Wednesday, April 05, 2023

The Wonders of Egypt and Jordan - Day 13: The Dead Sea

Lounging on the Shores of the Dead Sea

It seemed somehow weirdly appropriate that we were spending the final day of our journey at the Dead Sea, a name that has a tinge of finality to it.

Salt flats around the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth.

The Dead Sea lies in the Jordan Rift Valley and the border between Jordan and Israel runs right through the middle of the lake.  The lake’s surface is 1,412 feet (430.5 meters) below sea level, making it the lowest land on our planet.  It is currently 31 miles (50 kilometers) long and 9 miles (15 kilometers wide), although since 1960, when some of the water of its only tributary, the Jordan River, was diverted for human use, the lake been shrinking noticeably. 

It has been known as a dead sea for millennia.  The Arabian name is Al-Bahr Al-Mayyit, meaning Sea of Death.  The Romans called it Mare Mortuum.  The name is very apt. The water is almost ten times saltier than the ocean, and the only living things in the lake are tiny amounts of bacteria and microbial fungi.  But it is filled with minerals – potash, bromine, magnesium, sodium chloride.

Because of these minerals and the almost always sunny climate, it was well-known in the ancient world for its healing properties.  One of the earliest health resorts in history sat on its banks and was used by Herod the Great. Visitors still come here for the mud baths at resorts along its shore.

The first third of our two-hour ride from Petra to our last stop wound through the mountains with some magnificent views of the sandstone hills and valleys.  After a quick stop at an overlook of the low, flat landscape below, we headed down the steep mountains toward the Dead Sea.

The long and winding road

Our first view of the Jordan Rift Valley

At the overlook

Once we reached the valley floor, we drove through an agricultural landscape with date palms and fields of tomatoes.  All along the road, young men were selling huge bins of tomatoes for $1.00.  We occasionally had to slow down to avoid the sheep being herded down the road.

Sheep on the highway

Tomatoes spilled in the dirt

One of the small towns along the shores of the Dead Sea

Agriculture in the valley

Soon we reached the shores of the Dead Sea.  The not particularly attractive southern section was lined with mining operations and machinery, but as we moved north, the industry was replaced by a few resorts on the banks of the bright blue water. 

Mining operations along the southern shores of the Dead Sea

Our hotel, the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar, is close to the northern tip of the Dead Sea, not far from where the Jordan River empties into the lake.  The hotel was spectacular, built on several levels with bright gold sandstone blocks, several pools, restaurants, and lounges.  We happily settled into our room, which had a terrace with a great view of the lake and the Israeli-occupied West Bank of Palestine directly across from us.  About twenty miles beyond the West Bank were the hills of Jerusalem, and the ancient city of Jericho lay to the northwest of us in the valley. What a historic landscape!

The view from our terrace of the Kempinski Ishtar Hotel

Joan on the terrace

Rooms and walkways around the hotel

One of several buildings of rooms

The grounds of the hotel

One of the several pools

The Infinity Pool above the Dead Sea

Lounge Chairs at the Infinity Pool

The Wading Pool

Yet another pool at the hotel

We walked through the large grounds of the hotel to the restaurant just above the lake where we enjoyed a delicious lunch, including one of the best treats of the entire trip, a “Green Gazpacho” soup made of cucumber, green apple, mint, and lemon.  (When we got home, I tried to duplicate it.  My efforts were okay, but I’m going to keep experimenting until I get it right!)

The Akkad Pool and Grill Restaurant

Inside seating at the Akkad Restaurant

Green Gazpacho Soup - YUM!

Fresh Mediterranean cuisine

Fresh fish - but not from the Dead Sea!

As gorgeous as the hotel was, it was really just a spot to relax before our long journey home.  We spent the afternoon sitting pool-side, exploring the various pools and artwork of the hotel, and packing our bags.  (My clothes always seem to gain weight on our trips.  My suitcase never packs quite as flat as when we started.  It's a mystery!) 

The fearless birds have learned that tourists leave crumbs.

Sculpture garden over the Dead Sea

One of the lobbies in the hotel

Blue and purple orchids

A 700-year-old olive tree

Sculpture in the main lobby

We had been told that we would be able to see the lights of Jerusalem from our room, and sure enough, there were city lights far off in the distance over the lake.  A beautiful sight for our last evening of the trip.

The lights of Jerusalem

We woke before sunrise for our 5:30 a.m. drive to the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, only about an hour away.  The plane ride home was long, with transfers in London and Phoenix, but since the first two flights took place in daylight, I got a lovely view of icy Hudson Bay as we passed over.

Queen Alia International Airport in Amman

Hudson Bay in February

I enjoy checking out our progress on the flight map.

It was a very long day, but as is always true on our homeward journey, our heads were filled with wonderful memories from another wonderful trip.
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Sunday, April 02, 2023

The Wonders of Egypt and Jordan - Day 12: The Rose City of Petra

 February 21, 2023

The Rose City of Petra

Most of us know that there were Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  On the very first day of this trip, we had seen the only one of them still standing, the Great Pyramid of Giza.  (And a few days later, we stood on the very spot where another of them - Pharos, the Lighthouse of Alexandria - had once shone its great light.)

But did you know that there are Seven New Wonders of the World?  The seven were chosen by tens of million voters in an online survey done by a Swiss organization, “The New 7 Wonders Foundation.”  And today, Rob and I visited one of them – the ancient city of Petra. 

Al-Kahzneh, the "Treasury," is the most famous building in Petra,
but there was so much more!

All I really knew about Petra was that it had a beautiful building carved right into the face of a cliff.  Our visit revealed so much more! This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the greatest archaeological treasures in the world.   It sits in a valley midway between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea, its ancient populations protected by high walls of sandstone mountains on all sides. And those mountains were covered with carved buildings!

We woke up early and met our guide, Samir, immediately after breakfast in a not entirely successful attempt to beat the crowds.  The entry gates into Petra were across the street from our hotel.  We entered, dashed through the gauntlet of the vendors hawking their souvenirs from the row of stalls, then headed down the dusty road toward the ancient settlement.

The entrance to the archaeological site of Petra

The road to Petra in the early morning.

My first hints that there were some unexpected marvels here came in the Bab as-Siq, which means “gateway to the Siq."  We first passed by the "Djinn Blocks," which are large funerary monuments.  They get their nickname from a Bedouin belief that they were inhabited by djinn.  Just beyond was a double tomb - the Obelisk Tomb above and Triclinium below.  The Triclinium still contains the stone benches that were used for funerary feasts.

The Djinn Blocks

The Obelisk Tomb and Triclinium

The Obelisk Tomb sits above the Triclinium

Soon we entered the Siq, the long, narrow gorge that winds through a deep canyon, cut by rain and wind, to the valley below.  Sandstone hills loomed up to 240 feet on either side of us, and there were a multitude of man-made caves, temples, inscriptions, and other decorations carved into the sandstone walls.  As we walked, Samir shared some of the history of Petra. It is believed that humans have lived in this area for about 7,000 years, but the golden age of Petra was between the 2nd C. B.C. through the end of the 1st C. A.D.  The city was home to between 20,000 and 30,000 people, the Nabataeans, who carved these gorgeous monuments and tombs.  Under the Nabataeans, Petra thrived as a major stop on the “Incense Route,” the trading route that carried frankincense and myrrh, spices, pearls, and other luxury goods between the Roman Empire and Asia.

Entering the Siq

Products of the ancient "Incense Route" are still sold in Petra.

I loved the long walk through the Siq.  Petra’s nickname is “The Rose City” due to the vivid pink shade of many of the rock walls, although for me, one of the most striking and beautiful things about Petra were the many colors, greys, purples, blacks, and browns streaking through those rocks, and the way they glowed bright gold in the sunlight.

Joan and Rob in the Siq

The Siq winds through the natural passageways cut by water, wind, and sand.

The black lines in the rock are evidence of ancient volcanic eruptions.

The pink sandstone that gives "The Rose City" its name.

The pinks and greys give the smooth rock a marble-like effect.

Pinks, golds, and browns streak through the rock walls

Pinks and purples chiseled by human hands

Samir had grown up here and was proud to show us his knowledge of some of the secrets of the canyon unnoticed by many of the other visitors – the profile of a face in one cliffside, a rock that looked like a fish from the side but an elephant from straight on, and the remains of a sculpture showing a camel caravan.  During the 1st C. A.D., Petra became a “client state” of the Roman Empire, and we could still see remnants of the stone road the Romans had laid down on the passage through the Siq. 

The profile of a face in the passage

The profile of a fat fish becomes...

...the face of an elephant when viewed from the front!

The remnants of a sculpture of a trader and his camel

The Romans laid this ancient cobblestone road. They eventually annexed Petra.

More remnants of the Roman road

This is an arid climate, so, in addition to their architectural skills, the Nabataeans became amazing water conservationists.  They carved or built long channels along the walls of the Siq and filled these channels with clay pipes that carried the water to the valley below for irrigation.  But this canyon could be a dangerous place in the rain, as flash floods would turn it into a raging river, so the Nabataeans built small dams to stem the flow of water from the numerous smaller gorges on the sides of the canyon. 

Water channel

Water channels carved out on either side of the Siq.

These fitted clay pipes that used to lie in the channels were displayed in the Petra Museum

One of the many dams that prevented water from flowing into the Siq

One of the several small canyons that needed a dam to prevent flooding

My heart beat faster when, through the opening in the passage at the end of the Siq, we caught the first glimpse of the monument that draws most visitors to Petra – Al-Khazneh or “The Treasury.”  We emerged from the canyon into a large square filled with visitors, souvenir vendors, and Bedouins offering photo opportunities with the many camels lying patiently on the ground. 

First peek at Al-Khazneh, the Treasury

Happy Travelers at Al-Khazneh

The busy square in front of Al-Khazneh

Some of the many camels in the square

Rob makes friends with a sweet-looking camel.

Tourists could buy camel rides throughout the square and the rest of the site.

Al-Khazneh, or "The Treasury," is one of the best preserved of all the monuments in Petra.  It is the mausoleum of King Aretes IV, the king who ruled here from 9 B.C. to 40 A.D. during the period of the construction of the most notable monuments of Petra.  The Treasury got its nickname because of the mistaken belief that it was filled with a pharaoh’s hidden treasure. The orb sitting at the top center of the building became the focus for the treasure hunters and is pocked with bullet holes, but actually, the orb is a solid funerary urn.  The sandstone building is weathered by years of sand and wind, but it is still an impressive sight. 

Details of the upper level of Al-Khazneh, with the orb at the top center

Details of the lower half of Al-Khazneh.  Entry into the tomb was prohibited.

The biggest surprise for me were all of the other tomb facades and other monuments surrounding us here in the square.

A tomb in the great square

Another of the "Djinn Blocks" that are found throughout the site.

My amazement continued throughout the rest of the visit. What a magnificent city this must have been!  Almost every cliff face was carved into temples, tombs, buildings.  The “Tombs of the Royals” filled the cliffside high above us. There were other giant facades around the tombs of other prominent nobles.  One wall was filled with smaller, but beautifully decorated, tombs of the lesser nobles.  And other hills were filled with the simple tombs of the common people.  Because of the Nabataeans’ trade with other cultures, the Treasury and other buildings here showed Hellenistic and Roman influences, including acanthus-topped columns, floral friezes, and figures of Greek gods. 

Samir leads Joan further into the valley

The Tombs of the Royals covered a hillside high above us.
From the left: The Palace Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb, the Silk Tomb, the Urn Tomb

Below the Tombs of the Royals were smaller tombs and dwellings.

The Urn Tomb, one of the Tombs of the Royals

High-ranking people in Nabataean society included governors, high-ranking military officers, priests and wealthy merchants.  Some of their tombs are shown below.

Some cliff faces were completely carved into the facades of tombs of notable people.

There are over 1,000 tombs in Petra.  Most of them do not identify the people who lie within.

The tall Uneishu Tomb to the left is one of the few identified as belonging to a particular family. Uneishu was the head minister to Queen Shaqilat II.

A donkey and camels take advantage of the shade provided by one of the tombs.

The "Street of Facades" is believed to be one of the oldest burial sites in Petra

Tombs of the common people dotted the rocks all over the site.

Visitors visit the empty tombs.

The valley was not just full of ancient and silent buildings.  It was bustling with life, and we enjoyed watching the tourists, Bedouins with their camels, donkeys, and horses, stalls selling souvenirs and scarves, goats grazing on the hillside. 

Vendors selling souvenirs in front of the ancient tombs

A Bedouin and his donkey in front of the Street of Facades

A herd of goats on the hillside

An ancient way of life connects with modern life in Petra

An ancient pistachio tree 

Halfway down the valley, we stopped at a small shop to rehydrate.

As we walked further into the wide valley, the Roman influence became more evident.  The amphitheater resembles a Roman theater, except the Nabataeans carved it into the stone, as they did their other monuments.  The Great Temple is free-standing, but strongly resembled Greek and Roman ruins we had seen in other places.   And in front of the Great Temple stands Temenos Gate, constructed during the reign of Hadrian or Trajan after Rome annexed Petra in 106 A.D.

The Theater is carved into the cliffside.

The Street of Colonnades

The Great Temple shows Hellenistic and Roman influences

The remains of the Great Temple

We climbed the stairs to the upper levels of the Great Temple to explore.

The upper terrace of the Great Temple

I wondered what the creature atop this column was meant to be...

...until I saw one of the originals in the Petra elephant!

The Temenos Gate (AKA Hadrian's Gate) below the Great Temple. 
A temenos is the entry into a sacred place.

Details of the floral decorations on the Temenos Gate

The ruins of the Winged Lion Temple lie across from the Great Temple

Winged Lion Temple

After exploring the Great Temple, we continued to the last large monument in the valley, and the best-preserved free-standing building, the Qasr al-Bint Far’un, or Castle of the Pharaoh’s Daughter.  The name was given to the building based on a Bedouin legend, but it is most likely a temple to Dushara, the main god of the Nabataeans.

Qasr al-Bint Far'un

As we finished our explorations, we were approached by eager young men offering to guide us up the 800 steps to the other best-preserved building in the complex, Ad Deir, or “the Monastery.”  Ten years ago, we might have taken on the challenge, but this time, we were content to take a welcome lunch break at the buffet restaurant at the very end of the valley.

Ad Deir, the Monastery, was one of several buildings we did not see for ourselves in our visit.   We learned that there were other buildings hidden up in the hills that we did not have the chance to see, such as the Tomb of the Roman Soldier and the ruins of a Byzantine Church.
Credit: Azurfrog, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons, 

We had a delicious buffet lunch in the restaurant under the red roof.

Rob makes another new friend.  

Following our lunch, more young men gathered around offering donkey rides back to the Treasury.  It was going to be an uphill climb and the day was getting warm, so Rob, who is a great negotiator, haggled for a decent price, and up on the donkeys we climbed!  We had walked farther than I had realized, so it turned out to be a great decision – and a fun one!

A Bedouin and his dogs accompany Rob on his donkey.

The walk back up the Siq went much more quickly than the walk down as we were not stopping to gape at the various sights, but we had not brought water with us, so we were thrilled to find a stand making fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice as we exited the canyon.  What a treat!

Rob heads back into the Siq

Once we were out of the canyon, it was a warm uphill climb.

Thumb up!  We are saved!
This rest stop made one of our favorite drinks - fresh squeezed pomegranate juice!

Weary but happy

The Djinn Blocks were a sign that we were almost back!

We returned to our hotel for a much-needed rest, then I walked back across the street to the small museum filled with artifacts taken from the city.  The informational videos and posters helped me gain a better understanding of the history of Petra, and the artifacts dated all the way from Neolithic time through the Edomites (earlier residents of the valley), the Nabateans, the Romans, the early Christians, and the rise of Islam.  

Here is just a sampling of some of the artifacts dating from the Nabatean Period and gathered from many of the tombs, temples, and homes we had seen today.  

A bust of Dushara, the primary Nabataean god - associated with Zeus

Probably the head of a Nabataean Priest or god

Typical Nabataean column capital

A head of Medusa shows the Hellenistic influence on Nabataean culture and art

This sphinx was found near the Temenos Gate.

A statue of Isis in mourning for Osiris shows the Egyptian influence on the art here.

"Goddess of Hayyan"  This Arabian style goddess was found in the niche of a temple.

Zodiac lamp

A Corinthian-Nabataean column capital with the head of Dionysus and grape vines.

The Petra site includes the ruins of homes and villas in the adjoining hills.  The homes were decorated with colorful plaster.  

Petra was also known for its pottery, and several examples were shown in the museum.

I like this little pottery hedgehog.

Al-Khazneh may be called The Treasury, but the entire site of Petra is a treasure chest of beautiful sights.  Today was one of the highlights of all of our travels.  Now it was time to pack once more for the very last stop on our trip, the Dead Sea.