Sunday 12 February 2012

Israel & Jordan - Day 2

(Apologies, dear readers - I'm having a bit of difficulty with the picture files from my camera. As soon as that's sorted I'll intersperse the pictures here. In the meantime, enjoy the narrative of our first day to Petra!)

[Edit: the pictures are posted! The full set can be found here, but I've woven a selection into the narrative below to help give a better flavour of what we saw]

The next morning was another early start, but fortified with a great breakfast (fresh mint tea - hint this will become a theme - fresh cream cheese, toast & fruit) we headed to the border for the crossing into Jordan. Leaving the on the Israeli side, we went through the fairly straightforward process of leaving one country and entering the other. Straightforward, of course, unless you have a single entry work visa. Poor Branson! But he claims all will be well once he hassles the Interior Ministry again after our trip. So with only a twinge it was over the border for us. It's quite eerie walking through the no man's land between one country and another. We weren't sure what was supposed to happen, but it certainly didn't feel quite normal.

Once we were over to the Jordanian side, and had our passports checked another 4 times within about 100 yards, we exited the security zone to fine plenty of taxis, all of which were under the control of one fairly heavy set greasy man, who didn't so much negotiate as rant. It was unclear if his authority was driven by consent (he seemed to be the only person who spoke any English) or by coercion (everyone seemed to be afraid of upsetting him). I started the process of negotiating, which didn't really go as planned, and certainly wasn't anything that I've ever really experienced. In the end, we caved and so probably ended up paying too much, but for the distance we were going (150km/93 miles), it was entirely reasonable. And really, the crazy, taxi mafia man turned out to be the only unpleasant character of the entire trip.

Our taxi driver spoke virtually no English, but it didn't really matter since the drive through the desert was stunning and only a little hair-raising (lanes are apparently mere suggestions in Jordan). I certainly rued not paying better attention to the geology course I took at OU, all those many years ago. Winding through and up into the hills was really, beautiful and we saw the desert morph at least 3 times. Then in a little less than 2 hours we reached Wadi Mousa, near to Petra & our hotel.

The hotel (Valley Stars Inn) turned out to be quite the find - clean rooms and very friendly staff, several of whom spoke excellent English.

our lovely hotel

After a quick look around the room and dropping off all but the essentials we headed to the main attraction itself - Petra.

One of the key features of us staying overnight was that we could get a two-day ticket for a bit more than half of the cost for "day" visitors (people who cross the border, visit Petra and go back to Israel on the same day - I know sounds crazy). Ticket acquired, we passed through an unplugged metal detector, had our ticket clipped, and we were walking down the short path to the start of the Siq (canyon that leads to the front of the site). Winding through the Siq, you could feel almost as if you were stepping back in time. The rocks undulated and changed colour, sometimes the gap between the cliff face was only six feet across, sometimes wide enough for several carriages side by side. It was only moderately crowded (and certainly not as bad as many reviews made it sound) since the guides kept the larger groups a good distance apart and we managed to work around most of them.

A "djinn block" marking the entrance to the Siq

starting down the path, the canyon walls begin to envelope you

a very tenacious tree

 Every time I would come around a corner in the Siq, I'd hold my breath wondering if "it" would be the next thing I saw. Finally, you'd start to see hints of detailed stone work and wrought columns, until you finally see that oh so famous facade peeping through the crevice, before you know it you're out into the open not quite believing your eyes. The "Treasury" is everything that the pictures make it seem, and perfectly as ease in its surroundings. Yes, it is obviously man-made, but you can tell it is directly inspired by and fitted to the soaring coloured stone out of which it is made. Being there has its own majestic feel and provides a fit context for these beautiful tombs - because much of what remains (including the Treasury itself) is tombs.

the first peek


and there it is

such incredible detail

almost classical in style, no?

From the Treasury, we walked along the central route, looking at the various facades, which had some beautiful rainbow stratifications, to the old theatre. The interesting thing about the theatre was that above the stage itself were additional tombs - obviously the dead needed just as much entertainment as the living! Unfortunately most of the theatre complex itself was roped off, so we couldn't explore the acoustics as much as we would have otherwise liked. But we got a few good snaps and little bit of a feel for the sound of the place, before moving on.

One of the older tombs, with bedouin children nonchalantly sitting on the steps

some of the pack animals the vendors use to get their wares to and from the main entrance.

a view of the theatre from below

What once have must been "backstage"

exit pursued by bear?

A view back into the theatre proper, see the tombs above?

After the theatre, nothing was really roped off and you could explore at your leisure, which we most certainly did. We took the path upwards away from the main path, towards the so called "Royal Tombs". This took us up along one of the ridges to some of the more impressive tomb facades including a more recent Roman tomb for Sextus Florentinus. The further along the ridge we went, the fewer other tourists we encountered until it was really just us in the canyon (Wadi al-Matahya). It was really quite surreal to be among these amazing monuments and have complete freedom to roam among them and explore as much as we wished.

Looking back toward the Royal Tombs from the front of the theatre

some older tombs where the facades have withered away

The "Rainbow Tomb"

Yes, the rocks really are that colour

The "Urn Tomb"

Inside the Urn Tomb

Pause for a photo shoot!

The "Silk Tomb"

Love the way it almost looks like it's reverting to it's original "natural" state

The "Corinthian Tomb"

How many more tombs are there?

Looking back at "Tomb Row"

From there, we headed back towards the main site along another ridge which brought us to the Byzantine church (still under excavation) and the Blue Chapel (the Christian presence prior to Petra being made a Bishopric). It was wonderful to be able to watch the archaeologists at work renovating the tiled floors, and stunning to see how what they were uncovering made such a sharp contrast to the tombs we had just seen - ornate outside, but very plan insides versus the church which had a very plain outside, but an extremely ornate inside.

walking back towards the church

part of the mosaic floor being restored

Looking back into what would have been the sacristy

As we were exploring the remains of the Blue Chapel, the afternoon call to prayer sounded. Never having been in a predominantly Muslim country, I wasn't quite prepared for how ubiquitous it was. Every small town bordering the site had its own mosque with its own muzzin. Since Petra is in the bottom of a canyon, the sounds from the neighbouring mosques echo through the complex. Beautiful and surreal, a mixture of ancient and modern.

I can almost still hear the echoes

From there we explored the Winged Lion Temple - one of the old Nabatean temples which was mostly ruined, but still had much of the overall floor plan and some of the key features still standing. This is where the running joke of "Nabatos" kicked in, which I will leave to Stephen to explain.

Side of the Winged Lion Temple looking back towards the Great Temple

a pillar still standing in the Winged Lion Temple

What most of the Winged Lion Temple looks like now

Suffice it to say that by this point we were hungry and loopy; not entirely surprising as it was approaching around 4:30 in the afternoon. We were going on 5 hours of site seeing with only snacks, water and sheer excitement to fuel us. The last shuttle back to our hotel ran at 5pm, so we decided to call it a day on the sightseeing front, knowing we would be back first thing the next morning.

We made the shuttle and cleaned up a bit before heading out for dinner. The guy at our hotel suggested a place called Al-Quantarah. Armed with a local map, we headed off only getting lost twice (and needing to ask directions from a very kind front desk man at the Silk Road Hotel on the opposite end of town) before finding the restaurant.

It was at this point we discovered just how few tourists really were in town. Every single restaurant we walked past had no customers whatsoever. Our restaurant was the same, and we had to poke our head in the kitchen (really felt sorry for the poor staff who obviously weren't expecting patrons) to find out if they were open. The maitre'd insisted they were, and so we sat down for what was to be a true feast of regional cuisine. The weren't any menus per se, but rather you ate the chef's choice, which  was reported to be the best of local Jordanian cooking. . . and it was delicious.

The first course was a series of salads - hummus, baba ghanoush, tabouleh, a salad of tomatoes & cucumbers (both with and without tahini), a roasted bean dish, roasted tomatoes and chillis dish and several others that we couldn't identify. Usually this would have been a meal in and of itself, but then they brought out 2 meat dishes - one chicken, rice, chickpeas & peanuts in a saffron and turmeric sauce (not dissimilar to biryani) and the other beef in a sesame sauce covered over with thinly sliced potatoes and cheese. Incredibly delicious and very filling. A dessert of something resembling caramel flan and tea/coffee topped off the meal as we rolled ourselves into the taxi back to the hotel.

The taxi driver turned out (not surprisingly) to be the brother of the maitre'd named Khalid. He was extremely gracious and shared a little taste of the local patriotism and kindness to travellers. Even though it was a very short ride, his warmth and graciousness were really infectious and topped off what has been a very exciting and overwhelmingly incredible day.

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