Judging by the headlines, it was a lousy time for a vacation in the Middle East. Three days before our flights left for Israel, the U.S. opened its new embassy in Jerusalem, controversially shifting decades of policy. The resulting protests at the Gaza border left more than 40 dead. The religious holidays — the Jewish harvest celebration of Shavout and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — would begin just after our arrival.
Would we be safe? My experience on previous trips to the region suggested we'd be fine. And canceling May’s long-planned family trip to Israel and Jordan would have cost thousands of dollars, not to mention precious vacation days. Shy of a terrorist attack triggering our travel insurance policies, the trip was on.
We arrived at our university-neighborhood Jerusalem hotel on a Thursday night, amid pre-holiday revelry. The nearby cafes were packed; an over-served student heaved into a planter. This was not exactly what The Husband and our 30-something kids had imagined. But Israel and neighboring Jordan, I have found, are rarely what travelers expect.
Israel and Jordan were my idea. For anyone who has ever seen “Indiana Jones,” Petra is a no-brainer. Our nonreligious gang — Cary and Jen, Devin and Jani — was less intrigued by Israel but willing to go with the flow on a dash that included two days in Jerusalem, three in Jordan and a final day to unwind in Tel Aviv.
On my previous Israel visit, in 2016, I traveled with Diana Stoll and Michelle Dunn Marsh, collaborators with Lin Arison on the guidebook-multimedia presentation “The Desert and the Cities Sing: Discovering Today’s Israel.” The extensive package had just been published; in celebration we drove south to north, visiting hip restaurants, pampering spas, boutique hotels, the stark Negev desert and several Palestinian scientific projects that rarely hit the U.S. morning report.
Our family visit was far tighter. In our two Jerusalem days, we would visit the emotionally powerful Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem; the ancient Biblical texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls; John the Baptist’s birthplace in the suburb of Ein Kerem and Jerusalem’s Old City.
We grabbed taxis or walked, never feeling unsafe or even uncomfortable. As always, armed guards were stationed at key points within the Old City, and the entry to the Western Wall was secured by weapons checkpoints. To discourage discord during this sensitive time, city authorities had closed the Old City’s Damascus Gate leading into the Arab quarter to non-Muslims. That and a slight increase in police presence were the only sign of the recent troubles that we ever saw.
Like many medieval fortress cities, Old Jerusalem is a maze of wallet-tugging commercial opportunity. Pomegranate juice squeezed by the order. Tangy-scented hillocks of turmeric, zatar, cinnamon, cumin. Mountains of gummy candies shaped like pizza slices and the Rolling Stones tongue-and-lips logo. Necklaces and earrings, scarves (often from China), manger scenes carved from olive wood, handmade ceramic dishes for olives and dates — and the fruits to fill them. Embroidered yarmulkes in a half-dozen colors and T-shirts emblazoned with the words Guns & Moses. One closed booth proclaimed its allegiance to the University of Alabama's Crimson Tide.
At this time of shabbat and Shavout — which also marks God’s gift of the Torah to Moses — orthodox Jews streamed into the old city. Black-clad men in round fur hats the size of SUV tires strode purposely through the alleys, heading for prayer at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Millennia ago, it bordered the Second Jerusalem Temple from the time of King Herod, which itself replaced Solomon’s original temple destroyed by the Babylonians. For Jews, it is the holiest place on the planet.
Above it sits the golden Dome of the Rock, where the Muslim Prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to paradise — and one of the holiest places in the Muslim world. Most days, non-Muslims are allowed to visit the plaza, though they can't enter the shrine.
Jerusalem’s tawny walled city covers less than a single square kilometer — about a third of a square mile. Given the proximity, the neighborliness that routinely permeates the Old City is a surprise to first-time visitors. Especially when you add in the Christians, who have sometimes argued among themselves here. (This lead to the now time-honored practice of giving a Muslim overnight possession of the key to the city's holiest Christian church.)
On any given day, large groups of pilgrims gather before each of the 14 Stations of the Cross — now inside commercial alleys — leading from the courtyard where Jesus is said to have been condemned and along the path where he carried his cross. It ends at the revered Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which now encases Golgotha, where he was crucified, and the tomb where he was laid.
Despite the clamor along the Way of the Cross, the faithful are reverent, sometimes weeping. Inside the holy church, the faithful and the curious queue to touch the slab of marble where Jesus’ body was washed and the cave where Jesus’ body was secured.
The Bible stories of youth that often seem so much like fiction suddenly come alive. “I tend to think that religion is very confusing at times,” said Cary. “It’s somewhat meaningless until you walk through Jerusalem. It surprised me. I really enjoying the fact that it was real.”
Said Jani, “I literally saw people fainting. The intensity of belief is so strong.”
On to Jordan
To get to Petra, we opted for a minibus-taxi through the stony desert and along the Dead Sea to Eilat in the south, then rolled our bags through the checkpoints and across the border.
And then we were in Jordan.
Our driver-guide Wael — “just call me Wally” — was a jovial, easygoing man in his 40s.
When I first visited Jordan a decade ago, the road to the south with a simple two-laner. A superhighway has since opened, enabling us to speed past the occasional camel and watermelon-filled trucks to the wind-farm-dotted hills near Petra.
When we stopped for a break at an overlook, I braced for the hard-core pitch that seems inevitable at remote roadside shops worldwide. Instead, we found the genuine welcome that is so much a part of the region's culture. The bored staff showed the girls how to wrap their heads in scarves to block heat and dust; the boys were draped in the classic checked keffiyeh — the coolest possible headgear in the desert heat. An older man showed his skill at the unique art of making sand camels in a bottle, a magic trick that leaves us wowed.
Though we bought little — we’d already shopped in Jerusalem — the staff was just as warm when we left as when we arrived. The bedouin are known for hospitality that beats out even Ritz-Carlton. Custom has it that if a stranger — even an enemy — arrives at their desert tent, he’s given food and water for three days without question.
Tribes form the basis of Jordan’s political and social system. In the West, we think of them as political units, but as we roll through the desert, Wael explains the critical role these kinship network play in everyday life. Each month, each male member of the tribe pays a specified contribution to the group coffers — for him and his son, the fee is $55. When each man’s time comes to provide his bride’s dowry and build a house, the tribe provides the financing for it all: the gold jewelry, the thick hand-woven carpets, the feast for literally thousands of friends and family. “My son, he doesn’t understand why it matters,” Wael sighed. “For me, it’s a very good thing.”
The ancient ruins of Petra are Jordan’s main attraction, and many visitors bypass the caravanserai known as Little Petra — an important key to understanding the strategy of the Nabateans who ruled here. What gave Petra its power in its heyday — a few centuries around the dawn of the Common Era — was its trading-crossroads location and access to water. Though the area is home to a half-dozen springs, supplying both visitors and locals required a sophisticated collection and cistern system that's readily seen at the outpost. As a matter of security, visitors were expected to “check in” outside the main city, in Little Petra, where caves served as hostel and camel stable.
For those looking to replicate the experience, the local bedouins have cleaned out a cave near the entrance, dubbed Hakuna Matata and available via AirBnb for $30 per night. Despite the lack of amenities, users have rated it five stars.
We've opted for a 21st Century hotel located atop the entrance to Petra itself. Here, the only cave is the bar, where visitors can — thankfully — get a beer or cocktail even during Ramadan. Drinking alcohol is a matter of choice in Jordan, Wael tells us — except during the holy month, when Muslims are prohibited. Despite sweaty days without food or water — eating is allowed only after sundown — the Jordanians are flawlessly gracious.
“I thought the general vibe would be more hostile,” said Devin. Jenn and Cary agreed. “I wasn’t expecting them to be so hospitable,” Jani said.
Best day ever
For our gang, Petra was the grail. It pays to get a dawn start; even with the falloff in tourism that followed the Arab awakening — American visits are down nearly 90 percent, said our local guide — the site draws crowds.
Many visitors zip through the Siq, the narrow, three-quarter-mile long gorge that hides the 2,500-year-old city. But there's plenty to see. As the sun moves overhead, the 300-plus-foot walls emerge from the shadows, revealing pistachio and caper bushes and a carving of a camel caravan along the rose-color sides. In places the canyon is so tight the horse-drawn carriage-taxis can barely fit through.
At last, Indian Jones’ “Last Crusade” scene comes into view. The tomb facade known as the Treasury peeks through the narrow slot. Tourist camels await.
It's just the beginning; the site covers nearly 100 square miles.
“I thought Petra was just the Treasury,” said Cary. Clambering to the royal tombs, peering into caves carved from red-and-orange rock, surveying the massive amphitheater take hours.
Ambitiously, we head up the 850 steps leading to the rock-hewn structure known as the Monastery. The kids zip along; I lag but eventually get there. The Husband opts for a donkey taxi.
Down the final few stairs and around a bend, we finally can see the Monastery. Standing at the door to the 150-foot-tall face, Devin looks like an ant. This place was made for giants — and well, well worth the effort of getting to it. “With no technology, how did they do this?” asks Jani.
We'd love to linger. No time. Wael will soon be picking us up for the drive to Wadi Rum, tunes from Back Street Boys and Elton John on his car’s mixtape.
It was be my first visit to Wadi Rum. Not really worth it, my guide said on my first visit.
Oh, so so wrong.
We climb into the rear of an open desert pickup and roar into the desert valley stretching between rocky cliffs that serve as Mother Nature's fortifications. The drive to our camp takes nearly 45 minutes through the long-dried ocean bed, with a short stop to visit petroglyphs carved into a slim gorge. The scene is otherwordly; no wonder “Lawrence of Arabia,”“The Martian” and Will Smith’s upcoming “Aladdin” movie were filmed here.
There, in the crook of a rocky tower, is our home for the night: A village of pressurized bubbles, each with a full bathroom and plush king bed. From our pillows we can see through clear plastic into the landscape beyond and stars above. We feel like we’re on the moon.
But there’s no time to relax now. Our desert driver is beckoning us back to the truck.
We fly along the reddening sand, chasing the dwindling light. Our driver delivers us to the foot of a ledge; we scramble up for the last clear views of the glowing sun before it slips behind a crag and then into twilight. It’s a moment for silence.
We’ve traveled from dawn to dusk, from an ancient city to a prehistoric windswept land, and onto the surface of another planet.
“The best travel day ever.” says Devin. Amen to that.
If you go
We traveled to Israel independently. El Al flies direct from Miami to Tel Aviv. American/Iberia offers one-stop routes through Madrid. Turkish Airlines offers one-stop service through Istanbul. Other airlines offer service via Europe.
To travel to Eilat, we booked a minibus taxi online via FloShuttle, withflo.com. We returned from Eilat to Tel Aviv via air.
In Jordan, we made advance arrangements via email with the very helpful team at Jordan Direct Tours, jdtours.com. This was far less expensive than booking a tour including both countries. They booked our preferred hotels: Petra Guest House, petraguesthouse.website, and Wadi Rum Luxury Night Camp, wadirumnight.com. In addition to the bubble tents, the camp offers bedouin tents, also with private bath. Sun City Camp, suncitycamp.com/ is also recommended.
Tour companies submit visa information in advance, so we were able to cross the border easily after paying an exit fee of about $35. We paid a similar fee when we left Jordan and returned to Israel.