by Jenny Pullman
Its early January 2011, the Middle East is quiet, signs of unrest are rumoured but nothing that is not part of normal life in this ancient land. We head off from Egypt to Jordan via Israel excited about the few days we will spend exploring the ancient world of Petra, the weightlessness of the Dead Sea and the emptiness of the Wadi Rum desert.
Our first stop is the coastal port town of Aqaba. We were given the option to stop at a nice place for lunch but chose a swarma café instead, more within our backpacker budget with swarmas costing just JD1.00 each. We sit outside and watched life in Aqaba pass us by. From our roadside perch, poking over the top of a neighbouring building is the highest flagpole in the world standing at 137metres high. Something the residents of Aqaba are very proud of.
After lunch we set off into the desert to Wadi Rum, arriving in time to grab a spot on the popular nearby rocky outcrop and watch the sun’s quick decent behind the sandstone mountains in the distance. Our vantage point gives us 360 degree views as the soft light in the sky transforms the harsh desert landscape into a picture of beauty.
Our traditional Bedouin meal tonight has been cooking in the ground for about 3 hours in large metal containers surrounded by hot coals, consisting of layered chicken, lamb and potato and has a delicious smoky flavor when served. It is served buffet style and to accompany this we can select from tomato and cucumber salad, pita bread, hommus, sour cream, rice, and baba ganoush, and a banana for dessert, washed down with Turkish coffee or herbal mint tea.
Camping in a traditional Bedouin camp we are allocated tents that have either 2 single beds or 1 double, mosquito net, thick animal hair doona’s and extra blankets if requested. Each ‘tent’ is part of a long line of about 8 tents all joined together and made from woven animal hairs, either sheep’s wool, goat or camel. They form a rectangular compound on three sides, with the sandstone mountain the forth side, softly lit by fairy lights.
Each tent is extremely warm and even though I bedded down with my sleeping bag, sleep sheet, doona and two extra blankets, before long I had kicked off all and just slept in my sleeping bag – the night temperature dropped to below zero as frost was evident on the sand outside in the morning. Our tented compound opens through to the main camp which includes an open area with seating and protection from the wind along the sides by Bedouin canvas and a fire pit in the middle. The skies are open to us and it is a great place to sit and watch the spectacular stars in the night sky. A closed tent for eating and watching tonight’s live entertainment, local Bedouin men play a traditional guitar called an ‘ud’, accompanied by a ‘durbakkah’ an earthenware drum, and sing for us. The chill of the air slowly sends out tendrils to invite us to the warmth of our beds, I am tucked in well before the generator providing power to our camp is turned off at 10.30pm, the full moon and fairy lights enough to lit the way of any late night star gazers.
After a great nights’ sleep, toasty warm in my tent I force myself out into a frosty morning in time for sunrise, I head up to the same vantage point to witness nature’s wonderful display of light as it rises above the distant mountains lighting up the desert floor, the cold biting through my clothing as I sit and wait for the warmth to come.
Breakfast comprises of local fare including flat bread, apricot jam, processed cheese triangles, a hardboiled egg, butter, zata which is a mixture of sesame seeds and oregano with olive oil dribbled over the mix and used to flavor the flat bread. We also had halawa, a sweet mix of sesame oil and sugar, definitely for the sweet tooth’s amongst us. Tea or coffee. The locals believe that Zata is good for the brain when eaten in the mornings. I notice no immediate change, perhaps I need to make it a regular inclusion in my morning routine.
The next part of our desert experience is a trip to the Information Centre where we are encouraged to watch a short video for about 25mins before heading out on our desert safari in open back vehicles. The video provides information on the sandstone and granite rock formations, animals in the area including Oryx, Camel, Snakes and Nubian Ibex, also how the water supply to the area was stopped by the Greeks when they put in a dam upstream and stopped the flow of water to the valley. The plants found here, such as juniper and basil, Bedouin lifestyle and the influence of Greeks and Romans over the years, and of course coffee.
Activities in the area include hiking, rock climbing and flying. There are many sights in the valley, including The Seven Pillars of Wisdom; we only have time to visit four. Our first stop a Nabatean Temple, at roughly 2000yr old and found throughout the area in places where there is water. They were built to service the passing caravan trade, providing security, rest and a place to exchange goods along the incense trail.
We continue along the valley to Lawrence Springs; it is believed taxes were charged to passing traders who wanted to get water from here. The inscriptions, Springs of Lawrence, are Aramaic scripture; the Greek alphabet took over from the Aramaic after this time. The walk to the source of the spring, up the side of the rocky mountain takes about 2 hours return, we don’t have time for this but can see where the spring comes out as a tree is growing near there. Trees are few and far between in this dry environment.
Our tour takes us further into the desert and to the Chazly inscriptions estimated at 3000 years old, Aramaic inscriptions are also found here. This area is popular with rock climbers, the stunning sandstone rock faces offering varying levels of difficulty. We are offered tea or coffee here, I try both. The tea is a mixture of sage, cinnamon, cardamom and dessert mint – delicious and refreshing. The coffee is made from crushed coffee pods and is drunk neat but sweet. Amber is used to make scent for oils and to freshen clothing; it is a pleasant smell, especially for someone who reacts to most perfumes. Musk is also popular here. An assortment of souvenirs is for sale, including handmade knives with gazelle handles.
Our last stop is the Sand Dune, formed up the side of a rocky outcrop and a popular stop for tourists to climb and enjoy the 360° views. It is well worth the climb. The sky is a brilliant blue with a cold wind blowing from our exposed vantage point, the suns warmth can be felt as we find shelter from the wind.
The landscape as we drive to Wadi Musa is stunning, sandstone mountains dot the horizon and litter the plains, towering over a sandy desert floor. The soft sandstone has been worn over many years by rain and wind to form amazing patterns from running water crossed with each horizontal layer in time. The colours ranging from deep terracotta red to pale gold, white and browns. The tar sealed duel carriageway road is good as we progress along, large power lines a feature following along the roadside. We pass through small villages that seem to have two levels of housing, one normal one or two level constructions whilst the other around the perimeter of town is more of a shanty, built from various types of building materials.
As we climb out of the valley, the view from the other side of our 18 seater bus is spectacular, the haze softening the landscape. The road is now 3 lanes each way with a wide divide between of roughly 4 metres. They have a very young King in Jordan, King Abdullah II, that everyone seems to love, his picture is everywhere. We pass through the city of Ma’an as we travel along the ancient King’s Highway, the landscape has flattened off to rolling gravel hills of brown and grey over loose golden sand, spreading as far as the eye can see. All the towns we pass through have very few people, especially compared with Africa, just a cluster of houses with few shops, cars or people.
We stop to photograph Shobak Castle, built by the French Crusader King Baldwin I in AD1115. This is one of the four castles built to control trade routes and protect the holy land. From here the Jordan Valley lies approximately 50kms away and leads to Jerusalem about 70-75kms away. I ask Ibrahim, our guide, why there are so few people in the towns and villages, he said not many live there these days as all the trees are gone, mainly apple, and there is no rain = no water.
From here it is not far to our destination today of Petra but first we visit the source of the Moses Spring – around 1500BC Moses passed this way and hit a stick on a rock and water came forth. The Moses Spring is still running today and is safe to drink, many a thirsty traveler can be seen filling their water bottle here. The people in this area are originally from Yemen of Arabic decent. It is still part of the incense route and has been influenced over the years by Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Every cave we see is a tomb, a simple cave means it was for simple people. Special people have ornate caves, stairs leading up to them etc.
In Greek the word Petra means ‘The Rock’. Petra enjoyed a very rich Nabataean civilization boasting great engineers that were able to provide water from the spring to great distances via channels carved into the sandstone rock and building dams to hold vast quantities. Peace with the Greeks and Romans was required to ensure the continuation of trade in the region. In 1812 the rediscovery of Petra was known around the world, up until then it had been lost to the Europeans and the King of Jordan wanted to keep it that way as he suspected it would contain priceless treasures as the people of Petra were very rich. The town of Petra now boasts 180 hotels, ranging from 1 star up to 5 stars. Petra by night attracts many tourists and is an experience not to be missed as you walk the candle lit Siq to the Treasury, once there everyone is seated on mats and given a steaming cup of herbal tea, as you listen to the classical Arabic music and song, as this fades it is replaced by a lone ‘gasabah’ (flute) player echoing eerily around the sandstone walls.
About the Author: Jenny Pullman works as a tour leader for Oasis Overland and is currently in Dahab.