Thursday, March 12, 2009


Thursday January 29th, and the trip was nearing the end. After that wonderful day in Petra, we set out early the next morning on the motor coach through the stark desert to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is a fairly large inland lake which is so extremely salty that nothing lives in it. Its elevation is about 1400 feet below sea level, the lowest point on Earth. By way of comparison, Death Valley, California, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, is about 270 feet below sea level. New Orleans is about 8 feet below sea level.

The Dead Sea water is thought to have theraputic powers, and people bathe themselves in the mud. You can scoop it up yourself or you can pay premium prices in the hotel to buy it. It is used to treat various skin conditions.

We visited the Panorama Museum on a mountainside, several thousand feet above the Dead Sea to learn about the supernatural forces that created that body of water. It is part of the Great Rift Valley which stretches down through the Red Sea and into East Africa--about 6000 miles in all. Earthquakes are common along this rift, and in fact many of the ancient temples we saw were destroyed by those earthquakes, particularly the one in 27 B.C.

The Dead Sea level is dropping a few centimeters a year because water from the Jordan River is diverted for irrigation projects. It looks like any other large lake, but if you jump in for a dip, you'll find yourself encrusted with salt. Most people don't wade around in it because the bottom is covered with jagged rocks. Instead, you just sit down and your feet pop up to the surface. You can float without moving your arms. It is impossible to sink. Our hotel provides a shower by the beach to wash the salt off your body.

We checked into our hotel, the Marriott Jordan Valley, next to the Dead Sea. It is a popular tourist attraction for Jordanians who bring their whole families. The place was teeming with small children. Their Muslim mothers don't swim in the pool, but rather in an enclosed women's only section of the Spa. Very few women were swimming in the outdoor pool--the ones who were are generally Western women. The Muslim women, wearing black scarves on their heads, tended to their children swimming in the outdoor pool.

We had the rest of the day free and spent some time with the other folks from the tour. They are all adventuresome sorts who were willing to disregard a shooting war in Gaza to travel to the Middle East to see ancient sites they've seen on the History Channel or National Geographic. All of the 35 people on the tour have previously traveled overseas, many to exotic locales. Several have traveled to India, and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand. Many, but not all, are retired.

For example, Darrell M. a self described country boy from Oklahoma teaches English (with a Southern drawl) in Rome, Italy. He gets the opportunity to meet and spend time with his mother, Linda on trips like this one. He was a night owl like us, and we stayed up late talking with him several nights in the hotel lobbies and bars. He is a very bright young man with a unique perspective on the sights we experienced.

Alan and Stephanie from New Jersey took a tour of Morocco after this tour ended. Both very friendly, Alan is a prominent plastic surgeon about my age but in better physical shape. He was able to climb the 700 or so steps in Petra to the Missionary with the young and fit people in our tour. His wife, Stephanie, is a retired nurse with a friendly and sweet disposition and a voice like that of Gov. Sarah Palin. She took that as a compliment.

Susanne Ma, a bubbly, beautiful young Asian American lady was traveling with her equally attractive mother, Jennifer, originally from Taiwan. Susanne, a UCLA grad who lives in Los Angeles, posted pictures from the trip on her Facebook site. Her last name, Ma, means "horse" in Chinese, but she is not related to violinist Yo Yo Ma. She especially loved the Dead Sea mud and covered herself with mud from head to toe. We've got pictures.

Our local tour guide, Ibrahim explained local customs, national politics and everything else we would need to know. This young man, approximately 30 years old, recently married with an infant daughter in Amman, lived for several years in Pittsburgh and speaks American. He was born in Jerusalem but won't go back there because he fears he will be hassled by the Israelis who do profiling of people coming into the country. He is a young Arab male--well you've got the idea. Actually about 2/3 of the people of Jordan are Palestinian.

Regarding Arab politics, he explained that the Jordanians want peace, and they want the U.S. to exert influence to achieve it. Unfortunately, there are two things they want that Israel won't accept: (1) Make Jerusalem an international city (run by the U.N.) and (2) allow all Palestinians around the world to return to Israel to live. That would mean, of course, they they would outnumber Jews. So a permanent peace to the 60+ year old conflict appears unlikely. Hey, everyone wants peace, but here you have 2 parties with mutually exclusive goals. Since I'm in a foreign country, I keep my mouth shut about politics.


The next morning, we drove up to the John the Baptist site on the banks of the mighty Jordan River. Actually mighty is overstating it a bit! This is the actual location where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Many Christians come here to be baptized. One lady on our tour, whom I won't name was overcome with emotion. After seeing me dip my toes in the cool water, in the footsteps of Jesus, she did the same, and had tears streaming down her face.

The Jordanian government built a large, partly enclosed, wood deck on the site with 3 steps down to the water. The river at this spot is only about 15 feet wide. We'd call it a creek. The border with Israel runs down the center. On the Israeli side is a large concrete and marble complex. You can get baptized on either side of the border.

Until fairly recently, this site was inaccessible to the general public because it had a military installation and mine fields. To get there, we had to pass through a military checkpoint with armed soldiers roaming around. They don't like to be photographed.

A few yards from the site is a lovely Byzantine Church with gold domes. We couldn't go inside because it was closed that day. It was built with the (financial) help of Greek shipping tycoon, Stavros Niarchos. We saw a very unusual sight there--a white dove flew up into the belfry, a sign of peace--and many of us were able to snap the photo.


We continued on to Mt. Nebo where the great prophet Moses died. He was 120 years old at the time, but was apparently in good shape because he had to climb about 4000 feet to the top. The Bible (in Deuteronomy) said that God told Moses to climb up there to view the promised land. Hopefully, for Moses, the weather was clear--for us it was hazy, and we could barely see Jericho, about 20 miles away. Moses died on the mountain, and nobody knows where he is buried.

You'll recall how his successor, Joshua, "fit" the Battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down--probably because of an earthquake. Joshua was reported to have said, "we'll take a win anyway we can get it."


The next day, Saturday, we drove up through the Jordanian capital city of Amman, which was originally built by the Greeks and called Philadelphia. I'm not making that up. W.C. Fields would have been proud. Amman is a large city of over 4 million people, and the parts we saw from the expressway appeared relatively modern with shopping malls and well maintained apartment buildings. We passed the Mecca Mall and Carrefours Department Store, but shopping was not on the itinerary.

Our destination, about 30 miles North of Amman, was Jerash, a well preserved Roman provincial city now being restored. It is well preserved because it was buried in sand for over 1000 years until excavations began in 1925. It was known as the City of 1000 (Corinthian) Columns. It was destroyed by an earthquake in the Middle Ages. In Roman times, it was an important crossroads city on the major trade routes. It had 4 gates corresponding to the directions. Through the North gate was Damascus. Through the South gate was Petra. Through the East gate was Baghdad. Through the West gate was Jerusalem. The streets were paved with large cobblestones. The walk was bumpy because the rocks tend to settle. The round stones were manhole covers. The Romans ran a sewer system under the streets.

A prominent feature is the South Theater, built in a semi-circle with 32 tiers of seats, accommodating 4000 people and wonderful acoustics. We were treated to a performance by a troupe of bagpipers.

The most imposing structure is the Temple of Artemis. built in the year 150 on the highest point of the city. Artemis, the daughter of Zeus and twin sister of Apollo, is the patron goddess of the city. In Classical mythology, she is the goddess of forests and hills, often depicted with a bow and arrow. Besides Artemis, the archaeologists have uncovered shrines to many of the other gods also.

The huge Triumphal Arch (Bab Amman), the South gate to the city, is being restored. It was originally dedicated to Emperor Hadrian in the year 130 A.D.

The most famous native of the city was Nicomachus of Gerasa (60-120 A.D.), one of the greatest mathematicians in history. He wrote a book called Introduction to Arithmetic (now you know whom to blame). The book was written using Arabic numbers which at the time had to be translated into Roman numerals. That textbook was used for over 1000 years. I don't know what people did before the book, but he was apparently the first to write it down, using the numerals we use today.

Nearby, in Jerash city, we stopped for a lunch of Middle East fare. The food was the normal local food with lots of delicious hummus and pita bread. The interesting thing was that the manager, Omar, wearing a blazer and tie, was a dead ringer for President Obama. I thought of the scene from the movie Coming to America where Eddie Murphy, playing an African prince, met one of his syncophantic, bowing subjects at a New York Knicks game. I didn't have the nerve to do that to poor Omar, but he was flattered anyway and agreed to be photographed with me. President Obama is popular in the Middle East.

Our tour guide Matt hosted a going away party the last night in our hotel with a steak dinner. We enjoyed the company of our fellow travelers, taking many pictures. Several continued on for a day tour of Jerusalem the next day. Frank and Bonnie (from Texas) headed to Malaysia to see their grown kids. The rest of us drove back to Amman for late night flights back to the U.S. to get back in time to celebrate the U.S. national holiday--Super Bowl Sunday.




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