The Holy Land Part 4 – Jordan

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 The Holy Land

Part Four:   Jordan

March 4, 2010

Dateline: Amman, Jordan

Latitude at Amman 31.57 Degrees North, Longitude 35.56 Degrees East

Today we were picked up early for our two hour trip by car to the Jordanian border for the final leg of our Holy Land trip. Watching the landscape pass, and thinking of everything we have seen, I have a phrase of Dr. Seuss in my head that goes like this: “you have brains in your head and feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose”. Today we chose to steer ourselves east to the Kingdom of Jordan. We were interested to learn that there is a wealth of Biblical history in Jordan, which makes sense since today’s borders are very new in an area that measures its history in terms of thousands of years. The Holy Land is a complex term – it covers multiple present day countries and multiple religions. Our driver will take us to the Hussein Bridge at the Sheik Hussein check point near Bet She’an (although the Allenby Bridge is closer), since we are going to do some sight-seeing in Northern Jordan this morning before continuing south to Amman. The border is open, but tightly controlled and the process seems to be something  akin to a POW exchange.  Gypsies and Bedouins (both nomads) cannot wander freely across the borders as they can in other countries. Most stay in Israel where there is greater tolerance for their wandering ways. At the border, we stopped to get our VAT tax refund for our Dead Sea purchases. We then had to clear security in Israel – then Immigration, then pay a departure tax (which is more than the VAT refund they just gave us) then Customs, then through a duty free store (not sure that is on the POW exchange itinerary). It is not an option – you actually exit through the store. We thought surely we were in Jordan by then, but no, we had to schlep our bags another few hundred yards to a bus stop which is actually a no man’s land /DMZ sort of place which is technically shared territory and take the bus into Jordan where we again do the security, immigration and customs routine. We are met by Sala (pronounced Sah-lah), our Jordanian guide and our driver, Zahir, who is nicknamed Zuzu. We found him to be much more sedate in his driving than Eilon, whom we suspected used his tank driving experience in operating the Mercedes SUV. With him it was sort like we were always on patrol in enemy territory and civilian traffic rules didn’t apply. We noticed that Zazu has really striking blue green eyes and wondered if he is a descendant of perhaps a Crusader Knight Templar from centuries gone by.

The Jordan River Valley

The Jordan River Valley

The country side was beautiful and mountainous with red poppies, yellow sunflowers and purple thistle, creating a blanket of bloom against a pale green background covering all the meadows. Looking back we could see the Jordan River Valley, appearing lush and fertile. We can see the Judean Mountains of Israel in the distance. Sala told us that the Jordan is part of the Great Rift Valley that starts in Turkey and runs through Africa from north to south. There is a lot of local color along the way – trucks whizzing past us with clucking chickens poking their heads out of baskets, the random goat here and there on the front porch of a shanty-type dwelling, and tomatoes and other produce offered for sale out of the back of a pickup truck. Sala told us that the haphazardly built houses we see (maybe architecturally challenged might be the politically correct word), he calls moron houses because when they want more room, they simply add more on.

The mountains we ascended are called the Gilad Range, although they are often referred to in Christian writings as Gilead, which was the Biblical name for what is today Northern Jordan.  You may recall the Biblical verse asking “Is there a balm in Gilead? (Jeremiah 8:22) which is sort of like asking if there  is a doctor in the house, but this applies to a doctor or medicinal balm in the spiritual sense to heal troubled souls. The olive groves gave way to evergreens and the landscape got more rugged with the rocks grudgingly permitting trees to sprout in their crevices. Below us the terraced olive groves fell away to the river’s edge and the border with Israel.

The official name of the country is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The term Hashemite (called Banu Hashim in Arabic which translates as the Hashim clan) refers to a tribe of people believed to be descended from Mohammed. The Royal Family includes King Hussein who ruled from 1953 to 1999 and was the 42nd generation and now King Abdullah is 43rd in the line of direct descendants. The capital is Amman, and the currency is the dinar. (Exchange rate is 1.50 dinar to the dollar). The country is 90 per cent Islamic and 10 per cent Christian and contains numerous religious sites for all 3 major religions. The official language is Arabic, but English is widely spoken. A Jordanian man can have a maximum of 4 wives by law, but Sala tells us that one is plenty (or perhaps sometimes more than plenty) for most men nowadays. Sala said he has 3 openings for new wives if we have any recommendations, but said it may not be a good idea since a mistake on his part would be magnified by factor of 4. Families traditionally live together in a multi-generational environment – if not in the same house, then in houses clustered together.

Jordan has really benefitted from peace with Israel. Since 1993 they have been able to spend money on people rather than defense, and now have 27 universities with a diverse international student body. The result is a very modern and prosperous country. Jordan has a population of 5.5 million. It was partitioned off from Palestine in 1923 and became independent in 1946. We found Jordan to be very laid back compared to Israel. Like Israel, it is a small country with an area of only 36,000 square miles – 90% of which is desert from Amman south to the port city (the only port for Jordan) of Aqaba, (pronounced Ah-kah-ba with the accent on “ah”). From Amman north, the country is green and mountainous. From Amman south it is desert. Queen Noor is not the mother of the current king, Abdullah. She was the 4th wife of Hussein, but he had his sequentially not simultaneously. The Queen Alia airport, named after one of the wives of King Hussein who died in a plane crash. He then married American Lisa Halaby who became Queen Noor. Abdullah is married to the very westernized Queen Rania, who has appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair and on various U.S. news programs .

Ajlun Castle

Ajlun Castle

Our first stop today is Ajlun Castle, (pronounced “Azh-loon“), built by the Arabs in 1184-85 A.D. to defend against those pesky Crusaders, who like the Energizer Bunny, kept going and going, invasion after invasion for about 200 years. This castle was the northern-most of three fortresses built for that purpose. The other two are named Kerak and Shobak and are in the desert and we did a drive-by shooting (cameras only) of them later in our visit. The castle’s Arabic name is Qalat ar-Rabad. The Muslim hero Saladin (pronounced to rhyme with Paula Deen) was successful here against the Crusaders and went on to expel them from Jerusalem. The castle was built from blocks of limestone, sandstone and basalt. It was built to last thousands of years, and it did until the Ottomans abandoned it in the 1800’s and it fell victim to pilferage of stones to build other structures, including no doubt some “moron”

The Castle Tea Salesman

The Castle Tea Salesman

houses, and thus it is mostly a ruin now. Still the castle is very imposing in the distance and must have looked quite menacing to advancing armies. We trekked through the various rooms of the castle and manhandled a few of the catapult balls left behind– about the size of bowling balls. I was surprised they were quite manageable, and I think I could have been a catapult loader in another life. We didn’t see any vats once filled with boiling oil, but we did encounter a tea salesman with boiling tea he was selling to visitors and Stu sampled his private brew and pronounced it strong, but tasty.

We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant for a mixed grill lunch. We arrived to the aroma of

Freshly Made Saj

Freshly Made Saj

thin bread baking on clay pot dome-like stones over an open flame brick oven. It looked similar to foccacia, but was thin, like pizza. As best I could tell it was called “kobis”, but I also heard it referred to as “saj”. We decided to just call it bread when we asked the waiters for more. The mixed grill was cooked on skewers and was similar to other Arabic meals we had and was quite delicious. A note on bathrooms in Jordan – we found them to be very Western in nature (toilet seats and a flusher are the criteria for “Western”) and quite clean. Sala said Jordanians jokingly refer to them as the Happy Place – we were just glad to see they also were furnished with Happy Paper. They had an impressive array of shishas (water pipes), which the Jordanians call nargileh, but we skipped this particular offering today.

Hadrian's Arch - Jerash

Hadrian’s Arch – Jerash

After lunch, we traveled to Jerash , known as Gerasa in Classical times, (It is pronounced Jar-ash with the accent on “Jar”) and one of the best preserved Roman cities in the Middle East. It rose to prominence as a Greek city (one of the 10 in the area known as the Decapolis) in the Third Century B.C. Then in the First Century B.C., it was a self-governed city in the Roman province of Syria. Emperor Trajan put an end to the autonomy, but the city grew and prospered under his reign and that of other emperors including Hadrian, who built himself a number of impressive structures including his own arch. Subsequent emperors continued the trend (no limited government spending here either) and the city grew to magnificent proportions, with much of it still standing today, despite the neglect during the Muslim era and a series of devastating earthquakes between 527 A.D. and 565 A.D. By the time the Crusades took place, it was pretty much all over for Jerash.

The good news is that the excavation of Jerash started in the 1920’s and continued for 40 years. What has been uncovered is awe inspiring, although less than half of the city has been excavated to date. Jerash was so grandly conceived and beautifully constructed, it is often referred to as the Pompeii of the East. Like Pompeii, it was beset by natural disasters and had

The Oval Plaza at Jerash

The Oval Plaza at Jerash

to be excavated, but the covering up was a process that took centuries, versus a single day by a volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.   Today, visitors can see the evidence of a truly fabulous city, and can imagine what it was at its peak. For our visit, it was springtime with fields of poppies, daisies and yellow mustard scattered among the ruins. We saw the occasional goat roaming about grazing among the ruins, which somehow added to the charm of the place. We were quite surprised to hear bagpipe music as we strolled through the ruins of the city. Sala told us that this is a carryover from the years of the British Mandate from 1917 to Independence in 1946.The mandate was put in place after the successful Great Arab Revolt of 1916 against the Ottoman Turks, led by Lawrence of Arabia. You may remember Peter O’Toole and his baby blue eyes, deeply tanned and deeply handsome in Arab dress in the 1962 movie, Lawrence of Arabia. Later in the trip we went to Wadi Rum where it was filmed. In our travels we are always amazed at the reach and influence of the British Empire. At its zenith It was indeed true that the sun never set on the British Empire. (A Scots friend of ours says that’s because even God can’t trust the British in the dark).

The Roman Theater at Jerash

The Roman Theater at Jerash

Despite the earthquakes, much of Jerash remained standing due to Roman ingenuity in earthquake technology. Columns were designed for flexibility and set into a base with a ball and joint arrangement that allowed the columns to move without falling. Jerash is probably the most impressive Roman structure we have seen, certainly on a par with Ephesus. The grandeur and the sheer size of the ancient city are stunning.   It was a walled city in its day, although the walls are largely gone or absorbed by the town, which has grown up around, and in many cases built over, many structures.

Our first stop was the Hippodrome where ancient chariot races were held. Sala told us they still do them for the tourists, but we just missed the last one. I am not sure what we missed since it is billed as the Roman Army Chariot Experience and Gladiator Show. I am all for “experiences”, but the gladiator show part called to mind something between Disney World and “pro” wrestling – I had visions of Hulk Hogan in a Roman tunic and lace-up sandals.  In any event, we will have to catch this next time. Sala told us that chariots were a common mode of transport for the upper class and we saw where the streets are still marked with chariot ruts etched into the stone. There was the usual array of temples dedicated to various gods and goddesses, plus there were actually some Christian churches added in Byzantine times. There was a large agora (market) where food was sold with a decorative fountain in its center. The streets were not mere

The Cardo - Jerash

The Cardo – Jerash

streets, but long avenues delineated by stately columns. The main street of Jerash was called the Cardo, which ran north and south for approximately 660 yards, and was lined with shops, restaurants and residences. It was intersected by an equally impressive street called the Decumanus. Intersections of the main streets are called tetrapylon which translates at crossroads. Many structures were dedicated to the arts, including two theaters and a public fountain called the Nymphaeum. Romans believed in nymphs (little water creatures) so this was as much temple as pleasure spot. Many of the structures still have sections of their original mosaic floors.

Of course Roman cities wouldn’t be Roman without massive public baths, so those were very much in evidence, but one of the most striking structures was the Oval Plaza which was an open paved area with 160 Ionic columns and a stone floor of approximately 80 meters by 90 meters. It is believed that its purpose was for public gatherings.

Bagpiper and Drummers

Bagpiper and Drummers

On our way out we stopped at one of the theaters for a brief concert performed by the Jordanian bagpipers, (actually one piper piping and two drummers drumming), but with olive drab uniforms instead of plaid kilts. They also wore keffiyahs (pronounced “ca-fee-yah” with the accent on “fee”), the Arab head dress favored by desert dwellers.

From Jerash we made the short trip to Amman, which we were surprised to find is every bit as hilly as San Francisco, although much more monochromatic, with houses and buildings made largely of white limestone from the surrounding hills. Sala told us that the limestone is cleaned with sand since water is at a premium. Amman is an extremely old city, home to civilized people for close to 6,000 years. In Biblical times, people called the Ammonites lived here. Then it became one of the 10 Cities of the Roman Decapolis and was named Philadelphia (long before our City of Brotherly Love, of course). There are quite a few Roman ruins, but after Jerash, they seemed small. We saw a citadel which has fortified a hilltop for centuries at the heart of city while driving in an area called Jebel el-Qalaa, where there are also the ruins of a Roman temple, and an amphitheater that would seat 6,000, built in 170 AD.

Suburbs of Amman

Suburbs of Amman

Jordan has its own housing glut, with approximately 100,000 empty apartments because of the recession.  Sala spoke openly about the challenges and issues that Jordanians face, but he is very diplomatic. The term “problem” can cover everything from recession to riots. Amman is an interesting mix of old and new – there are glass and steel skyscrapers (sort of a Dubai in the mountains) and roadside stands with tables made from half a dozen cinder blocks supporting couple of 2X6 boards or old doors. We actually saw a camel lot where camels are for sale (a far cry from Camelot (and, of course, enjoyed the pun). Given Sala’s indulgent smile, we think he hears this a lot from his English speaking clients). Sala told us that they use 100% of the camel here including the meat. He offered to get Gary some camel meat, since he noticed he is quite the carnivore, but he settled for a Starbucks coffee instead.  We had to borrow money from Sala since we didn’t have a chance to get Jordanian dinars yet. In the old part of the city we saw a flurry of deliveries of coffee and tea (as opposed to pizza), as delivery boys negotiated traffic on foot or on bicycles to nearby offices. They had open, little glass cups on metal trays so the ones on bikes had to balance with one hand, while steering with the other. Much of the new Amman has been built in the last 10 years since they made peace with Israel. In Jordan, there are many rich people in a very poor country. Gary was disappointed to learn the Harley Davidson dealership is not yet open.

The streets were busy with a strong, but not menacing police presence, more of a British Bobbie look and feel. Sala gave us what was billed as a Panoramic Tour of Amman.  We found the city, like the countryside very westernized and most women cover their heads, but not their faces, although many, including Queen Rania cover neither.  Clothing here is by choice not by law.

The western part of Amman is more prosperous than east and we noticed that even the dogs look upper class here. The most exclusive area is called Abdoun, which is home to the US Embassy. They very strictly enforce a “no pictures” area around the embassy for security reasons. The embassy compound is gigantic, almost Pentagon sized, for reasons far beyond our simple understanding of need. Outside there are Jordanian troops manning machine guns mounted on jeeps. There are U.S. troops on the inside which keeps things cool in foreign relations in case some radical nut-job comes to Amman seeking glory in the hereafter. We saw

Sheep and goats in the poshest street in Amman

Sheep and goats in the posh section of Amman

the Jordanian equivalent of Embassy Row on the most prestigious street in Abdoun called Al Quirah. The street is lined with mansions set behind walls and surrounded by beautiful gardens.  Sala showed us the house of the richest man in Jordan, and we were amazed to see goats grazing next door and in fact trotting down the street.  We assumed zoning isn’t what one would expect here. He is supposedly married to the daughter of a Russian Mafioso. Abdoun is very “Rodeo Drive” in some sections, very “Dukes of Hazard” in others. We checked into the Hyatt, a very luxurious hotel in a neighborhood of very luxurious hotels. Our clerk was Usama, another spelling for Osama, which is a quite common first name in these parts, and thus no cause for alarm. Our Usama could not have been more hospitable.  We decided to have a quiet dinner at one of the hotel’s 3 excellent restaurants.

March 5, 2010

Dateline:  Petra, Jordan

At breakfast we got rather excited at the sight of what we perceived to be real bacon, but alas, it turned out to be beef, not pork. We are in a Western Hotel in a Westernized Muslim country, but some taboos are not meant to be broken even here, so we will have to wait a few more days to indulge in any pork products. Sala and Zuzu picked us up at our hotel this morning and we headed southwest to Madaba, a place mentioned in the Old Testament as a city conquered by one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In those days there were three kingdoms: Edom in the south, Moab in the center and Ammon in the north. In the 4th Century A.D. it became an important Christian center with its own bishop, and weathered a number of invasions from the Persians and Muslims, but it declined in the 16th Century and was abandoned for over 300 years. Its name means water and food in Aramaic, the language spoken here at the time.

We found Madaba to be dusty and arid with a somewhat barren landscape, appearing to be a little down-at-the-heels town at the edge of acres and acres of olive groves. We did find some prosperous looking homes, but the goat and sheep rambling around the premises gave the houses sort of a “Beverly Hillbillies” feel. Today Madaba is famous for mosaics, both old and new. Here we saw the oldest surviving mosaic of the Holy Land on the floor of St. George’s Church which portrays a map of the Holy Land, believed to be created under the rule of the Roman Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565 A.D. It remained undiscovered until the late 19th Century when Christians were allowed by the ruling Muslims to build churches in Madaba on the foundations of previous structures. It was during the process of building St. George’s Church that the old mosaic was found.  Unfortunately, there was extensive damage before the mosaic was recognized as something of value.  The map shows many places in detail (if not geographically correct detail) including Gaza, which was a major port in those days, and the walled city of Jerusalem as it looked in Roman times when it was called Aelia Capitolina, complete with identifiable landmarks,  as seen from above (remarkable because, of course, no one could see it from above back then). Although the Romans had been gone from Jerusalem hundreds of years, it didn’t change much by the Sixth Century when the mosaic was done. Given its antiquity, it is understandable if the artists have the Nile flowing in the wrong direction and it is oriented East and West vs. North and South. The Nile is also on the far right which would make it east instead of west of Jerusalem. The map also depicts the Jordan River, the Cities of Nablus and Bethlehem, and the pre-Crusader Kerak fortress in what is today central Jordan. The geography as we know it today is a little wacky, but it is still impressive that someone knew all these places and got them essentially right, if not to scale, nor exactly in the

right places. The artists also included the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee with boats, fish and fishermen. The fishermen’s faces have been hacked out, presumably by some iconoclast who believed human likenesses should not be reproduced by man. This belief is still held by traditional Muslims and some Jewish factions. The art and sculptures of the Christian churches and structures must have given them fits since they plastered them all over everything they built.

There is also an archaeological park here with several other churches dating from the same period as St. George’s. We found it interesting that many Christian churches had artwork depicting Roman gods and goddesses. Sala told us that this was the method by which they converted pagans to Christianity – they more or less wove the pagan myths into Christian artwork, creating a blended religion and then eventually phased the pagan part out.  Ancient Christians did not deal with contradictions – they felt that compromise was the path to conversion.

Leaving Madaba, we saw a number of Bedouin tents – dark upon the lighter khaki landscape. Sala told us that the tents we see with plastic are gypsy camps. The Bedouin apparently do not like plastic- and thankfully so – it’s hard to really appreciate the local color when there is plastic flapping in the breeze.  The Bedouin build rock cairns to mark their property, although they are mostly squatters/homesteaders. Here in the desert, many men wear the keffiyeh made from the picnic tablecloth fabric favored by Yasser Arafat. It both protects from the sun and the frequent sand storms. It comes in a variety of patterns depending on where you are from (not all that different from Scots and their plaids).  We learned that they are available on Amazon.com in case we want to get outfitted as a Bedouin.

Our next stop was Mt. Nebo, the peak from where Moses saw the Promised Land, as described in the book of Deuteronomy. It rises 3,300 feet above the Dead Sea below. You may recall that Moses came to Mt. Nebo after wandering in the desert for 40 years, leading the 12 Tribes of Israel out of slavery. Since he started in nearby Egypt, it is safe to assume that  for much of that time he was lost, but some believe it just took him that long because he had to come to a state of enlightenment (not to imply that Moses was a slow learner or anything).  Others say it took him that long because he was denied permission to cross certain lands. Anyway, Moses died before he got to the promised land – the land across the Jordan River, know as modern day Israel. Moses is considered a prophet and is revered by all three major world religions. Moses died near here (in the land of Moab as it was called then) and it is assumed his burial place is nearby, but its place will remain “a mystery to all of mankind” according to the Bible.

Gary Meets the Bedouin Body Builder

Gary Meets the Bedouin Body Builder

We had an interesting encounter at the entrance to Mt. Nebo on the grounds below the summit. There is usually a souvenir vendor (or two) at every tourist/pilgrimage spot in the Holy Land and this was no exception, however this was a vendor with a twist. He was selling fossils and assorted rocks, and in his spare time, he was obviously a body builder. He wore a very tight nylon shirt and shorts, the better to show off his musculature, so we thought. He had the requisite “six-pack” abs alright, but there was something really strange going on with his pectoral muscles that somehow seemed to look like Madonna’s bosom on one of her old album covers where she wore the very odd pointy bra resembling two of the Tin Man hats from the Wizard of Oz. He also had massive biceps that indicated he had pumped a lot of iron in his time, but he professed to be from a poor Bedouin family, so maybe he was lifting a lot of sheep instead of barbells. He did have sort of spindly legs for such a muscled up guy and, mistaking Gary for a fellow body builder, he asked him for a few pointers on how to build up his thighs and calves. Gary didn’t have any suggestions for that, but did offer him some tips on how to build up his belly, since his was pretty puny looking compared to Gary’s.  But I digress – back to Mount Nebo.

The Promised Land  as Seen from Mt. Nebo

The Promised Land as Seen from Mt. Nebo

We walked from the parking lot up a steep path to the summit toward a sweeping panorama that looked to be unchanged since Biblical times (as long as you ignored those ant-like cars in the distance). The arid Moab desert where Moses wandered for 40 years is visible to the south. The hillsides were tan, and sparsely vegetated with scrub brush, mixed with the occasional drab green rectangle of an olive grove. Off to one side we saw a shepherd boy with a flock of sheep, with his denim jeans and tee shirt the only giveaway that thousands of years had passed since Moses was here.  We saw strings tied to the branches of various shrubs and small trees (actually there are no large trees) and Sala told us that Indian tourists do this to make a wish (sort of like coins in the fountain), but it certainly creates an eyesore – not a Biblical vibe at all.  The church on this site, called the Memorial Church of Moses, was closed for renovations so we did not get to go inside. It dates back to 521 A.D. and is built upon the ruins of previous construction, but we had to content ourselves with Sala’s description of the tourist

Mosaic Artisan keeps the tradition alive in Madaba

Mosaic Artisan keeps the tradition alive in Madaba

delights within. Our next stop was back in Madaba at a mosaic workshop where craftspeople made beautifully intricate mosaics. We each bought a “Tree of Life” mosaic to take home as a souvenir of Jordan. We were soaking up the local culture chatting with the craft persons, when the manager of the business stopped by to introduce himself in perfect Midwestern English. It seems he grew up in Cincinnati and came back to Jordan at the behest of the Jordanian Ministry of Art which subsidizes the mosaic business in an attempt to retain the tradition and the skills of the artisans.  He told us that business is booming and they ship all over the world. Gary went into the Ladies Room by mistake (says didn’t understand the Arabic on the door), but got his first clue with the pink potty with flowers on it and he fled the scene before he created an international incident.

We were surprised to see liquor stores in town and asked if the proprietors are Christian since it is strictly forbidden for Muslims to indulge. Sala said not necessarily – they can own stores and not drink. Some Muslims do drink despite the rules, which living in the Bible Belt of the USA, we can certainly identify with.  We also have found the spot where Old Mercedes’ go to retire. Madaba is a town full of them. Madaba also has several mining related industries, including the production of phosphate, potash and cement produced by a large corporation called Al Abyad.

Back in Madaba for lunch, we saw a cafe called The Mr. Shwarma Restaurant whose specialty is, you guessed it, “shwarma”, which you may recall from a previous travelogue is roasted meat, thinly shaved and served on pita bread.  It looked a little suspect (not sure how the Health Department would rate the kitchen), but we were willing to try. However, it was not on the program. Instead we ate a buffet lunch at the Dana Restaurant that was quite tasty, if totally predictable in a restaurant with clean bathrooms, which of course are de rigueur for us tourist types of the American persuasion. We are getting a little burned out on hummus, tahini, babaganoush and pita bread and our taste buds are craving a pork chop or at least a cheeseburger. Gary thought he needed new glasses as he tried to decipher the bill. He finally realized it was, not only in dinars, but also in Hebrew and Arabic, and so Sala had to help us out with that.

Shopping at Abu Habib's Cave Store

Shopping at Abu Habib’s Cave Store

Driving south, we took what is called the Desert Highway which stretches from the Syrian border to Aqaba. We saw on distant hilltops the other two Crusader era castles in this area.  Near the southernmost of these castles, Shobak, built in 1115 A.D., we stopped for pictures. It is impressively sited on a peak 4.265 feet above sea level.  Its exterior is well preserved, due largely to the fact that no one wanted to schlep up the mountain to get the stones to build their own structures, especially since  the Romans had left all that good stuff lying around. Just below Shobak, we stopped at a store/cave in the side of a hill. It was not on the tour, but we clamored to stop and Zuzu of course accommodated us. And what a serendipitous event this proved to be. The shopkeeper/owner was a little on the scruffy side, but most welcoming.  To be polite to the elderly, in Arabic they are addressed as Abu, (father) and a youngster would be called Ali

Getting Acquainted with Abu Habib

Getting Acquainted with Abu Habib

(son).  Abu Habib prepared tea  for us as is customary in Arab speaking shops, and spun tales about his wares – everything from priceless antiques (just a figure of speech – everything was for sale for a price) and foreign coins  to odd rocks, rusty kitchen utensils and ancient hair appliances. He had a 1916 Mauser used by the Bedouin until they ran out of bullets. A piece of wood was bolted on to replace the missing stock (in lieu of duct tape, we assumed). Gary bought a castle key and we were thinking maybe Shobak up on the mountain above us went with it, but Abu Habib just laughed and offered us more tea. He had an ancient TV (speaking of antiques) sitting atop an ancient refrigerator (a generator of some sort was heard, but unseen) All in all, it was a fascinating stop. We have often found that the unplanned adventures are often the best and meeting colorful local people is always a bonus.

Driving south, the desert grew increasingly arid and rocky, with the landscape a lighter shade of brown. The Bedouin are more prevalent here, mixed with Indian (from India not America) gypsies. Bedouin weave their own tents and keep a much tidier camp than gypsies. They also have a better work ethic according to Sala. He said the gypsies beg and steal, although some women do work as belly dancers. They also hang laundry anywhere and everywhere. We saw a number of camels, but none are wild – they belong to the Bedouin.  Sala told us that camel milk is reputed to be better than Viagra to help the Bedouin men keep busy making sons all their lives. I don’t know what beverage you drink for a daughter. Many shepherds have donkeys to haul their “stuff” and many have dogs to help with herds.  We saw no stray dogs, but did see stray cats – no jobs for them I guess, so they must be freeloading off the tax payers and tourists. Besides, other than Siegfried and Roy, whoever got a good day’s work out of a cat?

We made a pit stop at Al Hisa Village. We noticed that bathrooms here had those little squirt hoses like the ones you would wash vegetables with by the potty – sort of a poor man’s bidet. We ended our day in the village of Wadi Musa, the gateway to Petra (which means rock). The name Wadi means valley and Musa means Moses, and thus this is the Valley of Moses, so named because Wadi Musa is said to be the site where Moses struck a rock with his staff and a spring appeared. The spring is still running today and we stopped by for a visit.   To the west we saw scrub covered hills with sheep and goats grazing placidly. There were rock formations leading to distant mountains (very Sedona like).  It was shortly before sundown which created a blend of beautiful colors – forest and sage green, antique gold, with shades of khaki  and burnt umber sandstone cliffs,  house sized boulders in shades ranging from terra cotta to burgundy,  with the mountains a pale lilac gray in the distance under a bright blue cloudless sky. We never expected to see so much color in the desert.

We checked into the Movenpick Hotel and made dinner plans.  Little did we know that our conventional dining was about to come to and end. This evening for our dinner, Sala arranged a special event at a restaurant called the Petra Kitchen which serves typical Jordanian fare with a twist – the twist being that the patrons are paired with a local cook (chef may be a stretch) to prepare the meal. There were about 40 of us altogether and we donned our big aprons and got to work. (I have no idea as to the pronunciations of the names of most of the dishes – so you can devise your own.) We were divided into groups, each working on a separate dish. We were assigned to the pastry table to prepare cheese triangles known as Sambousek b’jibn.  Ingredients included phyllo pastry, gruyere cheese, white cheese, lemon, onion and sesame

Cheese Triangles made by Guests at the Petra Kitchen

Cheese Triangles made by Guests at the Petra Kitchen

seeds. We rather clumsily rolled out the dough and placed a dab of the cheese mixture on each piece and folded it to make a triangle under the supervision of an Arab woman who must have been related to Job, since her patience was boundless. The triangles were deep fried and served hot with the rest of the meal, made by other patrons. The dishes included Galaya Bandura which was a tomato dish with cloves and pine nuts (sort of an Arabic salsa). There was a vegetable soup called Shourbat Khodar with zucchini, corn, carrots and potatoes, seasoned with cinnamon, butter and pepper. The main dish was Musakhan which is a chicken casserole served atop Arabic bread – also seasoned with cinnamon, pepper and sumac (apparently there is an edible version that is not the poison sumac that will give you a rash). We also had Arabic Salad – sort of like a Greek salad, but without the black olives. Our vegetable was Baba Ganuj which involved layers of egg plant, tomato, green pepper and onion layered with garlic and mint (odd combo, but it seemed to work).  We also had Tabbouleh which is a mix of cracked wheat, spices, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. We drank Jordanian red wine with our meal which was quite good. We decided the white wines are not so good and presumed the climate is too harsh for sissy Chardonnay grapes.  It was a delicious meal and a most memorable experience. We walked the few blocks back to our hotel and did a little shopping en route at a glassblowers shop who made beautiful vases from Petra sand. We turned in early to rest up for a big day of exploration tomorrow.

March 6, 2010

Dateline:  Wadi Rum, Jordan

Today was truly a highlight of the trip with our much anticipated exploration of Petra and Wadi Rum. Afterward, the plan was to drive back to Amman, have dinner and then go to the airport to catch a flight to Paris. Stu and Sharon had an extra night in Jordan so they would take the same flights 24 hours later.

After an early breakfast we met Sala at 7:30 and he told us a little about the people of Petra. They were the Nabateans (pronounced “nah-bah- tee-uns” with the accent on “bah”). They worshipped 4 deities, 3 of which were women. The Nabateans practiced ritual sacrifice (similar to the Jews at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem), but only the wealthy could afford it – the poor had to eat their animals, rather than sacrificing them. So the poor substituted frankincense, which is derived from the sap of a particular tree (relative of incense as we know it). The Nabateans were merchants and entrepreneurs who moved to this area from Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the 6th Century B.C. The city became a caravan station on the spice and incense trade routes between the Orient and the Mediterranean with huge caravans of up to 1,000 camels. In its heyday, it was the center of a powerful kingdom, extending as far north as Damascus and as far south as the Gulf of Aqaba, with a population of 20 to 30 thousand people.  In the second century, the Romans came and more or less shared the city with the Nabateans, but Romans being Romans they started building stuff – fabulous stuff of course. They declared it subject to Rome and called the Arabian Province. It was partially destroyed by two earthquakes and the caravan routes were abandoned in favor of sea trade. Amidst the decline, the Bedoiun took it over and looted and destroyed much of what was left.  It remained hidden and forgotten by the outside world for centuries until it was discovered in the early 19th Century by a Swiss adventurer who disguised himself as a Muslim in order to be taken to the fabled city by the Bedouin.

A Ceremonial Guard at Petra

A Ceremonial Guard at Petra

The Petra site is operated by Bedouin today, a radical departure from the typical nomadic Bedouin lifestyle. The Jordanian government built houses for the Bedouin to get them to move out of Petra so it could be developed and excavated as a national treasure. It is also called the Rose City (for the color of the rock), the Lost City (because it was indeed lost for centuries) and something in Arabic meaning the Big Cemetery because there are countless tombs here.

We rode by horseback (too short a trip I thought for such a great experience) through a valley called the Bab el-Siq that got increasingly narrower as we approached  the entrance to the fabled city with its elaborate facades sculpted out of sheer

Petra Taxis in the Siq

Petra Taxis in the Siq

stone canyon walls. The Bab el-Siq  was so picturesque that we were already clicking away with our cameras and then the clicking intensified when we saw our first structure carved into rock. It was two rock-cut tombs, one Egyptian style called the Obelisk Tomb and one Nabatean structure called the Bab el-Siq Triniculum. A triniculum was a funerary dining chamber – although I was unclear if this is for after-life dining or an Irish Wake sort of party. (I suspect the former is the case). Sala told us to just wait until we see the really good stuff in store for us inside the city. At the end of our ride, we found ourselves at the ruins of a monumental carved arch, which once marked an entrance, but had fallen in 1896 and only traces of its supports are visible today.

The Siq at Petra

The Siq at Petra

Walking through the former archway, we entered the Siq (pronounced “seek”)which is a deep, narrow gorge running between sheer canyon walls formed over the millennia out of solid rock eroding from the water runoff from Moses’ spring at Wadi Musa. We chose to walk in although you can go in small broughams (one horse buggies that look sort of like the sulkies from harness racing. They have to be small to fit through the narrow passageways of the Siq). We walked for half a mile through the sinuous Siq passageway, which at its narrowest point is only about 3 feet wide from wall to wall, similar to the slot canyons of the American West. The Siq is one of three access routes in to Petra, but is by far the most dramatic.  It grew deeper and narrower, seeming to close in on us as we approached the ancient city. The Nabateans had paved the floor of the Siq in the First Century A.D. with large, flat stones and much of their work is still intact. They also had built water channels to control flooding, conserve water and prevent erosion. There were various niches hollowed out in the walls which once held carved statues of their deities. There was also some faint Nabatean graffiti in a few places where it has been protected from the effects of erosions over the centuries – no hearts with arrows through them or lovers initials as best we could tell–  they are more stick figures,  pictorial in nature, which may or may not have been trying to convey the idea that Kilroy was here. We also saw the Djinn Blocks (Petra has a total of 26) carved out of tower like rocks along the way, which were for housing spirits (djinn) of Arab folklore. There are a few ruins with barely discernable djinn (pronounced “din”)faces amid the rubble of some of the niches.

Our First Peek at the Treasury of Petra

Our First Peek at the Treasury of Petra

We experienced one of the most dramatic moments of our visit when we rounded a corner and could see a thin slice of bright daylight, framing an equally thin slice of the mystical façade of the building referred to as the Treasury, the most famous structure in Petra. Our first view of the Treasury was through a narrow gap in the rock –and in a scene right out of Indian Jones lore, with camels on the ground awaiting tourists desiring a photo op. Raiders of the Lost Ark was actually filmed here. There was no real connection historically, but it makes good scenery and a perfect setting. The Ark you may recall was believed to contain the 10 Commandment tablets and other sacred writings of the Torah. You may also remember Harrison Ford wielding a bullwhip in the courtyard of the Treasury.

The Treasury was built in the First Century B.C., although the name is something of a misnomer. Historians believe it was a tomb and temple and more a spiritual repository, than a treasure trove. The statuary above the door believed to be of the Nabatean fertility goddess El-Uzza. The facade has a large urn at the top of it which Bedouin reportedly shot at over the years, apparently thinking that they would be showered in a piñata-like event with gold coins or other fabulous booty. As it turned out this didn’t quite work for them and we envisioned them showered with ricocheting  shrapnel and debris instead. Crossing through the colossal doorway, we were surprised to see that the inside the building is extremely small, simple and modest, with an interior space of only about 14 square yards. There is a sanctuary of sorts and a place for a ritual bath, which supports the idea that this was a temple.

The Tombs of Bab el-Siq Petra

The Tombs of Bab el-Siq Petra

From the Treasury we walked through an area called the Outer Siq which was lined with all sorts of elaborate (for their day) dwellings and tombs. At this point the street branched off in several directions and we realized how much we had misjudged the time required to do Petra justice. They used “attic” burial chambers carved high up in the rock face to protect the bodies from scavenging animals and tomb raiders. (The latter was prevalent since they often buried jewels and other valuables with their dead).

Most of the architecture in this section of Petra is described as Nabatean Classical, which fuses Greek and Roman features (columns, cornices and pediments) with the native (stacked ledges and crow steps  which resemble inverted Mayan pyramids). The façade in many cases is the bulk of the building, which may only be a few feet deep inside. One of the streets is called the Street of Facades where this architecture is prevalent. The structures seem designed to impress the passersby more so than to honor the corpse inside the tomb.  In one section the structures were four tombs high – sort of sky-scraper tombs in their day. Tombs seemed to far outnumber houses and thus this area is fittingly referred to as the necropolis.

Roman Ruins at Petra

Roman Ruins at Petra

We emerged from the Outer Siq into an area that the Romans developed, particularly obvious with their signature amphitheater. It too was cut from solid rock and unfortunately many old tomb facades were damaged in the process, and thus today there are the rows and rows of seats and above them are the open façade-less cave/tombs. It is in this area that we saw the truly elaborate Royal tombs – quite palatial, especially when compared to the little nooks where they stuck the average Joe. The largest of these tombs is the Palace Tomb which was originally 5 stories, which made it taller than the mountain it was carved from. Stones had to be stacked to achieve the desired height, but earthquakes over the years have largely destroyed the top floor. Another tomb, the Corinthian, so named because of the style of its columns, is sort of a puzzle to archaeologists since it is not the least  bit symmetrical and has doorways in several different styles. No self-respecting Roman would have built this, so it assumed to be a Roman wannabe tomb.

The Silk Tomb at Petra

The Silk Tomb at Petra

There is also the Urn Tomb with its facade carved narrow and high into the rock face with a series of Coliseum style arches below it. There is a ruined statue of a man wearing a toga, so the assumption is that there are Romans buried in the chambers of this tomb. One of the most striking we thought was the very plain Silk Tomb, so named for the colors – pink, yellow, gray and brown – which streak the outer walls. It is a natural effect of water on stone over the millennia, said to resemble shot silk (multiple colored fibers woven together).

We kept walking and found ourselves in a wide valley amid the ruins of the Roman Cardo (a colonnaded main street) that once marked the main entrance to the city of Petra after the Romans took over in 106 A.D.  The Siq where we entered was actually the back entrance then. The Romans built the requisite temples, baths, houses and market places. There were also ruins from Byzantines, Crusaders and all manner of conquerors, but time was running short and

Big Man - Little Donkey

Big Man – Little Donkey

our donkeys awaited us for the trip out of the canyon to meet Zuzu and our vehicle. The donkeys were small, but sturdy and I did think Gary’s tried to bolt when he saw who was going to be on his back, but he did an admirable job. My donkey was a feisty little beast who “moved out right smartly” as they say in the South, and he liked to be out front so I called him Seabiscuit – as for Gary’s donkey, we just called him  Bad Luck. All the donkeys were sure-footed and nimble enough to dodge the donkey-pies left on the trail from previous trips. Apparently the whole trail constituted the donkey’s “Happy Place” We were instructed to shout “yall’a” (apparently Arabic for “giddy-up”) to our donkeys to urge them on.  We probably greatly amused the locals, but they returned the favor, with for example,  a young Arab boy in native dress on a donkey listening to an IPod. The ride was fun (for us any way –  for the donkeys perhaps not so much). Besides, we have walked so much on this trip, that Gary’s Odor Eaters have cannibalized themselves and are in shreds.

Desert of Wadi Rum

Desert of Wadi Rum

Looking at my guidebook, I came to realize we only saw about 20% of what is here and we spent the better part of a day seeing that much. We could easily spend 4 days to become really “Petra-fied “. We left Petra, for the hour and a half drive to the southeast across the Moab Desert to Wadi Rum, another stop on the old camel caravan route. En route, Sala pointed out another place from Biblical times, the hill believed to be the site of the tomb of Aaron, Moses’ brother who also died in the Land of Moab.

Rum means Mountain and thus the translation for this Wadi Rum is Valley and Mountain. Like Petra, Wadi Rum has quite a “wow factor”. There are tall pinnacles of rock weathered into strange shapes and like Petra – so surprisingly colorful, although you can’t  expect to see green or blue(except for the sky). These colors, streaked across the mountains and the desert floor are the rich, warm colors from an artist’s palette in the American Southwest. The broad vistas

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom - Wadi Rum

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – Wadi Rum

are reminiscent of Arizona or Utah and when the sun moves, the colors morph into different hues. Many of the canyon walls are ridged like a Ruffles potato chip, while others are as smooth as glass. There are broad natural bridges and arches honed down to narrow ribbons from the wind.  The folds and undulations in the rocky peaks create deep shadows against a dazzling rock face and the caramel colored sand drifts into dunes against the scattered boulders.   It is so exotic – you can easily imagine Lawrence of Arabia galloping over the dunes.

Lawrence of Arabia was a British citizen named T.E. Lawrence, who lived from 1888 to 1935. He fought with the Arabs against the Ottoman Turks who ruled the area at the time in the revolt that began in 1915. He spent time in Mecca in 1916 working with Arab leaders of the revolt behind the scenes, but then he returned to Wadi Rum to lead guerilla operations, including teaching the Bedouin how to make bombs to blow up Turkish rail lines. They fought the Turks from 1915 to 1921 until the area became a British Protectorate.  Sala told us that among the legacies from Protectorate Days are bagpipes and the curious habit of eating beans at breakfast.  And speaking of curiosities, the Jordanian Army trains here and they wear camouflage patterned fatigues of navy and light blue – although I’m not sure they could be called “camo”, since they obviously are not going to blend into the landscape with that color scheme.

We had lunch at Rum Village, the hub for sightseeing in Wadi Rum, at the Captain’s Restaurant, a massive establishment in a complex of shops designed for the busloads of tourist that come south from Amman or north from the cruise ship terminal at Aqaba. Today, the hordes were invading elsewhere, so it was pretty sleepy here. We had our last buffet meal of the trip (a cause for celebration in itself although it wasn’t bad at all – we were just over the whole buffet thing at this point) There was a little confusion over who was going to take us in their 4X4 Jeeps. There were probably 50 of them, all sort of battered looking. (the vehicles, not the drivers although they looked a little bit weathered themselves. Apparently there is no sunscreen in use by any of the locals out here.) There was some mild discussions (or so we thought) in Arabic over who was going to get to take these tourists or who was going to have to take these tourists – we weren’t sure of the gist of it. Anyway, Sala got it sorted out and we were assigned a driver. His truck bed didn’t have any cover so several of the drivers took one off another Jeep (Toyota Jeep that is) and fixed us some shade. We looked, so I fancied like some gypsy vagabonds, setting off across the desert.

We drove up the Barrah Canyon with a peak called the Jebel Makhras, a large outcropping with columnar rocks looming above us. It is nicknamed the 7 Pillars of Wisdom after T.E. Lawrence’s book by the same name. We also saw Jebel Barrah and several other Jebels (Jebel is another name for mountain in Arabic). At Jebel Amud, we saw petroglyph like markings on the rocks believed to date to 3,000 B.C., so there is evidence that Wadi Rum has seen thousands of years of human habitation.

We stopped at Lawrence’s Spring near Rum Village, described by T.E. Lawrence as “a paradise just 5 feet square”. Water is so scare here, it doesn‘t take much to make a paradise.  The spring was there in Nabatean times since their water channels are clearly visible. A few scrubby plants were valiantly trying to get a foothold near a memorial to Lawrence, carved into the rock face. It is supposed to be a likeness, but it doesn’t look much like Peter O’Toole to me.

Tea with the Bedouins at Wadi Rum

Tea with the Bedouins at Wadi Rum

We also stopped at a Bedouin camp for tea, which proved to be an interesting experience. Hot tea on a hot day seems counter-intuitive but is actually quite refreshing.  We were the only tourists in the place, but everyone was friendly and hospitable, which is part of their culture and religion. They had the earthen ovens, rounded  and adobe–like which are called  “zerbs” , but it seemed nothing was cooking. As hot as it gets there, you would hardly think ovens are needed, but it does cool off at night so maybe so. There were several camels here and we saw one being trained in some sort of camel obedience school. He was ornery and our interpretation was that he was taken to the Bedoin version of camel time out away from the other camels until he could behave himself.  Misbehaving camels can be quite vociferous and this one definitely seemed to be sassing his trainer. Camels are still widely used by the Bedouin, which seems a little incongruous since they also have cell phones, but that’s the way it is here.

The desert scenery of Wadi Rum was well worth the trip, even sitting on a bench in the bed of a rusty Toyota truck with worn out shocks. We want to come back and spend more time on the endless hiking and camel trekking opportunities and really explore the places we only glimpsed from our flying Toyota.

We started for Amman and at a rest stop Zuzu bought all of us a pastry with a name that sounds like “wall-bot” – a sort of baklava thing made with honey, which was sticky, but quite tasty. Gary told the guy tending the bathroom that he had two wives, pointing to Sharon and me. The guy believed him and cautioned him that one wife and one mother-in-law should be plenty of trouble for any man. After a very full day, we returned to Amman to have dinner before our return flight home.

In retrospect, we really did not have enough time budgeted for Jordan. We barely scratched the surface in Amman, no time for Aqaba at all, and we needed a minimum of two days at both Petra and Wadi Rum. We very much appreciated the warmth and hospitality of the Jordanians and feel we will always be welcomed back. It is interesting to note that the Jordanians (predominately Muslim) take excellent care of and have a profound respect for Christian and Jewish religious sites and Christian and Jewish tourists, a model well worth emulating. I hope we Americans can master this tolerance thing as well as the Jordanians have.

Here in Jordan, plans are made with the caveat, “Inshallah”, which means God willing, and thus we plan to return to Jordan, Inshallah. In closing out this adventure, I must again defer to the wisdom of Dr. Seuss – “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”.