Petra

Petra UNESCO World Heritage Site
UNESCO World Heritage Site #61: Petra
Petra: My 61st UNESCO World Heritage Site

From the World Heritage inscription for Petra:

Situated between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea and inhabited since prehistoric times, the rock-cut capital city of the Nabateans, became during Hellenistic and Roman times a major caravan centre for the incense of Arabia, the silks of China and the spices of India, a crossroads between Arabia, Egypt and Syria-Phoenicia. Petra is half-built, half-carved into the rock, and is surrounded by mountains riddled with passages and gorges. An ingenious water management system allowed extensive settlement of an essentially arid area during the Nabataean, Roman, and Byzantine periods. It is one of the world’s richest and largest archaeological sites set in a dominating red sandstone landscape.

The Outstanding Universal Value of Petra resides in the vast extent of elaborate tomb and temple architecture; religious high places; the remnant channels, tunnels and diversion dams that combined with a vast network of cisterns and reservoirs which controlled and conserved seasonal rains, and the extensive archaeological remains including of copper mining, temples, churches and other public buildings. The fusion of Hellenistic architectural facades with traditional Nabataean rock-cut temple/tombs including the Khasneh, the Urn Tomb, the Palace Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb and the Deir (“monastery”) represents a unique artistic achievement and an outstanding architectural ensemble of the first centuries BC to AD. The varied archaeological remains and architectural monuments from prehistoric times to the medieval periods bear exceptional testimony to the now lost civilizations which succeeded each other at the site.

Petra

Petra was recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. I can’t help but think that part of the reason it was picked was that it was a filming location for one of the Indiana Jones movies. I say that because there is usually only one photo of Petra which people ever see, and that is the Treasury Building. While the Treasury Building is the most well preserved of the carved structures in Petra, there is a lot more to the location. You can spend a full day exploring Petra and be very tired at the end. Not only is it big, there is a lot of vertical distance to climb.

Overview

The ‘Lost City’ of Jordan. That is what Petra is most known for. This city was a thriving community thousands of years ago but it has now been left abandoned. Nonetheless, the structures and sights that make Petra so unique and popular remain strong to this day.

Petra is located within the Ma’an governorate in Jordan. The entire city of Petra measures at 264 square kilometers with an elevation of over 800 meters. According to historical data, the city has existed since around 5th century BC. There are more than half a million tourists who visit Petra each year. It was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Jordan in 1985.

How to Get Here

Petra

There are two international airports that are located close to Petra. You can, therefore, book an international flight to either Aqaba Airport or Wadi Araba. Once you are in Jordan, there are several transportation options to get to Petra and it will depend on how much you want to spend or how much time you want to allow for the travel.

You can take a bus to Petra – there are ordinary buses and ones organized by tour companies – via the Desert Highway. The cost of a round trip bus ticket from Amman to Petra (and vice versa) is 20 JD. The trip will be for the entire day so you can explore the site for an entire day before heading back to Amman.

As an alternative, there are also minibusses that are available to ride for a cheaper price (about 7 JD). The total travel time to get to Petra is 2 hours.

If you are looking for other transportation options, you can hire a taxi. However, you must haggle a price with the taxi driver since they will have to wait around for you (up to 6 hours) so you can ride that same taxi on your way back from Petra to Amman, or some other parts of Jordan you are staying in.

Important Structures

Petra
The Amphitheater

Petra has become a symbol of Jordan – partly because it is one of the most visited tourist attraction in the country. It is best revered for its historical and archaeological value. Plus, the water-conduit system and rock-cut architecture are impressive for being ahead of its time. Due to the color of the rock to which the various structures have been carved into, Petra has also earned the nickname the “Rose City”.

Below are some of the notable structures that you must check out while exploring Petra in Jordan:

The Amphiheater – The Amphitheater in Petra is one of the most archaeologically important sites in the area. It features Hellenistic design and was estimated to date back to 1st century AD. The seating design that extended to the orchestra is exemplary of Hellenistic design and architectural style.

The Monastery – The Monastery is one of the most iconic rock-cut structures within Petra. This structure is so huge that even the main entry doorway measures at several stories in height. Experts say that the name ‘monastery’ is inaccurate since they believe it was a Nabatean temple.

The Treasury – The Treasury, also known as Al-Khazneh, is a sandstone rock face monument that is the most recognized structures in Petra. It was originally built in the 1st century AD as a crypt and mausoleum.

Petra Today

Petra

Due to the fact that the structures, monument, and rock-hewn sculptures have been around for several centuries, the threats to the property exists. For this reason, naming the site as a UNESCO World Heritage property can aid in pushing conservation efforts of these structures. Improper water drainage and erosion due to flooding are just some of the serious sources of threat to these structures. In addition, unsustainable tourism is also adding to the damage.

The Petra National Trust was established in 1989 in order to focus solely on the conservation of these ancient sites and to reduce impact from any of the aforementioned threats. The trust has also collaborated with many other organizations dedicated to preserving various world heritage sites.


View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Jordan.

View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.

Visiting Wadi Rum

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Road into Wadi Rum. As always, click on the image for a much larger version.

In my humble opinion, the greatest movie ever made is Lawrence of Arabia. Shot on location in Wadi Rum on 70mm film, a forerunner of IMAX, it is a fantastic story with amazing acting, directing, and cinematography. It tells the story of TE Lawrence and the Great Arab Revolt in WWI against the Turks. I’ve probably seen Lawrence of Arabia about a dozen times and couldn’t wait to go to Jordan to visit Wadi Rum and to walk where Lawrence and Auda ibu Tayi walked.

Tents at bedouin camp
Tents at bedouin camp

As it turns out, TE Lawrence never lead the Arab armies through Wadi Rum. They actually went around it when they attacked Aqaba. Nonetheless, it made a great location to film and the fact that history wasn’t quite like the movies didn’t dampen my desire to visit.

Getting to Wadi Rum from Aqaba isn’t easy considering it is one of the larger tourist attractions in Jordan. It is about an hour drive from Aqaba and your options are to either take a cab or try to grab a mini bus. There are no organized buses which go to Wadi Rum. I did meet some people who hitchhiked to the highway/Wadi Rum crossroads I took a mini bus along with ten Wadi Rum locals and a former wrestler from Ukraine. The Ukrainian guy was the most frugal traveler I’ve ever met. He managed to spend 45 days in Egypt and only spend $300. He ended up walking through Wadi Rum alone and slept outside, something I thought was pretty dangerous given the conditions in the desert and the fact he only had one bottle of water.

My desert transportation
My desert transportation

I arrived at the Wadi Rum visitor center not having any reservations or any idea of how things are done or what there was to do. Thankfully, the visitor center is very organized and is set up to take care of tourists. There are several Bedouin camps in Wadi Rum which are run by locals in the area. The visitors center acts as a booking agent for the Bedouins. You can just show up and they will radio one of the camps and set you up, as well as arrange transportation. Most people only stay one night in the camps but I stayed two so I could go explore some of the nearby desert during the day.

I took a jeep tour of the area around Wadi Rum as went out to the camp. It wasn’t worth it as I would have been driven out to the camp for free. The stops we made weren’t that great and the photos I got from it were pretty poor due to the lighting conditions. I was able to see some of the camel watering stations and some ancient script written on some rocks, but beyond that it wasn’t much more than I would have gotten just driving to the camp.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

I ended up staying at the The Bedouin Meditation Camp, which really has nothing to do with meditation. The man who ran the camp was Zidane al Zilabieh who was a really nice guy. The camp was his family business and he went out of his way to treat all his guests well. The tents were Bedouin style, or at least what passes for a Bedouin tent in the 21st century. The walls of the tent were heavy black rug/blanket type cloth with rugs covering the floors. There were beds, matresses and heavy blankets for everyone so you don’t have to sleep on the ground. The first night I was there it was very cold and windy in the desert and I was kept very warm.

Dinner was cooked Bedouin style in a pit covered in sand. Food was chicken, rice and potatoes; simple but good. They also served tea before sunset. They had some old seats from cars set up on a dune where you could watch the sunset while drinking Bedouin tea, which is actually really good. The tea table was used in my May 2009 desktop wallpaper photo. The stars in the desert are some of the brightest you will see anywhere on Earth. What I saw was on a par with the stars I saw in the Outback of Australia or on islands in the Pacific.

Sunset in the desert
Sunset in the desert

The next day my primary activity was to go on a three hour camel trip through the desert to take photos. We left at 10am and my guide walked the entire time, which I sort of felt bad about. I had assumed that he would be riding a camel as well, not walking. If he was going to walk, I could have saved the money and just walked myself. My camel riding experience was oddly enough helped by Lawrence of Arabia. There is a scene where he is told to wrap his legs around the saddle so you don’t ride like you would on a horse. It worked well and was much more comfortable than letting your legs swing on either side. It also turns out that taking photos in the desert during mid day isn’t very good. Of the 240 photos I took, probably less than 10 were worth uploading, and those were just photos of the camel or odd rock formations. The light is just way to harsh.

I left Wadi Rum for Petra which is a much easier trip than coming from Aqaba. There is a bus every morning which goes from Petra to Wadi Rum village and back. The bus was mostly empty and reasonably priced. The trip to Petra is about 90 minutes which includes stops to pick up and drop off locals.

I highly recommend Wadi Rum if you are going to Petra. If you can, stay overnight in a Bedouin camp rather than just a day trip where you drive around and drive back to Aqaba. Even though the scenery is breathtaking, the Bedouin experience is what really makes Wadi Rum worth while. I had luck just showing up at the park, but if it is peak tourist season, you might need to reserve a place at a Bedouin camp ahead of time.

McArabia: McDonald’s in the Arab World

McDonalds in Muscat, Oman

Since I last wrote about McDonald’s when I was in Dubai, I’ve been in Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan. As all of the McDonald’s in the Arabian Peninsula are owned by the same company, there isn’t a whole lot to add to what I had to say about McDonald’s in Dubai. I managed to have at least something at a McDonald’s in every country except Qatar. I saw a McDonald’s sign from the window of my taxi, but never found one when I was walking around. Oddly enough, I did manage to eat at a Hardee’s in Qatar, which I thought was really bizarre. It appears that the only place in the world that has Hardee’s outside of the Midwest United States are the Gulf States.

What I want to focus on is McDonald’s Egypt, which was slightly different in substance than what I saw in the Gulf, and very different in the role it served in society. The Gulf states are all rather rich, and even Jordan is not too bad off considering it isn’t an oil producing nation. Egypt is much larger, much more crowded, and much poorer than the other Arab countries I visited. Also, in all of the above countries I listed, I ate maybe one or two meals at McDonald’s, and even then I only did it for the purpose of writing this article (the things I go through for my readers…) In Kuwait, I only got an ice cream cone and just went in to check out the menu.

McArabia Sandwich: Burger + flatbread

In Egypt, I ended up going to McDonald’s more than I have in any other country, and it had nothing to do with food. I would go every day depending what city I was in for one simple reason: McDonald’s had free wifi.

As is usually the case with my McDonald’s articles, I really don’t want to talk about McDonald’s or for that matter Egypt. I want to talk about something bigger. I need to back up as I often do in these articles and address the complaint that I always get. Some people will turn their nose up and say how they would never eat at a McDonald’s when traveling because they want a real cultural experience, and they wouldn’t want to eat garbage food, if you are going to a foreign country they’d want to experience local cuisine. While I understand where they are coming from, their view of fast food restaurants like McDonald’s is a very western view and they are projecting their view of these restaurants on to the places they visit. It might be completely reasonable if you are a westerner visiting, but it isn’t the whole story.

If someone were to make the claim that fast food was the bottom of the barrel of dining in a western country, I don’t think I’d argue with them. Fast food isn’t supposed to be high cuisine. It is supposed to very utilitarian. You get in, you get food, you get out. It is cheap and fast. Much of the fast food experience is totally lost on most westerners, however. The fact that every Big Mac is identical, is by design. Creating a consistent experience means that you know what you are getting, for better or worse, when you go to a chain restaurant.

Qatar has a Hardees. Dont ask me why.

In a world were every restaurant has clean toilets and sanitary kitchen, that might not be a big deal. In many countries I’ve visited, restaurants like McDonald’s are the high end dining option. The average person might never afford to eat at the nice restaurant at the hotel for foreigners, but they might be able to take the kids to McDonald’s once or twice a year for a birthday party and get some free toys in a Happy Meal. (and the birthday parties seem to be a much bigger deal than they are in the US) It isn’t an option for dining that you exercise every day or even every week. The role of the fast food restaurant is sort of turned on its head in a world where you don’t have many restaurants at all.

When the first McDonald’s opened up in the Soviet Union, they had lines around the block. Families would get dressed up and spend a week’s or more income to have a meal that people in the west would turn their noses up at. Part of it was certainly the taboo of eating food from the west, but another part of it was having something of consistent quality, in a clean environment.

When I was in Phnom Penh Cambodia, I visited the KFC. As far as I knew, it was the only western fast food restaurant in the entire country (another KFC was being built in Sieam Reap, but wasn’t open yet). I was struck by something: all the kids who worked there seemed very bright, had nice clothes and spoke English exceptionally well. These were the smart kids and probably children of the Cambodian elite. Asking “do you want fries with that” is actually a pretty good job when there aren’t many other options. Where as most kids in the west would consider working at McDonald’s a crummy job, in Cambodia it was the job for the best and the brightest.

McDonalds in Cairo

Which brings me back to Egypt. While Egypt is not as destitute as Cambodia, it isn’t as rich as Kuwait either. There are plenty of restaurants all over the place where you can eat that are perfectly fine. In fact I came to really like many Egyptian dishes like Foul (or fool depending on the spelling). McDonald’s is neither the best nor the worst option in Egypt. McDonald’s niche in Egypt dining ecosystem seemed to be a hangout for high school kids and young adults. Something which I also saw when I was in Taiwan. It was a place to study and a place you could bring a computer (usually cheap netbooks) to surf with your friends.

Every McDonald’s in Egypt ran McDonald’s radio. It was their own station which was a mix of western and Arab music. Most of the McDonald’s I visited were in tourists areas (because I’m a tourist) and it just added to the “western” vibe you’d get if you were an Egyptian youth.

What is the lesson can we take from this? McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants are a constant like the speed of light. They have a certain consistency which exists no matter where they are. How they fit into a particular country is a function of the development level of the country in question. The richer the country, the lower they are looked upon as a food option. The poorer the country, the more respectable dining option is it. I realize this isn’t quite as simple as sneering at every McDonald’s, but reality is never cut and dry.

On to Petra

I’m now in Petra. I spent the last two nights in a bedouin camp in Wadi Rum. I spent all of yesterday there taking a camel through the desert taking photos, slept in a tent, and ate semi-traditional bedouin food with mini version of the UN: Italians, Koreans, Japanese, Sweeds, Malaysians, British, French, Germans, Jordanians, Russians, and Belgians.

I’m going to just work on my photos today so I hope to have something up shortly. It was really an incredible experience.

I’ll be in Petra for 3 nights before heading back to Aqaba and crossing over into Israel. From what I’ve been told I may have a hard time at the border because I have a UAE stamp in my passport. So much for saving Israel for my last stop in the Middle East.

Out of Africa

The last 60 hours have been interesting to say the least. To tell the story will take a bit of time and is a great reminder of how things on the road are totally out of your control.

The plan was to leave Luxor on Friday evening hoping to take a bus to Hurghada on the cost of the Red Sea. From here I was take a ferry for a 90 minute trip to Sharm El Sheik on the southernmost tip of the Sinai Pennisula and go up the coast to Dahab on Saturday. I’d make a day trip to St Catherine’s before heading to Jordan by ferry.

Things didn’t quite go according to schedule.

The bus ride from Luxor to Hurghada went smoothly enough for a six hour bus ride. I arrived in Hurghada at ten past midnight and where I was supposed to have a guy from a hotel where I had reserved a room waiting for me. There was no one there. I waited a full 30 minutes before walking across the street to another hotel and booking a room for the night. My bus was 10 minutes late, which in Egypt is right on time. If you can’t show up when you are supposed to, and I have no idea where your hotel is, then you lose my business.

The next morning I wake up, pack up all my stuff and get ready to make the trip to the ferry station. I was told that the boat leaved at noon, so I got there plenty early. I get to the ticket office only to find out that the ferry wasn’t running. It was in dry dock in Suez for repairs. I was going to have to go by bus.

If you look at a map, I basically had to go up the coast to Suez then back down the other side of the coast on the Sinai peninsula. The attraction of the ferry for a trip like this is pretty obvious. I flagged a cab which took me to the wrong bus station, and then got another cab which took me to the correct bus station. By this time it was 11:30am. The bus to Dahab wasn’t leaving until 11pm but there was a bus going to Suez at 1pm. I could go to Suez and then figure it out from there. I would at least be much closer even if I had to stay there overnight.

The bus was a real piece of shit. I’d like to put it in more gentile terms, but that is what it was. The seat cushions weren’t attached to the seats. There was just bare metal and a cushion on top. Everything was painted black. Every part of the bus was covered with dust and there was a big spare tire in the middle of the bus. The ride itself wasn’t too bad. Egypt around the Red Sea seems much cleaner and more developed the Egypt along the nile. The area around the north Red Sea contains what little oil industry Egypt has.

We pulled into Suez around 5:30pm. Up until then, I hadn’t see much in the way of industry in Egypt. It seemed Suez was a giant industrial park for the rest of the country. In addition to all the shipping going through the canal, there was evidence of factories, milling, and other signs of economic activity lacking in the rest of the country.

There was a bus leaving for Sharm El Sheik at 6:30pm. A German couple who was on my bus from Hurghada asked if I was interested in getting a private car to St. Catherine’s, the world oldest Christian monastery. It would cost more than the bus, but it would eliminate later bus rides from Sharm to Dahab and a day trip to St. Catherine’s. The bus would cost around 40 EGP and the car would cost about 100 EGP, but it would eliminate a night in Sharm, which would probably be expensive, and the future bus ride and day trips. I agreed.

The car we got was a minibus. This did no surprise me as this is how most of the private trips are arranged. As it was a minibus, there were also some other passengers that we were taking to drop off on the say to St. Catherine’s. This bothered the Germans. They expected to be the only passengers and to have a real car, not a van. I didn’t see what the big deal was. We were being taken to where we wanted to go for a price we agreed upon.

We drove under the Suez Canal and crossed from Africa to Asia. Probably the only place on earth you can cross continents underground. It was dark and I couldn’t see the canal or anything else, During the six hours we had to stop at eight police checkpoints and four times I had to produce my passport. I had no clue what they were looking for or what purpose they served, other than to make work for police.

We eventually pull into St. Catherine’s at about midnight, and the Germans inform me that they were not going to pay the driver the price they agreed upon. They (in reality the man in the group) were upset that the Egyptians only paid 50 pounds and we were paying 100. This seemed to him to be some great injustice. Also, he was also upset that he didn’t get to ride in a car. They argued with the driver for 30 minutes while I sat in the van freezing my ass off because it was midnight in March in the desert mountains.

I don’t know how things ended up, but I was embarrassed to have been associated with the German couple. We agreed upon 100 pounds and if he didn’t like the van or the other passengers he didn’t have to go. He knew all that when we started. Also, life isn’t fair. There is nothing in Egypt that tourists are going to pay the same price for as locals. That’s life. I didn’t get worked up over it because I wasn’t concerned so much about what other people were paying so much as what sort of value I was getting out of it. At 100 pounds it was a deal for me, even if someone else got to go for 50. If I hadn’t paid 100, the trip wouldn’t have happened.

The driver was a nice guy and took me to the guesthouse at St. Catherine’s. I was able to get a room for US$25 on the grounds of the monastery. I ended up paying the driver 120 just because I felt bad for what the Germans had done to him. (the poor guy must have felt like Poland). I finally got to go to bed.

I woke up and with all the activity of the night before forgot that I was in the mountains. I opened up the door of my room to see the sun hitting the mountain side right outside my door. It was a beautiful morning. I grabbed my camera and set out to take some photos of St. Catherine’s (a World Heritage Site) before I took the bus to Dahab. I walked around outside the walls of the monastery for a bit only to be denied entrance to the grounds of the monastery itself. In all the commotion I had forgotten it was Sunday. It was closed.

So far for those of you keeping score, we have a broken ferry, cheap ass Germans and a closed monastery. Now I had to decide what to do. I could stay another day and wait for the grounds to open on Monday, or I could just go to Dahab. I picked Dahab. Unfortunately, there was one bit of information I didn’t know. Dahab wasn’t the launching point for the ferry to Jordan. That was further north in Nuweiba. There were also no buses running so I ended up just taking another private car (this time the cost was totally on my shoulders) to go to the ferry terminal. I made the executive decision to cut my Egypt losses short and just go to Jordan today.

I get to Nuweiba and find out that the cost of a ticket for foreigners is US$75, which seemed really expensive. I arrived at 1pm and the boat was leaving at 3pm, so I paid the ticket (there was really no other way to get to Jordan) and set out to wait at the terminal. I met an Australian guy who was on my bus going to Abu Simbel and we chatted up. I also met some Canadians and Americans. Eventually it was time to get on the ferry. All the foreigners loaded on to a bus and went to the boat.

Just then we heard a siren and a convoy of Land Rovers and back Mercedes. Some government official, of which country I don’t know, wanted to take the ferry. The bus stopped and we waited for the official to get on the boat. As it turns out, not only was the loading delayed, the entire trip was canceled because the official wanted to take the whole ferry for himself and his entourage. WHAT. A. DICK.

Several hundred people including tourists from every major country on Earth were stranded so Senior Minister Abdul El Dickhead could travel without having to sit next to other people. That is a microcosm is what is wrong with Egypt. This wasn’t planned before hand. We were literally about to start boarding the ship when this guy showed up.

So back to the holding pen we go.

Eventually at 5:30pm, the boat has returned and we start the boarding process again. There was nothing about this entire process which made sense. We spent 90 minutes on the boat before we left. We (foreigners) had our passports checked 3 times on the boat, each time they looked for the exact same thing. They had a desk to get Jordanian stamps on the boat, which at first made sense, but they just took my passport and told me they would give it back when we arrived in Aqaba.

The passport process in Jordan was a mess. They tended to give preference to processing the tourists and less to processing the Egyptian men on the boat. They took our passports on the boat and then gave us a slip of paper to get our passports back later.

I am now in Aqaba where I am going to stay for two days to take care of some stuff. I have a box of stuff I want to mail out, a ton of emails to answer as well as some things to do on the website. The next week will take me to one of the new seven wonders of the world; Petra. I will also be going to Wadi Rum which is sort of exciting because Lawrence of Arabia is my favorite movie.