From Safaga on the Red Sea we traveled North East towards the Gulf of Aqaba passing through the Straits of Tiran along the way. Both Eilat the Red Sea port of Israel and Aqaba – that of Jordan, are close neighbors at the tip of the gulf. Both ports are crucial to the trade of their respective countries and it was closure by Egypt of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli sea traffic that ultimately triggered the ‘Six Day War’.
We have visited Eilat (albeit years ago) but have never been in Jordan so this was to be a first for us (as Egypt has been).
The main attraction for our stay in Aqaba was the ancient city of Petra. The problem with exploring Petra was explained to us repeatedly. We would have to walk at least 5 miles to do the tour justice and the temperature in the desert while we did so was expected to be 42 degrees C (over 104 degrees F). Merle decided to bag this trip and I proceeded on the tour with 999 of my newfound best friends.
Southern Jordan in general and Petra and Aqaba in particular were particularly critical to ancient traders located as they were on the routes between Arabia the Red Sea and Syria in earlier times and on the Spice and Silk route between India and China and Greece and Rome later.
Petra, uniquely in this desert area, was well supplied with fresh water so the Nabataeans, who controlled this area, were able to control the caravan routes, apply taxes and sell supplies and thus prospered here for centuries.
With this wealth they decided to construct a defensible capital. The Sandstone mountains with their complexity and limited access provided a perfect location and so, instead of building they set about carving a city – Petra - from the sandstone canyons.
Petra flourished for 500 or so years – from as early as 312 BC through the Greek and Roman eras until the second century AD. Initially attempts were made (by Alexander) to defeat the Nabataeans but these efforts failed; the Romans initially adopted a different approach – striking an alliance that was mutually beneficial and protecting their Southern flank. Later Roman leaders attacked and defeated the Nabataeans and seized Petra which thereafter diminished in wealth and value and was ultimately abandoned and “lost” until it was rediscovered by Europeans. It was however continually used for shelter by migrating Bedouins over the intervening centuries so this tale does provide some local amusement.
Our tour to Petra differed very markedly from the experience we had in Egypt. First, Aqaba and the villages along the way were far more comfortable to Western tourists eyes and senses than those of Egypt.
Second, the Kings Highway (which links Aqaba and Damascus) was a well maintained wide modern double lane road. So the bus ride seemed safe and rapid. Ironically, the Kings Highway follows the ancient route of the same name mentioned in the bible and traveled by all the main biblical figures – remnants are still visible along the way.
Third, two main lifestyles were visible in the desert – the black tents and herds (plus vehicles) of the nomadic Bedouin native to the area and second, the settlement villages into which younger Bedouin families are now being resettled together with schools and healthcare facilities.
Finally, the vendors and folks trying to sell you stuff at Petra were pleasant, laid back took “No” as an answer and didn’t hassle us at all.
Petra itself was mindboggling. I am so happy I was able to visit this magical place. I totally understand why this Red Canyon became a dangerous rite of passage for young Israelis to visit at a time they could be killed if caught.
The entrance to Petra is though a long Canyon passage called the Siq. Underfoot there are remains of the ancient paving but more often simply packed (and sometimes soft) sand.
The canyon walls undulate and twist along with the sky sometimes visible above and sometimes not.
Along the walls you can see fossil bones,
and amazing water channels on either side (that were once lined with clay tile). Water supply from springs was channeled and dams were created for water storage.
The Siq is not very long but it is HOT in there and you very quickly dehydrate if you don’t drink. As we walked, our guide told us about the place and pointed out things to see and then, magically an opening and the Treasury suddenly begins to appear until you are standing right in front of this frontage carved out of solid sandstone.
The treasury itself has no interior and contained no treasure. Things came to a halt for some reason and that was that but what an accomplishment it is! The style is Greco-Roman in concept – that was when it was constructed. Only hand tools were available and the artisans had to climb up and down the rockface to do their work – you can see the footholds carved into the sandstone wall on each side of the frontage.
Beyond the treasury there were multiple buildings and caves carved into the sandstone that functioned as residences and places of commerce.
Where the sandstone face is protected from the wind, the sculptured buildings are well preserved
Where the wind has had an erosive effect the carvings have weathered and look in many places almost abstract – like a Gaudi building
Also an auditorium for the concert goer of the time
Locals provide shopping opportunities for the visitor – I was only interested in water and Coca Cola
You can also ride on horses or camels or be transported on a donkey cart.
One of the most horrendous sights of my life was here – a fellow passenger, a young woman who must weigh 400 lbs came flying by me as a passenger in a donkey cart. The animal was racing (poor thing) but the sight that will stay with me forever was the wobbling harmonic motion of every part of this ladies being as the cart ran, jumped and jolted on the uneven surface
After our hike in the canyon and through Petra we returned to the entrance for lunch at a Crowne Plaza – lovely and cool; lovely salads and a lamb dish. Then were free to wander around the town.
Found a local landmark – seems Indiana Jones wasn’t the only movie that came out of Petra.
The town is called Wadi Musa – where Moses struck a rock with his staff and water sprung forth – this where the springs originate that powered this creative and successful civilization and where they remain to feed the tourist hotels and Turkish baths that abound.
Turkish occupation – the Ottoman Empire – lasted until the Arab revolt of 1917 – 1920. One can’t discuss Aqaba and Petra without talking about Lawrence of Arabia. Here was his headquarters in Petra and in Wadi Rum. He was part of the Arab attack on Aqaba that resulted in Turkish defeat. This was where he became enamoured of Arab independence.
Today, after a tortuous political path, Jordan has that independence and seems happy with it (best one can tell). There are certainly pictures of King Abdullah II everywhere in sight if that means anything!