Journeying through Jordan’s Lost Cities: Petra and the wadi

The first draft of my story on Jordan as published by Gafencu 

Long before the first Muslim dynasty arrived in Jordan, ancient civilizations built majestic cities in its dramatic terrain – from the Greco-Roman Decapolis in the north to Petra’s Nabatean kingdom of sandstone in the south

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Excited at the entrance to the archaeological park with my travel buddy and cousin Kristen

When you begin the winding path through the narrow gorge leading into Petra, you will be faced with three choices: to go by foot, horse-drawn carriage or mule.  Camels aren’t an option yet at this point – you’ll see them when you reach Al Khazneh, the famous facade meant to amaze and intimidate visitors emerging from the sandstone corridor.

You’ll find yourself gawking at ‘The Treasury’ (Al Khazneh in Arabic), with its elaborate sculptures towering 40 metres  overhead. If you can, try and make out the four eagles perched on top, meant to carry human souls into the afterlife. From there, the path suddenly opens up into a sprawling plain bisected by a collonaded street of great white pillars. After squeezing through the siq (shaft) for 1.2 km, it’s a shock to walk into such vast grandeur.

That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To see one of the Wonders of the World in all its rose-hued glory. Most visitors that arrive in Jordan come to visit the lost city of Petra, a breathtaking site left behind by a mysterious disappeared civilization – the Nabataeans.

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Al Khazneh, Petra’s Treasury

Historians have identified the site’s builders as a nomadic desert tribe from the Arabian peninsula. The Nabataeans journeyed from the south and decided to settle in the valley between the Dead Sea and Gulf of Aqaba (Red Sea). As their society grew into a kingdom, they carved a city out of the surrounding soft rock, chiseling gods and goddesses whose names have long been forgotten; after the Roman conquest, they converted to Christianity.

In its heyday a decade ago, tourism comprised 13% of the Jordanian economy. However, political instability in the region caused a decline in that number. For a country of incomparable archaeological sites (most over 2,000 years old), Mediterranean clime and lunar-like desert landscapes, Jordan is grossly underperforming in a sector that would otherwise be thriving.

To some travellers, however, the low volume of tourists is what makes Jordan all the more attractive. Think about it: you can explore the country’s extraordinary landscapes without having to share with hundreds of people getting in your way (cough, Rome).

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If you only have a couple of days, Petra and Wadi Rum in the south should definitely be the focus of your journey. Later, I’ll touch on northern sites to visit if you still have time. Many organised trips start with northern Jordan (day 1) before heading south to cross the Israeli border in Aqaba-Eilat. The latter would mean travelling through Israel; in that case, my recommended tour operator would be Abraham Tours.

If I could go back, I’d spend as much time in Petra as possible. At the very least, I’d make it an overnight affair to experience the Petra Night Show – a magical walk through the ruins by the light of 1,500 candles. It only runs three times a week, starting at 8.30pm lasting two hours. You can get your tickets at the Petra visitor center; advance reservations not possible.

It would take a whole day at the very least to fully explore Petra’s main sights. Wear walking shoes or hiking boots, especially if you’re going to go all the way up to the Monastery, almost 6 kilometres away (uphill) from the entrance. You would have to trek back the way you came, unless you get help from a four-legged friend. Camel owners will charge you US$30 per camel, but the final price depends on your bargaining skills.

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With our camel man, who invited us to his cave home 10 minutes away… we declined politely

The first major landmark you will encounter is the imposing Nabataean amphitheatre cut into the hillside. After that you’ll see royal tombs climbing up the mountain; get ready to walk up and down several flights of stairs. After the Great Temple (arguably the Royal Courts), you will find the Winged Lion Temple. If you still have energy, take on the incline to the Byzantine Church, an odd one out from another era with its three-aisled basilica and cross-shaped baptismal font.

A 2.2 kilometre hike (or mule ride) from the flatland will take you up to the Monastery, Petra’s largest monument. After getting a taste of “one of the most beautiful cities known to mankind”, you’ll understand why it was declared one of the seven new Wonders of the World in 2007 alongside Rome’s Colosseum and India’s Taj Mahal.

 

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After Petra, the next adventure lies in the otherworldly landscapes of Wadi Rum. You almost feel like you’re riding into a scene from Star Wars as you rattle off into ‘The Valley of the Moon’ in a 4×4 (or a horse, Indiana Jones style, as you wish). Although hiking and horseback riding will immerse you into the raw outdoors of the wadi (valley), one of the most authentic engagements would be a visit to a Bedouin camp, where you can break bread with the locals, or even stay to stargaze – you’ll never see stars as you see them in the desert.

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After the big two, sightseeing in Jordan’s other destinations might prove underwhelming. The next exemplary experience would definitely be floating on the Dead Sea, which can also be done from the Israeli side of the water. I say float, because our body weight is lighter (less dense) than the density of the water in this giant salt lake (also the lowest point on earth at −427 masl). 

The Jordan River and the Red Sea are other landmarks of biblical proportions, extra convenient as you can cross the border to Israel on both points.

Up north, the extensive Greco-Roman ruins of Jerash is the main attraction with its Hippodrome and Temple of Artemis. The archaeological site (second only to Petra in Jordan) is followed by the capital Amman with its famous citadel, and Mount Nebo, from which Moses viewed the ‘Promised Land.’ Aqaba in the south is the gateway to the Red Sea, with ferries running to Egypt.

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At Jerash / Gerash, northern Jordan. A bit of a depressing view out the window riding through the region’s impoverished zones. It felt like we had really gone into another time and world.
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Mosaic map at Madaba, where we saw the world’s oldest map of the holy land
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More of Jerash’s amphitheatre

At Aqaba, our tour guide took us to the giant flagpole at the port, the 6th tallest free standing flagpole in the world at 130 metres. Atop, flapping on the wind, was not the flag of Jordan but that of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1916.

Kristen and I wondered what caused the Jordanians to erect what was once the world’s largest unsupported flagpole (until 2008). Later on, smoking a shisha in Eilat’s beachfront in Israel, we could see the flag fluttering and glinting at us defiantly from across the border. Apparently, you can see that flag from at least three different countries – as far as Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

If you’re the sort of traveller who leaves home just to find another version of it elsewhere, don’t come to Jordan. But if you’re open to being transported into another time, another life and another world, then by all means, the wadi awaits.

Yeni

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