In No Man's Land, leaving Israel and entering Jordan

We didn’t chose Eilat as a vacation destination (see the previous post) just for fun and relaxation! We also chose to visit Eilat because it provides the easiest crossing point to Jordan. I’ve always wanted to visit the ancient city of Petra, which is just a few hours away from the crossing. And we had  read that the nearby desert of Wadi Rum is one of the most stunning places in the world.

Walking down the Siq.

So early on Thursday morning, we met up with a tour group to cross the border from Eilat to Aqaba, Jordan. There were taxes to pay and visas to procure, and it was intensely chilly in the December early morning air. But we were still amazed that even with all the rancor between Israel and the rest of the Arab world, it’s possibly to just walk across the border between these two countries. Even the Jordanian border guards were incredibly friendly!

After 2 hours of border crossing fun, we boarded a bus for the 2 hr trip to Petra, travelling high up into the desert mountains and then back down into the Petra valley. The area we drove through was nearly devoid of human activity; we learned from the tourguide that 50% of the population lives up north in Amman and most of the rest of the population lives in other northern cities. The area south of the Dead Sea contains small towns and settlements of Bedouin who have largely been moved into permanent villages (though we did see some of the telltale white tents and camels alongside the road – more on that in the next post).

The first glimpse of the Treasury through the Siq.

Petra is hard to describe in words. It’s an ancient city, built by the Nabataeans probably in the 6th Century BC, and it was a center of the spice trade in the 1st century BC. It was annexed by the Roman Empire in the 1st Century AD, and by the Arabs in the 7th Century AD. Petra was used during the Crusades but then was abandoned by outsiders. The local Bedouin lived within parts of the ancient city until relatively recently, when they were resettled into more permanent accommodations above it. The ancient city was rediscovered by archeologists in the 19th century. Remarkably, only about 1% of the site has been excavated over the past 2 centuries. You might recall one such “excavation” from the film Raiders of the Lost Ark!

What is so amazing about Petra is that it is a city carved out of red sandstone – the buildings are literally carved into the mountains. To reach the “main street” of the city, you walk about a kilometer down the Siq, a gorge through the sandstone cliffs, often only about 10 feet wide. On either side of the gorge, the Nabataneans carved long trenches into the sandstone as natural aqueducts to carry water into the central part of their city.

The Treasury (of Indiana Jones fame), carved into the cliff face.

Emerging from the Siq, we found ourselves facing the Treasury, one of the most well-known structures in Petra. The carving is exceptional, and it’s difficult to believe that it was carved from the cliffs over 2,000 years ago. We continued exploring some of the other buildings that have been excavated, climbing high up above the valley. It was truly unworldly.

What was unfortunately all too worldly were the local folks attempting to earn their living from the tourists. The kids were particularly upset by the manner in which the pack animals throughout the site are often treated. Locals offer tourists rides through the site (which is enormous) on donkeys or camels, or in horse-drawn carriages. But the pack animals looked ill and exhausted, and so thirsty. We saw children whipping their donkeys. It was hard to watch. But the experience did provide some important opportunities for family conversations about the wellbeing both of animals and of their owners in high-poverty regions. The kids decided to donate some of their money to an organization providing veterinary care and education to pack animal drivers at Petra.

Our hotel near Petra.

As the sun started to go down, we made our way to our hotel, two towns over. We chose the Taybet Zaman Hotel because it is on the site of an 19th century Arabic village. Each hut has been turned into a little guest room, with heated stone floors. We loved the buffet dinner; there was a fresh falafel station, incredible Arabic desserts, and Nell discovered that she loves labne (a slightly sour soft strained yoghurt spread). We went to bed early, exhausted from our day exploring Petra, and hoping to be refreshed for our desert adventure the following day.

You can see more images of Petra in this slideshow. It was a truly stunning place to see.

– Jenny

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