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Published: August 6th 2007
Me & a Camel Aqaba - Amman - Jerash - Petra - Wadi Rum - Dead Sea - Amman
At sunset, Wadi Rum
We're heading north on Jordan's Desert Highway. Dusty tracks disappear off into the endless desert on either side. Road signs point right to Iraq & Saudi Arabia and ahead to Syria & Lebanon. A few hours behind us lays Egypt & although the signs make no mention
of it, Israel & Palestine are just a few miles to the left.
We're heading north from the tropical port city of Aqaba to the capital Amman & with signs like these you really get a feel for where you are in the world.
We'd arrived in Aqaba by ferry from Nuweiba, Egypt. It had been a long day. Although the ferry is supposed leave every day, nobody knows if or when it really will; in the end we waited around six hours. The actual journey only takes one hour & despite the delay
we, as tourists, are treated as royalty. Although a few other foreigners are appalled by the apparent chaos throughout the day & later the delays at immigration, we find the whole experience quite refreshing & easy after the boat & border experiences
Mosque at night
we are used to
in more eastern parts of Asia.
The powers that be are desperately trying to turn Aqaba into a major tourist & business hub; it's a 'special economic zone' offering all kinds of tax breaks & incentives to businesses that move into the area. With the country's only access to to the open sea it's in a
prime position for international trade - and with it's year round warm weather it's apparently perfect for tourism.
Aside from diving in the Red Sea (which is said to be quite special) there's really not much to see or do in Aqaba other than laze around in the warm weather, eat interesting new food & gaze at Eilat in Israel, just a few miles across the water. Eilat is everything that Aqaba wants to be, a big, money making resort & port town.
Differences between Egypt & Jordan quickly become apparent. In Aqaba the cars and buildings are modern. The people are more western, both in their clothes & in their physical appearance. Along with the robes, chadors & dark skin, are jeans, tshirts, pale skin & blue
eyes. It's here that I first realise that Arabs
come in many colours. Aside from a handful of very small ancient ruins, Aqaba is a very modern town. By comparison, nothing in Egypt appeared modern. However modernity equals wealth, making Jordan a far more expensive
country to travel in.
Arriving in downtown Amman the first thing that hits is the temperature. It is cold. After endless months of sweaty heat it's hard to adjust to being cold. Especially when you're in denial & still don't own any real warm clothes or shoes. For the first time in years I am staying in a room that has central heating.
While Amman is largely a modern city built on numerous hills (very much resembling Wellington, NZ), it is still home to a handful of ancient ruins. A short stroll through town passes a Roman theatre & nymphaeum (fountain) & on a hilltop overlooking downtown sits a
handful of Roman pillars - part of the ancient Citadel. From the high point of the Citadel is a 360 degree view across the city; looking out we see an endless vista of off white buildings, more hills & a very large number of mosques.
Jordan is a new country, formed as
Very tall & thin. Spot the person at the bottom? Petra
much of this region was, from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the first world war. Perhaps 60% of the country's population are displaced Palestinians, the rest largely consisting of the previously nomadic Beduins. When
the State of Israel was declared in Palestine in 1948, war followed & countless Palestinian refugees flooded into Jordan; the population doubled overnight. Today Palestinians still flow in along with the new breed of refugees, those from war torn Iraq.
The Palestine issue is obviously a big issue in Jordan as it is right across the Middle East. It's in the news every day, as if it is a new story, but it's not. It's hard to believe that newspapers must have told variations on the same theme year after year after year. It's said by some in the region that if the Palestine issue was resolved then much of the rest of problems in the Middle East would begin to fall into place. If only it were that simple.
An hour or so north of Amman is Jerash, home to an ancient Roman city that's a mere four thousand years old. Built by Alexander the Great it's an
Emerges through the Siq, Petra
impressive collection of collonades, a three thousand seat amphitheatre, a hilltop temple, a public square, paved roads, baths, a hippodrome & an ornate fountain. Accoustics at the theatre are still perfect as demonstrated somewhat surreally by a small band of bagpipes. As with other ruins in these parts, the ancient city merges with a modern town, a four thousand year old road with giant
roman pillars being crossed by the main highway in & out of town.
Jordan is perhaps most famous for the ancient city of Petra. If you haven't heard of Petra then think back to Indiana Jones - if you've seen The Last Crusade then you've seen Petra's famed Treasury. Inhabited by the Nabatean people, this city became a major crossroads for international trade with routes passing through from the four corners of the planet. The Nabateans were experts in trade & diplomacy, realising that being friendly & absorbing ideas & culture from passers by was a better way to make money than from fighting them.
Most of what remains today is elaborate funery monuments & temples, no one really knows where the people actually lived or traded. Their history is still buried, waiting to
be found somewhere deep within the mountains.
The city lies hidden within a colourful mountain range, the tombs & temples having been carved deep into the face of the rock. While some are just shallow facades on the rock face, others are cut metres deep with large cave like interior rooms. Everything, however deep it may be, is cut from the mountainside.
Whatever their story, the whole place defies belief. Entrance to the town is through the long & narrow 'siq' a high walled corridor between two rock faces that opens majestically to the sight of Al Khazneh, the Treasury.
Throughout the site you are surrounded by tombs & temples in various states of ruin. Inhabited between two thousand years ago & the eighth century AD, some of what remains is beautifully preserved, while in places just a hollow reminder remains of what once stood. Built largely in sandstone, the wind & rain has spent almost two thousand years redifining the face of Petra.
An alternative entrance to Petra is through Wadi Muthlim, a route that the tour groups keep away from. The route follows a dry riverbed and although it begins as an easy walk
At the Hippodrome. Actually this was all very lame & overpriced. There were about 15 paying customers, but we watched for free so can't complain. Jerash
on a flat canyon floor, the walls soon reach higher as the passage narrows. At times it appears impassable with large drops & deceiving dead ends. Eventually the floor ceases to exist & the base for walking becomes the 'V' shape formed where two sides of the canyon meet. From far above the sun lights some of the rock; at ground level we are walking through a spiralling maze, heading deeper & deeper into this surreal world.
Perhaps what is most striking is the colours; glowing rocks in a kaleidoscope of white, pink, red, yellow, brown & blue. In places the colours are evenly layered, marking the passing of time like rings on a tree stump. Elsewhere they are interwoven, spiralled & fused. Millions of years of rock deposits & erosion has left an area looking like a surreal marriage between Gaudi, Dali & marble chocolate. Even the grey skies & drizzle that are with us all day don't dampen the colours.
On leaving most towns in this part of the world it doesn't normally take long to find yourself back in the desert again. Much of it appears to be bleak, barren & flat, but some places
are rich in history, colour & scenery. Wadi Rum is a desert area inhabited continuously by the nomadic Beduin people for thousands of years. Their traditions have changed a little, but their principles remain largely the same. The desert code of offering food, drink & shelter
to those who pass through still applies - a code that ensured their survival. If you give food & shelter to those you pass you by, then they will return the favour later on when you pass their way.
Deep in the desert, red, yellow & black sands shift daily in the winds. Once again, millions of years of wind, rain & ancient seas have shaped rocks into mountains, pinnacles & crags - rising sporadically & forming a colourful lunar scene. Randomly strewn throughout the region are camels, goats & beduin tents. Just when you think you've left planet earth, a lone goat herder appears, far away from civilisation as we know it. There's random castles too -
leftovers from the Lawrence of Arabia set, shot here years ago.
Riding camels through the desert as the sun sets & the sands are blown; a magical way to end a day.
Dead Sea sits at the lowest point on earth, four hundred metres (1310ft) below sea level. The Jordan River flows in, but there's nowhere for water to flow out. Instead it evaporates at a staggering rate of 1 million tons per day. Left behind is a sea rich in salt,
minerals & mud. Although far more touristed in neighbouring Isreal (the border between the two countries passes through the centre of the sea), Dead Sea tourism is finally taking off in Jordan too. Although upmarket health resorts are being rapidly built, there's still a public beach where bikini clad tourists cover themselves in mud alongside fully clothed & chador wearing locals.
Even though the temperature in nearby Amman may be cold it's always hot here. A haze over the water caused by the evaporation & minerals is said to block the sun's UV rays, making it a safe place to tan. High salt levels make floating easy. They also reak havoc if you
have any cuts or stings, or make the mistake of swallowing water or getting it in your eyes.
This part of Jordan is an area rich in Biblical history. Overlooking the Dead Sea is Mount
Nebo - believed to be the place where Moses died (his body/tomb have never been found). It is from here that he is said to have viewed the Promised Land; while The Dead Sea, Jordan River & Jericho are clearly in view below, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, & Ramallah lie somewhere in the haze beyond.
Just below Mount Nebo on the Jordan River, is an area widely accepted to be where John the Baptist practised. Although lost in a no man's land of international tension on the border for many years, a recent peace deal has led to the uncovering of at least twenty ancient Biblical sights.
We are shown a spring where John is said to have performed baptisms as well as church ruins & mosaics dating back to the early twentieth century. Nothing is confirmed, but based on accounts of medieval pilgrims, the locations of sights such as Byzantine churches,
baptism pools & pilgrim hostels all suggest that it this truly is the place.
There's no confirmation of facts, but if this is where John the Baptist worked then it is assumed that this is where Jesus too was baptised.
To be frank, the site is
You can see just how deep it is cut into the rock by looking at the rockface to the right. Petra
very overpriced (relative to other costs in the country - in fact this day was the most expensive day of the past 10 months) & the official tour is very vague. Moments after being shown the 'exact baptism spot' we are told that the spring water has changed course a few times over the past 2000 years, meaning that the point we were shown can't really be the actual spot.....
This whole area of Jordan is teeming with Christian relics - in particular a lot of very old & sometimes quite well preserved beautiful mosaics. There's plenty of faint, barely distinguishable ones too. One of the most revered is at St George's Greek Orthodox
Church in Madaba. Strangely, although the floor of the church hosts an ancient mosaic map of the area, they simply put a carpet over the top & line up the pews when there are services.
For various reasons we aren't allowed to visit The State of Israel & The Occupied Palestinian Territories at the moment. However we have managed to get within about four metres of Israel. Although Jordan & Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994 (when Israel also withdrew from some Occupied
Wadi Muthlim, Petra
Territories), the situation can still be tense. Much of modern day Israel was, for awhile, part of Jordan. It wasn't until I came here that I realised that East Jerusalem was once part of Jordan - in fact one of the world's holiest sights, the Dome of
the Rock in Jerusalem, still features on Jordan's 20 Dinar bank note.
Today the border passes along the Jordan River & through the Dead Sea. On a narrow bend by the baptism sites you can stand & look at some Israeli public toilets, just metres away. A shallow muddy stretch of water seperates the two of us. By the Israeli toilets the Star of David flag flies proudly; on our side sits a small new church & a soldier with a very big gun.
Hummus (chick pea & tahini), baba ganoush (smoked eggplant), fuul (beans), halumi (cheese), dukka (spices), baklava (honey & pastry sweet), tabbouleh (a mixed salad with), labneh (yoghurty cheese), sage tea, cardamon coffee, pita bread, shwarma (kebab), halawa
(pistachio cheese); I don't think we'll ever forget the food in Jordan. Although eating the same meal again, day after day after day is perhaps not that great a diet,
Water Pipes, Amman
it only takes one more taste of another simple yet divine flavour to stop you getting tired of it. Hashem's in Amman must be good - as well as our daily visits, the King of Jordan & Saddam Hussein have eaten there too. On a couple of occasions we run into the owner, his large frame perhaps not a good advert for his eatery. He tells us the he's mates with Egyptian
Harrod's (& Dodi Fayed's father) Mohamed Al Fayed.
The king who ate at Hashem's, Abdullah II is apparently loved & respected by his subjects, much as kings & rulers seem to be everywhere we go these days. Giant photographs of him, his wife, their kids & the previous king, his father, watch down on you right across the kingdom. Although his mother was English born, his father can trace his lineage directly back to Mohammed, the holiest of people within the Muslim faith.
As well as being home to a huge amount of Palestinians, Jordan is also home to an increasing number of Iraqi refugees. Not feeling too comfortable in asking what people think (thought) of Saddam Hussein, I'm not really sure how he is (was)
viewed in Jordan (or by the
refugees). However, his presence is still very noticeable. Money changers still display old Iraqi bank notes, proudly displaying his image alongside US dollars, Egyptian pounds & Jordanian dinars.Saddam Hussein key rings are on sale at numerous shops & there's a
huge number of books & magazines on sale that appear to be devoted to him.
Jordan used to get most of its oil from Iraq, but while the war in Iraq has caused an influx of Iraqi refugees, it has also spelt the end of Jordan's oil supply. No one is really sure what will happen when current stocks run dry. There's also some doubt as to how the country can cope with so many refugees - some are poor, but many are wealthy, in Iraq it's the better off people who can afford a plane ticket out. Something that's rarely considered is the war's impact on neighbouring countries. With such a sudden increase in population size, demand is high & prices are going up. Water, oil, food, housing, the time will come when there's no longer enough to go around.
While some people will warn you not to travel to the
At sunrise, Wadi Rum
Middle East at all, their minds filled with one sided stories from CNN, the BBC & Fox those who have been here will tell you that the people you meet are nothing like the politicians & hardliners that you see on tv.
Walking the streets of Amman we once again find ourselves being welcomed to Jordan by a passer by. Minutes later we he offers us free samples of some delicious sweets from a dessert shop. Half an hour later we are sitting in his home with his family, drinking strongly sugared sage tea & eating his mother's freshly made spinach pastries. Our host, Firas, is a young student, currently teaching, but looking to study overseas. While my brother James & I sit on his bedroom floor with his mother & father, who fled from Palestine years ago, Kylie joins his sisters in another room.
Our conversation drifts from student life to food, the Arabic language & occasionally politics. There are continuous requests from Firas's mother that we stay for dinner or come back for lunch tomorrow. Her determination to prepare a feast for us is outstanding. To decline more food can be seen as an insult, but
Very well preserved for it's age, Petra.
we've already eaten the spinach parcels & some a chocolate mother's day & the thought of more is just too much.
The sisters are strict Muslims and as they don't want to put on their head scarves, they can't be seen by us males. They tell Kylie all about their faith, their love for Allah, how they pray & what they like to wear. Kylie tries to steer the conversation to boys, but they tell her that they don't talk to them, Allah wouldn't like it. They tell her that when they do find husbands they hope they will be expected to wear a full chador & hejab with just their eyes
showing, but that it's not a decision for them to make, it's in the hands of their husbands. They go on to tell her that they want to be a Pharmacist & a Communications Engineer & that after they finish studying they will be able to go home to Palestine. They also play
some of their Koran cd's for Kylie.
Firas isn't so strict. In his room are posters of singers. Some day he hopes to marry his cousin. ''You are Osama Bin Laden!!!''
James hasn't shaved for a few days, having just spent far too long on a plane on his way from England. He's not scruffy, but at the same time he's not looking as tidy as most of the local men here. Although the mother & father don't appear to speak much English they
do give the impression that they understand most of what is going on. Father suddenly announces that James is scruffy & that with his beard he looks just like Osama Bin Laden. Mother bursts into yet another fit of uncontrolable giggles.
The Osama joke goes on & on, father keeps pretending to shoot James. Mother cackles again & again.
Later the father asks James to find him a new wife from England (confusingly he wants Madeline Albright, former US foreign secretary to Bill Clinton). The wife responds by pretending to shoot her husband.
After awhile she decides that if he is getting a new wife, she wants a new husband. She settles on Tony Blair.
James only joined us from England the previous day. He'd left with numerous warnings to be careful in this 'dangerous' part of the world, yet here he is
on his second day, in a Palestinian home in Jordan; drinking tea, eating cake & sharing jokes....... almost impossible to choose what photos to use.... there's about three pages of them below. enjoy
New Zealand - Commonwealth of Australia - Kingdom of Thailand - Macao Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China - People's Republic of China - Socialist Republic of Vietnam - Kingdom of Cambodia - Union of Myanmar - Lao People's Democratic Republic - Kingdom of Bahrain - Arab Republic of Egypt - Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
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Cai - Hanoi - Cat Ba Island - Ninh Binh - Hanoi - Hue - Hoi An - Hue - Hanoi - Sapa - La Chau - Son La - Mai Chau -Hanoi - China Beach - Hoi An - China Beach - Quy Nhon - Kon Tum - Saigon - Phnom Penh - Pursat - Battambang - Siem Reap - Anlong Veng - Siem Reap -
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(Kyaiktiyo) - Yangon - Bangkok - Ayutthaya - Bangkok - Koh Kong - Sihanoukville - Phnom Penh - Bangkok - Vientiane - Luang Prabang - Bangkok - Bahrain - Luxor - Cairo - Dahab - Nuweiba - Aqaba - Amman - Petra (Wadi Musa) - Wadi Rum - (Dead Sea) - Amman
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