Sunday, March 28, 2010

King's Highway and Petra, Jordan

Wow.  Jordan is a beautiful country.  The desert landscape is breathtaking.  Vast, immense, endless.  Wide open plains, uninhabited rolling hills as far as the eye can see, enormous mountains of erosion-sculpted rock.  Stark in a beautiful sort of way.  For a girl who hangs out with geologists for a living, and can stare mesmerized at rock outcrops, this is heaven on earth.

Coming from almost three months in south Asia, we both gaped at the incredibly different scenery as we sped away from the Amman airport down the King’s Highway.  A man in a red and white checkered head scarf herded a flock of shaggy sheep away from the edge of the highway with a long stick.  Women waiting at the bus stops wearing head to toe black burkas, their eyes peering from slits in the hood.  Flat red earth tilled into tidy rows of green.    Fortress-looking estate homes built from rock and concrete, grilles on the windows, enormous sparkling SUVs parked out front.

As we traveled farther from Amman, the evidence of wealth melted away.  We started to see nomadic Bedouin tents studding the increasingly brown landscape, herds of long-eared goats munching on scrub brush nearby.  Camels lumbering by on spindly knobby-kneed legs.  Long stretches of barren sand-colored landscape.

We were headed to Wadi Musa, the town neighboring Petra.  Along the way, we stopped at Madaba to see a 6th century mosaic map of the middle east (accurately depicting Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and the River Nile) that’s been preserved on the floor of a Catholic church.

Next we stopped at Mount Nebo to see the mountaintop where Moses, having led the Israelites for 40 years through this barren corner of the earth, finally looked out over the Promised Land (Israel) and then promptly died. We drove along the edge of Wadi Mujib, Jordan’s Grand Canyon.  Despite the cold wind blowing, the air was grey and moist, and the 1200-meter deep canyon disappeared off into the haze.

Our driver Ibrahim waited for us as we explored Karak Castle, the crumbling sand-colored remains of a fortress built by Crusaders almost a thousand years ago.  Our guide through the castle was a sun-weathered old many wearing a brown ankle-length robe, a red and white checkered head covering, and a corduroy coat.   His grin was gummy, punctuated only by three remaining nicotine-stained teeth.  Finally arriving at Wadi Musa after dark, we were jet-lagged, wind-burned, and thrilled to collapse into bed early.

We woke before sunrise to dueling muezzin’s calls from the town’s several mosques.  We fueled up on a hearty breakfast of pita bread, soft cheese, apricot preserves, hard-boiled eggs, and powdered coffee.   I was bouncing up and down with excitement (literally, which Mohit did not appreciate as I pestered him to hurry up) because this day of exploring Petra was one of the days that I had been most looking forward to on our long journey.  It did not disappoint!

Immediately after passing through the ticket gate, we left the not-so-attractive town behind and were walking among outcrops of wind and water-sculpted rock that swirled with layers of subtle color; red, rust, brown, sand, sulphur, black.  We entered a dramatic and awe-inspiring gorge known as the Siq.  A narrow path meanders along towering cliffs of rock smoothed into waves and ripples.  This was the principal entrance into the ancient city, and I can only imagine how incredible it would be to hear the clip-clop of horse and camel footfalls echoing off the walls as caravans of traders from across Asia and Africa arrived.

Despite all the grandeur of the carved temples that I knew waited for us beyond, the Siq was by far my favorite part of Petra.  During our travels, we’ve been visiting temples of all denominations- Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and (soon) Muslim.  The Siq is a temple to nature, truly a religious experience.  Mohit humored me and we walked through it three times, stopping around every twist and corner to just gape at the beauty of the rock.

Coming around a bend after about a kilometer of wandering through the gorge, we caught our first glimpse of our Indiana Jones adventure- the Treasury.  Carved two thousand years ago, it is stunningly preserved, down to the crisp outlines of the columns and the insane detail of the cornices.  Petra was a city that grew wealthy based on its position at that time on the land trading route between Asia and Africa.  The Nabateans apparently positioned this tomb-monument dead ahead from the entrance into the city to impress visitors arriving through the main gate- and  it’s impossible not to be awed by the beautiful façade that towers twelve stories tall.

We spent the next few hours wandering off the beaten path.  We climbed up the rocks into the surrounding cliffs and hillsides to get bird’s eye views of the main portion of the city that is positioned along the base of the canyon.  As we sat above looking down at the crowds of people below, it was easy to imagine how grand this city must have been when it was inhabited by tens of thousands.

We scrambled along the cliffs, discovering hidden rooms and facades carved into the rock at every turn.  The air was cool, and wind howled along the steep walls of rock.  We found Bedouin camps tucked into some of the ancient caves- the government of Jordan permits a native tribe to live here still.  They push their herds of goats out onto the plains below, following on foot or on donkeys.  I never knew how loud a donkey’s braying is until I heard them echo off the canyon walls.  The costume designer for Johnny Depp’s character in Pirates of the Caribbean surely must have visited these Bedouins because so many of the men were a dead ringer for Captain Jack Sparrow- unruly black curls peeking out from under a head scarf, piercing black eyes lined with kohl.

After eating our picnic lunch of hummus and cucumber sandwiches, we set out for the hour-long hike up to another one of Petra’s highlights- the Monastery.  We shed our jackets for the first time all day as the afternoon reached about 70 in the sun.  The climb took us up a rock staircase that was first carved out of the hillside in the time of the Nabateans.

We found the best vantage point for the immense Monastery by climbing even further, where we also had sweeping views of the desert canyons beyond Petra's limits.  As we made our way back down and out of the park, it began to rain, an event which is extremely rare this time of year in Jordan.  I was disappointed to miss out on our chance to snap some sunset photos of the already colorful rocks, but still I can't complain.  It was a wonderful day.