By Paul Motter,Nov. 15, 2006
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Transitting the Suez Canal
As we transited the Suez canal the next day we had an opportunity to get to know the ship, which does not take long, and to log into the Internet and update readers on the Silversea Virtual Cruise (see it here). The passage along the canal was slow and steamy. At one point we were held at the "Bitter Lake" with several tankers as a flotilla of "more important" ships got priority to proceed through the canal's single lane in the other direction..
Sharm Al Sheik
The next day we docked in Sharm Al Sheik on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Here the day's excursion went to St Katherine's Monastery on the spot believed to have spawned the infamous burning bush during the great exodus of Moses leading the Jews from Egypt. The original chapel was founded by Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, in 330 AD.
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The monastery has a bush that seems to thrive in a desert where hardly a single scrub can grow for miles around. Why the bush grows there, and apparently has for time immemorial, is a scientific mystery -- but not a spiritual one for many believers. No one has ever been able to establish a cutting from that bush anywhere else -- It thrives in that one spot only. The monastery has been protected by Kings and Pharaohs against various intruders throughout the centuries and has never been destroyed.
St Katherine's Manastery
The infamous "bush" believed to have been burning for Moses.
That night, the ship made its way to Aqaba, Jordan, gateway to the ancient city of Petra. Room service awakened us with hot breakfast and coffee, allowing us just enough time to get to the tour bus.
Petra was the home of the Nabateans circa the first century AD. The denizens spoke Aramaic (the language of Jesus), and comprised a thriving civilization in the hills of the Jordanian desert. Our guide Hani, hand-selected by Silversea, was just over 70 years old, but he had the stamina of a 30-year-old. Hani grew up in upper Petra, so there was hardly a stone he didn't know. He still lives in the modern city that has grown up around the main entrance to the city, but as a child he lived in some of the same caves as the ancient Nabateans.
As soon as our bus started on the three-and-a-half hour drive to Petra, Hani began to tell us the history of the region we were traversing, called Wadi Rum, a site for many of the desert scenes for the movie "Lawrence of Arabia."
Ancient Petra is deep in a sandstone valley that had a hidden entrance atop a hill on the edge of the desert. The three-quarter-mile walk to the city is through a canyon barely wide enough for the horse carriages that carry some tourists. The narrow canyon is the only way in and out of the city; there are no roads. During the descent one sees ancient artifacts like small caves that were once homes and later turned into tombs, and icons to their spirit gods. There are also remains of signs showing this path was once the entrance to Petra. The signs are life-size statues of men leading camels carved into the sandstone canyon walls. All that remain are the feet, but one can imagine what they once looked like and wonder at the ingenuity and ability of the artists.
The square rock carvings are Nabatean pyramids (tombs)
the road starts to get narrower and deeper.
Hani shows us the "signs" of a man leading camel
El Khazneh Temple comes into view
The payoff is El Khazneh temple, the treasury. This dramatic three-story Nabatean monument is carved into the face of a sandstone cliff. (This was the site of a famous scene from 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.') Click here for a very dramatic view of this amazing site: El Khazneh - panoramas.dk You may need to load an active-X component. It is worth it.
The El Khazneh Temple is Revealed
Several Homes in city of Petra.
Colored sandstone creates amazing wallpaper
Huge temples in the distance note people in foreground
Many people believe this impressive building is the end of the trail, but it is only the beginning. Around the corner of the cliff are the remains of the main city of Petra, with an ancient theater, temples to the gods, homes and agora. Hani took us as far as it is reasonable to go through the ancient city. Then those in our group who had arranged for horse carts for a lift back to the top of the canyon stayed with Hani. The rest of us had to walk uphill to get back out.
On the return path
Our group on buggies
Following the tour, Silversea arranged a luncheon for guests at the Mövenpick Hotel, right at the entrance to Petra. Hundreds of us from Silver Whisper ate Middle Eastern food at our leisure and then drifted back to our buses.
Back on Silver Whisper
That night, we invited friends over for pre-dinner cocktails, entertaining them with Perrier-Jouet Champagne and caviar, all ordered from room service at no charge. Ah, the touches of Silversea. The next day my wife and I stayed onboard while the ship remained a second day in Aqaba. We got to see the stewardesses cleaning the cabins of people who were disembarking. We actually witnessed something thousands of cruisers have wondered about; how well do they clean the bedding? I was very pleased to see that Silversea (and hopefully other lines as well) do have a regimen that includes completely stripping a bed and even vacuuming both sides of the mattresses. Those cabins got a thorough cleaning before they were turned over.
Even Silversea does Towel Animals now
Proof that the help services the bed linens after passengers leave
Sights of Aqaba:
I chose to stay on the ship most of the second day in Aqaba, which was nicely quiet as many passengers were on tour. In the afternoon I took the free shuttle bus to downtown Aqaba to look around. Silversea will always provide a free shuttle bus to the closest main shopping area in every port. Some premium cruise lines these days do not provide a shuttle or charge up to $25 per person to get you to the nearest reasonable point of civilization from the dock. And one non-luxury line even chooses the most remote dock possible just so passengers will have to book a shore excursion.
Aqaba fish market
Butchers ready Ramadan (Eid) feast
more local spices
The following morning we returned to Egypt, this time to the Red Sea port of Safaga about 200 miles south of Sharm al Sheik. This was our gateway to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. While the pyramids are breathtaking, they pale in comparison to the sites of the Upper Nile, where later and more powerful pharaohs such as Tutankhamen and Rameses III made their homes, tombs and temples in Karnak and Luxor.