The (com)Promised Land Dispatch 5: Kingdoms of Sand and Stone

by Jeff Greenwald, Mar 19, 2004 | Destinations: Jordan / Israel / Amman / Jerusalem
Happy Birthday, Jeff.

Happy Birthday, Jeff.

Happy Birthday, Jeff.

I'll tell you what I love. I love standing in the dusty no-man's-land between two borders, feeling the wind blow and reading signs in two languages. Behind me, the high, tight fences and ironic placard reading WELCOME TO ISRAEL; before me, a similar well-guarded checkpoint and the sign saying WELCOME TO JORDAN. I almost giggled as I wheeled my rolling carry-on between the ports of call, under the watchful eyes of two sets of guards, on the way to spending my 50th birthday in Petra.

I'd resolved, on the walk to the border from where Jerusalem-Eilat bus had dropped me off, that I was going to transcend all my compulsions to economize. Perhaps this meant a willingness - even an eagerness - to fall into traps, but I believed the taxi driver when he told me there would be no more buses to Petra today, that tomorrow was Friday, a Muslim holiday, and that for the government-controlled sum of JD25 (about $38) he would drive me the 160 km north to Petra and put my day's schlepping to an end.

"I might try to hitchhike," I mused.
"You will stand on road 100 years," he replied.

The King's Highway begins about 35 kilometers from Petra, and that's where the drive gets interesting. Under better circumstances it would have been beautiful, but a storm in the Red Sea was turning the atmosphere into a vacuum cleaner, set on reverse. Clouds of dust churned across the landscape, and the magnificent maze of sandstones buttes and canyons was all but lost in the lint-colored haze.

I was driven directly to a hotel called Valentine, owned by an almost glamorous Syrian/Italian woman (Valentine) who (I would find out later) doubles the room rate for Americans and Israelis. Still, it's one of the last true vagabonders' hang-outs, full of blinking red lights, lined-up arak bottles and hand-lettered signs offering excursions north along the Dead Sea to Amman, and south to the red sands and weathered buttes of the Wadi Rum desert - where T.E. Lawrence helped lead the Arab Revolt against the Turks (and where director David Lean filmed Lawrence of Arabia four decades later).

* * *

On Friday morning I was up at 5:15 a.m., walking alone through the Siq: the long, narrow canyon that had led, for two millennia, into the hidden city of Petra. Though I'd seen plenty of pictures, it was an unforgettable experience to emerge from that dreamy passageway, and watch the rocks split open to reveal the pink stone Treasury. I hesitated only a moment; I prefer seeing ancient sites when they are empty, and there was much ground to cover before the throngs of tour groups began pouring in from their scattered loci in Madrid and Lithuania, London and Melbourne, Amsterdam and Palm Springs.

Petra is one of the best nightmares on Earth. Though I'd visited rock-cut temples before, having cut my travel writing teeth in India and Cambodia, Petra stands alone. Not just because it was built 2,000 years ago by the ancient Nabataens (about whom very little is known), but because the site's enormous stone tombs, palaces, and theaters are cut from an astonishing variety of sandstone so marbled with mineral colors that, in early morning or late afternoon light, it resembles the swirling surface of Jupiter.

This part of Jordan is the original Moab, and it's uncanny how similar the landscape is to Utah. The Mormons who named that place knew exactly what they were talking about, and I wonder if they knew it from personal experience or simply from references in the Bible. Tall, weathered hoodoos and cliffs of red and yellow sandstone, cut into labyrinths and ravines, and stone that glows under the right kind of light. All the pictures I'd seen of Petra, of course, showed the place in perfect light - which is probably the condition 90% of the year. But the dust storms of the south had filled the sky with dust, and the colors were drastically muted. I recalled some unfortunately trekkers I'd met in Kathmandu who'd spent weeks hiking in low clouds, and left Nepal without seeing a single peak. This wasn't quite as bad... the temples were visible... but it was like seeing them with a nylon stocking pulled over my head.

The difference between Jordan and Utah, of course, is the culture of the Nabataens. They must have been an inspired people, because the execution of their city is nothing short of brilliant. From the initial concept - carving temples directly into the rainbow-hued cliffs - to their expert water management, illustrated by the aqueducts built into the sides of the narrow Siq, everything about Petra reveals a genius in working with landscape.

The most interesting thing about the Nabataens, far as we know, is that they built Petra at all. We don't know much else, since after the Roman conquest in 106 AD they dissolved into the bouillabaisse of history. They built a lot of buildings that may or may not have been tombs, possibly worshipped a semi-abstract figure that might have been a fertility goddess, and sacrificed something, or someone, on the High Place of Sacrifice, but damned if we know what or who. Many people are fascinated by the idea of this mysterious, lost civilization -- but, for me, Petra is all about the stone. It's clearly a popular sentiment, as the very name Petra means "stone."

Petra covers about 40 square kilometers. One hires a mule or a camel, or does a lot of hot, dusty hiking. I continued on through the ruins, making the steep climb up to the magnificent building called the Monastery. Although the sun was not on the building, it was lovely to have the place more or less to myself. "More or less" because everywhere one wanders in Petra, and all along the way, Bedouins use all their charms to lure you over to their tables full of cheap jewelry and corny-looking daggers. "Hello, where are you from!" "No charge to look!" "Just stop and have tea!" It's a steady diet of hustle, although I must admit they can take "no" for an answer - or maybe it was just the way I started to say "no" after the first few dozen propositions.

Two thousand years doesn't seem very long, and it isn't very long in the cosmic scheme of things. But it's long enough for the painted walls and tiled floors and ceilings of Petra's Monastery and Royal Tombs to have vanished. The sandstone porticos have been worn away by half, and every single statue and relief is all but gone, a fading after-image of a lion or wing.

Still, there's a magic in Petra that lingers in the mind long after you've watched the light fade from the cliffs, and followed the last camel out through the Siq. As overwhelming as it is today, one can imagine what it must have looked like during the time of Herod, or Christ, when fountains danced in the plazas and bricks of halvah sweated in the shade. Nabataen Petra, 1st century: a good date to add to the settings on your time machine.

* * *

At six a.m. Saturday morning, the minibus to Wadi Rum pulls up outside Valentine's. Three travelers board in the steely light of dawn. The weather, if anything, is worse than the previous day; it's no longer just hazy but actually cold, and the sky is thick with low clouds.

Anyone who has seen Lawrence of Arabia remembers Wadi Rum, the dramatic desert landscape from which the Arab legions led by Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence staged raids against the Turks. The word for this landscape is fierce; this ground has swallowed its share of blood.

Wadi Rum, like Petra, probably looks nothing like it did ten years ago, and I can hardly imagine it after another ten. The World Bank has pumped US $12 million into the place, in the hopes that Jordan can lapidate the rough-and-tumble desert into an onyx egg, a government cash cow a la Petra.

Driving in, one sees the infrastructure of what will soon be a fancy admissions gate leading into a new tourist Mecca. The once-sleepy village near Wadi Rum is in the middle of a construction boom, with the Bedouins moving into private homes. Unfinished water mains snake through the streets, and the stumps of costly new light posts rise every few meters. The place is being turned into a Bedouin Disneyland, and I seem to have caught it just moments it disappears into the Great 21st Century Kitsch Mill.

The three of us from Valentine's are dropped off at home of a tall, lamb-eyed Bedouin named Zidane Al-Zalabieh. It's still early; about 8:00. The jeep tour, he tells us, will begin at nine. Meanwhile we are to relax, and drink tea. The house was one of the new jobs: cement block construction, filled with thin carpets and empty boxes from New Economy items like inkjet printers and cell phones. There is a map of the Wadi Rum desert on the wall. It is an unusual map, showing only the expanses of flat desert and the huge basalt/sandstone outcroppings that loom in every direction like lithic warts. It seems the sort of map scuba outfits might make of a beautiful, complex reef.

There will be half a dozen stops on the jeep tour, and then we will be deposited at a Bedouin tent in the desert. An instant desert experience: just add sand. There are six of us now, all men: two Japanese and a German (all 24 years old); a recently retired Dutch art historian; a Spaniard; and myself. Our mode of transportation is a vintage Toyota Land Cruiser with a beaten-up cab and a long, open bed, its facing benches covered with Chinese-made blankets.

The bathos of the town disappears as soon as we drive into the desert. It is magnificent. Not the rolling sand dunes I had envisioned - they filmed those bits of Lawrence in Morocco - but a wild, abrasive world of green basalt monoliths, sand the color of Martian soil, and soft-haired camels chewing their cud with statuesque grace on the occasional scrubby rise.

No sooner have we left our first stop "Lawrence's Spring" -a tiny hillside oasis that T.E. Lawrence, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, described as "a few square meters of paradise" - then we come upon an unmistakable sign of civilization. There is a vehicle broken down in the desert. We stop to help, and our driver - a teenaged boy named Salim - does something that makes my blood run cold: he offers up one of our two spare tires.

Spare tires, in the desert, are like kidneys. It is good to start with two, in good working order. If you give one away, that's fine; you are left with one. But if there's a problem after that, you run into trouble. Having spent my 40th birthday stranded in the Mauritanian desert, for want of a spare tire, I'm extremely wary of setting out on our expedition into this rocky, rubber-ripping realm with only one spare. But what to do? We can hardly leave this other driver stranded.

"Sand dunes," announces Salim as we round a corner to our second destination. I'd envisioned, of course, an endless expanse of rolling horned dunes, golden in the sun; the place where Peter O'Toole, as Lawrence, had first tried on his traditional Arab cape. In reality there is a single, red dune, which we are invited to climb. The Japanese do so with alacrity, visible a few minute later on its crest, smoking Seven Stars cigarettes in the luxuriant warmth of Wadi Rum's largest ashtray.

Wandering back to the car I spy a camel sitting beside our jeep, which at first obscures the sight of Salim, under it. Under the jeep, that is: we have a flat tire. Nobody says a word.

* * *

When we leave the shelter of the dune it has gotten downright cold. At our next stop, a rise with a view of Wadi Rum's raw, desolate monoliths, I unpack my iPod and dial up the Motion Picture Soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia. As Maurice Jarre's Overture begins, all horns and tympanis, the surrounding desert explodes into cinematic life, contrived but irresistible vivid, the landscape of my teenage dreams. At 16, I was so obsessed with David Lean's masterpiece that my entire body turned like a compass toward the idea of travel - and the fantasy that, if I played my cards right, I might end up someplace like this.

Not someplace like this; this. I'm standing, I realize, at the Ground Zero of my entire career. How had it taken me so long to get here? But Jordan, in 1970, was inaccessible, even if I'd known the place I was looking for.

We pile back in the Toyota and drive toward the shelter of an overhanging cliff, where Salim prepares tea. About a minute after we've been served, he announces - sheepishly - that we had better "drink quickly." A thin but audible hiss issues from the left rear tire of the Toyota.

The leak is slow. Will there be sufficient air to get us to our Bedouin tent? Ninety seconds of driving reveal the answer; the deflated tire flops spastically on its rim.

"It's not so far," Salim says, unconvincingly, as we pull our gear from the truck. A tsunami of deja vu consumes me - Mauritania, March 6th, 1994 - but is it deja vu if you know exactly what you are remembering?

The wind blows, and a cold rain falls from the mantle of clouds covering Wadi Rum. Despite our misfortune, I'm in good cheer. I had wanted to hike, anyway, and certainly Lawrence had endured worse than this. Anyway, I have nowhere else to be, and nothing to miss. It's one of those rare moments when being stuck in the desert is perfectly acceptable.

After a serendipitous detour into the wrong camp (for which we are rewarded with hot tea), we arrive at our tent. It's astonishingly comfortable, and big enough for 50, so the six of us make ourselves at home.

Around sunset Zidane drives in from town and joins us, a regal figure in his red and white head dress. He fires up the barbecue, inside, filling the black burlap tent with smoke and chuckling at our complaints. And after dinner is served (foil-baked potatoes and barbecued chicken), he grins at me and produces, with a flourish, a home-made birthday cake, with five candles fixed around the rim. He chants something vaguely celebratory in Arabic, then turns to my traveling companions: "Now the rest of you must sing him Happy Birthday, in your own language."

And so it comes to pass; I am serenaded in five languages. We find a bottle of Arak; a water pipe is lit; Zidane picks up a single-stringed rababa. I sip on the strong white liquor and the pipe as the fire glows orange, and the full moon fights its way through the parting clouds to shine through the woven ceiling.

Early the next morning I stand on a convoluted stone outcrop in the desert of Wadi Rum, watching the sun rise on one side as the moon sets on the other. The desert scrub throws shadows across the rippled sand. My own shadow isn't visible, but I know it's there, and I feel an enormous current of gratitude for being where I am, at long last, on the first day of my 51st year: in the stomping grounds of Lawrence, in the sandy kingdom of my dreams.

Now that the storm has passed, and the sun is shining, it seems a shame to be leaving. But I knew, setting out upon this trip, that much of it would be about leaving places too soon - just as our lives are, finally, about leaving someplace too soon.

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