All we knew about Jordan was derived from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Flashbacks of beautiful Petra were on our mind when we booked our tour. Little did we know that Jordan would be our absolute favorite Middle Eastern destination due to its rich diversity, phenomenal sights and very attractive and friendly people. Not only did we hike our hearts out in Petra but we floated on the Dead Sea, sang and danced with Bedouins at Wadi Rum and did some SCUBA diving at Aqaba. What an exciting destination…we love Jordan and hope more tourists discover its untouched beauty.
In February 2003, we had Jordan on our minds. However, travel to the Middle East was ill advised as a US-led war on Iraq looked inevitable. However, there were world protests begging for peaceful alternatives and we believed that our luck would hold out for a few weeks while we snuck a quick trip to Jordan, a beautiful country that both of us have wanted to visit ever since watching Indiana Jones’ Last Crusade. We were comfortable with the thought of traveling to Jordan independently and could find budget flights from Germany. However, our self-imposed itinerary was extreme and we did not think we could cover as much in a short period of time as a pre-organized tour group could. Therefore, we decided to use Explore Worldwide again (www.exploreworldwide.com) since our trip with them to Syria was so enjoyable. The main highlights we wanted to cover included Jerash, Umm Qais, Mount Nebo, Madaba, Kerak, Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba, and the Dead Sea.
We flew to Amman and picked up visas upon arrival at the international airport. The rest of the group had flown in directly from the UK so we made our own way to the hotel and crashed for the evening. Early the new morning, we awoke to meet our tour leader, Sarah Wood. She introduced us to our Jordanian leader, Mohannad Abu-Sumha, who despite his youth (he was in his twenties), was extremely knowledgeable and good-natured. Our group (12 pax) was a lot smaller than we expected but that suited us just fine since it was an ideal size for interacting with each other.
We loaded up our bus and left Amman in a southerly direction towards Madaba, a small Christian town located about 30 km away. We reached Mount Nebo after a short drive and made our way to the 6th century church and monastery. The mosaics were pretty impressive and surprisingly well intact. We had hoped for a clear day today, as the view from Mount Nebo can be fantastic. We strained our eyes to catch a glimpse of the Dead sea and the Jerusalem church spires but to no avail…it was simply too much of an overcast. Mount Nebo is a popular pilgrimage site for Christians, primarily because Moses saw the Promised Land from this summit. While we were visiting, there was a group of Korean Christians performing a ceremony inside the church, so we could easily imagine that the pilgrims come from far and away.
After Mount Nebo, we headed towards Madaba, where we went directly to St. George’s Church. The mosaic here is rather impressive as it captures a 6th century map of Palestine. In fact, some claim that the mosaics in Madaba are amongst the finest of the Byzantine World. The St. George mosaics were rediscovered in 1896 and provide a decent picture of what Jerusalem used to look like. What is amazing about the mosaic it that it originally measured 25m x 5m and consisted of over 2 million individual pieces! Even today, visitors are able to make out the River Nile, Dead Sea and city of Jerusalem. After visiting St. George’s, we had about 20 minutes to kill so the entire group dispersed to buy water and other supplies for the road trip.
Our next destination was Kerak, where we were to visit the Krak de Moabites. Along the route there, we briefly stopped at Wadi-Al-Mujib, a canyon stretching over 1 km deep. The Wadi cuts across the King’s Highway, and the road precariously winds down the canyon and back up again. There is a single bridge crossing over the Wadi and the views overlooking the barren landscape were pretty impressive. Once we arrived to Kerak, we visited the imposing crusader castle atop a hill with a commanding view over the Dead Sea. Kerak became famous in the time of the Crusades as one of a chain of fortresses in the Holy War against Islam. The castle was built in 1132 by Baldwin of Jerusalem, a Crusader king. It has been partially restored and consists of a series of vaulted passages and rooms. Not super impressive as crusader castles go, but it was worth a brief stop.
Next, we were on our way towards majestic Petra, a city we couldn’t wait to see! We arrived and immediately checked into our hotel (conveniently located next door to the glitzy Movenpick Hotel). Sara briefed us on the “Petra by Night” tour that was being offered that evening. We excitedly signed up, anxious to see Petra as soon as possible. From the visitor’s center, we were escorted by a guide who led us down the 1.2 km siq. Light was minimal….the only sources were provided by the moon and candles placed inside paper bags (to prevent the wind from blowing them out). It was still a slow going journey as we were unfamiliar with the route and were trying to avoid the horse and camel dung heaped in generous piles along the way! Once we reached the end of the siq, it opened up into the Khazneh (treasury). Located inside the treasury was a flute player, whose music drifted out into the darkness. There must have been several hundred tourists collected in the opening before the treasury, and it was a bit annoying when someone would snap a photo of the treasury (temporarily blinding everyone for a few seconds….of course the photos didn’t stand a chance of coming out!) Visitors were allowed to wander inside the treasury (very different view than the one experiences by Indiana Jones, that’s for sure!) and afterwards, everyone walked the distance back towards their hotels. Becky thought the whole experience was really romantic (and highly recommends it) but Robby thought the entire affair was totally cheesy and wished he had just explored Wadi Musa instead (the small tourist town sprawled around the entrance to Petra).
The next morning, we had a walking tour of Petra (Petra means “rock” in Greek). Petra, the ruined capital of the Nabataeans, (Arabs who dominated the area in pre-Roman times), was forgotten about for hundreds of years. It was rediscovered in 1812 and excavations started in 1929, and the current city was not discovered until 1958! To get to Petra, we had to endure the long siq again. However, several bright entrepreneurs have decided to capitalize on the Indiana Jones experience by renting out their horses for a brief (and WILD) gallop down a section of the siq. Our entire group agreed and we naively mounted our horses with no idea of what was in store for us. We think the young men got a kick at seeing us bouncing all over the place…after our crazy horse-back riding experience, we definitely empathize with Harrison Ford during the scene where he is furiously galloping down the siq at break neck speed. That was no joke and we gratefully dismounted from the horses to walk the rest of the distance towards the treasury.
Once we were in sight of the treasury, that famous National Geographic photograph came to mind and all of us waited patiently for our chance to snap that beautiful shot. However, directly in front of us was a Japanese tourist who refused to get out of the way. He would take a picture, shuffle a few feet forward, recalibrate his camera, and start the whole process over again. It got so bad that some of our group members started to heckle him…but he didn’t move any faster. We finally breathed a sigh of relief when the coast was clear and the shot was ours for the taking….what a fabulous shot! The locals had even strategically placed a camel in front of the siq for that picture perfect postcard shot. Collectively as a group we saw the 8000-seat amphitheater, the Qasr al-Bint, colonnaded street, temple of winged lions, and the royal tombs. The views across Petra were breathtaking and we were anxious to break free to see this beautiful city on our own. Walking around in Petra is a unique and wonderful feeling. The rose-red city has many tones and shades throughout the day as light plays on it from different angles.
Mohannad offered to take us up to Ad-Deir (the Monastery), which was reached after a long, rock-cut staircase climb of about 30 minutes. It was absolutely incredible! While we were admiring the view, we saw daredevil climbers who were perched atop the Monastery and sitting around the top urn. They were miniscule in comparison and we barely noticed them except when one of them was trying to climb on top of the urn and we all thought he would fall and kill himself. Absolute madness!
We had the rest of the day free to explore on our own so we happily split from the group and wandered around on our own. We had seen Ain Musa (Moses’ Spring) on the descent down into Wadi Musa, and figured that we had plenty of time to check it out. So we hiked out of Petra and up towards Wadi Musa. What seemed like a good idea hours ago suddenly seemed (and felt) foolhardy as we were rushing to beat the setting sun. We ended up sprinting the last mile uphill and found the small, three-domed building where Moses struck the rock with his staff (hence the ensuing gush of water). We wandered back down into town and caught dinner with the group at a nearby restaurant (Red Cave Restaurant). After dinner, a group of us went to the nearby Cave Bar (yes, built out of a real cave) for a couple of drinks. We also plotted our itinerary for the next day and agreed to join Anne, Judith and Jackie on a quick visit to El Beidha (“Little Petra”).
Today, the five of us rented a taxi to El Beidha. Mohannad graciously agreed to accompany us and we made the quick 8 km journey towards the ancient Neolithic village. Along the way, we were able to see the government provided lodgings for the Bedouins (who, centuries ago, had moved into Petra and remained in the ancient rock city until recent years when they were forcibly removed). It was a controversial conservation project…a compromise between the Jordanian government and the Bedouins was reached when the Bedouins were promised the sole right to sell trinkets and goods within Petra, as well as provided for with free lodging and education for their children.
Little Petra was pretty neat, although we found it incomprehensible that some travelers would rather forego the hefty Petra entrance fee in lieu of the free (but much smaller) Little Petra. While we were waiting on our taxi for the return trip back to Petra, we drank mint tea with a local Bedouin family. When we were leaving, we gave their children some candy which they eagerly snatched from us….soon a fight ensued when the little girl’s brother stole her candy from her! It was heartbreaking to see the tough lifestyle that the Bedouins have to endure. Once we were back in Petra, we decided to hike up to the place of sacrifice (near the Siq…it’s a 30 minute climb to the top). From the top, we had phenomenal views of the entire Petra rock-hewn city as well as the Negev Desert. We decided to go back down another route, passing by the Lion Fountain, Garden Tomb, Tomb of the Roman soldier, the Triclinium and lastly, towards the Pharoan Column. Boy were our legs sore after hiking all around Petra! It was a really awesome experience and we wished we had even more time to explore here. However, we still had much more of Jordan to see.
The next morning, we loaded up our gear into two 4WD jeeps for an excursion into the desert. We were on our way to Wadi Rum and our drivers decided to race each other in the desert. Our first stop was at an incredibly big natural rock “bridge/arch” that we all hastened to climb atop. The views across Wadi Rum were spectacular and it is no surprise why Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here. The massive sheer jebels that arise out of the desert make for some fantastic shots.
For lunch, we camped out on a blanket in the sand and chowed on our simple picnic. We were about to partake in a 3 hour camel ride and we could hear the camels from afar. They were groaning and moaning in the distance and we all eyeballed the bunch and secretly chose our camels from amidst the rag tag group. There seemed to be more camels than there were tourists so we knew that the camel herders would be jostling to get us aboard one of their camels. Sure enough, when the dust settled and each one of us was on top of our feisty camels, there were several herders without passengers. Needless to say, they were extremely disgruntled and it took Mohannad’s smooth placating nature to appease them.
We were off on our journey through the dramatic Siq al Barrah. For the next three hours, we rode and walked through a landscape of sandstone mountains and white and pink colored sands. The desert truly is another world and has been inhabited by the nomadic Bedouin for centuries. This entire region is steeped with the Lawrence of Arabia legend, and we were advised to read up on Lawrence prior to the trip in order to appreciate everything to the fullest. If anyone ever tells you riding a camel is comfortable, they obviously have never done it for 3 hours. Our bums were killing us and even in the “camel sitting position” (one leg curled over the other), it was a rough ride. We were grateful for the first rest break where we all gathered to sit beside our camels in the sand and allow them a few minutes to relax.
Then we were off again. Much to Becky’s dismay, she had a ‘bum-sniffer’ camel. Her camel refused to keep its nose out of the camel’s bum in front of it. It would invariably repeat the following routine: sniff camel’s bum, rear back its mouth to display its nasty teeth, guffaw, repeat process. Becky was really happy when her camel-herder pulled her up to the front of the procession where there were no bums to sniff. Of course, Robby captured the entire sequence of events on film and we both laugh whenever we see those silly pictures.
We finally reached our campsite for the evening and dismounted our camels. We were going to be camping out beneath the stars and moon in the desert, in a Bedouin style tent! We had about an hour to find a vantage point from which to watch the sun set so we scrambled about in search of that perfect location. As the sun crept below the horizon, the temperature was also dropping quickly. Once the sun set completely, we made our way to camp and set up our sleep sacks for the evening. Thankfully, one of the Bedouin guides had set up a camp fire, which we all gratefully gathered around. Dinner was served and we all enjoyed a scrumptious meal put together by our Bedouin hosts….tasty barbequed chicken and lamb, fresh tomato and cucumber salad, delicious humus and pita bread…collectively it was a wonderful treat that we did not hesitate to serve ourselves seconds.
That night after dinner, our Bedouin hosts sang some local songs and danced around the campfire for us. And then we were asked to reciprocate. Our group suddenly turned bashful until Sarah, our fearless leader, led us into a “Hokey Pokey” song and dance routine. Little did we know but we had unleashed Pandora’s box. The locals LOVED it and everyone was forced to stand up and dance around the campfire. After we would sing and dance one complete rendition of the song, the laugher would die down and we would stand around in silence (still holding hands) until one of the Bedouins would bellow “Hokey Pokey” and we would do it all over again. We don’t know how many times we sang that song but we are sure it is a local favorite to this day.
Mohannad managed to break us free from the endless Hokey Pokey cycle by asking if anyone wanted to hike up the side of a hill (in darkness) to admire the view beneath the stars. A bunch of us volunteered and we ran up the hill in a joyful attempt at escaping the madness. However, it seemed that for every step forward, we would slide two steps back. Getting to the top of the hill seemed to take forever and we were all out of breath once we struggled to the top. We all huddled underneath our blankets as Mohannad started a makeshift fire that we all found ourselves gravitating towards. However, night life in the desert is cold and the fire was a futile attempt at trying to staying warm. After about an hour or so of telling stories beneath the stars, we ended up crashing for the evening within our sleep sacks. Becky had planned ahead for this mass-sleeping experience….she brought along some earplugs since she knew there would be a couple of loud snorers within the group and we slept well throughout the night.
The next morning, we packed our gear, jumped into jeeps and were on our way to Aqaba, with warm climates and the red sea on our minds. We were given about an hour to freshen up and then taken to the Royal Diving Center for a chance to swim and snorkel in the Red Sea. Both of us are certified SCUBA divers but we had forgotten to bring our dive cards. Fortunately, the center had an online PADI certification system and they were able to verify our certifications in no time at all. So we happily put on our suits and geared up for a dive in the Red Sea. In comparison to Egypt’s red sea diving (off Hurghada), the diving in Aqaba is not bad at all. We even did a shore dive and within minutes, were surrounded by a surreal and colorful world.
The commotion we caused on the shore was really amusing. The locals who were relaxing on the beach smoking flavored tobacco from water pipers were intently checking us out. So were the women who were wading into the red sea wearing black chador style bathing suits….yes, Becky was ogling them back since she couldn’t imagine having to swim that way! You can imagine the look on their faces when Becky sauntered into the sea carrying her own gear and looking just like one of the guys….because of all the attention we were getting, we believe that very few tourists venture here as we felt like we were a novelty item for the locals to gawk at. The young children were very curious about us and when we waded back out after an hour long dive, they surrounded us to study how we dismantled our gear and loaded up the van.
For dinner that evening, we celebrated someone’s birthday over delicious meals at a popular restaurant. Afterwards, we went for drinks and a show with one of our hotel’s receptionists that Robby had befriended. We were really pleased to see our friend, a Jordanian, dating an Israeli girl that he had met a few months ago (while she was in Jordan on vacation). We questioned them about how difficult it was to see each other as they both lived in their own countries but they smiled and said when there is a will, there is a way.
We left Aqaba and drove north towards the Dead sea, our next stop. When we finally arrived there, the sky was overcast and threatening to rain, but we all stripped down into our suits and jumped into the beckoning waters. The Dead sea truly lives up to its reputation. It lies surrounded by barren hills and has 33% salinity! Of course, no life can exist within the Dead sea, hence its name. We tried every conceivable position in an attempt to sink beneath the water but it was impossible. We had been forewarned not to let any water hit our eyes nor venture in if we had open wounds. And rightfully so since we could feel the tingling effects on our skin. While we were playing in the water, everyone rubbed oodles of Dead Sea mud all over their skin (they even sell it in the nearby boutiques but why buy mud when you can get it for free?). We soon were in need of a very serious scrub down so when the rain finally hit us, we rushed back up the shore to get cleaned up.
Our next stop was Jerash, so we drove straight through Amman and made it there prior to dinner. The owners of the hotel were super friendly and we found out that they lived in America for almost 20 years (and were US citizens). On the news that night, we heard of the impending war with Iraq and discussed it with the owners. They were upset because war has a domino effect in the Middle East. Because of something that would be happening in a nearby geographical vicinity (Iraq), tourists were already canceling trips to Jordan. Surprisingly, they supported President Bush 100%, despite the havoc that his policy would have on their livelihood. They felt that any leader other than Saddam Hussein would be better and welcomed the change.
Today we drove to Jerash to explore its Graeco Roman ruins. We had made a futile attempt yesterday afternoon to visit the site but it was closed. Therefore, it was an early day for all of us as we had a lot to accomplish today. Jerash is located in the Gilead Hills and is considered to be the best preserved cit of the Roman Decapolis (a confederation of 10 Roman cities). It has the reputation of being one of the top Middle Eastern sights, with a triple arched gateway leading to a colonnaded street, temples, baths and theaters. And amazingly, we had the entire area to ourselves. Our group gathered to take our group photo shot and once the pictures were developed, we marveled at how there is literally no one else around in the background. Needless to say, the threat of war was already taking its toll on Jordan.
After wandering through Jerash, we were off to explore Umm Qais, whose ancient Gadara ruins command impressive views over the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias) and the Golan Heights. According to the Bible, this city was the site where Jesus cast the Devil out of two men into a herd of pigs (Matthew 8:28-34). Umm Qais’s theatre was most impressive and all of us soaked in the wonderful heat upon the basalt rocks that made up the theater.
Our last stop on the tour….Amman! We sadly boarded our bus to the capital city where we had a few hours to sightsee. So we teamed up with Anne, Jackie and Judith for a cab ride to the citadel. Unfortunately, Judith left her purse in the cab but thankfully, she had separated her tickets and passport from her wallet and all she lost was her wallet. So at least she could rest assured that she was going to get home! Amazingly, Judith was such a trooper that she insisted we carry on with our tour to explore the citadel as well as the Roman amphitheater in downtown Amman. We later joined the rest of our group for one last farewell dinner together at a nice restaurant before separating and flying back to Germany on our own. (Note: there is a mandatory 5JD per person airport departure tax…can’t be paid in dollars, so keep some extra Dinar handy upon departing)
We both loved Jordan more than any other country in the Middle East (except maybe Lebanon). We will definitely return and hope more travelers check out all the wonders that Jordan has to offer. The genuine hospitality and friendliness that we experienced can’t be faked and we look forward to exploring even more of what this beautiful country has to offer in the future.