Saturday, December 25, 2010

Day 2 – A quick detour to Jordan

I woke up at 5 am, apparently totally caught up with jet lag, and promptly started making preparations for the trip to Jordan. I wanted to have a cup of coffee, but apparently Cairo is one of those cities that wakes up late and all of a sudden, so I walked and walked looking in vain for a small café. At last I flagged down a taxi and went to the airport, where the cup of coffee was both too small and too expensive.

A totally uneventful flight brought me to the Amman airport, in Jordan, by 9:30 am. I innocently thought that half an hour would be enough to get through immigration, in perfect time to meet my rental car at 10 am. Alas, it was not to be. Jordan requires a visa, which you can buy on arrival, but the line was super long and super slow, and as soon as it started to move out would pop at the front of the line a “coyote” or dragoman, with the passports of about 20 people, and all progress ground to a halt. The phenomenon of the dragoman is pervasive in Egypt and Jordan, perpetuated by generations of parasite tourists, who would rather pay an extra charge than make line like we regular people.

So it was not until 11 am that I came out of the customs area, and found no Budget person waiting for me. I went to information and was told that the man was around. Then his buddy from Thrifty called him and found out he had gone back to Amman, and would not be back for about half an hour or an hour. I was clearly ticked off, and went to see if other cars were available at Avis or Europcar. Nothing. It turns this week is a big Muslim holiday and all cars are out. More grumbling on my part, but at least time has passed so the Budget man must be forthcoming. Ah, here is the man from the info booth: “The Budget man called to say he is not coming.” Great! One of his buddies probably saw me asking around, passed the word, and the other bum decided not to interrupt his holiday for an ingrate like me. I am screwed. I went as far as asking this girl who was renting a car if she would consider taking a passenger, but she was not going to Petra.

OK, back in the prowl I cornered the Alamo/National man. Yes, they had a car, but because of the holiday I would have to rent it for four days. Fine, the cost of the rental just doubled but what is one to do? So I go for it, it takes a while to get the car, we sign the papers, and then I learn that I have to pay the bringing of the car to the airport and then the taking it back from the airport to Amman. 50 Jordan dinars! (Something like 75 dollars!) This trip is definitely coming at a pretty price.

Finally I am on my way. It is 12:15, and I feel that precious exploration time has been wasted at the airport. Now I have to drive like a maniac to make up for the lost time. I am going over totally desolate desert, where very few have been foolhardy enough to settle. Looking over the rear mirror I see a sandstorm following close on my heells. It looks like a scene from The Mummy, where the evil wind drives a sandstorm that obliterates everything on its path. When it catches up with me visibility drops to just a couple of meters and I am forced to stop at the side of the road. Fortunately I was detained for just a couple of minutes.

I finally got to Petra at 3 pm. In my original plan I was going to have lunch before visiting the site, and maybe book a hotel, but I am anxious about the lost time and decide to make a beeline to the site.

And then I went into a different world. Imagine, if you please, a narrow canyon carved in a massive, cross bedded sandstone, not unlike the Navajo Sandstone in Zion National Park. The sandstone forms very tall vertical cliffs, which host the necropolis of Petra. The narrow canyon eventually opens into a valley with a flat, broad bottom, but still surrounded by majestic cliffs. This is where the city proper stood.

Petra became an important cultural center after Alexander the Great added the Middle East to the Macedonian empire, sometime around 300 BC. It flourished in the centuries that followed as a Greco-Roman metropolis under the Nabatean kings (people from the Arabian Peninsula who adopted the Greco-Roman ways with a remarkable ease; I also see some Mesopotamian influences). A big earthquake around 400 AD severely damaged it, leaving behind domino-like piles of collapsed columns, and by 500 AD the city had been abandoned. It had a renaissance between 700 and 1000 AD, when a Byzantine church was built over the Greco-Roman temples, and no doubt some of the tombs were used for Christian gatherings (there is in fact a series of arches that were added to one of the big temples during Byzantine times).

The city itself reminded me of Efesus, with its main walking avenue surrounded by columns, shops, fountains and palaces; its auditorium carved on the rock sandstone, and its magnificent view of the valley. On the other hand, the Nabatean kings were strongly influenced by the Egyptians, and were big into excavating monumental tombs for themselves, at the base of the cliffs of the necropolis. It is these tombs that we see in the much admired “churches” carved out of the rock (see, for example, the “church” where Indiana Jones found the cup of Christ in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” Truth is, there was never a church at this place, but just the elegant tomb of one of the Nabatean kings. The problem is that they used the level of the wadi (the Arabic word for the Spanish arroyo) to carve the entrance of the tombs, and centuries of flash floods and relentless weathering have covered many of the tomb entrances and defaced the elegant facades, giving Petra the patina of antiquity that makes it such a magic place. There are also fine examples of flood deposits inside the tombs!

It was dark by the time I got out of the site, so I had to move quickly. As I said this is a big holiday week, and all hotels are full. But I have a nose for these things, and pretty deftly booked what I believe was the last free room in town. Dinner was a modest but tasty affair. I was lured to the Cleopetra Restaurant by the brightly illuminated porch, but it was the smiling and polite propietaire who talked me into it. His vest looked a bit the worse for ware, but the colorful buffet was exactly what my starving stomach needed, and I was happy to help myself to three servings of the most varied of dishes: falafel with cucumber and tomatoes, hummus, tabouli, rice with aubergines, grilled chicken, lentil soup, and many types of salads and vegetables. Simple, but it was exactly what I needed to make up for the missed breakfast and lunch.

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