AMMAN | JORDAN
Jordan is situated at the western end of the Arabian peninsula. On one side is the Holy Land of Israel and Palestine, while on the other begins the vast expanse of the Arabian desert spreading across Saudi Arabia towards Oman. As a country Jordan sits somewhere in between, not just geographically but also culturally, like a calming buffer between two buck cats eyeing each other up while screaming. If that comparison raises an eyebrow it’s only because listening to that is what kept me up last night.
Like most, my journey here began in the capital Amman on a flight from Dubai. Formerly known as Philadelphia during Roman times it is a surprisingly chilled out and walkable city. On the hill overlooking town stands the Temple of Hercules. Just like Kevin Sorbo’s career who played Hercules in the long running TV series, it is now in ruins.
There is also a well preserved roman amphitheater in the centre which is dizzyingly steep. Right by the entrance is a cool little folk museum with traditional bedouin dress, headdresses and jewelry made from red sea coral.
Not only that but there are well preserved mosaics inside. Excitedly my guide told me to stand in a certain place and he’d take my picture and “turn me into an angel”. Naturally fearing I was about to be sold into a sex ring I was a bit hesitant, but the picture didn’t come out too badly.
It was here in Amman I had my first arabic / turkish coffee and after eventually managing to “drink” it down using a knife and fork it was time to plan my trip south to one of the new seven wonders of the world Petra. Wadi Musa, a small town in the jordanian desert and gateway to Petra, is a four hour bus ride from Amman. You could conceivably visit Petra on a day trip, but it’s not only the eight hour return journey that would make me hesitant to recommend that as you’ll see. When I arrived at my hostel that evening I picked up a leaflet for “Petra by Night” something I didn’t know was even a thing. At the time this was only held two nights per week. Luckily I was there just in time for that nights performance.
From the entrance we followed a line of candles and through the narrow slot canyon called The Siq. The rocky slit opened up into a larger system with looming dark walls rising up on all sides. Illuminating a structure carved into the rock were hundreds of lanterns. Soft bedouin strings played from a speaker somewhere and, bathed in flickering red candlelight, I got my first sight of what they call The Treasury. Now if you’ve seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade you will have some idea what this place looks like. I would imagine many people initially believed this was a movie background, a matte painting created by an imaginative artist. As a young Wandering Boo transitioned from child to adult (then subsequently back into child) and learned it was real it shot right to the top of my bucketlist. I’m pleased to say it was one of those locations which doesn’t disappoint in the flesh, especially seeing it like this for the first time, sat cross legged in the sand staring up at it aglow from lanterns while haunting desert tunes floated in the breeze. It was actually cinematic-ally surreal.
The next morning, hoping the previous night wasn’t a drunken dream, I headed back in the look at the rest of the site in the cold* light of day (* it was over 32 degrees) Petra is more than one or two impressive carvings. It was an entire city created by a race of mole people called the Nabataeans. They were a bunch of formerly bedouin type Arabs who settled in the desert regions of Jordan and Saudi Arabia controlling most of the trade between the roman empire and the rest of the Arabian peninsula. Their capital was here, hidden from outsiders in the cliffs of Petra. Al Kazneh , or the Treasury is actually the first sight you will see as you enter, and what an entrance it is! Following the canyon around to the right you pass by stalls of trinkets, oil lamps and snorting camels as the vista opens up more into the desert and you can see the rest of the city hewn into the gorges and cliffs. The rest of the city isn’t as well preserved as the Treasury and the Monastery (which we get to later) probably because it is much more exposed to the elements.
And it is HUGE. To do a complete circuit of Petra will take the entire day, which isn’t easy in the desert heat so pace yourself and bring plenty of water. I got lost looking for the famous vantage point high up on the cliffs that looks down over the Treasury. Eventually some bedouin women convinced me to buy an keffiyeh (head scarf) to prevent myself from looking like Ghost Rider and one of them led me over rocky hills and precipices to the lookout. Sweaty, aching, but overjoyed I looked out over a scene from antiquity that I was convinced as a kid was nothing but a fantasy. Then I learned I was on the wrong side of the cliff and was lucky I wasn’t dead.
The “correct” (and safe) entrance to the viewpoint is on the right side of the Siq. The left side, which I found myself on, was an un-managed death trap. Telling myself that it was bravery instead of stupidity I carefully made my way back down. Was it worth it? You bet your swollen ass it was. It is now the featured picture at the top of my blog post. Now if that isn’t worth risking life and limb for I don’t know what is.
As you follow the winding path through the site you will eventually find yourself on the climb up towards Ad Deir (the Monastery) In hindsight this is probably best tackled first thing in the morning before the searing heat of the day has worn you down. It is reputed to be 800 steps up a 220 meter ascent and if you are attempting this at the end of a long day like me, you will feel every single one. Still, just like the climb to the Al Kazneh viewpoint, the aches are worth it in the end, and, just like The Treasury, it is supremely well preserved. Best part is there is a shaded area right in front serving cool drinks on comfortable seats. Pure heaven, until you remember what goes up must come down.
Continuing further south my plan was to cross into Israel from the southern border town of Aqaba, a name I am constantly confusing with the city of Agrabah from Aladdin. First though the place I was to be spending the night was far from a Disney fairytale. A barren, alien landscape reputedly haunted by howling djinn, Wadi Rum was even pinpointed as the entrance to arabian hell by some early writers. Hopping off the bus a mere two hours after leaving Wadi Musa I had arrived with no real plan. Eventually I found myself in a dusty shack with a group of dutch travelers waiting for a guide we had spoken to who offered to drive us through the wadi to a desert camp in the interior.
Known as the Valley of the Moon because of its otherworldly landscape it is a darling for film location scouts the world over. Most famously Matt Damon science project The Martian was filmed here along with Lawrence of Arabia, which wasn’t imaginative casting really when you consider this is where a lot of the events portrayed in the movie actually happened. We even visited his house!
Wadi Rum attracts visitors for many reasons. The beautiful desert vistas, the history, the amazing clarity of the night sky……. For me the whole “entrance to hell” thing really floated my boat. In Islamic traditional djinn were supernatural beings created from fire, a little like demons in christian theology. Local legend states that the bizarre geological formations of the wadi were originally an ancient city of djinn turned to stone as punishment by Allah. There are old petroglyphs here, still untranslatable, which many attribute to the writing of the djinn, or incantations of the muquarribun, the ghost priests, in an effort to summon them. The whispering wind at night isn’t the breeze blowing through the canyons, it is the howling of the djinn, enraged that their city is now a ruined and desolate wasteland. Many old and abandoned places across the Arabian desert are said to be haunted by the djinn, our previous stop in Petra being another one. Funnily enough the arab word djinn has morphed into the modern word genie, and like a dog with a bone, I refuse to let the Aladdin comparisons die.
Hunched up in the back of our 4×4 we fishtailed across the sands visiting many bedouin camps and places of interest. Towering sand dunes and jagged canyons dot the Wadi and what was particularly interesting was the rock art marking caravan routes used by the old desert traders. Aside from the oral legends of djinn and Arabic witchdoctors it is important to remember the people who eked out a living here, from the Bedouin to Lawrence himself who fought alongside the Arab rebels during World War 1.
Our campsite was in an isolated area of the Wadi beside some more knarled rock formations in a place where the bedouin say the “red desert” meets the “white desert” due to the difference in the colour of the sand. The sun set and the red desert turned a burnt crimson before the eerie pink of twilight. If this really was the entrance to an Arabian hell then it was going to be a long night….
Turns out its just a really cool desert. After almost breaking my spoon on more arab coffee that morning we hit the dusty trail that would take us out of the desert and back to the main road. Here I flagged a taxi to take me the remaining 60km or so to Aqaba. As we neared the Red Sea the driver pointed out a place we were driving through where you could see Saudi Arabia and Egypt at the same time which was mad.
At the border from Jordan to the Israeli side at Eilat I would encounter my most harrowing crossing. While the regular tourists were happily waved through after the passport check I was held back for questioning. The point of contention being the fresh Iranian visa my passport contained. I was brought into the immigration office for a round of questions before being asked to sit outside while a decision was made. Only to be brought back in after half an hour for another round of similar questions.
Why was I in Iran?
Who did I meet in Iran?
Where did I stay in Iran?
Where did I go in Iran?
How long was I in Iran?
Did I have plans to return to Iran?
Did I hear, or notice, any suspicious activity in Iran?
Pretty much everything short of asking if I was a terrorist myself planning terrorist activities in Israel. This repeated itself for around four or five hours until finally, while in the office for what felt like the tenth time, I was put on the phone to the immigration “supervisor” who asked all the same questions again. While waiting outside yet again I was drawing up contingency plans to skirt around Israel confident that I was about to be denied entry or detained. “Do you want a passport stamp or a card?” the smiling immigration officer asked poking her head round the door. Israeli immigration stamps can cause hassle at border crossing in other Arab countries. Seeing this as a bit of a test and wanting to play it safe I opted for the passport stamp, something I honestly regret now as recently I had to cancel a planned trip to Sudan upon learning I would be denied entry because of it.
You can’t win them all, but that just makes the victories all the sweeter.