South From Amman on the King's Highway
01.14.2008 6 °C
That magical first glimpse of Petra's "Treasury" building
We checked out of our Amman hotel today. We were practically the only guests. It was like the quieter parts of "The Shining."
The drive today was gorgeous, despite the mainly cloudy weather. At first, we saw more of those hardscrabble Jordan hills: not rock-covered, nor-tree covered, they are equal parts small rocks and small trees, like they're battling for supremacy. That stretches as far as you can see, and wherever it's just rocks, that's been plowed for farming. Susistence agriculture, I imagine.
Soon, we'd driven down into the Jordan Valley (yup, a couple more checkpoints) and saw the site where John baptized Jesus. You have to use your imagination for this one; it's pretty much just a spot in the Jordan River, but I did reach down and stick my hand in. It's just cool being in the Holy Land (we also saw the spot where Elijah ascended to heaven, and we looked across the river to Jericho), where every place name is instantly recognizable from the Bible.
It doesn't look like much, but all the Christian denominations agree this is where John baptized Jesus
After that, we watched as the outside temperature gauge rose to 18 degrees celsius. We'd driven to the lowest place on Earth: the Dead Sea. And, it was warm enough for a swim! Not really, but how could we miss this chance? Luckily, the water was warmer than the air. We stayed in for quite a while, enjoying the famous buoyant effect. We even had a pamphlet to read for the obligatory photo-op.
You don't have to be dead to float like this in the Dead Sea
Not quite being able to shower off the salt properly, we nonetheless rolled on, to our stop for the night: Madaba. But first we drove up from 400 metres below sea level and had some more great views. We even passed by Mount Nebo, where Moses was shown the Promised Land (then died, but he was 120 and didn't have a Ford Explorer).
Arriving in Madaba, we saw the incredible "Madaba Mosiac" on the floor of the St. George's Greek Orthodox Church there. It's a tile mosaic map showing all of the Biblical lands. It was made in the 6th century, and about a third of the two million pieces survives. It showed all sorts of places we've just been, like the Dead Sea, with boats in it, fish in the Jordan River, and the Nile Delta. Some places are enlarged and more detailed, like Jerusalem, where the tiling shows the walls of the city and even individualized buildings. All the place names are in Greek, so it's a good thing we had our guidebook. I've never seen anything else like it, considering it's 1500 years old. Madaba since then has maintained a tradition of mosaic-making, so the rest of the church is pretty amazing too.
It's a small town, so we found a recommended hotel pretty easily. But it is seriously off-season (it may have been 18 degrees by the Dead Sea, but it was around 6 degrees in Madaba at night), and the hotel's restaurant showed no signs of life. Driving back through town, we walked the main street, and still found nothing. But we chanced one more block and entered a courtyard restaurant complex called "Haret Jdoudna". Still deserted. We were just about to leave when a waiter beckoned us inside. To our delight, we found a wedge-shaped room, full of diners, warmed by a crackling fire. The food was fantastic too, perhaps the best meal we've had in the Middle East so far.
The King's Highway in Jordan, 2008, is newly-paved. But it's seen a lot of traffic long before there were cars: Moses led his people along this route, traders came to and from Petra at its Nabatean peak, pilgrims and Crusaders of the Christian variety, and pilgrims to Mecca, too, have longed followed a similar passage. Today it was our turn.
A King's Highway switchback
Unfortunately, the twists, turns, switchbacks and elevation change didn't help Anica avoid feeling carsick. So we propped her up on a pillow in the front-seat and she seemed much better after that! Illegal in Canada, practical here.
We reached the city of Karak before noon, and promptly checked into a hotel right beside the Karak Castle. The Karak Rest House. James had stayed here on his last trip to Jordan. Hello Mister James! We now have a panoramic view of the deep Wadi Karak (a wadi is a dry river valley). The manager said he'd turn the heat on later for us.
After a picnic in Jenn's Dad's room, we went over to the castle. It was built in the 12th century by Crusaders, and laid siege to by Saladin in 1183. Parts of the castle, built after the Crusaders lost this area, are Mamluk ruins, anywhere from the 1300s to 1500s. The Mamluks also controlled Egypt during some of that period.
Heading into Karak, with the castle looming over the town
Again, sometimes coming in the off-season just rocks. We had this castle, which is one of the top sites in Jordan, practically to ourselves. There was so much you could freely climb and explore. The tunnels underneath the castle were particularly atmospheric: one gallery was a row of stores, and another was a row of prison cells. Lit only by air shafts of light, and the occasional modern electric footlight, we walked each tunnel alone. Various stone windows, cut for arrow use, looked out over the valleys on three sides of the castle (it's at the point of the wedge-shaped hill where the town of Karak is built). After hours of climbing every staircase and ramp, we finally declared ourselves done and back across the drawbridge to our hotel. We are their only guests tonight.
We drove from Karak to Wadi Musa (the modern town by the ancient city of Petra) in a little rain and a lot of fog. Early in the drive the fog had lifted enough for us to enjoy some of the incredible wadi views from this stretch of the King's Highway.
Fog rolling in, as we make our way past the little hillside towns of the King's Highway
Rain was threatening to become a factor again when we reached the desolate Shobak Castle. Other than nearly colliding with a family car coming down from the castle, there was nobody else there. A couple of curator/tour guides were at the entrance, but it's free anyway. Shobak is another Crusader-built castle like Karak. We were really just there to stretch our legs, but James and I couldn't resist the long staircase down into the belly of the castle. Anica and Jenn came part way, and then we continued, with flashlights, down uneven steps. I counted 94 steps, before we doused the flashlights and looked ahead. No light at the end of the tunnel. We went back up.
The fog got worse as we neared Petra. At least, we assumed we were getting closer as we couldn't see the road signs. The fog was so bad we could only see about two dotted lines ahead down the centre of the road.
Finally, though, we made our way through a ghostly Wadi Musa, and successfully bargained for our desired price in hotel room. This place is well-heated!
In the morning, I soon came to the conclusion that Petra is my favourite place of sightseeing (so far!) in the world. After a few hours of trekking and exploring, I was already thinking: this tops them all.
On our first day we (without Jenn, who was experiencing the flu-like feeling I'd had a few days ago) started down "The Siq" in the morning. It's the long, twisty, narrow canyon that emerges at "The Treasury," the most-photographed place at Petra. Every time we turned a corner, we were thinking: "will this be it?" It was like creeping downstairs on Christmas morning to see what Santa brought.
Along the way, though, I started to understand just how many tombs there are. From the moment you enter the front gates, you see holes cut into the rock, and beautiful, classical structures carved out of it. There are hundreds.
Also, all along The Siq, which is over a kilometre long, is an ancient, waist-high water-trough, which just serves to underscore the ingenuity of the Nabataeans, who built up Petra, starting from the 3rd century BCE. As you go, the rock gets more and more rose-pink.
Anica in front of "The Treasury"
After spending some time admiring The Treasury, and climbing into a few cave-tombs, we set out for "The High Place of Sacrifice." It's well-named. There's an ancient staircase that took us up, and down a little, and then up, up (picture an Arizona-like landscape) to a plateau higher than anything else. We shared our snack food with some Arab men at the top. One of them looked around the vast landscape and proclaimed that "it's a miracle, this place." Then they danced, in a joyful chorus line!
One of the views from the "High Place of Sacrifice, Petra
From this "high place," we could see back to the town of Wadi Musa, and forward to areas of Petra we hadn't yet seen. There were altars for animal sacrifice, and dugouts for washing up (washing off the blood?). Amazing spot, and I was really proud of Anica for her effort at getting up there. It was a little tortoise-and-hare, but unlike the hare, she finished the race, too, along with us tortoises.
James on the edge!
We decided not to go back the same way, but find the path forward, down the other side of the High Place. It was an hour hike from there to the ancient city of Petra's centre. The Roman influence was more noticeable there, with the colonnaded street, and the free-standing temple (the Nabataeans built everything by carving into the rock, almost nothing is free-standing). The Romans, however, didn't do much with Petra after taking it over.
The Great Temple, Petra
It became a lost city, lost to all except the Bedouins, who kept it secret. In the 5th century, there were a few Byzantine Christians who made churches out of the old tombs, and we saw these. There's no evidence, as far as I could see, of how the Crusaders made use of Petra. It wasn't until the 19th century that Europeans rediscovered Petra, as the forgotten, rose-red city. Artist David Roberts came here around 1840 and made his wonderful painting, realistic, but romanticized, too. They still sell his books and portfolios everywhere here, and I bought a collection of prints.
On our way out, we stopped for a closer look at the pink/red amphitheatre. This was #5 in Anica's collection of amphitheatres seen, although she didn't get to climb this one. As the day went on, we had seen increasingly colorful rock; much of it striped, with a distinctive yellow band, also blue, white, and all shades of red and brown. The yellow crumbles quickly into sand. Anica bought one of those illustrations in a sand-bottle, and had the guy drop her name into it in black lettering.
The second day, with Jenn (who was feeling better enough to say I can't miss this), we were even more ambitious. We had to walk in the same way; there's no other path from the front entrance. Then, we went up some steps to the Royal Tombs and had a little picnic.
The Royal Tombs, Petra
(In fact, we'd been stocking up on groceries, and have made our own breakfast in Jenn's Dad's room each morning. He has a little gas element, and can boil water, and has a frying pan for eggs. We've saved a lot, and had some memorable meals, by using James' camping stuff. Don't tell the hotel management!).
The big trek of the day was to a spot known as "The Monastery." It's probably 500 steps up, plus some flat stretches of walking.
Part of the ancient staircase up to "The Monastery, Petra
Once you pass "The Monastery" building itself, which has "two stories" that are more like ten (I could barely climb up in the big door to the chamber), there's a few more steps (and I paused in the exact place that David Roberts painted The Monastery) that take you to a scenic lookout.
The Jordanian flag flies as you stand, cliffside and look out for miles, maybe even as far as Israel. It's an incredibly rewarding view for the effort, though vertigo-producing.
You should paint this! The Monastery, Petra
It took 90 minutes to walk back, with any real stopping, to our hotel. By the time we made it, we were certainly exhausted, but felt we'd really seen and done a lot of Petra. We just had the energy to get take-out shawarma (for the second night in a row from Al-Arabi restaurant, but it's so good from this place!), and eat it back in our hotel room.
We've been fortunate enough to have seen the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids already on "our big world trip." I've enjoyed them all, these wold wonders, but none more than Petra.
To your tombs, everyone!
Wadi Rum is the third of three "must-see" experiences in Jordan (also Petra, and a swim in the Dead Sea). The operative word here is "must." When we got in the car this morning, the outside temperature read -6. The plan was to go camping. Hmmmm. Still, "must see." Wadi Rum is beautiful. It's a huge open-ended valley and dry-river bed, with many scenic canyons to explore. We hired a guide, encouraged by seeing the daytime temperature climb above 10 degrees (Hmmmm vs. "must-see" still duking it out at this point).
A "typical" Wadi Rum view!
When we left the pavement for the off-roading part of the drive, we were pretty much committed to camping overnight. We wouldn't be arriving at our designated Bedouin campsite until nearly dusk. It was time to enjoy the Wadi, and trust that our extra sleeping bags would do the trick. There were others camping, right? No?! Hmmmm....
Our Bedouin guide led James through various sandy trails to some of the highlight spots in the Wadi where we could get out of the vehicle and explore. First, we climbed as far as we could into a narrow crack of a canyon.
How far can you climb into the canyon?
Then, we stopped at the foot of an enormous sand dune, and we climbed to the top, then ran down. James tried rolling down, but that just hurt. Anica was the only one of us to climb up a second time and run down again, screaming as loud as she could the whole way.
Heading up the sand dune
At the base of another cliff, a couple of kilometres later, we stopped to examine some late Bronze Age drawings made on the rock. Lunch was a cookout/picnic in yet another towering, picturesque canyon. Anica played some more in the world's biggest sandbox, as James got a fire going. After lunch, we came to a natural stone arch that you could climb up to and across. It was about 40 feet up, but sure seemed higher from the top!
Our guide got us to each of these landmarks by sitting in the backseat, and calling out to James as he came to forks in the sand tracks. "Yashar!" (left) "Alatoole!" (straight) "Yameen!" (right). I have no idea how these words are spelled, but that's how I heard them...
Before sunset, we made it to camp. There are about 20 such sites in Wadi Rum, all owned by the heads of various Bedouin families. They all know each other, but it's competitive, because they're from about five different tribes. Ours was sheltered nicely from the wind.
Our Wadi Rum camp
In all directions, if you just walked up the rocks, there were increible views. There were about 40 beds set up in the long, striped tents. The sleeping arrangement reminded me of a homeless shelter, or perhaps army barracks. In our camp, the arrival of sunset confirmed that we were the only campers that night. Our guide was joined by a friend, who arrived by pick-up truck, to help with the cooking. They cook the food by heating it in the ground, covered over. We didn't see this process, beause we were climbing rocks, and playing soccer (before dark), then warming ourselves by the fire in the round tent after dark.
Sunset at camp
Our hosts served chicken, rice, pita, and a vegetable dish, along with chay (tea). They had lutes that they strummed on, and I had a try, but it was very different from the guitar. So, there we were, part of the timeless Bedouin tableau of sitting by your fire, enjoying your lute music, and watching videos on your cell phones. (?) Yes, these are 21st century Bedouin. Dressed completely traditionally, in their early twenties, they love their cell phones. They showed us how, if you walk to the edge of the tent, and hold your phone up high, sometimes you can get a signal. I thought it was hilarious, and when James tried to use his bluetooth to transfer a Britney Spears video, I thought we were contributing to the decline of civilization, but...what's authentic, really? If you were re-creating a Bedouin camp in a North American theme-park, the customers would be upset to see the "actors" on their cellphones. But to these young men, it's part of the life.
As for getting through the night, we weren't that cold. Jenn was probably colder before she went to bed, and in general was feeling the cold more than any of us because she wasn't 100% healthy. I don't have the space here, though, to list all the layers of clothing and blanketing we used. Thank goodness we had our own sleeping bags, because with what they provided, we wouldn't have been warm enough. I'm sure it was below zero, because, after breakfast, when we drove away, it was still only two degrees on the temperature display. But we lived to tell the tale!
"Dead Sea Day"
Today we went to the Dead Sea and floted. It was very fun. First we went to Jesus Baptism Sight. It was neat, cool, and amazing. Then we went to the Dead Sea and floted. It was very salty, rocky, and fun! Then we went to a church with a mosiac floor map. It was colourfull, bright and fun. Then we had dinner at a place with a fireplace. It was very neat and warm after the 8oC whether! G.N.
"Karak's King Poppa, King Dad, King Queen and Princess Anica at the Castle"
Today we went down to Karak. When we arrived we cheked into a hotel called Karak Rest-House. Right by the Al Karak Castle. And great view. Then we very yummy lunch of Chili, feta chesse, fruit juice and snickers. Then we walked out to the castle. 20 second walk! And saw, and climbed on very steep, ruined, rocky castle. We went into 10 dark tunnels! Then we went back home, had dinner, G.N.
"Petra: The Pink City"
Today we drove to Petra. The drive to Petra was messed up in cloud like fog. When we got to Petra we got a 3-star hotel called Slk Road Hotel. Nice, warm, clean and good room. We went to a ver yummy and delicious and clean pizza place. Went home, had dinner. G.N.
Today we went to the ruined, pin, high, twisty and big Petra. Mum did not come (sick). We went up a (approxamntly) 900 step high sacrifice place. We took lots of pictures t the pink, tall and nice and pretty Treasery.
Petra the 2nd time. Today Mum came to Petra. We did almost the same thing but with a 1000 step climb to the Monnastry. Went home, had dinner. G.N.