Petra, Jordan (And Indiana Jones!)

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
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Trip End Jan 12, 2010


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Saturday, November 14, 2009

11.14.09               Petra, Jordan (And Indiana Jones!)

Today we had a "late" start – 10:30am!  I slept in until 9:15, and it felt like such a luxury.  Sleep, glorious sleep!

Our hotel in Petra, called Taybet Zaman, is less a hotel and more a re-creation of an ancient Jordanian village.  Imagine if Disney World built the country of Jordan at Epcot, and you'd pretty much be visualizing this place we stayed at.  Lots of little winding cobblestone “streets” led to rows of white adobe-walled rooms, as well as a “market area” and a large, beautiful restaurant. 

My room (in which I was sans Murray) was absolutely huge – it had a separate, high-ceilinged living room with a big, built-in couch and TV area.  Inside, the white adobe walls were punctuated by natural rocks scattered here and there.  The floors were cobblestone and both the rugs and the upholstery of the couch contained beautiful red and orange woven fabrics.  From the living room, an arched stone doorway led into a huge master bedroom, with a king-size bed at one end and a sitting area with a desk at the other end.  The bathroom off of the living room – also quite spacious – contained really yummy toiletries like olive oil soap and Dead Sea salt shampoo!  The whole place was really neat, and – despite all the five-star hotels we’ve stayed in – it was, by far, the coolest accommodation we’ve had on this tour.  

Around 9:45am, I met my folks (and most of the rest of the group) for a beautiful breakfast in the restaurant – cereals, yogurts, pastries, various cold and hot salads, and numerous cold and hot buffet items, as well as a make-your-own omelet stand.  After a solid 8-9 hours of sleep, we all looked MUCH BETTER than I had seen us in days (still in sleep deprivation mode, of course, but an improvement over the last 48+ hours)! 

Once we had eaten, we boarded our bus with Nassir, our bus driver, and our Jordanian police officer for the quick, 7-km trip to Petra – with a stopover first at an ATM to get some Jordanian cash.  (Several people successfully got said cash, by the way.  This particular ATM, however, sucked up my Bank of America debit card and spit back out a receipt that read: “Your card has been retained.  Please contact your branch.”  Oh, crap...  but more on that in my next journal entry!)  We also made a few quick detours into some of the lookout spots off the King’s Highway, which towers above Petra (one such lookout spot, oddly enough, contained the world’s largest candle…!)  We also could see the shrine of Aaron nearby, which sits on top of Mt. Horeb.

I had heard about Petra my entire life, and knew that not only is it on the “1,001 Places To See Before You Die” list – but also it’s on several “Top 25 Places To See In Your Lifetime” lists!  However, I didn’t know a lot about Petra’s history, and I did not know just how magnificent our visit to the site would be.

Petra, the Greek name for “rock,” was the capital of the Nabateans (also spelled Nabataeans and Nabatians), an ancient Arab tribe who originally came from the Arabian Peninsula more than 2,500 years ago.  Cut into steep and awesome multicolored sandstone mountains, this remote dead city is the secluded site of steep rocky slopes, towering craggy mountaintops, and high cliffs, into which most of the celebrated tombs, facades, theatres, and stairways of Petra are carved.  Beginning around the 6th century BC and lasting to roughly the 8th century AD, the Nabateans living in Petra were self-ruled until the Romans (and later the Byzantine and others) came into power. 

These peoples were the undisputed masters of the region’s trade routes, levying tolls and protecting caravans and shipments of goods by paying off the Red Sea pirates and others.  (They were so adept at protecting and controlling the region’s numerous trade routes, in fact, that at one time, the Romans had to pay the Nabateans 40g of gold for 1g of black pepper, since the Romans could not secure such a basic good on their own!)  The Nabateans also controlled the King’s Highway, which we took on our drive into Petra, and which is referred to in the Bible in the Book of Numbers.  The Nabateans spoke Nabatian but wrote in Aramaic, the Greek language of business, trade, and transactions – and also the language of Jesus and the oldest language in the world.

At its height as the Nabatean capital – or the “golden age,” from 100 BC to 100 AD – Petra had a population of roughly 35,000 people.  The city was throbbing with life, crisscrossed by paved roads, agricultural terraces, water harvesting systems, artwork and temples, and theatres.  Because of earthquakes and other circumstances, however, Petra was gradually abandoned by the Nabateans and was completely lost to the world until 1812, when it was rediscovered.  In the last 90 years, only two percent of Petra has been excavated (!), so it truly is one of the great archeological treasures of the world.  Many scholars and academics have advocated that Petra be declared the eighth wonder of the world (it already is a UNESCO World Heritage site).

When we arrived to Petra, we walked the short distance to what my mom and I dubbed the “bus terminal” – a dusty area filled with horses that were pulling up to a small, elevated shelter that looked like a bus stop!  One by one, as the horses pulled up to this “bus stop,” everyone in our group “boarded” our horse for the 7-minute ride to the entrance of Petra.  (PS – this horse ride was wonderful, and peaceful – much better than my camel ride in Sinai!  My horse handler was a very nice man named Saddam, who was just married last month; his/my slightly skittish horse was a beautiful mare named Christina.) 

After “exiting” Christina, we were at As-Siq, the ancient main entrance to Petra.  The entrance alone was worth the journey!  An impressive 1200m long, As-Siq marks the opening to the long, deep, narrow gorges of the first part of Petra, hemmed in by cliffs soaring up to 80m tall.  Passing through As-Siq, once again I had the sensation of being such a small speck in such a grand universe!  Immediately, I saw colorful rocks (the rocks are roughly 550 million years old!); water channels cut into the cliffs; free-standing shrines and other rock sculptures, including an elephant and a camel; dams (11 total within Petra); niches and other carvings cut into the rock walls; and very different-looking geological formations.  Wow.  Every second, and at every turn, the views were so spectacular that I wanted to take as many pictures as possible – at the same time that I wanted just to BE STILL and ABSORB.  (PS – as a result, I have so many pictures of As-Siq – but I will try to limit the ones I upload here, as difficult as it is!)

As we approached the end of As-Siq, our group began to see the first sliver of Al-Khazneh, or The Treasury.  Just when I thought I’d seen enough dazzling sights already – the closer I walked toward The Treasury, the more that emerged from around the corner – until suddenly I was face to face with this gorgeous monument!

The Treasury is roughly 130 by 90 feet – a huge façade of an intricate building, cut right into a sheer cliff wall.  It is the main funerary temple in Petra.  It is called The Treasury because it was rumored that the large urn located near the top of the façade contained treasure.  (While this was untrue, still there were people who shot at the urn in the hopes that it would crack and any treasure contained within would fall to the ground for retrieval!  You can still see some of those “shot” marks today.) 

From what Nassir told us, the architectural style of The Treasury is quite unique in the ancient world – since the Nabateans were very culturally diverse, and Petra was somewhat of a melting pot, The Treasury contains Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Assyrian, and even Babylonian influences (the same can be said of much of the carvings and artwork throughout Petra).  Sure enough, The Treasury was decorated with wine urns, opium pods, various gods and goddesses, and even griffins!

It was astounding to stand in front of this monument.  I felt dwarfed in size, and inspired by its genius.

[Time for a fun side note: “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” was filmed partly in Petra – the façade of The Treasury is clearly shown in the movie!  As soon as I saw The Treasury in person, I recognized it from the movie as well.  Nassir also told us that “Transformers 2” did some filming in Petra last year, but since I never bothered to see that movie, I couldn’t tell you just what in Petra was included in that movie!]

After the Treasury, we continued walking onward toward the Street of Facades and the Theatre.  As we walked down the Street of Facades, which contains rows of Nabatean tombs with intricate carvings, we came across a local man playing (busking?) a haunted melody on a one-stringed instrument.  He was sitting cross-legged on a small blanket with an enormously tall, sheer cliff wall stretched out behind him.  He was an astounding sight – the melody he was playing, plus the way the sun hit his body, plus the expression on his face, plus the colors of the sandstone on the cliff wall behind him – it was just stunning.  I couldn’t help but take (and include here) several photographs.  Just past this man, we saw the Theatre, a huge Roman-looking complex that once sat about 7,000 people and held plays, shows, and other public events.

At this point in the day, part of our group chose to return to the tour bus while the rest of us decided to walk the additional two miles further into Petra.  After a quick bag lunch at a little café stall near the Theatre – yogurt, a banana, a juice box, and pita bread with various cheeses – we walked onward down the Colonnaded Street, a beautiful street that once led through Petra’s center.  Here, we saw even more beautiful temples, public buildings, and shops.

Toward the end of the Colonnaded Street, we came across a few more camels (we had seen several within Petra throughout the day), which was a good opportunity to ask Nassir about camels in general (Remember how fascinated I was at Sinai with how camels sat on their haunches?  Well, it’s because they have eight – yes EIGHT – knees, two in each of their four legs!  Just one of many interesting facts about camels that we learned from Nassir…!). 

While we were standing beside these two large camels, roped one in front of the other (with the owner sitting atop the first camel), and Nassir was explaining certain camel attributes to us, the owner indicated to Nassir that the back camel was thirsty – it was eyeing the water bottle that Nassir was holding.  Nassir, smiling, then told us that camels were very smart.  He unscrewed the cap of his water bottle, and held it high up in the air.  The back camel swung his head all the way around to Nassir, grabbed the water bottle in its mouth, and then threw its head back and chugged the bottle in one full gulp!  It then proceeded to suck every single drop of water (and air!) out of the bottle that it could before spitting the empty bottle onto the ground.  It was such a funny sight to see a camel chugging a bottle of water that we donated another bottle to the cause just to see the camel gulp again!  We were in stitches (but maybe you had to be there?).

At the end of the Colonnaded Street, we saw Qasr al-Bint, probably the main temple of the Nabatean capital and the only freestanding building in Petra to have survived centuries of earthquakes, floods, and other events.  As we were looking at this temple, we noticed a small rainbow just above it, which framed the temple perfectly. 

By this time in the day (after 3pm), it was time to turn around and make our way back through Petra and out through the entrance once again – roughly a 3- to 4-mile journey.  My Mom and Gale, another tour member, decided to take the two demo camels back to The Treasury and walk from there (unfortunately, only camels – and a few wildly-driving horse-drawn carriages – are allowed to ride inside Petra; freestanding horses are not allowed).  Having sworn off camel rides for eternity (Murray too, I think), we chose to walk the entire way back!

After more than an hour of winding our way back (and gradually uphill) through Petra – and along the way, seeing the same Petra sites in reverse, but in different colors and with different shadings, due to the different position of the late afternoon sun – we reached Petra’s entrance.  Once again, we boarded horses back to the “bus (e.g., horse) terminal” by which our tour bus was parked.  (On the ride back, my handler was Moid and my horse was Nomas.)  It was nearly 4:30pm by that time, and I was pooped once again – but also, I was happily and wonderfully marinating in my spectacular day at Petra! 

There were so many other incredible sites within Petra that I could write about – like the impressive Obelisk Tomb and Bab as-Siq Triclinium, the Royal Tombs, the Urn Tomb, and the Palace Tomb – but I think I’ve said enough already (and posted enough pictures).  The site deserves a spot on that universal “must-see 25 list” – and if you haven’t gone already, DO GO at some point in your lifetime!  It will move you to new heights and new places. 

[Final note: while Petra was a shorter touring day than usual – we were back at the hotel between 5-6pm after seeing a gorgeous sunset, and we had no evening plans on tap other than dinner at the hotel (woo-hooo!) – still I was exhausted from the day, and I think others were, too.  (Maybe it was all the walking from today, or all the sun; or maybe it was the fact that just 24 hours earlier, we had missed out on at least one full night’s sleep?!)  Unfortunately, for the last few days, one member of our tour group has been really sick with amoebas – so sick that she had to forego today’s visit to Petra and see a doctor this morning (which is why we now know it’s amoebas).  After the doctor’s visit, she had to accompany the doctor to his clinic in order to receive an IV line and heavy antibiotics!  We have all been keeping her in our close thoughts and prayers.  Anyway, after dinner tonight, I heard that the doctor would be back at the hotel visiting our sick friend – so I was able to wait for the doctor to see me in my hotel room afterward (with my Mom accompanying me).  While I haven’t journaled about it (of course!), I have had a pretty miserable stomach for SEVEN days straight now – it started on the day we arrived in Cairo, and got significantly worse a few days after that.  After the doctor’s exam, and having had several of my questions answered in so-so English, I was diagnosed with gastroenteritis and put on an antibiotic.  I also received some good instructions for what to eat in the coming days!  I am feeling very grateful that the doctor was able to see and treat me (when was the last time YOU saw a doctor during a “house call”?!?!).  Here’s to hoping that my stomach improves soon!]
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