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July 02, 2005

The Rose Red City

Wadi Moussa/Petra, Jordan

Thursday, June 30 to Saturday, July 2, 2005:

I spent less than 72 hours in Jordan, not because the country lacks attractions --- on the contrary, there are plenty of Roman ruins, desert landscapes and sites of religious and historical significance, not to mention Red Sea beaches and Dead Sea resorts --- but because I was in a hurry and hadn't originally planned to stop there in the first place. However, I decided to come because I wanted to visit the ancient Nabataean city of Petra, which those of you who remember the third "Indiana Jones" film might recall seeing footage of. Carved into the sandstone cliff faces of a pink, purple and yellow rock valley (the colors varying and swirling with the changing angle of the sun), the city was carefully guarded from outside visitors for hundreds of years until the dedicated Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt found it in 1812 after disguising himself as an Arab (and, lest you think this sounds too easy, learning fluent Arabic); until then the Western world couldn't confirm whether the legendary city was fact or fiction. The valley --- or "wadi" --- Petra is hidden in is called "Wadi Musa," the "Valley of Moses," because it was there that the prophet was said to have struck a rock to supply the Israelite people with water (angering God with the force of his blow, he was denied entry into the promised land). I stayed in the town of Wadi Musa, just outside the ancient city, where a series of small hotels and cheap grills keeps visitors satisfied if not pampered. In fact, the place is surprisingly undeveloped when one considers that Petra is Jordan's biggest tourist draw by a longshot.

Before I get into a short recap of my time in Petra and Wadi Mousa, I will mention that, owing to its age and beauty, the poet and historian John William Burgon famously described the site as "a rose-red city half as old as time." The following is the full poem "Petra" (1845), which is difficult to find online, save for the last two lines, probably because the first twelve are not (if you ask me) nearly so good:

It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
By labor wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as by magic grown,
Eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
Where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
That crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
That first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
Which Man deemed old two thousand years ago.
Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city half as old as time.

If you are interested in pictures and history, the following link is helpful (and also includes some information on other Jordanian sites): .

Thursday, June 30

I left Dahab, Egypt and took a bus to Nuweiba, an hour to the north. From there I was supposed to catch a one-hour "fast" ferry across the Gulf of Aqaba to Aqaba, Jordan. The price for a seat was approximately $55 and of course none of that amount was refunded, when the ferry arrived some six hours behind schedule in Nuweiba. As a consequence, I didn't get to Aqaba until after 9 PM and couldn't find public transport to Wadi Musa, a 90 minute drive to the north. In the end I split a taxi with a depressive Finnish guy I met while lying around doing nothing for all that time in Nuweiba. We paid about $18 each, which wasn't so bad, even though it was far more than the same trip would cost in Egypt. On our way out of Aqaba we could see over to the bright lights on the Israeli side of the border in the resort city of Eilat. Further on, we could also see the lights in the Egyptian city of Taba. The driver told us that a quick drive to the east could have us at the Saudi border in no time, though, obviously, very few people could cross that way and we certainly didn't qualify as such.

The cool desert air rushing in through the windows, the silence of the brightly starred night, and the wide roads teeming with cargo trucks, provided a sense of peace, space and serenity largely absent in population-dense, chaotic Egypt. Our driver stopped for a rest after an hour and bought each of his passengers a tea at a stand outside a truck stop. We reached a hotel of the driver's choosing just before midnight. It was fairly ratty and you could break down the room doors with barely a shove, but it was all we were going to get that night. Having had nothing but hummus to eat all day, I asked the hotel owner if any restaurants were open nearby. He told me there weren't any but not to worry --- he had a plate of hummus for me. (I shouldn't complain though; I was hungry and the guy was generous and didn't charge me anything extra for the meal.)

Friday, July 1

I was lucky because it only 90 to 95 degrees in Petra, with an occasional breeze blowing in through the cliff chasms. I set off just after noon following a change of hotels and a quick, decent and very cheap lunch at one of the two kebab places down the road from my hotel on the (very small) main road. I picked up a two-day ticket for about $33, heeding the advice I'd heard regarding the inadvisability of trying to see a place as large and sprawling (and hot) as Petra in only one day. The price for a one-day ticket is only a few dollars cheaper anyway, so if you have the time the price shouldn't deter you any.

After entering the gates toward Petra I headed down a road flanked by old burial shrines carved in the brown-red rock mounds that rose up around me. These continued for a short while until I reached a huge rock wall and set off through a chasm in its center. With 2,000+ year-old monuments carved on either side, it twisted and turned and descended for quite some time until, finally, I got a glimpse through the rocks of the most famous Petra monument, Al Kazneh, the "Treasury" (which was called that only because it was once thought that treasure was buried there). This is, of course, the building featured in the Indian Jones film, though there are hundreds of other things to see at Petra as well. There were some crowds gathered around outside but it wasn't too chaotic and I was able to get some clear photos and sit for a while. Due to the various events since the turn of the millenium, tourism has fallen off in Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries. Petra sees a lot of visitors but far less than it did a few years back. Things might be picking up again, however.

I walked for a few hours and then spent an hour going up a somewhat steep path to Al Deir, the "Monestary," a larger edifice in the style of the Treasury, but larger and ever-so-slightly less graceful. I was just as impressed however and, because it lies on the outskirts of Petra and isn't as easily accesible, I found it less crowded and more serene than Al Kazneh (which every visitor to Petra sees and, indeed, has to see, because it is located on the way into the city and was intended as something of a show-piece to awe visitors to the city, which was considered a holy site).

Saturday, July 2

I returned to Petra in the morning and made the long, steep climb to the "High Place of Sacrifice," from which there are views for miles around. Petra was far less crowded on this day, for whatever odd reason, and I had the High Place nearly to myself but for the presence of a mule or two and a woman selling warm cokes at a rickety stand she had set up. I went back down to Al Kazneh for a while, this time having it almost to myself as well. By the time I got back to my hotel at 4 PM I was covered in dirt and dust and had snapped a few hundred pictures. I was exhausted from miles of walking, much of it up and down the rock stairs, but I was happy I didn't cave in like some of the tourists who pay to have guides take them around on poor little donkeys that can barely support the fat asses (no pun intended) that are piled on top of them.

I've seen a lot of bad menu translation in my travels but that night, at the (very decent) Al Wadi Restaurant, I saw the clear winner to date. The "hot drink" list read exactly as follows (I copied it down exactly as it appeared):

Arabic Tea
Arabic Coffee
Hot Chocolate
Hobble Babbly

Doesn't "Hobble Babbly" sound disgusting?

Posted by Joshua on July 2, 2005 05:38 PM
Category: Jordan
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