Over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to produce a series of little travel guides for some of the places we’ve visited. You can see 5 Metal Things to do in Palmyra, Syria, 5 Metal Things to Do in Crete and 5 Metal Things to Do in Hamburg, among many others on the Grymm & Frostbitten Lands tab. So today I wanted to talk to you about a place I haven’t mentioned much before – it was overshadowed by the imposing castles and epic sickness of Syria, and the all-round amazingness that is Wacken.
Jordan borders Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel, Syria and Palestine and the Red Sea. It’s part of the “cradle of civilisation” – the ancient lands of the Middle East where the first civilisations were built. Throughout history the area has seen many different kingdoms, including Edom, Moab, Ammon, Israel, the Nabateans and the Amalekites. Different foreign empires have laid claim over the area, including the Akkadian Empire (2335-2193 BC – Ramesses the Great fought these dudes), Ancient Egypt (15th-13th centuries BC), Hittite Empire (14th and 13th BC – if you’ve read Wilbur Smith’s River God, these guys will be familiar to you), the Assyrian Empire (1365-1020 BC), the Babylonians (604-539BC) and the Achaemenid Empire (539-332 BC – Ancient Greek geeks will be familiar with this name), and, of course, the Romans. Those pesky Romans.
Then there were some Jews, the Arab Islamic Empire, and some meddling Brits.
Jordan is extremely strategic, as it forms part of the gateway into Egypt for many of the eastern peoples – Egypt being for most of the ancient periods known as the “Bread Basket of the World” because of the fertile crops grown along the Nile. Hence, borders have changed a lot, kingdoms have risen and fallen, and have left behind an EXTREMELY fascinating hodge-podge of archaeological monuments and records.
Which is mainly what we went to explore. Here’s a few of my favourite things we experienced in Jordan:
(WARNING – this post is EXTREMELY pic heavy and contains several images of #ruinporn).
1. Visit The City of Petra
Petra, the Rose City. Known to most as the temple in the Crescent moon canyon in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (the LAST and FINAL Indiana Jones movie, and I won’t hear a word to the contrary). In reality, of course, this site is more than just the temple, stretching for many kilometres and including monolithic civil water conduits, homes, civil buildings and monasteries.
Petra was established as the capital of the Nabatean empire around 300BC, and was a centre for caravan trade across the huge network of oasises occupied by the Nabateans across the Levant. The area was prone to floods, and the Nabateans used dams and conduits to control this water, creating an artificial oasis in the valley that gave rise to the city. Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the new 7 Ancient Wonders of the World.
We approach the ruins through a narrow gorge, formed by a natural rift in the sandstone rocks, where you can see some of the conduits hewn from the rocks. And suddenly, just in front of you, you can see it, peeking from the rift – Al Khazneh, “the treasury”. And it is beautiful.
Atop the treasury’s mighty facade, you can see amphorae carved into the rock. Believing that these jars held riches, local bedouin tribes shot at them with rifles, leaving the exterior of the treasury riddled with bullet holes. Now, the beduin earn a living from selling tourist trinkets and guiding visitors through the valley.
A great amphiteatre has been cut into the hillside, a little way from the treasury. We pass rock-cut tombs and majestic carvings. I buy a little jar filled with coloured sand that spells my name, because I am a silly tourist and I know it.
We pass municipal buildings, crumbling temples and leap over deep fissures in the rock. It is midday now, and too hot, so we stop at a large cafeteria (run by bedouin, who else?) for water.
Behind the cafeteria is a jagged path of rough-hewn stone steps cut into the cliff. At the top of this path is a monastery cut into the rocks. I want to see it. CDH, who is still sick from Syria, is not so keen on walking up the steep steps in the middle of the hottest part of the day.
We compromise – I will get to see my monastery, but we will not walk up the cliff. We will take one of the many donkey rides being offered.
Please, I beg you, if you are in Petra and are offered a donkey ride, and you care anything about the welfare of animals, DO NOT TAKE THE DONKEY. We did not think when we negotiated a price to ask about how the animals would be treated. All the people we’d seen on donkeys around the site so far looked happy. Maybe we just chose the worst operators – our poor, kind donkeys were whipped all the way to the top. It was awful. We both felt appalled, and all the other tourists walking were staring at us like we were monsters, which we were. We should’ve got off, we should’ve made a fuss, but I didn’t know what to do. I was in tears by the time we were at the top. I’m so sorry, poor mistreated donkeys.
The monastery was pretty cool, but not worth the poor donkey’s pain :( So that put a bit off a damper on the day, but up till that point Petra was one of the highlights of the Middle East for me (we hadn’t been to the pyramids yet!)
2. Float on the Dead Sea
Of course, what’s a visit to Jordan without a paddle in the Dead Sea?
Well, it would still be amazing, but who could pass up the chance to experience what it’s like to bob up-and-down on a sea of water floating entirely of your own accord?
The Dead Sea’s shores are 427 metres below sea level, making it Earth’s lowest elevation on land. It is not technically a sea at all, but a hypersaline lake, 9.6x as salty as the ocean. It’s one of the saltiest places on earth (but not the saltiest – you’ll have to go to Antarctica for that), and has been a destination for health nuts and traders for thousands of years. The Dead Sea has provided balms for Egyptian mummification, cosmetics and skin care treatments, and ingredients for fertilizers. No fish or aquatic plants can live in the waters, hence the name.
When you go to the Dead Sea, you don’t just rock up anywhere and go for a swim – you need to pay admission to a “resort” – there are various types of resorts, from a bare-bones shack, right up to the height of luxury. We chose the “one-up from shack” option – included changing sheds, food stands, a freshwater pool, lockers for your stuff – basically, like the normal baths back home in NZ, but saltier. Much, much saltier.
I was one of the first to run into the water. At first it feels like the normal ocean, but then, I got my shoulders under, and suddenly my legs were floating up. And I was just bobbing away, like a boat. Whether you were on your back or your stomach, you would float. I normally don’t travel much beyond where I can touch the bottom in the water, but here I swam a long way. The sensation is very, very strange. The water is a pleasant temperature and the weather is warm and dry – basically, the perfect day to be at the beach! However, you can’t stay in the water too long, because if you’ve been traveling in the Middle East for a while, like we had, you will have been quite sick, and certain parts of your body will be very tender, and the salt gets everywhere, and it hurts. Let’s say no more about that.
I “borrowed” a cup and saucer from the hotel, and some others purchased newspapers and other props for photos. There was even a group of americans sailing around in a rubber dingy! (They got called up by the security guards, because if you go too far from shore, you’re technically in Israel, and they don’t take kindly to dingys filled with Americans yelling jovial goodbyes, apparently.
3. Explore even more ancient sites
Humans have been living in the deserts for hundreds of thousands of years. During this time, they’ve left some signs of their existence. We took some 4-W-D vehicles out into the desert to look at rock paintings – these are from early-modern humans. I have never been close to something this old before. To think that someone drew this tens of thousands of years ago, and here I am looking at it, and I can understand what it is – that is a beautiful thing.
We also wanted to see some natural features like rock pillars (said to represent the 7 pillars of Islam) and this cool rock shelf, which I climbed up on! (CDH said it was easy for me, as I couldn’t see how high it was).
4. Spend a night in the desert.
That night, we stayed at a beduin camp. They cooked us an amazing dinner of chicken and vegetables and breads that were cooked underground (almost like a Maori hangi) in the hot sand for most of the day. Simple fare, but delicious.
After we ate, the men pulled out instruments and started playing. My husband asked if he could join in on the drums, and he joined the band for the next couple of hours, playing entrancing music while the rest of us danced around the fire.
The moon was incredible. It seemed so close, as if you could pluck it from the sky. We set up our triped and CDH tried to take some pictures. We took some “ghosty” pictures with our new friend Abdoul. And then CDH dragged some mats and blankets from one of the tents and we tried to sleep under the stars.
I say “tried” because that damn moon was SO huge and SO bright, that I just couldn’t shut my eyes. It was like trying to sleep in the sun. So after a few hours we crawled into our nearby tent and, after checking the bed carefully for scorpions, fell asleep. It was amazing.
5. Dive the Red Sea
Before he was married to me and got obsessed with drumming, CDH was a certified diver. He used to dive shipwrecks for archaeological surveys, which is pretty much the coolest thing ever.
If you’re into diving, one of the things on your bucket list is probably “dive in the mediterranean.” This is especially true if you’re into archaeology, as the Med has all the cool stuff. Ancient trading vessels, sunken cities, WWI ships, cool critters, very, very, VERY deep water – the whole deal. When we arrived in Aqaba and discovered diving was pretty much the main attraction in the city, CDH was keen to get along and do a spot, and, for the first time ever, take me with him.
Let me preface this by saying that, although I love the water, having spent practically every summer of my childhood on the beach, I do not like/cannot do the following things: 1. putting my head underwater. 2. Diving off things. 3. opening my eyes underwater. 4. sinking (I seem to not be able to sink – I can’t dive DOWN in water – I just pop back up!) I am not a strong swimmer, although I’m pretty confident, so I was a bit nervous about this whole adventure.
Never one to resist the chance to try something new, however, I followed my husband down to a shop to buy a mask and sign up for a beginners course. After a little practice in the dive centre pool, the two instructors took me and CDH out into the water.
CDH held one hand, the instructor held my other hand, and they basically dragged me down into a world I’ve never seen before. The water was so clear that every individual stone stood out like a painting. Remember that I don’t usually have my eyes open underwater, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen fish or other ocean life swimming around me.
CDH and the instructor made it their mission to find interesting things for me to see and touch. We swam through schools of fishes, gawped at some multi-coloured Lovecraftian spiked, tentacled thing which I’m glad I didn’t touch as it turns out it was highly poisonous. They turned over rocks so I could see scuttling crustaceans, colourful fishies and weird floating rock-like things that were alive.
One of the instructors picked up a puffer fish from the bottom of the ocean and handed it to me. As I held it, it puffed up to full size. It looked very pissed off, poor puffer fish!
When I got out of the water, I was so incredibly happy to have seen what I’d seen, but also, my right ear hurt, a lot. In fact, the whole right side of my face hurt.
A visit to the Jordanean doctor confirmed my fears. Turns out I have a severely perforated ear drum (What? All those years of heavy metal bad for your ears? Surely not!) and I spent the next couple of days relaxing in a resort in Dagab, with my head lolling to one side, while CDH dived for Africa.
So I’m not going to be a diver any time soon. But wow, was it worth it!
Have you ever been to Jordan? What did you see/do?