This was the day we drove from Madaba to Wadi Musa (the little town outside of Petra), stopping along the way. As with our day in Galilee, we had picked out quite a few sites we wanted to visit en route, and we fully expected that we might not be able to make them all. But we did!
We left Madaba fairly early, and our first stop was a detour west off the King's Highway, which we intended to take all the way to Wadi Musa. But first we wanted to go to the top of Mt. Nebo. This was the spot from which the Bible says God showed Moses the Promised Land of Canaan before he died: "Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the LORD showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the LORD said to him, "This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, 'I will give it to your descendants.' I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it." (Deuteronomy 34).
These are exactly the areas that you can see today from the mountaintop. Although it was raining slightly when we arrived, we could still see remarkably far, and as it cleared up a bit, the clouds made fantastic patterns of shadows on the hills and valley. It was really striking:
Archaeologists have been working there for quite some time, uncovering evidence of Byzantine churches dedicated to the memory of Moses. The excavation was closed when we were there, but we were mostly there for the view, so it didn't really matter too much. There was an interesting, but small, exhibition of things related to the history of the excavations. I found these two pictures quite amusing:
THE FIRST ARCHAEOLOGICAL TEAM THAT WORKED HERE
THIS ONE WAS LABELED "FIRST DAY IN THE FIELD." THEY SURE HAVE THEIR WORK CUT OUT FOR THEM!
From Nebo, we doubled back to join the King's Highway and got lost (again) briefly in Madaba. I did see a funny sign there while we were wandering around, and although I did not get a picture of it, I thought some of you might find it amusing. It was an advertisement for a Turkish bath in town proudly touting its "Tot Tiled Floor!"
We drove on to another site with Biblical associations, the hilltop fortress of Herod known as Machaerus. Tradition says that this was the spot where the daughter of Herodias danced for Herod the Great and, captivated with her, he promised her anything she wanted. At the urging of her mother, the girl asked for the head of John the Baptist on a plate, and it was here that legend says Herod had him executed and the head presented to his wife and her daughter. (The Biblical passages are Matthew 14: 1-12 and Mark 6: 14-29, although no specific location is given for the events).
It is an astonishing site. Incredibly, it is not even mentioned in the "Eyewitness Travel" guidebook we had, but we had seen it in a book on Jordan in the library here, and were able to find it on another map of the country besides the one in the guide, but we were basically on our own to find it. I get the idea that it is COMPLETELY off the normal tourist itinerary (it's a shame), since we had to drive a fair distance off the highway to reach it. Then we became confused in a village because we did not realize that the site would be marked as a "Shrine of the Prophet Yahya" (now we know that's John the Baptist to Muslims). When we found the parking lot, we realized that the fortress itself was high on a lonely mountaintop, and it would require some serious uphill hiking to reach it!
VIEW OF MACHAERUS FROM THE PARKING LOT -- CAN YOU SEE IT ON TOP OF THE FLAT MOUNTAINTOP THERE?
But it was early in our trip and we were still full of energy, so we did it. And we are SO glad we did! The view was spectacular, particularly of the Dead Sea. The ruins are interesting, but there is not that much to see of them. It is really the feeling of isolation that gives the place its appeal, and of course it gives a unique understanding of the power (and the paranoia) of Herod.
A ZOOM VIEW OF THE RUINS OF THE FORTRESS. THE SQUARE BUILDING IS A MODERN SHELTER FOR THE CARETAKER, WHO WAS NOT THERE.
VIEW FROM THE FORTRESS. THAT'S THE DEAD SEA. YES, MY EYES ARE CLOSED -- IT WAS REALLY BRIGHT UP THERE!
It was quite cold at the top, so we did not stay long. Also, just when we made it to the top we looked down and saw someone standing near our rental car (wouldn't you know it?), so we decided to head back down after only a few minutes. Our car was fine -- it was probably just a curious local, surprised to see someone stopping there in the off-season. There were several caves on the surrounding hills and mountains that seem to be the homes of small families, and we saw one man herding his goats in the ravine below. It was all very peaceful and beautiful.
On the way back down, we did make one stop: we went inside the cave that tradition says was the lonely cell where Herod kept John the Baptist up until his execution:
Our next stop on the way south was the Crusader castle at Kerak. But before we could reach it we had a couple of hours of driving to do along the King's Highway. We had no idea what to expect, but the scenery turned out to be amazing. When we weren't driving through desert mountains, we were passing through tiny towns. People were definitely surprised to see us. The further south we went, the more they seemed to be interested in us, and eventually I started covering my head when we drove through the towns, which cut down on the staring quite a bit. Again, I think most tourists just don't drive through there in a car. And the buses probably take the Desert Highway, which is to the east and runs straight through the flat desert. But it is not nearly as scenic as the route we took! One interesting thing that you can see all over Jordan, in the big cities, the small towns, and scattered along the roadways, are "unfinished" houses, like these:
One of our friends here at the Research Institute informs us that "unfinished" structures are not taxed in Jordan, so people are more than willing to leave unsightly metal bars sticking up out of their roofs to prove that they are eventually going to add another story, thus rendering their building "unfinished" and non-taxable!
The further south we went, the more completely we were surrounded by the desert. But there are also wadis (ravines which are filled with water in the brief rainy season), so there are spots with trees and vegetation. We also got to drive over the massive Al-Mujib dam, built over the wadi of the same name. We had no idea it was there, and then suddenly we came around the corner and there was a huge, HUGE dam.
A CLOSEUP. WE THOUGHT FOY MIGHT LIKE TO SEE IT.
All in all, the drive through the empty landscape was very interesting and impressive, but we would not want to do it at night -- lots of sheer drop-offs, hairpin curves, and not so many people around in case of trouble. We did, however, see some Bedouins camping in one of the valleys near the wadi.
A JORDANIAN ROAD CONSTRUCTION CREW. NOT A JOB I WOULD WANT.
A BEDOUIN ENCAMPMENT. THE TENTS ARE PROBABLY CAMEL-HAIR.
After descending to the bottom of the wadi canyon where the dam is, we climbed back up the other side. At the top rim we spotted a few places where the adventurous traveler could stay if they wanted to enjoy the scenery and the emptiness: The "Sunshine Resthouse" the "Rest House Trajan" and the "Black Iris Camping" area. Just throwing that out there. Interestingly, when we got back to the top of the canyon, the landscape on the other side went from being dusty yellow colored to an amazing, deep red. This is basically the same color that the rock of Petra has in it, and I'm sure some geologist could explain what type of landscape we had moved into, but all I know is that it was really pretty!
A few other things of note that we encountered as we drove were some Roman ruins in the town of Ar-Rabba (we did not stop), and several checkpoints of military and police groups at crossroads (we did not have to stop very often -- they didn't seem TOO interested in us, as long as we slowed down and waved at them, but occasionally they wanted to know where we were from and where we were going). Also, interestingly, the road signs were less and less frequently translated into English the further south we got. Anyone traveling here should be prepared for that -- having someone who can read Arabic would be a big help! Also, those signs that WERE translated into English were inconsistent -- the name of a town or a site would change in spelling, sometimes drastically, from sign to sign. You really have to work entirely on phonetics, saying each sign out loud and then figuring out what it is for. For instance, the Crusader castle of Shobak (see below) showed up these several ways, all within a few miles:
And these were all "official" road signs posted by the government.
Other dangers of driving in rural Jordan include sheep, goats, dogs and donkeys, the latter of which are often hobbled by their owners with straps on their ankles so they can't get far, then sent out to wander freely. This means they CANNOT get off off the road quickly!
TRAFFIC JAM ON THE KING'S HIGHWAY
But obviously we survived the drive without incident and made it to Kerak. This city was once the capital of Moab, and this was an important fortress for the Crusaders since it was highly defensible -- it is surrounded by sheer cliffs on three sides. It is a very popular site because it has been heavily "restored" (freely interpreted and rebuilt might be a better description), so it is easy to understand. Also, it is simple to get to -- it is in the center of the sizeable town of Kerak, which also means we had somewhere to eat and stock up on road provisions. We acquired a guide in the site that we did not really want, but he was very friendly.
THE CRUSADER CASTLE OF KERAK
PETER EXPLORES THE CASTLE
PETER AND OUR FRIENDLY GUIDE
And, for the first time that day we encountered other tourists: two men from, of all places, Concord, California. They were Rotary Club members on their way to Ethiopia to assess a clean water project they are starting there. I have to say, it was nice to talk to some other Americans for a few minutes (especially since they weren't a huge, annoying tour group of Americans).
From Kerak we drove further south to another Crusader fortress, this one called Shobak. This castle, built in 1115, was one of the first Crusader outposts constructed to the east of the Jordan river, and it controlled the important road between Egypt and Damascus. It was conquered in 1189, and there are Mameluke inscriptions and some of their stonework here (the Mamelukes were an Egyptian Muslim dynasty). It is quite an impressive site, well worth a visit. Unlike Karak, it is isolated and has had little reconstruction done. We liked it more! There were no other tourists there, only a few locals who live in cave-houses nearby and apparently like to hang out in the ruins (who wouldn't?). We arrived just before the sun started to go down and paint the surrounding desert amazing colors, casting shadows of the castle on the mountains:
SHOBAK FROM A DISTANCE
YOU CAN SEE THE CASTLE'S OUTLINE IN THE SHADOWS ON THE HILLSIDE
SHOBAK CASTLE: A LOCAL HANGOUT
At that point, our light was failing and we had to move on to Wadi Musa, where our hostel was located. We managed to get there just as the sun fell behind the massive mountains that hide Petra. It was so exciting to stop and take pictures, and try to figure out which gorge might be the siq, the entrance to the ancient city!
PETRA IS OUT THERE SOMEWHERE!
When we arrived at our hostel, we were given tea and sat down to chat with the man working the counter. Two other guests came out to the lobby, a couple of young ladies from Australia. We got to talking with them and discovered that they also live in Istanbul! They teach English to elementary school children here. What a small, small world it really is.
We were also pleased to find that our room had a fine view of the mountains, so we were able to say goodnight to them, and then wake up eagerly the next morning bright and early to head to the park! It was like the night before Christmas -- we were both so excited to finally see something we had dreamed of seeing for years.
THE TOWN OF WADI MUSA AT NIGHTFALL