Stuck in Aqaba, a traveler makes his way to Jordan’s celebrated “lost city,” where the ancient ruins leave him in awe — and a little poorer.
Aqaba is a city of palms, sand, and water, pushed hard against an inlet of the Red Sea by a relentless Middle Eastern desert. Most Americans will recognize the name only from the movie Lawrence of Arabia, from the scene in which T.E. Lawrence and his Arab army charged the city on camel- and horseback, shouting, “Aqaba! Aqaba!” in one of cinema’s most memorable action scenes.
The city today, though, lacks that sense of drama. It’s a decent place, a bit gritty around the edges, with a magnificent location on a natural harbor. Restaurants and hotels and bars and souvenir shops can be found along its waterfront. For the locals, there are apartment buildings, street markets, and the quotidian retailers needed in any civilized settlement. In itself, though, the city has little to offer the inquisitive tourist.
It was to Aqaba, however, that I was directed in order to meet a ship mid-journey. That ultimately led to a fiasco when I wasn’t allowed to enter the sealed-off port because I didn’t have “papers,” which in fact were being held for me by the purser on board the ship. (“See that ship? That ship right there? That’s my ship. I need to get on board that ship!”) Trying to explain the circuitous nuances of that dilemma to a lowly paid port guard who doesn’t speak English… Well, I leave it to others to appreciate the difficulties.
But apart from joining the ship (which I eventually did, barely), my main goal while in Aqaba was to see the famed “lost city” of Petra, a 2,000-year-old settlement, long since abandoned, whose elaborate tombs are carved directly into the face of towering sunrise-hued sandstone cliffs. It was rediscovered by a European explorer only in the early 19th century and has been a sightseeing hot spot ever since. In fact, it was chosen as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and is listed among UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.
Petra is a city for the ages. Imagine a narrow canyon whose sandstone walls rise so high as nearly to block out the sun. Hordes of tourists walk along the valley floor to inspect what appear to be buildings, but in fact are merely façades carved into the canyon walls. The “rooms” within are shallow but give the impression of being deep and wide. The architecture of the elaborate building fronts recalls ancient Rome and Greece. Ponies pulling wagons swiftly pass, carrying tourists who don’t care to walk. Camels, ugly brutes, spit and bray. Jordanians in full flowing headgear survey the crowds, searching for someone in need of a camel ride.
And despite the visitors, the locals looking to make a quick buck, and the need to sidestep camel crap on the canyon floor, there are the ruins themselves — magnificent, exquisitely carved, tall and wide, chillingly beautiful. Every corner of the vast complex bears an Instagrammable moment.
The morning after my arrival in Aqaba, I went to the offices of Jett Bus, next to the Mövenpick Resort Hotel on King Hussein Street, to see about getting a bus to Petra as an alternative to spending $150-plus on an organized tour. As it turned out, Jett had recently discontinued its bus service from Aqaba to Petra, so I was left with no other option than to hire a taxi. The hotel desk clerk on duty when I checked into the Mövenpick the previous evening was ready to recommend a friend of his who could take me to Petra and back for 100 dinars (U.S. $140), which was steep. So when the clerk at the city bus station suggested his brother for 80 dinars, I readily accepted.
My driver’s name was Nader Al-Khwalde (“Just call me Ned”), and he drove like a fiend. He studied computer management at Aqaba University, though he bemoaned the fact that he would probably earn only $400 a month after graduation. Ever mindful of the Arab tradition of hospitality, Ned pulled over at the first petrol station on the highway. “Please,” he said, “you drink coffee with me. Sugar?” And soon he returned with two cups of thick black, sweet coffee that we carefully sipped over the next several miles. I say carefully because though the desolate desert highway to Petra is modern, the speeds at which Ned drove caused even the most minor imperfection in the surface to jar us. Despite hitting speeds of 80 and 90 miles an hour, the drive to Petra took roughly two hours. (We were pulled over for speeding at one point, but the cop turned out to be a high school friend of Ned’s, so he let us go with a handshake, a wave, and, in my direction, a salute that I’m still not sure wasn’t meant to be ironic.)
While I watched out the passenger window, I saw what at first seemed to be mere piles of dirt, as if from a construction site. Loose dirt, full of rocks, piled here and there. The mounds became larger the farther we drove, and I soon realized these were hills, turning into mountains the more distant we were from the shore. They seemed utterly devoid of water—not just dry, but dehydrated. Boulders the size of VW Jettas were strewn about the dry desert riverbed that paralleled our path.
Another oddity: the desert was dotted with multicolored gemstones, shining magnificently against the stark brown landscape. In no time, though, I saw them for what they really were: plastic shopping bags, blue and pink and yellow, scattered across the desert floor, clinging to plants and fence posts and boulders and simply blowing in the breeze.
After an hour of driving, we left the main highway for a narrow, two-lane blacktop that began climbing the hills. Unattended donkeys walked along the roadside, searching for munchable greenery. The landscape grew more verdant. Ned said crops here included melons, tomatoes, and bananas. At one point we had to stop completely in the middle of the road as hundreds of sheep blocked our way. Finally the shepherd could be seen, urging the last of his flock off the road. He didn’t even acknowledge our presence. Clearly, out here, in the middle of what I assumed was nowhere, this was his road, not ours.
One can’t get to Petra without first entering Wadi Musa, the adjacent modern town. By tradition, the Bedouin believe it was here that Moses broke the rock that then poured forth water for his thirsty people lost in the desert. (Wadi Musa means “Valley of Moses.”) Today the town is full of hotels and Western-style restaurants, existing almost solely to service the bustling tourist trade.
While Ned waited for me in the car, I walked to the visitor center at the edge of Wadi Musa, where I paid the unconscionable 50 dinar (U.S. $70) entrance fee. Even that high price is available only for visitors who have spent at least one night in Jordan. Day-trippers from nearby Eilat, Israel, or from visiting cruise ships are charged higher prices. (The cashier in the entrance kiosk didn’t raise the issue with me; he simply charged me 50 dinars without asking any questions.)
No one, though, should let the high price deter him or her from visiting Petra. I’m thrifty, and when I calculated that, between the taxi ride and the entrance fee, my visit would cost me over $180, I nearly said forget it. But as it turned out, my excursion proved to be one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done — and I’m an adventurous guy who has been to more than 70 countries on six continents.
Anyone who hasn’t already done his or her homework before entering would do well to spend a few minutes in the small but well-curated museum at the visitor center. It tells the story of the ancient Nabateans who founded this red-rock city that became part of the Arab trade route from Egypt, through Jordan and Israel, and north to Damascus in modern Syria. The exact date of its founding is uncertain, but by the 1st century B.C. Petra was a well-established trading city, known for its frankincense, myrrh, and other spices. The Romans soon came along with their legionaries and architects, straightened a few crooked roads, and imposed taxes. An earthquake in 350 A.D. destroyed much of Petra, and it was soon abandoned, only to be rediscovered in 1812 by explorer John Lewis Burckhardt, who had convinced his Bedouin guides to take him there.
The reports he sent home made the forgotten city a sensation among European travelers. He described vast “buildings” (actually tombs) carved from the living rock, replete with monumental columns, doors and windows, ornate sculpture, and an architectural grace that recalled ancient Greece. The world was fascinated, and Petra found itself on the tourist map.
The entrance to the city from the visitor center couldn’t be more dramatic: a narrow, winding pathway, called the Siq, at the base of 100-foot-tall cliffs, that goes on for nearly a mile. Horse-drawn buggies race back and forth along the Siq carrying those who prefer not to hike.
One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite architectural devices is called compress-and-release, a building conceit in which a person enters a small space, narrow or with a low ceiling, then passes into a large, airy space for a dynamic shift of perception. Wright may as well have learned the technique at Petra, for the Siq ends where the canyon unexpectedly widens dramatically, and there stands the grandest of all the structures at Petra, the Treasury.
Anyone who has seen pictures of Petra has seen the Treasury. It could be the façade of a Greek temple, with columns and pilasters and a gigantic urn decorating the second level, all of it glowing with the pink-orange-red sandstone from which it was carved. Like most of the other buildings at Petra, it too was a tomb, though the local Bedouins ascribed their own interpretations to the buildings’ purposes. This one, so regal and imposing, looked to them as if it were where the city’s riches were housed—and thus, the Treasury.
In a way, it’s too bad that the most spectacular part of Petra comes near the beginning, because there is so much more to see. Yet some people visit the Treasury, take their picture with one of the dozens of camels there, then return from whence they came. But just beyond are modest tombs in the rock walls into which visitors can climb, though admittedly there’s little to see inside apart from the alcoves in which the bodies were placed. The remnants of a Roman gate and a street partially lined with a reconstructed colonnade are worth seeing if only for their picturesque quality. And anyone who has the energy can follow several trails that lead up into the hills and provide new perspectives on the ruins.
For visitors who walk into Petra and follow the main road, the slight downward slope isn’t very noticeable. But when one does an about-face to retrace one’s footsteps, the (now-upward) slope looks positively insurmountable — especially in the mid-afternoon heat. It’s not uncommon for temperatures to rise into the three digits. But I was determined not to take a donkey or a camel back to the Treasury, nor a carriage through the Siq to the visitor center. Camel and donkey drivers in Petra are as plentiful and annoying as illicit taxi drivers at international airports around the world. But I wasn’t about to give in to temptation. I’m too young (I tried to convince myself), too energetic (not really), too cheap (100% true). The donkey and camel wranglers were asking 15 dinars ($21 U.S.) for a ride of less than a mile. (In New York City, where I’ve worked most of my life, I won’t even take the subway if my destination is less than 20 blocks away.) The carriage drivers were asking an equal amount. It was highway robbery!
But despite my intentions, I must have looked defeated, because every single one of those Arab hacks asked me if I wanted a ride. A young man on camelback with a scarf around his head and face, pulling two more camels behind him, sidled up to me. “Camel ride?” he asked. “No, thanks,” I said, “not today.” “But mister,” he replied, “today is today. Tomorrow is who knows?”
So I walked back to the entrance, a walk so long and grueling that I wish now I had paid for a ride, despite being a proud cheapskate. Maybe I will next time. But today is today. Tomorrow, who knows?
Petra is almost equidistant between Amman, Jordan’s capital, and Aqaba, on an inlet of the Red Sea. A taxi to Petra from either city will cost in the neighborhood of 100 dinars (US $140), but the price is usually negotiable. I paid 80 dinars and gave my driver a 10 dinar tip, for which he seemed grateful. Admission to Petra for foreign visitors is 50 dinars (US $70). Guides can be hired on the spot, but I found I didn’t really need one, especially after inspecting the exhibits in the small museum at the visitor center. I spent four hours at Petra, including walking time. Some people will tell you that’s a sin, and that the minimum time should be a full day, if not more. Others will be satisfied to have walked through the Siq and seen the Treasury, then turn around and go back to their hotel. No matter how much time you spend, you’re well advised to go early in the day, before the temperature heats up. It’s not unusual for the temperature on the valley floor to exceed 100 degrees.