Mad about Madaba

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Here we are on the road again in the wonderful country of Jordan. We
flew from Vancouver via London to Amman on April 6 having celebrated
the captivating Ella Walker’s birthday a few days before. We decided
to base ourselves in the small and charming city of Madaba 30 km south
of Amman and see all the considerable sites in the vicinity from here.
We are in a cute family run hotel, which is full to capacity every
night with the small tour groups which Europeans seem to love. They
stay at most two nights, it seems we are the only ones here for a
week!

The family are extremely helpful with all arrangements and helped us
get our rental car booked before we arrived. They have a number of
cars in which they take guests out for day excursions, and the drivers
congregate in the lobby every morning to pick up their passengers. We
have found them to be extremely helpful giving us explicit directions
on routes to each of the areas we have visited and we are finding the
driving dead easy and probably less nerve wracking than highways at
home (someone has scared Jordanians into maintaining the speed limit
at all times, never seen anything like it in all the countries we’ve
been to.)

The towns are another matter, as the streets are very narrow and
winding, and mostly one way, and since there are no parking rules, we
often cannot be sure if we are entering the wrong way as cars are
parked facing any direction, often on the sidewalk, or face into the
curb when there isn’t room to parallel park. However we note that, in
a pinch, people go against the traffic, so it is not such a big deal
when we do.

Our first day we walked around the town admiring the old buildings and
paying particular attention to the wonderful 6th century mosaics that
have been unearthed under the floors of churches during rebuilding in
later years. The most famous one portrays the earliest known map
showing the Biblical world from Egypt to Palestine. It is certainly
lucky we speed read the children’s version of the Old Testament in
preparation for this trip! The churches are Greek Orthodox as Madaba
became a haven for Christians after conflicts in the south and still
has a large Christian population. The famous mosaic map is covered
with carpets during weekly services in St George’s Church.
A really interesting thing that happened in this same church about 30
years ago is referred to as the “miracle of the blue hand.” (see
attached picture) Before the service, the parishioners filed by the
icons that line the walls praying and touching them, as Orthodox
Christians customarily do. During the service someone suddenly
noticed that an icon of Mary had spontaneously grown a blue third
hand. It was declared a miracle and a good omen – “a helping hand for
Madaba”, encased in glass (very shoddily) and is now on display in the
crypt

.
The next day the Reliable car man showed up and handed over the keys
to a slightly shabby Toyota Corolla and we set off on our first
expedition to Mount Nebo and Bethany beyond the Jordan. Mount Nebo is
where Moses finally surveyed the “promised land” after 40 years in the
desert. All I can say is that he must have felt the butt of God’s bad
joke, as there is certainly nothing inviting about the view – same
desert landscape as he was standing on. However the views for
tourists are outstanding – gorgeous shades of gray and ochre in the
rolling hilly landscape, dotted by shepherds guiding their flocks of
sheep and goats. (Much more romantic to read about than to do, what a
ghastly unforgiving windswept landscape to spend your life wandering
in after a pack of daft ungulates.)

Bethany is the site where Jesus was baptised by John and is the only
place where one can actually touch the Jordan River – while staring
across it to the Israelis doing the same thing about 10 metres away.
Time and water greedy humans have really altered this landscape –
Jesus would never consent to being dipped in the River Jordan today.
It has gone from a mighty river that was a kilometre wide in the rainy
season, to a muddy trickle less than the size of the Alouette by our
house. However the Russians in our group scooped up bottles of holy
water to take home. There are numerous churches dotting the site,
most having been reconstructed on the sites of ancient chapels, the
remains of which were mainly discovered when they were clearing
landmines after the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in 1994.

Having safely accomplished the first expedition, we set off across the
Eastern Desert the next day to see the so called desert castles. None
of them is really a castle, but they are all interesting in different
ways. One is an ancient bathhouse with very beautiful wall frescoes
partially restored, portraying nymphs cavorting, and females bathing
as well as country scenes, the constellations and a host of other
interesting artistic renderings — the usual sort of thing the old
Umayid caliphs liked to have on their private quarters. The hydraulic
system was astonishing, those old boys liked a hot bath as much as I
do apparently.

The most interesting one to us was the famous Blue Fort in which
Lawrence of Arabia and his band of followers lived during the winter
of 1916-1917 during a break from battling the Turks in WW1. He wrote
a good portion of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in his room overlooking the
entrance while his men camped out wherever they could inside the fort.
At night they clanged shut the giant basalt doors which are still
moveable today, though not easily. Fortunately he was a masochist,
the conditions must have been dismal.

However, the saddest thing is to read his lyrical description of the
exquisite oasis of Asraq beside the fort. It was the stopping place
for millions of migrating birds and its area was the size of Lebanon.
Lawrence describes the astonishment of the people he was with when
they got their first glimpse of the sea of greenery that it was. Alas
today, it is completely gone, one of the biggest ecological disasters
in recent history. Amman grew tremendously after the Seven Day War
ended in 1967 and Palestinian refugees poured in. The demand for
water was so great, they decided to tap the Azraq aquifer and in less
than 30 years the entire oasis was gone, never to return, as the
aquifer has become brackish and can never fill up with fresh water
again even if not one drop is pumped from it. Azraq is now just part
of the surrounding bleak, rocky desert.

The next day was devoted to Karak Castle, about 100 kilometres south
of here. It dates from the Crusaders with the most particularly
bloodthirsty crusader being the one in charge. He specialised in
throwing his enemies over the battlements on to the rocks below, and
invented other particularly devilish tortures. Later it was modified
and rebuilt by the Marmalukes, then a couple of earthquakes struck
along with other catastrophes and no one paid it any attention until
the eccentric explorer who “rediscovered” Petra stumbled upon it on
his way there in the 19th century. We had a ball there, feeling like
the first explorers if we carefully avoided the streams of French and
German tour groups by dashing down tunnels when we saw them coming.
The castle has levels and levels of tunnels with kitchens, dungeons,
stables, reception rooms, bedrooms, barracks etc etc. Again, one’s
vision of living in a castle is highly romanticized, it must have been
cold and uncomfortable is all I can say. At least the Muslim rulers
put carpets on the stone floors instead of the fetid rushes used by
the Europeans.

Today was our foray into the Dead Sea which was surprising in a number
of ways. First I never expected to see white caps on it, and we
certainly didn’t expect to spend the day shivering. It certainly is
buoyant, but extraordinarily painful if you have any scratches or
abrasions. Woe betide you if it splashes in your eyes so you have to
keep your head up at all times – probably worse for us than usual due
to the gale force winds whipping the sea into such a frenzy. The
medicinal mud is an interesting concept though we did feel quite
smooth after we got back in and washed it off. An interesting thing
to have done once, but I couldn’t quite imagine what the legions of
hefty German tourists who were spending several days there (there is a
large medical spa at this place) felt was the attraction of the place.
Of course it is usually boiling hot there, as it had been the day
before when we passed that way on the way back from Karak which would
have made for a different experience. It too is the victim of water
hunger – it is shrinking so rapidly that our granddaughter may never
get to see it.

All our drives have been through gorgeously varied scenery, the
colours are so different from what we are used to. Bedouin tents and
sheep are often the only evidence of human activity to be seen for
miles at a time. We do find it a bit weird to be surrounded by so
many tourists in our hotel and at the sites –especially in contrast to
our last trip. Also we had no idea Jordan would be so windy, and hence
so chilly. I guess they don’t do wind chill factor here, so though
the temperature is supposedly in the low 20’s we are often shivering
in every bit of clothing we own in the evenings. Again an extreme
contrast from our last trip!

Jordanians seem amazingly helpful, when we ask directions everyone
gets into the act to find someone who can speak English to help us,
and their manners are quite courtly I find. Arabic is a very vehement
language, at least when you don’t understand a word, and accompanied
by quite dramatic body language that is very interesting to observe.
We have another expedition planned for tomorrow and then we are off to
Petra for a few days. Will keep you posted! Love to all.

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