On October 9, 2015, my fellow passengers and I transited south through the Suez Canal, from Port Said on the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Suez.
Just as the ms Ryndam was entering the Red Sea, we turned 90 degrees to port and headed northeast into the Gulf of Aqaba. This hot, desolate narrow passage through the desert was a little over 100 miles long and only about 10 miles at the widest point. While the ship was slicing through the still water at about 18 knots, there was no perceptible breeze. The air was dry, but heavy. The sun pressed down on me like a giant fist.
I stood in the pulpit on the bow, looking out at the vast nothingness. Egypt was on the port side. Saudi Arabia on the starboard. There was little evidence of civilization. Just sand.
By the next morning, the ship had entered Jordanian waters and was pulling into the port of Aqaba. There were stacks of containers, with massive cranes used to load and unload the cargo ships. Commercial and residential buildings rose out of the sand on the horizon. As we approach the dock, freighters silently slid past the Ryndam as the sun rose over the desert.
According to the map on my cellphone, the port was sliced down the middle, shared by two countries. Jordan on the east and a country to the west described by our Bedouin hosts as “The Occupied Territory of Palestine.”
I’d been at sea for four days since leaving Corfu and was anxious to get off the boat and stretch my legs. My freedom didn’t last long. As I made my way down the gangway, I was quickly herded to a bus along with a few dozen fellow travelers. We had a long day ahead of us and no time to waste.
The air conditioned bus carried us deep into the desert, past small villages, loping camels, herds of goats and an occasional cluster of black-and-white tents. Home-sweet-home of the Bedouin tribes that still live a nomadic existence throughout the region. Today, they may rely less on the stars to guide them and more on the conveniences of GPS and Google Maps. But they still sleep on sand.
Our guide was a young Bedouin named Khaled. Fluent in English and several other languages. College educated. Supremely knowledgeable of the world, his own culture, and the disparate forces at play in the middle east. While clearly dismayed by the instability of his neighboring countries, he assured us that we’d be safe while in Jordan.
Instead of the traditional keffiyeh, he wore a white National Geographic Expeditions ballcap on his head. No crisp long-sleeved caftan and sandals. He wore a bright blue golf shirt, jeans and athletic shoes. He spent most of our 90 minute bus ride with a microphone in his hand, telling us stories about the Bedouin lifestyle, his extended tribal family, and proudly claimed he knew each of the 100-or-so members by name. He talked of his two young children and his beautiful wife of five years, a woman who he loved dearly in spite of the fact she had been chosen for him by his tribe.
When he added, “Some guys aren’t so lucky as me,” a collective chuckle spread through the bus.
And while he shared a modern apartment in Aqaba with his wife and children, visiting his parents or having dinner with the in-laws meant heading into the desert and spending the night in a tent. Hopefully the meal was worth the trip.
Suddenly, the bus pulled off the highway with a trail of dust and sand billowing behind us.
We came to a stop in a paved parking lot alongside a row of other dusty buses. Through the window, I could see a cluster of modern, one-story buildings nearby. This could have been any national park back home. Arizona, Grand Canyon, Moab. With signs pointing to ticket counters and restrooms, snack bars and gift shops. The ubiquitous t-shirt stands.
The difference? These signs were also in Arabic.
We still had a long way to go before we reached our destination. Climbing down from the air conditioned comfort of the bus, the mid-morning heat and unyielding sun smacked me across the face.
I took a deep breath…and waited. I had been nursing an upper respiratory bug that had been making its way through the boat’s passengers and crew. The arid, dusty air in my lungs failed to trigger the persistent cough I’d been living with for almost a week. A good sign. I felt less than 100%, but maybe a day in the desert would help.
Khaled gathered us together and delivered a quick overview of our itinerary. It was simple. Follow this path down into the valley, walk back, and meet in the restaurant over our right shoulders for lunch and beverages. Then get back on the bus and, hopefully, be back to the port before the ship shoved off at 5:30.
Our hike would involve two stages. The one kilometer long Bab as-Siq was more open, allowing us to traverse across the Wadi Musa valley into the more treacherous and legendary Siq, the narrow, two kilometer-long serpentine path that meanders through the towering red, pink and orange sandstone gorge.
For those having problems with the hike, the heat, or both, there were donkeys and horse-drawn carts, even camels, to carry you.
And when we emerged at the bottom, the plan was to spend about 45 minutes resting, taking photos, and admiring the view.
After all, that was why we were there.
The Lost City of Petra. One of the new Seven Wonders of the World. A UNESCO World Heritage site. And popular “bucket list” destination. Even Indiana Jones had cracked his whip here.
Once the thriving trading center and capital of the Nabataean empire between 400 B.C. and A.D. 106, Petra’s amazing facades were literally carved by hand into the soft sandstone cliffs. To behold the virtually pristine, amazing architecture and detailed columns, it’s hard not to stand there slack-jawed with wonder.
According to historians and theologians, Petra features a melting pot of architectural influences likely picked up along the Nabataean trading routes: Egyptian, Assyrian, Hellenistic, Mesopotamian and Roman, gently co-mingled with their own creative juices.
But to be honest, the first thought that came to this mind was that Man didn’t do this. Man couldn’t have done this. This was aliens. Extra-terrestrials.
The second thought? This re-sets the whole concept of “old.” I’d been to London. Lisbon. Rome. I thought I’d seen old. But…no. This was old.
B.C. Before Christ Old. And just to hit that point a bit harder, during our walk through the Siq, through a break in the rocks, Khaled pointed out nearby Mount Hor. According to the Hebrew Bible and the Quran, Aaron, Moses’ brother is buried on top of Mount Hor.
Yes. That Moses. “Part the Red Sea” Moses.
I didn’t get here on a bus. I was brought here by a time machine…!
Just look at this place!
That’s when I began to realize I was soaked in sweat, from my hat to my shoes. I needed water. The roughly three kilometer hike to Petra had been all downhill.
The walk back was all uphill. And I can truthfully testify that it seemed twice as long going up than going down.
But the journey? It was all worth it.
Don’t just take my word for it. Learn more about Petra by clicking here.
(Click on any image to open up a nice image viewer.)