Tag Archives: Petra

Mada’in Salah, the Cursed Tombs of the Nabateans

Around Halloween, you can’t beat a haunted house for a little spooky fun. If you are fortunate enough to have a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, the ultimate taboo is Mada’in Salah. The dark history of this place extends back to the period of the Nabateans, the architects of Petra; their civilization extended into the Arabian peninsula, and their trademark sandstone tombs can be found there as well. According to our local guides, the Quran describes this area and its inhabitants as cursed. Something about killing a sacred camel; thereafter, Muslims have avoided this area. Our flight to the neighboring airport even flew a longer path to avoid the obviously dangerous airspace above the tombs; ironically, it took us closer to Iraq, but I guess you choose your risks in life.

Next to the World Heritage Site around the tombs, there is a restored portion of the Hijaz railway; not the exact section blown up by T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, but close enough.

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There are two unique qualities of this tourist attraction; the first is that, being declared cursed, you won’t find many local Saudis there. Secondly, being under the protection of the tourism board, you also won’t find any Muttawa (religious police), so the few tourists there tend to be western women in yoga pants enjoying the freedom to hike without an abaya!

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Look! Her ankles are almost showing! Scandalous.

Once you arrive at the tombs, the differences with Petra are astounding. No gypsies, no swarms of tourists, not even a gift shop! Also, no marked trails, no tour guides (bring your own), no place to buy water (bring your own), no snack shops (you get the point…).

It is just you and the work of the Nabateans:

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You can wander around freely, as long as you pack plenty of water and have a four wheel drive to navigate the “road” on site.

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The edifices are not as grand as Petra, so after an hour or two of exploring, you can shift gears and climb the bizarre rock formations that give the area a truly haunted feel.

 

 

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Nearby, at the end of an unmarked dirt trail, you can find Elephant Rock. Actually, you would never find it on your own, but hopefully your guide knows where it is!

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Like any travel adventure, there are a few nuances to traveling in this area. Because it is close to the Jordan/Iraq border, there are some people who are somewhat less friendly to Westerners. In fact, the local police Captain arranged an escort to and from the airport:

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We were almost late because our driver had evidently planned on driving at twice the legal limit, and had to maintain a slightly less insane pace. Of course, police escorts don’t eliminate the other hazards of crossing the desert T. E. Lawrence-style. Like waiting for road crews to move a sand dune off of the road:

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Or yielding to four-legged pedestrians:

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I’ll probably never set foot on Mars, but it would feel familiar there I think:

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There’s something appealing about venturing into that which is forbidden; I’m glad we were able to visit before the area is developed and is littered with chain hotels and tourist traps. Add in the vast desert landscape and achingly beautiful sunsets as a backdrop, and Mada’in Salah makes for a perfect Halloween weekend getaway.

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Finding the Not-So-Lost-City of Petra

One of the coolest scenes from the third Indiana Jones movie was the canyon leading to Petra (remember the old knight? “He chose… poorly”).

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Since then, Petra has represented the pinnacle of exotic places I’ll probably never visit. However, now that we live in the neighborhood, the lost city is just a long weekend away.

Visiting Jordan was a pleasant surprise; the people are friendly, and for centuries people of all faiths have lived, worked, and coexisted in relative harmony. Many of the most popular tourist sites are those that are at the intersection of the three monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), where Moses and Abraham are revered by all.

Our first morning in Wadi Musa, the village next to the Petra site, welcomed us with a sun-kissed view of the mountain where Aaron, Moses’ brother, was buried. At the very top of the peak, there is a spot of white where the tomb is claimed to be.

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Our awesome driver and tour guide, Hasan, explained that prior to the Arab Spring and the economic downturn, we would have been joining thousand of tourists on various pilgrimages and vacations; it was bittersweet that we never faced crowds, but it’s clear that the local economy has been left barren by the lack of tourist dollars.

Several opportunities arose during this trip that were certainly “off the beaten path”. Each time, a tour guide would mention something off-hand, usually followed by some reason why sane tourists don’t go there. Our attitude was that we never expected to visit this area at all, so we were already in bonus time.

The first course correction was at Petra. In an area where the canyon opened up to allow a marketplace, most of the tourists spend  their day swarmed by Gypsies, flies, and other tourists.

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Our guide pointed out a series of royal tombs above the canyon floor, one of which had been converted to a Byzantine church around 400 AD. Of course, that would require an extra hour of hiking. Perfect! Our views were much improved by the extra elevation, and we had this area of the site to ourselves.

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The village next to Petra, Wadi Musa, means “Moses’ Valley”, and is the site of Moses striking the rock to provide water for the Israelites. In true modern fashion, there is now a gift shop and convenience store next to the rock…

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After Petra, we had a simple itinerary- jump in the van and drive to the Dead Sea for one night at a resort there. During the otherwise boring drive, Hasan was telling us about the history of Jordan, and we passed a sign for Shobak Castle. It is an ancient fortification built atop an isolated hill; it has been controlled through the millennia by Nabateans, Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans, and Arabs.

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When Saladdin was sweeping out the crusaders, the impenetrable fortress was beset by a siege. It is easy to see why a direct assault would be futile. However, the defenders held out for at least 16 months, primarily due to a secret tunnel from the castle to a spring in the valley below. Hasan mentioned that you could even take flashlights and go through the tunnel… Heck yeah! So off the itinerary we went:

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In the US or Europe, there would be helmets, hand rails, a waiver of liability, and more than one flashlight. In this case, a teenager who was hanging around the entrance to the castle takes off his sandals and waves us into the darkness. An hour, 385 steps, and probably 200 vertical feet of descent later, we emerged into the valley below, met by a group of curious locals who probably had bets on our odds of success.

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It is comforting to see how Jordan has found a path to common ground with Israel and the west. We sometimes forget how close these neighbors are; at the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus, you can enter the river from either side. Swimming fifteen feet to the other bank would require a passport, visa, and the permission of the guy with the assault rifle.

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A sad reminder that all is not well in the neighborhood: on the way to the airport in Amman, we passed the Syrian embassy. Refugees waited outside; it’s hard to imagine that they’ll receive anything but bad news there.

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After taking in the majority of the Palestinian refugees just a generation ago, Jordan again has demonstrated a generous spirit that is inspiring, and has provided a refuge for the Syrians fleeing the chaos in their home country.

Of all the beautiful things we discovered in this country, the tolerant and welcoming people will be what we remember best. The treasures of Jordan were never really lost, just waiting to be rediscovered by the rest of the world.

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