Alive and well at the Dead Sea

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2006

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Flag of Jordan  ,
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The next day we awoke to a proper rain, so we thanked our lucky stars we were able to visit Petra the day before. Surprisingly, Ana Maria wasn't yet sick of us, so the four of us agreed to share a private cab up to Amman, Jordan's capital, while taking in some of the sights along the way. It was fortuitous we cleared out of Petra when we did, since a hour after departing our driver informed us that the road we had just traversed was closed due to snow. It was also fortuitous that we connected with the cab driver we did, who spoke very good English, was well informed and educated, and provided some interesting background about the country. He told us that his grandfather, a Bedouin, had actually lived in the caves at Petra.

Our first stop was Kerak Castle, one of the better preserved and more important castles on the "Crusader Circuit" in the Middle East. Kerak is strategically placed on a very high hill overlooking two broad and fertile valleys, making it a logical place to seek safety and security well before the Crusaders arrived. It had seen the goings and comings of Assyrians, Phoenicians, Egyptians (the bitumen from the Red Sea was instrumental in Egyptians' mummification procedures, enriching the area immeasurably), Romans, Greeks, and Muslims before Reynauld, the Crusader architect of the place, envisioned this as a defensive site perfect for warding off the attacks of infidels. It was built in the mid 1100s, finished not too long after, and was sacked by Muslim armies in 1182. Not such a great run, but there you have it. Apparently, the Muslim forces held the city under siege for quite some time, driving the starving Christians barricaded within to sell their wives and children in return for provisions. Nevertheless, when the Muslims finally entered and accepted surrender from the Christians, they pardoned them and rewarded them for their "valor." Reynaud met a less charitable fate: he was beheaded personally by the leader of the Muslim forces in his bedchamber. Today, Kerak looks a little worse for wear than some older sites on the tourist route. Its bricks are crumbling, parts of its roof have caved in, and moss and grass has sprouted in dank, dark corners of the soldiers' garrisons. Mercifully, however, no livestock has been stationed there.

Next on the agenda was a dramatic descent to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth and the saltiest body of water, too. We passed through several security checkpoints, but our driver assured us that this was merely in the interest of monitoring borders, as Israel's west bank sits just over the Dead Sea, which we could see easily across this relatively small body of water. Despite the security checkpoints, Jordan does have friendly relations with all of its neighbors, boasting open boarders with Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Israel. In fact, our driver jokingly offered to take us to Iraq and post a large American flag on the outside of the car, but we politely declined the offer. We hearing touring in Iraq is overrated!

We were disappointed because we all had wanted to take a dip in the Dead Sea, but the driving wind and intermittent rain made the prospect less than appealing. Apparently, the waters of the Dead Sea make a person very buoyant (we saw pictures of people floating easily on their backs while raising their arms and legs out of the water), and they have healing properties, as well, although entry can hurt like a #!$&#%^* on cuts or open wounds. Our driver stopped the car by one precipitous cliff looking down to the waters. Below we could see salt-incrusted rocks sitting above the waterline (the sea loses a couple centimeters as year to evaporation); they looked like jagged, enormous snowballs hugging the coast. Above we could see slender rock formations, jutting jauntily into the sky; our driver explained that local legend has it that one of these formations is Lot's wife, who turned to a pillar of salt after flouting God's warning not to look back as her family evacuated Sodom and Gomorhha. In the distance, across the water in Israel, we could see the faint outlines of the ancient city of Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world.

Our next stop called for a brief visit to Mt. Nebo, reputed to be the final resting spot of Moses and an important church for the many Christians still living in the area. When we arrived it was raining cats and dogs, so we and Ana Maria demurred, but Andrew, super-tourer as he is, ran in to grab a few shots of the place. You might be able to find them on his website, When he returned, Ana Maria dubbed him our hero, which we agreed was a deserved title given the downpour.

Finally, we pulled into Madaba, a small town well known for its Christian churches and Byzantine-era mosaics, the most famous being the Orthodox church of St. George. St. George has just a small sanctuary but a very large tile mosaic built into the floor, some of which has worn away over time. Some portions, however, are well-preserved, and they depict the known world at the time of the mosaic's creation, including many of the places we had visited or planned to visit in the next few days. The holy land featured prominently but the mosaic also stretched as far north as Greece and as far south as Egypt. Clearly, we were walking through the cradle of civilization, or at very least the cradle of the civilization from which our Western perspective was born.

The balance of our day consisted of a drive into Jordan's less than stunning capital city preceded by a few administrational stops. Andrew, and more specifically Andrew's luggage, had been very unlucky on this trip. On the 7 flights he took during his visit to the region, his checked baggage was located at his destination only 4 times. Fortunately the airport was on our way into the city, so Andrew persuaded the cab driver to make a short detour to the folks at Royal Jordanian so that he could be reunited with his luggage. To our collective surprise Andrew's rescue mission went off without a hitch, and after another 30 minutes or so we were in the out-skirts of Amman.

Before entering the city, however, we had to make one more stop. Anna had become friends with a Jordanian living in Athens and had been in communication with a mutual friend in Amman who insisted on hosting her while she passed through. This was another needle in a haystack type arrangement, but again after only 15 minutes or so of cell phone coordination and waiting around, Anna met up with her host and we parted ways. We panned to meet up with her the next day for a trip to Jerash and we were also interested in learning about Amman through her host family. Our plan was to meet up the next morning at a hotel we had selected and continue our adventure into Northern Jordan from there.
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