Without exception all of our friends and family were overwhelmingly supportive of our crazy little plan to see the world. Italy, oh the food! Thailand, exotic beaches! Jordan, oh the, wait, what the? Are you serious? Isn’t that dangerous?
Seasoned travelers would think nothing of this decision (thousands of backpackers a year crisscross Iran, Pakistan, & fewer, but some, Iraq), but as first time long-term travelers even we didn’t come by it lightly. We know the stats, everyone does. You’re exponentially more likely to be killed driving to the airport than by an act of terrorism or even just random violence nearly anywhere in the world you travel. That doesn’t mean you enter any unstable region, especially one bordering one the most violent wars the world has seen in decades without considerable forethought.
But, how can you say you’ve truly traveled the world if you haven’t engaged one of the largest and most influential ethnicities in the world, the Arabs? And let’s be real…Grant wasn’t skipping Petra! To shorten this part of the story, we decided after lengthy deliberations Jordan was worth a good look and scheduled five jam-packed days across the pint-sized kingdom. When this great adventure concludes, we’re both certain that decision will be remembered as one of our best.
The story really starts as a short retelling of our last morning in Israel. Leaving Jerusalem and heading for Bet Sh’ean the trip largely parallels the Jordan River Valley, a place revered for its mysticism nearly as much as Jerusalem itself. Mysticism aside, the stark beauty of the Jordan Valley can’t be overstated. For the first time on our trip we saw desolate desert hills come crashing down into verdant valleys full of crops, people, and other life. You start to fully understand where in the world you are.
A painless (on everything but our wallet) border crossing at Bet Sh’ean / Sheik Hussein and we were on our way to Jerash, Jordan. A large commerce center at the height of the Roman Empire, Jerash is widely regarded as one of the best preserved Roman cities in the world, in our modest experience that completely fails to account for Jerash’s jaw dropping beauty, completeness, and serene setting.
In case you didn’t notice, there is no one else in that photo. After the nearly mosh-pit level mob scene at Ephesus in Turkey, Jerash felt like our own personal archaeological park. Spread across a large hillside overlooking the modern town, Jerash still feels like a complete Roman city, not just ruins. The city gate, military barracks, temples, main street, residences, and other buildings (including a Byzantine-era Church with amazing mosaics) are yours for the exploring.
Hadrian’s Arch. Built for the arrival of the Emperor Hadrian who wintered here for a year.
The hippodrome, or racetrack. Those ancient Romans knew how to spend a Saturday. Later enlarged to include gladiator cells (near right).
Local Bedouins play tunes in one of Jerash’s four amphitheaters. Not sure how “Bedouin” Amazing Grace on a set of bagpipes is, but it really showed off the acoustics of the place!
Temple of Zeus (check out Grant’s Instagram, the “foot” picture is shot from the top left corner!)
Late afternoon looking back over the northern ruins.
Okay, we didn’t have it totally to ourselves. The friendliest, most engaging, and hilariously charming group of young locals roamed the park selling trinkets and water to tourists. Well, that was when tourists used to come to Jerash.
We were greeted by our new friends the first time with an offer of trinkets and water, but when we said no thanks they just admitted to being thrilled to see anyone out in the park. Another joined later, walking around the corner and seeing the two “gringos”, said, completely startled, “Oh my God, it’s a tourist. I didn’t know we still had those!” Thanks to years of British occupation and a continued heavy presence of American & European aid workers, their English was only slightly accented and completely conversational. We spent the next 30-minutes relaxing in the shade of the Temple of Artemis talking about life before and after the Arab Spring, their income dwindling from hundreds of dinar a day before to at best 30-40 a day, and their obsession with marrying an American woman (or, really, any Westerner) for their citizenship. This isn’t an assumption, it was their stated goal. Basically, they’re forced to marry for children or “honor” in their community to someone they barely know in most cases. The way they see it, better to get kids AND a western residency permit out of the deal. While they were wonderful guys, we professed to have no available sisters for them. Sorry to Britt, Kathleen, & Hannah if we shattered your Arabian Prince dreams on that one….their offer of 1,000 camels was tempting however.
Our young friends in the park were only the beginning of the warmth, generosity, and humorous infatuation with us the residents of Jerash possessed. We felt like the most popular attraction at the zoo! People would pull over on the side of the busy road bisecting the town to say hello, welcome us to Jerash, and ask us if we needed anything. Standing outside a restaurant Kate had a woman beckon her to her car, where she vigorously shook her hand, almost petting her arm with the other, while demanding her female children in the car do the same. This was somehow not in the slightest bit creepy. It was genuine warm interest, affection, and welcome to the outsiders. We must have taken 100 pictures with people who would just come up to you on the street and ask for one. One can’t help but imagine foreign traders arriving after months long overland journeys to magical foreign cities they’d only heard tales of. In today’s hyperconnected world, those hours in Jerash may be the closest we ever get to that place of genuine wonder and welcome.
It’d be remiss of us not to mention our hotelier Walid of Hadrian’s Gate Hotel by name. After an evening of dozens of conversations long and short with locals around the square we were greeted by Walid, ever quick with a “Tea?” as we returned to the hotel tired from a long hot day and ready to retire. Sure, one last nightcap sounded pleasant. Reminiscent of “just one beer” from college, we spent the next three hours in a conversation in which we learned more about Jordanian (and, we think, broadly Arab) tribal culture than in our previous combined lifetimes. From courting and marriage rituals, to the Jordanian educational system, religion, learning languages, hospitality, and on and on. Walid, you’re the best.
Up and out early the next morning we had a travel day in front of us. Because renting a car in Jordan is….whoa pricey if you aren’t a local…we proceeded to take a bus to the capital Amman, to take a bus to the airport where the only decent rental car deals were, to pick up our car so we could drive to Petra, three hours south. It was quite a day.
We arrived at Wadi Mussa in the early afternoon and settled into our hotel for a few hours because you’d have to have a few screws loose to voluntarily plunge into the Jordanian desert at 3pm with no acclimation to the 100 degree temperatures. In hindsight, writing this from Egypt, we’d kill to have those temperatures back.
By that evening it was game on though. Petra is a special place, built around 312 BCE by the Nabatean Culture. They carved a series of spectacular tombs into the sandstone cliffs that were added to by the Romans (whose conquering of the Nabateans made Jerash McMansion rich via trade route taxes )and Byzantines in the centuries following. Forgotten for over a thousand years by the western world, it was brought back to light early in the 19th century and is today recognized as one of The Seven Wonders of the World and an UNESCO Heritage Site. It’s been near the top of Grant’s life list ever since its Treasury was featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, serving as the facade for the location of the grail in the “Canyon of the Crescent Moon.”
The moment you lay eyes on The Treasury, no matter how many times you’ve seen it in pictures, it’s breathtaking. We were lucky enough, via a program called Petra at Night, to experience it for the first time under a blanket of stars, lit only by candles, to the tune of Bedouin music.
After our sneak nighttime peak, we returned the next morning to explore the huge park, hundreds of tombs, Roman ruins, and one Byzantine church.
Tombs of the Kings – Almost all of the large facades in Petra are just that, facades. They contain only a single square room inside serving as a burial chamber. It’s not know who was buried in the tombs because, unlike just about every other civilization, they didn’t write who was buried there on the tombs themselves.
A big surprise was how “Roman” Petra was. After conquering the Nabateans, the Romans built temples, an improved main street colonnade and other accouterments.
The second most famous facade at Petra, The Monastery.
For perspective, the Monastery with scenery for scale.
The climb up to The Monestary is a beastly 500+ stairs hewn into the rock. It is made better by curious visitors.
Some of the trail up and the valley below.
The massive Wadi Arabia which runs from the Dead Sea to The Red Sea.
Catching a final tucked away tomb on the way down.
100-years after being brought to light again, extensive archaeological work continues. It was exciting to see several American Universities involved, including Brown in Providence who was responsible for the huge Roman temple complex. Surprisingly, a large number of Bedouins still live inside the park along with their livestock and in many cases inside the ruins themselves. They mostly earn their income on the tourists, but definitely lacked the charm of their Jerash countrymen.
While the number of tourists in southern Jordan certainly outpaced those in the north, we were still lucky to have greatly reduced crowds due both to the summer heat and the crash of tourism across the kingdom. A bonus, we started at the crack of dawn and were the first of the morning to arrive at the Treasury, giving us a few precious moments alone with one of the world’s great icons. Well, again, almost alone.
As if our long morning at Petra wasn’t enough to make a perfect day, we finished it by driving the two hours out to the Wadi Rum desert to sleep among the sweeping sand dunes and rocks made famous by the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Many of the local Bedouins host camps in the area, providing a tent cabin, dinner, and a night under a billion stars.
The scale of things in Wadi Rum is almost unimaginable:
Mr & Mrs. Neckermann of Arabia
Follow that camel!
Moonrise on the desert
We shared our camp for the night with a gentleman, his niece, and nephew. He was taking a break from his job where he coordinated the relief efforts for the thousands of refugees fleeing the war in Syria into Jordan. For over 25-years that has been his job, following the world’s most tragic conflicts and coordinating the relief efforts for the displaced victims. Those are the real angels among us.
Day four was a hodgepodge of want-to-see of Jordan that we slapped together into one big ol’ road trip. Starting north we cruised through the central desert, making very very certain not to make the wrong turn at this particular intersection.
Successfully navigating that one (and half a dozen police checkpoints…waiving an American passport makes those VERY friendly encounters…) we spent hours driving through Jordan. By early afternoon we passed the lowest place on earth and arrived at The Dead Sea. We took the obligatory soak, which was, more awkward than enjoyable. With a salinity level over 3x higher than the Pacific Ocean the water feels almost slimy its so thick. Also due to the salinity, your buoyancy is…improved… as Kate almost floated away.
They say the mud is good for your skin and if you know anything about Grant, you know he loves to play in the dirt.
We finished the day in Madaba, Jordan, famous for an important mosaic that gave archaeologists a functionally dated map of ancient Jerusalem. It, just as importantly, had cheap hotels and was very close to our car rental return point.
The next twenty-four hours involved mostly less-fun travel stuff. Mainly, lots of sleep as we both had come down with a bit of a bug and travel days. After sleeping for 12-hours straight we returned the car and took two buses to reach Aqaba, Jordan, the southern most city bordering The Red Sea. We scratched plans to hang out for a while in Aqaba upon arrival, the city just didn’t speak to us. Lucking out, we scored ferry tickets for that night and just like that (ok, it wasn’t just like that, figuring out the ferry was a PAIN) we were off to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the promise of world class diving and several days of beach life. But not before one last selfie, this time with a Saudi family. This is only three of their twelve children…from the patriarch’s three wives.
Jordan was an incredible highlight reel of dramatic sights, rich history, and, well, you already know how we feel about the people. All of this and there are so few tourists that we garnered that much attention. We’re practically begging you to get out there and give Jordan a visit. It’s safe and there is plenty of tourist infrastructure. Most importantly, you never know what tomorrow will bring.
Five years ago we could have traversed overland from Turkey, through Syria to see Palmyra, a major trading partner with Jerash in Roman times. But instead, during our visit to Jordan, ISIS was executing the 80-year old Director of Antiquities at Palmyra Khaled al-As’ad and blowing up its hallmark temple. With low crowds and an uncertain future in the Middle East, set fear aside and travel to the accessible safe areas like Jerash & Petra today. You may not be able to tomorrow.
Mr & Mrs Trading Paradises
Reporting From Cairo, Egypt
P.s. You didn’t click on that link about Palmyra, did you? Go back up and do it, Dr. al-As’ad deserves to be remembered for the hero he was, not just the animals who murdered him. Read up and remember a true martyr for global heritage. Rest in peace sir.