We associate specific stigmas with certain parts of the world, often places we have never been. Jordan was a name I’d heard in Sunday school growing up and sparsely in the media before I began paying much attention to it. I expected it to be exactly like Egypt, a bit poor and dirty. Camels trotting along the dirt roads and armed guards every few miles. But, it wasn’t like Egypt at all.
It was clean, and looked much like the U.S. in the cities, aside from the hijabs, and burkas, and general conservative dress. The countryside even reminded me of American desert. There was traffic, clumps of shiny cars slowly inching down the paved streets. There were cafes and ice-cream shops dotted along the sidewalks of Amman with little tables set outside the front windows like smaller European towns. People moved briskly with purpose and a destination in mind. Even the air was cool in Amman, a huge contrast to the thick heat of Egypt.
One of our first stops was a request of mine: a mosque. So, our Muslim guide obliged and gave us a tour of the King Abdullah Mosque in Amman. The women in our group were led through the entrance/gift shop to a backroom filled with cloaks. We all donned a black cloak, low hanging to the ground and complete with hood, despite the conservative dress and head coverings we brought.
- It should be noted that when touring Temples in the Middle East that require a woman to be fully covered, the Temple will usually supply the clothing or there will be somewhere close by to purchase a head covering.
We followed our tour guide into the empty men’s mosque and sat on the plush red carpet. He pointed to the blue lines and patterns and explained that the lines kept the men in an orderly fashion while praying. Some interesting facts about Muslim customs as explained by our guide:
- Prayer is five times a day: roughly before sunset, around noon or after, late afternoon, right after sunset, and before going to bed.
- Men can pray at home, but preferably pray at a Mosque.
- Women can pray at the Mosque, but preferably they stay at home.
- Men and women are separated at Mosques, sometimes in entirely separate buildings.
- Women may not enter Mosques while menstruating because they are deemed unclean.
We then toured the giftshop and accepted a small glass mug of hot tea and a sesame seed cookie. Like Egypt, it is expected to accept the drink offer even if you don’t plan on purchasing anything.
We proceeded to tour Amman, viewing Roman ruins and the amphitheater. Interestingly enough, it was the first day of the Islamic New Year.
We continued through the city and down the “desert highway.” We stopped at Mt. Nebo, also known as Moses’ Monument and admired the same Jordanian mountains and crest of the Dead Sea that he did. In the Hebrew Bible, this was the first view he was granted of the Promised Land.
We also stopped at a 19th century Greek Orthodox Church to view the mosaic inlaid on the floor. St. George’s church in Madaba, Jordon is home to the oldest map of Palestine in existence created in 560 AD.
Late that evening, we finally made it to the city of Petra. We had just enough time to check into our hotel and scarf down dinner before shuttling to the gated entrance of the Lost City of Petra.
Once inside, closed shopfronts lit by streetlamps surrounded a plaza, but the crowds were all headed to a single destination. Once past the well-lit areas, the path turned into sand, and the only lights were those of candles flickering in paper bags lining the sides of the trail. We stumbled across short lengths of large limestone cobbles unseen in the dark and collectively bumped our way through the canyon next to strangers and sinister shadows. The stars were vivid and plentiful. We dispersed throughout the single mass making its way to the end of the canyon. An electricity in the air, like waiting in line to get into a Haunted House.
The path seemed to never end. The excitement built the longer it lasted. And then, the walls of the canyon ended and there, between the two walls, the dimly lit façade of the Indiana Jones movie, The Treasury. Eventually, our group found its way back together, and we were placed along rows of candles in paper bags, in front of the façade surrounded by millions of stars. We sat in the red sand and stared at the Treasury. Once everyone was seated, a tray of warm, sweet tea was passed around and a Petra native played traditional flute music and a stringed Arabic instrument. He told a poetic story of a lost city and asked us to close our eyes. Once we opened them, the Treasury was cast in a dramatic set of changing colored lights. More tea was passed around and cameras flashed nonstop. It was a beautiful introduction filled with theatrics. The canyon we sat in felt very old and yet, new at the same time.
The morning of our sight-seeing day in Jordan, the dust of the desert had finally worked its way into my sinus cavities and I felt as if I had a stubborn head cold. Breakfast was minimal, a bit of egg and roast potatoes from the night before. A table of Chinese tourists took the throng of bananas in the fruit basket.
Nevertheless, on somewhat full stomachs we headed down the same leveled walkways filled with now opened vendors selling scarves and frankincense from the night before. But, the dirt path was now a different place. No longer lit by candles, but instead by the glaring morning sun, the vastness of the crumbling mountains opened before us. Our single path turned into a two-lane highway crudely divided by stones, one for pedestrians and one for carriages, horses and camels. Large holes and raided tombs opened up around us in the rock faces, followed by stairs hacked into the rose-colored walls leading ultimately nowhere but up. Stairs leading to high areas were a symbol of awareness to a higher power. The Nabataeans were very aware of a higher power and so often the stairs were above their dwellings as a sort of statement “I understand that there is more.”
The hint of human influence on the land suddenly become more and more clear with a façade built into the side of a wall, detailed and with in-tact columns. Egyptian influence is apparent by the statues of Egyptian Gods. Onward we walked, past more rust colored relics. At the beginning of the Siq (the mile-long split in the canyon and entrance to the lost city), we stopped to again look at things we couldn’t have seen the night before. A fallen arch connecting the two walls of the canyon visible only by the protruding legs, the hilt long gone, an altar, and a chute carved into the sides of the walls that once drew water deep into the canyon towards the lost city.
The walls of the canyon deepened and widened, twisted and ebbed above the path as sturdy as sandstone can be, yet never widened more than 20 ft. The sun broiled steady and entertained the walls by castings nooks in shadow, and vast areas in hues of ever-changing rose pastels in the midday sun.
The path was wider in some areas, vast parts of the ground turned into the original limestone cobbles we tripped over the night before. Horse carriages careened around corners not giving much notice or care to avoid the throngs of tourists, tripping over the cobbles themselves, but at such a speed that their twisted ankles just kept trotting.
Men and camels were carved into the walls, tombs, and offering sites were visible before the narrow canyon. Our guide led us in a line and instructed us to look for a maiden in the rock behind us.
He had us take a step forward and turn around to look for it in the other direction and instead of a maiden, there was The Treasury, previously hidden behind the curve of the wall, now in all its shocking splendor.
The façade is called the Treasury because it has been speculated that treasure was kept inside at some point. 85-90% of the city is still underground, so the Treasury was originally built high above the city. Once close to the fence in front of the façade, you can see below where stairs lead to the remainder of the underground city, fenced off from the public.
Around the façade were walls, but much wider than the Siq, opening into a sort of room in the canyon, the ends of the walls wrapping around out of view, and creating a lovely pocket of shade in the midmorning sun.
In the middle of the room lie camels, beside them, young, male Bedouins dressed in colorful garb asking every passerby for a ride and picture on the camel in the lost city. A young man obliged, sat on the camel backwards as the Bedouin led the camel slowly to stand in front of the Treasury. A group of his friends stood in front for a picture and the young man stood on top of the camel. The rest of the room watched with bated breath as camels are fickle and itchy, and all it would have taken was one slight movement for the man to fall. But the camel stood stock still and cheers erupted from the group after the picture was taken.
We followed our guide around the side of the room, where the walls opened up further and the sun beat down on the back of our necks again. We trudged through the sand, watching the vendors gingerly dump their trinkets and arrange it for sale. Stray dogs and donkeys trotted past looking for shade. As we walked, calls of “hot coffee, tea, shay,” as if anyone could drink a hot beverage in the summer heat. The Bedouins rode past on donkeys, their eyes smeared with kohl and their beards braided. The line between Jordanian and gypsy was blurred.
More tombs and stairs were dotted along the sides of the canyon. Unlike other historical sites in the world, it was expected to climb and explore the sites in Jordan. A tiny pinprick of a flag was pointed out at the top of a mountain signifying the highest offering place of the city. There were many tempting side trails off the main path, but we had a goal in mind and a timeline to stick to.
- I highly recommend giving yourself a full day or two to explore the lost city in all its glory.
- Wear the appropriate gear, all of the paths are sand.
Our goal was the Monastery, a climb up the mountain near the end of the gorge, leading to one of the most intact and beautiful façades in the lost city. Near the entrance to the stairs, half of our group stopped and opted to take donkeys up. Rachal, Jeff, Adam and I sweaty and determined, kept going already gasping for breath. We joked that we would make it up before them.
Fortunately, the climb is slotted with 800 stairs, daunting, but intended for people to climb. The midday sun sent pools of sweat down our necks, and at times we had to squeeze against the sides of the rock to let the mules rush past carrying crates of fruit to the vendors on top of the mountain.
About half way up, the rest of our group passed us on the donkeys. “Regretting your decision now?” Jill asked laughing as they disappeared around the next bend.
We laughed, hard. But no, I didn’t regret pushing my body up to the top of that mountain in the desert. We’d come halfway round the world for experience, and I thought the climb was part of it.
Venders on top of the mountain were nicer and less pushy than the ones below. They must be used to meeting people gasping for breath and understand it themselves after making that trek every day to work.
We stopped for a break in the shade of a vendor. A young girl in a hijab was sitting on the rock across from her stall staring out over the valley below. “Almost there,” she said to us turning back to her people watching.
Drenched in sweat and breathless, we climbed down into the valley below and there sat the Monastery, even more glorious than the Treasury due to the amount of effort we put into getting there and the lack of people surrounding it. Mountain goats napped in the crevices of the mountain the façade was carved into and we reveled in the shade of our reward.
We found the rest of our group enjoying the lemon-mint drinks we’d grown so fond of in the shade of a vendor across the way. After a short break, Rachal and I decided to go further and explore the tiny hut at the top of the mountain. The remainder of our group headed back down.
The bodies heading up the mountain dispersed until only an elderly British couple followed us. This encouraged me to keep going after Rachel pointed out the fact that we were following spray-painted signs into the desert that read, “best view in the world,” alone. The path ended at the top of the mountain overlooking a black valley, and for once, the view wasn’t hazy. A flimsy, brown tent sat at the peak and Jordanian flags whipped around staked from the mouth of the tent to the wobbly, wooden railing at the edge of the cliff. A man, presumably the owner of the tent, sat in a shaded area, dangling his legs between the railing and singing a gentle Arabic tune. The wind carried his voice away and a woman peered from behind the mouth of the tent, her face cast half-in shadow. I was tempted to take her picture, she was so breath-takingly beautiful, but the air was quiet and spiritual, and something ancient told me to leave her alone on the top of that mountain in the Lost City of Petra.
The hike back down the mountain and through the canyon left us even sweatier and with piles of sand in our socks. We got back to the entrance with enough time to chug a couple of bottles of water and explore some of the shops before heading back to the graciously air-conditioned bus. The bus would take us to the Wadi Rum desert, where we would continue our adventure and stay the night in a Bedouin camp.
The Lost City of Petra felt like a dream. The rose-colored walls reminded me of certain parts of the Southwestern U.S. It felt familiar in ways, but ancient and charged with excitement. It was a very beautiful experience, and I only wish we’d had more time to continue exploring.
Look out for the final chapter of this adventure, staying in a Bedouin camp, floating in the Dead Sea and exploring Jerash.
- Also, check out the photo gallery to the right of this article, for more pictures of Jordan, and this portion of the trip.