In my last blog post I wrote about arriving in Jordan, where I promptly proceeded to romp around in the desert. Although it was a lot less like the Lawrence of Arabia experience I’d anticipated, and a lot more like being an explorer on Mars. For further details, see Adventures in Jordan – Part I.
Now, the journey continues….
From the moonscape of Wadi Rum we made our to “The Lost City of Petra”, an ancient abandoned city in Jordan’s southern desert.
Petra was initially established in the 1st century BC by the Nabateans, a nomadic desert tribe. The location they chose was strategic, at the meeting point of several major trade routes. And for defensive reasons the city was constructed in a spot surrounded by mountains and deep gorges, making it virtually impenetrable to enemies, marauders, and would-be conquerors.
The Nabateans made excellent use of the building materials provided by nature, dramatically carving most of the city’s major public buildings and tombs straight into the red rock faces (hence a popular nick-name for Petra: the “Rose City”). And after them came the Romans, who added their own touches – ornamental columns, paved roads, a marketplace, churches, and an amphitheater.
For eight centuries Petra was a thriving regional center, at its peak home to 40,000 inhabitants. But then a series of earthquakes struck, much of the city was destroyed, and in the 7th century AD Petra was abandoned. After which it lay dormant, forgotten for almost 1,000 years by everyone except the local Bedouin tribes.
Until 1812, that is, when a Swiss explorer “discovered” Petra, and reintroduced it to the world. Intrepid tourists and various restoration projects followed. In 1958 Petra featured in Herge’s Tintin and the Red Sea Sharks (one of my most beloved childhood comic books); in 1985 Petra was designated a world heritage site; and in 1989, Steven Spielberg showcased Petra to most of my generation, when he filmed the final scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade there. Petra has since garnered one accolade after another: the world’s most fascinating archaeological site; one of the 28 essential places to see before you die; one of the new 7 wonders of the world; the list goes on.
So much then for the background: suffice it to say I had big expectations of the place.
To reach Petra you must first travel through the Siq, a kilometer long winding canyon that forms a natural entry road of sorts. For two millennia this has been the only way in and out the city, and as we set off from the courtyard of the modern-day visitor center I had little goosebumps of excitement.
Of course, we took the “look at me I’m such a tourist” option, and paid two local boys to lead us down the initial 800 meter path on horseback. A gimmick, granted, but it did feel supremely Indy to approach Petra in that way.
Once at the start of the Siq, however, we dismounted and continued on foot, through a narrow gap running between twisting cliffs of rose-colored rock, rising up sharply on either side of us. The walls of the canyon were so high and close together that direct sunshine was blocked out, replaced instead by diffused red-tinged light, and an ever-shifting wonderland of shadows.
As we neared the end of the Siq, we began to catch first glimpses of Petra’s most famous landmark – the Treasury (despite the name, it looks more like a temple, and in reality was probably a tomb, although no-one knows for sure). My excitement built with every peek, but its totality remained hidden until the final turn, keeping my anticipation at fever-pitch up to the very last second.
Then, we rounded a bend, and the canyon of the Siq abruptly widened into a broad arena. Directly in front of us was the Treasury.
Now, just like every other visitor to Petra does at that point, I stopped dead in my tracks, and gasped. Because once the scale of the Treasury comes into full view, it blows you away: a seven stories high structure, cut directly into the sandstone rock face. Framed by elegant carved columns, and topped by monumental carvings and sculptures.
The courtyard in front of the Treasury was, perhaps not surprisingly, more crowded than Disneyland on a hot summer day. People were everywhere: busloads of tourists; backpackers and day-trippers and groups of school kids on excursion; security guards; vendors selling souvenirs and soft drinks; men offering horseback rides; and even the occasional camel.
Everyone looked small and rather pathetic in comparison to the Treasury itself, so it felt a lot like the structure was being attacked by a swarm of human insects. All of which, I must admit, was not in the least bit serene or relaxing. And certainly not the cinematic “stumbling on a long-lost city” moment I had been hoping for. So we snapped a few obligatory photos, and pushed on as fast as we could.
Beyond the Treasury, Petra stretches out for miles, filling the space of a large natural valley. As we pushed deeper into the city the crowds quickly thinned, the tourist noise subsided, and slowly, like a flower opening in the sun, the wonder of Petra revealed itself.
For hours we meandered past ancient tombs, homes, and monuments. Just like the Treasury, they were massive, carved from the rock faces. And just like the Treasury, the dry desert heat has preserved them remarkably well, for centuries.
At one point we veered off the main path, and found ourselves alone, able to scramble at our leisure through overgrown tombs and caves. After that, we walked up the steps to an imposing abandoned temple, its carved ornamental façade streaked in bands of different colors, owing to natural minerals present in the stone. Later we paused at a panoramic viewpoint over the remains of Petra’s Roman-era amphitheater, spectacularly cut into the side of a mountain, and big enough to hold 10,000 people.
It was all so wonderful – a whole city’s worth of ancient ruins to explore, any one of which alone would have made the whole trip worthwhile.
Eventually, at the very back of Petra, about 5 kilometers from the start of the Siq, we came to a flight of 850 stairs leading straight up. At the top of which we came to Petra’s final wonder: the Monastery, which is similar in look to the Treasury, only slightly bigger and grander.
Although unlike with the Treasury, a tiny fraction of visitors to Petra ever make it as far as the Monastery, deterred by the heat, the distance, and the steep steps. So when we finally stumbled into the courtyard facing the Monastery, sweating and panting from the exertion of the climb, the only other people there were a German couple taking photos, an old lady selling souvenirs, and a young Bedouin girl staffing a small makeshift café. Otherwise, we had the whole place to ourselves.
In front of the café was a low wooden bench, decorated with colorful cushions, and offering an excellent view of the Monastery. We ordered coffee, strong black sludge served in bronze Turkish coffee pots. And then we just sat there for a long time, sipping slowly, enjoying the break, and taking it all in. The only distraction was the young Bedouin girl, who came over after a while to chat with us in broken English.
By then it was already late in the afternoon, and the sun was getting low in the sky. I looked around, and noticed that apart from the Bedouin girl, we were now entirely alone. The Petra archaeological park closed at dusk, so the German couple had left to begin their return trek to the main entry, and the souvenir lady had packed up her stall for the day.
I suppose we should have taken that as our cue to leave, too. Staying to watch the sunset meant we would have to make a long walk back in the dark. And we would reach the exit well after Petra had officially shut for the night, meaning there was no assurance we would even be able to get out.
But despite this, it was simply not possible to leave. Because as the fading light of day hit the Monastery, the rock from which it was carved turned a brilliant, red-rose color. It looked like the stone was glowing from within – a truly beautiful thing to see, and there was no way we were going to turn our backs on it.
That said, however, it felt to me like something important was missing from the scene.
Surreptitiously I pulled out my mobile phone, opened my Spotify app, and with great relish hit play on some music I had downloaded earlier that morning. Immediately, the opening bars of John Williams’ unmistakable soundtrack to the Indiana Jones movies filled the air.
My travelling companion turned and looked at me sharply, rolling her eyes slightly. The young Bedouin girl from the cafe was a lot less discreet, and laughed out loud, unable to hide the fact that she thought I was a complete idiot.
Still, I didn’t care. We were alone in Petra, sipping on thimblefuls of strong coffee. The setting sun was behind us, the extraordinary glowing façade of the Monastery was in front of us, and Indiana Jones’ stirring theme was playing in the background.
I had reached my personal geek nirvana. And it felt great.
Our Jordanian travels concluded in Amman, the capital city, from where we were booked to fly out.
Most travelers to Jordan transit through Amman pretty quickly, and initially, that was our plan too. But then we decided to have a brief look around. After all, more than half of all Jordanians live there, so visiting the country without visiting Amman felt like it would have been cheating a bit.
It turned out to be an excellent decision. Like Rome, Amman is built across a number of hills and valleys, offering wonderful vistas from every point. Like Athens, there is a superb Acropolis-style ruin to explore, right in the center of town, dating back to when Amman was a Roman outpost known as Philadelphia. And like everywhere in the Middle East, Amman’s market was bustling and colorful, offering the opportunity to buy aromatic spices, and sample an endless assortment of treats and sweets.
We had one night to kill in Amman, and our tour guide recommended Beit Siti – “our grandmother’s house”, in Arabic. It is a gorgeous Ottoman-era home, in an historic Amman neighborhood, decorated with authentic period furniture, photos and bric-a-brac. At its heart is a big open-plan kitchen-cum-dining room, leading outside to a pretty vine-covered terrace.
When the grandma in question had passed on, her three granddaughters had inherited the house. Young, modern and educated, the ladies decided to turn it into a hybrid cooking school and restaurant, their idea being that guests would prepare a meal together and then eat it communally – just as they had done with their grandmother.
They also decided to invite women from a nearby village to lead the cooking, providing those women with an income and the opportunity to pass on their knowledge of traditional Jordanian cuisine. All of which sounded great: food, culture, entertainment, and social purpose, rolled into one. So, we went.
On arrival, we were each presented with an apron, a chopping board, a knife, a glass of fresh squeezed lemonade, and a shot of arak (aniseed liquor) to get us in the mood. We joined our fellow cookers for the night – a group of mainly Canadian teachers on tour in Jordan. And then we were introduced to our “instructor”, an old lady in a full length burka, who spoke not a word of English. Translation services were thus provided as needed by our hosts, the sisters who owned the place.
On the menu for dinner was fresh-baked pita, tabbouleh salad, scorched eggplant puree, shish barak (a kind of mince-filled dumpling, baked in yoghurt), and hareesah (a semolina-coconut dessert).
We were led outside, onto the terrace, where big wooden tables for food prep had been arranged under the vines. It was cool, and the terrace enjoyed a great view out across the neighborhood. Also, right next to the terrace was a mosque, and just after dusk the speakers on its minaret crackled to life. We stood silently for a few minutes, listening to the melodic sound of a Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, and watching as the lights of the city flickered on.
No rest for the wicked though, and I was soon hard at work, chopping tomatoes, shredding parsley, toasting pine-nuts, and grilling eggplant. Although my main designated task for the night was preparing pita dough: mixing together flour, salt, water and oil, kneading it senseless into small balls, and then flattening the balls out in the palm of my hand.
All the while, the old lady instructing us kept a watchful eye on me, indicating in sign language improvements I could make – add a little flour here; a little oil there. When I was done, two dozen dough patties were arranged on metal trays, ready for baking. The old lady smiled and, evidently satisfied with my work, patted me on the arm. I felt like a kid who had just passed an important exam at school.
Once everything was ready we went inside, where a large dinner table had been set with grandma’s original fine china. Food was dished up “family style”. With lots of laughter and smiles, everyone proceeded to stuff themselves. The pita, served hot from the oven, was, if I may say so myself, superb…
As we ate we got to chatting with our hosts. The sisters were in their thirties, each married with young kids, and all living in Amman. We discussed how they had come to set up the cooking school; their passion for Jordanian cooking; and their desire to honor their grandmother’s legacy. And we also talked a lot about normal trivia of daily life, everywhere in the world: kids, schools, Instagram and Facebook – things like that.
At one point, one of the ladies asked me about my origins. In the rest of Jordan, notwithstanding that relations between Jordan and Israel are normalized, I had been cautious when answering this question, generally saying I was from Australia and then changing the topic. But I felt strangely at ease in Beit Siti, and so told them the full story: that my dad was born in Moroccan, that I was Jewish and part-Israeli, and that my parents now lived just over the hills, in Tel Aviv.
“Oh – I would love to visit Tel Aviv,” one of the women said, rather unexpectedly. “I have heard it is such a fun city.” Then her sister added: “And of course we have so much food in common. It would be just like eating at home!”
It was a wonderful end to a wonderful trip around Jordan. Because whilst Wadi Rum and Petra had been world-class attractions, they were in the middle of the desert, and their existence nowadays is almost entirely for the benefit of tourists. Whereas at Beit Siti we had a chance to interact, even if just for a brief time, with modern, urban Jordanians.
In Amman we got a small taste of what “real life” is like for most people in Jordan, and we got to experience the warmth of a Jordanian home. And, best of all, we got to see first hand, how food so often can be a bridge between peoples, more effective than any bricks and stones ever could be.
All too often we build places up in our minds, only to have them fail to meet expectation in reality. I can’t count the number of times I have arrived somewhere I desperately wanted to see, only to find it overrun with tourists, or falling apart, or massively overrated, or in some other way short of whatever I may have imagined.
Jordan on the other hand, was one of the rare exceptions, where for the most part reality exceeded everything I could ever have hoped for.
So what was the best bit, you may ask?
Well, as befits somewhere that turned out to be so exceedingly fabulous, my personal highlight came where I least expected it. Which was not in the desert, or while wandering around an ancient lost city, but rather while bobbing about in the sea.
You see, we spent our second last night in Jordan by the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth (430 meters below sea level), its water so salty a human body will float in it without any effort.
The Dead Sea also happens to demarcate part of the border between Israel, to the west, and Jordan, to the east. So unlike Wadi Rum and Petra, the Dead Sea is a place I had visited many times before, albeit on the Israeli side. I wasn’t therefore expecting anything special or new; just a bit of fun, an opportunity to float in the sea, and a night in a plush hotel.
Immediately on check-in we headed down to the shore. There we proceeded to smear ourselves head-to-toe in the thick black mud that is dredged up from the bottom of the sea, rich in minerals, salts, and all things good for the skin.
Once the mud had dried into a crunchy layer on our bodies, we slipped into the sea and took float. For the next twenty minutes we bobbed about like human corks, the super-saline water holding us up, leaving us free to drift, enjoy, and stare out at the view.
But here’s the thing: when you are in the Dead Sea in Jordan, you are facing directly west, quite literally looking out over “the Promised Land”. Right across the water from us was the ancient city of Jericho. Behind that we could see Bethlehem, framed by the imposing bulk of the Judean Hills that rise up like a wall on the opposite side of the sea. And crowning it all, in the hazy middle distance, was the skyline of Jerusalem, perched high on the crests of the hills.
Then, just when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any better, the sun began to set. The landscape in front of us seemed to catch fire. The face of the sun turned into a ball of blazing yellow, the hills glowed red, and Jerusalem began to glitter like it was a city made of gold.
Floating there in the salty water, as the sun slowly dipped over the Dead Sea, I found myself looking at something incomparably beautiful. But I was not watching a film, or living out a childhood fantasy. Nor was I getting a first glimpse of some windswept sand dunes, or long-imagined ancient ruins.
Rather, laid out before me was something entirely real and familiar. Something I had seen hundreds, if not thousands of times before. Because over there, lit up in a blaze of light, was Jerusalem, the place where I was born. A place I have never really lived in, but which I know so well.
Only now I was seeing it from a completely new perspective. And so it felt as if I was seeing it for the very first time. The mere thought of which, silly as it may sound, sent shivers racing up and down my arm.
As travel moments go, that one was pretty special. But then again, as I may have mentioned, Jordan was a pretty special place to travel in.