Roaming Byzantine: Southern Jordan (the Rose City and Lawrence’s Arabia)

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December 25th 2008
Published: January 28th 2009
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Sunrise in the desertSunrise in the desertSunrise in the desert

Riding camels through Wadi Rum at sunrise was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to Jordan.
At Wadi Musa we check in to our hotel and wash the remaining Dead Sea salt from our hair before joining our guide on the short walk downhill to the entrance to Petra. It’s already quite cold under the clear night sky, but ‘Petra by night’ is too good an opportunity to pass up.

The site authority lay down the ground rules for the walk down to the Treasury - no mobiles, no flash photos, no loud talking, and no bunching up as there’s plenty of time to see everything. With the rules established we pass through the gates onto a gravel road that is lit only by candles, spaced every few metres, and the moon overhead.

We wind our way down the valley before crossing over a small bridge and entering the Siq - the 1.2 km long sandstone gorge that’s the entranceway to Petra. At its beginnings the huge cliff faces of the Siq are separated from one another by at least 10 metres but as we head further on they become closer and closer. It’s truly breathtaking.

Our anticipation grows as we continue, we have been walking silently in almost darkness for 40 mins by now and eventually we round a corner and in front of us, through the S shaped faces of the sandstone, we catch our first partial glimpse of the Treasury. A few more steps and we pop out the end of the gorge to find ourselves face to face with the massive rock carving that is Petra’s Treasury. It is absolutely awesome!

We’re standing in a frozen stare of awe when an usher directs us to lines of carpets that have been laid out over the sand. We take a seat and once the last stragglers have filed out the end of the Siq, a lone Bedouin musician strolls out into the hundreds of candles at the base of Treasury and launches into song - singing and playing a Rababa (a single stringed middle eastern instrument played with a bow). There is a cold wind rushing up the valley and as it collects the music and ricochets off the surrounding sandstone cliffs it’s haunting, yet beautiful at the same time.

As the last notes of the Rababa are struck, a new musician appears from the base of the Treasury playing more traditional music, this time on a flute. While
The SiqThe SiqThe Siq

Makes you feel like Indiana Jones just by being there...
we sit back and listen, piping hot glasses of sweet Arabic tea are bought around and their warmth provides a welcome respite from the cold. The show ends with a talk on the site of Petra and then we’re free to wander back out the way we came. We’re some of the last to leave, and walking back we take the time to look up and enjoy the sky full of stars that has now filled the darkness between the sheer faces of the Siq. What an introduction to Petra!

Thursday is Christmas day and just like the name of our organised tour - today is Christmas at Petra. After last night’s taster we can’t wait.

The entrance during the day is quite a different experience to that at night - the first few hundred metres of trail are a hive of activity. There are tour groups everywhere and the Bedouin are offering rides on horses, horse drawn buggies and even the occasional donkey! We pass up all “taxi” options but can’t help admire the lean Arabian horses - some of the taller ones don’t seem that different to Australian stock horses.

Pushing on, the walk through
The TreasuryThe TreasuryThe Treasury

In the morning...
the Siq introduces us to new daytime hazards - oncoming high-speed buggy traffic! Keep left, keep right, but whatever you do keep out of their way! It all adds to the fun though. The Siq seems the sort of place where you could just about see a big perfectly spherical rock rolling down behind you…straight out of Indiana Jones!

Anyway no such rocks chase us down and, like the evening before, we eventually pop out the end of the Siq at the Treasury. In the daylight we can see all the finer details of the carving, and also the fact that the gorge is not a dead end - it continues around to the right. It’s in this direction that we head and as we make it around the corner we are greeted with views of a valley whose searing red cliff faces are covered in caves, tombs, and even an amphitheatre. This is the rest of Petra? Cool.

Before we get too much further we take the opportunity for a bathroom stop and while standing in line a female attendant spots Ariana’s traditional scarf (keffiyeh). With much delight she ties it around Ariana’s head in traditional fashion,
Amphitheatre, PetraAmphitheatre, PetraAmphitheatre, Petra

Dating from the same period as the theatres in Jerash, this one was originally built by the Nabataeans, not Romans.
which works a treat in keeping out the cold!

Now ready to face the cold wind we follow our tour leader as we poke in and out of various caves before climbing up to the Urn Tomb, where, given that today is Christmas, the tour group fills its large cavernous interior with carols. This is not completely inappropriate as even though the Nabataeans originally built it as a tomb around the time of Christ, it was used as a church during the later Byzantine era. The only difference is in the 5th century they would’ve been singing their Christmas carols in Greek, not English.

After the carols we step back outside to enjoy the view while our guide points across to a huge mountain in the distance and explains that we’ll be climbing after lunch. It seems a terribly long way away and very high... maybe she’s pointing somewhere else?

From the Urn Tomb we cross down hill through the centre of the ancient city of Petra. Where we’re walking would have once been full of temples, shops and houses - some of whose history is still being discovered through the archaeological digs that we pass along the way.

Heading towards the back end of the Petra site the many “taxi” options have reappeared. For those who wish to rest their feet local kids are offering donkey rides aplenty, while a few older lads are offering trips on camels. As we walk along, Lachlan has a chat to one of the local Bedouin kids and meets Zuzu the 4 year old donkey. His owner, Ahmed, tells us that he is a very good donkey - his favourite donkey in fact, but all the same we pass up a ride. Walking is fine.

At the back end of the valley we stop for lunch and our tour guide reminds us we’ve got a bit of a climb next. It seems she wasn’t joking about climbing the mountain!

The path starts off fairly benign. A few steps here, a bit of sand there, but after about 20 minutes of climbing, the edge of the path is now a 20 m straight drop and to make things even more exciting every now and then a series of donkeys coming flying back downhill. Fresh from carting tourists to the top their dopey manner hides their ability for rapid
The MonasteryThe MonasteryThe Monastery

Well worth the walk!
descent and they go flying past. We make sure to jump out of the way, just not too far out of the way…

Eventually the trail ends with a short descent out onto the hilltop. We’re still trying to figure out what is at the end of this 1.8 km path when we turn around and spot the Monastery. Carved into the peak of the mountain it’s similar in shape to the Treasury but even bigger! Wow!

Quite chuffed at our walk we’re admiring the view when our tour leader lets us know its time to keep trekking. Already? From the Monastery we head across the hilltop and start gradually ascending again towards a series of lookouts with names such as ‘edge of the world’, ‘top of the world’ and variations on those themes.

We arrive at the ‘edge of the world’ where the Bedouin souvenir shop owner passes us all a glass of sweet sage tea (ahh Christmas tea). The spectacular views from the lookout are apparently west towards Israel, but it feels like we should be looking east. Lucky we’ve got a guide, and just as we’re thinking that she announces that we’re free to
A different boxing day experienceA different boxing day experienceA different boxing day experience

Near the High Place of Sacrifice on our alternate route into Petra.
spend the afternoon how we wish as she’s off. Meet back at the hotel at 6:00pm. OK.

With no pace to keep we take out time on the return walk, making sure we absorb it all - the soaring red cliffs, the caves and tombs, the remains left from ancient Nabataean, Roman and Byzantine buildings, and the chaos of the locals vying for their last “taxi” trip of the day. Even though it was tempting we still pass up the offers and it takes us nearly 2 hours to make it back to the site entrance.

Back at the hotel we shower and change before heading down the road to Petra Kitchen - where we’ve got a Jordanian cooking class and our Christmas dinner. Inside the restaurant the group splits up and each table is responsible for a Mezze. Ours is tabouli. After chopping up a massive portion we watch the chefs making the night’s mains of Magloubet before we all pull up a seat and tuck into our Jordanian style Christmas dinner. Yum.

Boxing Day is an early start and we’re back at the gates of Petra at 7am for our final look at the ancient
The TreasuryThe TreasuryThe Treasury

In the afternoon...
city. We head down the same road leading to the Siq that we’d taken on the previous days, but 400 m after the entrance we take a hard left turn up onto the hillside. Our guide tells us we’re taking a different path in today.

After a few minutes of climbing up the hillside there’s not another tour group, tourist or even person in sight. We press on and our trek takes us down then up through some fantastically steep gullies, across some barren flats and before we arrive above the tombs where we’d been yesterday. The views over the old Petra town centre are unreal.

We climb down to the base of the sandstone cliff and upon reaching it we’re told that we’ve got 2 hours before we have to be on the bus. With what time’s left we enjoy our last few moments at the Treasury before heading back down the Siq for the last time. Petra has been absolutely amazing.

Back on the bus we head south east to join up with the Desert highway. The view out the bus window is very barren with the only feature of note being the periodic herds
Out the windscreenOut the windscreenOut the windscreen

4WD convoy, Wadi Rum
of sheep and goats being shepherded along by the Bedouin. After a two hour drive we pull off the highway into a car park full of 4WDs.

Grabbing our backpacks the tour group splits up, loading into eight late 80s model Patrol wagons. Once each car is full we head off towards the national park of Wadi Rum.

We complete a whirlwind tour of the visitor centre, admire the mountains after which TE Lawrence named his book (the seven pillars of wisdom) and at literally the edge of Rum township the bitumen ends and the sand begins. Better hang on!

We zig zag our way across the sandy valley floor before pulling up at the base of a sandstone peak. Jumping out of the Patrol our eyes light up when we spot a natural staircase leading to the top of the sandstone peak - a 40 m high sand dune! It’s impossible to control the childish urge so we rush over and begin climbing. Going up is hard work, but the descent is tonnes of fun…and we didn’t stack it either (bonus).

We’re obviously on a program to pack as many sites in as we can
View from a sand duneView from a sand duneView from a sand dune

Wadi Rum Protected Area
so we barely have time to tip the sand from our shoes before it’s back into the 4WDs and onto the next site (Nabataean rock carvings), then the next - a natural rock bridge.

It’s probably lucky that we were in such a hurry because if we had time to properly assess whether we should climb up a 25 metre high rock peak then walk out onto a piece of weathered sandstone supported between it and the next rocky peak, we might’ve given it a miss. But we joined the procession up, took our turn standing on the ‘bridge’ (are you sure this is safe?), before scrambling back down.

Apparently our next challenge is to make it to the campsite before sunset. Leaving the rock bridge our 4WD is last in the convoy in 8th place. With some fairly hairy moments and with one of the other cars bogging in soft sand we soon move into 5th place. We’re guessing that our driver has taken it as a personal challenge to get us there before the sun goes down (either that or he just likes overtaking all his mates).

The first three cars have got a couple of hundred metres on us and we take a parallel track that quickly pays off with a move into 4th. As we climb the last dune going into the campsite the car in front of us hits some soft sand leaving us to snatch a podium place on the finish line. It was fun…but not entirely safe - especially with no seatbelts.

Our campsite is nestled in a football field sized patch of red sand between a high sandstone peak and a smaller rocky outcrop. We’ve made it in time, and with the sun low on the horizon we clamber up the rocky outcrop to find a good position to watch the sunset. Sitting on the edge, dangling our feet, it's wonderful to watch the sun dropping into the mountains in the distance as the valley turns a fabulous shade of gold. Now better get down before it gets properly dark...

Once the twilight disappears the only place to be is inside the communal tent - a large traditional Bedouin style tent with a floor of goat hair rugs and sheepskins. The only light comes from kerosene lamps and the coals of an open fire and as we
Heading outHeading outHeading out

A few camels short of a caravan.
lounge around after dinner we quiz our guide about the possibility of camel rides. She spends a bit of time on the phone and tells us that as we’ve got an early start in the morning it won’t be possible to stop at the Rum Village to do them on our way out. She mentions that the only option is for the camels to come out to the campsite but it’d be expensive and we’d need to be up before sunrise to fit it in before we leave.

Never ones to let an opportunity like this pass us by, we let her know that we’re keen. A call back and it's all locked in.

The rest of the night is plenty of fun as we’re entertained by a pair of local musicians who sing a series of songs accompanied by music from an Oud (a middle eastern stringed instrument, kind of like a guitar, but not…). It’s a lot less haunting than the music that we heard two days ago at Petra, but a real treat all the same. As soon as the musicians leave we call it a night.

At 5:15am our alarm sounds starting our
Wadi RumWadi RumWadi Rum

Our Bedouin guides, Aliann, Kofi Annan, and the other two camels heading home
6th day in Jordan. Its freezing cold, but we layer up - Michelin Man style, and head outside. As we step out of the tent we can spot our camels tethered not too far away. Our guide comes over to tell us that their Bedouin owners rode them through the night, getting into the campsite at 11pm. They slept here in sleeping bags at the base of the sandstone peak just so we could set out early this morning.

We saddle up onto the camels (or rather they drop down, we climb on, and then they stand up again) then the three of us are off.

By the time we’ve walked a stone’s throw from the campsite all we can see is the desert and the surrounding mountains. The sun’s not up yet and the silence is amazing. Deafening almost. After 20 minutes, the sun starts to break the tops of the surrounding sandstone and the desert becomes awash with cool early morning light. It’s magic. Lawrence is quoted as saying that the desert leaves an imprint on you, faint or deep, depending on your nature. Riding camels through Wadi Rum at sunrise we can start to see what he was talking about.

After a while we start chatting to our Bedouin guides. We find out that the camel that Ariana is riding is called Aliann and that the baby camel that has been following us is called Kofi Annan. We’re a little perplexed so our guide explains. Apparently after one year Aliann could be ridden - she was making money for her owner. Kofi Annan on the other hand was more than one year old and he wasn’t any good for riding. He hadn’t done anything for his owner, hadn’t made him any money… just like Kofi Annan.

Our one hour ride ends by looping back into the campsite, where we dismount and say shukran (thankyou) and farewell to our guides.

On par with Petra by Night that was definitely highlight number two of our trip so far.

After breakfast, the 4WDs arrive and we all pile in for our trip back out to the desert highway. About half way between the campsite and Rum township we spot our guides from earlier in the morning plodding along across the sand with Aliann, Koffi Annan and the other two camels that we were riding this morning.

Back on the tour coach again we head south to Aqaba where we do a loop through the coastal city (southern most point of Jordan - tick), before we turn and head back towards Madadba in Central Jordan.

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If you’re reading our blogs in travel order, check out the second half of Central Jordan blog to find out how we spent the last 2 1/2 days in Jordan.
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15th February 2009

You've captured some very nice pictures! Gorgeous subjects, great compositions. 1, 6, 12, 13, 14 (starting from the top) are just terrific!
13th April 2009

Oh god, you truly make my heart ache to see all the wonderful things, but you write so well and take such amazing pictures that I can almost imagine myself there. I am truly grateful for the internet so that I may experience this through your eyes! xo
18th June 2011
Wadi Rum

Wow...what a

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