Air Jordan

Yoda:

All I can say is: AWESOME!!!!! Historically, Jordan is old beyond old. Old Ottoman villages built atop old Byzantine towns built atop old Roman cities – all of which remain in varying states of ruin; to look across the Sea of Galilee (now Lake Tiberius); to stand atop Mt. Nebo, where Moses looked across the Jordan into the Promised Land that he was forbidden to enter; to drive along roads that were probably once tracks trod by the donkeys of Biblical characters; to explore the fortress ruins of the long-past armies of the Crusaders and of their nemesis, Saladin. There is the physical beauty: Wadi Rum, the desert stronghold of Lawrence of Arabia; the shores of the Dead Sea, lowest spot of land on earth; the dry, stark mountains and eerie rock formations of the deserts. Then there is stunning Petra, with its multi-colored stone canyons, its staggering funerary facades, and its silent testimony to the ages. And the people are BEYOND friendly; I must have heard the word, “Welcome”, a million times in four days, including from the radar cop who chose NOT to give me a ticket! (Americans usually get charged TWICE the going rate!!) Although the distances are small – you can drive from one end of Jordan to the other in about five hours – there is SO much packed into that space that four days, going from before sun-up until after sun-down, could not do it justice. I kept passing signs for yet ANOTHER place that I wanted to stop – Karak Castle, the Baptism site of Jesus, the Red Sea, Jericho and Bethlehem on the West Bank. Although I did get to see most of the major sites, Jordan is definitely on my list for a return visit.

The plane landed at nine o’clock, I rented a car, and was off to Jerash. Jerash was once a prosperous Roman city. Indeed, all of Western Jordan was a fertile, wealthy area; but that was before climate change created the arid land that we see today. Now, Jerash is a ruin; but WHAT a ruin!!! Huge arched gateways, two amphitheatres, colonnaded streets, massive temples, market stalls . . . the works! AND . . . they stage REAL chariot races in the Hippodrome!!!! Regret number one: they had JUST finished the races when I arrived!! At first, it all seemed kind of hokey anyway, so I didn’t think I had missed much – just a bunch of guys parading around in fake Roman legionnaire uniforms. But when the chariots exited at full gallop, it was pretty thrilling – and they weren’t even racing!!! If I had had a week instead of four days, I would have DEFINITELY driven back for the next day’s performance! But I did get to see a totally incongruous performance of a kilted bagpipe group in one of the amphitheatres; the acoustics were pretty amazing, but “Coming Through the Rye” in Jordan?!?!?

After Jerash, I stopped by one of Saladin’s impressive hilltop fortresses at Ajlun, before heading up to Umm Qais – the Biblical town of Gadara. The ruins here aren’t as extensive as the ones in Jerash, but it would have been fun to explore if there had been more time before nightfall. The view, though, is across the Sea of Galilee, taking in Northern Israel, the occupied Golan Heights of Syria, and the distant mountains of Lebanon. And that night, I had the absolutely BEST falafel wrap I have EVER had in my LIFE at a little hole-in-the-wall place near my “hotel”; and, against my better judgment, I ate THREE!!!

Off before dawn to the Dead Sea. I had been warned about the smell of this below-sea-level lake, but it was actually a very pretty place – and no smells at all. Still, the Jordan River that flows into it is massively polluted, so I skipped the swim. But I stood on the shore, which is the lowest spot on earth. Unfortunately, however, the level of the Dead Sea is falling rapidly, so the spot where I stood will not be the lowest in a few years. Perhaps, though, this is fortuitous – I’ll just have to make a return trip to stand at the new lowest spot . . . and give Jordan the time that it deserves.

Then, the long drive to Wadi Rum, passing more places where I wanted to stop, in order to get to Rum before it got dark. Wadi Rum really isn’t a wadi; it is a large expanse of desert with some amazing geological formations. It is also the area out of which T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) operated during World War I. There are no roads into the area, so the choices are hiking, camels, or four-wheel-drive. Again, due to time limitations, I opted for the motorized version – not as romantic as Peter O’Toole riding his camels over the dunes, but it got the job done. Canyons, ravines, buttes, natural rock arches, huge red sand dunes, ancient petraglyphs, places important to Lawrence’s story. Not much to write about, but there are lots of pictures. The next time, I will ride a camel and stay in a Bedouin camp; but, again because of time considerations, I opted to stay at the rest house in the town of Rum, where the “rooms” consisted of small tents. They did have comfy mattresses, though; so after wandering around “town” under the stars for awhile, I had a nice sleep.

Again, out before dawn to PETRA!!!!!!!!! It’s a little hard to explain Petra. Your first encounter is a set of very impressive “buildings” carved from the cliffsides. But these really aren’t buildings at all; they are huge facades carved into the cliff faces, but the interior space is little more than a squared-off cave. You see, despite the names given to many of these facades, they are actually nothing but elaborate tombstones!!! So you go, “Yes, these are impressive, but is that IT?” Then, you enter a ravine that is about a mile long, that winds between towering cliffs of swirling red, blue, purple, and duff colored rock. Again, there are various interesting niches, tombs, and carvings, but not the stuff of legend. Finally, the ravine opens out into the main event, and the “Treasury” stands before you! THIS was worth coming to Jordan for!!! No, it is not a treasury at all – it is another cave tomb – but people used to think it was. You see, while there are theaters and temples and other public buildings in Petra, there are no real dwellings or many buildings of practical use. Once people realized that all these rock “buildings” were tombs, it was thought that this was a necropolis and not a real city at all. But the current thinking is that the people simply lived in non-stone buildings and tents that disappeared without leaving a trace. I hiked the main route – from the “Treasury” to the “Monastery”, exploring things as I went. But if you are counting, this is now the third day of my four-day weekend, so all the fascinating-sounding side trips will have to await my return visit. Meanwhile, there are LOTS of pictures!!

Last day – out before dawn again, for a sunrise at Shobak, a crusader hilltop fortress. Very magical. Then north to Madaba. Madaba is known for its Byzantine floor mosaics, including a famous one of the Holy Land. It’s kind of cool to walk around the town seeing the juxtaposition of various denominations of Christian churches with Muslim mosques. Actually, there doesn’t seem to be much religious animosity in Jordan at all. There are even several well-guarded but very open border crossings between Jordan and Israel, with quite a few Israeli tourists. About five miles from Madaba is Mt. Nebo, where Moses is said to have looked across the Jordan River toward the Promised Land, and then to have died and been buried. Biblical sites are tricky. There are at least two sites claiming to be the Jesus baptismal site – one in Jordan and one in Israel. There is a spot in Jordan that claims to be the site of Sodom and Gomorrah. Various purported burial sites – Lot’s, Aaron’s, Elijah’s – dot the area. There has been a pilgrimage church on this mountaintop since the fourth century AD, but that is still a few thousand years and several conquests after the original events. Still, looking out across the Jordan Valley from this spot was a fitting end to my whirlwind tour of Jordan.

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