I left Damascus by again taking a shared SUV for $20 to Amman, Jordan that takes about three hours, not including the time it takes to clear passport. It took about two hours to clear passport control for both Syria and Jordan, but it would have taken much longer for those on a bus because if there is one person on the bus with any irregularity, the whole bus is delayed. Upon arriving in Amman, a taxi driver offered a flat fare to take me to the Dead Sea and said he would include stops that were on my list. He also said he would come back the next day to transport me to Petra for an additional fee.
A disadvantage of a long travel journey is fatigue. I am sure I could have found public buses to visit the sites on my list, but it was easier to hire a taxi. It would still be less than renting a car, eliminating worries about driving in a strange country, insurance costs, etc. The taxi fare was close to $100 a day.
There are many biblical sites in Jordan. A stop was made in Mt. Nebo, where the Bible says God told Moses he would show him the promised land (Deuteronomy 34:1-6) but Moses would not be permitted to visit it. Moses died here, but his exact burial site is unknown. There are remnants of an ancient church built here. The Franciscans purchased the property in 1993 and built a monastery while conducting further archaeological studies. Moses is not only a prophet for Jews and Christians but also for Muslims.
A HISTORICAL LOCATION — A visit to the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus is a compelling stop for devout Christians. My interest was more from a historical viewpoint. Five different Christian churches have been built in close proximity to this site. A small fee is collected at an entrance area and an open-air truck provides transportation to the baptismal site.
It was close to sunset and a hotel had not been reserved. There was a city about 20 miles from the Dead Sea that offered budget hotel rooms. Almost all the hotels bordering the Dead Sea are luxury resorts and the Holiday Inn where we stopped was no exception. The cost of $200-plus a day would pay for several days at hotels this frugal traveler usually selects, but the idea of having to drive to another town, find a hotel and so forth, just seemed too much for my weary bones. The Holiday Inn did include a lavish breakfast buffet.
I had soaked in the Dead Sea during a visit to Israel years ago, so skipped it on this one. If this is your first visit to this area, however, don’t miss the opportunity to float in the saltiest body of water in the world. Reputed therapeutic benefits from the mineral composition should be taken with a grain of salt (pun intended).
The taxi driver arrived on time and we drove to Karak with its well-preserved castle that is said to only be surpassed by Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. The Crusaders built the castle, which was later conquered by Saladin. They were out of audio guides, but a live guide service was offered. That expensive service was useless as rooms were pointed out with one word such as kitchen, bedroom, stable, etc. Seeing so many castles on one trip is similar to visiting so many cathedrals on European tours and soon they all seem to be the same.
The next stop was at the cave that Lot purportedly lived in with his daughters after escaping the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is a rather shallow cave, but a monastery was built here around the fifth or sixth century and has been partially excavated. A Coptic church is built close by. A new museum was being constructed nearby and might be interesting to visit when completed.
The drive continued to Petra, a site that was high on my bucket list. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and no less an authority than the BBC proclaims it as one of 50 places one must see before they die. (Of that list, I haven’t been to the Seychelles, the Maldives, and Angel Falls in Venezuela. I don’t agree with this list, by the way). Petra became even more famous perhaps because it was featured in the movie “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.”
During the drive, occasional house caves carved into the sandstone were seen. Many were said to be tombs. Upon inspection, the interior revealed only an empty space. The plan was to stay overnight with a Bedouin family, but after waiting for several hours at the meeting place, I canceled that idea and went to a hotel instead, located in Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses), the closest town to the entrance of Petra. Located near the top of this town is the rock that Moses struck to bring forth water (Numbers 20:10-11). I was the only tourist.
The entrance gate to Petra opens at 6 a.m. and an early morning departure is recommended to avoid the midday heat. Carry as much water as you are able. The entrance ticket included a 10-minute horse ride to the slot canyon from which a person then hikes through the canyon or takes a buggy ride. A never to be forgotten moment occurs when trudging through the siq (slot canyon) when suddenly the majestic edifice of the Khazneh (Treasury building) comes into view.
Petra means rock in Greek, and was built more than two centuries before Christ by Nabateans, an amazing nomadic Arab group who quickly converted to urban living and became wealthy by controlling the important trade route from the interior to the Mediterranean. Petra was once considered the wealthiest city in the world at that time. Others must have helped their architectural skill since the facades contain elements from other cultures. The amazing engineering skill in gathering and saving water when the average rainfall was six inches a year is something we should study more closely and apply to our desert communities. Its decline began in 363 A.D. when a major earthquake destroyed most of the city and it never fully recovered. The Nabateans did not leave any written record about their life. History about this area provides fascinating reading about the many wars and cultural clashes between the Arabs, Romans, Israelites, Greeks, and Persians among several others.
Christianity slowly came to Petra during the Byzantine era, but was hastened when a hermit Syrian monk named Barsauma arrived around 423. He supposedly wore an uncomfortable iron tunic as a public show of penance. He devoted himself to destroying pagan religious items including temples. Legend has it that Petra was suffering a severe drought and Barsauma claimed he could end it and soon after a downpour occurred. Complete Christian conversion rapidly followed. A short horseback ride is included in the admission price for those so inclined.
My Bedouin guide’s name was Riyadh Mashaleh and he said he would take me into the heart of Petra by a different route and include a visit to the highest place there. His services were well worth the extra cost, which was reasonable, although the exact price cannot be remembered. During our ride he would stop and point out edible, medicinal and poisonous plants. He related how the Nabateans were able to work on the stone by making a small cut into the rock, inserting wood and pouring water over the wood and causing the wood swelling to split the rock. A more detailed explanation can be found online.
Our final destination was known as the “High Place of Sacrifice” platform (which was supposedly gold covered in ancient times) where animal sacrifices were carried out. Channels can still be seen where blood drained away. Riding horseback close to this area allowed me to conserve strength to visit the vast interior area where the midday heat, walking in the soft sand and climbing up tall structures can sap anyone’s energy.
In leaving Petra through the narrow canyon, I double backed to experience how the majority of visitors enter Petra and was awestruck. It is easy to imagine what the Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, must have felt when he was the first European to discover Petra in 1812. The story of how he learned fluent Arabic to disguise his Western origin and how he concocted a story to convince his Bedouin guide to lead him here is a fascinating tale in itself.
A friend loves to trek to exotic places and he always takes magnificent photos of the people he meets. Bedouins here insisted on being paid for photos. Somehow, by purchasing some small items from them, I was permitted to take free snapshots.
The three-and-a-half hour minivan bus ride to Amman, capital of Jordan, from Petra cost 10 Jordanian dinars (less than $15). Prices in Jordan for everything seem to be higher than in Syria. My budget hotel, Abbasi Palace, in Amman was located in the Balad (Old Town), which I found to be a rather seedy area much like sections of Latin America where there are many street vendors, except it did not feel dangerous. It had received good reviews in guidebooks but it was only tolerable because the female owner was so pleasant and helpfully answered any questions or solved any problems. Fortunately, the weather was fairly pleasant because the air-conditioner really only functioned as a fan.
After visiting Petra, it was a letdown to see the poorly preserved Roman theater and temple in Amman. Sitting in a very soft chair at the hotel for a few hours resulted in severe backaches for a few days and resulted in my canceling a visit to the town of Madaba to see many fine mosaics there. A day trip to the city of Jerash mainly to see re-enactments of Roman chariot racing and gladiator fighting in a well-preserved Roman amphitheater was also canceled.
With so much information available on the Internet, guidebooks seem to be superfluous for many destinations, but they are handy for Jordan because so many signs are only in Arabic. One could point to a place of interest and helpful residents are able to direct you without knowing English.
Some of my observations of life in Jordan include seeing many Indonesian maids working here because they are Muslims. Women tend to dress in Western attire but there are a few with veils. It is a secular society with many Christians (about six percent or 400,000) living among Muslims peacefully. Drivers do not respect pedestrians’ crossing rights. A pregnant woman carrying a child even had to scurry as cars sped past. Taxes are around 17 percent and restaurants frequently add a 10 percent service charge. There is relatively little oil or water in Jordan, so costs are high for both.
A restaurant called Hashem serves only falafel, hummus, and fuul (fava bean paste) for 1 JD (less than $1.50) and has been an institution here since 1922 because the cheap, fresh and tasty food is quite filling. I missed eating what is said to be the best falafel in the Middle East at Falafel al-Quds located on Wakalat Street. I splurged at Zad el Khair restaurant because Iraqi ex-pats raved about the masgouf, the Iraqi national dish, served here. It is grilled marinated carp, but disappointed me, probably because the glowing stories led to unrealistic high expectations. The restaurant was located in modern Amman with many expensive shops, Mercedes dealerships and high-rise buildings.
A valuable lesson for me was to try to limit trips to two weeks or less since fatigue causes one to wonder if the effort to see a particular site is worthwhile. There is so much to see of interest in this area and to avoid an expensive return trip that the extended time seemed worth the effort. At least I appreciated my return home even more than usual.