Thursday, February 26, 2009



It was Tuesday, January 27th. We completed the Egypt portion of the trip and flew the chartered PAS plane to the sleepy King Hussein International Airport in Aqaba. In Aqaba, at the Northern tip of the Red Sea, one can see 4 countries--Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the unidentified country between Egypt and Jordan. We made our way on the coach through the stark desert landscape reminiscent of the American Southwest, to Wadi Rum. In Arabic, a wadi is a valley. Rum has nothing to do with the drink, which is difficult to find in Muslim countries. Rather, rum is an Aramaic word meaning "high" or "elevated".

This is Lawrence of Arabia country, the haunts of the intrepid Englishman, T.E. Lawrence who was instrumental in overthrowing the old Ottoman Empire by organizing a 1917 Arab revolt. His actions essentially redrew the map of the region. The 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia was filmed on location here. This area was also featured in the 2000 movie, Red Planet, depicting the surface of Mars.

We drove in 4 wheel drive jeeps for an hour, off road, through the sandy desert to a small Bedouin trading post composed of a few tents near a high rocky cliff face. The early inhabitants of this region drew petroglyphs on the rocks. They were pictures of camels! It could have been an early billboard for a popular brand of cigarettes, but most likely it wasn't. It showed that the camel, the ship of the desert, has been an integral part of the locals' lives for many centuries. We didn't hang around the trading post very long because it had no W.C.

We continued on in our 4WD's, almost getting stuck several times in the loose sand, which is comparable to driving in deep snow. Soon after, we arrived at another Bedouin tent city for our lunch. It was a buffet style with traditional Middle East fare of shish kabab, couscous, rice, hummus, pita bread, washed down by Coca Cola, and our hungry crew devoured it. At that point, we would have eaten 'most anything, but the food was very good.

Our destination that day was the Marriott Petra Hotel located on a mountaintop in Wadi Moussa, not far from the legendary Petra. Previous Tauck tours stayed at the classic Movenpick Hotel, a tourist attraction in its own right because of its rich history. That hotel is across the street from the entrance to Petra. Although the hotel is open, and we stopped in for ice cream and shopping after the Petra tour, it is now undergoing renovations.


I've observed that people named after states are usually colorful and adventuresome, like Minnesota Fats and Hannah Montana, and Indiana Jones, though a fictional character, certainly fits the bill. We drove down the mountain the next morning through the town of Wadi Moussa (Valley of Moses) which got its name because it was the Biblical location where Moses struck the rock with his staff and water flowed forth.

We were dropped off at the entrance to Petra. Unlike Disneyland, you can't just drive in there, you have to walk, although horse and carriage or donkey rides are available. The trip is 1 1/2 meandering miles through the siq, a narrow fault line between two mountains which are over 1500 feet high. The rocky road, which is paved in places with uneven paving stones laid by the Romans, winds through beautiful rock formations. The siq is as narrow as 15 feet wide at times, but up above, it is sometimes even narrower, blocking out the sun. Many of the rock formations have caves dug into the rock faces--these were Nabatean burial places.

After a long walk, the road opens up to that magnificent structure carved out of the sandstone rock face that we know as Petra. That familiar structure is called the Treasury, and like the U.S. Treasury--it's nearly empty. We went inside. The holy grail from Indiana Jones isn't there either. It's not really a treasury building, but to early European explorers, it looked like one.

Petra was created by the Nabateans, an Aramaic speaking, trading people between 330 B.C. and 200 A.D. They loosely controlled a trading network covering a large area from the Euphrates River to the Red Sea, and Petra was the capital, with about 30,000inhabitants. Water was scarce in Petra, and the Nabateans excelled in water conservation. They were also fierce fighters who held the Romans at bay several times, but they signed a treaty with them in 106 A.D., agreeing to allow Roman influence in the city, which is reflected in the buildings and columns.

After the Nabateans' downfall, Bedouins settled in Petra over many centuries, occupying many of the caves. In recent years, the Jordanian government relocated them to a newly constructed village about a mile away. Many were not happy about being moved, but they adapted. They began to recognize that tourism can be a lucrative business.

There is more to Petra--much more. It is estimated to spread over 30 square miles, and much has not been uncovered yet. We circled around the Treasury and walked another mile or so, viewing numerous cave openings and buildings like the Treasury, carved in the rock faces. Numerous Bedouins were hawking postcards, cheap jewelry, coins and even rocks. Kids as young as 5 or 6 were selling colored rocks. Many other kids were soliciting us for donkey rides and camel rides. One camel driver was wearing a T-shirt with the graphic message, "F---You". I guess nothing is shocking anymore. This guy probably didn't speak enough English to know it said. He was wondering why business was slow for him that day.

After a buffet lunch at the restaurant run by the Crowne Plaza, we had a choice of hiking up to the "Missionary"--approximately 700 steps of varying heights--a 45 minute climb. The other choice was a climb up to the 4 Tombs--only 191 steps, about 200 feet above the valley. About 5 of the younger members of our tour climbed up to the Missionary. We took the latter choice which was a very difficult walk, as it required climbing on rocks alternating with soft sand next to 100 foot dropoffs. We went up with 3 other couples from the tour, and we helped each other navigate the trail. The scenery was spectacular with rock faces streaked in shades of browns and reds. We got to the Tombs and looked inside. There is nothing in them except for trash thrown in by inconsiderate people. I don't think they have a regular cleaning crew. But it was a great view of the valley.

On the way up, we visited a 5th century Byzantine church featuring well preserved, once colorful Mosaic tile floors, faded by centuries of wear, but clearly showing pictures of a variety of animals and personifications of the Seasons, Ocean, Earth and Wisdom. The church was built over Nabatean and Roman remains which were destroyed in an earthquake in 383 A.D. It was discovered and excavated in the 1990's.

And everywhere we went, the pesky street vendors went also. Even climbing the 700 steps to the top of the Missionary, the vendors were persistently selling, we were told. If they can sell rocks in the desert, maybe they can get us out of the Recession.

We climbed down and caught camel rides back to the Treasury, with the other couples from the tour. We had our own caravan with about 10 camels nuzzling each other, and it was a lot of fun. Camels look awkward, but the ride is quite smooth. You don't want to fall off, because it's a long way to the ground, as camels are much taller than horses.


That evening, we were invited to the home of a Bedouin family for tea. It's a normal house, not a tent. Our tour crowded into the guy's living room. He lives there with his wife and several children, some grown with their own families. They served sweet tea. It would be considered rude to refuse it.

The man, who used to be the Vice Mayor of the town, works in construction, and he built the house himself. He was dressed in Bedouin garb. We were free to ask questions about his family, the government, education, etc. The locals wear Western clothes, or Bedouin clothes, depending on the occasion. He told us that his tribe, which dates back to one ancestor in the 1600's, has 700 members. We later learned that all the Tauck tours go to the same guy's house.

After the visit, the tour group went to dinner at a local restaurant where we were entertained by Bedouin dancers--7 men in traditional costume with swords.

NEXT: Life at the Dead Sea--Maybe on Saturday Night?



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