Seeing the Desert, Petra, and the Dead Sea in Jordan
By Janis Turk
Senior Travel Writer
Archeologists estimate that the Jerash area was inhabited as far back as 3,200 BCE. The Roman conquest in 63 BCE made Jerash part of the Roman province of Syria. At the ruins in Jerash, there is even an ancient circus/hippodrome where visitors can see a historically accurate reenactment of a chariot race.
There is the beautiful Hadrian’s Arch and a long colonnade. Yellow wildflowers by the thousands dot the fields around columns lining ancient stone streets. There are theaters, baths, temples, and remains of a city wall. I see a great many lovely places like this near Amman, but I am in search of other sacred sites, and so I head south.
Along the southeastern coast of the Dead Sea, today known as Southern Ghor, is a place known in the Bible as the Valley of Salt. There sits Deir Ain Abata, which archeologists say may be the ancient cave of Lot, where he took refuge when the bacchanal cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.
I stop to look at a towering rock formation that is said to be Lot’s wife, turned to a pillar of salt because she turned to look back at the doomed cities.
Near here sprawl wide plains where Abraham and Lot divided their herds in the Old Testament stories and later where King David slew 18,000 Edomites.
Somewhere here, though scholars have different theories about where, may have been the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Holy Land indeed.
During our travels, we drive through lands where Moses is said to have wandered during part of the 40 years the Israelites spent lost the desert. Here, the story makes sense. I can certainly see how one could get lost here for that long. It all looks the same, which is to say awfu l— exposed to harsh heat and stony soil and stupid hardscrabble everything.
How cruel and unforgiving the ugly terrain. How high the desert mountains. Even now, Bedouins tents and sheep dot the stony hillsides while men and boys follow their smelly herds down unsteady steep paths.
The bus snakes down crooked roads through horribly steep hills into a deep valley. I feel carsick — as though I am falling into a sharp granite crevasse with mean edges. Where could this possibly end? How can I find my way out? I feel like the grumbly ungrateful Israelites following Moses around, saying. “Maybe slavery in Egypt wasn’t so bad! Shouldn’t we turn around and go back?”
For then, as if coming upon a land of milk and honey — or, rather like kids finding themselves inside the gates of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (my sudden slack-jaw wonder is that overwhelming) — we come to the bottom of the earth and find an actual oasis of ferns, trees, flowers, fragrant breezes, and glistening white waterfalls falling from high steep cliffs into steaming hot springs.
The next day, we travel to Mount Nebo, where Moses first beheld the “Promised Land” to the west. (And I’m thinking, had Moses seen Ma’In instead, how much less trouble there’d be in the world today).
During the trip, we also visit the plateau and city of Madaba, known for its ancient mosaics dating between the 1st and 8th century AD — the most famous of those being the one in the early Byzantine church of Saint George, which depicts in minute detail an ancient map of the biblical lands inlaid in the floor.
We see and do a great many other things in the beautiful Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, including spending a night in a Bedouin tent under the stars at the great desert to the south called Wadi Rum.
There are camels and tents and more stars than Abraham’s descendants, and much music, laughter, dancing and delight. Another night, we spend at the sparsely elegant Feynan Ecolodge a hundred miles from nowhere, a truly “green” hotel, lit only by candlelight with a rooftop patio where we count falling stars.
After dinner, we visit the neighbors — Bedouins who sit cross-legged on beautiful carpets in a tent and who kindly smile at our attempts to ask about their lives.
Little girls run and cover their pretty smiles with veils and touch my yellow hair as we walk to the top of a sandy rock mountain and build a small fire of sticks for hot tea as we wait for the sun to set.
But of course, the highlight of any trip to Jordan is Petra.
An ancient archaeological city established sometime around the 6th century BCE by the Nabataean tribes, Petra features red rock-cut buildings jutting several stories high — with huge temples, arenas, amphitheatres and holy spots.
It is the most-visited tourist attraction in the Middle East, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and is now considered one of the modern day Seven Wonders of the World — a merit well deserved.
Like visiting a state park, you pay a fee and then hike (or take a donkey cart) through tall narrow slot canyons. Suddenly, through a tall shadowed slit in the rocks, you follow a slim passageway until you behold the sun on the rose-red windblown face of the Treasury, one of the most famous edifices of Petra.
There is also an enormous ancient ruin called the Monastery, but getting to it involves a long, hot, hard hike up some 900 steps (including boulders and skinny scary ledges). The most amazing things there were not the gigantic ruins at the top but rather the wild tulips that grow in the sandy red rock soil.
Another truth springs from the ground: Take the hard way. There are tulips at the top.
An astonishing fact about Petra is that, for a long while, we actually lost it… It remained unknown to the Western world until 1812 when a Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, heard stories of it from local tribesmen and asked them to help lead him to there. Burckhardt was stunned by its beauty, calling it a “rose-red city half as old as time.”
On the way back to the Dead Sea, after our magical time in the desert, we stop to see Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where Jesus is believed to have been baptized.
There are no T-shirt shops nearby or people hawking holy water or Chiclets — no commercial trappings. Just reeds and weeds and a slim murky green river — not deep and wide like in the old gospel song — just an ordinary creek where I dip my empty plastic bottle into the spring and carry brown water back to the bus.
Snorkeling in Aquaba
The rest of the trip is spent snorkeling in the blue waters of Aqaba from a wooden ship surrounded by beautiful white clouds of elegant stinging jellyfish, and lounging around drop-Dead Sea gorgeous resorts at the lowest point on earth.
There, the lights of Jerusalem flicker in the distance across the sea like a city of tiny lighthouses. In the salt sea, covered in black mud, I stand up stick-straight while floating. Then I shower and swim with my new friend Rogerio in the pools of the Kempinksi Ishtar as the sun sets across the water over the other Holy Land.
On the last night, we dine under willowy Bedouin windblown tents and dance to Arabic music, with drums banging, bringing on the dawn.
As I walk back to my hotel room just before sunrise, no call to prayer hangs on the wind here. Still, I pull open the bedside drawer to put away a book and notice a round sticker with an arrow pointing to Mecca hidden inside the drawer.
I close the drawer on the sticker. I don’t need it. This time I know just where to look.
Sailing cruises at Aqaba:
How to get there: