People give the Middle East a bad rap. Perhaps for good reason at times, but not everywhere in this holy region is a mess. One such place is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Jordan is home to some of the most impressive archaeological sites in the world. It is home to the Kings Highway, the most scenic highway stretch you can imagine winding in and out of majestic mountains. It also shares the Dead Sea with Israel and across the sea are a lot less tourists to muddy your swim. Additionally, Amman, Jordan’s bustling capital, is a melting pot of culture and curiosity. However, nothing can match the ancient Nabathaen city of Petra for sheer wonder. Jordan has it all and I will document this wonderful country along my trip from Jerusalem to Petra and the Gulf of Aqaba.
In the summer of 2000 my cousin Andy and I were visiting Israel, exploring our roots. We decided to shoot into Jordan and see the ancient city of Petra. To be honest, we didn’t really know much about Jordan and having done so much traveling since this trip that is kind of embarrassing because I usually am well informed of anywhere I visit. We set out from Jerusalem to the Allenby Bridge border crossing with Jericho. This happens to be the only border crossing to not offer visas, so take my advice and get them beforehand in your country or in Tel Aviv at the Jordanian Consulate.
The border at Jericho is the strangest I have ever seen because it is a demilitarized zone. You have to ride on a special military bus through the barbed wire jungle until you finally reach the other side. Then you have to deal with customs formalities and attempted shakedowns in Jordan. Finally when we were through with all of that nonsense it was about nine in the morning and we needed to get a bus to Amman which was about a half hour from the border where we would figure out our plans from there.
We arrived in Amman and had no idea what we were doing or where we were supposed to go. We literally got off a bus and there was a man sitting on a bench and he asked us if we needed a ride. At first we ignored him, figuring he was just a beggar or something like that. However, he was very persistent and he weasled his way into getting us to look at a book he had in his car. It was a book of people that he had given rides to from all over the world and it was full of praise. Andy and I asked him if he would drive us to Petra and back to the Israel border in a few days. He was very excited and he offered to be our guide for the next three days and he would show us everything between here and the Gulf of Aqaba. He seemed sincere and legitimate so we got in and we started south toward Petra.
Semi, our guide, spoke very good, if broken, English. It was certainly enough to understand and communicate with him. As we toured around Amman he pointed out all the local landmarks and everything else we never needed to know about the capital and then he laid out our course of action for us. We were going to head down to Petra along a route that would take us to the Dead Sea for a dip and then past some Bedouin camps and into Petra for the night. Who were we to argue? We said, “Semi, it’s your show”.
After a few hours we arrived at the Dead Sea. It looked a lot different on this side than it did in Israel with a big Sheraton Hotel and lots of tourists. In Jordan there was no easy way to get there. We had to scale down the cliffs to get to the water where we had our own private swim with no one to disturb us. Of course it sounds great and romantic and all (not with my cousin of course) but for anyone who has ever been in the Dead Sea, it is far from comfortable. The salt is over apparent and it gets into every orifice in your body creating burning and very uncomfortable feelings. Going underwater is also a no-no. Andy went under the water and opened his eyes and couldn’t see for a half hour. After we got out of the water we were absolutely filthy with salt and needed a place to hose ourselves down. The one disadvantage of the Jordanian side was that there were no showers on site so we had to drive a few miles to a place where Semi knew of a waterfall that we could rinse off in. It really did the job and we were able to enjoy the rest of the drive down to Petra in comfort.
We arrived in Petra and Semi brought us to a cheap hotel where he knew everyone. We said he could bring us into the Petra archaeological site at 7am. We went out and had some dinner and came back to the hotel to find Semi sleeping in our room. We looked at each other in bewilderment because we didn’t know he would be staying with us but we just shrugged and dozed off to excited sleep.
The days in Petra are long and very hot. Temperatures get up over 100 degrees with high humidity. We came prepared with lots of water and lots of film. Semi was not to join us inside the park, he said he would meet us back here at 6pm. We waved goodbye and entered the ancient city of Petra.
I wish I was more poetic, to be able to aptly describe what the opening walk in Petra is like, but I will try my best. Entering the city, you first see various different sculptures along the road that winds into a mountain. As you enter the Siq, it seems like you are walking aimlessly for a very long time. After about 20 minutes or so you see an opening in the narrow slit in the Siq. As you approach the ending the narrow gash gets wider and more and more light shows itself and the temperature starts to get hotter as your heart starts to beat heavier. Finally as you are about to exit the pass you are blinded by the rush of light and as you clear your eyes and continue walking out the tunnel you are greeted by the single most amazing site ever concocted by mankind. Right there in front of you is the Treasury, Petra’s most famous and magnificent structure.
Made famous to the modern world in the third Indiana Jones film, the Treasury has been looming in the middle of these mountains for centuries. It is a perfectly constructed, pillared building carved into the side of a flat mountain. It is majestic, worthy of being called the Treasury to fittingly store all the city’s riches and treasures. Standing at the base of it, next to hundreds of other mystified tourists, is truly surreal because you don’t notice a single other person around you. I could not take my eyes off this structure carved into this mountain in the middle of absolutely nowhere. To see Petra is to realize that at one point it was the preeminent spice trading post for Europe and Asia. Petra’s importance is glorified by the sheer size of the city and the great lengths the people went to make it so metropolitan. The city contains an amphitheater and many other civic buildings.
Way up at the top of a three hour hike up a mountain there is the monastery where the Bedouins still live, selling their crafts to infatuated tourists. The red rocks of Petra gleam in the hot afternoon sun where camels and donkeys may be the preferred mode of transport. We rode donkeys up a steep part in the mountain to the monastery. At one point we were alone with the donkeys and we yelled to the guide what we should do. The guide replied, “The donkeys know where they are going.” That was truly reassuring to me because I never had to rely on an ass before to get me up a hill where one slip could mean death. However, as it usually does, everything worked out well and it once again proved that an ass is still smarter than the dumbest tourist, which in this case was me, for questioning the guide or the donkey on their home turf.
After a very long and very hot day roaming around the city of Petra, we had to get back to meet Semi and get back to the hostel so we could rest our weary bones to see the rest of the sites in the morning. We literally were asleep by 8pm that night and were up again to view the last remaining sites we had missed the previous day. We were out by noon because we had to ride the Kings Highway up to Amman and back to Israel because we had a flight in Tel Aviv in two days to Moscow.
We cruised up the highway into the mountains for some of the most beautiful panoramic scenery in the world with steep cliffs and close calls near the edge. The six hour drive passed by like nothing because we couldn’t stop staring out the window at one amazing scene after another. We arrived at the Allenby Bridge border crossing again and said our good byes to Semi. We signed his book in a most glorious fashion and gave him a handsome tip (at least by Jordan standards). We crossed back to Jericho and then back into Jerusalem.
We had gone exploring some of the most ancient territory on Earth with no real plan or course of action. We loved every second of it. My only regret is that we didn’t have more time to see the rest of the country and to stay in a Bedouin camp. However, nothing will ever top the site of the Treasury at first glance. It is truly mesmerizing by modern standards, but in a land where time stands still, it is in a class by itself.