The Place I Had to See

Myrna Blyth, fulfilling a promise to her dying brother, visits Petra, Jordan

My brother and I used to talk all the time about places to go. Of course at the end of his life he couldn’t go anywhere. He spent all his time in a big easy chair, talking on the phone to his friends and to me. He had traveled a bit when he was younger to a rather odd assortment of places. Machu Picchu and Xi’an and once had almost bought a bar in a small backwater town in Mexico.

I have done a lot more traveling but there are still many places I want  to go  One of the places we talked about was Petra, that “rose-red city, half as old as time.” It was on the top of my list of sights to see along with Angkor Wat. Like so many others, I had been enchanted by Petra since Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail inside its Treasury at the conclusion of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

In one of our last conversations my brother said he would be disappointed in me if I didn’t travel, even if I had to go alone, since my husband is not very well. “Do it,” he said “Do the things that will make you happy.”

And, hey, suddenly I had a chance to go to Jordan to see Petra and, as an added bonus, spend a day and night in the “vast, echoing. God-like” desert” of Wadi Rum, That’s how Lawrence of Arabia described the largest and most magnificent of Jordan’s desert landscape where he had lived with Bedouin chieftains, plotting his successful military campaigns.

All in all, Jordan, I found, is quite a fascinating place. Although it is smack-dab in the center of the boiling cauldron of the Middle East, bordering Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Israel, it is a disarmingly quiet place. Yes, there have been a few Friday demonstrations during this “Arab spring.” But the nation’s progressive Western-educated Hashemite King Abdullah, the son of the much loved King Hussein, seems genuinely popular with his people. I started my trip in Amman where they were, surprisingly, celebrating Earth Day by turning out the lights in the city to conserve energy. In the restaurant where I was having my dinner, we passed the hummus by candlelight.

Then it was off sight-seeing to Jerash, an impressive Roman ruin, outside of Amman  and the next day  to Madaba, a small town filled with s Byzantine churches. On the mosaic floor of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George there is a vivid sixth-century  map, depicting Jerusalem in great detail.  In fact, throughout Jordan there are Biblical sites including Mt. Nebo, where Moses first looked upon the Holy Land, Herod’s palace where Salome danced, and, near the Dead Sea, Bethany Beyond Jordan, where John baptized Jesus.

Wadi Rum was interesting, too, with its rugged moon-like landscape. I spent the day riding across the dunes in a 4X4 and the night camped out in a Bedouin tent — not exactly luxurious accommodations. T.E.Lawrence loved the Bedouins but not their sleeping arrangements. He made them build him what must have been quite an English-looking cozy stone cottage. Only the remains are left. When at the Bedouin campsite, I met a woman, in her 50’s, from Australia, who now lives in Wadi Rum, riding camels and dressing in Bedouin style. She had fallen in love with the remote place and had “reinvented” herself in the desert

But, of course, Petra, hidden deep in a canyon, carved out of rosy cliffs, was the highlight of my trip. Like most people I thought the only part of this two-thousand year-old city that was left was the street where the elegant Treasury stands — and that, I assumed, would be enough. But I was wrong. Yes, you walk through a long tunnel-like entrance onto the street dominated by the Treasury, which was really a tomb or temple. But beyond that are miles more of breathtaking ornate facades of  temples, tombs, and even a large amphitheater carved out of the canyon’s walls.

Petra was built by the Nabateans, sophisticated traders, great rock-carvers and brilliant hydroelectric engineers, who were able to conserve every available drop of water essential for their flourishing city. Petra became an important stop on the silk road for camel caravans carrying frankincense and myrrh to the great cities of Baghdad and Damascus. The Nabateans, also cunning inn-keepers, entertained — and taxed — these goods-laden travelers. They became cosmopolitan and sophisticated and very, very rich. The Treasury reflects the best in ancient design, with Egyptian and Greek touches. Being a New Yorker, you can understand, I felt a kinship with the worldly Nabateans and quite at home in Petra.

I spent a whole day there and that night walked back through the canyon to the Treasury by candlelight. The next morning I visited Little Petra, which houses remains of the dwellings where the camel caravans overnighted. You can still see where those ancient visitors ate and slept and worshiped. For a long, long time and for so many travelers, including me, Petra was beautiful, unique and magical.

And so I saw one of the sights I was determined to see. I still have that list of other places where I must go. And, of course, the only thing that disappointed me about the trips was that when I came home I couldn’t tell my brother all about it.

Editor’s Note: Myrna Blyth is the editorial director of AARP. The founding editor of More magazine, former editor-in-chief of Ladies Home Journal and thirdage.com, and author of four books, she has was written for The New York Times, Redbook, Reader’s Digest, and many other publications.

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