I’m breaking the rules today at Nature in Chicagoland. Normally, I only write about destinations within a day’s drive of Chicago, but unless you have some sort of secret Elon Musk-hypersonic-technology, Petra, Jordan, is definitely not a day trip from Chicago. It’s definitely not even a weekend trip from Chicago. For crying out loud, it’s nearly 11,000 miles from Chicago.
But I have a lot of writing and editing to do for my day job. And I won’t be taking any hikes for at least a bit. So, come with me as we journey across the Atlantic Ocean (I hope that you’re flying first class), across the deserts of the Middle East, through lands that are considered sacred by three religions to Petra in the south of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Israel is about 15 miles to the west. The Gulf of Aqaba (which leads to the Red Sea) and Saudi Arabia are about 80 miles to the south, and Egypt is about 85 miles southwest as the crow flies. Petra is known as the Rose City because of its stunning pinkish-red stone from which this ancient city in the desert hills is carved. It has been named one of the “New 7 Wonders of the Modern World.”
Petra was built by the Nabatean culture, whose members carved awe-inspiring temples, tombs, and other buildings out of the sandstone cliffs. According to the Jordananian government’s website, “The Nabateans were exceptionally skilled traders, facilitating commerce between China, India, the Far East, Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome. They dealt in such goods as spices, incense, gold, animals, iron, copper, sugar, medicines, ivory, perfumes and fabrics, just to name a few. From its origins as a fortress city, Petra became a wealthy commercial crossroads between the Arabian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures. Control of this crucial trade route between the upland areas of Jordan, the Red Sea, Damascus and southern Arabia was the lifeblood of the Nabatean Empire.” The Nabatean culture flourished from the 4th century BC through AD 106, when it was annexed by the Roman Empire.
My wife, myself, and two of our good friends traveled together to Jordan in both 2007 and 2008.
Friends and family tried to talk us out of going to the Middle East. What we don’t know, we often fear. But I certainly understand peoples’ concerns. It was only four years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, one of Jordan’s neighbors to the northeast. War still raged in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had been executed just months earlier. Jordan was awash with 500,000 refugees from Iraq. And little did we know that the Arab Spring in just three years would upend the status quo in many Middle Eastern countries.
But my wife and I were both fascinated by Arab culture. Two of my best friends growing up were Arabs—one Christian and one Muslim. I began learning Arabic (not well) when I was 12 from my friend Amjad and his mom in preparation for a two-month summer stay in Jordan with their family that never happened. I loved Middle Eastern cuisine and learning as much as I could about the distinct cultures that make up the 22 countries in the Arab world. So, a trip to the Middle East was a dream come true. There were three things that made me inclined to go:
- My good friend Imad, who is from Jordan, but who has lived in the U.S. since he was 25 years old, would be our guide to Petra and many other amazing destinations in the Middle East. What better way to see a country than with a former resident as one’s guide? The chance to spend time with good friends on an adventure was also an inducement.
- It’s not like we were traveling to Yemen or Saudi Arabia. Jordan is jokingly referred to by some as the “51st state” because of the large amounts of financial and other support it receives from the U.S. government, as well as the money Jordanians receive from their relatives who now live the United States. Many people in Amman, its capital, speak English, so communication challenges were reduced. While Jordan is 97 percent Muslim (majority Sunni) and its people are certainly devout, there are traces of Western culture throughout Amman because of the fact that it was a British protectorate at one time. Women in Jordan have a lot more freedom than women in some other Middle Eastern countries. According to the Jordan Tourism Board, “women are entitled to a full education, they can vote, they can drive cars, and they often play significant roles in business and politics…[but]…arranged marriages and dowries are still common.” (Note: In this blog, I’m steering clear of any discussion, or my personal opinions about, the treatment of women in the Middle East, the treatment of citizens of various countries by their rulers, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and other hot-button issues.)
- My friend Imad told me this jokingly one time when we were talking about culture and religion: “Human nature is human nature. Some devout people [choose your religion] drink too much, use illegal drugs, cheat on their spouses, even kill. Nothing changes human nature. You’ll find good and bad in every culture and religion.” I knew that already, but having someone share your worldview and bust all the stereotypes and banalities people express when opining on the virtuousness of Christians versus Muslims (and vice versa), Westerners versus non-Westerners (and vice-versa), Jewish people versus Christians, Muslims, yadda, and vice-versa, helps us get to the basic truth of life. Most people are good. Some people are bad. Everyone has flaws, but most not so much that they are thieving, violent, or murderous. There is some degree of danger and risk everywhere. Being an American in 2017—with our endless litany of mass shootings at schools, entertainment venues, restaurants, and on our streets—shows that danger is as close as our front doorstep.
So, we left 5 degree Chicago and headed to sunny, 65 degree Amman, Jordan. Stricken with Chicago-late-winter-blah-disorder, it felt perfectly wonderful to step off the plane after a 15-hour flight into a strange and fascinating land. Strange in a wonderful and complimentarily way from a Westerner’s point of view. It was fascinating to be in a country:
- Where there was thousands of years of history to explore: Nabateans, Romans, Christians, Muslims, and so on;
- Where I was out of my comfort zone. I could only understand a few words and phrases out of a stream of Arabic I heard on the streets, in the hotel, in stores, and on television. I couldn’t read the signs in Arabic on the stores and other buildings, and it became a fun game to see what they offered. Many of the road signs were in both Arabic and English, but the name of a particular destination was referred to by different names as you travelled.;
- Where you saw Jordanians dressed in everything from niqabs and burqas or thawbs and keffiyehs, to business suits, to casual jeans and t-shirts (click here to learn more about Middle Eastern clothing);
- Where the Muslim call to prayer wafted across the city five times a day;
- Where, occasionally, you saw people pull out prayer rugs at the sound of the call to prayer and pray on the sidewalk of a busy street;
- Where water is in such short supply that people have to purchase it for delivery (and the water in our hotel bathroom was not potable…the things we take for granted in the Midwest);
- Where I once saw a camel riding in the back of a pickup truck;
- Where, in traffic, drivers seemed to play their horns like a be-bop musical instrument—constantly tooting lightly as they often ignored stop signs, red lights, yields, and lane stripes; yet, it all worked, and I never saw an accident;
- Where it seemed like no traffic rules applied when it came to pedestrians (think of the video game “Frogger”);
- Where men often held hands as a sign of closeness and friendship;
- Where it seemed like people ate dinner at 10 p.m. every night;
- Where Friday was the Muslim version of the Christian Sunday;
- Where the stereotype of the rocky, desert Middle East was busted by the lush green valleys we drove through in northern Jordan, as well as the beaches and crystal-clear waters of the port city of Aqaba in the far south;
- Where the image of King Abdullah appeared ten-stories high on some government buildings, on the walls of shawarma stands, and in the occasional back windows of cars (can you imagine our president’s image in such places!). There were also photos of King Abdullah working at a computer (posted in the window of a computer store that was seeking to generate business), wearing a soccer jersey (for sports aficionados), and in military garb (for those concerned with his military pedigree);
- Where I learned so much about Middle Eastern cuisine beyond the Americanized versions of shawarma, falafel, and hummus (I enjoyed the best meal of my life at a beautiful Lebanese restaurant named Tannoureen in Amman; I think our group had 20 different appetizers alone, as well as a glass or two of strong arak.);
- Where I encountered amazingly kind and friendly people (one newspaper vendor even drove me to a shop I was looking for because he said it was far easier to take me than explain where it was);
- Where we received and occasionally accepted ubiquitous offers of coffee and tea from strangers (if you stopped and asked for directions, you would frequently be invited in for tea or coffee);
- Where most people were curious about where we were from, what we thought of Jordan, and what we thought of then-President Bush, and were happy to have long conversations to share their opinions. This happened occasionally on the street, in shops and restaurants, and at the airport.
We all should get out of our comfort zones occasionally, and that’s what we did when we traveled to the Middle East.
After a few days acclimating to jet lag and enjoying some of the other interesting sites in Jordan (The Citadel in Amman, Jerash, Madaba, Ajlun, Dead Sea, Mount Nebo, Karak…more on these in another blog), we headed to Petra, which is about 147 miles south of Amman. We rocketed along Jordan’s version of the American interstate system (albeit with a few more potholes), occasionally pulling off for rest breaks, gas, and just if we saw something interesting (scenery or stands that sold spices, oranges, bananas, nuts, dates, pottery, coffee, tea).
Imad had fun with us at one stop. We all needed a restroom break. We got out of the car and began walking toward a roadside store. He walked inside ahead of us, but quickly came back outside with a scared look on his face:
“Hurry back to the car!!!,” he said. “They hate Westerners. Go!”
We rushed back to the car, but were surprised when he just sat calmly at the wheel smiling. He finally let us in on his joke: “The owners said that their place is not nice enough for us to use. They suggested we travel up the road a few miles to the next stop. They didn’t want you guys to have a bad experience in Jordan.”
So, joke delivered to us Westerners, we continued on to Petra, arriving in the late afternoon.
We spent parts of two days touring the expansive ruins of Petra. The most stunning aspect of our visit was the hike into Petra through The Siq, which is a trail of about three-quarters of a mile through rocky outcrops that ranged from 9 to 40 feet in width, and towered above us up to 260 feet. As we walked, the occasional horse-drawn buggy raced by, horse-hooves loudly clomping on the stone pavement, as the tenders gleefully raced down this tight corridor with their paying customers.
We walked a little more, and there it was: The Treasury, an amazing 130-foot-tall building carved into the pink stone, and made even more famous in the West by the movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Even though we had viewed photos of The Treasury, we were shocked to suddenly see it before our eyes. The Treasury is “intricately decorated with Corinthian capitals, friezes, figures. and more… and crowned by a funerary urn, which according to local legend conceals a pharaoh’s treasure.” It is stunning, and it will leave you breathless. The Treasury was probably constructed in the 1st century B.C., and it was awe-inspiring to think of the people, cultures, and conquering armies that have stood in this very spot over the last several thousand years.
But there was more to see in this vast ancient city. We walked the extensive trails to view:
- The Street of Facades: A row of monumental Nabataean tombs carved into the cliff faces
- The Theatre
- The Colonnaded Street: One of the principal shopping streets of ancient Petra, and the heart of the city
- The Great Temple Complex
- Various Christian churches, which were built or repurposed from existing Nabatean structures
- The Monastery, which is one of the largest monuments in Petra, measuring about 154 feet wide by 157 feet high. It is known as “The Monastery” because its hall was reused as a Christian chapel and crosses were carved in the rear wall. It was a good hike from the entrance to Petra (right before you arrived there, I think you had to climb 800 steps), but well worth the effort.
- Funny signs at vendor stands that riff on Western culture; see the end of this blog for some photos.
I’ll leave it up to you to learn more about the aforementioned and other sightseeing spots in Petra. Here are some links that will tell you more:
Here are some tips to keep in mind if you visit Petra and Jordan:
- Arrive as early in the morning as possible for maximum peace and solitude as you explore the ruins.
- Wear good walking shoes. At times, the trails are rough and elevated, and you will be doing a lot of walking in this vast ancient city—unless you choose to ride a camel or donkey, or hire a horse-drawn buggy.
- Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to take photographs.
- Ask permission before you take photographs of people.
- Bring plenty of water.
- Stay on the trails; it’s easy to get lost in this rugged area.
- Do not climb on the monuments and ruins.
- Be respectful of the religious and cultural mores of Jordan. Do not wear clothing that exposes a lot of bare skin. The sun is very strong in the Middle East, so it’s a good idea (regardless of cultural concerns) to cover up to protect yourself. Never step on or over a prayer mat if someone is praying, and never interrupt someone who is praying.
- Be prepared to barter—it is common and acceptable in Middle Eastern culture to do so.
- Try to embrace Jordanian culture as opposed to looking at everything from a Western viewpoint. Your goal should be learning about a different culture and expanding your knowledge and perceptions of the world, not trying to recreate the United States when you eat, drink, shop, relax, and interact with others.
- Try to have real conversations with everyday Jordanians. Head to a coffee house, an art gallery, a bar (yes, alcohol is available in Jordan). You’ll find that most Jordanians are incredibly hospitable, and some have relatives in Chicago or the Midwest.
I hope that you have a great time in Petra and Jordan on the whole. Jordan is a fascinating country, and it is well worth a visit. It is also an excellent jumping off point for travels to other countries in the Middle East.
Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes