Destination: Madaba, Jordan
Number of Days Spent: 3 days
Where we stayed: Mariam's Hotel (30 JD - $42 with breakfast, a pool, 24 hour hot water, wifi & clean rooms)! A godsend after the place in Azraq and much better value for your money than Jerash.
Best restaurant: There was another great, no name (only in Arabic) falafel place in Madaba about 50 meters from St. Georges Church next to Arab Bank and across from Al-Baraka Sweets. Sandwiches were about $.50 each.
Best of: Bobbing up and down in the Dead Sea, staring out over the expanse just as Moses did to see the promise land from the top of Mt. Nebo, scenic drives and pausing to let the sheep to cross the road.
Worst of: The overly protected holy spot of Jesus' baptism along the river Jordan. Since the site is No-man's-land, the only way to see it is on a guided tour.
Most Memorable: Hot, hot, hot - temperatures soar at the lowest point on Earth - at over 1200 feet below sea level temperatures rose above 50 Celsius (113 Farenheit). Trying to wipe salty sweat away with our even saltier hands was quite a challenge.
We based ourselves in Madaba to explore the surrounding areas of the Dead Sea, Bethany-on-the-Jordan, Mt. Nebo, Karak and Madaba itself. Madaba turned out to be an excellent base with several choices of hotels (Yeah! Competition means better prices and more for your money!) and restaurants. The town was an important Roman town and flourished during the Byzantine period where many churches were built and adorned with colorful mosaics. The city was abandoned after an earthquake in the 8th century for 1100 years until the Christians once again settled the town. With the discovery of the mosaics, the town became an important archaeological site as excavation continues till this day. The town is still 1/3 Christian (2/3 Muslim) today which is one of the largest Christian communities in Jordan.
Arriving from the desert castles we set off to explore the major sites of Madaba, namely the Church of St. Georges. The church is the star attraction in Madaba due to an impressive mosaic map. Built in 560BC, the mosaic is the oldest existing map of Palestine. The mosaic includes historically and religiously important sites such as the RIver Jordan (complete with tiny mosaic fish swimming upstream away from the too salty to live in Dead Sea), Jerusalem, Jericho, Mt. Nebo & the Nile Delta.
Madaba also has an impressive archaeological park. Many of the mosaics dug up from people's basements wind up here and are on display along side parts of the old Roman streets. Known for its mosaics throughout the region, Madaba and the park are also home to a workshop where the ancient art form is taught to future generations.
"Go up unto Mt. Nebo in Moab, across from Jerico, and view Canaan, the land I am giving the Israelites as their own. Their on that mountain, you will die." ~ Deuteronomy 32:49-50
After saving the Israelites from the bondage of Egyptian slavery, Moses led the people to this spot where he looked out on the promise land during his final days. While the actual site of his burial is of much debate, there is no denying that on a clear day you can see all the way to the walls of Jerusalem 45 kilometers away from the top. This day was not such a clear day, but we could still make out the outline of a city on the other side of the Dead Sea. The church on top was closed when we were there but is said to have some nice mosaics from around the 4th and 5th centuries.
The site of Jesus's baptism is said to be at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan (yes, that is the actual name). In biblical times, "beyond" referred to the other side of the river, or in this case, the east side. Remains of churches dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries and early accounts of pilgrimages further solidify this place as the site. It is also believed to be the area where Elijah ascended into heaven upon his chariot of fire in a whirlwind. While you can still get the sense of spiritual significance, the site today is marred by politics. Armed Jews (Israel) on one side of the bank along with armed Muslims (Jordan) on the other keep a watchful eye on tourists and people of pilgrimage alike assuring no one crosses the boarder. While relations have improved in recent years, and the site is opening up more and more (there were in construction 9 churches of differing sects), the guards still serve as a reminder that little has changed.
Our last stop of the day was at the Dead Sea itself. The appropriately named body of water gets it's name from two sources: the prized mud was used in the mummification process in Egypt and the salinity is so high that nothing can live in its waters. Whether taking a dip on the Israeli side or the Jordan side, a trip to this area is not complete without "Bobbing in the Dead." At 508M (1339 feet) below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest and one of the hottest places on Earth. The drive down also provided some stunning scenery as you pass multi-hued rock and sand formations. The Sea itself is actually a basin where the Jordan River terminates and the heat evaporates off the water resulting in a body of water that is 9 times saltier than the ocean (around 31% salinity).
Given its healing properties and rich nutrients in the mud, the area has largely been turned into resorts and spas. The Jordanian government, thankfully, decided to make a public beach and charge about half what the spas charge - still pricey at around $15 per person, but oh so worth the experience. Where else can you read the newspaper while taking a swim? With the water temperature around 100F and the air temperature soaring well above 110F during the midday heat, it doesn't take long before the sweat begins to bead on the forehead. Then you are left with a problem - the salty sweat runs into your eyes and you can't wipe away the sweat with your even saltier wet hands from the water! We lasted about 30 minutes before it became too much to bare. We didn't plan our exit out too well either as we left our shoes at the top of the scorched sand bank. Don't worry though, we got the feeling back in our feet after an hour or so.
After leaving the Madaba area, we made one last Crusader Castle stop at Karak. The castle was one of many that were built by the Crusaders to not only protect Jerusalem from attacks, but just as important, collect taxes from the trade routes and help fill Jerusalem's coffers. Karak became the stuff of legends when the sadistic French Renauld de Chatillon came to take part in the crusades and stationed himself here. Chatillion delighted in torturing prisoners and then throwing them from the castle walls to their demise. This behavior brought the ire of the famous Islamic leader, Saladin. When the castle was taken, the Muslim leader executed Chatillion, the only crusader leader to receive such a fate. Wandering though the castle is a delight as many of the rooms remain intact. Highlights include an impressive covered marketplace lined with shops and stalls, a massive kitchen including a walk in oven, and a post-crusader Sultan's palace.
After leaving the crusader castle, we headed further into the desert and made our way to our next stop: The beautiful desert park of Wadi Rum.
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