Sunday, October 07, 2007

The lost city of the desert

Next stop after Tel Aviv was the twin desert cities of Eilat and Aqaba. They sit on opposite sides, Israeli and Jordanian, of the same harbor at the top of the Red Sea branch called - surprise - the Gulf of Eilat or Aqaba (depending on whom you ask). This tip of the Red Sea actually has four converging countries - Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia - within a small area. The Israeli-Egyptian border is marked by the small desert town of Taba, a gateway for tourists into and out of the Sinai peninsula. But not for me - my goal was across the harbor in Jordan - the lost desert city of Petra.

Eilat harbor and the Coral Beach
It was still August and still very hot when I arrived in Eilat; the first day's high was 45 C or 114 F. Besides wearing a hat at all times during the day, you have to drink water constantly. You don't sweat in the desert. The water just silently leaves your body, and you don't notice until you pass out. So you just drink every ten minutes or so.

You can tour Petra in lots of ways, including on your own. But the more you leave in the hands of your tour company and guide, the less hassle you have. (It also helps to travel light.) Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994, and the growth of tourism and the growth of both Eilat and Aqaba as ports have transformed the border area between the two countries. Nonetheless, there are significant visa and crossing fee technicalities you have to take care of before crossing. For Petra itself, a guide is far better than trying on your own. Our guide was both excellent and easy-going. He even gave us a from-the-bus tour of Aqaba, before we headed north toward Petra, which is about half-way to Jordan's capital, Amman.

Giant Jordanian flag at the Aqaba shore
As we drove down the shoreline boulevard of Aqaba (almost everything you see is new), we passed that enormous Jordanian flag so large you can see it easily from the Israeli side. This flag marks the location of the old Ottoman fort, long since torn down, that once guarded the harbor with its powerful guns. In July 1917, Lawrence and his Beduin irregulars, after "doing the impossible" and crossing the desert behind Aqaba, took the fort from the rear (the Turkish guns couldn't be pointed landward!) and later met Feisal of Mecca, the first Hashemite king, at the shore. The Hashemites at that time ruled Mecca and Medina, the Muslim holy cities, but were kicked out by a Saudi-Wahhabi army from central Arabia in the 1920s. (Thus was born Saudi Arabia.) The British created from trans-Jordanian Palestine a new "Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan," the modern Middle East's oldest surviving government. They included Aqaba as Jordan's only seaport.

The Jordanians were friendly and completely fit the common perception of the desert Beduin as hospitable. There was a fair amount of border security crossing both ways; walking the fifty meters of no-man's land between the guard houses was a little unnerving. Large signs and billboards on the Jordanian side show the current king (Abdullah) and his father (Hussein) and remind you that you're now in a conservative monarchy, albeit a relatively benevolent one. Jordan has opened up to globalization in a significant way, with Aqaba forming (like Eilat) a tax-free zone to attract residents and investment. I heard that Amman has become very modern, with a new airport that even Israelis use (because it's cheaper than Ben Gurion airport, which itself has been completely and dazzlingly rebuilt), and new infrastructure was everywhere we looked. But violent incidents have occurred in Jordan: the 2005 Amman hotel bombings by an al Qa'eda affiliate (not long after similar bombings in the Egyptian Sinai) and, back into the 1990s, an attack by Jordanian border guards on a group of Israeli school children touring Jordan just after the peace treaty. Security was also very evident: civil policemen and army reservists, both prominent in Aqaba and in our destination of Petra.

After Aqaba came the long climb up the desert road (about 90 minutes) to the plateau over the Dead Sea. The temperature dropped to a more comfortable 32 C or 90 F. Funny how your perception of "hot" changes after a day in Eilat!

To see Petra fully, you need about three days - so says my book - but we had only about five hours, which was enough time to see the central part of the Petra site, now a royal Jordanian park. The town outside the park, Wadi Musa, has grown rapidly in recent years, as the government has tried to get the Beduin to give up their nomadic ways and settle down in one spot. The town features a mosque near the reputed Well of Moses (Ain Musa), the rock that Moses struck to get water for the complaining Israelites. As in Aqaba, we were not allowed off the bus; instead our guide got us water and fresh fruit while we waited, and we proceeded to the park entrance.*

You can look at a map and professional photographs of Petra here, or you can watch the third Indiana Jones movie, which was filmed at Petra. I'll just say that the site deserves its status as one of the "new seven wonders of the world." The city is located in a deep rock gorge (the Siq) of mainly sandstone. Except for some Roman-era improvements (like columns and stone pavement), the whole city was carved from this sandstone. It was created by the Nabateans, an originally nomadic north-Arabian people who settled down in this area around 300 BCE, not long after Alexander the Great conquered the area. They adapted a Hellensitic style for their main buildings, including the famous central building, the Khazneh or Treasury. No one is sure what its actual function was. Archaeologists (including T. E. Lawrence) have been working at Petra since the early twentieth century.
The Khazneh at Petra
Around it are carved residential caves and tombs, and a carved Roman-era amphitheater as well. The innermost part of the Siq contains more Roman-era remains - a colonnaded Cardo (paved commercial street) and a law court. These were destroyed in late antiquity by earthquakes during the city's long decline. The site seems to have been abandoned completely after about 600 CE. It was rediscovered by the outside world in the nineteenth century.

Even the sand at Petra is memorable. It's red, desert-hot, crumbled sandstone, not beach sand. I was wearing sandals, wishing I had worn something more solid, since it burned my feet. Only the big Roman pavement stones were really comfortable to walk on. The Roman engineering was outstanding; sometimes it took a while to decide if I was looking at something modern or ancient.

For several centuries, a Beduin clan (the bani Bedoul) has been squatting on the site. The government has tried, without much success, to induce the Bedoul to leave and settle in Wadi Musa. The tourist trade is big business within Petra itself, and the Beduin living there apparently make a good living at it: tourists need water, batteries, film and camel and donkey rides. (There's even a donkey taxi down the Siq and back. No powered vehicles are allowed in the site itself, so animal power is it.) It doesn't require even reading and writing skills; many Beduin are illiterate. But they do have cellphones and some even wear those popular-around-the-world Crocs, which looked strange on people riding camels.**

The Beduin at Petra to some extent are in on the whole "noble savage" joke. One of their most distinctive activities is creating crafts from the desert sandstone, including beautiful layered colored sand creations housed in curvy-shaped glass jars. If you go to Petra, be sure to go to what I thought was the best craft campsite, which features a large, humorous Flintstones sign.***

I wanted to take a picture here, but avoided it - I avoided taking any pictures of people in Jordan, actually. There is a clear taboo on it, partly for security, but also for strong cultural and religious reasons common in the more conservative areas of the Middle East. Not wanting to play to the "ugly tourist" stereotype means learning where such lines are and not crossing them.
* Originally, I thought such measures we designed to protect Jordanians from us - Jordan is a conservative place, although not radically reactionary (like Saudi Arabia). Later, I realized the isolation was more designed to keep us from mingling with Jordanians in a way that would make us easier targets for terrorists, like the mixed Muslim-foreign tourist situations targeted by the Amman and Sinai terrorists in 2005. When radical Islamic terrorists attack such mixed groups, they're "sending a message" - not just to outsiders, but also to Muslims who mix as equals with non-Muslims. Our group had some Israelis, with a mix of Jews and Christians; many outside groups at Petra were Christian. But a lot of tourist groups at the park were Muslim, mainly from the Gulf kingdoms and, if their dress was any indication, one from Saudi Arabia.

** Not that I'm singling out the Beduin in particular. Crocs look ridiculous on anyone over the age of about 10. Crocs do "breathe," though, making them both protective and comfortable in the desert.

Inside Petra park are also some projects sponsored by the current Queen of Jordan to help the Beduin raise horses and other animals and help the Beduin women in particular. As in any traditional and patriarchal society, they're completely dependent on men. If a woman lacks a husband, father, or brother to rely on, she's in serious trouble.

*** Yes, Jordanians watch television - the Flintstones are dubbed in Arabic.

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