Dear Intrepid Traveler,
Beyond the Jordan River
Knowing that on the morning of our departure from Jerusalem, the rest of our group would head for the airport and fly home, my roommate, Carolyn wondered if our “Add-On” was the right decision. She and I agreed that is was a wonderful decision.
Shepherd Tours continued to take excellent care of us. Johnny picked us up at the Old Jerusalem’s Knight’s Palace hotel at 7 a.m. We retraced our route going north to avoid the Allenby Bridge, a direct gate from the Palestinian West Bank into Jordan complicated by red tape. What a thrill to be stopped by a herd of camels loping along and then crossing the highway ahead of us!
Johnny, a Palestinian Christian, navigated the the checkpoint from the West Bank into Israel and then on to Israel/Jordan border at the Beit She’an (Jordan River)/Sheikh Hussein crossing. He said goodbye, but not before telling his frustrating story. He does not enjoy college and hates grinding away at difficult classes knowing that when he has completed his engineering course work, his applications to work will be overlooked in favor of Israelis. He wants to join the Israeli army and learn to fly, but has not been accepted. He is in his early 20s and feels he has no future. We were saddened by his story.
He then turned us over to a helpful man assigned by Shepherd Tours to take us to a window to get our visas for Jordan and put us on a bus that drove across the bridge. On the other side George Giaconte, a 50-ish man of Bedouin descent collected us and we were off to see three or four of the 1200 notable sights of Jordan.
January is cold in Jordan. We were bundled up for the outdoor site-seeing. In an hour or so we reached Jarash. I was blown away by the cite, excavated in the early 20s. Having visited countless Roman ruins in England, Italy, Green, Sicily, France, I was completely unprepared for the majestic construction in Jarash. I posted a picture of Hadrian’s magnificent arch on Facebook. My daughter and her family had just visited England and walked along Hadrian’s wall. “That Hadrian gets around!”
Jarash became a prosperous urban center on the incense and trade route during the Hellenistic period, 3rd c. BC. Under the Romans, it became one of the most important cities in the Decapolis, reaching its zenith 130 AD., a favorite city of Hadrian. After a period of decline in 3rd c. it enjoyed a renaissance as a Christian city under the Byzantines in 6th c. before the Muslims took over in 635 and earthquakes in 8th c. further damaged it. Final destruction occurred during the Crusades. Huge arches, remains of 100’s of columns, baths, amphitheater (people at top could clearly hear my declaiming “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears…”) paved streets,
a huge plaza which had an extensive drainage system beneath. We walked and marveled and imagined it peopled with intense human activity over 3000 years ago.
A several hour drive from Jarash through Jordan’s capital, Amman to Petra. The landscape became drier and drier. 70% of Jordan is desert.
My overall feeling on this day of driving in Jordan was one of profound calm and relief. There is no “occupation” in Jordan. Christians are equal citizens, protected in all ways by the law of the land and the attitude of the people. I remembered years ago leaving South Africa where our family lived under apartheid, and spending a week in Kenya and then Egypt, counties where people were free. Oppressive weight lifted. So, too, in Jordan.
Jordan has a population of 7 million, plus 4 ½ million refugees from Lebanon, Israel, Yeman and Iraq. Many of the displaced Arabs from Israel ended up here in the sprawling refugee camp on south end of city. Jordan is still taking in refugees—however, King Abdullah was recently in London requesting more international help. Without oil, the country is not wealthy and the refugee reception and care has caused a four fold increase in the cost of living.
Education is mandatory; there are 31 universities, 19 are public. Prominently placed on a hill with splendid views over Amman is The Citadel. A physically large complex with remains of columns, a Byzantine basilica, cistern, and imposing Temple of Hercules. What fascinated me was the small Archaeological Museum that records over 8,000 years of Middle Eastern history. Human activity here dates back to the Neolithic period, but evidence of permanent settlements is limited to the Chalcolithic period and Early Bronze Age (3200-2300 BC). The complicated episodes narrated in the Bible concerning Rabbath Ammon, “the great city of the Ammonites” probably date back to the Early Iron Age (1200-1000 BC). The city was conquered by David but reacquired its independence soon afterward, probably mid-10th c. BC.
Our dream destination was Petra. A UNESCO World Heritage Site—known also as one of the 7 wonders of the world. A site to see before you die!
Petra: The Lost Kingdom of the Nabateans.
We had never heard of the Nabateans. They were a people whose original homeland lay in northeastern Arabia and who migrated westward in the 6th c. BC, settling eventually in Petra. Archaeological findings, recent and rudimentary, confirm the historical record that the 3rdc BC inhabitants were a semi- nomadic people, living in a small, simple community with modest dwellings of stones and clay. It was only later towards the end of the 1st century BC that the city began to acquire monuments, nicer homes and elaborate gardens—remember this is the DESERT.
As entrepreneurs the Nabateans grasped the lucrative potential of Petra’s position on the spice and incense trade routes from East Asia and Arabia to the Mediterranean. Toward end of 1st c. BC and the 1st c. AD, they had made Petra the center of a rich and powerful kingdom, extending from Damascus in the north to Egypt in south and had built a city large enough to support 20-30,000 people. Key to their success was the ability to locate, control and conserve water.
Conduits and the remains of terracotta piping can be seen along the walls of the Outer Siq—part of an elaborate system for channeling water around the city. This ingenious system of channels and cisterns provided enough water for fountains and gardens at the height of its prosperity. Their King at this point was a contemporary of Augustus and Herod. Not particularly aggressive, possessing food and water sources, enough wealth, they lived peaceably until Romans arrived in 1st c. AD and claimed the lucrative industry; about that time trade routes began to shift from land to sea; later two powerful earthquakes devastated much of the city in 4th & 8th centuries. Petra lay hidden for about 500 years until the Swiss explorer Johann Burkhardt, en-route to Africa heard tales about a lost city and was the first modern Westerner to enter.
From the ticket gate, through the Siq, through the course of the wadi (river bed), the route almost imperceptibly descends, until one reaches the Treasury, about 1 mile—with much to look at along the way. The first view of the Al Khazneh el Faroun (the Treasury of the Pharaoh) is one of the most dramatic sights in canyon with its pink-hued, finely chiseled façade, almost like through a chink through the darker, narrow walls. Dramatic!
Local legend suggests its name because the urn at the top of the façade is supposed to contain treasure left by a Pharaoh. El Faroun’s fame is justified by the exremely high quality of its “baroque’ architecture and the sophistication of the carving on the façade and then preserved by the dry atmospheric conditions.
Digression: Several scenes from the Hollywood blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were filmed in Petra. The movie’s fictional Canyon of the Crescent Moon was modeled on the eastern entrance to Petra, a 250-foot-high (76-meter-high) sandstone slot canyon known as the Siq that leads directly to—perhaps the most stunning of Petra’s dozens of breathtaking features.
In the film’s climactic final scenes, actors Harrison Ford and Sean Connery burst forth from the Siq and walk deep into the labyrinths of the Treasury in their quest to find the Holy Grail. But, as usual, archaeological fact bowed to Hollywood fiction when Indy came to Petra.
In reality, the Treasury is nothing more than a facade with a relatively small hall once used as a royal tomb and in which the Bedouin keepers of the little shop on the square periodically spend the night.
Current inhabitants of this area are Bedouin and actually lived in the Wadi Mousa until after the site had received its historic designation and King Hussein relocated them above the valley. Some still overnight in nearby caves—a bit illegally!
Passing the Treasury with the camels and donkey pulled carts, the path bends and turns revealing architectural features of tombs and other objects before it widens into the Outer Siq. Petra’s main thoroughfare led from the Siq to the sanctuary alongside the Wadi Mousa. Paved sections of this road have been identified with stones in the Nabatean period. Imposing sandstone colonnades were built on both sides of the carriageway; surface was re-paved in slabs of marble and limestone, date back to same age as Jarash. Where Outer Siq opens on to Petra’s central plain are the Royal Tombs—their monumental size suggesting they were built for wealthy or important people. They all have vivid gradations of color rippling through their sandstone walls.
and Greco-Roman architectural styles in the city’s tombs, many of which were looted by thieves and their treasures thus lost. This tomb shows elements of Egyptian design. Of course there were stalls with merchants hoping to sell.
We had dawdled too long en-route through the canyon to its end and were unable—time-wise and energy—to climb the 800 steps to The Monastery. Another visit!
The next morning George met us at 8 a.m. explaining that we had miles to go “before we slept again.”
And our miles took us once more out on the high desert plain with hardly anything to see for miles. However, the plateau is cut by a river which we surveyed from above before winding our way from about 1800/2000 ft to its floor and then back up again.
The Madaba Mosaic Map: In the late 19th c. clashes with the Muslim community led a group of Christians from Kerak (a castle we visited but currently lies in ruins and its museum was closed) who voluntarily moved to a long uninhabited site called Madaba along the Kings Highway. They were permitted to build new churches only on the sites of previous ones. In 1884, while clearing such a site, they uncovered this historic mosaic map which dated to the reign of Justinian (AD527-564); it shows sites of the ancient world–Jerusalem, Jericho, Nablus, Bethlehem, Garden of Gethsemane, the Jordan River, Ethiopia and is now incorporated into the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. Hangings lining the walls are more recently executed mosaic paintings whose tiles are glued onto a mesh backing enabling them to be rolled. Carolyn wanted to take home mosaic eggs: while I bought scarfs, one of which the shop assistant arranged for me as though I were a Muslim woman. I don’t have a picture. It wasn’t becoming.
Our last major stop of the day was Mt. Nebo, which rises 2600 ft. above the Dead Sea and from which the Sea, Jerusalem, Jericho, and much of the West Bank can be seen—on a clearer day than we had. It was from here that Moses saw the Promised Land which he was not permitted to enter. (Deut. 34). Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land…. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” On the highest point of the mountain the remains of a Byzantine church and monastery were discovered in 1933. Mosaic dates to 531 AD. The church was first constructed in the second half of the 4th century to commemorate the place of Moses’ death. Disappointingly under renovation.
Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI visited the site.
The Kings’ Highway, this twisting road led down the 3300 ft, past dozens of herds of sheep, each flock tended by a Bedouin shepherd until we arrived at the Holiday Inn Resort at the Dead Sea. The elegance rivaled any seaside resort in the world. The dining room out did itself with voluptuous foods. The Spa provided a two hour deep tissue massage, Dead Sea mud bath and facial. What a way to end our Holy Land trip!
Carolyn captured this image from right across the road from our hotel, a flock of sheep and its herder. We wouldn’t find this contrast in other resort areas.
The Hashemite Royal family have always protected their Christian population. The Kingdom made sure that Jordan keeps its 350 thousand Christians who are living in peace and amity with their Muslims neighbors. Their rights are guaranteed by the constitution. They are free to work and worship as they wish, they have representation in Parliamen, they serve in the army and the police and play a vital role in the private and public sectors.
Jordan is a unique model of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. During his Papal visit to Jordan in May 2009 Pope Benedict paid tribute to King Abdullah II for promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding and the strengthening of the Christian Muslim ties. King Abdullah is following a tradition established by King Abdullah I the founder and continued through his late father King Hussein.
It is not therefore surprising that Jordan has become the destination of choice for Christians fleeing the violence in Iraq and the Israeli occupation in the West bank and Jerusalem.
Jordan has rejected extremism, sectarianism and has defeated the Al-Qaeda enterprise in Jordan and is working hard to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of the two-state solution.
HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal declared recently “let us stand united against the hatred industry” and His Majesty King Abdullah II called on several occasions for the moderate voices in Islam to rise and speak out against violence and extremism committed in the name of Islam.
My thanks to Carolyn for researching and writing much of this reflection. I would go back to Jordan in a minute.
Be well, Do well and Keep Moving, Betsy