22 JUNE – Kerak, Dead Sea, Mt Nebo to Madaba
Today we traveled along the King's Highway to the historic crusader castle of Kerak.
Iyad took us on a tour of the evocative ruins and explained the legends of the 12th century battles between the Crusader's and the Muslim armies led by the Arab hero Saladin. It was pretty funny but Iyad had all the spots for posed photographs – a beam of light piercing the cavern below (the hole was originally used as a communication point) but Iyad placed Dan underneath, looking up with his hands spread by his sides. The effect was very Godly! The other photo involved all of us sitting on steps on the outer wall of the castle – we were all lined up and told to sit looking in a particular direction. We did what we were told and the photos were duly taken…
Iyad would give us ‘information’ about Jordan as we were driving along from one place to the next. I fell asleep during one, which gives you some idea of the animation with which the stories were told. He was prone to gross exaggeration and inaccuracy – quotes like “Saudi Arabian men come to Jordan to pick a wife because 70% of Saudi women are ugly” and "All Middle Eastern women wish they were Jordanian". On the subject of religion he said that 95% of Jordanians are muslim but on 25% are practising - 'IYAD FACT' as we came to call them.
Or, when we asked him if Jordanian men can take more than one wife, Iyad responded by going around the bus, pointing at each man in turn, asking, "Could you love two women? Could you or you or you?" Ely responded with, "I could try!" I don't think we ever did get a straight answer to that one.
It is standard practice throughout the Middle East for the man to provide a home - they have to save for most of their 20s and don't get married until their mid 30s. In Iyad's case he had been working so hard that he hadn't had a chance to meet any nice women he wanted to marry so he turned to his mother to set him up meetings with a few girls. Twelve women later (ALL of whom said that they would marry him) and he chose one women who he has two kids by. What a catch! At one point Iyad was talking about the God of Love, "My favourite God", he said - the old casanova.
Another time we were talking about construction and he asked each of us who did the building in our various countries -"Australia?" "Australians" Ely and I responded. "New Zealand?" "New Zealanders?" Alan and Karyn responded. "Canada" "Canadians" Dan responded. "USA?" and before Dustin or Ben had the chance to respond Iyad cut in with "The Mexicans - in the US it's the Mexicans who do your building! In here in Jordan we have the Egyptians doing our building. The Egyptians living in Jordan and like the Mexicans of America!" Bold sweeping statement.
I had to look out the window so I couldn’t see the faces of the other guys or else I don’t think I would have been able to stop giggling (and, once or twice, potentially getting offended). Anyway, his quotes gave us great fodder and kept us laughing long after the story had been delivered.
From Kerak we continue to the Dead Sea. We drove along the shore which is dotted with military viewpoints (Israel is clearly visable across the sea). Stretching 67 kilometres long and 18 kilometres wide at its widest point, the Dead Sea lies in the Jordan Rift Valley and forms part of the border with Israel. We stopped at a private beach, changed and headed straight down to the water for a float. Here at the lowest point on Earth (420 m/1,378 ft below sea level) the water is 7 times saltier than a normal ocean at 30% salinity - making it the 2nd saltiest lake in the world. This means that you are extremely buoyant and seem to float on top of the water rather than in it. It’s a really bizarre feeling and almost impossible to be vertical in the water, it just doesn’t allow it, much less swim. I put my finger to the tip of my tongue and the water is so, so salty that it actually burned.
The mud here is supposed to have healing properties and Ely and Dan covered themselves from head to toe in a beauty mud bath. It was so hot, and because the mud was black it attracted the heat, so they had to wash it off before it had dried.
The private beach also had a normal swimming pool and it was a very strange feeling to jump in there, after having been in the Dead Sea, and sink! There was also a little shop for anyone who had forgotten their bathers - birkinis as opposed to bikinis appear to be the order of the day.
We didn’t have too far to travel before stopping at Mt Nebo, where the prophet Moses is said to have seen the promised land and is supposedly buried (“by angels”, said Iyad, “so we have no idea where his remains are.” Uh huh).
According to Iyad Moses, being a prophet and therefore having superhero eyesite, could see the Mediterranean Sea some 75 kilometres away. You know, maybe Moses could see that far but I was so jaded with Iyad’s exaggerations that I took everything he said with a giant pinch of salt. Apparently, if you are visiting in winter, the views from Mt Nebo over the Dead Sea to Jericho, the River Jordan and Jerusalem are spectacular (even for non-prophets) but there was a heavy haze when we were there, limiting visibility.
We were lucky, however, to have a lovely breeze on the top of the mountain and it was the start of cooler weather that we were going to experience for the remainder of our time in the Middle East. What a relief! We explored the Mt Nebo sanctuary and viewed the remarkable mosaics of the 4th century church.
Next we continued the short distance to Madaba. This historical town is famous for its Ottoman-style houses and beautiful Byzantine-era mosaics, including the famous 6th century mosaic map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Other mosaic masterpieces can be found within the church of the Virgin and the Apostles in the Archaeological Museum and scattered throughout Madaba's churches and homes.
Biblically known as the Moabite township of Medeba, it was one of the towns allotted to the twelve tribes of the Israelites Since its formation it has been an important centre for religious events – the Meshe Stele was raised in 850BC. In 865BC it came under the control of the biblical Ammorites. In AD106, under Roman control, it became a wealthy province and this continued until the Byzantine period of AD614. This was the time when the majority of Madaba’s famous mosaics were made. The town was abandoned after an earthquake in AD747 until late in the 19th Century when thousands of Christians migrated from Karak.
Our hotel, Mariam, was the best we’d stayed in on this trip so far with a SWIMMING POOL! It was a little walk to the centre of town and we had a wander before settling in a bar with beer, wifi and World Cup (although probably not in that order of importance).
I wasn’t up for dinner that night and got a little snack to eat in my room. I can’t tell you how lovely it was to have a cool breeze coming in through the open windows – no need for aircon here!
23 JUNE - Madaba
We had a couple of options today and the group decided to take advantage of both of them – touring the beautifully preserved Roman city of Jerash and visiting Amman, Jordan’s capital.
First stop was Jerash, situated in the north of Jordan, 50 km north of Amman and known for the ruins of the important Greco-Roman city of Gerasa. It is sometimes nicknamed the 'Pompeii of the Middle East', because of its size and degree of preservation. Recent excavations show that the area was inhabited during the Bronze Age as far back as 3200 BC. Conquered by the Romans and then the Persians, Jerash was destroyed by an earthquake in the 8th century.
Excavation and restoration of Jerash has been ongoing since the 1920s. Monuments of note in Jerash include the Corinthium column, Hadrian's Arch, a circus/hippodrome, two temples (to Zeus and Artemis), the oval Forum surrounded by a colonnade, a long colonnaded street, two theatres, baths, small temples and an almost complete circuit of city walls.
and a pipe band (who participate on behalf of Jordan in the Military Tattoo in Edinburgh) piping up a storm in the theatre.....
There were the usual tourist stalls lining up the entry way to Jerash and I stopped to watch a sand artist at work.
Then we drove back to Amman, just 25 km from Madaba. Amman has served as the modern and ancient capital of Jordan and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with a 1994 excavation uncovering homes and towers believed to have been built during the Stone Age (circa 7000 BC). We stopped for a cheap falafel lunch (I may not have been feeling great but I found it impossible to pass up a freshly made falafel sandwich).
Then we drove up to the Citadel, on the highest hill in town, offering panoramic views over the city including the highest free standing flap pole in the world! Apparently North Korea takes the honors of having the highest flag pole in the world but it’s held by supports so doesn’t count.
The Citadel is covered with ruins which you can wander through and there is an impressive mosque at the top.
Within the Citadel is a wonderful museum which contains the Dead Sea Scrolls and also the excavated ruins of an Umayyad Palace. It was all in chronological order and fascinating to wander through the ages. This photo is of terracotta 'coffins' which held up to five people.
From the Citadel we could view the 6,000 seat Roman Theatre built in the 2nd century. It is situated in amongst the modern city and still used today.
There was a huge swarm of pigeons turning in circles above us as we looked over the city and I spotted this pigeon house and it's keeper
We were back in Madaba by the mid afternoon and I wandered down the souveniry street to see if I could find my Jordan ‘thing’. My first stop just happened to be in a small store belonging to a lovely man called Yusef. Yusef had worked in banking in both Madaba and Amman for many years before retiring. He found that he needed to be doing something rather than get under his wife’s feet so he opened the store – not to make money necessarily but just to chat to people. He opened when he felt like opening and closing rules were along the same lines. He immediately asked if we’d like a cup of tea – Dan and I said yes but Ben and Dustin kept on moving. On chatting to Yusef we found that we had a long running competition for the most cups of tea consumed in one sitting. The record was at 38 and there was no way we were in the running to compete – I think I managed three or four!
Yusef had recently done some building in his backyard and found mosaics – his backyard is now being excavated. He told us that when he’s feeling sad in his heart, he only has to walk out to his backyard and look at the history evolving there to make his heart happy (even though he’s lost his backyard). It was such a pleasure to buy my Jordanian present (cushion covers) from Yusef who employs local women to embroider in the traditional Palestinian way. It will be nice to look at those cushions and think of the afternoon spent drinking tea in his little shop and listening to his stories.
We had our last meal in Jordan at a rooftop terrace restaurant where the specialty was wood fire cooked casserole type meals in a pan. Don’t ask me why but I went for lamb in yoghurt (probably trying to replicate the delicious meal we had in Petra) – with my stomach I ate one bite then off loaded it on to Brendan. It was expensive and none of us particularly rated it. I did, however, manage a glass or two of very tasty Mt Nebo wine.
And so that was Jordan – highlights: Wadi Rum, Petra, Jerash (and the bizarre Dead Sea). It seems the King (particularly the father of the current King who was much revered) seem to be doing good things with infrastructure, economy, etc. Like all countries in the Middle East, there were photographs, posters, stickers, etc of the leader EVERYWHERE.
Iyad spoke a lot about ‘equal rights’ which, again, I took with a pinch of salt but certainly on the surface there seemed to be some truth to what he told us – particularly in the city which is to be expected. We didn’t have many opportunities to engage with the locals but when I did I found that they are happy and proud of how far their country has come compared with their neighbours, albeit acknowledging there’s a way to go. The Bedouin culture is still strong in Jordan and they cling to their nomadic way of life - the rest of the population seems in a hurry to catch the western world. I did wonder how much they were influenced by Saudi Arabia (from a religious and political perspective) but was unable to get a true gauge on this.
I enjoyed the diversity of what Jordan had to offer – Jerash, Dead Sea, Mt Nebo, Karak and Madaba all rate highly. So too does Wadi Rum although maybe I’ve been spoiled but this desert adventure had nothing on my travels though the southern Algerian Sahara or even Egypt’s Western Desert. Saying that, if this is your first ‘desert’ experience then it will probably be a highlight of your trip to Jordan – and the history of Lawrence of Arabia is certainly an added bonus. Petra? Well, Petra is Petra and nothing compares – it is, without doubt, one of the Middle East’s most spectacular, unmissable sites battling it out with Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat for the title of the world’s most dramatic ‘lost city. It’s worth a trip to Jordan for Petra alone which is what a lot of tourists seem to do. Despite the number of coach loads at the main sites (the Treasury, for example) it’s still easy to get away from the crowds and have your own Petra experience.
We didn’t come across a lot of tourists at the other Jordan’s other historical attractions (although definitely more tourists here than anywhere else in the Middle East, bar Egypt – which says a lot about the stability of the country). On that point, Jordanians are a passionate and proud people and the country truly welcomes visitors with open arms. Despite being squeezed between the hotspots of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel & the Palestinian Territories, Jordan is probably the safest and most stable country in the region. Regardless of your nationality, you’ll be greeted with nothing but courtesy and hospitality. Jordan was an expensive place for the budget traveler with their currency doing better than the USD. For me it’s probably a once in a lifetime destination but it certainly deserves to be visited once.