If you’re about my age, somewhere in your mid-30’s, I’ll bet you watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. What a great movie! Wasn’t the ending, set in that amazing building carved out of a red-hued canyon wall, just about the coolest thing you’d ever seen? And wasn’t it even cooler to discover that such a place, or, in fact that very place actually exists? Ever since the time I learned that the Last Crusade was filmed in Petra, I’ve longed to go there, longed to see the facades a thousand years old that ornament tombs and sacred places, longed to ride a horse though the Siq and into the sunset like Harrison Ford and Sean Connery (and the other two guys).
Finally, it happened. Most of it, anyway. I didn’t ride a horse though the Siq, I’m sorry to say, but I did put my wife on a donkey and send her up to the Monastery that way. So that’s sort of similar.
What is Jordan like? Coming from the UAE it’s a bit of a surprise. It’s poor. There’s lots of trash on empty lots. White plastic bags and other litter degrade the landscape as you drive along. Buildings aren’t tall and splendid–they’re short or stunted, some missing an upper story, perhaps to be added at a later date when money has been set aside for that purpose. Cars are old and beat up. A layer of dust covers most everything. But the people are nice. They’re humble and friendly, and they work hard for what they own.
Much of the waterways which once supplied Jordan with water have been diverted by other countries. The Dead Sea’s levels are declining rapidly as various tributaries which feed into it have been dammed and co-opted for things like irrigation.
I work with several guys from Jordan. Excited that we were planning a visit, they offered suggestions on where to go and what to do. Among the many places they listed, we managed to hit Karak (site of a dilapidated crusader castle), Madaba (home of a large Christian community and location of the oldest image of Palestine), Petra, Wadi Rum (where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed and where Lawrence himself once roamed), and the Dead Sea.
Any fan of history, including Biblical history, medieval history, Roman, etc., would find Jordan a stellar place to stroll around. Walk where Moses died atop Mount Nebo, for example, or look over the valley below Karak from a castle window, or compare the architecture of the various facades in Petra to each other and spot the Nabatean style vs. the Roman style, and on and on and on. If ancient history isn’t your thing, perhaps modern history is: consider the guard towers along the shores of the Dead Sea as you hand your passport to the armed checkpoint guards along the road. Talk to someone and find out that Jordan is one of the only countries in the region to officially recognize Israel as a state.
And if you say to yourself, “Screw history, I’m all about the present,” then enjoy a mediocre takeaway pizza you bought near the exit from Petra on your way back to the Bedouin camp you’re spending the next few nights in, wash it down with some hyper-sweet tea made over the open fire, and chat with the friendly fellow with bad teeth that owns the place. Be surprised that he travels extensively, and that he’ll be in London next month. Climb the rocks and watch the sun slowly set, turning some blonde chicks hair to sparkling gold as they sit in front of you. Rub your hands along canyon walls as you walk the Siq and sing with your wife, glad you’re there at 7:15am, not 4:30pm when it’s packed, and you couldn’t hear your voices reverberate over the cacophony of the many. Enjoy the winding road from Petra to the Dead Sea, carefully drive along the detour where the road had fallen away into the sheer nothingness below, and let your ears pop as you descend 1,000 meters in no time.
So about Petra–about Indiana Jones, the Siq, and that donkey. We spent an entire day there, from sunup until approaching sundown. We carried the little one most of the way. Fortunately he decided to nap in that amazing Boba Air carrier that we’ve taken all over the world with us, so he didn’t feel the need to be down and running around the entire day, or we’d have never gotten anywhere. It was, indeed, something special to see the Treasury (that’s the Indiana Jones place, you know) present itself as we made our way through the Siq approaching it. The sun colored the rocks orange as it rose higher. We climbed to the High Place of Sacrifice, and descended to the Great Temple, an area that Brown University has been excavating since 1993. Midday by then, we were feeling tired, so I hired a donkey to take Jenia up to the Monastery, and by the time I stopped to rest in shade kindly offered by an aged merchant lady, drink some water, and let the toddler get out of the carrier, I was wishing I’d gotten a donkey ride myself. But, being the manly man I am, I sucked it up and took the baby in hand (actually, I put him on my shoulders) and climbed the remaining 4,000,000 steps (exaggeration, yup, but it felt like a lot).
Being totally worn out does have a way of stealing some of the majesty of any experience, but seeing the Monastery was still pretty awesome. It’s big, y’all. There’s a great place to eat in the shade, on a bench, right there with a view of the Monastery (so named because it was repurposed as a church for a while) and we ate our lunch there. Jenia made the descent on her ass, and I on foot. The way down was easier.
What tarnishes Petra? Could be the myriad stalls set up haphazardly selling trinkets. Could be the tons of guys hawking horseback rides, donkeys for steeds (“This one his name Michael Jackson”), or kids trying to get you to buy postcards with images probably better than the ones you’ll take. Could be nothing tarnishes it, if you’re expecting the clatter of generators powering snack shops in the canyons.
Wadi Rum was another highlight–and someone asked me “Why?” the other day. Er, it’s just one of those places that’s worth visiting to experience for yourself, that’s why. We thought it was cool to spend the day on camels and in a 4×4 with a local Bedouin guide whose family is among those who have exclusive rights to the national park there. We found the scenery amazing. And if you should spend the night there, either in a tent or a cave, as many people choose to, you would be amazed by the total lack of light pollution late at night. The stars present themselves in a way that it’s easy to forget is possible when you spend most of your time in the urban sprawl that encompasses much of our modern world.
The Dead Sea is the last thing I’ll write about. Yeah, it’s pretty dang cool to find yourself standing in shoulder-deep water, and when, the instant a gentle wave hits you, suddenly you’re floating, your feet sticking into the air, suddenly bobbing about because gravity doesn’t seem to function like it does in every other body of water you’ve ever been in. But it’s not cool to scare your toddler by putting that famous black mud on your face. Although the skin does feel might refreshed when you go rinse the mud off a few minutes later.
So, in a nutshell, Jordan. Indiana Jones didn’t lead me wrong–it’s a great place to visit. Go there. Your view of the Middle East will be altered still further than it was by your visit to the UAE.