Egypt - Jordan Trip Report

May 1992

Copyright © 1992 Pierre Flener. All rights reserved.
Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form without written permission.


This is a report of a trip to Egypt and Jordan, undertaken during May 1992 by myself (from Luxembourg) and my best friend, Marc (from Belgium).

I have compiled this from my travel notes, often omitting irrelevant stuff such as where we ate or slept, who was sick with what, how we organized the getting away from each place, and so on, but adding some afterthoughts and hindsight.

This journey was totally improvised, reservations - except for flights being a concept totally alien to us. Of course we did some homework beforehand, so as to know the must-sees. Valuable information sources were The Rough Guide on Egypt (UK, sold as Real Guide in North-America; solid value), the Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit for Jordan and Syria (Australia; a great classic, although the 1987 edition is aging badly; we met the guy working on the update, so stay tuned), and Le Guide du Routard Egypte, Jordanie, Israel, et Yemen (France; so-so). Descriptions are kept informative enough so that those who have been there should recognize the places, while those who'd like to go there should be able to locate them. This report is not intended to be a crash course on Ancient Egyptian or Middle Eastern history.

By the way, please do not ask any travel organisation questions to me, as it's been too long ago that I was there.

This journey was a shoestring-budget trip, a mattress to crash on and a shower being all that is needed when constantly on the move. Round-trip flights, visas, inoculations, medicine, and souvenirs excluded, we had a daily maintenance ratio of about $12 each, covering accommodation, food, drinks, transportation, and (student) entrance fees. This has to be relativized though, as Jordan is significantly more expensive - about 30% than Egypt.

All views expressed here are mine, and you are the judge whether they are witty insights, total misunderstandings, or unspeakable truths. Comments are welcome.

Comments are welcome.

Pierre Flener

Key to Abbreviations:


Once in Aqaba Port, we are among the first ones to be whisked off the ship. We retrieve our backpacks, and head for the immigration office, in order to get our passports. Marc's and my visa cost only 2JD each, a tremendous bargain over the 16JD the Jordanian Embassy in Brussels wanted to charge us. The visa for US-citizens is free (because of US-aid? or because Queen Noor is US-ian? or both?), the Kiwi and Canadian pay 3JD, while the poor Brit has to pay 10JD (a revenge for the Sykes-Picot Agreement?). At customs, nobody bothers again to look at our luggage. Exchanging traveler's cheques is pretty steep in Jordanian banks: the commission is 3JD per cheque, which amounts to 22% of a $20 cheque. So you'd better keep some strong foreign cash handy.

Like in every port of arrival to any country, transportation to the next town (Aqaba is 10km away) is organized by cut-throats. The taxi-drivers want 1JD each, which would normally cover the five-fold distance. And they know they have the monopoly, as the last bus is long gone. We eventually bargain them down to 0.7JD each, but should rather have hitchhiked. But this was already to be our last complaint about Jordan. The Brit leaves us, as he wants to catch up with his travel group. Aqaba turns out to be a very lively city at night. Hot gushes of desert air stream through the city. The Jordanians, if not indifferent to travelers (this is paradise), display their legendary friendliness in case you do need assistance (paradise again). A man actually temporarily leaves his cup of tea at a bar to show us the way to the Jerusalem Hotel. Once set up there, we head out to the Mohandis Cafeteria for a very filling falafel and shish kebab dinner.

Day 23: Aqaba - Wadi Musa - Petra - Wadi Musa

By now completely accustomed to the Arab way of life, we get up at 5:30am to catch the first service taxi to Wadi Musa. As we head north, the road gains elevation. Most of the Jordanian and Iraqi (since the Gulf War) economies depend on Aqaba, so enormous truck columns are to be seen on this road. When it eventually splits into the Desert Highway (a boring straight road to Amman) and into the Kings Highway (an age-old caravan route, zigzagging through spectacular mountain scenery until Amman), the driver chooses the latter in order to avoid having to overtake all these trucks. Past the Wadi Rum plateau (see below), the taxi slowly escalates a tectonic rift to the next-higher plateau. Then we turn west, and soon arrive at Wadi Musa. I'm very surprised how green Jordan actually is here: fields are rife for harvest, bushes and flowers abound, and there is the occasional wooded patch.

Our hotel is right next door to the rock that Moses once struck with his stick, whence a source miraculously appeared from it. Thus the name of the village: Wadi (river, valley) Musa (Moses). Note that Muslims accept the Bible and the Thora as Holy Scriptures, though with some major restrictions: Jesus didn't die on the cross, and the Church is accused of significant alterations to the Bible and Gospels. The whole area here is full of places that are mentioned in the Bible, but I do not delve into these details.

Our receptionist calls two taxis for the 5km ride to Petra. We purchase site tickets, and head into the Siq, a 2km long, at times only 2m wide, but 100m high gorge, which was created by a rock shift. Package tourists of course rent horses for this hike, a decision they are to regret until the end of their lives. The gorge gets narrower, and higher, and then... probably the most stunning sight in the world. Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had us all prepared, and tense with expectations, but reality literally takes your breath away. At the end of the Siq, we get the first glimpse of the rock-hewn facade of el Khazneh (the Treasury). The morning sun splendidly illuminates this temple, and we stand frozen in awe at this magnificent sight. Once we have "recovered", we enter the temple. It's not caves behind, but actual rooms with vertical walls, horizontal ceilings, and right angles all over. All surfaces are very smooth, and the naturally alternating rose, red, yellow, amber, brown, and grey tones of the rock are very pleasing.

Here starts Petra (Greek for stone), the 2,500-year-old capital of the ancient Nabatean Kingdom. They were a prosperous, peaceful people of nomadic ascent, and the first Bedouin democracy. Never vanquished by the Romans, they nevertheless joined the Roman Empire towards the end of their glory days (106 AD). Then Petra got forgotten, except for a short occupation by early Christians and crusaders. Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a young Swiss orientalist, "rediscovered" Petra in 1812, but not without converting to Islam and using considerable ruse in order to delude the local Bedouins. The area of Petra covers about 200sqkm, so a few days are more appropriate than Japanese-style lightning visits. Not all buildings are rock-hewn, though the free-standing buildings have all but one crumbled under their age or the various earthquakes. El Khazneh has long been believed to contain a treasure in the urn on top of its 40m high facade, and that urn is thus pock-marked by rifle shots aiming at breaking it up. Otherwise, because of its natural protection from wind and water erosion (it's situated in a basin), Petra's monuments have survived the millennia very well, transforming the hike through the Siq into a ride on a time machine. The architecture is distinctive, was however long believed to be Roman. Instead of working against the stone, by cutting it from quarries, hauling it over long distances, before assembling it into monuments, the Nabateans worked with the stone, using it where they found it, thus skipping the transportation and assembly tasks. The Egyptians used this technique only sparingly, their grandest example being Abu Simbel. The choice location assured the Nabateans of continuous water supplies, ingeniously distributed by aqueducts. Their Bedouin descendants live here, but the Jordanian Government has recently relocated most of them, in order to protect the most valuable monuments.

We stroll to the Roman Theater, past a series of tombs. From there, we climb the ceremonial stairs towards the High Place of Sacrifice, where spectacular views all over the area reward our effort. A little used path past the Lion Fountain, the Triclinium, and the Tomb of the Roman Soldier takes us to downtown Petra. We refuel on sandwiches and Pepsi at one of the numerous Bedouin-operated refreshment stalls. Next we walk down the Cardo Maximus, through the Monumental Gateway, towards Qasr el-Bint (Castle of the Maiden), the only remaining freestanding building here, though it looks like it will crumble anytime. The valley is very beautiful with its numerous flowery bushes that perfume the whole area.

On a temporary sugar-high, we steam upstairs to the Ed-Deir monastery, so called because early Christians hid there, a longish climb across superb rock scenery. This temple is a larger and higher (45m) version of el Khazneh, and is well worth the effort. It's depicted on the 5JD bank-note. A cool and shady cave is on the plain just across it, and that's where we sit down, for another Pepsi, in order to take in this awesome sight.

A young Bedouin decides to offer us a breathtaking stunt: he climbs on a rope to the 36m high frieze, posing for pictures there, thus showing the imposing size of the temple very clearly. Then he angles like an ape to the very top of the 9m high urnstructure. All judiciously spiced with intense moments of drama. Then my heart stops: he actually jumps off the urn, landing a few meters below on a sphere,... and keeps his balance, il'Hamdulillah (thanks to God)!

Back to downtown Petra, we slowly proceed back to el Khazneh, which is by now glowing in amazing purple, rose, and red tones. Petra well deserves its surname of rose-red city. Across the Siq, into a taxi, and into a well-deserved shower. "Down to one meal per day", as Steve observes, we feast on chicken, rice, and salad on the pleasantly cool terrace in front of our hotel.

Day 24: Wadi Musa - Petra - Wadi Musa

An emotional start for the day: after 18 days together, Susan and Steve finally leave us. They head back to Cairo via Aqaba, to pick up their luggage and finish their trip in Greece. Mark goes with them, and Shaky leaves for Amman to get a travel permit for the West Bank.

So that's Marc and I alone again. We hitchhike down to Petra, in order to linger over details we skipped yesterday, and seek out the odd place nobody visits. We start with the three-storied temple facing the Roman Theater. At the end of the Cardo Maximus, we climb to the small Nabatean Museum on the hill behind Qasr elBint. We circumvent the hill to find the Crusaders' Castle, but judge it unimpressive. An adventurous climb straight down, and we are ready for a Pepsi-stop. After a cheese sandwich somewhere else, we have a look at the two remaining great temples: the Urn Tomb and the Corinthian Tomb. Pretty much exhausted, we climb to the shaded upper levels of the Roman Theater and relax while taking in the beauty of this valley.

Eventually, we head back to el Khazneh, for another awe-inspired long stare. While hiking back through the Siq, we can't help looking back to this gorgeous temple. Petra definitely is one of the most spell-binding places I've visited so far. In terms of man- influenced landscaping, I can only think of Cappadokia (Turkey) for a site that gave me similar emotions.

Our receptionist dishes up one of the best dinners in a long time. We enjoy a good discussion with a French-Canadian pair-gorgeous accent, as usual - , while watching yet another melodramatic Egyptian soap-opera on TV, and then the English-spoken 10pm evening news, our daily reminder of what's going on in the world.

The West

The onslaught of Western "civilization" is resented by Islamic "fundamentalists" who ask for a return to Islamic values, and the rejection of Western influence, such as the dynamics of unguided progress. The aim is to turn one's back to the West, so as to purify from all corruption, and thus restore the former power. Islam only seems a vehicle of dissent, as the main grudge is against the humiliations of the Crusades, of colonialism with its betrayals, artificial borders, and established ruling elites, of the creation of Israel, and of Western double standards and interventionism into their internal affairs. Indeed, let's not forget that Muslim civilization was the most advanced in the world during five centuries in the Middle Ages, pushing science to limits surpassed by the West only during the last century, favoring free trade, educating literally everybody, giving equal opportunities to women. Read Sigrid Hunke's apologetic Allah's Sun over the Occident for a comprehensive enumeration of Muslim achievements that have later been attributed to others. Is this the kind of society they want to restore? Sometimes I doubt this. Funnily, many Jordanians happily tell you that they "hate" the USA for its foreign policy and else, and yet, wearing blue jeans, drinking Pepsi, or driving a Chevrolet are considered ultimate status symbols.

Day 25: Wadi Musa - Ma'an - al Quweira - Wadi Rum

Lured by other travelers arriving with colorful stories, we decide to turn south again, and get to Wadi Rum. A rickety bus takes us east to Ma'an, where Mustapha volunteers to show us the other bus terminal, and insists on paying us a round of tea on top of that. The bus- driver drops us at the crossing 5km south of al Quweira, where the dead-end road to Wadi Rum starts.

There is a steady trickle of cars into and out of Wadi Rum, so we're confident to make it there. And the first car stops. It's actually a jeep, and its occupants are Mohammad and Ahmed. The former is a captain of the Jordanian Desert Police, and the latter is his driver. They bought their daily newspaper in al Quweira, and are on the way back to their headquarters, 20km into the valley. They are great fun to be with, and we're invited for tea together with the whole company. They tell us that their main mission is to track down drug smugglers from Saudi Arabia, and that they are quite successful at it, although it often gets down to shooting and killing. Soon a Danish family (the daddy is a UN-employee on mission at the Golan Heights) on their way to Wadi Rum is waved into the camp, to join in for the tea. What a hospitable people, these Jordanians! If you're not offered tea at least three times a day, there must be something seriously wrong with your attitude.

Eventually, we get up, exchange addresses with Mohammad, and hitchhike the remaining 8km to Wadi Rum, across splendid desert scenery. Monument Valley (Arizona) is maybe the best approximation I can think of.

Former "playground" of Lieutenant T. E. Lawrence's military exploits with Arab insurgents against the crumbling Ottoman Empire, this place indeed looks out-of-this- world. A 2km wide sandy plain over-grown here and there with the odd bush - green at this time of the year - stretches between two ranges of up to 1,750m high cliffs, plus a maze of similar side-valleys. If it weren't for the occasional Bedouin settlement, a jeep-ride here would almost feel like driving a vehicle on Mars. This area was of course chosen by David Lean to shoot his monumental epic Lawrence of Arabia, romanticized from Lawrence's autobiographic Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence was and remains a very controversial, and enigmatic, character, but he has meanwhile been debunked and proven to be a "spinner of fantastic tales" (says David Fromkin, in A Peace to End All Peace) aiming at self- aggrandizement, and deliberately deceiving the Arabs about the true nature of British plans about the carving-up of the Ottoman Empire (such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration).

Splitting a jeep with the Danish family for the afternoon, we head out into the desert. The driver takes us to Abu Aineh, which is also called Lawrence's Well, because the latter liked to hang out there, and on to Khazali, a narrow gorge with old inscriptions on the walls. A long ride in total isolation, except for the occasional black Bedouin tent, camel or goat herd, gets us to Burdah, a spectacular rock-bridge that is about 15m high. The remaining stops, at Lawrence's House (nice view), some sanddunes, and more ancient rock graffiti, are of lesser interest, but the main thing remains of course the landscape.

The Danes leave for Petra, and Marc and I picnic on the groceries we brought in from Wadi Musa, or just bought in the local store because the government-operated Rest House is pretty steep in terms of meals. In the starry evening, we relax and discuss the highlights and flops of the journey, now that we've seen all the major sites. There are no hotels here, so we rent a tent behind the Rest House.

Day 26: Wadi Rum - al Quweira - Ma'an - al Qatraneh - Kerak

After breakfast, we spend an hour by the road in order to hitch a ride out of Wadi Rum. The first five drivers are money-anxious hawks, so we let them go by. The next Bedouin is very friendly though, and lets us sit on the back of his ramshackle pickup truck. At km 8, we spot our friends from the Desert Police, and both sides engage in emphatic hand-waving to bid good-bye.

At the al Quweira crossing, Ayman, a young agricultural engineer on his way from Aqaba to Ma'an, loads us into his powerful business car. This is fortunate, because the road north to Ma'an is very steep, and the trucks are of course awfully slow on this stretch: about 30km/h. Moreover, quite a few spectacular truckaccidents make us decide not to try hitching one of these. The music from the tape sounds like Algerian Rai, and Ayman is quite happy that I know something about it. The performer is Cheb Khaled with his controversial lyrics, and Ayman wants to offer me the tape when he drops us off in Ma'an.

We flag down a minibus north to al Qatraneh, the crossing for the road to Kerak. Two enthusiastic young Palestinians - by now we are pretty much out of the Bedouin area - offer us a ride west to Kerak, where we check into the Castle Hotel. We take a muchneeded shower, and dress in our last set of clean clothes.

The Crusaders' Castle is pretty impressive, hovering on the hill amidst Kerak. Especially the huge underground galleries are worth some poking around, with a flashlight. The crusaders must have been happy to have these cool galleries, to escape the heat when under siege. Built by Baudouin I (from Bouillon, Belgium), this fortress is of course a must- see for Marc, although we don't endorse the misguided fanaticism of the Crusades: read Amin Maalouf's excellent The Crusades through Arab Eyes for the other point of view, and for an analysis of the geo-political and social consequences.

Then a stroll through this lively small-town, where we try a few fruit juices. Back at the hotel, we have a fun conversation with Tariq, the young receptionist. George (USA) and Frank (Ireland), the other two travelers who just arrived, join in as well. We dine on grilled meat at the nearby Fida Restaurant.

The Gulf War

King Hussein and his people aligned themselves with Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. The trade embargo on Iraq thus took much longer than expected to take effect, as Iraq had a vital artery from Aqaba to Bagdad. The growing rift between Gulf Arabs and other Arabs became very apparent to the West, namely as a rift between rich and poor nations. The former are accused by the latter to have repressive governments backed by the Western powers, not to share their wealth, to discriminate against Palestinians and other immigrants. So it is little wonder that Jordan, a small, oil-less country, with a 30-70% Palestinian population-according to viewpoints - hailed Saddam Hussein as a restorer of Arab dignity, and this independently of his later attempts to link the Gulf War to the Israel problem. Today it is still possible to buy Saddam Hussein T-shirts in Jordan, and some restaurants feature his portrait right next to King Hussein's.

On the Desert Highway, the Iraq-bound convoys actually contain quite some illegal cargo circumventing the embargo, and oiltankers stream from Bagdad to Amman as baksheesh. [Note: Severe checks have recently been imposed by the CIA.] Amman's population, mostly Palestinian refugees anyway, has recently swollen by 400,000 people, refugees from the Gulf War. This 50% increase doesn't go by without difficulties, and some Jordanians complain about feeling less secure, and about the disappearance of other values, or is it a reappearance? George Bush is of course considered the ultimate enemy, but US- ians get easily by, as long as they make clear that they don't approve Bush's interventionism. Yasser Arafat's popularity is declining as Palestinians grow discontent about his autocratic leadership that is not responsive to the changing world scene.

Day 27: Kerak - Amman

After breakfast, we take a bus with Frank to Amman. Too bad though that the Kings Highway is closed for repair, because we'll miss Wadi al-Mujib (a famous gorge), and Madaba (well-known for its mosaics) by skirting around them on the Desert Highway. Malesh. On the bus, Frank realizes he has forgotten his passport in Kerak. We decide to call the hotel from Amman, so that George can bring it along when he moves on tonight.

At Wahdat Station in Amman, we catch a service taxi (#27) to downtown Amman, where we check into the friendly Vinicia Hotel. Fahmi, the receptionist, calls Tariq in Kerak because of the passport, and the latter insists on delivering it himself, as he has business to do in Amman anyway. This is quite extraordinary, and indeed, 2 hours later, Tariq is there to deliver the passport to the grateful Frank.

Amman, the Greek Philadelphia, is a fairly modern and clean city, built upon a series of hills. Traffic is just as mad as in Cairo. But there are not many sights, the main attraction lying in the legendary friendliness of the easy-going people. Downtown Amman is a very popular area, and that's where the traveler wants to spend his time. There is the el Husseiny Mosque, the eldest mosque in Jordan, and recently restored. A few hundred meters down the road is the impressive Roman Theater (6,000 seats), in front of which is a shaded park, and a large pedestrian square, which are great hang-outs all day long.

While overviewing the place from the top ranks of the theater, we are temporarily joined by Nidal, a Palestinian student. As the guardian doesn't seem to tolerate his being with us (after some recent incident, Jordanians can technically be arrested for being with foreigners), we go down for a cup of tea in the park.

The hill right in front has some remnants of a Citadel. We climb onto it, and enjoy a pleasant view all over Amman. Ali, the policeman guarding the site, invites us for tea at his house. He adds some home-grown na-na (mint) leaves to the tea, giving it a flavor I like a lot, just like in Morocco. He is very happy to have somebody to talk to: the poor fellow is alone all day.

From the Citadel, we spot two beautiful mosques that seem worth the detour. We first head to the nearest, namely the recently built King Abdallah Mosque, on Jebel Webdeh. It features a nice blue roof. In the immediate vicinities are two Christian churches, providing a nice reminder of the religious crossroads Jordan is. On the way down, we are "abducted" by Mahmoud, a journalist of the Al Hasad monthly magazine. At their headquarters, he offers us tea, and a recent copy of the magazine, while introducing us for a fun conversation to the rest of the editorial staff.

Eventually, we get going, and walk down Sharia King Hussein, towards downtown Amman again. We pass in front of some ministry, where public writers wait for business under sun-umbrellas. We ask one of them to let us have a look at his typewriter, because we've never seen an Arabic keyboard before.

From the fruit market near the el Husseiny Mosque, we climb up the steep stairs onto Jebel el-Ashrafiyeh, in search of the other mosque we spotted from the Citadel. The Abu Darwish Mosque is indeed very original with its pleasant alternation of black and white stones, and the view from there is even better than the one from the Citadel. It strikes us that many houses feature miniature Eiffel towers on their roofs: they are meant to hide the disgraceful TV antennas.

By now we are pretty exhausted for the day, and slowly head back to the centre. We decide to celebrate this last evening at Al Quds, one of the most famous restaurants in town. It looks like a pastry shop from the outside, but at the back is a dining space with classy waiters. We order the house's specialty, namely mensef (the Jordanian national dish), plus their recommended lemon juice. This dish consists of a bed of rice topped by a yogurt sauce with cashews and raisin, and finally a piece of mutton stew. A butter sauce is served along. For desert, we treat ourselves to some of their delicious pastry. Total cost: only 3JD each.

Jordan as a tourist destination

Considering the lack of oil, and all recent historic events (huge absorptions of refugees in 1948, 1967, and 1991), the Jordan economy is in surprisingly good shape. But the "punishment" by some Gulf states for their supporting Iraq might hurt badly in the long run. The JD was a very strong currency, until its recent 50% drop. Only then has Jordan become an affordable destination for budget travelers, although the government's tourism bureau has totally forgotten these by only building first-class Rest Houses: well, agreed, they have to start somewhere, and package tourists bring more cash. Politics are relatively stable, too, although King Hussein has been surviving coup attempts for 40 years now. And as I hope to have shown, there is so much to see there. So it is a mystery to me why so few people ever bother to go there. To quote Hugh Finlay (Lonely Planet): "Jordan is the most under-rated tourist destination in the world". Right!

Day 28: Amman - Paris - Brussels

After a breakfast at the well-situated Hilton Bar - a pompous name for this tea house with a dominating view over downtown Amman - we bid farewell to Frank. A service-taxi (#6) takes us to the Abdali bus-station, where we board a bus to Queen Alia Airport (32km south of Amman). All procedures are pretty straightforward, though a hefty exit charge (10JD) is levied by the airport authorities. This is the end of a great journey.

End-of-Part-II. This travelogue starts in Part I: Egypt.