February 12, 2019

The Good, Bad & Ugly of the Middle East – Part 1

Imagine an area rich in history but torn by conflict. One where December temperatures are summer-like by day but almost freezing at night. One where frequent security presence and extreme inequalities between neighbours is the norm. From December 13 to January 1, Helen and I did our first big trip together by visiting the Middle Eastern countries of Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. Here is what I would describe the good, bad, and ugly parts of the region.
Enjoying the sunset view from Amman's Citadel
Jordan The Good

Fitting with the good, bad, and ugly theme meant not describing the trip in chronological order. Among the countries visited, Jordan – which we visited between Egypt and Israel-Palestine – left us with the most positive impression and one I recommend going. The people there are friendly and hospitable, while it is reasonably safe for women with far less harassment than in Egypt. Speaking of safety, Jordan defies the stereotype of the Middle East being a conflict zone with it being a safe haven for millions of refugees from Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. If there is one weakness about Jordan, it can be an expensive place to visit; especially in Wadi Musa (Petra) and the fact one Jordanian Dinar (JOD) costs almost $2 Canadian.
You will need almost $2 Canadian for one Jordanian Dinar
Before starting your trip to Jordan, I recommend getting the Jordan Pass if you plan to visit Petra, which itself is a must see. At a cost of 70 – 80 JOD depending on how many days you visit Petra, the pass waives your visa fees – immediately costing less than paying separate Petra and visa fees – while still giving you one-time admission to eligible sites.

Jerash and Amman
Some of the well preserved ruins in Jerash
We kicked off Jordan with a morning trip to Jerash and spending the afternoon in Amman. Getting to Jerash via minibus was affordable, though we waited at least half an hour for the minibus to fill up before leaving and we took the taxi back to Amman since it was hard to find the return minibus. Even so, Jerash is home to some well preserved ruins of the ancient Roman city, including the temples of Zeus of Artemis, a colonnaded street (the Cardo), and an amphitheatre which made visiting the Roman Theatre in Amman unnecessary.
The Umayyad Mosque at Amman's Citadel
Back in Amman, visiting the Citadel is a good place to enjoy some city views, though the ruins and mosque were less impressive. We then took the stairs down to downtown near the Roman Theatre, where we found souqs (markets) and other shops within a five minute walk of the Grand Husseini Mosque. One of the fancier shops we liked was Ola’s Garden on Khirfan Street, while Habibi on King Hussein Street was great for sweets and Jafra (across from the Boutique Hotel we stayed at) offered delicious food at affordable prices.

Amman to Petra
Madaba has a lot of mosaics such as this one at its Archaeological Park
Given there are many places between Amman and Petra which aren’t easily accessible by minibus, we hired a driver for two days, though you could rent a car instead. We started our car hire with a stop in Madaba; home to St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church and their famous mosaic map of the Holy Land. While many tourists will just visit this map church, it’s worth visiting other places including the Madaba Archaeological Park, which has many other well preserved and worth seeing mosaics. We then headed to Mount Nebo to take in some breathtaking views, enter the Memorial Church of Moses for more mosaics, and see how mosaics are made at Nebo’s Pearl. Visiting the Baptism Site wasn’t worth the 12 JOD and we then continued to the Dead Sea Panorama for more views before staying at the Mujib Biosphere Reserve Chalets overnight.
Dana Village and the nearby Biosphere Reserve
While the Mujib Chalets were well furnished and had comfortable beds, I wouldn’t recommend floating in the Dead Sea there where we cut ourselves due to the sharp rocks. Sandals are recommended if you do or you could use one of the beaches and resorts further north instead. Day two of our car hire took us to the crusader castle of Karak and Dana Village next to the Dana Biosphere Reserve. Both the Mujib and Dana Biosphere Reserves deserve another visit during spring or fall to enjoy some of the hiking trails which were closed.

The Treasury may be Petra's main draw, but it's really about the hikes
Visiting Petra was more about the hikes than visiting sites such as the Treasury and the Monastery. A few minutes past the entrance brings you to the winding narrow Siq. Seeing the rock formations there was a feast for the eyes and we must have taken at least fifty pictures of the rocks before getting to the Treasury. For the first day, we took the southern High Place of Sacrifice trail and then climbed the over 800 steps to the Monastery. We took the Al Khubtha Trail on the second day which goes along some royal tombs and ends where you can get a view of the Treasury from above. We stayed at the Petra Fig Tree Villa, which offered excellent service and arranged for the Wadi Rum bus to pick us up.

Wadi Rum
Helen walking barefoot on a sand dune in Wadi Rum
If Petra is one of the two must see sights in Jordan, then the desert landscapes of Wadi Rum which got its fame from British archaeologist T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia) is the other. We were greeted by two Bedouin guides from Wadi Rum Nature Tours who took us on a jeep tour stopping at various points of interest. Our favourite was walking barefoot on the sand dune. We did some rock climbing at Lawrence’s Spring (the first stop for many tour groups) and the big arch which attracted large crowds. We were well fed with a vegetable based lunch, a chicken and vegetable dinner cooked in an underground pit, and a traditional Middle Eastern breakfast. The camp was decently equipped with toilets, showers, electric lighting, and some plugs to charge electronics with solar panels powering the site. Unfortunately, Helen had a high fever that evening, so we couldn’t enjoy more of the desert the following morning before leaving for Israel.
This chicken and vegetable dinner was cooked in an underground pit
The next place I will discuss is one where the sights are great but not so much the people.

For the mean time, you can see some more pictures from Jordan here.

Hospitably yours,
Rob Z (e-mail)

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