Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Wadi Rum & Dead Sea

After Petra, Jordan was already inching towards the top of my favorite destinations list. I was so enamored with its windswept ancient mysteries, its carved stony landscapes and the messy bustle of its cities. As I sat on the bus, my imagination fired up, lost in a reverie of recent memories and raping the "replay" button on Sting's Desert Rose (don't you judge me!), I was hardly aware of where we were heading next.  And yet, where we were heading next was an amazing place that could easily hold its own against any other stop on our trip - the desert of Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum, the Valley of the Moon. How frikkin' magnificent is that name? An ancient, weather-beaten landscape, Wadi Rum is where jagged cliffs meet red sand dunes to form a monumental, echoing vastness. It is home to many Bedouins who still practice their traditional lifestyle here, and the unusual topography, the multi-layered cutout horizon fading in the distance, shrouded men and herds of camels - are a big draw to visitors.

The day was overcast and cold. The sand was red, the wind was whipping it up the air, dissolving the mountains in the distance under a red haze. Our first introduction to the Wadi was from the back of a beat up Toyota pick up, as our entire group was given a  vigorous jostling sightseeing tour of the area.

The incredible scenery of Wadi Rum. It is sometimes used as a setting for filming movie scenes that are supposed to take place on Mars. This seems very fitting.
a written record of Wadi Rum - petroglyphs in 3 languages: Arameic, Arabic, Nabatean
The next leg of our journey through Wadi Rum took place on more traditional transport

Bedouin families still live in the area, in tent communities and cave dwellings that have changed little throughout the centuries. Though we were told that some of them have homes in the cities where they spend the week, and moonlight on weekends in their tents, selling tea and camel rides to tourists.

We visited one such family for some tea and demonstration of tying the keffiyeh, the traditional Arab headscarf.

Sadly, our time in Wadi Rum was far too brief to really let it sink in. The proper way to do it would be to spend a few days in one of the tent camps scattered throughout the desert. I would gladly brave the freezing night time temps to see the starry sky above Wadi Rum, and surrender to the rhythm of nomadic life for a short time.

From there, we boarded the bus for our last Jordan destination - the Dead Sea. Quick disclaimer here: I have been to the Dead Sea from the Israeli side back in the late 90s, so I knew pretty well what to expect from the experience, but I was excited to see Flo have a go at bobbing in those buoyant waters. We stayed at the beautiful Marriott Dead Sea Resort (in a posh suite, no less!) swimming in the sea, lounging by the pools, exploring the gorgeous grounds cascading down a steep bank towards the water, and smoking hookah in shaded patio cafes.

Lots of very well groomed and friendly cats run the joint here. Most are only too happy to come over for a snuggle.
Resort Grounds

The mountains in the background are Israel. When we jokingly asked our guide if it's possible to swim to the Israeli side, he said "Sure, make sure to bring along your passport. That way they can identify the body." Haha!... Hmmm...

With salinity of nearly 30%, it is 10 times saltier than sea water, and so dense that you can pretty much lounge on it. It's called Dead Sea because, obviously, it can't support any life, including bacteria, but the mineral composition of the water is very beneficial for health, which is why people come here for health reasons. The banks of the sea are lined with resorts and sanatoriums on both the Jordanian and Israeli side, and Dead Sea products are renowned throughout the world. The Dead Sea is a miracle of nature, and it's quickly disappearing. If you are planning on visiting, you have about 40-50 years left before it's gone. The rivers that feed it have been dammed so that no water reaches it anymore, and rainfall in this arid region is not nearly enough to replenish it.

This wraps up the highlights portion of our trip. We did see  many other things along the way, including many important Biblical sites that would be interesting to anyone on a religious pilgrimage. Mount Nebo, where Moses was given a view of the promised land, but was never allowed to enter.

Mt Nebo
The town of Madaba, where a 6th century church still contains parts of a monumental mosaic floor depicting a map of the entire ancient world. Bedouin villages carved into rocky landscapes, ruins of a Crusader castle, Jesus's baptismal site, Bethany - if you're into such things - Jordan is a smorgasbord, an embarrassment of riches, and populated by some of the nicest, most hospitable people you will ever meet.

St. George's church of Madaba
villagers living in cave dwellings around Shobak Castle grounds

Shobak Castle

What makes Jordan such an interesting destination for Westerners?

We get a lot of raised eyebrows when we tell people that we went to Jordan. The implied inquest being, "why would you go to Jordan when the Amalfi Coast and Disney Cruises still exist?" I understand that can be disorienting to some people. Well, with all due respect to the Amalfi Coast (and none whatsoever to Disney Cruises), Jordan has something else to offer besides its notable attractions, that more popular destinations lack, and that I find absolutely crucial: perspective. It's not so foreign and unfamiliar as to give one culture shock. It is different enough to be exotic, but still has enough in common with our culture and mentality so as to provide a cushy landing to the icy plunge. This is not easily achieved in Middle Eastern countries. I am not ready to go to Saudi Arabia for this reason, by the way. Whatever it has to offer in historical monuments and natural idiosyncrasy, there's nothing there to soften the cultural blow, and I know I would hate it. In Jordan, on the other hand, I was intrigued and fascinated. I did not agree with or like everything I saw - far from it - but there was enough perspective, context, and common ground, that I went away having learned a lot, and acquired a more nuanced understanding, as well as empathy, and genuine good will.

Something all of us could use more of.

Friday, December 26, 2014


"Rose-Red City" of Petra
Petra needs little introduction, having been immortalized in our collective consciousness as Alexandreta in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Funny enough, it was a little known destination before that movie came out, but the moment the world saw its favorite swashbuckling archaeologist enter the "Valley of the Crescent Moon", all hell broke loose, and a hot new destination was born. Hordes of visitors began to descend upon Petra every year, the coveted title of  "Wonder of the World" was bestowed, and Jordan was officially put on the map.

But before Petra the attraction, there was Petra the city, with a story as colorful and mysterious as any Hollywood action thriller. It was founded by an ancient Arab tribe called the Nabateans, a tribe that, after surviving Roman, Byzantine and Persian rule, eventually dispersed and disappeared, adding yet another fold to the shroud of mystery that drapes Petra. Like any city that lingers on long after its inhabitants have vanished, it is a haunting and mystical place. But at the height of its power, it was a prosperous and flourishing trade center, an important intersection of trade routes and cultures.

The first thing you see is the old part of the city. Most of the structures and chambers here are old tombs.
Petra is approached through a long, narrow, and winding mountain gorge. Walking towards it, in the cool shade of an imposing cleft in the rock, it's easy to imagine caravans loaded with spices and silks trickling here after months-long journeys, looking up in amazement at the towering walls, relieved to find respite and hear the gurgle of water.

A complex water management system was a key factor in Petra's success story. Water was diverted from a nearby river and carried to the city in channels carved directly into the cliffs, clearly seen in the photo above.

For about a mile you will walk in the silence of the canyon, along the now empty water channels, in the cool blue shadows on warm pink stone, until finally, at the last turn, you catch a glimpse of something different.

It's not a coincidence that the first thing you see in Petra is the exuberant facade of the Treasury. It was a message to all who came here - to the merchants, the emissaries, the explorers - a clear expression of wealth and power. "We, the Nabateans, can make these great things", it proclaimed. "Our buildings can rival those of the Romans and the Greeks. We are not to be taken lightly." Oh yes, it was designed to impress. And impress it does.

Al Khazneh, or The Treasury, which by the way, is no treasury at all... 
Nor is it an accident that the Treasury is decidedly not an Arabic facade, but a compilation of different building styles and elements borrowed from other dominant cultures of the time. The Nabateans were aware of the outside world, and by using foreign elements in their architecture put forward a welcoming and inclusive image; East and West coming together in delicate balance. As long as you came in peace, to do business, you were welcome here.

For a lot of people, apparently this is where the visit ends, which I find utterly ridiculous. Sure, the Treasury is synonymous with Petra, which may lead people to think that this is all there is to it. But really, all it takes is a few steps to the left, and you will enter a wide street, leading to the the city beyond. The city of Petra lies past the Treasury, and it is most definitely worth a visit.

The theater, which resembles a Roman theater, but lacks the engineering and acoustics of one, and therefore never functioned very successfully. Upon conquering the area, Romans modified the theater to make it more functional. The carved niches in the back wall were originally tombs, but were repurposed into VIP box seats. Because no one wants to listen to opera sitting next to a dead guy.

The thing that appealed to me right away about Petra is that, despite being a ghost city, there is nevertheless a bustle about it that feels strangely authentic and appropriate. The Bedouins that live in the surrounding area run an entire economy out of here. Colorful stalls line in the street that used to hold the city's market. Horses, donkeys and camels stream along in every direction, led by turbaned men in sandals. Tea steams from exotic bronze pots. If you squint just so, and ignore the lumbering tourists, you could almost pretend you are in the 1st century.

The downside is that a lot of Bedouin children are forced to labor as part of this economy, selling trinkets or begging. We were advised to avoid buying from children, as only a dry up of tourist dollars can convince parents to send their kids back to school where they belong.

The only surviving free standing wall in Petra.

The astonishing colors and patterns of the limestone.
Yes, there is life in Petra, but around the street level bustle, there is a sweeping and epic quiet. The mountains, carved first by time and later by people, stand in testament to the passage of epochs that took place here.

Inside one of the tombs

A mosaic in the Byzantine church. Petra continued to flourish under Byzantine rule, and only declined after the Persian conquest, when trade routes were diverted from the area.

From the city, you can climb a mountain path to a hilltop shrine, with panoramic views of Petra below.

Back at the Treasury just before sunset, to find a completely different scene; late afternoon light reflecting from the opposing cliffs to suffuse the delicate carving of the facade in a warm, unearthly glow.

So, if the Treasury is not a treasury, then what is it? And why the misnomer?  It's actually a tomb, like most of the carved facades in the city, a mausoleum and possibly a place of worship (there is a recessed level in front of the entrance, possibly for ritual bathing). It's called the Treasury because Bedouins and others who have come through here before the city was rediscovered, thought it contained treasure, and shot at the facade hoping to break containers and send gold spilling out. Of course, there is no treasure, and no element of the facade is even hollow, but these idiot iconoclasts did inflict some pretty serious damage to the building, along with endowing it with a name that stuck.

The city of Petra has an undeniable magnetism. Looking around, as we were some of the last to leave, I noticed the hesitation on the faces of other visitors to turn that corner and go. It was a hesitation I shared. I practically walked out backwards, as the city receded from view and was obscured by its stone curtains, left alone for another silent night under the stars.

It was almost surprising, this pull that Petra exerts, its energy captivating like a siren's song, like something that will come back to you in dreams...