Petra an archaeological oasis in the desert of Jordan
Six, then seven strangers began to surround the car. Staring, whispering to one another in Arabic, they shook their heads. A few were pointing; others smoked. A blistering Jordanian sun radiated above. The desert heat was just coming on. The back left tire on my rental was pancake-flat.
With the exception of possibly Israel, a trip to the Middle East is not on many American travel agendas these days. The reason can be boiled down, simply, to fear — justified or not. But Jordan, a predominately Muslim country that exists in a more temperate religious climate than many of its neighbors, has been an island of stability, and a strong U.S. ally in the region, for decades. It is also a place in possession of two things I have long been interested in experiencing — Petra, a wonder of the ancient world, and the desert where T.E. Lawrence fought beside the Bedouin during the Arab revolt of 1917 (later embodied by a dashing Peter O’Toole in the classic film).
While contemporary Jordan boasts Starbucks and Ikea, what it does not possess — unlike so many of its neighbors — is oil.
“Maybe we are lucky this is the case — you never know,” Yacob Mickel, a Jerusalem-born Jordanian, told me with a wan grin that suggested the broader perspective and long view that life in the desert demands.
And because of the many troubles in the region, what Jordan also lacks these days is visitors. “Tourism in Jordan will never die, but it is very sick at the moment.” Mickel stared into the middle distance in the empty Amman cafe where we shared tea. “We are all the sons of Abraham. Why do we fight?”
It is a question unanswered.
“But you will enjoy the desert,” he said, brightening. “Eighty percent of Jordan is desert. It is quiet. I like it. Far from civilization. The Bedouin are very nice. You go.”
I’m no desert rat, yet the subtle charms and wild extremes of true desert make a certain sense to me. The paradox of feeling more fully alive in a climate so hostile to life draws me back. I have sought out and slept in the Sahara and Death Valley, and among the rolling dunes beside the Inland Sea of Qatar. I took Mickel’s advice and headed south.
The road from the capital was over uninviting terrain in the late summer. Occasionally a riderless camel’s lunging rhythm was visible near the rocky horizon. Otherwise, little moved in the heat and sun. I passed an orchard of olive trees. I saw occasional fig and date trees. Strawberries and peaches were farmed in places, but not this time of year. Nearly four hours south of Amman, strange outcroppings of stone began to appear; the desert was finer, sandier. Sporadic dunes rose up.
Lawrence brought Western fame to this desert in his book “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” in 1927, and O’Toole rode a camel through this spot in the 1962 film.
In addition to Lawrence of Arabia, the desert of Wadi Rum has been used for numerous film and television locations, most often doubling as some alien world — no set dressing required.
I came upon Issam Husseini, a Saudi-born Jordanian, at the simple desert camp where I stayed. We spoke of a mutual affection for the desert, and he drove me deeper into Wadi Rum. Leaving the road far behind he surfed his 4×4 through the sand.
“To me this place is magical,” Husseini said. Our car slid down a high dune. “But it is not for everyone. I take my brother here, and in a half hour he is ready to go. Not everyone sees it.” The sheer expanse, the oppressive light, the lack of things familiar, can make appreciation elusive.
In places, erosion had given the massive sandstone formations a quality of dripping rock such as Gaudí might have imagined. The Siq, hidden between outcrops whose walls were carved with ancient writing, provided us relief from the heat. Late in the day, the sun fired the sand a deep red, and the stones glowed in shifting shades of orange and yellow and brown.
We came upon a crumbling man-made wall, well positioned in the shadow of a sandstone formation. The view was sprawling.
“This is said to be Lawrence’s home — what is left of it anyway,” Husseini said. It is well documented that Lawrence housed in Wadi Rum in 1917. “I am not so sure this is truly it, though. It looks more like someone tried to build a wall and failed, but it is the legend, so it is a major tourist hot spot.”
The Siq is the narrow slot canyon in Jordan that leads to the ancient city of Petra.
I looked left and then right, miles up and down the desert valley to the north and south. I saw no one else. No birds flew overhead. I could perceive nothing moving. “Hot spot” appeared to be a relative term.
While the veracity of Lawrence’s desert home being a huge tourist draw may be in question, there is no denying that Petra, less than two hours north, is one of the Middle East’s greatest attractions.
For a few centuries B.C., the Nabataeans carved civilization from the massive stone valley walls on the back of wealth from the spice trade, creating a city for 30,000. Eventually trade routes shifted, the Romans came in, and ultimately earthquakes in the fourth and sixth centuries sent Petra into obscurity. Then in 1812 a Swiss explorer named Jean Louis Burckhardt “discovered” the lost city, and Petra has been drawing a crowd ever since.
The first impression is without question Petra’s most overtly spectacular, made all the more thrilling because it can be glimpsed only at the end of a half-mile-long corridor slicing between vertical stone walls that rise up to 600 feet. The passage, created by tectonic forces separating a single stone, twists and winds down into the valley, at times narrowing to just a few yards, creating an anticipation not unlike a child creeping down the stairs on Christmas morning, eager for a glimpse of the prize at the end, yet anxious to make the delicious suspense last.
Eventually the stone underfoot turned to dirt, then sand. Another few twists and Petra’s most iconic image, the Hellenistic facade of the rock-hewn tomb (known locally as the Treasury) came snaking into view, I simply started to laugh. Awe can register in many ways.
I am not a traveler with a bucket list, but the disbelief of that first image, one I had seen in so many photographs, coupled with the feeling of being very far from home — a feeling I yearn for on the road — indelibly marked the moment in my psyche.
The site is sprawling, with scores of buildings, tombs and an amphitheater. I spent hours wandering, until I was corralled by a Bedouin named Atala, who convinced me that his donkey, Coco, was the best way for me to arrive at the Monastery, one of Petra’s most iconic, and largest, structures, hidden high up in the mountains. Only twice did Coco and I nearly plunge to our deaths over the edge of a steep precipice.
I returned to Petra again at night — the way lit by candles — and then again in the morning. I was interested to see the effects of the changing light on the stone facades, but came away instead with a renewed wonder for what abides the stretch of time.Jagged rock outcroppings in the wilderness desert of Wadi Rum Protected Area in southern Jordan.
It was then that I was returned to the mundane by the discovery of the flat tire on my jeep. That’s when a few men, then a few more, and then a few more, surrounded my car. Among themselves they discussed the situation, shaking their heads, smoking, pointing at the tire; one even kicked it, before eventually wandering off.
I was alone again and on my back under the car, trying to figure out how to extricate the spare, when a white pickup truck arrived. A man, clad from head to toe in a starched white thobe, stepped out. His name was Tamer; he was a mechanic. He had apparently been called by one of the chain-smoking posse that had surveyed my dilemma.
I had forgotten that it was Eid al-Fitr, one of the Islamic calendar’s most holy days. Yet Tamer had walked away from a family feast to come and help me. Keeping his increasingly greasy hands away from his starched clothes like a surgeon, he worked with precision. When he finally got a small smudge on his crisp white outfit, he gave the tiniest cringe, then continued on, sweat pouring from his well-groomed brow. Watching him work — he insisted on doing everything himself — I wondered how easy it would be to get an American mechanic, dressed in his Sunday best, to walk away from an Easter dinner to change the flat tire of a stranger.
The sun bore down and Tamer tightened the last nut; he turned to me and nodded. I felt myself relax in a way that I hadn’t since I arrived in the Middle East — I felt received. I was welcome here.
I had come to Jordan to experience the solitude of the desert, and to gawk at the stones of history. Yet the moment I will remember longest, and speak about the most, came from the generosity of a single person — the kind of person I have long been instructed to fear.
Tamer returned half the money I offered him and invited me to his home for tea the following day.
“I’m leaving in the morning,” I told him, disappointed.
He shrugged. “I will wait here for you.” He smiled and drove off.