Aqaba, Petra, Wadi Rum: A Magical Mystical Day

Where to begin? Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll be given a gift, a memento, an experience that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Yesterday, AAC and I were given all that – and more.

When we planned this trip almost two years ago, we knew that our visit to Aqaba and, from there, to the lost city of Petra and then to Wadi Rum, would undoubtedly be the highlight. Even our trip last year to Antarctica did not quite match up to our expectations of this journey, which were more than fulfilled.

Aqaba - Arrival
Early morning arrival in Aqaba

Our day began when we docked at Aqaba shortly after 7:00 AM. Because of its strategic location, Aqaba has, for many centuries, been a link in trade routes from Asia to Africa and, also, as a rest stop for pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Many moviegoers will remember Aqaba as a major location in the film, Lawrence of Arabia, which depicted the history of the Arab Revolt, almost exactly 100 years ago. The first half of the film, in fact, relates how the Arabs hatched a daring and unexpected plan to take this stronghold by attacking from the desert, rather than from the sea.

When you enter the port of Aqaba, you’ll see an immense flag atop a 400 foot flagpole – it is the flag of the Arab Revolt.

Aqaba - Departure - Arab Revolt Flag

Because Seabourn Encore was in port for only 11 hours, we elected to take a private excursion to insure that we had sufficient time to visit both Petra and Wadi Rum. The driving time alone from Aqaba to Petra was at least 2 hours, another 90 minutes from there to Wadi Rum and, finally, another hour back to the ship. As our excursion was scheduled to last about 9½ hours, that left 5 hours for seeing the sights – an almost impossibly short amount of time.

Our car was waiting for us as we disembarked the ship. The weather was absolutely perfect: warm, but not hot and a crystal clear blue sky. A quick introduction to our guide, Aziz, our driver Mustafa, and we were off.

Aqaba Jordan Map
A map of Jordan showing Aqaba, Petra and Wadi Rum

Petra - AAC Aziz Mustafa
The A Team: Aziz (our guide), Mustafa (our driver) and AAC, CPA

In order to keep this entry manageable and so I can share lots of photos with you, my narrative today will be brief. Here’s what you should know about Petra:

Designated as a UNESCO world Heritage site in 1985, Petra is one of the world’s richest and most unique archeological sites. In order to access the city, you must proceed through a narrow gorge (sometimes only 10 feet wide) called the Bab as-Siq (“Gateway of the Gorge”) which is about a mile in length. While most visitors will walk the gorge, others will choose to travel by donkey or by horse-drawn carriage – and they don’t stop for pedestrians, so be prepared to get out of the way.

Petra was founded by a mysterious nomadic tribe called the Nabateans, who began a gradual migration from Arabia during the 6th century BC. It is thought that, at one time, they lived near Yemen for reasons that will be explained. Because of the relative protection of the Bab as-Siq, they settled in what was to become Petra sometime around 312 BC. The city the Nabateans were to create was carved from solid sandstone. Being in a totally isolated location created many challenges, most especially, creating a viable system to collect and distribute water, and this is where the Nabatean’s connection to Yemen becomes apparent: It is thought that they learned from the Yemenites how to excel in matters of water conservation, became highly skilled water engineers, and were able to irrigate the city with an extensive system of dams, canals and reservoirs.

Of equal importance, the Nabateans constructed a wall to fortify the city, notwithstanding the fact that Petra was almost (but not completely) defended by the surrounding sandstone mountains.

What made the Nabateans the envy of the region was their reputation as incredibly talented traders, who facilitated commerce between China, India, the Far East, Egypt, Syria, Greece and, even, Rome.

The Nabateans prevailed at Petra for many centuries. Although not militarily strong, they found a way, through cunning negotiation, to survive one way or another. It wasn’t until 106 AD that the Romans claimed the Nabatean Kingdom, which they renamed Arabia Petrea. Eventually the city fell into obscurity, known only to the Bedouins, until it was discovered by Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Although the city had fallen into disrepair over the centuries, it wasn’t until over 100 years later – in 1929 – that a team, consisting of folklore expert, Dr. Tawfiq Canaan, Danish scholar, Dr. Ditlef Nielsen and British archeologists Agnes Conway and George Horsfield, began the arduous process of excavating and surveying Petra. 

Excavations have continued over the past century and important discoveries have been found as recently as 2004. 

OK – enough of that. Let’s get to the pictures!

Petra Siq - 03 - AAC Aziz
Aziz leading the way; AAC, CPA following

Petra Siq - 02
Entering the Bab as-Siq: one mile through the gorge to Petra

Petra Siq - 04
The continually changing and surprising Siq

Petra Siq - 05

Petra Siq - 07 - Sculpture
One of many carvings found along the way

Finally, we come to a narrow passage with something in front of us:

Our exit from the Siq and entrance into Petra

(I shot that video myself!)

I would have to say that that short walk of about 100 or so feet from the Siq into the city was one of the most impressive that I’ve ever taken. As you can see, the first site you view when stepping into the city is the iconic Treasury.

Petra - 02 - Treasury

Petra - 01 - AAC Treasury
AAC, CPA in front of the Treasury

Petra - 06 - Cave Colors
Extraordinary colors in the sandstone at Petra – all natural

The Nabateans were heavily influenced by the Greeks and built an amphitheater at which the great Greek plays would be performed.

Petra - 08 - Amiptheater
The amphitheater at Petra

Petra - 09 - Tombs
The royal tombs

Petra - 10 - Camels
Camels are available for riding

We spent about an hour walking around and seeing the various sites of this amazing city.

Then it was time to retrace our steps through the Siq, have a quick lunch and head towards our next stop, Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum – Valley of the Moon – is located in Southern Jordan and lies about 37 miles east of Aqaba. Going all the way back to prehistoric times, it has been inhabited by many different cultures – including the Nabateans. Today is it home almost exclusively to the Zalabia Bedouin. Again, thanks to the worldwide popularity of the film Lawrence of Arabia, Wadi Rum is the 2nd most popular tourist attraction (after, of course, Petra). In the movie, Wadi Rum was depicted as the summer camp of the great Howeitat warrior, Auda Abu Tayi. Auda was, in fact, a significant player in the Arab revolt as his tribesmen were thought to be the fiercest fighters in the desert. 

Auda Abu Tayi - 2
Famed Howeitat chieftain: Auda Abu Tayi

But enough of Auda – back to Wadi Rum. From Petra, we drove for almost 90 minutes before arriving at the Visitors Center at Wadi Rum. You can see the wadi as you approach and it’s everything you imagined it would be – and more.

To get around the wadi, we transferred to what appeared to be a 4-wheel pickup truck. Our driver and Aziz sat in the front and we were in the back. We were shaded by a blanket and there were 2 metal-type benches on either side of the truck with some upholstered padding. Once we got settled in, we were off.

Wadi Rum - 09 - Truck
Our transportation which transported us through Wadi Rum

We were grateful for the padding, but there were a lot of bumps and bouncing around during our time in the wadi – and it was totally worth it.

The weather was absolutely perfect: bright blue skies, temperatures around 80 degrees and a moderate breeze, which kept us cool and comfortable.

From the valley floor, you are astounded at the height of the many rock formations. The highest of them, Jabal Umm ad Dami is over 6,000 feet high. The wadi floor is already at an elevation of 2,000 feet.

Our first stop, less than 10 minutes from where we started, was directly in front of, arguably, the most famous site at Wadi Rum: the rock formation popularly known as Seven Pillars of Wisdom (taken from Lawrence’s epic account of the Arab Revolt):

Wadi Rum - 02 - MAJESTIC
We were literally several hundred feet away from this famed formation

Just behind us was a sandy path leading several hundred feet up to a perfect spot for viewing the entire area.

Wadi Rum - 04A - AAC Climbs
AAC, CPA climbs in the sand (our truck below him in the distance)

Wadi Rum - 06 - MAJESTIC HEIGHT
The view from the top – our truck is far below in the distance

360 Degrees of Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum - 08 - AAC Desert
AAC, CPA climbing down from the heights

Notice, if you will, that we seem to be completely alone in the wadi – for almost the entire time we were there, it was as if Wadi Rum was this well-kept secret just for us (and the few people we met there).

Wadi Rum - 07 - Desert Sagebrush
Desert sagebrush: so reminiscent of desert scenes in Lawrence of Arabia

Once we climbed back down to the wadi, we drove on for about 10 minutes to another site.

Wadi Rum - 11 - Graffiti
This graffiti – found on a rock formation – was a way for caravans
to communicate with one another

Wadi Rum - 03 - AAC Aziz Truck
AAC, CPA and our intrepid guide, Aziz

We next stopped at a functioning Bedouin camp. When researching our excursion to Wadi Rum, I came across many references to this visit, and I was somewhat hesitant, as it seemed like a really touristy thing to do (which turned out not to be the case at all).

Wadi Rum - 13 - Lawrence Frieze
At the entrance to the camp, we discovered this frieze of T.E. Lawrence,
dating back to 1917 – the height of the Arab Revolt

From there, it was a few steps to the Bedouin tent.

Wadi Rum - 14 - Bedouin Camp Entrance
Aziz and AAC, CPA enter the Bedouin tent

We were welcomed and offered a refreshing and stimulating glass of herbal tea. The tea was being brewed in what appeared to be a wood-burning fire pit. 

Wadi Rum - 14A - Bedouin Camp - Stove
The “stove” inside the Bedouin tent

Except for the footwear being worn by the Bedouins (Nikes, perhaps?), we felt that it could have been 100 or 300 years ago, sitting in this tent, sipping hot tea, relaxing. Our hosts asked for nothing, would not accept our money for the tea, and were happy for us to stay for as long as we liked. In full disclosure, there was a table of wares and souvenirs close by, but no reference was made to them, nor were we encouraged to look at them. I believe that it would have been considered bad manners if our hosts were to make an issue of it.

Wadi Rum - 17 - Bedouin AAC Aziz and more
Our driver chats with one of the Bedouins, Aziz and AAC, CPA
contemplate their tea

After awhile, we thanked our hosts and took our leave. AAC, CPA and I climbed into the back of the truck for the last time and we headed back to the Visitor’s Center. We took a slightly different route, which enabled us to see more of the rock formations.

Wadi Rum - 19 - AAC in Truck Alternate
AAC, CPA in the back of the truck, taking in the wondrous sites of Wadi Rum

And then, we were at the back of the Visitors Center and pouring desert sand out of our shoes. It was now time to return to the ship and reflect upon the day’s activities.

The drive back to Aqaba took about an hour and it was now very quiet in the car, each of us lost in our own thoughts and reminiscences. 

For myself, I am keenly aware of how lucky I’ve been to be able to have these kinds of experiences. When we were planning this excursion, it was very important that we would be able to visit both Petra and Wadi Rum. We were well aware that yesterday might have been our only opportunity to get to these landmark places.

If you were to ask me which one was my favorite, I realize that it would not be difficult to answer. Petra was as I expected it to be: a miracle of construction and execution, dating back over 2,000 years. But the thing about Wadi Rum, which will stay with me for the rest of my life is that it felt like it was in existence just for us. If you can imagine this vast space, which was totally quiet and devoid of all life, except for the four of us and the few Bedouins we met along the way, it was mystical in a way.

And then it occurred to me that this is the very place where world history has happened, not just Lawrence and Auda a hundred years ago, but prophets and characters from the bible whose footprints were in the very same sand where AAC, CPA and I walked yesterday. The desert has always been a mystical and spiritual place, where great men and heroes have trod. While I am not particularly religious, I do have faith, and it’s easy to understand that momentous events have taken place in this very spot. 

I know that we each have our own bucket list items, but I would strongly encourage you to make an addendum to your list and include Wadi Rum and Petra. It’s an arduous journey, and you will not regret it at all.

Wadi Rum - 12 - MAJESTIC from Truck
One last look at Wadi Rum from the back of the truck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On the Road Again – Part Three

Greetings from the Concorde Room at JFK, which is the 1st class lounge for British Airways passengers. The great thing about this lounge is that you can have a lovely dinner on the ground before you board your flight. We’ve just finished a 3-course meal and have about an hour before we board our flight to London Heathrow (which you probably already know).

Before we got to the airport, though, here’s our intrepid AAC, CPA with the baggage (no, not me), whilst waiting for our car to arrive:

227
AAC, CPA with the bags

CONCORDE ROOM ENTRANCE
The dapper (and hungry) AAC, CPA arrives at the Concorde Room

The meal was quite delicious:

Artichoke
A grilled artichoke and frisee salad for AAC, CPA

Gravlax
A delicious gravlax with pickled fennel and lemon Greek yogurt for me

Sirloin
We both had the Szechuan Crusted NY Sirloin with Sauteed Baby Bok Choy

Mille Feuille
And we each had the Raspberry Mille Feuille with White Chocolate Ice Cream

Each course came with the appropriate wine pairings and we are both now very relaxed and satisfied. Can’t wait to board the plane and climb under the covers!

Getting back to business:

Now that I’ve told you about how we’re getting to Dubai and also about Seabourn Encore, I thought you might like to know our cruise itinerary. Although there are 9 sea days – the entire cruise is 19 days! – it is, especially for us, port intensive. And all of them are new to us, so it’s a good thing that we’ve done our homework and brought along sensible shoes!

We will sail from Dubai next Monday at approximately 5:00 PM. Here’s a look at our cruise itinerary:

Cruise Itinerary
Map courtesy of Seabourn

As you can see, our first stop will be Doha, Qatar. One of the things we were most looking forward to seeing was to visit the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by the renowned architect, I.M. Pei. As luck would have it, the museum is closed on Tuesdays which is, of course, the day we’ll be in port. (Grrrrr.) We will, however, most likely visit the famous Souq Waqif, the central market, which has served the city for many centuries. If falconry is your thing, the Falcon Souq is just next door!

Doha - Museum of Islamic Art - IM Pei
I.M. Pei designed the Museum of Islamic Art – closed on Tuesdays!

Doha - Souq Waqif
The Souq Waqif – centuries old

Following our depature from Doha, we’ll enjoy our first day at sea (my fave!)

Our next port is Muscat, Oman, the “Pearl of Mystic Arabia”. Muscat is a city of untold riches, as personified by such sites as the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and the recently built Muscat Royal Opera House, which attracts many of the world’s finest singers. Unfortunately, there will be no performances while we’re in town, but we hope to take a tour and see the opera house for ourselves.

Muscat - Sultan Taymoor Grand Mosque
The fantastic Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

Muscat - Royal Opera House
The Muscat Royal Opera House

Muscat - Royal Opera House Interior
Interior of the Opera House

Following another sea day, we land in Salalah, Oman’s ancient incense capital and an oasis of lush vegetation, unlike the otherwise arid landscapes of the Arabian peninsula. One of the excursions offered will include a visit to Job’s tomb: a sacred site of pilgrimage for Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike.

Salalah
Salalah, Oman

SONY DSC
A sacred biblical site: Job’s tomb

Once we depart from Salalah, we will then have 5 full sea days, giving us a chance to become really well acquainted with Encore and its passengers and crew. Hopefully, we’ll have good internet service during those seas days so that I can keep you up to date with all of our on board adventures.

Our next port – and the highlight of the trip for us – is Aqaba, Jordan which, for those of you who are Lawrence of Arabia fans, played a major role in the Arab revolt during World War I. Nowadays, the port serves as Jordan’s only deep water port and, as important, is the place from which you can get to Petra, the country’s most important historical attraction.

Because we are in port for only 11 hours, it was necessary for us to book a private car and guide, as we wanted to visit not only Petra but, also, Wadi Rum, which was also one of the primary locations in Lawrence of Arabia. This excursion will be very intensive, but also very exciting.

Long considered the Lost City, Petra is one of the most spectacular sights in all antiquity, a city carved out of solid sandstone, and lost to all but the most intrepid Bedouins until 1812, and excavation of the site didn’t begin until more than a full century later. To get to the main city, you walk on foot (or via a horse-drawn carriage for hire) through a narrow gorge, a mile-long siq. We’re told that a vist to Petra is an experience that you will not easily forget.

Petra Souq
You walk through the extremely narrow siq to get to Petra

Petra Treasury
Petra’s most famous landmark – the Treasury, carved out of sandstone

Once we’ve visited Petra, we’ll return through the gorge to our waiting car. As time is so short, we’ll have a box lunch en route to our next site, the majestic Wadi Rum, about an hour away. Indeed, we’ll be transported back to the time of T.E. Lawrence, Auda Abu Tayi, Prince Faisal and the fearless Bedouins who particpated in the Arab Revolt.

Wadi Rum
The majestic Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum - TE Lawrence
Memorial Carving of T.E. Lawrence at Wadi Rum

Following our visit to Wadi Rum, it’s back to the ship. I believe that this excursion will be one of the most memorable we’ve ever experienced.

Another sea day and, then, the ship will transit the Suez Canal. Having already been through the Panama Canal a few years ago, it will be very interesting to compare and contrast the experience. 

Suez Canal opening
The Suez Canal opened to traffic in 1869Suez Canal Modern
A more modern look at the Suez Canal

The following day, we land at Ashdod, the largest port in Israel and the main gateway to Jerusalem. From the port, it’s about a 75-minute drive (in good traffic!) to this sacred city. Again, because time is short, we’ve elected to hire a car and guide/driver to take us from the ship through the Judean Hills to Jerusalem. I visited Israel many years ago (let’s just say not in this millennium) but AAC, CPA has never been. So I’ve chosen what I believe to be the most important sites for us to see: the Old City (in quadrants for the many faiths who live and worship there), the Wailing Wall (the holiest Jewish site in the World) and the Dome of the Rock (the holiest of all Muslim shrines). 

AShdod
The port city of Ashdod, Israel

Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount
Jerusalem

Thanks to our good friend, Yaniv, who has been so generous in suggesting things to do while we’re in Israel, we’ve also scored a reservation for lunch at one of the city’s finest restaurants, Machneyuda, adjacent to the world-famous Mahane Yehuda Market. It seems that Israel has become a place for foodies!

Machneyuda
Machneyuda for lunch!

Mahane Yehuda Market
The Mahane Yehuda Market next door

After our return to the ship, Encore will reposition over to Haifa, Israel’s primary port and located about an hour away (by train) from Tel Aviv. AAC CPA and I have decided that we’ll venture out on our own, starting with a train ride and then visiting Yafo (Jaffa), the Old City, much of which has become a cultural enclave and also has wonderful cafes and restaurants. 

Tel Aviv - Yaffo
Yafo

So we’ll spend our day in Tel Aviv strolling around the city and taking in the sights. Then we’ll get back on the train to Haifa and return to the ship.

Another sea day and then we’ll travel to the Greek Islands. We’ll visit two ports: Rhodes and Santorini, both of which have rich histories and are extremely picturesque. Although excursions are available, I think we’ll opt for “independent activities”, checking out the sites, taking in the cafes, and just soaking up the atmosphere.

Rhodes
Rhodes

Santorini
The magical island of Santorini

We’ll depart Santorini late in the afternoon – it’s our last port and we’ll sail over to Piraeus (Athens), where we’ll disembark after our 19-day adventure aboard the beautiful Seabourn Encore and transfer to Athens International for our flights home – and to reality – and to getting on the scale to see how much damage we’ve done. 🙂

How lucky are we that we get to travel to these fabulous places? Stay tuned for my reports as we experience them.