In 2007 the ancient Nabataean city of Petra was popularly voted as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. For the last 12 years I have dreamt about visiting these ancient ruins carved into the sandstone rocks of southern Jordan, but always assumed this would be the hardest of the World Wonders to get to, and thus be my last. Yet, my desire to travel to and in the Middle East has continously grown since then, despite it being a region of war and turmoil. In fact, located with Syria to its North, Iraq to its East, Israel to its West, and Saudi Arabia to its South, Jordan is a suprisingly stable and safe country to travel to; a fact Jordanians rightfully take great pride in.
Still, traveling to a Middle Eastern country by myself as a woman did not sit entirely well with me so I opted to sign up for a G Adventures tour run by GEEO (Global Expeditions for Educators Organization) and convinced Michelle to do the same.
We arrived in Amman from Jerusalem late on Sunday evening and made our way to the Landmark Hotel; a 4 star hotel located just outside downtown. As the tour that was offered was the upgraded comfort class, we decided to embrace the fancy hotels; a luxury we usually don’t afford ourselves, though one I can increasingly appreciate as I get older.
Our tour began Monday morning after breakfast where we met the rest of our group and headed north towards Jerash, one of the best preserved Roman cities in the world and the best preserved ruins in the Middle East. I have to admit, when I saw this on our itinerary, I was not very excited, as one who travels often knows that eventually, ruins are just ruins and are never as impressive as the first time you see them. Yet, as we entered through the massive Hadrian’s arch, I immediately noticed that these ruins were indeed extremely well preserved, with almost an entire city here! Our guide, Ayman, informed us that the archeologists in the area had to stop the excavation because the rest of the ancient city lied underneath the water supply of the new city. Still, with only 30% of the ancient city ruins unearthed, this was among the most impressive Roman ruins I have ever visited, including those in Rome.
After exploring the ruins a bit on our own, we met Ayman back near the entrance and grabbed a quick Arabic coffee before heading towards the Dead Sea for the afternoon.
The lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea lies 408 meters below sea level and is 390 meters deep. Although it is called a sea, the Dead Sea is a actually a lake and the 2nd saltiest body of water on earth. One of the draws of visiting the Dead Sea is to be able to swim, or more accurately float in the water as the high salt concentration gives one incredible buoyancy.
Dipping our bodies into the water, which shares a coast with the West Bank on the other side, is a surreal experience everyone should try at least once. In addition to floating in the sea, we also opted to cover our bodies in the natural Dead Sea minerals found in the local mud. Fun fact- Egyptians used the minerals from the Dead Sea for the mummification process.
After making sure we got every last inch of the mud off of us (if you leave it to dry it can be extremely difficult to get off), we made our way back to Amman where we had what was undoubtedly the best meal of the trip. Leading us to a small indescript restuarant in the downtown section of Amman, Ayman ordered a ton of differnt foods for us to try, including the best grilled lamb I have ever had.
On our 2nd day, we were supposed to head down the King’s Highway to Petra but due to the high season, we did not have a hotel booked in Wadi Rusa for those nights and thus, were informed our itinerary would need to change. Fortunately, Ayman adjusted it so we would still visit Wadi Rum (the desert made famous by Lawrence of Arabia) in time for sunset. First however, we were off to visit Mt. Nebo; another biblical site that Jordan lays claim to. Said to mark the place where Moses looked out to the promised land, as well as likely the place that Moses died, the site was sanctified by Pope John Paul II as one of many places in Jordan for biblical pilgrims. As you look West over the holy land, you can just about make out the faint shadows of the city of Jericho and the twinkling lights coming from the city of Jerusalem.
After visiting Mt. Nebo, we headed further south to Madaba; an old trading town on route to the southern desert. The big draw to Madaba is St. George’s Church which houses a giant mosaic map dating back to the Byzantine era and believed to be the oldest map of Palestine in existence.
Although we didn’t have much time to explore the town, Madaba has a cool vibe to it which was evident from the place we stopped at for lunch; a local cafe with an attached bookstore and outdoor seating that specializes in coffee and sandwhiches. After enjoying a sandwhich of sliced egg and Mediterranean salad with hummus and tahini, followed with some Arabian coffee, we headed up the road to a mosaic factory where disabled Jordanians make mosaics for tables, pictures, and other house decorations as part of a larger art project sponsored by the Jordanian Queen Noor, who actually now resides in the United States.
Finally, we were back in the van heading south to Wadi Rum. Resembling the American southwest with its red rock formations and vast expanses of scenic desert, the area in and around Wadi Rum was made famous by Lawrence of Arabia, the English soldier who claimed to have played a leading role in the Arab revolt against the Turks at the beginning of the 20th century. Although he basically painted himself as an important figure in his own book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the Arabs do not really hold him in the same regard that most westerners do. A brief bit of history is needed here.
As pan Arab conscience grew during the late 19th and early 20th century, an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire was long in the making. According to Ayman, England reached out to the Arabs with a promise that they would back them should they want to overthrow the Turks. T.E. Lawrence was sent as an advisor who was to work side by side with the Arabs during the revolt, but did not single-handedly lead the revolt. To think so is insulting to the thousands of Arabs who lost their lives in fighting for an Arab state.
Although Wadi Rum is filled with many sites dedicated to the legend of T.E. Lawrence (i.e. Lawrence of Arabia), we were more interested in catching the sunset over the glowing rocks and landscape. In addition to sleeping in traditional Bedouin tented camps (more on this in a bit), the major highlight of visiting Wadi Rum is to take a 4×4 through the desert or go for a camel ride at sunrise or sunset. As we approached the area, I couldn’t help but feel as if we were driving through Utah or Arizona, only instead of cowboy shops along the side of the road there were signs advertising sleeping under the stars in a Bedouin camp with the occassional herd of camels being shepparded by.
We arrived just in time to hop into a 4×4 and head off into the deep desert as the sun began its desent over the horizon. With each passing minute the colors changed, turning from white, to pink, to red.
As we drove around a 4×4 Toyota pick up truck, and we saw others doing the same, I couldn’t help but think how we all looked a bit like ISIS, only instead of machine guns waving up in the air it was peoples’ selfie sticks.
We eventually came upon the sunset point, filled with truck loads of people all trying to get the perfect pic. As we approached the cars, our driver sped up the truck and brought us to the edge of a cliff of a dune, tilted there for a few moments before revving the truck over the cliff spiraling down the dune. It was pure unexpected, exhilarating fun. It also allowed us to get away from the crowd and enjoy the surreal desert sunset of the Middle East.
Although most Jordanians stem from Bedouin routes, the traditional culture of the Bedouin is more noticeable in places like Wadi Rum and Wadi Musa; the area around Petra. As a major attraction in Jordan, Wadi Rum sees thousands of tourists a day, many of whom want to experience the traditional culture of these nomadic desert people. As a result, many Bedouins have transformed their nomadic way of life into creating permanent settlements and tented “camps” where tourists can stay the night. The “tented camp” we were staying in was more like a luxury desert hotel than roughing it under the stars, but this was a rather different experience for me (I already slept in the Sahara in Morocco) and thus, was much appreciated- as was the comfort of sleeping and showering.
A typical experience in the desert involves a 4×4 trek during sunset, followed by a traditional Bedouin feast which usually consists of lamb and rice cooked in the ground (a zerb) for hours. After we checked into our luxury desert camp, we grabbed our wine and headed back to the main tent for dinner, just in time to catch the unveiling of the food being pulled out of the ground. Although this was definitely a site made for tourists as there were numerous people staying in the camp, it was still interesting to see.
After dinner, Ayman asked if any of us would like to go for a desert walk; to get away from the crowds staying in the camp. This being my 3rd G Adventures trip, I can say with all honesty their guides are the best. I bring that up now because I really appreciated the fact that Ayman consistently tried to avoid large groups of people, enhancing and personalizing our time in Jordan, and making him a favorite guide of mine.
Around 9pm, under the dark desert sky, we hopped into the back of the Toyota and Ayman led us out far away from the camp into the deep desert. We stopped by another G Adventures desert camp which consisted of a circle of tents sitting next to a sandstone cliff to borrow a steel pot so that Ayman would be able to set up a fire and make us tea. As we walked along with our headlamps, we picked up small branches to help with the fire. Unfortunately, one of the women in our group did not have a light with her and seemed a little annoyed we were walking so far. For the rest of us however, the solitude of the desert was a treat- even though I stayed behind to walk with her and shine my head lamp in her path so she didn’t completely freak out. Eventually, we reached a spot far enough away from the lights of the local village and other camps and Mike and Michelle set up a small fire surrounded by stones. Ayman put the kettle on and we enjoyed some warm tea under the cold desert sky. And wine, because who doesn’t bring wine with them into the desert?
Around midnight, we headed back to our “camp” and passed out. The following morning we had about a half day to kill before we got back on the road and drove towards Wadi Rusa, the valley town surrounding Petra. Although there was the option to go on a camel trek in the desert, Michelle and I decided to set out on foot on our own. As we walked past the red stoned cliffs and expanding desert landscape, with the no one around other than the occasional camel caravan walking by, this was definitely one of the highlights of my trip.
Around mid-morning we headed back to our tent and had a few hours to relax in the peaceful morning of Wadi Rum. One of the few periods of relaxation we had since departing New York a few days before, I happily set up camp on our porch with my feet up and a copy of Levinson Wood’s Arabia in hand.
In the afternoon, after lunch at the camp we hopped back into the Toyota which drove us back to the van, which took off heading for Wadi Rusa (Valley of Moses). Arriving in the late afternoon, we pulled over at a viewpoint along the road which Ayman informed us sat across from Aaron’s Tomb (Moses’ brother). Before checking into our hotel, we drove down into the valley and stopped at a small site commonly referred to as Little Petra. Often overlooked by tour groups, this miniture siq lies just outside the ancient Nabataean city of Petra and has its own, smaller treasury building and cave tombs. As we had yet to visit Petra, this was a great introduction and a perfect way to introduce us into the local Nabataean history. Arriving in the valley around 600 BC, the Nabateaens were prosperous trading organizers and built carved ancient cities (like Petra) into the surrounding red stone of Wadi Rusa. Petra (and little Petra) were along the main trade route for the Romans until around 100 AD when the Romans took control of the Nabateaen empire and added Romanesque architecture to the city. The ancient carved city was abandoned and ruined after a series of earthquakes however, and for hundreds of years the cave tombs of the Nabateaen kings and commoners served as living space for the local Bedouin. In 1812 however, a Swiss explorer; Jean Louis Burkhardt tricked locals into showing him the remains of the city, leading to a series of excavations, preservation, and some would say, death by tourism today. Once the site became a tourist attraction, those local Bedouin who were living in the ancient city were forced out by the government and given homes in a small village on the outskirts of Wadi Rusa. Little Petra was a good introduction into these Ancient Nabateaen kingdoms, local Bedouin culture, and potential tourist scams (more on that later).
After our late afternoon visit to Little Petra, we checked into our hotel for the next two days; the Grand View. Best described as a mix between the Shining and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the Grand View was in the midst of a much needed renovation, but did provide us with magnificent views of the Petra valley. We laughed however when we tried to log into the wifi and another guest staying at the hotel changed the name of their hotspot to “The Grand Shit” hotel. After settling in, Ayman took us out to try a local Bedouin dish- Mensaf- a dish of lamb cooked in a thin sour yogurt sauce and served on a bed of rice. It was delicous!
Feeling like a kid the night before Christmas, we headed back to the hotel for some rest before departing for Petra the following morning at 530am.
With over 12,000 visitors expected on the day we would be visiting Petra, Ayman had the good sense to suggest we try to arrive when the site opened at 6am so we could have the place relatively to ourselves, with a few other eager visitors. The anticipation of visiting Petra had me up out of bed well before my 4:45 am alarm.
When we arrived at the site, there were a handful of other visitors, some of whom started sprinting through the famous Siq in an attempt to be the first to arrive at the Treasury building. I have to admit that if I was not part of this group, Michelle and I would have been racing alongside these people, and as a result, we would have missed so much. Not afraid to honestly speak his mind, Ayman laughed at the tourists and said “for what?”- implying that they are all going to be racing to get there together when we would be slowly meandering through the Siq on our own.
After entering the site of Petra, one comes across a few Nabateaen tombs before entering the famous Siq, a towering canyon of vertical sandstone walls that one must walk through to enter the ancient city. As we walked through the impressive walls with increased anticipation, Ayman explained that the Nabateaens used this walk as a sacred way for entering the city as well. After walking for a little over a mile, we got our first glimpse of the Treasury building, the most famous symbol of Petra and the most well preserved building in the ancient city. Words really can’t desribe what that first glimpse of the Treasury felt like, but it ranks as one of the greatest travel experiences of my life.
Arriving at the Treasury, we all scrambled to take pictures before pausing for some coffee at the Bedouin shop sitting directly across from the Treasury. The best cup of coffee I ever had.
Called the Treasury because it is believed that the Egyptian Pharoah kept his treasure here, this is by far the highlight of Petra. And if this was the only remaining ruin of the ancient city, it would still be a world wonder. The ancient city is expansive however, allowing one to explore different parts throughout a long day or over two days at best. As we entered further into the city and began to walk along the Street of Facades, where over 40 tombs and houses for the Nabateans were built, we stopped off at Umm Raami’s Shop. Raami is the son of Maurgerite Van Geldermalsen who famously visited Petra many years ago, fell in love, got married, and proceeded to live in a cave with her husband. Her famous book Married to a Bedouin goes further into the details if interested. Her husband long gone (he passed away years ago), Marguerite and her son run a small shop inside Petra selling autographed copies of her book as well as Nabatean inspired jewelry made by local women. This seemed like the perfect place to pick up some souvenirs and support the local community. Plus, with his New Zealand accent, Rammi’s charm is hard to resist.
Ayman took us further through the Street of Facades, pointing out the different hiking routes we could take if we wanted to climb to a viewpoint of the Treasury from above or visit the Royal tombs, before sending us on our way to visit the Monastery, or any other part of the city we chose, leaving us to freely explore the sight after giving us the history and a fair warning against the “Jack Sparrows” of Petra. A frightening romantic tourist scam, young men dress as “traditional” locals that resemble the Jack Sparrow character from the Pirates of the Caribbean and try to lure single woman with promises of “sharing tea under the stars” or “having dinner in a cave”. Clearly irritated and embarrassed of these men, Ayman gave us fair warning not to accept any offers from them, whether it be to look in their shops, buy coffee or tea, or allow them to guide us on a short cut when we were hiking. The one exception was the man whose Kohel (Egyptian and Nabataean eye-make up) shop next to Raami’s lured in half our group as they got a “Bedouin makeover”.
Although this man resembled the “Jack Sparrow” types situated throughout Petra, he was harmless Ayman assured.
After a cup of Arabic coffee, we all set off to climb up to the Monastery, the largest facade and building in all of Petra. Although not as well preserved as the Treasury, the sheer size of the Monastery makes it impressive, especially after hiking up the processional route to get there. Still relatively early enough in the morning to avoid the masses of imminent tourists, a few of us were able to take a respite from the desert sun in a cave opposite the Monastery, enjoying some snacks and water before setting out to explore the rest of the city.
We spent the next few hours hiking and exploring the different ruins and viewpoints of this magnificent archeological site.
Outside of enjoying our morning coffee in front of the Treasury, another highlight of Petra was hiking up behind the Royal tombs for about 45 minutes to get an arial view of the entire city, as well as the Treasury building.
Having come to Jordan with the primary intention of visiting Petra, my high expectations were well exceeded. Visitng one amazing archeological site after another, plus the ability to explore this ancient city by foot, I felt a bit like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade. For those who don’t have the ability to walk or hike as much, one can get around the city or up to the viewpoints by renting a horse-drawn carriage throught the Siq or grabbing a donkey once inside.
Exhausted from a full day of climbing in the blistering Middle Eastern sun, we all opted to stay in the hotel for the evening and call it an early night.
Following Petra would be a hard act to follow, but this is the wonderful thing about visiting Jordan; there is so much diversity in activities and sites. At its Southern border, Jordan shares the Red Sea with Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. By 10am, we were in Aqaba, a Red Sea resort town with fancy hotels, western restaurants, beach clubs, and diverse opportunities of water sports including snorkeling and diving. Although Michelle and I had originally planned to go on the boat for snorkeling, we were so exhausted from the Petra day we thought it might be nice to have some free time, check out the town and head to the beach. Ayman informed us however that as women, we would not feel very comfortable at the public beach as local women would be in fully covered swimsuits. Although he offered to get us into the local beach club for half price, we last minute decided to hop on the boat and head out into the choppy white caps of the Red Sea. A much fancier boat than we expected, we had a great day snorkeling and swimming, sunning on the front deck, and eating delicous bbq for lunch, all within sight of the West Bank and Egypt.
One of the weirder things we encountered while snorkeling was a plane and tank under the sea. Before coming to Jordan, I had read that they had dropped these no longer used military vehicles into the sea as attractions to lure more divers and snorkelers. I found it extremely bizarre to be swimming over a purposefully sunk military plane, but I do believe this demonstrates Jordan’s deep desire and need for tourism, particularly being a rare safe haven in a region defined by war and turmoil.
In the evening, we tried sayadieh for dinner; a local dish of seasoned rice and fish, washed down with local Philadelphia beer.
Our last full day in Jordan started with my waking view of Israel across the sea- taken from my bed.
After a reasonable departure at 8am, we drove up to Karak to visit the crusader castle that, if not for being spoiled by Petra and Jerash, would stand alone as the most impressive site in Jordan. The Castle was a seized from the Crusaders by Saladin in a Muslim siege in 1183, and once you are inside you can understand how they were able to maintain control of the surrounding area. With its own water supply, prison, souk, and most importantly, self-functioning kitchen with wine making capabilities, Karak castle served as its own mini-community in its heyday, allowing those who occupied it to hunker down and survive a siege.
After visitng the castle, we were back on the road heading towards the Dead Sea Highway; a beautiful coastal road that hugs the coast of the aqua blue Dead Sea. For lunch we stopped at Numeira; a G Adventures Community project where locals farm and raise sustainable food to serve to tourists in the area. With fresh hummus and vegetables, deliciously seasoned chicken, and a beautiful view of the West Bank, this was a relaxing and delightful break from a jam-packed last day.
After lunch, we had one last stop before we arrived in Amman for our last evening in Jordan. Just north of where the Dead Sea ends lies the Jordan River; the natural boundary and border between Jordan and Israel. In a place called Bethany-Beyond-The Jordan, a holy pilgrimage site marking the likely spot where Jesus was baptized is marked by the ruins of previous Byantine churches and little spring where low water levels dribble by. Lying exactly 7 Roman miles East of Jericho, this is the exact spot where most archeologists believe John the Baptist baptized Jesus. As you walk through a shade covered pathway, you first reach the small ruins marking the location of Jesus Baptism. From there, the path continues until you wind up facing heavily armed Jordanian guards in front of a few wooden steps that lead down to the Jordan river, with Israel sitting a mere 6 meters on the other side. As it was Saturday, there were no tourists on the Israeli side today, but normally it would be filled with people dunking their heads in the river being baptized. With the late day sun and peacefulness of the area, it seemed strange to me that this was essentially the equivalent of Israel and Jordan’s DMZ, as Ayman explained that if anyone tried to swim to the other side they would be instantly shot.
After a long hot day of working our way back up north, we finally arrived in Amman around 7pm. As we wanted to do a little last minute shopping, Michelle and I opted to head downtown and meet the group later for dinner. When the Uber dropped us off in a a hip neighborhood with cafes, restuarants, and stores, I somewhat regretted not having enough time to really appreciate this modern and growing city. Perhaps to show us how tolerant Amman could be, Ayman chose Books@Cafe; a bookstore/cafe/bar owned by a gay Chicago Jordanian for our last meal. With tons of westerners, most of whom were expats living in Amman, I felt as if I was back in the states at a hip bar or cafe, drinking beer and enjoying pita and hummus. After we said goodbye to half of the group, Mike, Michelle, and I decided to stay out with Ayman and enjoy our last night in Amman. Somehow, by the end of the night we found ourselves straight on the other side of Amman in a Russian owned bar filled with scandidly dressed probable female escorts, wealthy oligarchs, Karaoke, and a one-man band busting out Eastern European Hard Rock from the 80s, with the occassional Bon Jovi song thrown in. Perfect way to end what was an amazing 8 days in this underappreciated country. With its biblical sites, the Nabataean wonders of Petra, the beauty and serenity of the desert, and the healing properties of the Dead Sea, Jordan far surpassed my expectations. Add in a nice group and great tour guide and it was a perfect week in the Middle East. Especially in today’s increasingly suspicious and hostile world, it is so important that we come out of comfort zones and visit and learn about cultures different than our own. A safe haven in the Middle East, Jordan provides visitors with a small glimpse of this region’s culture and history, leaving me wanting more.