Venice, Calif. — Zar, one of my best friends, stared at me, wondering if I had been hiding under a rock and not heard the news for weeks. He said: “Absolutely not, you are not going, and certainly not solo.”
I responded cheekily while Matt and Kathy stared at me over brunch at Rose Café in Venice, Calif.: “Yes, I know about the Arab Spring, but it is summer. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry I’ll check to make sure there’s no revolution before my trip.”
Years earlier, my friend Justin showed me pictures of a place so majestic, so magnificent, I knew I had to see it with my own eyes. It took me a few years to finally get back to the region, and when I finally arrived to Eilat, Israel, the night before my adventure, I became ill. Instead of seeing an ancient city hidden for centuries – Petra, Jordan – I visited the emergency room. I was determined that this time nothing was going to interfere with my dream, not even a revolution.
This summer, I was in Israel, and the travel gods were taunting me yet again. I was at my favourite place on the planet, my namesake, Masada, and I was stuck with the most unpleasant group of tourists. (The two oldest members, in their 70s, were the menschen of the group.) Not only were most of them grumpy and unpleasant, but a few were downright mean.
Sometimes miserable situations can actually lead to positive ones. At least that is what my mom has told me numerous times. Although when in the midst of a situation where you happily consider pushing nasty people off a mountain, it’s hard to imagine.
I kept to myself, took photos and tried to absorb the positive energy of the mountain while avoiding the negativity emanating from some members of the group. The desert light bounced off the blue Dead Sea. The mountain was stark but stunning.
On the overlook where you could see Herod’s palaces, I noticed two blond women. They offered to take my photograph. I accepted and chatted briefly with Janet and Jen and snapped a few photos for them, too.
On the cable-car platform down the mountain we met again. Jen lives in Israel, as her husband works for the U.S. State Department and Janet was visiting her. Somehow our conversation veered to another magical, historical place, the place of my dreams, Petra, Jordan. I mentioned I was going later in the week, and Janet said she was interested in joining me on the adventure. We exchanged cards and promised to be in touch.
Janet and I met on the plane in Sde Dov, a small regional airport in Tel Aviv. She was the last one on the plane. Janet apparently told security: “I am travelling with Masada who I met at Masada and we are going to Petra.” Needless to say, they most likely thought she had lost her marbles and proceeded to thoroughly investigate her!
We arrived at Eilat, and our tour company, Eco Tours, whisked us away straight to the border. Janet grinned. She’s a relaxed traveller and had no idea what I planned. She had called the tour company and said: “Book me on whatever Masada is doing.”
The Israeli tour company Eco Tours is known as one of the best. The company customizes tours in Israel, Jordan Sinai and Egypt. In Jordan, it works with a counterpart that is also well organized and helpful.
After leaving passport control on the Israeli side, we started to walk to the Jordanian side. Janet said: “Do you see all barbedwire fences? There are minefields on both sides of the crossing. This is so odd. I feel like I am in a movie.”
Jordanian soldiers with automatic machine guns checked our passports and a man name “Light” met us at the border and helped us with the formalities of entering Jordan.
Mohammad, our driver, was waiting in a black Mercedes. We drove past Aqaba, past a new hospital being built, an army training facility and then through countless kilometres of desolate desert until we arrived to Petra. On the way, our driver pointed out a mountain named Jabal Harun. It’s 1350 metres high and on the top is a white domed mosque. Built in the 14th century, it is believed that Moses’ brother Aaron is buried there.
Petra, a mythical city, was unknown to the western world until 1812, when Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered the ancient city carved into the red rocks. The city was established around the sixth century as the capital city of the Nabataeans, a tribe that turned the city into an important link on the historic spice route extending from India to Syria to East Africa.
It’s easy to see why Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. The magic of generations past seems to whisper to visitors as they walk through the entrance to the city, or the siq. It’s a narrow gorge, more than one kilometre in length and surrounded on both sides by soaring, 80-metre-high cliffs. There is also a sophisticated water conduits system that runs through the siq, and ancient works of art decorate the tall, majestic narrow passageways.
Walking through the narrow passageways, I felt like an ancient explorer. I was mesmerized by the phenomenal colours and formations. At the end you see the first glimpse of the breathtaking Al-Khazneh, known as the Treasury.
The Treasury, carved out of the reddish-pink rock, is a massive façade 30 metres wide and 43 metres high. It was carved in the early first century, and was used as the tomb of an important Nabataean king.
Petra was conquered and re-conquered by many different groups, each one leaving different marks. For instance, in 106 CE, the city was incorporated into the Roman Empire. The Roman influence is evident through many aspects, but especially through the broken Roman columns found on one of the boulevards called the Colonnaded Street. There is also a mosaic at the Petra Church, from the Byzantine time, made of stone and glass cubes and featuring Greco-Roman designs.
There was even a Jewish/Israel connection. In the entrance of Petra, there is the Obelisk Tomb, which originates from the four obelisk-shaped steles crowning the monument. They are believed to represent the souls of the dead. Interestingly, the obelisks are called “nefesh,” a Hebrew word that means the soul and breath of life of a person, their essence.
While the history of Petra is mysterious still today, papyri discovered in the caves of the Judean Desert reveal that Petra had a senate and archives, and that it was visited by the Jewish inhabitants of the province.
Janet and I wandered for hours, into caves, atop hills, and into rooms that were once tombs brilliant with colours. We braved the 800-step climb through the afternoon heat of 40 C to see the “Deir,” also know as the “Monastery,” another magnificent sculpture built into the rocks, at the top of a mountain. The views seemed endless, and the architecture unbelievable. It was easy to imagine the busy merchants and the hustle and bustle of a city teeming with people. While now a place primarily for tourists, its energy makes history come alive.
Petra was more magical than I imagined. It took years of perseverance, luck and timing. Even the misfortune of illness and terrible travel companions all led up to meeting a great person, Janet, to join me on my adventure.
As we left Petra while the sun was setting, glowing over the reddish pink buildings, we stopped and watched the colours change. Janet turned to me and said: “Wow, what an adventure. Meeting you was a gift.”
I grinned and replied: “And thank you. This unlikely adventure, totally random meeting, made this trip even better then I could imagine! I love it. Sometimes dreams really do come true in the most unusual of ways!”