Aqaba, Jordan (Petra & Wadi Rum)
At its northern end the Red Sea divides in two: the left fork leads to the Suez Canal & the right fork is the Gulf of Aqaba. We sailed up the gulf & docked in Aqaba early in the morning on April 6. Aqaba is an ancient town & was an important stop on caravan routes. In biblical times the town here was called Elot. Because of its access to fresh water as well as the Red Sea this was a strategic location during World War I, when T.E. Lawrence and an Arab raiding party captured it by approaching over the desert while all of Aqaba’s defensive weapons faced the sea. This is a climactic moment in the film Lawrence of Arabia, but the director didn’t like the look of Aqaba so he shot this sequence in Spain.
Today Aqaba is the only port of the otherwise landlocked country of Jordan. It has become a flourishing beach resort area & a popular diving spot with submerged coral reefs. Right next to Aqaba, just across the border, is the Israeli city of Eilat. From the ship we looked out on Aqaba from the seaboard & Eilat from the port side.
We spent the day on a private excursion. Heading out of Aqaba early in the morning, we saw a huge Jordanian flag flying on a very tall flagpole that our guide said had been the tallest in the world until (who else?) Dubai built a taller one. We drove through the mountains, passing desert villages & Bedouin encampments.
Our major stop for the day was Petra, an ancient city carved out of rock some 2000 years ago by a group called the Nabateans. This is where Indiana Jones found the holy grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it is the setting for Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, and it is on the modern list of the seven wonders of the world. Petra was an important trading center in ancient times, a crossroads on several caravan routes where the Nabateans extracted payments for passage. At the end of the first century AD it came under Roman control (the Emperor Hadrian visited), but its importance declined as sea routes replaced desert crossings for trade and the city was largely destroyed by earthquakes. Hidden away in a valley that is difficult to see, much less to visit, Petra was lost to everyone but the bedouins living in its caves for some 500 years, until rediscovered in 1812 by Jean Louis Burkhardt. After another visitor’s drawings were published in 1839 Petra became a destination for particularly hearty travellers & near the turn of the 20th century archaeological excavations began.
One approaches Petra through a town called Wadi Musa. This means “Valley of Moses,” and the name comes from the Bible. There is a spring here (called the Spring of Moses) that is supposed to be where Moses struck the rock with his staff to produce water for the Israelites during their wandering in the desert. The local king (of what was then Edom) is said to have denied them permission to travel through the area, but Moses’ brother Aaron died before they left & was buried on top of a nearby mountain called Jebel Haroun (Haroun is Aaron in Arabic), where there is still a white shrine visited by Jewish, Muslim & Christian pilgrims.
It is a very long walk (about 2 miles) into Petra from the gate, and the ground is very rocky & uneven. For those who can’t do that, horses & carriages are available (for a price). It is all downhill going in, so you know it will be uphill coming out (when you are already tired). While the slope is a moderate 5%, it adds up: one book said it amounted to a total equal to a 45 story building. The Romans built a road here, but most of it is still covered by rock & dirt from the flash floods that sometimes inundate the lower part of this area. They have dug down to the Roman road in some places, but it is made of worn down rocks & is almost as uneven to walk on as the rest of the path.
Most of what is left in Petra are tombs & caves where the Nabateans buried their dead. First we came to some “god-blocks,” huge rocks about 20 feet tall carved into cubes that may represent gods protecting the city’s water supply. A little further on is the Obelisk Tomb & Triclinium (or dining room), which may be one monument or two. The top is a cave containing graves fronted by four large obelisks, with a figure carved into the rock between the middle obelisks. The bottom is a single room with tables & chairs for holding banquets for the dead.
We passed some goats grazing near the path & came to the small bridge over the Wadi Musa stream. A dam has been built here in modern times to deflect the water during the wet season, which otherwise would flood the canyon that contains the path into Petra from here. A tunnel on one side of the road was used by the Nabateans to divert this flow.
The last mile or so into Petra is along a path through a very narrow & beautiful canyon called the Siq. This narrow split in the rock was probably first opened up by an earthquake & its tall wavy walls of various colors were developed slowly by wind, sandstorms & flash floods.
There has been a lot said about the colors of Petra. A famous 1845 poem, written by a man who had never been there, called it “a rose-red city half as old as time.” Agatha Christie described it as “blood-red” & had one of her characters say it is “very much the color of raw beef.” In actuality, as you can see from these pictures, the rocks are mostly beige or reddish brown (although some say at dusk it has a rosier hue), but on closer inspection there is great variety in the color. The variety is probably more beautiful than a flat red color would be. Some of the pictures below were taken in the Siq & some inside a restroom built inside a cave in Petra. Our guide announced a rest stop there & told those of us who declined that we really should stop in there to see the rocks, if nothing else. He was right.
The Siq has a number of stone carvings & shapes. It has a very long but narrow aqueduct running along one wall, which presumably brought water from Wadi Musa into the city.
At the end of the Siq the first thing in Petra to come into view is the most famous, the so-called Treasury. Carved out of the solid rock wall, with no freestanding components (other than one pillar that replaced one that collapsed in antiquity), this is the building where Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail. The sudden appearance of this sophisticated carved building between the natural wavy walls of the Siq is quite dramatic.
This building was probably a place of worship, built in the 1st century BC. It is called the Treasury because of a rumor that the urn carved into the top façade was full of money. You can still see the bullet marks where early visitors tried to release the money by shooting at the urn, which is actually solid rock. You can’t approach the Treasury today beyond the foot of the stairs, but there are a few rooms inside (although they are bare with none of the stuff Indiana Jones encountered there). The parallel lines up the sides of the building may have been footholds for the workers carving the rock. The Treasury from some angles actually has a reddish hue.
Recent excavations in front of the Treasury have disclosed two tombs built on a lower level. Presumably that was the original level of the ground here & the Treasury was built above these tombs. The area in front of the Treasury is the scene of a lot of hustle & bustle since it’s the entrance to the city, including souvenir stands & camel rides. There were a lot more people than normal on the day we visited, a large proportion young girls on school trips from Amman who were here on some kind of special school day. They seemed to be particularly interested in having their pictures taken with Western women for some reason.
From the Treasury we continued walking downhill into what was the city. We passed several structures carved into the walls, and also some mounted police and an old man playing a string instrument. We also ran into some of our tablemates down here, who had come on a HAL excursion.
At the end of this road, where it angles to the right, is the theater, built in the 1st century AD before the Romans took over. The entire edifice, other than the pillars behind the stage & the ends of the rows of seats, is carved out of solid rock. The openings above are all that remains of some buildings that were superseded by the theater. Originally there was a high wall behind the stage that would have cut off the view of the interior from the outside. Notice how the colors can vary, depending on your perspective & the amount of sunlight.
After the theater we came to what is called the Royal Tombs, a row of the biggest and most elaborate tombs in Petra high on the face of the East Cliff. There is a modern stairway up to this level. Rick climbed up for a few photos, while Mary stopped halfway up because she wasn’t feeling well. In this area there were souvenir stands, some selling “ancient coins” that our guide said were about a week old.
Among the tombs along this wall from Rick’s perspective (they continue around the cliff out of sight), three stood out. From left to right are the Corinthian Tomb, with a design similar to the Treasury but in far worse condition, the Silk Tomb, notable mainly for its multiple layers of bright colors, and the Urn Tomb. The Urn Tomb is in excellent condition, with several rows of arches below its façade supporting a large forecourt. It appears that its good condition stems from its conversion into a church (or perhaps even a cathedral) in the 5th century. The Urn Tomb & the Corinthian Tomb are thought to have been built for Nabatean kings.
From this height one could see a number of caves that have been eroded by wind & water into wavy multicolored natural sculptures. You could also see further into the valley, which was once full of houses in a teeming city of some 30,000, all of which were destroyed by earthquakes. Some archaeologists think they are all still buried there & that what has so far been uncovered here is only the bare beginning.
Sadly, we had no more time to explore further. It really takes 2 or 3 days to fully explore Petra, particularly its high places. Even if more time had been available we probably couldn’t have done much more, since there was still a 2 mile uphill climb to leave Petra & we were already pretty worn down. So we turned around and trudged back up through all the wonders we had already visited. Afterwards we had lunch in a restaurant in Wadi Musa. And even in the desert there are flowers. Summing up, Petra was one of the real highlights of the entire voyage; in fact at the end of the trip the passengers voted it the top sight (& site) of the entire trip.
By now it was mid-afternoon and after the experience and challenges of seeing Petra one might think that would be enough for one day. But no! We climbed on the bus for the long drive to Wadi Rum, a mountainous desert area that rivals Petra for spectacular beauty.
You have probably seen Wadi Rum without knowing it, for many of the beautiful desert scenes in Lawrence of Arabia were filmed here, where Lawrence spent quite a lot of time. This is where (in the movie) Lawrence meets the Howeitat tribe’s difficult leader played by Anthony Quinn & this is where the Arab force sets out to cross the desert to capture Aqaba. (We traveled from here to Aqaba on a highway in about 1.5 hours & I have read that people often hike it, without the camels Lawrence’s forces rode, in four days, which sounds quite different from the epic & lethal desert crossing depicted in the movie.)
We only had a couple of hours here, driving in a caravan of 3 4X4 trucks, so we saw very little of it, but what we saw was more than worth the trip. After boarding our 4X4 we drove into the desert past some mountains shining in the late afternoon sun. One is called “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” although it only seems to have five pillars. This is also the name of T.E. Lawrence’s memoir of the Arab Revolt & the locals will tell you the book was named after the mountain, but in fact it is the other way around.
Our first stop was at a place called “Lawrence’s Spring.” There is supposed to be a spring on the mountainside where T.E. Lawrence wrote that he often brought his camel to drink. Be that as it may, we didn’t go up the mountain, but there is a water trough here that is fed by a long pipe disappearing up the mountainside. There is a Bedouin tent and nearby are some ancient inscriptions on rocks, some of which may be Nabatean & some Aramaic (if we understood correctly).
Our next stop was the most fun. It was a tall hill of red sand up against the side of a rock cliff. The sand here is very red because it is rich in iron ore. Some of us climbed the sand hill (not easy, small steps are better) from which there were wonderful views in all directions.
We drove to another mountain (perhaps Jebel Khazali) which had on outcropping that looked like a face, we don’t know if it is natural or not but it looks sculpted. This mountain is split by a narrow canyon on the wall of which are ancient Thalmudic petroglyphs, made by a tribe related to the Nabateans. We had to negotiate a narrow ledge well into the canyon to see all this.
We stopped for some supersweet tea in a Bedouin tent (where souvenirs were also available), then we drove to a spot to watch the sunset. In a ravine nearby was a Bedouin encampment with a solar panel to provide electricity. We saw a number of Bedouin encampments in Wadi Rum & we were told that they are no longer nomadic because they want their children to get an education in the local schools.
We returned to the Amsterdam too late for dinner, so we ate in our room. We later discovered that while we were away most of the razor wire was removed from the ship, the water & acoustic cannons were taken down & the supplemental security team disembarked. Having made it through the danger zone unscathed, we set sail around midnight around the Sinai Peninsula toward the Suez Canal.