November 29, 2012
The past ten days we have been traveling in the country of Jordan. Located in the Middle East and bordering Israel (including the West Bank of the Jordan River), Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Jordan is about the size of the U.S. state of Indiana.
We came to Jordan to visit two of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage sites: the archeological treasure of Petra and the desert landscape of Wadi Rum. The way we explored each one took us off the beaten path and provided us with a more remote and memorable experience.
Rather than drive all the way to Petra, we arrived there by trekking a total of 34 miles (48 kilometers) over four days. Our starting point was located in Wadi (meaning valley) Araba, south of the Dead Sea, which is the lowest land point in the world at 1,388 feet (423 meters) below sea level. We took the opportunity to swim, or, more accurately, float in the Dead Sea on our way to our first night’s camp. Floating was easy since the Dead Sea has an over 30% salinity level, making it one of the world’s saltiest lakes. It is actually more than eight times saltier than the ocean!
While in both Kenya and Ethiopia we spent time in the Rift Valley. Although more commonly associated with Africa, the Rift Valley actually spans from the Middle East to the country of Mozambique, a distance of about 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometers). As we traveled to the Dead Sea and continued south, we found ourselves in the Rift Valley once again. Here we were in the Jordan Rift Valley, which runs along the border with Israel. While we drove along this valley we could clearly see Israeli cities just a short distance away.
After camping that night on a ledge overlooking a canyon outlet in Wadi Araba, we left early the next morning to begin hiking over the mountains towards Petra. Over the next two days we walked with our guide Yamaan Safady, from Adventure Jordan, and another trekker from Texas. We hiked up ridges and down canyons with spectacular mountain views all around us. We followed native Bedouin trails, which at times became narrow and faint and even required some climbing. At night we camped near springs, as there was no other water in this dry place.
We saw no other people during these two days as we traversed the mountains. While we hiked, Yamaan provided us with background on the history, culture and people of the area. The continual steep elevation gain and loss made it some of the most difficult trekking of our entire journey but we found that the wild and remote scenery more than compensated for it.
When we reached camp after our second day of hiking, we snacked on freshly made bread that had been cooked over a fire by one of our Bedouin support people bringing us extra water. It rained fairly hard that night so on the third day of our trek we had to change course, due to flash flood warnings. We moved out of the canyons to hike along the Kings Highway to Little Petra. This area is believed to have been a suburb of Petra, taking care of the caravans that traveled to the larger city. We found buildings carved into sandstone, similar to Petra, which are believed to have functioned as restaurants and accommodations. One of the buildings, The Painted Biclinium, contained some fresco remnants dating from the 1st century A.D. We stayed in a Bedouin camp that night and enjoyed some traditional music. We were excited about what we had seen in Little Petra and were greatly looking forward to the larger Petra site the next day.
We were not disappointed. Most people enter the site from the east but we instead trekked along a route which ran along the edge of the mountains that marked the western boundary of the Petra area. In the process we passed the remains of a Neolithic village that dated from 6,000 B.C. We then climbed up and contoured the mountains, hiking along some ridges with precarious drop offs. The trail then turned a corner and our jaws dropped as we came upon the rock facade of The Monastery, the largest building in Petra, at 154 feet (47 meters) wide and 167 feet (51 meters) tall. Nothing could prepare us for the sheer size and scale of such an impressive ancient carved building!
Dating back as far as the 4th century B.C., Petra remained unknown to the Western World until 1812. It was an important silk and spice trade route city that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome. Within the city, the Nabataean people carved buildings into the sheer rock face. More than 500 building facades still survive today, with many of them originally built as tombs. Most of the buildings date from between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D.
From The Monastery we walked down 750 stone steps to the Petra Valley. After spending a couple of hours viewing some facades there, we hiked up the east range of the mountains to the iconic facade of Petra, known as The Treasury. This is the structure that most people see first as they enter the site from the main east entrance. Because we hiked in from the west, we reached The Treasury in the late afternoon, after the crowds had left. Viewing the 130 foot (39.5 meter) high facade, in the late afternoon light and with no crowds, was an amazing experience.
The next morning we hiked up 400 stone stairs to the High Place of Sacrifice, continued down the back side to visit more rock facades and finished with a final visit to The Treasury. We left Petra by car in the middle of the afternoon and drove about 90 minutes south to the desert of Wadi Rum, one of the largest valleys in Jordan. Wadi Rum is comprised of a series of mountain formations and canyons. It is a protected area that is sparsely populated with Bedouin tribes. The 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed on location here.
At the Visitors’ Center we transferred to a waiting pickup truck that drove us 30 minutes on twisting sand tracks deep into the desert. We stayed at a Bedouin camp and enjoyed a traditional campfire meal that night. We were alone with our guide and Bedouin staff in this beautiful remote camp and the only sounds we heard were the chirping birds during the day and the wind at night.
We spent the next day exploring Wadi Rum in three different ways. First, we took an early morning camel ride for about one hour. As we rode slowly along we could appreciate the vastness of the desert, as well as the mountain landscapes rising up around us. Our camels were met by a pickup truck and we continued on a drive through some of the more spectacular parts of the protected area. Here, great vistas opened up and we saw places where the sand changed from white to red. Finally we took a scenic one hour hike through a canyon. At the end of the hike we were treated to a hot lunch, cooked over a campfire, at a viewpoint before returning back to camp. Along the way we saw very few people and came away with a real feel of the vast desert and remoteness of this place.
As we headed back to the capital city of Amman by car the next morning, we reflected on our experiences in both Petra and Wadi Rum. By taking an off the beaten path approach we felt we discovered a little more about each of these places, as well as learned about Jordan’s culture and its natural beauty.
Our time in Jordan marks the end of our two months in Africa and the Middle East portion of Asia. Now we will fly back to Rome, pick up our clothes and gear that we left there, and board a ship to make our way to South America over the next month.