Thursday, March 17, 2011

Two Days with the Bedouin in Wadi Rum

Described by Lawrence of Arabia as "vast and echoing", Wadi Rum is a protected area covering 720 square kilometers of dramatic desert wilderness in the south of Jordan. The huge mountains of sandstone and granite are home to several Bedouin tribes and their goat hair tents are a feature of the landscape. We had the opportunity to explore Wadi Rum and stay overnight with the Al Zalabeyh Tribe who live exclusively in the Wadi Rum desert, and are the official caretakers of Wadi Rum. 

Our day with the Bedouins began with a jeep tour of the highlights of Wadi Rum. We saw Lawrence's Spring where Lawrence of Arabia reputedly washed during the Arab Revolt of 1916 - 1918. A Nabataean temple is at the base of the mountain and Nabataean inscriptions can be seen etched into the rock.

Our next stop was Khazali Canyon, a deep, narrow fissure in the mountain side containing many more Thamudic inscriptions on the canyon wall.

The large red sand dunes are quite fun to climb up. Barefoot is the way to go and the red sand is surprising cool!

Just around the bend from the sand dunes are towering rock walls called Anfashieh which has numerous Thamudic and Nabataen inscriptions, next to it drawings of animals, humans, and camel caravans, which are said to date back to the 2nd century BC.

Nearing lunch time, we were dropped off to walk through the Burrah Canyon on our own. Mountains rose and both sides and I slipped off my shoes to feel the fine sand between my toes. After about an hour's walk through the canyon, we finally spotted Ahmed waving us over for lunch. We sat down on the mat and were offered Bedouin tea. Bedouins have their own special blends of teas that they make from the dried leaves of various desert plants, most commonly sage as it is widely found in the area. Lunch was simple: pitas, tuna, and fresh vegetables. After lunch, relaxing and napping in the sun.

Then we were off again to see the Burdah natural rock arch, mushroom rock, and get dropped off again for another short walk through a beautiful canyon. A little scrambling over rocks was necessary and next more red sand dunes.

Our last stop before sunset was the Um Frouth rock bridge, where Ahmed effortlessly scaled the rock barefoot to the top.

Nearing sunset now, we were off to where Ahmed said was the best place to watch the sun sink below the mountains and observe all the changes in color of the surrounding rock. We sipped more Bedouin team and watched as the sunset turned the desert a stunning array of orange and red.

Finally we arrived at the camp for the night. One big, long tent is where everyone gathers around the campfire and eats. The low black tent is made from goat or camel hair that was woven by the women of the family. The tent is supported by a line of central poles in the middle, and the back and sides of the tent are supported by lower poles. In Bedouin culture the number of poles used in the back and side areas is a general an indication of wealth and social standing. Smaller, individual tents are where everyone sleeps.

We gathered around the hearth, situated in the main reception area of the Bedouin Tent and where all the tea, coffee, and food are served for guests. After being served more sweet tea, we learned about the Bedouin culture. Hospitality or diyafa is the highest Bedouin virtue. They are obliged to protect whoever enters their tent for three days. The Bedouin host is obliged to house, feed and attend to the needs of his guest for these three days, after which, the guest will be able to leave in peace.

We're all called over to see dinner dug up! Zarb is the traditional Bedouin style of cooking using an in-ground, sealed charcoal-fired pit and then covered by the sand. The Bedouin chef prepares ample platters of chicken and whole root vegetables that are then lowered into the ground for a duration of up to 3 hours. After the hours of slow cooking, the steaming Zarb is removed from the pit to reveal a meal punctuated by the tantalizing aroma of herbs and spices. The Zarb is both prepared and consumed the traditional way - communally.

After dinner we learn more about the Bedouin culture and the importance of the camel. A good camel costs around 5000 Jordanian Dinar and most of the camels come from Saudi Arabia. The camels are able to roam free through the desert and it is not uncommon for them to wander off for 2 or 3 weeks. The camels always return to the place they know they get food and water, so wandering off is not a concern.

We also learned about the coffee ceremony when welcoming a guest. It is customary to have three small cups of tea or coffee before the host will sit down and discuss affairs with their guest. The host will not generally ask about their troubles, but will discuss matters concerning animals, and news from afar.A guest who asks for a fourth cup is considered to be greedy or wanting something.

After a few more stories, we wandered around the camp to look at the star filled sky and the nearly full moon. Finally ready for bed, we made our way to our tent. Even though the night was chilly, the goat hair blankets kept us warm.

We awoke to the smells of breakfast bright and early as the Bedouins are early risers. Taking our places on the communal mat, we were once again served sweet tea, coffee, and an ample breakfast. Our camels awaiting us to take us on a two hour trek back to the Village, we waved goodbye to our new Bedouin friends and climbed aboard our camels.

We had a wonderful experience staying with and learning about the Bedouins. To see all of our pictures of Wadi Rum, click here.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Red Rose City: Petra

We've all seen Indiana Jones ride down the canyon with the temple coming into view in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That canyon is actually called the Siq and that "temple" is the Treasury in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. Petra was lost to the Western World from about the 14th century until the early 19th century. Today, Petra is one of the world's largest and most important archaeological sites. In 2007, Petra, Jordan was also named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.

Established sometime around the 6th century BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans, a nomadic tribe who settled in the area and laid the foundations of a commercial empire that extended into Syria, Petra was carved into the red-rose limestone of the Wadi Musa desert. Unlike Jerash, the monuments of Petra are scattered over several miles and nothing prepares you for the sheer size of the city. It simply must be seen to be believed.

A visit to Petra begins with a walk through the Siq, a narrow gorge, over 1km in length, which is flanked on either side by soaring 80 meter high cliffs. As you reach the end of the Siq you catch your first glimpse of Al-Khazneh (the Treasury). This is simply awe inspiring even though you have anxiously been anticipating its view as you trek down the Siq.

It is believed Al-Khazneh was built as a tomb for King Aretas III around the 1st century BC. It is 40 meters high and 28 meters wide, consisting of two floors. The facade has six columns and between them are statues carved representing the horsemen, sons of the god Zeus. The middle round part of the upper floor is called the tholos and supports the Urn. There is a superstition attached to the Urn on the top that it contains a tresor (vault) and this is how the monument got its' name "the Treasury."

While one does not want to leave the magnificent Treasury, there is much more to be seen at Petra. Continuing on you reach Facades Street, which is a collection of Nabataean houses, all of which are carved into the rock. 

After Facades Street you come to the Main Theater, which dates to the 1st century AD around the time of the rule of King Aretas IV . The theater was carved from the rock in one piece and could seat 6,000 people. 

After the theater, the Royal Tombs come into view at the base of Al-Khubtha Mountain. The Nabataeans are said to have taken great care to honor their dead and these massive, intricate tombs certainly demonstrate that. 

From the Royal Tombs, walk toward the City Center along the paved street flanked by soaring soaring columns on both sides. This is where the commercial center was. The street leads to the Petra Great Temple, which is currently being excavated by Brown University. The Great Temple is the largest freestanding building yet excavated at Petra measuring over 24,000 square feet. 

Next we begin our climb up the 850 winding stone stairs to the Monastery. For a few Jordanian Dinars, you can take a "Jordanian BMW" (donkey) to the top. We opted for the climb. As you climb, a nearby Bedouin settlement has set up small stalls selling local handicrafts, such as pottery, Bedouin jewelery, and bottles of striated multi-colored sands from the area. 

Finally the Monastery comes into view! The Monastery is beautifully carved, though much less decorated than the Treasury, and so huge that even the doorway is several stories tall. It is similar to design of the Treasury, but it is much larger (50 meters high x 45 meters wide).

Sit at the cave bar for a few minutes and admire the Monastery while enjoying Bedouin lemon juice with mint.

On the way back down, be sure to admire the monuments again as the shift in the sunlight makes their colors striking in different shades of red-rose.

To see all of our pictures of Petra, click here.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Floating in the Dead Sea

Tim and I floating in the Dead Sea
The lowest point on the face of the earth at 1400 feet below sea level, his vast stretch of water receives a number of incoming rivers, including the River Jordan. Once the waters reach the Dead Sea they are land-locked and have nowhere to go, so they evaporate leaving behind a dense, rich, cocktail of salts and minerals.

The warm, soothing, hyper-saline water of the Dead Sea is nearly ten times saltier than ocean water, and rich in chloride salts of magnesium, sodium, potassium, bromine and several others. The unusually warm, incredibly buoyant and mineral-rich waters have attracted visitors since ancient times, including King Herod the Great and the beautiful Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra. 

Tim reading the paper while floating in the Dead Sea
The density of the Dead Sea makes it difficult to swim, but the buoyancy provides great relaxation while soaking up the water's healthy minerals floating effortlessly on your back. 

You can even coat yourself in the Dead Sea therapeutic black mud. Known since biblical times for its rejuvenating effects on the skin, black mud stimulates the blood circulation and cleans, purifies and restores the skin.  

We enjoyed Amman Beach, which offers several pools, shower facilities, and a restaurant. Our tips for visitng the Dead Sea:
  • Bring some water shoes as the crystallized sea salt can cut up your feet when trying to walk on it
  • Take care not to get water in your eyes
  • Bring an old bathing suit you can just toss out after
  • Be sure to shower after your float in the sea; the salt will be caked on you
And don't forget your book, newspaper, or magazine for your Kodak moment! 

To see all of our pictures from the Dead Sea, click here

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The Holy Lands: Madaba, Mount Nebo and Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan

The land around the Jordan River Valley and the Dead Sea plain is revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews as blessed. The Bible calls it "the Garden of the Lord" (Genesis 13:10). Our own visit to the Holy Lands brought us to Madaba, Mount Nebo, and Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan.

Best known for its spectacular Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics, Madaba is home to the famous 6th century Mosaic Map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. With two million pieces of vividly colored local stone, it depicts hills and valleys, villages and towns as far as the Nile Delta. The Madaba Mosaic Map covers the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. The church was built in 1896 AD, over the remains of a much earlier 6th century Byzantine church. 

The mosaic represents the biblical land from Egypt to Lebanon, including Sinai, Israel, Palestine and Transjordan. The Madaba Mosaic Map is deemed by scholars to be one of the best topographical representations of the Biblical Lands before modern cartography. As a source of biblical topography the map is fully comparable with the well-known treatise on the biblical places written in Greek around 395 AD by the historian Eusebius of Caesarea and translated into Latin by Jerome around 490 AD.

The original mosaic would have covered about 94 square meters, but only about 25 square meters are still preserved. A total of 156 biblical memoirs are depicted in the preserved portion of the map. 

After visiting the Madaba Mosaic Map, stroll around the city center. There are some ruins at the Archeological Museum and many shops sell handmade mosaics. 

Mount Nebo
Our next stop after Madaba was Mount Nebo. According to ancient tradition, this is the mountain from which Moses saw the Promised Land 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.... 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 descendents.' I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it."

And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day on one knows where his grave is. --Deuteronomy 34:1-6

Rising over 700 metres above the Jordan Valley, Mount Nebo offers spectacular views of the Promised Land as seen by Moses. On the platform at the summit is a modern sculpture by an Italian artist representing Moses' staff and Jesus' words in John 3: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up."

Elements of a triple-apse Byzantine basilica were uncovered by archaeologists in the 1930s, and have been incorporated into the structure of the modern church building, known as the Memorial Church of Moses. On March 20, 2000,the late Pope John Paul II visited the site during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and during his visit he planted an olive tree beside the Byzantine chapel as a symbol of peace.

Although the identification is not absolutely certain, archaeology has shown that the area known as Wadi Kharrar has long been believed to be the biblical Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where John the Baptist lived and Jesus was baptized.  

The Baptism Site on the Jordan side of the Jordan River is one of the most important recent discoveries in biblical archaeology. Excavations only began here in 1996, following Jordan's peace treaty with Israel in 1994, but have already uncovered more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from the Roman and Byzantine periods. 

A visit to the Baptism site begins with a walk along a foot path. The change in the environment is dramatic and it becomes clear why the Prophet Jeremiah described it as "the jungle of the Jordan" (Jer. 49:19). The dry desert transforms into a tropical climate as the paths lead into a thicket of reeds and tamarisk bushes. The air is filled with sounds: bird-songs, buzzing insects, and the sound of running water from the springs. The path leads into a clearing marked by a pool and the ruins of the 7th-century Church of John the Baptist.

On March 21, 2000 the late Pope John Paul II visited the Baptism Site and a mosaic depicts his visit.

Continuing along the foot path through the tamarisks, is the River Jordan itself. The opposite bank is Israel, where a small 1950s chapel and copious fences with military presence can be seen. Dip your hands in the River Jordan and bless yourself with the holiest of Holy Water.

A modern Orthodox church dedicated to St. John the Baptist has been built next to the Jordan River as part of the development of the site. The small church has a golden dome and is painted with Byzantine-style murals inside.

To see all our pictures from Madaba, Mount Nebo and Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, click here.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Jerash: The Most Complete and Preserved City in the Eastern Roman Empire

Jerash, or Gerasa in ancient times, is the most complete and preserved city in the Eastern Roman Empire. The city was inhabited up until the middle of the 8th century AD when a major earthquake destroyed many of the buildings and the city's water supply system, The people were forced to abandon the city. The ruins were eventually buried under mounds of sand for over eight decades.

In 1806 Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, a German traveler, came upon ruins that he thought might be those of an ancient city buried under centuries of sand. It was in 1925 that excavations began on the site and as layer upon layer of civilization were revealed, a well-preserved Greco-Roman city began to emerge.

The visit to Jerash begins at Hadrian's Arch. The Emperor Hadrian visited Jerash in AD 129-130 and the triumphal arch was built to celebrate his visit, which ushered in a Golden Age of prosperity for the city of ancient Gerasa. A remarkable Latin inscription records a religious dedication set up by members of the imperial mounted bodyguard "wintering" there.

The hippodrome, or stadium for chariot racing, has ten starting gates as opposed to the usual twelve, which have been re-assembled from the rubble with other missing stones quarried and rebuilt. The seating area was four meters deep with sixteen rows of seats. The seats accommodated 15,000 spectators. Today, spectators can take in forty-five legionaries in full armour in a display of Roman Army drill and battle tactics, ten gladiators fighting “to the death” and several Roman chariots competing in a classical seven lap race around the ancient hippodrome.

As you stroll along the ancient city walls and through the South Gate, the Oval Plaza opens up in front of you. The spacious plaza measures 90 x 80 meters and is surrounded by a broad sidewalk and a colonnade of 1st century Ionic columns. There are 2 altars in the middle, and a fountain was added in the 7th century AD.

From the Oval Plaza, you can stroll down the Cardo just as the Greco-Romans did in ancient times. Still paved with the original stones - the ruts worn by chariot wheels still visible - the 800 meter Cardo was the architectural spine and focal point of Gerasa. On either side was a broad sidewalk with shops, which can still be clearly seen. The intersection of the Cardo with the first cross street, the South Decumanus, was marked by four still visible pedestals, which supported columns and probably a pyramidal structure.

The Nymphaeum, or ornamental fountain, was constructed in 191 AD and dedicated to the Nymphs. Such fountains were common in Roman cities and provided a refreshing focal point for the city. The Nymphaeum was originally embellished with marble facings on the lower level and painted plaster on the upper level, topped with a half-dome roof. Water cascaded through seven carved lions' heads into small basins on the sidewalk and overflowed from there through drains into the underground sewer system.

The procession to the Temple of Artemis originally started across the river in the part of Gerasa now covered by modern Jerash. Crossing the Cardo, worshipers approached the impressive entrance to the processional way leading up to the Temple of Artemis. Its massive columns and a carved portico were flanked by two-story shops. The monumental staircase, originally enclosed by high walls, leads up to a U-shaped terrace where an open-air altar was built and is referred to as the stairway to heaven. Artemis, daughter of Zeus and sister of Apollo, was the patron goddess of Gerasa. This temple was a place of sacrifice dedicated to Artemis and built in 150 AD. The temple's Corinthian columns soar impressively from the hilltop site; 11 of the 12 front columns are still standing.

The North Theater was built in 165 AD. In front is a colonnaded plaza where a staircase led up to the entrance. The theater originally had only 14 rows of seats and was used as a the city council chamber; the names of the tribes represented in the council are inscribed in Greek on some of the seats, along with those of several gods. In 235 AD, the theater was doubled in size to its present capacity of 1600. Two vaulted passages formed the entrance to the orchestra, and spectators entered through passages between the upper rows of seats.

Another theater, known as the South Theater, seats more than 3000 spectators and was built during the reign of Emperor Domitian between 90-92 AD. The first level of the ornate stage, originally two-stories has been reconstructed and is still used today. We were welcomed with a musical performance during our visit. For those who wish to climb more steps, the top row of seats affords an excellent view of the Jerash ruins.

To see all of our pictures of Jerash, click here.

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Saturday, March 5, 2011

La Strada del Vino Friuli (The Friuli Wine Road)

The Friuli Venezia Giulia is a land of ancient wine vocation, where the production takes place seamlessly of the Colli Orientali del Friuli and Collio, which give the best white wines of the peninsula. Starting with the composition of its terrain, Friuli is a region perfect for grape-growing. The lower plains of Collio, the area where many of Italy's finest white wines are made, were once entirely submerged beneath the sea. Over the centuries, the rising seabed and the accumulation of sand and debris resulted in the formation of a soil rich in marl and sandstone, and thus the ideal habitat for the cultivation of vines.

The green and sunny hillside of Collio is famous for the production of Pinot Grigio, Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, and Collio Bianco. Established approximately 40 years ago, Collio's "wine and cherry road" was the very first Italian wine road. The road snakes its way among the vineyards, passing through the little towns of San Floriano, Capriva del Friuli, Cormons and Dolegna del Collio.

Appropriately, Dolegna del Collio, known as La Citta del Vino (The City of Wine) has created world's largest bottle of wine. The bottle, at 2.6 meters (8 ft 6.36 in) tall, holds 510 liters of 2009 vintages from 30 of the region's best wineries. The bottle was entered in the Guinness Book of World Records on October 23, 2010 and stands on display in Dolegna del Collio's town square.

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