Out of Amman, past towns and villages with tan hills, little vegetation and no water, we passed trucks carrying tomatoes, tankers with fuel, and small minivans with people. This is the main highway from Amman to Aqaba, Jordan’s only seaport. The hillsides are bare, phosphate mining has marred part of the terrain, snow was in the pass, reminding us of the previous week’s weather. Now it was pleasant.
Our trajectory took to following the railway, which is used now only for cargo. This narrow unique gauge line was established by the Ottomans and was designed to fit no other cars. This is the rail line that Lawrence of Arabia and his rebels attacked. We would soon be in the shifting dunes and sandstone mountains of Wadi Rum, the area of his haunts and where much of the eponymous movie was shot.
A dramatic landscape commands attention. Monolithic rock outcrops, canyons and oases are a window into T.E. Lawrence and his world of the Arab Revolt of World War I. This is the crossroads of the early Silk Route, controlled successively over prehistory, and it is the home of the nomadic Bedouin who know still the tracks and oases. We alighted the travel bus and piled in the back of pickups in fours and sixes heading in a circuit to petroglyphs, Lawrence’s monument and expansive dunes. This taste of the area was astounding. The guides assured us that the nighttime sky is tremendous!
We had to get from Wadi Rum and its maze of dune roads back to the main road and our nighttime destination near Petra, the amazing Taybet Zaman Resort. There we were accommodated in rooms that were once homes of the village of Taybet before they were abandoned to create a village with modern conveniences. The old stone structures were left to their own until the Jordan Tourism Investment Group refurbished the ancient village as a hotel only seven miles form Petra. We stayed two nights.
This was my second visit to Petra; I had traveled there with my family when I was 14. Back then, Wadi Musa was a sleepy village, there was barely one hotel and our walk through the slot canyon was lonely and stark. Today, there are more than 70 hotels and the canyon entrance is cluttered with parking, buses, construction and a ticket booth with its gate changing the entrance to the site. The walk in is now mostly paved, and as you walk to the slot there are hawkers and Bedouin offering a horse ride to the canyon opening. Our visit was in the low season yet there were visitors all around. We learned that this World Heritage site gets more than 1 million visitors a year; I would not like to see it when it is busy!
As you enter the narrows, you share the space not only with others but with carts that will take two people swiftly along the distance to the famous canyon while missing the altars, the waterworks and the sights along the way. The first view of , The Treasury, at Petra cannot be diminished, but the setting, once out, is a surprise with the various hawkers and established Treasury Gift Shop.
The red city still can amaze: the carved tombs of the Nabateans, the theater enhanced by the Romans, the Byzantine church and its mosaics, all the major periods of occupation are represented.
We learned about Petra’s past and met with several archaeologists who are working at the site. We were able to get insight into some of the projects, problems and potentials. The archaeologists are concerned with the impact of tourism, the changes in the conservation of the site, and the integration of the local community. Now the local Bedouin have been settled and they are selling trinkets, stalls have been established along the walk, and camel and donkey rides are offered. It is a new kind of pilgrimage.
— Anabel Ford Ph.D. is the director of UC Santa Barbara’s MesoAmerican Research Center. Ford, UCSB’s resident expert on Maya archaeology, discovered the ancient Maya city-center El Pilar, which bridges Belize and Guatemala. By decoding the ancient landscape around El Pilar, she is creating a sustainable model in conservation and agriculture that can regenerate the threatened Maya forest. With investment and support, her model can assist environmental efforts worldwide. Click here for more information on El Pilar. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.