Floating in the Dead Sea

The lady at the tourist information centre in Queen Alia International Airport in Amman was horrified:  yes, Petra was definitely the premier tourist attraction, but how could we come to Jordan and not also see the many other wonders the country has to offer?  Well, fairly easily, it turned out:  I’m sure the rest of Jordan is great, but a round-the-world ticket has time constraints, and sacrifices have to be made.

Regardless, though, Petra is most of the way down the south of the country, and Amman is up towards the north, and to make the most of our time, we’d hired a car to get between them.  And so on the way back, since we were in the vicinity anyway, there was time for us to fit in one other cheesy Kodak moment:  floating in the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea, on the coast of Jordan

Our chosen portion of the Dead Sea

Paddling in brine is apparently quite the money-extractor in Jordan:  there are really quite a number of surprisingly expensive private beaches on the eastern shores of the world’s premier saline attraction.  (And I have no reason to expect that the western shores, in Israel, would be any different.)  That didn’t really seem like our style, though, since their pitch seemed largely limited to the fact that they had fresh water showers to clean yourself off in afterwards.  A welcome benefit, most definitely, but not one worth paying through the newly salt-encrusted nose for.  So with several bottles of tap water prepared as our makeshift showers, we just drove around a bit until we figured we’d found a nice stretch of waterfront that seemed pretty and available.  In fact, it turned out that we’d picked the perfect spot:  other than intermittent highway traffic in the distance, there was no one for miles, and we spent a good hour dicking about with, so far as we could see, the whole sea and shore to ourselves.  (For anyone who’s interested, my camera’s GPS tells me that we were at 31°27’20” N, 35°33’59″E.  Feel free to steal our spot.)

The typical tourist shot of the Dead Sea is supposed to be lying on your back, reading a book or a newspaper.  So Chris ventured out into the water pretending to be able to read his Arabic broadsheet, and I demonstrated my advanced skills with technology by paddling about with my Kindle.

Reading my Kindle while floating in the Dead Sea

Reading my Kindle while floating in the Dead Sea

Once done with the mandatory Kodak moments, we made a few discoveries about swimming in the Dead Sea.  First, swimming breaststroke is remarkably difficult:  keeping your legs below the water is a constant struggle, and you’re always rolling unintentionally over onto your back as you lose your balance.  Backstroke requires quite some shoulder flexibility to get the arms down far enough, and freestyle is, well, strange.  At last, an appropriate location for doggy paddling.  Second, highly concentrated (saturated, in fact) saline is incredibly slimy, and makes for a very weird sensation on the skin – a very foreign, greasy, stinging mess that won’t go away, basically.  Third, the salt is so concentrated that getting any in the eyes is incredibly painful, and the pain lasts for a surprisingly long time.  Woe betide anyone who reacts to the pain by reflexively trying to wipe your eyes with hands wet with the salt water.  That’s a mistake you won’t make twice.  (Ok, fine, it’s a mistake I made twice.  But fool me thrice, shame on… something something.)  Fourth, the Dead Sea is an excellent way to discover (and sterilise) all those tiny little cuts and skin abrasions you didn’t know you had.  Fifth, be careful when you fart.  Yes, the bubbles coming out of your butt are just as funny in the Dead Sea as they are anywhere else in the world.  But be careful not to let any water back up the pipes when you’re done, or you’ll be in for a most unwelcome stinging sensation.  You have been warned.

Floating in the Dead Sea:  the lazy man’s Superman

Meanwhile: Superman!, do-do-do-do-do-dooh!


The Treasury, seen through the narrow rock walls of the Siq, not long before sunset

Indy’s first glimpse of the Temple of the Sun, aka Petra’s ‘The Treasury’

Some of you will already know what Petra is.  Give yourselves a pat on the head.  The rest of you will at least have seen its most famous edifice, ‘The Treasury’, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as the movie’s façade of the Temple of the Sun (containing the – it turns out disappointingly non-existent – caves and chiselled-out rooms and traps and bridges and stuff eventually leading to the doddery old sole remaining Knight Templar and the Holy Grail itself) that Indy gallops towards through a winding ravine in the desert (that winding ravine is called ‘the Siq’, for what it’s worth).

Camels in front of the Treasury

Not pictured: Sir “You Have Chosen Poorly” and Jesus’ favourite wine mug

For those whose current knowledge of Petra is on par with mine before this trip, the gist is that it’s an ancient city in present-day Jordan which, in its hey-day, lay on a major trading route, and happened to be in an area of desert well populated by cliffs featuring some very colourful sedimentary rocks.  The ruins of the town itself are partially excavated, and somewhat interesting, but the real drawcard is the tombs that were built just out of town for the local elite, both to venerate the dead and impress (and intimidate) traders on their way through.  The tombs themselves were pretty simple in general, but their façades, carved into the cliff faces, were not.  Combine the intricate carving with the vibrant sworls of colour coursing through the rock, and you have a pretty stunning mix.

In front of the Palace Tomb, one of the Royal Tombs of Petra

Fancier than your average cliff face. For an indication of scale, that’s me just left of centre down the bottom.

The beautiful colours of the rocks of Petra, in Wadi al-Farasa, with the Garden Hall to the right

No, that’s not paint on the left – that’s the natural colours of the rock. That’s what they carved the tombs out of. Beautiful, no?

It’s a big site.  We bought the three-day ticket, and spent three eight- to ten-hour days exploring pretty much every little corner of it.  And not once did we get bored.  (Hot, yes.  Exhausted, yes.  Bored, no.)

The main tourist route takes you through the Siq, past the Treasury, along the Street of Façades (or ‘Outer Siq’), past the Roman amphitheatre, and down along the main street of town (the ‘Colonnaded Street’) and up to the Monastery.  That was all pretty cool.

But if you just do that, then you miss out on the High Place of Sacrifice, the whole other valley of tombs (the ‘Wadi al-Farasa’), the cool walking trails through miscellaneous off-the-beaten-track gorges and ravines nearby the Siq (starting at ‘the Tunnel’, and making up your own path from there depending on your level of adventurousness and amateur rock-climbing ability), the clambering up rock faces up to the higher tombs off the Street of Façades, the view of the Treasury from above (from Jabal al-Kubtha), etc.

The rest of this post is just going to be pictures, because, well, Petra’s a visual thing.  All I can say is that if you go to see it, see as much of it as you can.  Go everywhere, and see everything, because it’s all stunning.  One of the most impressive things I’ve seen anywhere in the world – and I say that writing this post many many months after we visited, having seen an awful lot more stuff since then.

Sunset from Jabal al-Kubtha, seen while climbing back down from viewing the Treasury from above

Sunset from Jabal al-Kubtha, seen while climbing back down from viewing the Treasury from above

The view back towards the Street of Façades, or Outer Siq, from the climb up towards the High Place of Sacrifice

For an idea of the scale of the site, here’s a view back towards the Street of Façades. The tombs dotted around this photo are each really quite huge – but almost insignificant when viewed from up here!

Me, in the doorway of the Monastery

Me, in the doorway of the Monastery

The Treasury from above -- the view down from Jabal al-Kubtha

The Treasury from above – the view down from Jabal al-Kubtha