forward, and once again the price is $50. I think these guys know how to work this crowd. Camels at the bottom, only so far back up. Carriages in the slit, only so far back up; and horses to the top. Oh well, it is only money.

So in the end, Lisa and I both arrived safely and on time at our bus, thus ending an outstanding day. I am hopeful the pictures will turn out good, and I will try to have those up later today.

Before closing this chapter, I should talk a little about Jordan. By visiting a country for 9 hours, I certainly cannot claim to be an expert about the culture, but it is amazing how much information one can pick up just by being in a place and watching carefully. I will say that Jordan had an entirely different feel to it from the countries we have visited so far. Yes, it was a Middle Eastern country, but Jordan does not have oil, so the glitz of the Gulf States was not present. Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel, and it is clearly more progressive than its neighbors. Women frequently wore colorful head scarfs, and some of the younger women even wore pants. The warmth of the people was evident. Education in Jordan is not only free, but mandatory. For those who qualify, higher education is also government provided. Unlike its wealthy neighbors, Jordan has taxes to support itself. We saw a great many Bedouin communities, and unlike its neighbors, Jordan seems to be supporting the native communities, rather than trying to eliminate their way of life. I will share one very telling story. I mentioned that Lisa rode downhill on a horse. Before she got off the horse, she asked her handler if he could take her picture, and then quickly thought better of it. He stood looking and Lisa said “how do I know if I give you my camera that you will not run away with it? The young guide quickly replied “because this is Jordan and not Egypt!” And, that in a nutshell says a great deal about Jordan.

Anyway, Lisa and I both felt that Jordan is a country to which we would gladly return.


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