Unexpected Treasures in Ancient Jordan

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After almost two weeks in Israel we made the border crossing into Jordan with a week to explore before our flight out of Amman. We made the border crossing at the southern tip between Eilat and Aqaba, where the two countries meet at the Red Sea. The border was a quick ten minute taxi ride from where we had been staying in Eilat and the crossing was simple. We even got an unexpected surprise gift of not having to pay a visa fee. This would help put a small dent in the huge amount of cash we would be forking over for our entrance to Petra later that day.

Petra

Once across the border it was back to the normal Arabic ways of no meters in taxis and negotiations. Again, we were armed with information on how much rides would cost to specific places. Luckily we didn’t have to do too much haggling for our ride to the Aqaba bus station. It took about 3 hours in a minibus to get to Wadi Musa, the town at the mouth of the valley. After avoiding the people trying to sell tours and get us in taxis when we got off the minibus we headed straight for the Orient Gate Hostel. The directions online were wrong, but fortunately a nice business owner helped us out and drove us to our hostel, which was just feet away from the bus station we had started at. To our surprise we found out when we were checking in that the hostel was pretty empty (probably due to the political issues occurring in the region), and instead of getting 2 beds in a 16-bed dorm, we got a private room for the same price! We happily accepted this gift as we flopped down on the beds to take a breather and relax.

The view of Wadi Musa on the way to enter Petra
The view of Wadi Musa on the way to enter Petra

After taking a moment to put our bags down, we decided to head into the Petra site. There’s really nothing else to do in the town, anyhow, unless you have friends to drink tea with. So we walked about 1km to the entrance of the national park and archaeological site. The Jordanian government uses the guise of the archaeological work to charge the steep rates for entrance, but it is devised in an interesting way. Because Jordan wants you to spend more time in the country, they devised the ticket structure so that you pay extra fees at the border if you do not stay in the country overnight. Your one day ticket price is also hiked up to 120 JD for entrance to Petra where as if you stay in the country for at least one night it is only 50 JD ($70 USD). And if you decided to enter the park multiple days, each additional day is only 5 JD more. So we decided to buy 3 day passes and proceed in that afternoon.

Entry to Petra
The end of the Siq as you enter Petra

We were very glad to have done extensive research on Petra before arriving. As soon as we entered the UNESCO World Heritage site, we were approached by local Bedouin for tours, etc. One guy, who appeared rather insignificant, claimed to be the manager (of Petra?) and wanted to see our tickets. Rather than choose to ignore him we played along, and he pointed out on the back of the ticket that you can get a ‘free’ horseback ride to take you the 1km in toward the first point of interest. We said thanks for pointing it out, and then shook him off. As more locals insisted we ride horses into the site, Ben realized Amanda was “allergic.” This seemed to work pretty well. Our homework paid off for us in ways that it had not for many of the bus tourists. We don’t know if it was when we arrived or what, but there were several busloads of British tourists. All the organized bus rides coming into Petra only usually stay for half the day before leaving (we are guessing to get back to Amman or Israel). As we descended down the Siq (which literally means ‘the shaft’ — you can check out the photo to the left to see why) we saw the look of agony on many old ladies’ faces as the horse-drawn carriages flew over the bumpy landscape upward toward the awaiting buses, almost launching them from the carriages as they went. We also saw elderly white people crying as their carriage driver insist they pay 20 JD (about $25 USD) for their very painful, ‘free’ 5 minute ride. Those that weren’t on the donkeys or in the carriages were trying their best to hike back up the half mile Siq path in the heat to reach their bus on time.

Petra is one of the top visited tourist site in the world so these pulls for tourists money are to be expected. But as soon as you reach the end of the Siq the beauty begins with a dramatic view of Al Khazneh (“The Treasury”) and the pull for money slowly declines. While there are a few shops with trinkets to sell as you explore the grounds, for the most part you are left in peace, unbothered by shop keepers.

 

 

Treasury Petra
Al Khazneh (“The Treasury”) with the famous and almost permanent residents — the camels.

 

 

 

After walking 2 km the grand entry facade of the Treasury lives up to it’s fame. If you can catch it without other tourists around it is even better (usually earlier in the morning or after 3-4pm once the tour buses have left). But good luck catching it without camels in front awaiting your money for a ride.  From here we started wandering down the main road and admiring some of the other smaller tombs carved into the red sandstone walls. Knowing we had a three day pass and plenty of time left in the current day we followed a sign that pointed toward a trail leading off the main pathway toward the High Place of Sacrifice. Part of the reason we had planned to stay in Petra for more than a day was to explore and discover the less explored areas. Walking up the rock trail was beautiful and offered views and sites that wouldn’t have been experienced from the main path. Choosing to take this path also put us in the right place at the right time. A few minutes into our climb we meet and started chatting with a group of young girls. Three of the girls were from the US and studying abroad in Israel. The fourth was a German girl who had just started school in Israel but had been living in Jordan for the last few years where her family was working. Her family had been hosting her now friends and school mates for a trip through Jordan, her father, Michael, was accompanying them to Petra. We continued our hike with them enjoying conversations about travel, work, and getting inside information on the spots we were passing along the hike. We passed The High Place of Sacrifice (which was an alter about 150km above the town where sacrifices of most likely animals were made to the gods of the Nabateans religion in 4th century CE), the Lion Fountain, and the Garden Tomb (not to be confused with the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem). Michael was very knowledgeable about the sites and shared with us tidbits of history we would have otherwise never known.

 

 

High Place of Sacrafice and Lion Fountain Petra
Alter at the High Place of Sacrifice and the Lion Fountain

Eventually, the hike circled around and we found ourselves near the amphitheater, back on the main road in Petra. Here you will find are shops to buy gift items made by the native Bedouin people next to a couple cafes to sit down at. The most famous of these is Why Not Shop (and Cafe), and the girls we had been venturing with had previously had some conversation with the guy working there. So we stopped in on our way back where he invited us for tea. The charismatic bedouin was very funny, and seemed like a really nice guy despite his disdain for cats. As we were mostly Americans, he was very eager to tell us about having met President Obama. On his phone he had a photo of Obama and his secret service members rearranging the tables and chairs in his shop, and he also was able to produce and show us a thank you letter from the White House. This was definitely a highlight for him, and he proved us skeptics wrong.

Why Not Shop Petra
Tea at the Why Not? Shop with our new friends.

After some tea and watching the sunset over the cliffs of Petra, we made the trek that we had seen so many other make at 2pm in the hot sun to exit the park. On the way out, Michael mentioned they would all be riding donkeys to the famous Ad Deir (“The Monastery”) deeper in the valley and Little Petra the next day. He knew a bedouin that knew a great route, and was very reasonably priced. Having really enjoyed our time with Michael and the girls we gave him our email in hopes of being able to join them the following day. After leaving the site, we got stopped at the mini-market in town to stock up on our staple provisions for the following day: canned hummus, canned beans, and some oversized pita-like bread. We even managed to find ourselves some mini-kebabs for dinner. Before bed we were delighted to find an email awaiting us after confirming we would meet with our new found friends again the following morning at 9am. Day 1 Petra – success!

MonasteryPetra

While we didn’t get up with the 5am prayer call (even though we were surrounded by about three very loud and nearby mosques) we were still up and ready for Petra Day 2 pretty early. Ben prepared his usual and now pretty routine self-made morning cup of coffee and not long after we were headed back toward the main gate. We got there about 40 minutes early, and had time to absorb a lot of toxic energy from a very grouchy British woman traveling by herself and hating every moment of it. We were both happy when our friends from the day before arrived and we politely parted ways with unhappy traveler. We found a cab that followed our friend’s car over to a bedouin village, Wadi Rum, a couple kilometers from the main entrance to Petra. There we were greeted by 6 bedouins and 7 donkeys that would be taking us throughout the valley. Introductions were done over the obligatory morning tea on the porch of the head bedouin, Nile. Not long after we were each assigned our donkey for the day and were headed out to the side entrance to Petra.

Deciding to join the group for the donkey day excursion was probably the best decision we could have made. Watching Ben bounce along on the donkey half hunched over with his urban cowboy style (no matter what hour of the day you were watching) was enough to make anyone smile. Our first stop was the Monastery – the second most famous spot in Petra (after the Treasury). Unlike the Treasury which is directly off the main entrance to the park, the Monastery is located about 3.5 miles and an 800 stair hike away from the Treasury. The hike to the Monastery takes about 4.5 hours round trip.

We passed many hot and tired hikers (and it was only 10:30am) as our donkeys bounced along the trail upward after our side entrance in the less known gate. But regardless of if you travel by donkey or foot – visiting the Monastery is worth the effort and time to get there. For us it was even more spectacular than the famous Treasury and you could also climb up into the rock room (which was a simple square room carved into the stone – a huge contrast to the elaborate facade).

Riding donkeys and making some tea with the berbers.
Riding donkeys and making some tea with the bedouins.

 

Bedouin Man

The next stop was an afternoon tea break on the cliffs overlooking Wadi Araba valley. The views were absolutely beautiful and traveling via donkey on the unmarked trails and cliff sides was an adventure. Many times we had to dismount the donkeys while we walked the cliff ledges (only wide enough for one person) and tromped down steep ravines. Once back in the valley we stopped at an excavation site where there was a model of a home that the people of the Neolithic period (8500-4500 BC) had lived in. These would have been the first ‘permanent’ residences  in the area as the nomadic peoples began to build more sedentary villages.

Our final stop for the day was at Little Petra which is Petra’s ‘suburb’ officially known as Siq al-Barid. The smaller and less visited site was just as beautiful and FREE to enter (which is amazing since Petra costs your first born child). It is often overlooked and forgotten but really shouldn’t be. Since there are few tourists that head this direction you pretty much have the entire place to yourself. The other thing you will find here that you won’t see in main Petra are some ancient (over 2,000 years old) frescos within the tombs. The detail you can see despite the age is amazing. It was in one of these tombs our little group sat down to enjoy our picnic lunch. A local old bedouin man followed us and decided sit nearby and play a melody with his self-made rebeb (a bowed string instrument of the ancient bedouin peoples). After our lunch we climbed up to the ‘Best View in the World” (you will see many of these signs around Petra) – which was a nice view, but probably more of a pull to get tourists to come by the little blankets offering goods made by a local and sodas and teas. Michael had wanted to come this way though because on a prior visit he had meet a British woman running the mini-blanket shop/tea lounge. She had married a local bedouin and was now living and integrating into the bedouin lifestyle. While we didn’t find the woman at the shop we meet and spoke with her husband, Awad. He was young (our age) and his wife was slightly younger. It was very interesting to talk with him about his life and what being married to a western woman was like. While the bedouin lands were beautiful and the lifestyle simple – it was hard for us both to imagine a complete integration from western lifestyle to bedouin lifestyle.

 

Passing Elephant Rock on our way back to Little Petra
Passing Elephant Rock on our way back to Little Petra

 

 

 

 

 

With this our journey for the day was nearly complete. We headed back toward Nile’s house – passing by a few local homes and many herds of goats. The final sight for the day was Elephant Rock (the photo to the right should give enough description). We later found out there were many ‘elephant rocks’ in the area but we still think the one we saw was one of the best.  Together as a group we thanked the local bedouins who had guided us for the day. The girls offered to squeeze us into the car for the five minute ride home and where we then exchanged contact info and parted ways. The day had been long but very rewarding and something we would have never experienced if we hadn’t run into the group on the first day. We were very grateful to Michael for not only inviting us to join but also for his depth of life knowledge he shared with us in the many conversations of the last two days.

The following morning we decided we would skip our last day in the park and instead head straight to Amman in the late morning. Wanting our tickets to go to use we walked down to the gate at 6am hoping we could spot tourists entering and offer them our tickets if they were day-trippers. Unfortunately there weren’t many people entering the park this early. After waiting about an hour and getting rather cold, Ben decided to call it quits and head back to make his overdue cup of coffee. We gave the tickets to the hotel manager hoping he could perhaps let some others arriving later that day use them for a one day pass. We aren’t sure if they ever got put to use but our hopes are that someone got a gift of a free day to Petra.

 

 

Amman

Our journey to Amman started out a bit rough. We knew that in Jordan (as well as other parts of the Middle East) that as a ‘tourist’ or general foreigner you will be charged more than others for most things. This included bus rides. However, there is still the ‘typical tourist amount’ that was seen as acceptable among most (both locals and visitors alike). The bus from Petra to Amman for foreigners should be 5 JD. We had confirmed this with research and locals we had been speaking to. Unfortunately the bus driver wanted to charge us 10 JD each (and this was after we waited an hour for the bus to pretty much fill up). Knowing this was outrageous we flat out denied the price. The bus driver tried to tell us it was because the bus wasn’t full and everyone was paying extra. Knowing this was complete bullshit we weren’t about to get completely screwed. Like most other people there is only so much you can push our limit and this was way beyond anything reasonable. Since it was a small community Amanda spotted that our hotel manager was around (and we had made fairly good friends with him). Ben approached him asking what the deal was. While we couldn’t understand Arabic well we could guess how the conversation was going. During this back and forth between Ben, our hotel manager, and the bus driver, Amanda had jumped on the bus assuming he would come down in his price. At that time she noticed a couple of young women from the UK – one of them yelling angrily in Arabic to the guy coming around to collect money. It turns out she lives in Amman and her Arabic skills were good enough to know the others were only paying 3 JD. Finally (lots of arguing on all sides) he told us all (the white people that is) that we could pay 6 JD, “and we should feel lucky”. For us this was closer to ‘the line’ you could push so we weren’t too upset. But the process it took us to get to that price and the fact that everyone else was paying half of what we were is enough to get fed up fast.

Once we got moving on the minibus to Amman, it was no trouble. The ride took about 2 hours, and from there we took a cab to the fifth circle – not of hell, but counting roundabouts heading west of the center. At the point we were dropped off at we were surprised to see a Mexican fast food and a burger place. We were no longer in the small Arabic towns – this was a bustling capitol, complete with Safeways and all. While Amanda tried to contact the CS host online from a coffee shop, Ben headed down the road looking for an adapter, as half the plugs in Jordan are European style, and the other half are UK. He found what he needed in huge mall with Starbucks, H&M, American Eagle (again we wondered if we were back in America) — and after getting lost in a large Target-like ‘we sell everything’ store, found an inexpensive adaptor.

By the time Ben got back, the friend of our CouchSurfing had sent a message back with detailed directions to the house. Without much waiting around we grabbed our backpacks and walked over to the house, to discover that it was enormous for 1 person, and large for 3 even. It turns out our host Daniel was the personal assistant to the US Ambassador to Jordan, and therefore had been assigned this large, upscale, family-sized apartment for himself. Staying here was like an oasis for us. We hit it off right away with Daniel’s friend Marian, who was looking for a job as an English teacher in Amman and staying with Daniel for the time. After getting comfy and ogling at Daniel’s American appliances (such as microwave, enormous kitchen, and full US-sized washer and dryer), Daniel came home and he was just as interesting – and really kind as well. Being able to talk with Daniel and Marian about their experiences in the Middle East as Americans and particularly learning more about Daniel’s work as a foreign serviceman was fascinating, insightful, and inspiring. Additionally, Ben has a very similar taste in books, and finished one off his shelf in the roughly 2 ½ days we had in Amman.

Our time in Amman was short. While the city is huge it only has a handful of things to really see as a visitor. Otherwise it is business and politics as usual. Our day exploring the city started with a full on taxi car crash. Yep – our taxi driver was hit by another car – and not a soft love bump either. While this woke us up it really wasn’t surprising to us at all. People in Amman drive like maniacs. As soon as the impact happened swarms of people came around to be a part of the action. You can’t pay to get the kind of experience we had watching the locals come together and as a community assess the situation. Both drivers yelling (we assume explaining what happened). Finally after watching for a few minutes we got a couple JD out of our wallet, paid the driver, and started walking toward the center.

The way they drive in Jordan, it was only a matter of time.
The way they drive in Jordan, it was only a matter of time.

Our first stop was at the Jabal al-Qal’a Citadel, which is pretty much in the middle of the city. The reason the Citadel is so interesting is that this spot has been continuously inhabited for the last 7,000 years and relics from Judaism, Islam, and Christianity have been found here.  The Citadel Hill is also the spot of the national Jordan Archaeological Museum.  The museum is small, but holds the first ever known statues in human history, and used to hold some of the dead sea scrolls, not to mention ancient skulls showing evidence of ‘brain surgery’ in ancient times and dead babies that had been buried in vases.

Coliseum Amman

 

After taking a walk back in time through the museum and ruins we walked downhill to admire the Roman Theater and the adjacent plaza. The coliseum theater was pretty neat (and they still have concerts there) but the plaza was otherwise just a large empty void in the landscape. From there we headed toward the ‘old town’. The Old Town was mostly souks and had the feel of the other arab cities we had been in, with a lot of hustle and bustle, challenging to walk through the streets, and tons of noise. It was a stark contrast to the westernized part of the city we had felt after arriving the day before.

From there we went hunting for the famous Rainbow Street. As San Franciscans, we knew exactly what this meant. The pride flags, men with shaved legs in women’s clothing – yupp, it was the gay district of Amman. OK OK, none of that is true. But oddly enough, seemingly the only street with a western name in the city was named Rainbow Street. While the street was nothing like Castro it was still a funky (and again western) street unlike other spots in the city. The street was packed with cafes, book shops (some with English books, which our CS host loved), a yoga studio, and even a Subway Sandwich spot. As we’d had a busy day so far, we opted to go into a cafe that had wifi and have a coffee frappuccino like drink as a treat. We found a Nestle Toll House (as in the cookies) cafe that matched the bill. The ten minute escape (both mentally and physically) from the day and the hustle of the old city life just below the street was just what we needed.At 5pm we departed from Rainbow Street and met Marian at the locally renown hummus place Hashem Restaurant. For only 8 JD we ordered massive bowls of hummus, foul (a bean dish), felafels, pitas, and more while talking about Marian’s interviews.

Outside the delicious hummus and felafel spot with Marian
Outside the delicious hummus and felafel spot with Marian

After filling ourselves to the brim with some of the best hummus ever (ok – maybe it ties with Abu Dhabi in Tel Aviv), we headed back to Daniel’s place with Marian. On the way home the cab driver struck up conversations with us. Marian was able to converse with him in Arabic which really got the conversation going. About two minutes into the cab ride the driver asked us if we would like a tea or coffee. When we all said ‘la shukran’ (no thank you) he still pulled the car over. I guess despite what we wanted it was coffee time. After running across the road to put his coffee order in (coffee is always made to order in the Middle East) he came back with four teas. You don’t want a tea, no problem… it’s my treat. Besides – it’s tea/coffee time. Anytime is a good time for a tea or coffee.

Umm Qais and Ajloun Castle

 

Umm Qais duo

Ben Sign to Jordan Valley
Jordan Valley Crossing Into Syria

 

We decided to take one of our days in Amman and do some exploring in the northern part of the country. Not really wanting to fight the crowds at the famous (and very touristic) Jerash, we opted to take a few buses and try to visit a couple off the beaten places. The first place was a spot Ben was interested in because of its location. Umm Qais is in the far northwestern part of the country, complete with a view of Israel and Jordan. There are also an old and very run down ruins from the ancient town of Gadara. This is also where Jesus’ Exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac miracle took place in the bible.  Somehow we escaped the 5 JD fee each to walk along the back of the ruins. Here we found a spot to have a picnic overlooking the ruins with a nice view of Syria and Israel in the behind.  It is no wonder this spot has been of strategic use for thousands of years.

While it maybe wasn’t as ‘awe-inspiring’ as Jerash (which we did get a glimpse of on our ride home that evening) it was peaceful and interesting to be in a historical Roman site in Islamic lands. After our lunch of canned hummus (starting to see a trend in food here?) with bread we found the small free museum near the ruins.  It was pretty apparent the museum was still under construction and people were hard at work doing building and other remodeling to what looked like it could have originally been a fair sized home of someone. But the workers were friendly and invited us in showing us where all the artifacts were. Here we looked at roman statues (just like those in the Prado in Madrid, only fewer) and also some mosaics from the Byzantine period. Other than the ruins the town was pretty small and didn’t have much else to see. We tried find one of the road signs saying “5 km to Syria” (there had been many ‘this way to Syria’ signs on the ride up) but unfortunately all we could find was one that directed people toward Jordan Valley (location of Jordan Valley).  Since there is really only three directions you can go from Umm Qais: to Syria, to Israel, or south – we headed back south. Three buses later we had made it to the town of Ajloun from where we did a 5 km mini-hike up to the Ajloun Castle. The hike felt good since a good portion of the day had been spent in buses. The castle is from the late 1100’s, and was used to fight the Mongols in the 13th century, and was later taken by the Ottomans around the 17th century.

 

 

Castle in Jordan11

At this point we were feeling like we had a pretty successful day and had gathered a pretty complete history of the Jordanian lands. We had now seen how the lands were occupied in different ways over time from the Paleolithic times, Neolithic times, Iron Ages, Middle Ages, Ottoman Empire to the current Islamic Empire. So far the day had been going pretty smoothly – but as we have learned while traveling it is always when things are going the most smooth that something unplanned happens. It turned out that when we arrived to the downtown of Ajlun we were told that there were no more buses to Amman until the following morning. With some lost in translation negations we soon found ourselves squished into a car with four other people. Amanda was in the back with two other young women and a child on lap while Ben rode shotgun. Not long after we were on the road the driver pulled over to a stand off the road for a cup of coffee. Ben decided to grab one as well since we would be sitting there waiting for the fresh brewed Turkish style coffee to be made. It turned out to be well worth the wait since it was by far one of the best coffees Ben had tasted during our travels. Now that we were ‘refueled’ home wasn’t too far away.

FAREWELL TO THE MIDDLE EAST

Back in Amman we had a big night planned for our last evening in Jordan. Since it was Thursday (and by Thursday I mean Friday!) it meant that Daniel would be able to sleep in the next day. So despite him having to work late as usual until about 8pm he was ready for a night of fun and games (literally) when he came home. He also arrived home that night with a gift. It was like Christmas Eve and Santa had arrived. Daniel had decided to stock his fridge for game night and the weekend.

Beer Christmas in Amman

The biggest perk of working for the US government in an Islamic state: access to the US store. To make life better for Americans serving abroad, the government always has a store at the Embassy for employees that is stocked with all the hard to find things Americans loved. This included bacon, peanut butter, and beer among other things. In a place where beer was expensive and not easy to find, seeing the big box of Coors Light in Daniel’s hands brought smiles to everyone’s faces. What was even more surprising was when we opened the box – it was full of American micro-brews.

LET THE GAMES BEGIN!

The next few hours we strategized over a game of Settlers of Catan (you don’t even want to know how happy this made Amanda) and then got creative in a few rounds of Cards Against Humanity. All the time while quenching our thirst from hummus overload with tasty beer. So maybe it wasn’t really authentic ‘Middle Eastern’ night for our last night in the Middle East, but it was exactly what we needed.

And with this last action packed day, we ended our stay in the Middle East.  The following day, we packed our bags, thanked our hosts, and headed out to the 7th circle/roundabout in Amman, where we caught the hourly shuttle to the airport (despite our cab driver to the 7th circle telling us they don’t run until the afternoon).  Between Turkey, Israel, and Jordan, we feel like we got a pretty good taste of the Middle East, although we know it is not a full education on the region until one has visited Egypt and Saudi Arabia or UAE.  Either way, we feel incredibly fortunate for having the chance to learn so much about the region and the people in the Middle East, and to have made new friends along the way.  Now that we are done (for now) in the Middle East though, it’s time to move on to another East: Eastern Africa!  Stay tuned for news from Kenya next…

 

See more of our time in Petra, Amman, and northern border cities in Jordan HERE.