Part 2: Petra

Eilat is a resort, and unpleasant in a generic, international resort sort of way. It could be Cancun, or Miami Beach--except for the excellent coral scuba-diving for which it is justly famous. Most of the town, and the tourist hotels, are clustered at the very northern tip of the north-south-running Red Sea, just a mile or two from the Jordanian port city of Aqaba (which plays an important role in the movie "Lawrence of Arabia"). Israel narrows to a sliver here; Jordan is on the east and Egypt's Sinai is on the west. About 10 miles to the south on the east side lies Jordan's border with Saudi Arabia. Our hotel was about five miles south of town, along the road to the Sinai that runs down the west coast of the Dead Sea. This was the Princess Hotel, which one of our guidebooks said was the most expensive hotel in all of Israel. The view from our fifteenth-floor room was stunning. A sliding glass door opened out from our room onto a small balcony facing south. Directly below, the luxury pool, complete with artifical waterfall, was nestled underneath the craggy hills which jostled for space with the hotel. Just off to the left the highway continued south, and I could just see the edge of Egyptian border. Beyond the road was the Red Sea, which despite its name shone as pure a blue as the swimming pool. And across the water the mountains of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. We were joined in Eilat by two of Ann's children.

   Pictures of Eilat

We woke up early the next morning for a day-trip to the fabled city of Petra in Jordan. My mother and I were accompanied by Ann, Barry, and a number of their friends and family. The bus picked us up at the hotel at 6:30 in the morning. We had these big wonderful box breakfasts provided by the hotel: a selection of cheeses, olives, sliced fresh fruit, grapefruit juice, fresh bread. Since our hotel was farthest from town and the border crossing, we were picked up first. It took an hour to get people from all the other hotels in Eilat proper, and then we drove east a few miles to the Jordanian border, where we were informed that no food or drink could be brought in. We had to quickly eat what we could and throw out the rest.

It took us over an hour to get through the border. It's a long tedious process, because security is tight and the two sides seem to be distrustful. The border has been open only two years, and so far only groups are allowed through. I came under immediate suspicion on the Israeli side, both leaving the country and later in the day when re- entering, and had to undergo special questioning. I think it's because I have an Israeli name but a US passport, bringing me under suspicion of being some sort of a secret Israeli. "Where were your parents born?" "Do you speak Hebrew?" "Do you have an Israeli ID number?" Eventually I convinced them I really was a US citizen.

You can change money (the dinar is the unit of Jordanian currency) either on the Israeli side or the Jordanian side of the border. The Israeli side of the border looks normal, and there is a normal bank--you sign a form, get a receipt, everything proper. Across a narrow, barren stretch of empty desert, on the Jordanian side, are two little banks, both with the standard modern-looking electronic signboards out front listing exchange rates for a variety of currencies. As I approached, the men inside starting yelling enthusiastically at me through the barred windows in an attempt to win my patronage. "Change here! Change here!" "No no, change here!" The rates were in fact the same at each bank, 0.71 dinar to the dollar. I gave the guy in the first bank $20 and, without any paperwork at all, he handed me 13 dinar. "Shouldn't it be fourteen?" I pointed out. "One dinar commision!" he snapped, and that was that. Hardly pleasant or professional treatment as one's first introudction to Jordan. You'd think you'd get better after shelling out for the excessive $55 visa fee.

By the time were all set to move on from the border it was 9:30. We had to switch to a Jordanian bus, and a Jordanian guide came aboard to join our Israeli guide. We first took a quick driving tour around the city of Aqaba, which has smooth modern roads but unlike Eilat no tall buildings, the result of a law designed to keep beach views unobstructed. It was Friday, the Muslim holy day, as well as Ramadan, so the city was completely deserted, and had the feel of a ghost town. After that we headed north through desert, dry mountainous landscape reminiscent in some respects of Utah. The two-lane road was dominated by trucks--I didn't see a single passenger car--which we passed in a rather frightening series of confrontations with oncoming traffic. A new unfinished road running alongside the one we were on revealed plans for a divided highway. We occasionally passed small roadside villages of low adobe huts, windswept and dry, built by the governemnt for the settlement of Bedouin communities. Behind them, just over the hills and out of sight to the east, was the railroad line blown up by T. E. Lawrence and the Hashemite rebels, according to our guide. Occasionally we spotted a man or woman with a cart of fruit by the road, but everything was so deserted it was hard to see who they could possibly hope to sell to.

After nearly two hours we arrived at Petra. My mother had been there in April, but already the entrance area had been completely remodeled, and now boasted new parking lots and a brand-new visitors' center. Hawkers sold t-shirts, keffiyah, and jewelry. We walked about a mile down a dusty roadway which wound through low desert hills. Goats grazed on the hillsides, and Arabs lounged around with their horses (which they hoped we'd rent and ride when tired on our return). We came soon to a narrow defile between two vertical sheets of rock--the secret entrance to Petra. Part of the third Indiana Jones movie was filmed here, and hooks for the lights can still be seen embedded up in the rocks. Recent excavations have revealed a cobbled road a few feet down below the sandy floor of the defile, and archeologists are currently working to uncover and restore it. After walking through this canyon for twenty minutes or so, it opened up suddenly into a magnificent valley, with high rock walls on all sides, gleaming in striated colors of red, yellow, black, pink, and green. The most magnificent sight is the first you see upon emerging: a three-story-tall columned facade carved out of the solid rock face, an Egyptian-Greek temple front with a crumbling relief sculpture of Isis in its center. Beyond that are thousands of dwellings cut into and carved out of the rock. Two thousand years ago Petra was a city of 35,000 people of the Nabotean culture, grown wealthy on trade moving through the Africa-Asia-Europe nexus. The Romans conquered the city--about the farthest south they got--in the second century.

We spent several hours wandering the rocks and admiring the splendor, fending off the hawkers selling trinkets and bottles of multi-colored Petra sand carefully layered in beautiful patterns and designs.

At 3:00 we hiked back out, and took the bus up through the modern city of Petra to the mountain-top overlooking the hidden rock-city. This is where the 5-star hotels have been built to cater to streams of tourists attracted to the site. Here we had a fabulous buffet dinner at the Petra Plaza Hotel--served to us by what I suppose were fasting Muslims (Ramadan) on their day of rest (Friday).

Finally, then, back to Aqaba, over the border, through my personal Israeli interrogation, and back to the hotel just in time to shower and change for the evening's concert.

The music festival was being performed by a St. Petersburg orchestra. (I don't know if it's directly related, but the influx of Russian immigrants has provided a huge Israeli audience for classical music in general and Russian performers in particular.) Last year the concert had been held in both Aqaba and Eilat. But logistics had not been easy- -the Jordanians made it difficult for Israelis to cross the border quickly and smoothly to attend concerts in Aqaba--and attendees at the concerts in both cities were overwhelmingly Israeli--the Jordanians didn't seem too interested. In any case, relations are worse now than they were a year ago, which soon after the post-Oslo peace declaration. So this time everything was in Eilat--though I did see the Governor of Aqaba arrive to attend the first concert on opening night.

While we were in Eilat, my mother got her scuba-diving certification. I was lazier; when not attending concerts or going to Petra, I lounged on the beach, wrote letters, caught up on sleep, or watched CNN. At the end of our floor of the hotel was a small lounge with a balcony, where large amounts of food were always available for free, and the hostesses on duty served free drinks. It was nice to sit out there reading a book, looking out over the water at the mountains, sipping wine or mineral water, and snacking on nuts and fresh fruit.

On Sunday, the next day, Ann, Barry, and our other companions left for Tel Aviv. The festival had been scheduled over the weekend. The Israeli weekend is centered around Shabbat, which is Saturday; and since Shabbat starts the previous day at sundown, many people have Friday afternoon off as well, and increasingly all of Friday. The concerts were therefore on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights; Sunday is the first workday of the week. My mother and I stayed behind, since on Monday we were to take a two-day tour of the Sinai. While my mother attended her final diving lesson, I went into Eilat town to mail postcards. At the post office I asked the clerk if she spoke English (one of the few Hebrew sentences I can manage); she said yes, but with a shrug that qualified "sort of". As she counted out stamps she was muttering to herself in French, so I ended up conducting the rest of the transaction in French with her. I wonder where she was from? How many middle-aged French Jews live in Israel, and how many in Eilat?

On the bus back to the Princess Hotel I was amazed to find myself sitting next to two mainland Chinese. I struck up a conversation with them; they were from Tianjin (a port city not far from Beijing), and were working at the Princess Hotel (at the Chinese restaurant? I didn't ask). They had been in Israel a year, separated from their families, and neither spoke Hebrew or English. In the last few years Israeli businesses have stopped hiring Palestinians, who used to be a major part of the work force. I don't know if this was because of security concerns, or simply because it made little business sense since the government kept sealing off the West Bank and Gaza strip so often that there wasn't a dependable supply of workers. Instead, foreign workers have been brought in from all over the hotel. A lot of hotel staff-- maids and such--were English-speaking Africans. I had a hunch that they were Ghanans, but I can't say why I thought so.

   Pictures of Petra

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This page last modified May 9, 1998.

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