18 December 2008

In the court of the Nabataean kings

[Cont'd from Part 2]

It was with some small sorrow that we emerged from the Cairo Hotel, took a taxi to the coach station, and said our goodbyes to unassuming, friendly Hama. After an uneventful two-hour trip south we returned to the north Damascus coach station we had left a week earlier: it was every bit as chaotic and noisy as before. We quickly arranged a taxi to take us across the city to the part of town where the service taxi drivers congregate and await passengers.

As we neared the site one particularly persistent service driver was waving at our taxi driver while driving alongside our cab, hoping to secure our fare to Amman. But my attention was elsewhere - I was sitting in the front passenger seat with the window down to let the breeze in, and a wasp managed to secrete itself down the back of my shirt and sting me twice, once on the shoulder and once on the lower back. I shook the marauder out and Andrew planted a boot firmly atop it on the taxi carpet, while I proceeded to say 'ow' a bit. Not the most convenient timing on the wasp's part, given that we had to negotiate with a service taxi driver and cross an international border.

The service driver was keen for our business and we offered him half up front and half on arrival. His car was another white Hyundai, like the chap who'd driven us from Amman, and there were no dents in its paintwork, which sold us on his driving ability. However, once we emerged onto the open road it became apparent that this would be yet another knuckle-clenching ride, as the driver bobbed and weaved into any gap in the traffic and seemed keen to get to Amman as soon as possible at the highest speed. I don't wish to belabour the point, but suffice it to say that at one stage on the two-lane highway both lanes were blocked by slower traffic, so our driver 'undertook' on the dirt verge to sneak past a truck, with one wheel on the dringe of the tarmac and the other wheel rumbling 20 centimetres lower on the dirt. At this point the speedometer read 140 km/h. From my front seat vantage point the fastest I saw the speedometer climb to was 155km/h. That's 96 miles per hour.

Still, we got through the border crossing without incident, although we did have to put up with the driver encouraging us to carry a couple of packs of his cigarettes each to avoid him getting pinched for duty free violations. As soon as he dropped us off in Amman and we had paid him the rest of his fare he was on his way in a trice, haggling over a return fare to Damascus with a businessman in a suit. Then we boarded a local taxi to bring us to downtown Amman where we found our beds for the night at the Palace Hotel, which was down a small arcade dominated by garment and fabric shops. As the early dusk swept over Amman we climbed the steep steps behind the hotel to the well-off Al-Rainbow area on the hill, a part of town dominated by wealthy Jordanians and expats in the business and diplomatic community.

Admiring the view of the Amman city lights, we walked to the smart 'Books@Cafe', a combination English-language bookshop and cafe/nightclub. We knew it was a bit unusual when we were frisked for concealed weapons by a uniformed security guard before we entered. Upstairs, we relaxed in the chic dining area while trendy young Ammanites and expats chatted cheerfully, and we relished the opportunity to devour broad, thin and tasty pizzas from their wood-fired ovens. We retired early, as it had been another tiring day of travel, and because tomorrow would be another.


We had arranged a minibus tour to take us from Amman southwards to Wadi Mousa, the town adjacent to the fabulous ruins of Petra. The tour would take us eight hours, and would visit many historic and scenic attractions along the way. We were joined in the minibus by a young Swiss couple who spoke excellent English, and were friendly travelling companions for the day.

Highlights of the journey included our visits to:

- Mt Nebo, the rocky peak said to be the spot from which Moses gazed down upon the Promised Land at the end of his long life. The beaten-down ruins of a 4th-century monastery adorn the peak now, and the remains of its splendid mosaics are on display. There's also a memorial to the goodwill visit of Pope John Paul II in 2000, which is an impressive sight in this relatively open and tolerant Muslim country.

- The sweeping vistas of Jordan's own Grand Canyon, the Wadi Mujib, a giant gouge carved out of the terrain by millennia of river erosion.

- The age-old mosaic in the church at Madaba, where the remnants of a Byzantine mosaic map of the known world have survived 1500 years.

- Karak, a former Crusader castle built in the 1140s with cavernous stables for warhorses and a row of medieval underground shops.

Until this point in the narrative I've successfully glossed over the general illness and malaise that can beset travellers in the Middle East, but it would be remiss of me if I omitted to mention that on this day of buzzing about in a minibus along twisty, curlicued Jordanian hill roads, I was quite impressively off-colour. By the time we finally reached Wadi Mousa at sunset I hurriedly checked in to our hotel for the next few days and immediately went to bed to recover. After 12 hours of bed-rest I was feeling much more human!


The next day I fortified myself with food and drink to rebuild my energy levels, and set off down the valley to the entrance of the Petra world heritage site, which was once the capital of the Nabataean kingdom. (Jennifer and Andrew had departed earlier to catch the best sunlight). Wadi Mousa (Moses' Valley) is a narrow gully lined with shops and restaurants, with the steeper portions occupied by olive groves and the scanty huts of a few Bedouin herders. At the bottom of the valley several smart hotels are located near the site entrance, as well as the usual souvenir and snack stalls. Past the entrance gates the dusty path passed the Princess Alia charitable home for retired horses and donkeys, which would be some small relief to the army of animals lugging tourists up and down to Petra either in canopied gigs or on their backs. There are camels for hire too, but for some reason they don't qualify for the home. Maybe that's because once they stop being useful you can eat them?

As you enter the former eastern gates of Petra you begin the descent through the narrow canyon known as the Siq, with its russet-red sandstone walls still etched with the irrigation troughs that once supplied the city with its life-giving water. The canyon walls tower over the path and would have offered great protection from invaders; now they are crowded with clumps of tour groups having the features explained to them, and the harnesses of passing horse-drawn gigs send echoing jingles bouncing off the stones. The walk through the Siq to the city is over a kilometre, and after what seems like an age the ravine narrows to a mere crack, through which carved stonework is just visible.

The first and most famous view of Petra is of the tomb known as Al-Khazneh, the Treasury, a 10-metre high semi-Roman facade cut into a vertical cliff. A long-held rumour maintained that jewels were secreted within the toppermost urn, and the upper statues are still pockmarked from the gunfire of raiding tribesmen several centuries ago. The climbing holds cut into the rock face by the would-be thieves are still clearly visible too.

The area near the Treasury is thronged with tourists and the attendant camel, horse and donkey-ride touts, so it's something of a relief to leave the little canyon and move further downhill past other, less grand tombs cut into the rock face, and a 7000-seat amphitheatre carved into a hillside. The city opened out at that point, and as you walk westwards past old Bedouin cave-dwellings you enter the old heart of the city along its broad processional way. The heavy flagstones of the ancient city still rested underfoot, their jumbled irregularity in stark contrast to the patterned order of the hexagonal floor tiles of a grand temple (of which little remains).

At the end of the way by the free-standing Qasr al-Bint temple, I turned aside and stumbled up a side path to the ruins of a Byzantine church where the views of its elaborate floor mosaics were soundtracked by the soothing voices of a choir-group of French pilgrims. The afternoon was hot and still, and the temperature was only briefly diminished when a fleeting two-minute rainshower wetted the sandy earth and brought some sustenance to the hardy desert plants clinging to the hillsides.

What with the early sunsets and my late start it was soon time to think about returning to Wadi Mousa. I hadn't run into Jennifer and Andrew but had stayed in touch with them through the day by text, and now we arranged to meet up for a meal at a nearby cafe. We shared our experiences of Petra and looked forward to another day of exploration.


The next morning we returned to Petra and made our way to the furthest edge of the city by the Qasr al-Bint before beginning the invigorating hike up 850 steps to the far-flung tomb known as the Monastery. The path was peppered with wiry Bedouin women selling cheap trinkets to passers-by, but we pressed on with a polite 'laa shukran'. As the path wove upwards we stepped aside often for passing donkeys carrying rather lazy tourists up. Given the steep path and number of steps involved I don't think it would've been a comfortable ride!

Finally we reached the top and were able to admire the stark beauty of the Monastery, which received its name because it was consecrated by the Byzantines and used for church ceremonies centuries after its construction.

Past the Monastery the path meandered along the mountain top to a series of lookout points offering spectacular vistas over the surrounding valleys, and a corresponding plunge to doom if we got too close to the edge. Each of the best vantage points was marked with a rickety souvenir hut that enteprising Bedouins had erected to soak up any excess cash tourists might want to fling around, and here and there haphazard cairns of stones brought up from the valleys by walkers formed lopsided totem poles.

After the somewhat more sedate walk back down to the main part of the city I ventured up the incline to the series of eastern tombs overlooking the colonnaded way. Most prominent was the tomb of the Roman governor of the province of Arabia, Sextius Florentius, which was carved in about 126-130 AD. To the south sits the impressive architecture of the Urn Tomb, the largest tomb in Petra, which is believed to have been carved in about 70 AD - about the same time construction began on the Colosseum in Rome. More recently the Urn Tomb was reconsecrated as a Byzantine church... but when I say more recently, I mean in the mid-fifth century - i.e., about 1500 years ago!

Finally the time came to bid farewell to Petra. I could've easily spent more time there exploring the furthest trails and soaking up the atmosphere, but a day and a half was enough to get a good feel for the place and its history. As I walked slowly back up the Siq I paused to admire the acoustics and the soft shades of the stones in the setting sun. Here's a couple of videos to give you an idea - the second one is just a few moments after the first, when I heard the horse-drawn gig approaching up the slope.


After a leisurely breakfast chatting to a Belgian couple at the hotel dining table we packed our belongings and adjourned to the nearby bus depot to await the minibus back to Amman. The vehicle was waiting there so we loaded our gear onboard, paid the man a few pounds each and settled in our seats to wait for a full complement of passengers. The services don't operate on a timetable - rather, they leave when they're full or when the driver gets sick of waiting for more people to arrive. In this case we ended up waiting 55 minutes. Our middle-aged driver wore a Bedouin headdress and spent the majority of the three hour journey to Amman fielding numerous calls on his mobile phone. A quick taxi ride from the depot to the Palace Hotel and we were out on the streets of the capital once more.

We went for an excellent late lunch of chicken tawooq at the busy but remarkably cheap Cairo Restaurant (everything's named Cairo in the Middle East, it seems). After a bit of shopping we had a low-key dinner and packed our bags for our flights the following morning: Jennifer and Andrew were bound for Cairo and the continuation of their Middle Eastern adventure, and I was returning to London. It only remained to get up ludicrously early for our taxi ride out to the airport at sunrise, and to say our farewells before we boarded our respective flights. As far as I was concerned it had been a marvellous adventure in Jordan and Syria, but I had to hand it to Jennifer and Andrew - if I'd been going on to Egypt for another 10 days of travelling I think I'd have needed a relaxing day or two off first!

Photos taken flying back over London:

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