Tag Archives: Religion

Day 14 – Comin’ For To Carry Us Home

Saturday 28 May 2022 – Rather surprisingly, the wedding didn’t prevent us from sleeping reasonably well.  Come the dawn, there was time for a final cup of Twining’s finest Earl Grey as we got up, and another with a brisk breakfast, blessedly (for me) possible as my ulcers were finally beginning to cede control of my mouth back to me.  We also got a reasonably close view of the starlings which are ubiquitous in Jordan and quite melodious.  These two were making the most of the breakfast buffet.

Saeed, prompt as ever, came to collect us to take us out of the Dead Sea area.  He gave us a parting present  of some olive oil soap (first experienced at Feynan – it’s a good soap) and, bless him, some local variant of sage – the same herb that we believe had caused the ulcers that had bedevilled the last few days.  However, his instructions were to serve it as tea, rather than just stuff it in your mouth, which will probably give a better result.

There followed a long, long climb to 600m above mean sea level (or 1km above Dead Sea level), past a ceaseless succession of big, big, heavy lorries, carrying mainly minerals from the Dead Sea area. The route goes through a very green area, fed by natural springs, and there were many cars stopped by the roadside as people took advantage of spring outlets of fresh, potable water, something that doesn’t come out of the taps in Jordan.

And then we were at the airport, saying goodbye to Saeed and thanking him for the truly excellent job he had done of looking after us for a fortnight, before coming back into the care of Edward (he who greeted us a fortnight ago, you’ll remember), which meant something of a canter trying to keep up with him as he took us to a fast-track side entrance and ushered us into the tender care of the Royal Jordanian airline Crown service.

The check-in process had much in common with the Virgin Upper Class check-in at Heathrow Terminal 3 in the Good Old Days when I occasionally managed to score this for business travel: a separate, private entrance;  its own dedicated passport control; and its own dedicated security scan. You’d have thought that the security johnnies would be familiar with ostrich eggs as a concept, given their prominent role among tourist purchases in Jordan, but Jane had a bit of a struggle explaining the one she’d bought; and they insisted on swiping both her egg and my camera for traces of explosive, but at least the chap nodded and said “good” as he handed me back my Nikon.  Nice that he approved.

(Parenthetical and post-factum note, here, penned later in the day with gin in hand. Prior to disappearing through the apparently wonderful, dedicated passport and security facilities, Edward had handed our bags over to two guys with a set of scales, checked us in with the desk and then told us to take those annoying long thin baggage tagging strips back to the two guys.  We (rather trustingly) did this and they assured us that they would handle the tagging and passing on the bags. When we got to Heathrow, being Crown Class got us off the plane nice and quickly, and the passport gates were working, so we were the first two at Belt 7 in the T3 baggage hall, arriving there by about 16.45. Some 10 minutes later, bags started appearing in desultory fashion on the carousel. These included a succession of boxes, which were picked up by various different people. Wonder what was going on?

 

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As time ticked by, more and more people came to the belt, waited a while, eventually picked up bags and left.  Eventually, there were fewer and fewer people standing by the belt, and still our bags hadn’t come through.  An hour after the first bags had appeared, we’d just about given up hope and Jane had worked out where the “Lost Baggage” desk was – and then our bags finally appeared.  Specially labelled “PRIORITY” – and, as far as we could tell, the last ones off the plane. Harrumph! Cost us an extra tenner for the waiting taxi, as well as an unwanted surge of cortisol.

Anyway, where were we?  We were in the Jordan airport departure lounge…..)

We had to ask someone how to find the RJ Lounge, because the signposting at Queen Alia airport is less lavish than at other airports, but here we are and I need to update the blog, so an 0930 gin (we’re still on holiday, OK?) to fuel the creative flow seems to be acceptable.  Yes, it is.

So, whilst waitin’ for the Dreamliner that is comin’ for to carry us home, we’ve looked over Jordan, and what have we seen?

  • A wonderfully heterogeneous culture, drawing on religious, historical and popular influences from the vast range of the different peoples who have come through, stayed to add to indigenous ways and maybe moved on.  Yes, it’s basically an Arab country with Arab customs, but it’s also very diverse in its attitudes towards other mores. Given that 20% of its GDP is through tourism, this is just as well, really.
  • (Hand in hand with the above, Jane found it a comfortable place to be as an un-veiled (Western) woman, which is not always the case in the Middle East, in our experience.)
  • An astonishing history, contributing hugely to the way the world as we know it today works.
  • A very welcoming people.  It seems that “Welcome” is the first word in English that Jordanians learn, they use it a lot and, by and large, seem to mean it.
  • Quite often, as a tourist, when you hear the word “Welcome” on the lips of someone in Jordan, it is followed, implicitly or explicitly, by a solicitation to talk, have tea, whatever – but basically to buy something. Although there are some very rich people in Jordan, there are also some very poor people; very rarely is an opportunity to earn a dollar or two spurned. There are two clear consequences: one is that contactless or card payments are taken in the most surprising places; the other is that people are grateful for tips.  If you’re thinking of visiting and using services such as guide or driver, it’s a very good idea to arm yourself with a selection of 1, 5 and 10-Dinar notes.
  • A highly opportunistic entrepreneurial attitude, combined with a ramshackle retail experience.  Wherever you go, there are people selling stuff – on the roadside (of a motorway, for heaven’s sake!), up a mountain, in a desert, often out of the back of a a ramshackle, probably Toyota, pickup truck.  Saeed told us that he’d simply built up, over the years, a knowledge of which are the best places to go to buy cheese, or watermelons or mulukhiyah, or whatever.
  • A “long game” approach to property development.  Similar to what we’ve seen in Spain and Portugal, there’s a developmental attitude to domestic and small business properties; this was something I’d meant to refer to earlier, but, well, didn’t: wherever you go, there are businesses apparently trading out of unfinished buildings, with reinforced concrete rods sticking out of the top, and houses, some apparently lived in, in the same state.  The reason is that the family has built enough to go on with for now, and the next generation will come along and add the next storey. Or that they’re still waiting for money to complete the works.
  • A ridiculous driving experience. My strongest advice to anyone considering renting a car whilst being unfamiliar with the “Insh’Allah” roadcraft of the locals, the apparently negligent approach to road surface maintenance and the “this looks as good a place as any” speed bump placement philosophy on the part of The Powers That Be is – don’t. Just don’t.
  • An expensive currency.  The Jordanian Dinar is currently worth more than a Pound Sterling and some of the prices charged might seem high relative to other places you’ve visited (particularly for booze and items that have to be imported). In your financial planning for a holiday visit, try not to compare the prices with, e.g. European norms, which will only cause you angst; be lavish in your estimates of cash needed and relax and enjoy the service.
  • A varied climate. If you hate the heat, avoid the peak summer months and the south of the country. If you hate the cold and wet, avoid the winter.
  • Overall, a great tourist experience – based, that is, on our limited statistical sample of one.   Our particular priority has been seeing as much of a country as makes sense in one trip, and the size of Jordan is perfect for visiting a wide range of places over two weeks. But you can find intense concentrations of specific activities – hiking, diving, camping, sunbathing – if that’s your bag.  We’ve had a fantastic fortnight and would unhesitatingly recommend it as a place to visit.  Would we come back?  There’s a good question. The answer is a probable “yes” – a bit earlier in the year, and with a more focussed plan – fly and flop to the Dead Sea; stay at Feynan – but better equipped, emotionally and packing-wise for the experience – and go hiking or experience more of the local culture; even (sigh!) go canyoning at Mujib or snorkelling in Aqaba. Whatever, as I bring this section of the blog to a close, we’ve had a blast and hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about it. Interested in Canada? Come back in August…..

Day 12 – Bordering on Dead

Thursday 26 May 2022 – I’m playing for the sympathy vote, here.  During the night, my vigorous crop of mouth ulcers ripened into a mouth full of agony which grew worse every time my tongue touched anything. Have you ever tried eating, or drinking, or even talking without your tongue touching anything?  Take it from me: it’s not possible.  Breakfast was simply not an option; even a cup of Twinings finest Earl Grey was a significant challenge. That’s how bad it was.

However, I wasn’t going to let it entirely bring my day to a halt. Jane wanted to visit Bethany, the site of Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist, and, although organised religion and I are barely on nodding terms, it’s clear that it’s a site which has deep symbolism for a vast number of Christians over the globe.  It would have been churlish not to take the opportunity to visit.  So we did, having arranged with Saeed that he could do the driving for us.

The site is quite close to the Hotels Area, and the short drive there enabled us to increase our ever-expanding insight into the pharmacies of Jordan by making a stop off to buy something to address the pain of my ulcers.  We ended up with a gel called Afta Med which promises that it “immediately reduces pain” and seemed somehow just the ticket. I think it helped somewhat.

If you do a simple online search for “Bethany” you might expect that something of the pith and moment of the baptismal site for Jesus Christ, one of the most significant figures in the development of the world as we know it today, might figure high on the list of results.  You’d be wrong.  Among the inordinate number of churches, towns and charitable organisations using the name, there’s Bethany, where Lazarus was raised from the dead (a transition I was hoping might be reversed for me today), but that’s near Jerusalem on the West Bank. It’s described by one website as “a miserably untidy and tumble-down village facing East on the Southeast slope of the Mount of Olives, upon the carriage road to Jericho.” I couldn’t actually find any reference to where we were headed without using more focussed search words, but eventually you discover that it’s a Unesco World Heritage site and has its own website.  Clearly, having major religious significance doesn’t in and of itself convey any SEO skills. So, “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” it is, or “Al-Maghtas” in local currency.

The site is reasonably well-organised from a tourist’s perspective, with a car park by the ticket office and a shuttle bus (air-conditioned, woo hoo!) that takes customers and a guide on a short drive to the site itself. It was a hot, hot day as these dogs could vouchsafe.

Our guide was called Noor

who said that he was part of the team which discovered the site in the ’90s and did a good job of herding us cats from place to place along rather thoughtfully shaded walkways, whilst explaining what we could see.  So, what could we see?

  1. It’s now, unsurprisingly, the site for a concentration of churches of the various Christian faiths – Coptic, Armenian, Russian Orthodox.
  2. In the background are areas described in the Bible such as the wilderness where Christ wandered for 40 days and 40 nights (they didn’t have GPS in those days) and resisted the temptation of the Devil
  3. A Russian Orthodox Monastery
  4. The remains of the Byzantine St. John the Baptist Church/Monastery (destroyed by flooding and earthquakes)
  5.  The church built in 2003 to replace it
  6. A mosaic depicting the visit of Pope John Paul II (which was instrumental in bringing unity among all of the various flavours of Christianity that this really is The Place)
  7. And, of course, the baptismal site itself, described in travellers’ writings in A.D.500 as being marked with steps leading down to what would have been a cruciform baptismal pool with vaulted arches above. Noor explained that although there was no running water visible today, in biblical times the whole area was covered in the waters of the Jordan river.
  8. The River Jordan, the holy river where one could not only dip one’s feet (should one wish) but could also see its significance as a border point.

A religious service of a somewhat happy-clappy nature was under way whilst we visited

and we were able to go into the new (Greek Orthodox) church of St. John the Baptist, which is highly painted and very colourful.

On the floor is a mosaic of The Tree Of Life

directly under the painted ceiling.

On the site, there is also a museum (and, of course, retail opportunity)

which features, among the exhibits, some original mosaic work

and some amazing embroidery

in a nice – cool – space

which suited me well, as it probably did a fur-coated local.

How credible are the claims that this is really the site of Christ’s baptism?  Well, in addition to much archaeological and anecdotal evidence of the religious importance of the site over several centuries, the leaflet that comes with the tickets says, “The authenticity of this site is as pure as the testimonies from the gospels, the pilgrims and travellers that have visited this cherished site.” Whatever, it felt like a worthwhile visit and we were grateful to Noor for giving us the extra context of where things fitted into the biblical story.

After this visit, Saeed took us to the Panorama Complex and Dead Sea Museum that we had been unable to visit yesterday, which is a little south of the Hotels Area, and reached along a steep, twisty road.

Saeed stopped occasionally as we ascended and encouraged us to admire the view, but, frankly, it wasn’t that interesting.

We reached the museum complex and again stopped to look at the view.  It had hardly changed, but at there was something there to tell us what we could see and the compass direction of other places of interest in Jordan (all boxes we had ticked by this stage, fnah fnah).

We could see the works associated with the Ma’in geothermal springs (whose water nowadays gets pumped to Amman, rather than being allowed into the Dead Sea)

and amusingly the road that the complex is on is called Ma’in Street. I hope this naming was done with an appropriate amount of twinkle in an official eye somewhere.

The complex is a handsome building

and is well set up as a home for the museum as well as a restaurant.

The architecture is nicely done and offers the chance of some, well, architectural photography.

It was this architectural content that kept me interested for a while, but I really was beginning to flag in the heat and the oral agony, which is a shame, because the museum has some interesting exhibits that I simply couldn’t be arsed to read – I just wanted to get back to the hotel by this stage.  There was one arresting installation on the floor by the museum’s door, though.

This shows the projected shrinkage of the Dead Sea if nothing is done about anything.  Saeed told us that an initiative to replenish the Dead Sea with waters from the Red Sea had been gradually building for about 50 years, but the pandemic had got in the way and it has effectively been abandoned.

Saeed took us back to the blissful cool of the hotel, where we spent much of the rest of the day relaxing, in my case updating the blog, and building up energy for the evening, for life had sprung a pleasant surprise on us.  Magda and Guy, friends whom I first met when I lived in Sweden 40 years ago, happened to be breezing through on their way to a wedding in Amman on Saturday, and we overlapped at the Kempinski For Just One Night.  Over the years since, they have been responsible for some of my most famous hangovers, so a session with them, given my fragile state, was something to be seriously prepared for.  It turns out that a combination of Afta Med, paracetamol and gin acts as a good anaesthetic and it enabled us to have a great evening catching up, as it had been four years since we saw Magda, and five years since we saw Guy. We all treated ourselves (I think that’s the right word) to a meal in Rehan, the Lebanese restaurant at the hotel, and I even managed a little soup as effectively the first thing I’d eaten all day.  Isn’t it marvellous how good company can overcome mere bodily pain?

That said, my system wasn’t robust enough to allow the meal to degenerate into A Session (ah! memories!  vague and blurry memories!) so despite the fact that there was a bar outside as we left the restaurant, Jane and I decided to head for bed. Anyway, we had to get up especially early and preferably compos mentis the next day, so it seemed the best idea.

As to what it was that we had to get up for?  You’ll have to come back and find out, won’t you?

Day 3 – We hit peak Mosaic

Tuesday 17 May 2022 – We had an early start today; once again, the only times we have to get up early is when we’re “relaxing” on holiday.  Anyway, come 8am, we were on the road that would lead us eventually to Petra, but which had several stops on the way.  Almost all of these stops seemed to involve mosaics, so I hope you like mosaics.

The first stop was in the town of Madaba, the “City of Mosaics”, to visit St. George’s, a Greek Orthodox church. The reason that so many people visit it is that it is the home of a very famous mosaic, the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land, dating from the 6th century AD. The mosaic was rediscovered in 1884, during the construction of a new Greek Orthodox church, St. George’s, on the site of its ancient predecessor. Outside (and replicated on cards in the on-site retail opportunity) is a large display explaining what the remaining areas of the mosaic are.

The map mosaic itself is very difficult to convey photographically, because it is so large.  I took a couple of snaps, of course I did, but I also tried to give an idea via video.

It is amazing that there are still areas of the mosaic that are still hiding under tiling work that has been laid on top of it, for some bizarre reason.

As well as this historic ancient mosaic, the church has an incredible array of modern mosaics, made in the Madaba School of Mosaics (these days called the Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration), which can be found on every available display surface.

They are very intricate and beautifully made.

On searching for the etymology of the word “mosaic”, I learned that it has its roots in the Latin for the Muses.  It’s also true that Mosaic (capital M) means “pertaining to Moses”, which is relevant for our next stop, which was at Mount Nebo, the site from which Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land, and where he then died. It is obviously a site of great historical and religious significance, but the Moses Memorial church there (originally built in the 4th century AD and restored by the Franciscans in 1932 to working monastery status) is quite a plain building, and not ornate at all.

Since this is where Moses could see the Holy Land, you might expect there to be a decent view.  You’d be right.

It’s a popular spot for people to look from, and marked by a representation of Moses’ staff.

On display outside the church are a couple of the mosaics from the original building

but it’s inside the church where the real action is, mosaic-wise.  The most impressive is a 6th Century mosaic in the Diakonikon Baptistry in the church, pictured as captured on a non-Diako Nikon camera.

There are many, many, wonderful and intricate mosaics there.  Some have the shapes often found in stained glass, and there is also some real stained glass cunningly shaped to look like a mosaic.

I’d love to go into more detail, but honestly there is so much there it would become dull if I were to share all the photos I took.

We went back into Madaba and visited the Madaba Arts and Handicraft Centre.  We got a very interesting insight from a chap there who explained about how both old and modern mosaics were made.  There were several people at work creating mosaics – the centre is a co-operative which provides training to budding mosaicists, many of whom have special needs.

As well as what anyone would understand to be mosaic work (with pieces of stone down to about 2mm in size), the centre also has work that is “micromosaic” – creating art with pieces of stone so tiny that they can only be worked through a magnifying glass; or indeed with dots of powdered stone “paint” – pointillisme in stone.  The resultant work is remarkable.

Ostrich eggs are common bases for this kind of artwork, and the chap was such a good salesman that Jane failed to escape without buying an example.  The co-operative does good work in supporting disadvantaged people, mainly women, and has the financial support of Queen Noor of Jordan, so we’re pleased that the money is going to support a good cause.  No, really.

So that was peak mosaic, and we left to continue our journey towards Petra.  En route, we passed an unusual roundabout decoration.

We have been unable to understand why this choice of decor has been made but we’ve seen more than one example.

Saeed drove us along the King’s Highway*, a scenic and historic route so-called because it once linked the realms of three kings – Ammonite, Moabite and Edomite.  It’s preferable to the Desert Highway, which is straighter, faster and has fewer speed bumps, but is dull.

By contrast, the route that Saeed took us had some wonderful scenery,

an unusual new marketing look to a fast-rising supermarket chain,

some more fantastic views,

a remarkable, if ramshackle, tea stop-cum-retail-opportunity run by yet another welcoming Jordanian (pictured below with Saeed),

and stopping for a visit to Kerak (or Karak) Castle, a 12th-century Crusader castle which also had a significant strategic role up to the Ottoman period in the 19th century.  It was badly damaged in a siege and has really only partially been restored.  It has a looming presence over the surrounding countryside.

It looks impressive from the outside and is huge and rambling on the inside, but lacks information boards and other things to help understand its story.  You can understand its strategic importance, given that rule 1 of such a place is to have a commanding view over the countryside so you can spot any unwanted marauding going on by your enemies.

but the site itself, while it has several impressively castle-y lumps of masonry

didn’t have a story to tell, or at least not one that came over to us.

The town of Kerak would actually be a wonderful photo site – all tiny narrow streets, chaotic traffic and colourful shops.  We didn’t get a chance to see it beyond one rather optimistic piece of marketing.

Shortly after this we stopped for lunch at an unusual restaurant-cum-retail-opportunity called Midway Castle

where we had a taste of the National Dish of Jordan – mansaf (slow-cooked lamb with rice, flatbread and a special yoghurt sauce).  Yes, I have a picture of it.  No, I’m not going to share it with you.  Then we pressed on, again largely avoiding the Desert Highway, which meant we saw camels

sheep and goats,

more impressive scenery

and the “Smallest Hotel in the World”.

We also passed by Shobak Castle

but didn’t go in, as we didn’t need a loo break.  Our final stop, as we hit the outskirts of Wadi Musa (the “Valley of Moses”, where Petra can be found) was at the spring that is the source of the water running through the valley, and may be the place where Moses struck the rock with his staff and water came forth for his thirsty Israelites:

It’s remarkably low key for something that bears the name of Moses.  People can stop by and fill their containers with water

underneath the writing taken from the Koran that says  something along the lines of “From water, all life begins.”

And so our journey ended at the Mövenpick, Petra. We immediately had a meeting with Ali, a representative of the organisation that provides tourist guides for Petra, because we had decisions to make.  Unfortunately, The Powers That Be have decided to close a hiking route that we had planned to take (from Little Petra to Petra Monastery) in a couple of days’ time, so we had to work out what our alternative was going to be.  Oddly enough, “sitting in the bar and drinking gin” didn’t seem to be the right thing for me to suggest, so we’ve got two hikes set up for tomorrow and Thursday, both of which involve quite a lot of walking and climbing of stuff.  And because we want to beat (a) the tourist hordes and (b) the heat of the day, we have to get under way at 0630 tomorrow.  O, the joys of being a tourist!

But, assuming we survive, the coming days should be absolutely wonderful, despite a 5am alarm call.  So do please stay tuned to see how things turned out.

 

 

*  “Along the King’s Great Highway, he drives his merry load /  at 90 miles per hour in the middle of the road.”  With thanks to Flanders and Swann