The Dead Sea, the Red Sea & the desert

14 May

MAY 14, 2009 — After spending the last three days in the rugged Jordanian outback, one thing is clear: My people (fair skinned Germanic types) were not made for the desert. Even though I live in Florida where the sun can bake anyone to a crisp, the hot, dry desert is no place for blondes … unless you’re T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia). But even he went home eventually.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll note that Pope Benedict left for Israel on Monday. I stayed behind to continue a press tour of Jordan sponsored by the Jordanian Tourism Board (JTB), accompanied by a four other American journalists, a JPB rep, and a local guide (Ibrahim) who could easily be mistaken for a wise-cracking American. He says he once lived in Pittsburgh, but who’s to know for sure.

Monday, May 11

Our local guides at Ajloun

Our local guides at Ajloun

After the Pope’s departure early this morning, we headed north to Ajloun . We visited a local business run by local women which produces hand-made high end soaps before setting out to explore more rugged terrain.

Monk caves near Ajloun, Jordan

Monk caves near Ajloun, Jordan

We saw caves once occupied by monks, the ruins of a 6th century church dedicated to the Old Testament prophet Elijah. It was in ruins, but contained an empty underground crypt and some newly discovered mosaics that had been hidden for centuries.

Arab entertainers at the Jerash Roman ruins

Arab entertainers at the Jerash Roman ruins

We stopped for lunch in Jerash — a city which boasts an unbroken chain of human occupation dating back more than 6,500 years.

The ampitheater, Jerash ruins

The amphitheater, Jerash ruins

According to Ibrahim, our sagacious guide, it contains the best preserved Roman ruins outside of Rome itself. After spending a couple hours exploring the fallen city, I think I believe him.

Before going to bed, I did a quick calculation and figured out that it was about 10 am back in Saskatchewan, so I called my Dad to wish him a happy 72nd birthday. He was surprised to hear from me. Thankfully, I was able to call via the Internet using a headset for only 2.1 cents/minute. Skype rocks!

Tuesday, May 12

Early this morning, we checked out of the hotel in Amman and drove down. Literally. By mid-morning, we were at the Dead Sea, elevation nearly 1,400 feet below sea level. It’s the lowest spot on earth (with air, of course). At 1,240 ft deep, it’s the deepest hypersaline lake in the world. JTB arranged for us to take use the luxurious facilities at the Mövenpick — one of the high-end resorts on the Jordanian side of the Sea.

A few of us wandered down to the beach to check out the salty waters and the world-famous Dead Sea mud, which is apparently pure gold for your skin. Black gold, that is. My official photographer, Greg Tarczynski, has some pictures of me covered in the stuff. I’ll post them soon, so come back to this entry in a week or so. We packed up after lunch and drove a few hours south to the Red Sea port of Aqaba before the sun set on another beautiful day in Jordan.

Wednesday, May 13

The Treasury, Petra

The Treasury, Petra

The Treasury, Petra

The Treasury, Petra

The most physically challenging day of our tour began at the 1st century BC city of Petra, about 75 miles northeast of Aqaba. It’s a vast, unique city, carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled here more than 2,000 years ago, turning it into an important junction for the silk, spice, and other trade routes that linked China, India, and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece, and Rome.

I took a lot of pictures, but they don’t do the site justice. Among the most impressive was The Treasury, which was featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. At 100 ft wide and 145 ft high, it dwarfs everything around it. Called Al Khazneh by the Arabs, it was carved in the early 1st century as the tomb of an important Nabataean king.

At the Treasury, Petra, attempting to be Solomon

At the Treasury, Petra, attempting to be Solomon

The next adventure on the trail was not for the faint of heart or weary of feet. Petra’s largest monument (165 ft high and 150 ft wide), the Monastery or Ad-Deir in Arabic is an hour’s hike (800-900 steps) up a rugged trail covered with loose rock. It sits 3,750 above sea level. The climb was worth it. Dating from the 1st century BC, it was most likely a Nabataean temple. However, apparently Christian monks lived there during the Roman era.

The massive "Monastery" is impressive at 3,750 above sea level

The massive "Monastery" is impressive at 3,750 above sea level

Atop a cliff overlooking The Monastery, Petra

Atop a cliff overlooking The Monastery, Petra

We weary hikers felt like we were on a movie set all day. In the afternoon, we shifted from Indiana Jones to the Lawrence of Arabia. Jordan’s most famous desert, Wadi Rum, was the setting for the classic 1962 Lawrence Oliver movie about T.E. Lawrence who called the area “vast, echoing and god-like.” The name means high (rum) valley (wadi).

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Wadi Rum

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Wadi Rum

Our intepid group loaded onto the back of a canopy-covered 4X4 pickup truck and headed out from the visitors center to the desert. A convoy of 1970s and ’80s modified 4X4s followed with dozens of tourists to explore the expansive sea of rocky peaks. Wadi Rum is a maze of rock formations and hills that rise up from the desert floor up to 5,800 ft. One of the most impressive is called The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

At a bedouin camp, Wadi Rum

At a bedouin camp, Wadi Rum

I purchased a keffiyeh — official Arabic headgear — a black and white scarf which, when properly tied, protects your head, neck, and face from sun and sand. While it’s not approved for use in banks or airports, it sure did the trick for me with the wind and sand blowing on us as we drove through the desert.

We stopped at a bedouin (nomad) rest stop in the desert where they had various items for sale. In a separate tent, they offered free sweet hot tea. A couple men played a cool-sounding instrument. Check out the photo, and if you know what it’s called, let me know. One of our crew, Julie Rattey from Catholic Digest, bravely climbed aboard a camel. I was too busy with the tea and petroglyphs 100 yards away to take a turn.

Our ride, Wadi Rum

Our ride, Wadi Rum

We parked just a stone’s throw from a dry lakebed and a bedouin camp where some many tourists camped for the night.

The sun sets at Wadi Rum

The sun sets at Wadi Rum

By the time the sun was ready to drop over the horizon, about 50 people were watching in awe as it dropped below the horizon around 7:30 pm. The reddish orange glow in the sky almost matched my reddened cheeks and fried nose as another blessed day drew to a close in Jordan.

Thursday, May 14

After a grueling, sun-drenched day in the desert, it was time for a leisurely day … on the water. We joined a crew of about 20 Brazilian-Peruvian journalists who were on another JTB press tour. Most of them had also covered the papal visit to Jordan and had morphed into travel journalists … like yours truly.

We boarded a glass-bottomed boat and pushed off into the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea around 11:30 am. Within 30 minutes, we were sitting over blue, yellow and reddish coral (from which the Red Sea gets its name). Five minutes later, we floated over a shipwreck which had sprouted coral and other sea life. Small fish swam along under us. Apparently there are few large sea creatures in the Gulf of Aqaba. From our furthest point out, we could see four countries — Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. I felt like a world traveler just sitting there out in the Gulf!

A few Brazilians rented scuba equipment and a dozen of us jumped in for a little snorkeling in the frigid water. The crew put out a spread of salads, hummus, and grilled chicken kebabs and sausage kebabs. We docked and by mid-afternoon, we were on terra firma once again. It’s a rough life. Perhaps one day I will also convert into a travel journalist … but only if I can take my wife and kids with me!

Patrick Novecosky is the founder and editor of The Praetorium.

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