Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Floating in the Dead - Madaba and the Dead Sea, Jordan


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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

To see more photos click on the links below:


Mt. Nebo


Dead Sea


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Welcome to 8th Century Pleasure Palaces: The Desert Castles of Jordan


Destination: Desert Castles of Jordan (near Azraq)

Number of Days Spent: 2 days

Where we stayed: Azraq Resthouse - 40 JD ($56 - overpriced, we suspect not very honest, not very clean and the rooms are way past their prime but it did have a great pool which was very welcome after a day in the desert. There were only 3 choices in this dusty little town...it was this one or the one with the dirty looking bathroom, complete with squat toilet...the most desirable lodging was booked up, we suspect by a single tour group because our hotel had only one other room occupied and the squat toilet one was empty)

Best restaurant: No name chicken house (name is only in Arabic) in Azraq -8 JD for a barbecued chicken, a huge plate of fatoush, Arabic bread & a plate of fries - it was enough for both of us with room to spare...luckily we had a fridge and our leftovers made for tasty chicken sandwiches for breakfast! Look for the restaurant off the main drag with the barbecued chickens out front but don't confuse it with the mutton roasters.

Best of: Islam's first pleasure (aka pervert) palace, complete with naked ladies, clapping monkeys & bears playing banjos!

Worst of: I wouldn't suggest this town as a stopover, its claim to fame seems to be grilled mutton. Not only did we see the poor things being slaughtered, skinned & hung up in front of the restaurants on the street but the air was heavy with the distinct smell of old, smelly mutton and the sounds of their demise. We also ran across two restaurants serving beef, complete with the whole cow head posted outside the restaurant. No thanks..we'll stick to the barbecued chicken...

Most Memorable: We'll never forget the smell of diesel fuel & grilled mutton wafting through the air.

Just to the east of Amman lies what is collectively known as the Desert Castles. Built by the Umayyads, the first Islamic leaders, or caliphs, based in Damascus, the castles are really a collection of castles, palaces and inns. The elite Islamic leaders built these "oases of pleasure" in the middle of the harsh desert as an escape from the strict religious practices they preached. In these private getaways, the wine flowed, the women danced and the men hunted and held horse races. While most of the buildings are modest affairs from the outside, the walls contain some great stories of days gone.

Leaving Jarash, it didn't take long before we left the farmland and were into the rocky and unforgiving desert. It is out here that Bedouins seek out an existence herding animals from one spot to another as they have for centuries.

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Our first stop was at Qasr Hallabat. Hallabat began life as a Roman outpost, later converted to a monastery, until the Umayyads added elaborate baths, a mosque, and colorful frescoes and mosaics. The fort today has a few great mosaics, and scattered amongst the Islamic ruins you can see the evidence of the earlier Romans with Latin inscriptions carved into a few of the building blocks.

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Just on the outskirts of the forgettable town of Azraq lies Qasr Azraq. While the fort is the least impressive on the circuit and was nearly completely destroyed by an earthquake in the 1920's it does boast one claim to fame. In the winter of 1917 TE Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, set up camp in this fort with his troups getting ready for battle against the Turks during WWI and the Arab revolt.



After spending the night in Azraq (rather forgettable town - see above) we headed out for the last two of the major desert castles. Qasr Kharana is one of the most intact and photographed of all the castles. This imposing structure boasts what looks like towers and narrow arrow slots in the walls at first glance. Once inside you realize that the towers are solid rock and the slits are to awkward to be used for shooting arrows. It is now believed that this structure served as an inn on trade routes and pilgrimages to Mecca.

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Our final stop on the desert castle tour led us to Qusayr (little castle) Amra. Amra was the highlight of our trip out to the desert. The current structure is believed to be built by the same caliph that built the famed Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem as well as the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Unlike those two buildings however, this UNESCO heritage site has the best preserved frescoes that give a glimpse into what the caliphs might have been up to in the far reaches of the desert away from the watchful eyes of the faithful. The frescoes range from rather innocent scenes of hunting to more risque scenes of naked women bathing and even a bear playing a banjo with a money dancing in tune?!? While the official line of Islamic scholars blame the paintings on other groups of Arabs or rogue rulers, the evidence strongly points to the caliphs being the culprits.

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After getting our feel of 8th century "sin" city, we drove off to the Mosaic capital of Jordan, Madaba.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Battling Gladiators in Jerash, Jordan


Destination: Jerash, Jordan

Number of Days Spent: 1 day

Where we stayed: Hadrian's Gate Hotel - 35 JD ($49)

Best restaurant: Lebanese House - excellent hummous (1.60 JD) & grilled chicken (4.50 JD) a bit spendy, but worth it.

Best of: Does seeing Harry Potter count? After picking up our rental car in Amman we headed to the movies for a break of A/C, a fun flick & move theater popcorn (the one thing Jason misses the most)! Seeing the well preserved Roman city of Jerash was also pretty cool too but sometimes you just crave a little taste of home.

Worst of: A few road signs in Jordan would really help tourists navigate the roads.

Most Memorable: We will never forget the Romans fighting the Barbarians (complete with fake blood) in the restored Hippodrome in Jerash all set to "The Gladiator" soundtrack playing on a loop...it's one of the cheesiest things we have done yet (definitely overpriced at 12 JD - it might be worth 3-4 JD for a laugh).

Useful Tip: If you plan on renting a car to get around Jordan, renting a car from www.hertzjordan.com as opposed to www.hertz.com will save you quite a bit. We booked the day before and still got the car for $30 US a day including tax, unlimited mileage & drop-off in Wadi Musa.

We ended up taking a service taxi to Amman instead of the bus since the price was about the same and because it was Friday, the Sabbath, they ran less frequently. After getting our car rental, we headed to our first stop - the cinema?!? While heading to the grocery store was foremost in our mind, we ended up at one of the largest malls in Amman, complete with a movie theater! We couldn't let the opportunity slip by us so we ended up watching Harry Potter (with popcorn!) as well as picking up vital supplies for our road trip. After coming out of the movie after dark, we regretted the decision a bit as it took us a while to actually find the one hotel in Jerash but we eventually made it.

The ruins themselves are rather impressive and rival others we have seen in the area in size and scale. The city never became overly important to the Roman Empire as it was mainly used as an agricultural hub. Despite its lack of importance (or perhaps because of), the ruins are still impressive and largely intact. By this point we were filling a bit of Roman ruin overload (if you are keeping count, we are well into the double digits now), but Jerash did offer one interesting difference.

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This was the first place to offer an actual show. The Hippodrome has been rebuilt and the Jordanian Army puts on a half hour spectacle complete with chariot "racing", marching legionnaires, and of course your gladiators. It was just as kitsch as you might imagine, but still gave us a good laugh...particularly at the peck-flexing barbarian trying to show off for the ladies. There was even fake blood involved...does it get any better? The tape played on a loop with a noticeable break in the music (from the "Gladiator" movie of course) as the chariots "raced" around was quite funny in a sad way as well.

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After getting a good laugh, we loaded up the car and headed for the Desert castles of Jordan!

To see more photos of Jerash click here!