Jordan has one of those locations which always puts it in the middle of the action. We docked today in Aqaba after sailing most of the night down a narrow fjord jutting off from the Red Sea. In the clear, bright air we could see three other countries: Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. Eliat was so close, we could have jumped in a small boat and been there in 15 minutes. The Israelis have built a wall to keep out the Palestinians, but this did not appear like a secure militarized border from where we were docked. For many years Jordan has worked hard to be on a friendly footing with everyone This has made them the host for many different people fleeing persecution and war. Right now their population has almost doubled with Syrian refugees, which has crippled their tourist trade. Many people from our part of the world are afraid to come anywhere near here and the Jordanians have begun to look for other ways to boost their economy. Although the area we drove through today was high desert, part of their country is well watered by the Jordan River and they can grow multiple batches of crops in the constant sunshine, which they export to the other countries around here who can’t grow much besides oil derricks. The Jordanians have profited from many years of stability under their kings, who have functioned as benevolent dictators. Many items are highly taxed; a $20,000 car costs $60,000 here and the king uses the proceeds to try to improve the living standards of his people. All young people are required to take advantage of a free education until they are 18. Since there are few teachers who want to wander around in the desert with the Bedouins, the king upped the teachers’ salaries who work with the Bedouins 300%. There no longer is a shortage of teachers working with Bedouins.
We spent the day with a Bedouin guide who lives a life today quite similar to our own, but began his life living as a nomad. He was born in Petra, the ancient city we visited today and it must feel weird to guide tourists in your old home town, which has become a major tourist destination as one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. Petra was a city of 32,000 people built by the Nabateans, a people whose cultural peak overlapped with the Roman empire. They were a nomadic Arab tribe. Apart from stone-carving, the Nabataeans had outstanding skill in agriculture, engineering and trade. Their territory also features prominently in the Old Testament. Moses hit a rock here and water flowed as he lead his people to their promised land. Two thousand years ago camel caravans carrying loads of spices, textiles and incense from different places used to pass through Petra, facilitating the flourishing of trade and commerce in this place. The city was incredibly sophisticated and had 125 miles of piped running water, 36 dams, and swimming pools - a huge engineering feat in the middle of the desert. Although the Nabateans built the city, many sculptures and buildings were built by others who passing through who decided to stay: Greek, Roman, and Indian works have been found here. Half the city was destroyed in an earthquake in 363. Subsequent quakes destroyed much more. It lies at the end of a narrow slot canyon and was isolated and deserted for 700 years until 1912 when a Swedish explorer came upon it and put it back on the map for Westerners. Most Americans who have watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, would recognize Petra immediately as the spot where the treasure was hidden and the giant rock chased Indy as he tried to flee with it.
Even though tourism rates have fallen it did not feel that way today as we shared the port with the Queen Mary. Twenty tour buses parked near us and there must have been even more for the Mary, a considerably larger ship. We were glad we booked a private tour and shared a small bus with eight other people. It made us more nimble, but the prominent parts of Petra, felt like Times Square, Vendors set up stands throughout the canyon and horse, camel, and donkey owners hawked rides. Horse drawn wagons thundering past us gave us a start at times as we hiked, but we were grateful for all the men whose job it was to expeditiously scoop up all the poop.
You have to be fit to visit Petra, To get there you hike almost two miles down the narrow canyon until you begin to come to the stone carvings, which remain from this city long ago. The first ones are tombs, but then you come to one so huge and intact, you would swear they finished it a few years ago. It is called the Treasury even though it had nothing to do with money, and is about as tall and wide as our cruise ship. When you stand there in the sand and look up, up, up at this magnificent facade, you wonder how they managed. There are many scholarly explanations for it all, but it boils down to educated guesses. Holes in the side could have held scaffolding for Greek stone carvers who began at the top and were able to stand on the rubble they generated as they worked their way down. The Colosseum would be familiar to any Roman visitor and held about 6,000 fans. It too, is in remarkably good condition. All the free standing buildings from Petra are long gone, tumbled by earthquakes and eroded by wind and occasional rain. People passing through including some crusaders, probably stole a lot as well. The rubble from these buildings has raised the path we walked on and covered much that is being excavated and is reported to be in good condition. Our guide said we should come back in four years and we wouldn’t recognize the place. Altogether we walked about seven miles and saw about half of what there is to see today. I hope that we will still be fit enough to come back and see more.