February 25, 2011
Birthday Trip -- to Jordan

I'm spread across this huge, luxurious bed. The sun is streaming in the open window and a cool desert breeze is blowing in off the balcony. For a few minutes, I forget entirely about emails, phone messages, or orders. I'm on vacation.

Once each year, Susie and I throw a huge wad of frequent flier miles at the map and go someplace distant, exotic, and fun. We had planned to go to Angor Wat in Cambodia this year, but no seats were available. "Where do you really want to go?", Susie asked. And I immediately replied, "Petra".

The birthday was actually in December. But we were busy then. February seemed like a good idea but we're actually busier now. But we came anyway. And it has been a wonderful trip!

Jordan is under-appreciated as a vacation destination. A bit of research discerned that we would find here a stable government, hospitable and friendly people, and a wealth of history. Ancient civilizations, biblical history, Roman cities, and Crusader castles beaconed.

Susie's mom asked about the riots. "Those are in Egypt." we replied. "You wouldn't avoid Los Angeles because Mexico might be dangerous, would you??"

Petra

Flights were easier and smoother than I'd expected. Our mileage earned us upgrades on United, Turkish Air, BMI, Air New Zealand, and then United again. It was like a Star Alliance smorgasbord!! We were met at the airport and whisked to the Sheraton. The concierge booked us a morning tour and we headed for bed.

Day One: The drive from our base hotel Amman to Petra was about three hours. We bought tickets at the gate, reviewed the map, and waded in.

From the entrance, you hike down a deep, narrow canyon that opens onto the most famous of Petra's structures -- the Treasury. Everyone knows the scene from the Indiana Jones movies. But what no one can describe well is the sensation of walking between two red sandstone cliffs, only ten feet apart, and then turning a corner and seeing the monument glowing in the sun before you.

Petra Petra Petra Petra Petra Petra Petra

Petra is actually an entire city complex -- capital of the Nabateans, an Arab community who dominated Jordan in pre-Roman times and carved a city of temples, tombs, and elaborate buildings out of solid rock. It is perhaps the most spectacular ancient city remaining in the modern world.

We wandered for hours among the valleys and rugged cliffs. The colors of the smooth rock inside these spacious rooms was amazing. At one time, 25,000 people lived here! But in more recent times, Bedouin tribesman had moved into the caves. The Jordanian government created new housing for them in the 80's to better preserve this World Heritage Site.

Finally, with the afternoon waning, we hiked back to the Treasury where young men were happy to help us ride back to the parking area on horseback.

Just outside the gates, we stopped for Cokes at the Indiana Jones Snack Shop. It seemed the right thing to do...

Petra

After hiking, climbing, riding, and imagining our way through Petra, we returned to the hotel weary and well. I'd booked a room with access to the hotel lounge which included light food and an open happy-hour bar. We ate, drank, and slept. In the morning, we planned for the Romans to conquer us.

Jaresh

Day Two: Jordan was absorbed by the Romans and General Pompey in 63 BCE.

Just an hour north of Amman, Jaresh evolved into one of the ten great Roman Cities of the Eastern Empire. It is now regarded as one of the best preserved Roman provincial towns in the world with paved and colonnaded streets, soaring hilltop temples, handsome theatres, spacious public squares, and plazas, baths, fountains, and a city wall pierced by towers and gates. Susie says it is your basic upscale Roman neighborhood.

We arrived in Jaresh in time for the mid-day show. Passing through the arch constructed in 129 for visiting emperor Hadrian, we settled into our stone seats in the hippodrome (racetrack). Fifty legionaries paraded in full armour to display Roman drill and battle tactics. Ten gladiators then fought "to the death" and the show concluded with three racing Roman chariots. We gave everyone a thumbs up.

Just off the plaza, we met an entrepreneur selling cameras and memory cards. He offered to take our picture. Then he positioned us again in a different direction. "Left foot here; put your hand there; head up a little; kiss her now!" The fellow led us to several different vistas and took two dozen photos. He knew all the angles -- for the best views -- and the best tip! Sometimes you don't mind a creative vendor. "Kiss her again!"

Jerash Jerash Jerash Jerash

Visiting in the off season has its benefits. The sky was bright blue and the temperatures mild. But the best part was the place was nearly empty. For hours, we wandered through the streets and buildings, climbed the steps in the amphitheater, and wondered what life was like here two millennium ago.

Day Three. Fast forward a thousand years and to the Crusades.

Although separated by an international border, as well as the Dead Sea, Amman is only fifty miles from Jerusalem. Centuries ago, this region was criss-crossed (pun intended) by the contesting armies of the first and second Crusades.

We considered a quick visit to friends in Israel. The border is open, but there are many checkpoints and visa requirements - for us and our driver. Finally we opted out of a drive through the West Bank.

We visited two castles of this era -- the imposing fortress of Kerack south of Amman, and the lofty Ajloun Castle north. The first was built by the Christians and the second by the Muslims. And while similar in military architecture, they were also remarkably different.

Karak is a huge bunker. It is a maze of rough, stone-vaulted halls and endless passageways. Just inside the gate are large protected stables. This was a stronghold designed as a base to raid Mecca bound caravans. The last Crusader lord was the infamous Reynald of Chatillon, known for his recklessness and barbarism. (We visited the ramparts where prisoners were regularly thrown off.)

Kerak
Reynald's peacetime robbery of a large caravan in 1177 prompted a response from Salah Eddin (Saladin) who bombarded Karak, and later defeated the Crusader army at the Battle of Hattin. Salah Eddin spared most of the captives except Reynald whom he personally executed. Karak held out eight months in a prolonged siege before surrendering to the Muslims.

Kerak Kerak Kerak Kerak

After seeing "Kingdom of Heaven" many times, I'd expected to find Karak out in the open and not in rough, mountain terrain. But that's what you get for learning too much history from the movies. Bring a flashlight to Karak! Most of the structure is underground. It is exactly the kind of place you expect to find if the builders worried about attackers throwing big rocks at them.

Ajloun is much different. For starters, most of the construction is above ground! And it is hard to imagine bringing calvary inside. So clearly, this place was designed to protect territory rather than expand it.

Built by one of Saladin's generals in 1184, the rooms are much more refined and living spaces larger. And the view from the five towers is dizzying.

Ajloun
Ajloun Castle dominated the three main routes leading to the Jordan Valley and protected the trade and commercial traffic between Jordan and Syria. It became an important link in the defensive chain against the Crusaders, who, unsuccessfully spent decades trying to capture the castle and the nearby village.

Ajloun Ajloun Ajloun Ajloun

The original castle had four towers, arrow slits incorporated into the thick walls, and was surrounded by a moat averaging 40 feet in width and up to 45 feet deep.

Lesson learned: You bring a flashlight to Karak and binoculars to Ajloun...

Mt. Nebo

West of Amman, just north of the Dead Sea and approaching the Israeli border is Mt. Nebo.

The view from the summit provides a panorama of the Holy Land and, to the north, a more limited one of the Jordan River valley. The West Bank city of Jericho is usually visible from the summit, and on a clear day you can see Jerusalem.

The final chapter of Deuteronomy says that Mount Nebo is where Moses was given a view of the promised land. According to Jewish and Christian tradition, Moses was buried on this mountain

According to the Book of Maccabees (2:4-7), the Prophet Jeremiah hid the Ark of the Covenant here. But we didn't see any Raiders Snack Shops nearby...

Getting around Jordan was simple -- rent a car from Hertz and rent a driver too!

Our new friend, Mohammed was a great driver, tour guide, and companion. From him we learned about contemporary life in Jordan.

On our final trip back to the hotel, Mohammed brought us to his favorite sweet shop. Huge trays of spiced and baked cheeses were on display and we savored things I'd never tasted before. Think of creamy baklava.

Mohammed had taken us everywhere. Only once did we get a little worried.

Sweet Shop

The first day out, winds and dust in the desert brought visibility to zero and highway traffic to a stop. On the way back, a light rain covered the road with slippery mud. A truck accident blocked the road home, so Mohammed simply crossed the divider and bypassed the gridlock in the opposing lane. Susie and I held our breath for several miles until he crossed back!

Quick endorsement: If you go to Amman, definitely ask Hertz for Mohammed Sofi.

Jordan was a remarkable trip. In four busy days, we'd seen ancient wonders, pristine Roman ruins, and Crusader outposts. It was a cultural and historical tri-fecta! And with enough frequent flier miles, we'd stayed in a fine hotel, eaten well, and booked business class tickets too!

Our flight home was early. Mohammed met us at five and by six, we were checked in and ready to buckle in for a long, long flight. Thirty hours later when we landed in Portland, it was snowing.

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