Jordan 2012: Amman and Petra

Petra: The Treasury (detail)

[Clicking on the smaller photos should expand them for viewing at full size]

We left our group tour in Turkey to begin a private tour in Jordan, via a two-hour flight from Istanbul to Amman.  As expected, there was a gentleman holding a sign with our names as soon as we entered the Amman airport immigration hall.  After purchasing a visa, changing some money, having our passports stamped, and collecting our luggage, we were introduced to our driver, Mazen, who would be our companion throughout our travels during our short four-day sojourn in Jordan.

Sea Level marker–Looking across the Dead Sea valley toward Israel–the lowest point on earth

Healthcare in Jordan

Amman skyline-through dusty/dirty hotel window

Unfortunately, both Susan and I had contracted respiratory infections in Turkey.  Susan’s cough was so severe that she insisted on seeing a doctor before traveling any further.  The next morning, Mazen drove us to an ear/nose/throat doctor located close to our hotel.  After a short wait, the doctor examined Susan and wrote several prescriptions to treat her condition.  The cost was around $50 for the visit.  We were told that there is a public health system and a parallel private system which is available to the rich.  Our doctor’s visit belonged, of course, to the private system.  [Incidentally, Sweden has private doctors who see patients immediately on a cash payment basis, for those patients who can’t stand to wait.  However, the Swedish public/free health delivery system is of such high quality, that relatively few people choose to pay for the private doctors.]

Amman, Jordan’s Capital

Amman (seen through dirty hotel window)

The Jordanian landscape and its capital, Amman, were quite a shock compared with Turkey.  Amman, a city of two million, is comprised almost exclusively of buildings constructed of creamy white or tan-colored sandstone.  Jordan is a monarchy.  I’ve seen television interviews with the young King Abdullah.  He’s English-educated and very articulate.  (His father, King Hussein, was one of the parties to many Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations.)  Abdullah’s photo is posted all around Amman, sometimes in a military uniform, other times in a business suit.  To his credit, King Abdullah is trying to stay ahead of the Arab Spring dissatisfaction with Middle East kings and dictators.  Abdullah is promising democratic reforms that seem to be co-opting any widespread public dissent.  However, Mazen explained that the problem for Abdullah will be that the privileged people around him will not want to lose their power and positions under the all-powerful monarchy.

Bedouin tribesman (photographed within Petra site)

Amazing Petra

The single goal of our short visit to Jordan was to visit the ruins of Petra, the ancient city whose signature structure, the “Treasury”, was made famous by its being shown in the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, starring Harrison Ford.  Petra was approximately a four-hour drive south of Amman, with the highway taking us through a completely barren desert landscape.  Following this same highway north, in the opposite direction, would lead to Damascus, Syria.  Directly to our east lay Saudi Arabia.  To the west lies Israel.  Jordan is located in a volatile neighborhood.

Landscape outside Amman between Jordan & Israel

We saw quite a few amazing ruins in Turkey.  However, Petra is probably more famous than any of them, and rightfully so.  It has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  One thing that sets Petra apart from the many Greek and Roman ruins around the Middle East is the fact that Petra’s sculptures were built by the Nabatean people starting in the sixth century BC.  The Nabateans were a desert tribe that controlled a small area between other desert tribes, better known for having been mentioned in the bible as heathen Philistine idol-worshippers.  The Nabateans also worshipped a variety of gods, certainly influenced by the tribal cultures surrounding them.

Nabatean “cubes”-unique sculptures honoring their gods

By the second century AD, Petra had been absorbed into the Roman Empire.  At this point, construction stopped on the elaborate tombs that can still be viewed.  Eventually, the Nabateans culture was assimilated into the dominant Roman culture and lost its unique identity.  In 313AD, a large earthquake destroyed Petra’s unique water system.  This led to the decline and eventual abandonment of the city.  It remained hidden from the world, rendered inaccessible by the lingering tribes that protected it, until it was rediscovered by a European in the early-19th century.

Slot Canyon
Slot Canyon entrance to Petra

The preceding is a brief summary of Petra’s history, that I learned from my private tour guide as well as consulting Wikipedia.  I will attempt to describe the physical features that make Petra so special.  The approach into the Petra ruins is through a “slot canyon.”  This is a narrow passageway that was carved by water and wind over centuries following a crack in the original mountain range.  The Nabateans chose Petra’s location precisely because the narrow canyon approach would be impossible for any invader to successfully breach, since they could be attacked from above during the canyon’s two kilometer winding approach to the Treasury.  The Nabateans diverted the river that had originally carved the canyon, digging an amazing tunnel that re-routed the river around the mountains to supply the city with water at its other end miles away from the original streambed.

At the entrance to the canyon are obelisk-type rock carvings

Obelisks–tombs in Egyption style

marking large tombs, supposedly reflecting an Egyptian influence.  There are also unique rock “cubes” that were built to honor the Nabateans’ special gods.  Though the main river flow was diverted from the canyon, small channels were ingeniously constructed to bring a relatively small amount of water the length of the canyon.

First glimpse of the Treasury

My local Petra guide wanted me to experience the full surprise of my first view of the Treasury.  He had me walk to the side of the path until a particular point at which I stepped into the middle of the path and could see the amazing site of a beautiful sculpture in the midst of a canyon wall, surprisingly located at the end of the 2km canyon path.

There was an amphitheater carved out of the canyon wall.  There were many tombs, the most elaborate of which were close to the Treasury.  The Romans constructed a column-lined structure to house merchants and their stalls.  There is one free-standing structure whose four walls have survived for at least two thousand years.  The amazing key to its survival is the inclusion of layers of wood in between the stone parts of the wall.  The theory is that these wood layers provided enough cushion and flexibility that allowed the building to survive the many earthquakes that destroyed all the other buildings.

Petra Wall of Tombs
Tomb (partial view)
More Tombs–Wall carvings are Nabatean, Arches in front are Roman additions

Personal Encounter

Our driver, Mazen, was an interesting character.  His family ancestors were Palestinians from Jerusalem.  During the founding of Israel, his family fled Jerusalem and lost all their property.  Mazen said that he “went crazy” in his youth and wanted to leave the Middle East.  He spent five years in Switzerland and several years spread between Germany, Holland, and Austria.  (He learned to speak German.)  But he disliked always being categorized as a refugee.  So he eventually returned to Jordan and is happy to live in Amman.

Mazen barbeques kabobs

It is rare for tourists such as ourselves to have a strong connection with a randomly-assigned tour driver.  However, our heartfelt connection was such that Mazen invited Susan and me on our final evening to his house for a home-cooked dinner with his wife, Sana, and himself.  Sana spoke excellent English as well.  It was a wonderful gesture of hospitality that left us feeling a much stronger connection to Jordan, through our personal time with Mazen and Sana.

Susan with driver Mazen’s wife, Sana

After-dinner tea with Mazen and Sana
Arab man in traditional clothing

Petra janitors take a break
Treasury entrance (detail) with period costume Nabatean soldiers and a camel for rent

The Treasury–showing the rock wall into which it was carved

Hi, I'm Dallas Smith

My blogs offer the vicarious pleasure for my readers to learn of my travels and musical adventures.
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