Sand and Tomb in the Hashemite Kingdom
The camel saunters across the roadway and I wait. Neither of us are in a hurry. I twist the AC and thank the late King Hussein for forcing me into the comforts of a sedan. Motorcycles are my preferred way to travel overseas and they’ve been banned in Jordan ever since an assassination attempt in the seventies. The three hour drive from Amman is mellow compared to the crowded streets I’ve been on lately. Braking for an occasional camel feels like a luxury.
I’m making a five day detour to visit the ruins of Petra and the Wadi Rum desert on my return home from a business trip to India. The desert is naked from the air and without foliage to obscure the landscape all that hides its mysteries is their remoteness. The volcanic craters and ruins I spotted during a flight over the middle-east a year ago have intrigued me enough to come see it at eye level.
I walk from my hotel to the Petra site at dawn. The entrance is through the Siq, a scaled up slot canyon with two hundred fifty foot rock walls overhanging a mile long passage. Sandstone statues faded by wind and water melt into its surface. The path flows downward and empties abruptly into The Treasury (Al-Khazneh), the famous two thousand year old tomb built by the pre-Islamic Nabaeans in the style of a Hellenistic temple. Its facade dominates my view as I round the last corner. The effect in person is like stumbling onto Egypt’s pyramids in Zion National Park. The combined achievement of nature and humanity is overwhelming and these ruins go on for twenty three more square miles.
The canyon widens around the next bend to reveal a city of the dead. Shadowy windows and doorways riddle the red cliffs. I stop wondering which is a tomb and which is a dwelling. I learn they’ve all been used for both. A market sits beside an amphitheater. A stone promenade passes a temple with a flying terrace. I begin wishing there were more people for scale. The camels and donkeys hauling tourists and souvenirs remind me of the silk road caravans that gave life to this place.
I leave the canyon and take an ancient stairway that curves upward onto the High Place of Sacrifice Trail. Over the crest and into the next canyon, Wadi Farasa, I find a secluded temple holding onto the cracked moonscape like a scene from a sci-fi future-past. Temples are everywhere, perched on ledges and tucked into hidden valleys. Dusty beams of sunlight illuminate their interiors. My map says the Romans carved them during their years occupying the homeland of the Nabaeans, ancestors to the local Bedouins.
The gummy soles of my shoes grip the rock and I leave the trail to walk along the narrow, natural shelves in the cliff face. In the unmaintained sections of the site, herds of goats occupy choice real estate carved for nobles. My fantasy as a renegade archaeologist is complete when I run into a dog guarding his herd and narrowly avoid being bit.
I hike to the largest temple on the far side of the park called The Monastery (El Deir). The afternoon heat has sent most of the crowds home and I’m exhausted from rock scrambling. Just before golden hour a few young guides and I are the only ones left. They’re here to keep the tourists safe and I want to pay them for the opposite. I slip one of the teens some dinars and soon we’re listening to Arabic hip hop a hundred fifty feet up with our feet hanging off the monument’s crown.
I toss my gear in the back of a J-70 Toyota Land Cruiser two hours south of Petra at the edge of the Wadi Rum desert. The paved road descends from the village like a boat ramp into an ocean of sand. Pickup trucks emerge and depart blowing plumes of red dust in their wake. The driver Mahmoud, myself, and two Germans climb aboard for a two day trip into the Wadi Rum Protected Area.
Civilization recedes. An endless expanses is interrupted by sculpted rock formations that thrust upwards like office towers surfacing for air. Bedouin camps sit like tiny Mars outposts in their shadow. I look around and Mahmoud begins telling stories about Lawrence of Arabia fighting the Ottoman Empire here, as if the landscape needs the extra drama. I’ve arrived in Jordan halfway through my fourth book by sci-fi writer Frank Herbert. My mind has already inserted Guild ships and sandworms.
The sun gets high and hot. We need a place to hide from the sun. Mahmoud locks the hubs and climbs the truck into a sandy basin, a five acre swath protected from the wind by high cliffs on four sides. Palm trees and vegetation survive in corners where the shape of the rock catches and stores water from the winter rains. Mahmoud aims the Land Cruiser for a crack in the cliff face and maneuvers into it with a finger’s width to spare. Fifty meters into the shaded canyon we lay out a mat on the sandy bottom and fall asleep in cool 75F air.
Hours later we rouse ourselves and explore the oasis. Out in the bled, desiccated goat carcasses remind us what kind of feast a family of Bedouins might be having right now if it weren’t the first day of Ramadan. We’ve had our lunch, but Mahmoud is observing the holy month and hasn’t ate or drank all day. He seems unaffected, if not slightly hungover. His grandfather still lives out here, preferring the hardscrabble old ways to water from a tap in the city.
The harsh sun softens and we drive back out into the open desert. Mahmoud drops us off at another canyon and promises he’ll be waiting when we reach the other side. We set out on foot alone. The canyon takes us past soaring arches and old water caches guarded by lonely trees. Arabic petroglyphs mark a history on the walls stretching back to stone age man. We emerge near sunset and spot our ride.
On the low rise of a dune, we join Mahmoud and his friend Abbas who’s arrived in his own pickup as they prepare to break their fast with a pot of tea warmed on a sage brush fire. Under the setting sun we see headlights in the distance racing across the plain towards their first meal of iftar, the feast after sundown during Ramadan.
We roll into camp at dark. Mahmoud finds a shovel and invites us to help dig up dinner. A rack of chicken and vegetables has been buried inside a fifty gallon drum of coals and left to bake under the sand for hours. The food inside is perfectly cooked and steaming. We eat the moment it emerges.
After dinner we’re guided to a rock shelf a dozen feet above the sand with a natural overhang. We lay out our sleeping pads and prepare for bed. Loose leaf black tea served sugary and seasoned with sage goes well with the contraband flask of whiskey I’ve been carrying for the occasion. We fall asleep counting shooting stars. In the morning camels will be our ride home. We’re still not in a hurry.
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