Being at sea for 10 months a year makes it a bit difficult to pursue any hobbies, but I’ve been lucky enough to indulge in one special pursuit. I collect destinations.
I’ve always had wanderlust. It started as a child when I developed a keen interest in Egyptology, and my mother says she always knew I would be the first to leave home. Now after many years at sea traveling the world, I still experience the excitement of discovery whenever I visit a new place. This year, as I was sailing aboard Pacific Princess for her world cruise, I was able to check one of my dream destinations off my travel bucket list — and live out some Lawrence of Arabia fantasies – by traveling to the ancient “lost” city of Petra when the ship called at the seaport of Aqaba in Jordan.
With excitement building to see one of the most majestic and intriguing archeological sites in the Middle East, my companions and I set off with a local guide and driver for the two-hour journey which took us along the vast expanse of one of the world’s most amazing desert landscapes — the Wadi Rum or “Valley of the Moon.” Most of the Kingdom of Jordan is desert – sometimes flat, sometimes undulating, but as we drove we could see rose-colored granite monoliths and surreal formations rising from the desert floor. To comprehend the scale was difficult until something came into view and then I could realize the monumental magnificence of this mountainous desert. This is where British Army officer T.E. Lawrence joined the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks around the time of the World War I, and where much of the film Lawrence of Arabia was shot.
We stopped to take a break and to get up close to some of the local camels. These “ships of the desert” were both fascinating and also comical. And I had a laugh when I realized that their tall spindly legs were somewhat reminiscent of my very own!
Once we arrived at Petra it was time to get into the spirit of the place. We bought head garbs, partly because it was swelteringly hot, but also to look the part. Now my desert attire included a long, white linen shirt, trousers and my just-purchased traditional keffiyeh, a white and red checked head covering. I fit right in.
Petra was built by the industrious Nabataean people who were known for their sophisticated culture, remarkable architecture, and ingenious water system. For years after it was settled more than 2,000 years ago, Petra served as an important junction for the silk, spice and other trade routes that linked the Asian and Mediterranean civilizations. With its temples, tombs and alters carved into the dusky-pink-colored rocks, it’s little wonder Petra was voted one of the new Seven New Wonders of the World, or why UNESCO deemed it a World Heritage site in 1985 and described it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage.”
But in the third and fifth centuries Petra was severely damaged by earthquakes and abandoned. The “lost” site was known only to local Bedoins and remained hidden for centuries from the outside world. It wasn’t until 1812 when a Swiss explorer revealed Petra to the Western world after he disguised himself as a Muslim holy man and tricked his Bedouin guide into taking him there.
Our driver dropped us some distance uphill from the Siq, the main entrance to the ancient city, a two-thirds-mile-long gorge that leads to the Treasury, the first and most amazing of many sites of Petra. I resolved to walk down on foot and return on one of the many horse-and-buggy rigs that make the journey. But before I set out it occurred to me that I should select some appropriate music to enhance the experience. So on my music player I selected Handel’s famous coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest” (yes, that’s on my playlist).
We were very fortunate to have a great guide who made sure we didn’t miss the many intriguing points of interest along the way — carved reliefs on shrines, the whale head and the narrow irrigation channels running along the sides. Just as we started through the last part of the Siq, I pressed ‘play’ for an unforgettable goose bump moment. Handel’s music rose to a sudden rousing “forte tutti” entrance with trumpets at the precise time Petra’s towering treasury called Al Khazneh came into full view. It was an experience imprinted in my memory forever.
Later when I ventured to the Urn tomb with nobody else around an elderly wizened Bedouin man beckoned to me. I was slightly reticent as I thought maybe I was in for a hard souvenir sell, but when he beckoned again I went over and leaned slightly closer. In a hoarse voice he whispered, “you, Mr. Lawrence, you Mr. Lawrence.” Pardon, I asked? Again he said, “you Mr. Lawrence. He was tall with triangular face.” Me, I thought, Lawrence of Arabia? There I was standing by myself, on this site that dates back to 600 B.C. and a man I’ve never met was comparing me to the west’s most renowned historic figure of the region. This encounter fueled my sense that I had walked out of the real world straight into a cinematic fantasy.
I had resolved to return by a horse and buggy that was so evocative of Victorian travel. My companions had set out to walk, as they didn’t want to wait for a ride, but I was sure I’d have no problem flagging a rig, as a flurry of buggies had passed by only five minutes earlier. Yet, suddenly there were none. I waited and waited, but not one additional buggy came by. So I, too, set off walking. At last, only footsteps into my journey a lone buggy appeared. After bargaining with the driver, who would take no less than $50US for the ride, I was headed back to the site entrance. I decided it was a small price to pay for the perfect ending to this magnificent day, so off we trot, with the buggy bouncing over ruts and rough terrain, and me ricocheting from side to side.
I was hardly the first to feel the wonder of Petra. As we rode back, these verses from the famed sonnet penned by John William Burgon in 1845 came to mind:
It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
by labor wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.