May 13, Petra, Jordan. The ancient city of Petra is perhaps the most impressive of Jordan’s thousands of archaeological sites. To get here from our last stop in Oman took five days. First we sailed through the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden, which lies between Yemen and Somalia. We actually saw some pirates in their small, fast boats, watching us from a distance. The captain wisely prepared for this possibility by issuing squirt guns to all passengers. Apparently this worked, because none of the pirates decided to mess with us.
After almost two days sailing west, we hung a right at the Red Sea and headed north. We were disappointed to discover it is not actually red. We passed the tiny African nation of Djibouti, then sailed past its northern neighbor, Eritrea, which is reportedly the hottest place on Earth.
We continued north through the Red Sea, past Saudi Arabia on our starboard side and Sudan and Egypt on our port. When we reached the Sinai peninsula, we went right, through the narrow Gulf of Aqaba. Finally we arrived at the Jordanian city of Aqaba, which is very close to the borders of Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is a long way from Jordan’s eastern neighbor, Iraq, or their northern neighbor, Syria.
Aqaba is a fairly attractive seaside port of perhaps 150,000 people. Our final destination however is Petra, so we take a two-hour bus ride along the King’s Highway, which reportedly was used by Moses of biblical fame in 1,300 B.C. His brother is buried in the hills near this ancient roadway.
Jordan’s population is a about 90% Muslim and 10% Christian. Unlike Saudi Arabia, their neighbor to the south, Jordan does not have any oil. They are a relatively poor nation, although they are very politically and socially moderate relative to most of their Arab neighbors. They have a population of six million. During the two-hour bus ride, our tour guide talks at length about the history of Jordan, which extends thousands of years before the creation of Islam. He tells of the many biblical stories that took place in Jordan.
Along the way we pass Wadi Rum, the beautiful desert valley made famous by the twentieth century military commander named T.E. Lawrence, or as his friends called him ‘scary Larry’. Hollywood eventually produced a film about him called Lawrence of Arabia.
After our bible stories and endless views of arid desert and equally arid mountains, we finally arrive in Petra. We hike through a dry narrow canyon bordered by tall sheer sandstone cliffs. Along the way, we see remarkable carvings in the sandstone – some of Greek-style facades, some of human figures and some of animals. There are ancient water channels used by those who lived here a long ago.
After about two miles of hiking, the canyon opens up and we stand in awe of a massive Greek/Roman looking structure carved completely by hand from massive sandstone cliffs. They call it the ‘Treasury.’ Many smaller structures are also in this area, including an amphitheater, tombs, cave housing, and temples, all hand-carved into the sandstone. We walk into a few of these large rooms and are amazed at the naturally colorful stripes created by the various layers of sandstone. I meet a man who was born in these caves and still lives there, carrying his water in a bucket every day from the natural spring about 1 mile away.
There are a few peddlers selling jewelry, post cards, and camel rides. Most of the tourists are Jordanian, though there are many westerners as well. If you want to learn more, google ‘Petra’.
We are told that to fully explore this ancient city would take at least 3-4 days, but we spend only a few hours there. We hike back, stop at a nearby modern hotel and have a nice Jordanian lunch. We leave Petra, marveling at the ancient accomplishment of chiseling such beauty into the massive cliffs. Perhaps the poem by Burgon says it best: “Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime / A rose-red city half as old as time.”
We travel back along the King’s Highway, back to our ship. Next stop Egypt.
Treasury of Petra
Camels for rent
View of canyon from Treasury
Beautiful sandstone inside
Remarkable colored sandstone
Modern neighborhood outside of Petra
Seaside port of Aqaba