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Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Not much time to blog, but I had to post on our adventures in Jordan, because the trip was certainly one of the highlights of our year in the Middle East. Jordan is much more widely visited than Lebanon, even this year when visits to the country's historic sites are down eighty percent due in large part to hesitation among westerners to visit the region after the rash of revolutions in the Arab world. You go to ruins and culturally significant places in Jordan and see much more infrastructure and organized preservation, especially compared to sites in the south of Lebanon, still a place with relatively little security--at least in the perceptions of many.

Going to Jordan with Kristina and Pritham--our friends for over a decade--was a treat. We crammed so much into five days. Crusader castles, but also the Islamic castle at Ajlun, where Saladin defended the region against Europeans intent on conquering the Middle East. I should say that the old man outside Ajlun with the tin tea pot as ancient as the castle made the best mint tea I ever had. Everywhere in Jordan, old men cook tea, add fresh mint leaves and sugar, and sell in tiny cups. Wonderful stuff, even to a coffee drinker like Pritham.

Jerash, a city in the fertile, green, north of Jordan, boasts a remarkably large and well-preserved roman city. Hadrian's arch, named for the great emperor, a network of temples, a forum/agora, a hippodrome as nice as the one in Tyre (and I'm saying that as a lover of the south of Lebanon!), a nyphaemeum or public fountain, colonnaded streets, and a theater where old Arab men in kilts improbably play bagpipes to demonstrate the amazing acoustics. When we visited, we were perhaps the only foriegn tourists there, but we were surrounded by school groups. Hundreds of Jordanian kids. And they all did Arab dances to the bagpipe music.

Our guide Suhaib did us right, introducing us not only to the amazing mint tea (smoky from the coals on which it's cooked), but also to Sawani, a tasty stew that reminded me of my sister's Iraqi-inspired version of Middle-Eastern cuisine, and tabon, lumpy flat bread cooked in forns filled with hot stones and pieces of charcoal. He also was patient when we got a flat tire in the middle of the desert. He maintained his patience when the four of us monkeyed around in said desert, snapping pictures and carrying on.

Jordan is almost exclusively Sunni but has historical places with immense significance to all three religions with Middle-Eastern origins. Especially Mt. Nebo, where Moses glimpsed the promised land and then died, punishment from God for questioning his mission. We got to stand on that mountain and look out over Jericho, Jerusalem, Bethany, and Hebron. The Holy Land. Being there, you couldn't help but feel sadness that the place is the center of so much violence and injustice. Like Moses, we could look but not enter. Down the road from Mt. Nebo, we went to Madaba, the Mosaic City, so called because the Greek Orthodox church there (St. George's--a place FULL of icons including a really disturbing one of John the Baptist's head) has a fifth century mosaic floor with a detailed map of the Middle East. Beautiful.

Taking the King's Highway south to Petra reminded me of the winding road that leads from Tucson up to Mt. Lemon. High peaks, desert landscape, vistas with enormous valleys. We got to Petra late in the evening, sleepy, but Pritham and I didn't want to miss seeing the old city at night. Three nights per week, local Bedouins tell visitors about Bedouin hospitality (yes, they serve mint tea), line the narrow pass into the city with candles, and play traditional songs in the dark, lighted only by tiny candles. The part of the walk with cobblestones is brutal on the feet when it's dark out, but the experience is very cool.

Next morning all six of us (including young Henry, a British teen who's working for Suheib's tour company for a few months before he starts University) hiked that narrow pass. Pictures don't do justice. Words even less so. Imagine huge rocks in red, brown, ochre, and grey, ancient niches carved into them. Imagine a narrow, dusty path. Imagine tombs and dwellings and temples all carved into that rock. You can opt to ride a donkey but otherwise walking is the only way into the old city, made famous by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, created by the ancient Nabateans, who controlled part of the trade route that connected people of the Mediterranean to peoples of the Indian Ocean and the spices and silks there. Their city was well fortified, naturally, by this rock path. Virtually every edifice was carved into the huge rocks.

Highlights include the Treasury (the facade is familiar to anybody who saw the aforementioned Indiana Jones movie), the Royal Tombs, and the Monastery that requires walking up 900 stone steps from the Old City to a high peak where the mountains are less red and ochre and more black. Oh, the colors of those rocks. Again, pictures and words don't cut it. Petra earns its title as a wonder of the world.

We kicked around the southern desert, where Nicole experienced what she considered the trip's high point: a very fast and bumpy ride on the back of a 4x4 truck through Wadi Rum, the valley where "Lawrence of Arabia" was filmed. The area, not far from Jordan's border with Saudi Arabia, is hot, dry, and inhabited by Bedouins who, once again, welcome visitors with tea. We also went to Aqaba, a city along the Red Sea, where we enjoyed amazing grouper for lunch. You look out over the Red Sea and on the opposite side is the border of Egypt and Israel. So as you look around the bay, you're looking at three (VERY) different countries. Kinda cool. And Saudi's only around 15 kilometers to the south, so it's a real point of convergence.

Lastly, the Dead Sea. You know the waters and muds of the Dead Sea are supposed to be healing, right? Well, Krstina and Pritham and Nicole and I went to the bank of the sea, caked ourselves with mud, waited for the mud to dry in the hot hot sun, and then rinsed in the Dead Sea. What a sight. Maybe it's the power of suggestion, but our skin felt amazing. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth and is dazzlingly hot. The water is so salty that you naturally float, regardless of your body's position. You can't sink. I floated out pretty far from the bank and stood straight up in the water without touching bottom. It's a freaky feeling, to say the least. Our hotel also had a pool and three little Iraqi boys befriended Nicole and I in the morning when K&P were sleeping in and we were catching a swim. By "befriended," I mean began a water fight. Three brothers, parents nowhere to be found, determined to splash us, which made them laugh hysterically. The youngest, perhaps five years old, would remove his swim cap, try to fill it with as much water as it would hold, and then dump it on us. I don't think that kid ever had as much fun. The oldest insisted I cup my hands, scoop him by the feet, and toss him as high as I could. I counted off--"wahad, thnayn, thlatha"--and the sound of my Arabic, you guessed it, cracked him up. In his defense, the sound of my Arabic makes most Arabs laugh. Anyhoo, funny kids.

So much more to say about those five days, but I'll leave it at that for now. As always, a boatload of pictures available here.

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