In my prior installment, I left off with us in Wadi Rum. Wadi Rum is a marvelous desert with amazing color. Reminiscent of Death Valley except Wadi Rum has much more sand, and is towering on a grand scale. It also reminds me a bit of the Cochise Stronghold area south east of Tucson, Arizona. On our penultimate day before the official tour started, I had taken an early excursion into Petra and my travel mates picked me up. Wadi Rum is south of Ma’an and north east of Aqaba. As you drive there the desert becomes more lively. We were also blessed with blue sky and plenty of puffy white clouds.
We arrived at the entrance to Wadi Rum, there is a parking area to the left. Several men dressed in typical Arab headress motioned us to park in a particular spot and asked us what our plans were. They didn’t have “park badges” or any sort of official looking uniform, so it was at first a little off-putting. We later came to realize that the Jordanians are as a whole marvelously lovely people who are flexible, accommodating and honest. We told him that we wanted to visit Wadi Rum and he told us we’d need a 4×4 to explore in there. I knew that this was probably true. He asked us how long we wanted to stay and what we were interested in. I told him 3-4 hours and we’d like to visit at least one or two arches, and anything else that would “make a nice photo”. He quoted us a price which included the 5 Dinar per person admission charge. It seemed reasonable (about $35 per person for a 4 hour driver led jeep ride through the desert). But we needed a bio break and I wanted to check the posted prices to prevent being “taken”.
In the end we took him up on the trip. Never quite got his name, but he was patient and informative, and took us to many lovely places. Here he is with our ride in the background as we park near a narrow slot canyon with a natural spring in it. An Oasis in the desert, literally.Adjacent to the slot canyon was a Beadouin tent where we were served – for free – Beadouin Whiskey – sweetened tea made over a fire. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the hospitality and charm of the Beadouin people everywhere I met them was so comforting. The shop keeper explained that it was his special tea. At once when I tasted it I said, mmmh, I taste cardamom and sage. His face lit up, “Yes!” and he named a few other ingredients. I regret that I didn’t buy a packet to take home and savor. After returning to our ride our guide and driver asked us if we wanted to “go faster”. Our lady-folk declined. But at one point, just after visiting “Lawrence’s House” (a Nabataean ruin), he took us up a steep sandy hill and back down. FUN. I’d relish the opportunity to spend the night under the stars there. The Beadouin’s have well furnished tents with modern conveniences. The scale of the place is huge and as photographer, a 4×4 and plenty of time there are both necessities. The place is so remote, I can imagine the incredible starry skies and tales of the Arabian Knights.
After leaving Wadi Rum, we drove about 3 hours north to Amman, the largest city in Jordan with a population just shy of a million. It felt like a big city and at night the streets were a bit bewildering. The maps we had were not complete – showing only one out of every 5 or six streets. We definitely found some gaping potholes but it took us about an hour to find our hotel. We stopped and asked a Tourist Policeman directions. As with the other Jordanians, he was very helpful. He talked to about a half dozen people and then brought a person over who gave us accurate directions. I wonder if the police in your average big US city would have taken such time and care.
We awoke early the next morning and headed north to Jerash, a Roman ruin which is largely intact and apparently the second largest ruin in the world after Ephesus in Turkey.Nothing is quite exciting as walking through 2,000 years of history and imaging the bustle and the people. After our Jerash tour we made an 8-minute stop at Ajlun Castle. Mind you it took us about an hour and a half of driving to get there and back, but we were up against a time deadline to return the rental car. Our official tour would start the following morning.
The official tour guide was Ghassan (Gus). A charming man who clearly knew his land (guides are required to pass courses to get their official guide license). Guess where we were going? Petra! Early in the morning we checked out of out the hotel and boarded a bus. We traveled along the Kings’ Highway which at times overlooks the Dead Sea as at Karak Castle.
We arrived later than we expected at Taybet Zaman. Taybet Zaman is a reconstructed town where each room was formally a house. Lots of stone and a pretty setting. Unfortunately the late arrival – and the longish ride to the Petra entrance meant we would not be able to tour Petra at night for their “Romance Night”. The next morning we checked out and headed via bus to Petra for my third visit. Gus pointed out many things along the route in that I had missed in my prior two visits, but I had already arranged with my “taxi” driver, Mansour to travel by donkey from the area near the Roman street to a place he called the “Snake Monument”. So off I went on donkey well away from the normal Petra group. It occurred to me at one point that I was going who-knows-where with a man I didn’t know all that well. He could have knocked me down, taken my backpack full of expensive camera gear and the donkeys and I’d have been hard pressed to do much. But that’s just not the way it works in Jordan.Mansour was careful to make sure I was safe as we hitched the donkeys at the end of a canyon and clambered up the slick rock for the all important photo opportunities followed by tea at an honest to-goodness they-live-in-their-tent Beadouin people. Mansour told the boy (in Arabic) that I was there to kill him. I wouldn’t have known otherwise why the boy went away crying, but I told Mansour that if he wanted to be paid he’d have to be as kind to children as I would be. Thereafter the little lad cheered up and behaved like a normal curious, well mannered little one.
Time was short so on the way Mansour would take me to the Beadouin village of Um Seihun where I’d catch a ride to the bus parking lot. Um Seihun was built when Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage site. The government provided housing for the Beadouins who otherwise would continue to live and graze in the Petra site. In turn the Beadouin still take their flocks down into the area and sell trinkets, donkey, horse and camel rides to the tourists. If you’re willing to bargain just a little, the prices are more than reasonable. Few of the locals are getting rich from this trade. Beware, though: the Beadouin children are very charming. “One Dinar, lady, One Dinar” a six year old repeated to my wife. I bought a twelve pack of postcards from him. $1.60? That’s cheap.
When we reached the spot where I was to catch a ride I paid Mansour and he then started a long negotiation with the man with the car. Apparently it was not “all arranged”. In the end, I think 8 Dinar of my donkey fee went to the driver who made the comment that “Mansour was a good negotiator – normally he charged 10 Dinar” ($15) for the 15 minute drive.
I arrived back to the bus in plenty of time. I do miss Petra though – so much yet to see and photograph there. The bus drove north, stopping a time or two enroute back to Amman where we’d spend one more night in the same so-so hotel before heading to Bethany Beyond Jordan (historical site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ), Madaba (where amazing stone tile work has been found), Mount Nebo, Mount Carmel and then across the Allenby Bridge into Israel for lunch at Genesis Land.
Genesis Land was kitchy. Eleazar, Abraham’s servant greets you and takes you (after you don your period cloak) to a Beadouin tent where Abraham insures that you are well fed. The date-honey glazed chicken was, mmmmmh good, as were many of the other traditional period authentic dishes.
The next 7 days of the journey we ran ’round like, well, tourists. Our guide in Israel, David Jacobs is a walking encyclopedia of history, culture, and a bit of traveling wit. I can’t even remember a fifth of the places we visited. Many frankly were remarkable for their history rather than their current state of being. Of our time in Israel, my favorite places were Masada, Caesarea, Jerusalem, Tell Dan, and the Sea of Galilee.The high fortress of Masada overlooks the Dead Sea. The Jews living there managed to thumb their noses at Romans and their mighty army for three years. The Romans camped around Masada and built walls so that the Masadan’s could not leave, but the Romans were unsuccessful besieging the city until they built a huge ramp. The Israeli military are frequent visitors to Masada where the rich, tenacious history of their forebears inspires them to keep up the good fight and remember the sometimes high cost of freedom. The entire Dead Sea area was an interesting contrast of barren desert and occasional oases. In a comedy of errors I left my bathing suit in the bus and didn’t partake of the Dead Sea floating experience. I don’t think I missed all that much, frankly.
The exhibits and terrain at Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were found were fascinating. Imagining living in such an arid place where the summer temperatures get very hot is, well, it’s making me sweat just contemplating it. Ritual mikveh’s (baths for purification) were everywhere about.
Caesarea along the Mediterranean Coast found us walking through another well preserved Roman ruin and included a large aqueduct built by the crazy Herod the “Great”.
In the north eastern part of Israel near the Golan Heights, Tell Dan was such an amazing contrast. The place is lush by comparison to the desert like areas elsewhere. Our hike to the ancient ruins of Dan found us enjoying rushing creeks, heavy woods, cooler weather and fantastic views – including a view from the bunkers overlooking the Israel – Syria border. We waved at the military outpost high up on the heights.
We spent several nights using Nof Ginosar along the Sea of Galilee as our base of operations. It was good to stay in one place (if you could call it that!) and the large food buffet was generous and varied. Fresh squeezed orange juice, and a variety that boggled the mind.
The most surreal, and in a way disheartening experience was our trip into Bethlehem to visit the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Bethlehem is a Palestinian controlled area perhaps 8 miles from Jerusalem. Entering Bethlehem means passing through a security checkpoint and exchanging a Jewish guide for a Palestinian guide. The signage that previously was always in Hebrew, Arabic and English now was only in Arabic and English. Our Palestinian guide, like the others was a good ambassador. He almost seemed to be pleading with tourists to come. We spent several hours touring the area, visiting a cave that may have been the birthplace of Christ, or at least a stable where the animals may have been kept as well as an elaborate confined area deep in the bottom of a series of churches. It’s hard to imagine these places as they may have been when ornate (and to my eye tacky) buildings cover them over. But on the other hand, had the various churches not preserved them two thousand years of various occupiers would certainly not have thought twice about using these “holy” locations for whatever purpose seemed best at the time – and many were. As evening fell we passed the “Stars and Bucks” coffee shop as the bus took us back to our hotel in Jerusalem – a very nice hotel I might add with excellent food and comfortable accommodations. The wait to cross out of Bethlehem was quite long… perhaps 45 minutes.
Later in the trip I saw with my eyes something that literally made me weep. Walls. I felt as if I had just been transported back to Berlin and the east and west had been carved up to separate brothers and cousins. I remember visiting the Mauer Museum (Wall Museum in Berlin) and realizing how naive I am as an American about what happened in Berlin. The walls in Israel are fairly recent and were meant to slow the violence and the attacks on motorists passing between the mostly Jewish sections of Jerusalem and the mostly Jewish sections of western Israel. Apparently the walls are working, but they don’t just protect the freeways as the sound barrier walls do in California – they encircle whole towns.I did weep at Yad Vashem. The Holocaust memorial high on the hills overlooking Jerusalem – especially at the “Children’s Holocaust” memorial where simple sculptures and a moving “million candles” exhibit wrench the heart. I’ve been teaching a first grade Sunday School for nearly twenty years and hearing the names, ages and nationalities of the children killed during the Holocaust sent me in search of a tissue. I imagined the names of the children I have known being read only here it takes 22 months to cycle through the million and a half names each one a young soul.
For the final installment of my Middle East Excursion, please see Part 3.