Sunday, November 27, 2011

Floating on the Dead Sea

Over this last Eid al Adha holiday in early November, we headed to Jordan. In a nutshell: what an amazing country! Walking through markets in Amman, people asked where we were from and always answered back, "Welcome to Jordan." One man stopped us, showed us the addresses in Chicago and Miami where family members lived, and insisted on buying us falafel sandwiches at his favorite shop nearby, so enthusiastic was he upon meeting a certifiable American family. We saw men and women driving, shopping, working, walking and talking - together - and we always felt safe and appreciated.

After a first day in Amman, we drove to the Dead Sea, about 30 miles away, with a stop along the way at a place purported to have been the sight on the Jordan River where John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ. Archeological evidence, written stories, and oral pilgrim accounts have been used to support this hypothesis. Amid careful but discrete security measures, we walked to what remains of the river - now a narrow strip of water - just 25 feet of largely agriculturally-diminished water - separating those of us on the Jordan side from those on the West Bank side. We were most likely at the ceremonial sight of an act that would change the world forever, humbled and awed. At more than 400m below sea level, and more than nine times saturated than the ocean, the Dead Sea has always caused us each to doubt - doubt the idea that people actually can float and read a magazine simultaneously - but it really is true. It is impossible to sink or dive beneath water level. The free mud, and the salty, mineral-rich water in the sea, leave skin feeling smooth and clean. We stayed at one of the few resorts along the sea's banks that allows people to access the beach, but the boys spent much of their time in the swimming pool, playing on the water slides. "Swimming" in the Dead Sea is really just floating; water in the mouth or eyes is to be avoided at all costs!

Next we headed to Petra where, once again, we were amazed and astounded by the rugged, timeless beauty and the raw, exposed history. We had heard that Petra was amazing, but to actually explore its many canyons, hike up its meandering paths, and wander among the beautifully carved rocks was considerably better than we had expected. Like many archeological sites in that part of Jordan, Petra is in fact a fusion of Nabataean, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, and Islamic cultural legacies. Once a choke point on the historic Silk Road due to its unique geology, Petra had gradually outlived its economic significance as sea trade routes opened up. Camel caravans that had once come through by the hundreds each week, each paying the pricey tax to gain through passage, gradually came less and less often, and with this fall-off went Petra's fortunes. And so for a 1,000 years essentially, what we now know of Petra gradually filled up with sand and was toppled by earthquakes. Only by chance did hardy non-locals in the 1800's hear tell of a fabled city carved into rock in the middle of the mountains, a sight until then secretly guarded by the local Bedouins who lived in that region. The first European to see Petra was fluent in Arabic, dressed as an Arab on pilgrimage, and snuck in by pretending to go in order to perform a sacrifice.  Nearly discovered, he almost didn't make it out. Thankfully, it has gotten a bit less perilous to visit the place today.

From Petra we headed back north, this time taking the Desert Highway, instead of the Dead Sea Highway we had been driving heading south. We spent two final nights in Amman but enjoyed the day in the ancient Roman city of Jerash. This is another outstanding historical site with substantially intact remains of temples to Zeus and Artemis, Hadrian's Arch, a large oval plaza, and a long colonnaded street which once housed a market along its sides. Upon entering the site, we passed the hippodrome (built between the first and third centuries A.D.) and were enticed to watch chariot races and a depiction of the power of the Roman Army.

Overall, it was a wonderful trip with fond memories and much history.

Thanks for reading, Jennifer and David