Always on the lookout for interesting places to travel, I am in Jordan, a small country wedged between Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria. Its land mass is just under 35,000 square miles, landlocked but for 16 miles along the Gulf of Aqaba. There is evidence of human activity dating back many thousands of years; human figures from 7500 BC.
Originally settled by Bedouins, Jordan came under Greek, Roman, and Turkish influence. It became a British mandate in 1916, and ultimately won independence in 1946. The population is currently 10 million of whom 92% are Muslim and 8% Christian. Jordan has been a refuge for many people from Palestine, Egypt, and Syria, fleeing violence and persecution. It is a stable democracy, one of the few in the Middle East. Literacy is high at above 90%. Healthcare is available to all. As in California, water is scarce.
Our group of eight and a guide begin our journey in the capital, Amman, a lovely city of 4 million people, constructed on 23 hills. We walk everywhere through a variety of neighborhoods and visit a mosque, Roman ruins, museums, a farmer’s market, and eat some tasty local food.
We travel north to Jerash and roam about through the extensive ruins of this first century Roman city. Olive trees dot the hillsides above the Jordan Valley where much of the country’s fruit and vegetables is grown.
Next, we head south for six days of hiking including three nights of camping. Camping, really? I’d sworn off sleeping on the ground long ago. On the first night after 12 miles of hiking with an elevation gain of 4800 feet, my body is dead tired. I am sticky with sweat from the arduous activity but skip the cold water bucket shower for obvious reasons. The campsite sits on a ledge overlooking some glorious scenery.
I lie in my tent on a mat with warm furry blankets. The moon is full. Dogs are barking and donkeys braying somewhere far away. Overnight the donkey that accompanies us to carry extra water, runs away. He clearly wasn’t happy climbing some of the more difficult parts of the mountain. The next day we have a new donkey that is far more cooperative.
After the next hike, I break down and take the cold water bucket shower. I discover why I skipped the first one. The others who are within earshot count the number of times I yell as the cold water hits my body. The second campsite, in a setting even more beautiful than the first, is in a valley surrounded by rock formations that resemble Hobbit dwellings.
The following day’s hike ends in Little Petra, a Nabataean settlement dating to the year 300 BC whose specific purpose is unknown as there is no historical record. It is posited that it served as a spa to Petra, a much larger (and infinitely more famous) city located a few miles away. We are followed to our third campsite by a cheerful fluffy white dog, and visited at dinner by a hungry feral cat.
The third night of camping is something else, quite a change from our relatively peaceful previous nights. The wind chaotically whips our tents making sleep sporadic at best. But that is mild compared to what we experience in Petra the following day. More on that in a minute.
Petra was originally settled by Arabian Bedouins, and in the first century BC, became an important overland trading hub located at the convergence of several trade routes. The Nabataean development of sophisticated water systems enabled them to control the region and establish a flourishing kingdom. As the practice of agriculture increased, Petra became economically powerful. Magnificent buildings and tombs were carved into the mountain faces. Women had high status, could inherit and bequeath land, and own businesses. The Nabataean dominance ended at the beginning of the second century AD when the economy declined due to the loss of overland trade routes and Roman occupation. An earthquake in AD 363 destroyed much of Petra, which was then abandoned several centuries later. It was rediscovered in 1826, with the first archeological excavations occurring a century later. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.
Now about what happened to us in Petra. Knowing about the forecast of high winds and drenching rain, we leave camp early, arriving at the city gate at 7:15 am. In five hours and at a quick pace, we are able to see most of the significant sites spread out over the expansive mountainous landscape including the Treasury, the Monastery, “downtown”, and the many tombs.
The wind is so fierce that my eyes and ears fill with stinging sand. Items at souvenir stands fly through the air and crash to the ground. Debris is everywhere. Then the authorities do something rare. They order Petra closed and evacuate the entire population of visitors because the high, narrow canyons in the city are prone to flash flooding. Unable to navigate the disorganized crowds waiting for buses to take us out, our group fast walks three kilometers up the steep hills to the city gate, all the while dodging fleeing camels, donkeys and vehicles. Quite an exciting experience!
My stay in Jordan concludes with a jeep ride in the back of a pickup truck through the photogenic red desert of Wadi Rum, and memories of a unique and historic country.