A DIP IN THE RED SEA & FERRY TO EGYPT, Aqaba, Jordan
After the legendary lost city of Petra and epic desert of Wadi Rum, we finally arrived in Aqaba, Jordan’s only coastal city right by the Gulf of Aqaba at the northern end of the Red Sea. Serving as an essential port for the Middle East, Aqaba is also popular among tourists, thanks to its regular ferry services to Egypt and the world famous Red Sea coral reefs in the area. Before heading over to the land of pharaohs, we decided to spend a relaxing day in Aqaba.
In the morning, we took a shuttle bus from Crystal Hotel to the Royal Diving Centre. After paying a 10 JD entrance fee, my friend and I, who had never dived before, went for an introductory session. Then we spent the afternoon snorkeling with a disposable underwater camera. We saw some nice corals and a lot of colourful fish. We snorkeled for a few hours and returned to the diving centre. Upon leaving we tried to get the refund of the entrance fee. Their policy was that whoever diving at the centre would not require to pay the admission. The staff hesitated for a while and told us the cashier was closed for the day. We had no choice but to return the next morning. The next morning we returned to the Royal Diving Centre for our refund. The staff tried to avoid us. We expressed our discontent and at last a manager came out with a big smile and gave us the refund. Leaving the diving club behind, our hired taxi took us to the passenger ferry terminal. It took us over an hour to go through the customs and deal with the departure tax. At last we were led to board a shuttle bus that drove onto the ferry along with the passengers.
Once on board, we found the Egyptian custom officer to stamp our passports. The ferry didn’t leave the dock until way over 11:30, over two hours since we got to the terminal. At last, the ferry sailed slowly southwest towards the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, with Saudi Arabia to our east. At around 14:30 we arrived at the Egyptian port of Nuweiba. The hectic scene of Nuweiba was our first impression on Egypt. At the minbus station we met three Australians. The six of us hired a minivan to Dahab, the popular backpacker resort at the Egyptian side of the Gulf of Aqaba.
Dahab seemed pretty quiet to us, probably because of the recent terrorist bombing a month ago on April 24th, which claimed 23 lives in total. The town looked very young and causal. At the station we met Alex, a staff from Bishibishi Garden Village, a relatively new hotel in Dahab. We met Jimmy the owner and decided to stay at one of their air conditioned triple rooms. After dinner, we strolled around Dahab, dropped by an internet cafe, and bought another disposable underwater camera for the following day.
CAMELS & DUNES, Wadi Rum, Jordan
On our second day in Wadi Rum, we had a small breakfast when we get up. Soon after, our guide came to the camp and brought along three camels. The camels were skinnier than I imagined. It was our first time to ride a camel. We were kind of excited but also worried since we had heard enough negative experiences about camel riding. The guide made a “shuzzz” noise and made the camels to lower their bodies. One by one we climbed onto the camel. It turned out that my camel was actually the friendliest, relatively well trained and disciplined. Forgot how long we were on the camel back, maybe an hour, or an hour and a half, in the open desert. As the morning went by the desert was warming up quickly. On the camel back, I often adjusted myself to find the “best” position, balancing myself while taking pictures and preventing the numb feeling on my thighs. Every time we passed by a cluster of plants (looked pretty dried up), at least one of our camels would deviate from the group, lower their heads and pulled out a bunch of leaves to enjoy some causal snacks. This always caused a stir among all camels since all of our camels, including the one rode by the guide, were tied together one after another with ropes.
From time to time, we would get off the camels for some short walks, or climb a rock mount to check out the distant view. We ended up riding the camel for around three hours, and it really wasn’t the most pleasant experience. Perhaps because of the heat or lack of good bush around, one of our camels was a little grumpy at a point that it went on a strike by refusing to walk and kneeing down all of a sudden. I was glad that at least my camel seemed content and calm. Every time we got off the camel, we could hardly walk. The “desert mountains” near and far dominated the landscape everywhere we went. At last we were led to the Khazali Canyon. We didn’t have time to venture deep into the canyon, but far enough to see the dramatic sunlight shone through the narrow gap high up and reached the canyon floor in a dramatic way.
After the Khazali Canyon, our Wadi Rum experience was almost over. We did a bit more camel riding, had a brief lunch, a short nap, and rode back to Rum Village. While we waited for our hired taxi at the Visitor Centre, we went into the official Wadi Rum shop. I bought a black T-shirt with the Rum-art (ancient rock carving of animals) printed on it. In late afternoon, we reached Aqaba at the southern tip of Jordan right by the Gulf of Aqaba/ Red Sea. For some reason, we ended up having Chinese food for dinner. It was a decent size restaurant on the second floor of a commercial building. We weren’t the only table there but of course it was not full. I wondered if it would ever get a full house.
ROCK ARCH & SAND STONE MOUNTAINS, Wadi Rum, Jordan
We started off the afternoon with climbing the Um Fruth Rock Arch. The arch is about 20m high. At first glance, the steep surface of the rock arch seemed impossible to climb. With his bare feet, our guide showed us the way to ascend the slope. The key was: climb in a slight diagonal, move fast, never stop and never look back. We did what he said and reached the top in a single breathe. Of course, climbing back down was a bigger challenge.
Before retiring to our evening camp, we did a 1.5km walk through a canyon. Everything appeared red and orange under the afternoon sun. The walk allowed us to admire the two most remarkable features of Wadi Rum: the red sand dunes and the rugged rock mounts (or desert mountains as the locals called them).
Near our camp, we climbed another rock mount where we watched the sunset. From the mount, Wadi Rum appeared vast, dry and windy. Despite tired, I totally fell in love with the horizontality of the desert. As the sun receded below the horizon, so as the vivid colours of the landscape. The wind felt a little chilly as the desert colours faded with the evening twilight. We had a delightful night chatting and laughing with the Bedouin hosts, and had a delicious dinner of lamb and chicken rice.
THE RED DESERT OF LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, Wadi Rum, Jordan
In June and July 2008, a retrospective screening of David Lean’s films took place at BFI (British Film Institute) London Southbank. We picked an evening show of Lawrence of Arabia as an after work treat. Watching the 1962 classic on the big screen was a fantastic experience, especially for the majestic desert scenes that reminded me of my brief stay in Wadi Rum back in 2006. Wadi Rum, an UNESCO World Heritage site acclaimed for its desert landscape, is a popular filming venue for epic movies from Lawrence of Arabia of 1962 to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker of 2019. Wadi Rum also put its mark in modern history when T. E. Lawrence passed through the desert numerous times during the Arab Revolt of 1917-18. Together with the iconic red dunes and rugged plateaus, the memories of T. E. Lawrence has made Wadi Rum, also known as Valley of the Moon, the most well known tourist attraction in Jordan after Petra.
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At around 09:00 we arrived at Wadi Rum Visitor Centre where our guide Attayak greeted us at the ticket office. After we got the admission tickets, Attayak drove us into Rum Village and stopped at the Resthouse Cafe, where we met Shaba, our desert guide for the day. The first thing we did with Shaba was to get bottled water and the red and white keffiyeh. We put on the keffiyeh with Shaba’s help before hopping onto his Toyota Land Rover. Our first stop was the Spring of Lawrence. Story has it that the spring was the spot where T. E. Lawrence bathed and relaxed himself during his stay in Wadi Rum. Reaching the spring was a 15-minute climb up a slope of boulders, about 200m high. We were a little disappointed to find the spring was no more than a tiny pool, perhaps an outlet of underground water. Though we were rewarded by the magnificent panoramic view of the desert.
Our second stop was a cliff of ancient petroglyphs, where figures of camels, goats, and humans were found. Petroglyphs and inscriptions could come from the ancient desert nomads 12,000 years ago, or any desert dwellers thereafter, including the Nabataean caravans 2000 years ago when Wadi Rum was situated in the crossroad of caravan routes between Saudi Arabia and Damascus. In the shade of a rock plateau, we got off the Land Rover once again for our first desert lunch. Shaba took out canned tuna, fresh tomato, mixed beans, cheese, and bottled orange juice. He then started a fire to make our cups of mint tea, a common practice for the nomadic desert Bedouins, who have roamed the Arabian desert for centuries. Despite circumstances after World War II that led to mass sedentarisation for the Bedouins, the carefree lifestyle of the desert nomads continues to inspire literature and cinema, consolidating the cultural heritage and promoting tourism of the Arabian Desert. Today, most Bedouins have moved to houses or apartments. The few Bedouin tents remaining in the desert are erected mainly for tourists. As globalization continues to reach the different regions of the Middle East, nomadic traditions of the Arabian Desert are becoming a collection of romanticized stereotypes reconstructed solely for the commercial value of tourism.
SOLDIER’S TOMB & SNAKE MONUMENT, Petra, Jordan
Passing through the Siq once again, we entered Petra at around 08:30. Before reaching the theatre, we made our way to a stepped path towards the High Place of Sacrifice. For an hour we hiked up the hill behind the Royal Tombs with occasional views of the ruined city and surrounding landscape. We finally reached the high alter where ancient Nabateans made sacrifices to their gods, an open area with a raised platform for ceremonies. From High Place of Sacrifice we walked west toward Wadi Farasa and the Snake Monument. At Wadi Farasa, we arrived at the Tomb of Soldiers. Due to the sculpted armour on the statues, many believe the tomb were belonged to some Roman officers in the 2nd Century. Though some historians disagreed, arguing that many architectural elements on the tomb facade actually predated the Roman Conquest of Petra, and the tomb was probably constructed in the 1st Century.
At around 14:30 we made it to the Snake Monument, a destination that requires one of the longer tourist hikes. It took us a while to actually locate the snake monument. In fact, we saw the monument only after a local Bedouin pointed it out for us. At the Snake Monument, we encountered a Bedouin family who still lives in Petra. There were two kids in the black Bedouin tent (probably made with goat hair according to traditions). We played football with them for about 15 minutes before heading back. Before Petra was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1985, there were about 150 Bdoul Bedouin families living in the caves of Petra. After Petra was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list, most families were relocated to the new village of Um Sayhoun nearby. Today, about 10 families who refused to move out still remain inside the archaeological park, living off mainly from the tourist industry.
Back at the Royal Tombs, we decided to hike up the hill opposite to the famous Treasury for the famous birdeye view. The steps were steep, and the hike took approximately 45 minutes. The view was quite impressive despite the Treasury was in shade. On our way down, we got ourselves a can of refreshing pop. Without it, we would probably take us two times longer to reach the exit of Petra.
The Cult Chamber is an interesting and mysterious small building in a valley in Wadi Farasa East. Its original purpose was unknown.
The boulders and stones surrounding the Cult Chamber are resulted from occasional flash floods.
Known as the Renaissance Tomb, Tomb BD 229 contained features that resemble the style of Italian Renaissance.
The interior of Renaissance Tomb was excavated in 2003. Containing 14 pit graves, all had been looted in the Middle Age.
Near Wadi Farasa, the Soldier Tomb complex once housed a tomb and banquet hall accessed via the central courtyard surrounded by columns.
At the area of the Snake Monument, we arrived at an open valley with tombs and small structures along the rock cliffs.
It is hard to believe such rugged landscape was once hosted a majestic capital city.
We were distracted by a group of goats appeared near the Snake Monument.
The goats belonged to a Bedouin family living in the area.
Since 1985, most Bedouins living in Petra were relocated in a modern settlement nearby.
We met the two Bedouin kids who invited us to play football with them.
We had some brief fun with the Bedouin kids despite the afternoon heat.
Back at Palace Tomb, we decided to head for the lookout of Jabal al-Khubtha.
The 40 minute hike to Jabal al-Khubtha proved more than worthwhile.
Jabal al-Khubtha offered one of the best view of the Treasury.
Unless arriving at Jabal al-Khubtha in the morning, one would likely find the Treasury in shade.
TALE OF ROCKS, Petra, Jordan
The signature quartz sandstone of Petra provides the basis for every single monuments and structures in the ancient city. The entire city was built by carving into the various sandstones of the region, mainly from the Ordovician (the pale grey and white Disi Sandstone) and Cambrian era (the pale white to red Umm Ishrine Sandstone). These types of sandstone are common throughout Jordan, but mostly remain underground. Due to geological activities, these colourful sandstone are being exposed at Petra, Wadi Rum and Dana. The rhythmic deposition of sand and minerals 540 million years ago have brought us the stunning patterns of the Petra rocks. Likely the carving and excavating properties of Petra’s stone was one of the reasons why the nomadic Nabataeans in the Arabian Desert decided to stay and build their capital city at this location. The other main reason, perhaps the most crucial one, was the site’s potential to secure water from the surrounding mountains, where winter flash floods would occur after heavy rain. Today, apart from the majestic Treasury, Monastery and Royal Tombs, most visitors would hardly notice the water channels, underground cisterns, particle settling pools, and mountain reservoirs that once served as the essential infrastructure for the survival of ancient Petra.
Apart from its suitability for carving, the rocks of Petra are just simply pleasing to the eye.
Wind and water have played their parts in shaping the rocks in Petra.
But it was the sand deposits and distribution of minerals such as iron and manganese oxides that gave the unique colours to the Petra rocks.
The interesting rock patterns appear in tombs and on building facades.
Many rock patterns appear like abstract paintings.
or perhaps Parma ham?
The colours look brilliant under the right lighting.
Undulating rock formation.
The colour ranges from red to orange to brown.
Some patterns get really complicated.
Another complex pattern.
Some repetitive rock patterns look like a Futurist painting.
I spent quite a bit of film (still negative film and positive slides back in 2006) photographing the stone of Petra.
Not all stone is red and orange.
Zooming into the rocks.
Zoom in view.
Zoom in view.
ROYAL TOMBS, THEATRE & MONASTERY, Petra, Jordan
After the Treasury, we turned right and walked towards the centre of the former Nabataean capital city. On the hillside of El Nejr, a splendid theatre was carved out from the red sandstone in the 1st century. The 45 rows of seats could accommodate an audience of 8,500 people. Standing at the theatre offered us one of the best view of Petra: numerous rock cut mausoleums, commonly know as the Royal Tombs, carved into the great massif of Jebel Al Khubtha. From the theatre, we made our way uphill towards another icon of Petra: the Monastery (El Deir). It took us roughly an hour to reach the Monastery from the theatre. The Monastery was an important ceremonial temple for the Nabataeans. Similar to the Treasury, the Monastery is a rock-cut building carved out from the cliff. There is a large forecourt in front of the Monastery, probably a venue for religious ceremonies. Many believed the building was used as a church during the Byzantine era, which explained where the name Monastery came from. We sat down at an open tea shop across from the Monastery, where we rested for an hour with the iconic front elevation of the Monastery.
We visited two more lookouts uphill to see the arid valley scenery surrounding Petra. On our way out we stopped by more royal tombs and small cave dwellings. We were exhausted from the hike and heat, and our attention had shifted to the unique rock patterns that could be found allover Petra. From the centre of the lost city, it was another 2km before we returned to the visitor centre. Everyone seemed to be leaving at the same time, by horses, by donkey carts, on foot, etc. In the evening, we had a Bedouin cuisine dinner at Red Cave Restaurant and stayed a bit at the Internet cafe in Wadi Musa.
Probably constructed at around 70 AD, the Urn Tomb is one of the first Royal Tombs that we encountered in Petra.
Many believe the Urn Tomb was the final resting place of Nabataean King Malchus II who died in 70 AD.
The main chamber of the tomb was converted into a church during the Byzantine era.
Beside the Urn Tomb stands the Silk Tomb, a mausoleum well known for its rich sandstone patterns.
Nearby, the Corinthian Tomb resembles the feature of the iconic Treasury.
The facade of the Palace Tomb is three storey high. Some believe the Palace Tomb was inspired by Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House) in Rome.
Most of the tombs, caves and tunnels in the “Rose City” was built between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD.
15m in height and 8m in width, Tomb BD 70 is one of the few freestanding structure in Petra.
Both Tomb BD 70 and BD 69 are typical Hegra type tomb structures.
All the rock-cut structures have gone through two thousand years of erosion.
The main theatre of Petra faces east, and was renovated by the Romans during the 1st and 2nd century.
The seating area was entirely carved out of the rock cliff.
From the theatre, we could take in a fantastic view of the Royal Tomb cluster.
Qasr El-Bint (Temple of Dushares) is the largest freestanding structure in Petra.
Lion Triclinium was built in the 1st century intended for ritual banquets. The name obviously came from the two weathered lions at the entrance.
The trail up to the Monastery involves an uphill climb of 850 steps.
The walk to the Monastery took about 45 minutes to an hour.
Scenery of the arid valleys of Wadi Araba was one of the biggest rewards for the hike up to the Monastery.
Apart from the Treasury, the Monastery is probably the most famous structure in Petra. Dedicated to the Nabatean King Obodas I , the ancient temple was built in the 1st century AD.