An Invitation

January 15, 2016

Madaba, Jordan

It was a small hole-in-the-wall convenience store cum café that I met him. Gazi and his cousin Odai work there making coffee and dishing out small cups of steaming corn that seems to be wildly popular among the locals. We had chatted when I was in Madaba before and they bade me welcome now that I am here briefly again. Yesterday I was invited to his home and met not only his mother, brother and sister but also his extended family of aunt, uncle, cousins and a hatch full of rabbits.

I was made warmly welcome and had to make a concerted effort to down the glass of tea that kept getting refilled. And then came dinner – several platters were set down on the floor as we sat around it. Beans, greens, stuffed eggplants, french fries, hummus and fresh sliced tomatoes, were all scooped up in bread warmed atop the gas stove. Gazi’s mother is one of those women that can keep one in stitches. I barely understood a fraction of the Arabic she spoke but she has a talent for matching words to actions and had us roaring with laughter.

She is an amazingly talented woman – there were carpets that she had woven on the loom that I admired but there was more. Seeing my interest, she showed me a dozen or more abayyas that she embroidered. The colours, details and workmanship on each of these long dresses is a vision to behold! I was duly trussed into one of them and had to strenuously object to her wanting to make a gift of one.

And she has extracted a promise from me – the next time I visit Jordan, I am to come straight to Madaba and stay in their home. There are five teachers in this extended family and they laughingly told me that they would have me jabbering in Arabic in no time at all. In a country where this kind of hospitality is rarely seen from the tourist trail, it meant all the more to me.

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Not Quite a Rum Thing

January 8, 2016

Wadi Rum

Parceled, packaged and sold to tourists as the desert of Lawrence of Arabia, the standard tours to Wadi Rum are a far cry from the romantic image. The shantytown-like feel of the Rum village is left behind as we drive into the desert and it is only from afar that one doesn’t see the garbage strewn dirt roads and the general fly-blown feel. The vague sense of desperation generated by the drought in tourists hangs like a pall and peppers the conversation. There are dozens of camps littering the protected area of Wadi Rum but tourists are few and far between and each camp seems to have just a couple of tourists a day if they are lucky. The four-wheel drive vehicles are just a step away from the scrapheap graveyard but the drivers manage to coax them over inclines with the ease of long practice.

The so-called sites are barely a handful and every tourist-toting vehicle makes the same circuit. The spring that has been renamed Lawrence Spring and the same two rock bridges sees cars come to a halt and disgorge visitors. Despite the hundreds of sand dunes scattered over this area it is the same one, pockmarked with footsteps that we stop at. As the drivers huddle down to tea and a chat, the tourists are expected to dutifully trudge over the sites, climb the soft sand dune and immortalize themselves in plentiful photographs. Selfies are mandatory.

Come sunset, each vehicle totes its cargo of tourists to its camp. Many of the camps remain closed and the ones that are open wear a tattered air. Doors lean drunkenly and carpets that covered the frames either flap in the wind or are missing altogether. A cavernous dining tent that can seat a hundred, now has half dozen visitors a week – on good weeks. Dinner is a mundane affair and at the crack of dawn, after a desultory breakfast, one is whisked back to the village in haste and dumped with a collective washing of hands on part of the tour operators. This is assembly line tourism at its best and not for the faint-hearted. It is standard fare I suppose and I should have known better than to sign up for it. Honed to a fine art, tourism in Jordan may be just the ticket for some but it is far too developed for the likes of me.

But the desert itself stretches out in shades of beige, brown and pale rose tantalizing my senses. There are secrets in this desert begging to be explored. A cleft in the towering rocks called Khazali Siq leads inward in twists and curves and on the walls of the chasm are inscriptions. Some are Thamudic in origin, some are Arabic and some are scrawled in long-forgotten languages. There are pictures as well. They tell tales of men and women and of sheep with long curving horns. One picture shows a man with a bird – hunting with eagles perhaps? The origins of these drawings seem lost in time and our driver could tell us nothing concrete. Rumour has it that the nomadic tribes that roamed these lands drew them.

At another spot in the desert is a flat rock with multiple carvings. Most were of feet, each pair pointing in a specific direction. Some were adult-sized and some child-sized – depicting a family perhaps? Perhaps they showed the route to specific destinations for the caravans and nomad tribes?

The nomadic tribes that once walked through this area are long gone, or so I am told. There are Bedouins here still. They still own camels and goats and sheep but they do not travel with their animals like in the days of old. They live in concrete houses in the Rum village or a permanent tent in the desert. Their tents when in use, have a propane cylinder and a kitchen range and are placed not far from the village. The cell phones need charging so one cannot be too far away, explains the owner. And who can blame them? But these are not quite the nomads of Mongolia or Tibet or even those of Morocco. There are tents in the desert, at the edge of the village and pens with camels and sheep and goats. The tent is occupied minimally, only when caring for the animals. The sheep seem skittish despite their enormous size. I am told that this ram costs as much as a small camel. The goats are less skittish and the camels display a curiosity. One of them follows the owner around like a pet dog.

A part of me wonders how it would be to set off by camel for parts unknown. What a delight it would be to explore at leisure and camp along the way! I have a few days yet. Although past experience has taught me that to do what I have in mind will take many more days than I have, I mean to give a good try.

The Poetry of Petra

Jan 5, 2016

Petra, Jordan

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It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,

by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;

But from the rock as if by magic grown,

eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!

Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,

where erst Athena held her rites divine;

Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,

that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;

But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,

that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;

The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,

which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,

match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,

a rose-red city half as old as time.

The words of John William Burgon written in 1845 evoke images of Petra far better than any I. It is as magical today as it was when this poem was written, indeed as magical as when Petra bustled with the hum of the living more than two thousand years ago.

The origin of Petra is lost in the mists but current theory holds that Arab traders built this city in the fourth or fifth century BC as the capital of the Nabataean empire. Accomplished traders, the Nabataeans grew rich through trade in frankincense, myrrh, and spices and in the first century BC the city flourished. Annexed to the Roman Empire later, Petra continued to thrive until a large earthquake in 363 AD destroyed much of the city. The combined effects of the earthquake and new trade routes eventually led to the downfall of the city and by the middle of the seventh century AD Petra seems to have been largely deserted. Forgotten by all but he nomadic Bedouins it remained a secret until 1812 when it was re-discovered by the intrepid Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Following in his footsteps I discover it anew.

The entrance lies along a path lined by tombs and guarded by gigantic stone blocks dedicated to djinns. Walking through the Bab el Siq, the cleft in the multi-colored chasm of rock brings to mind long-forgotten stories. Of caves full of treasures and shouts of “Open Sesame!” Like the stories, these walls weave their own magic as they close in and widen out periodically. There are stories here as well in the carvings, the sculptures and the tombs that lie scattered along the way. Then comes the first glimpse of the Al Khazneh or the Treasury like the parting of a veil it is a secret slowly revealed. Glowing golden in the early morning light it beckons – come, it whispers, come and see.

The chasm widens and continues along what is called the Street of Facades. Further on lies the Roman theater and opposite is the beginning of the long line of Royal Tombs. Small makeshift stalls along the way hold the usual kitsch as the stallholders utter the ubiquitous mantra of “cheap price, cheap price”. The camels, carriages and donkeys led by their owners offering rides to the weary add a colorful and frequently pungent dash. Images of the past mingle with the trill of mobile phones, the babble of languages and click and whirr of cameras.

A trail that lead up to the High place of Sacrifice with its eagle-eye view of the area, and a trail leads down behind it to yet more tombs hidden in the creases of these sandstone hills with fanciful names like the Garden Tomb, Soldier’s Tomb and the Garden Triclinium. Some of the tombs have the empty graves, multiple ones in some cases, long since robbed of their contents. Many are the tombs that have become the homes of the local Bedouins. Fitted with metal doors and decorated with carpets and cushions, these homes are surprisingly cozy.

The city center of old Petra with its colonnaded main street and the remains of the Great Temple and Nymphaeum hark back to Roman days. Further west is the old castle Qasr Al Bint, once a grand structure but mostly in ruins now. Just past it a long steep trail leads to the fairly intact building of what is dubbed the Monastery. Some of the structures have a small holes carved out on the floor – a thread of continuity that carries on. The board game that was played two thousand years ago is still played in this part of the world, albeit by a different name. A few minutes beyond it on the trail is an expansive view of Wadi Araba and the lands to the west.

The long line of Royal Tombs stands in stately grandeur at the eastern end. Elaborately carved, they look imposing as they were meant to, dwarfing the line of stalls and people. All have long been emptied of any treasures but in the waning light of the sun they glow gold and amber.

There are yet plenty of more trails, some trod often and others less so. These sandstone hills are riddled with trails and caves. Some of the caves are now home to the Bedouin, some serve as shelters for their donkeys and herds of sheep. But there are others yet that lie in these hills holding into their secrets yet to be revealed.

A Passion for Mosaics

Jan 2, 2017

Madaba, Jordan

Situated in the coveted fertile areas of the Jordan valley, it is no surprise that this town and surrounding area has been occupied by many a kingdom. Known in the Old Testament as Medaba, it was once part of the Ammonite kingdom before being briefly occupied by the twelve tribes of Israel.

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The famous Mesha stele declares it was then taken by the Moabites in mid ninth century BC. Later it was a part of the Nabataean kingdom and later yet by 106 AD, it had become a Roman town. As in other locations, it was transformed into a Roman town with the trademark colonnaded streets and public buildings. The Byzantine period that followed brought with it their own trademark of lavish mosaics. Today Madaba’s claim to fame is the mosaicked map dating from 560 AD. Covering a large part of the floor of St. George’s church, the map is the depiction of the holy lands stretching from Egypt to Palestine. Fascinating it is to try and read the Greek names and associate with them the cities, towns and areas that exist to this day! The Jordan rivers flows into the Dead Sea and the Nile empties into the sea. Jerusalem shows up complete with details of its city walls and gates as does Lot’s cave. Mount Sinai and the northern parts of Egypt makes their appearance as well as does Gaza.

Steeped in history as this area is, the Mt. Nebo where Moses was reputedly shown the “promised lands” is yet another point on the tourist trail. Today on this mountain top is a church with its own share of extensive mosaics.

But those are far from the only famed mosaic in these parts. There are dozens of other ruins, some that are marked on the tourist trail and many that are not. Some have mosaics that have been painstakingly restored, and some are yet to be restored. Some lie half-buried in rubble and sand and some lie in museums. Who knows how many are as yet undiscovered in this ancient land?

The ruins at Umm Ar Rasas, halfway between Madaba and Petra is home to the ruins of an extensive garrison town. Hosting multiple churches, it too had lavish mosaics.

The St. Stevens church boasts an entire floor of mosaics that is if anything, this was even more impressive than the one in Madaba. Not quite a map, it shows the parts of the world that were deemed important at the time including towns and cities. I read the Greek names haltingly and try to match them against the names by which they are known today. Some remain the same  such as Gaza and Madaba. Other cities remain as well albeit by a different name for instance Philadelphia, now known as Amman.