Sunday, 16 September 2018

Jordan, Part 3: The Dead Sea

 The Dead Sea, and in the distance Israel, 
as seen from The Dead Sea Museum.

At the midway point of our trip through Jordan, and on the hottest day (39 degrees C) of the holiday, we arrived at the luxurious Movenpick Dead Sea Resort. It was incredibly timely; I was in desperate need of a plush bed with crisp white cotton sheets and a long refreshing swim. Alex and I joke about how I am a 6 star traveller, and this resort was a solid 6 stars for me. 

It was a glorious late afternoon swim. The sea was glassy smooth and the light was golden. The actual temperature of the water was perfect, warm but refreshing. 

As we walked towards the beach area, I watched people bobbing effortlessly in the water, and I was overcome with excitement about getting to experience swimming in the Dead Sea for myself. I have long had a fascination with the idea of being unable to sink in this particular body of water. As we approached the rocky shore I said to Alex's Mum, "My brain can't quite comprehend what is about to happen."

Alex's Mum

We both wore our saltwater sandals into the sea. The shore is very rocky and they were very handy to be able to wear in and out of the water. I gave mine a really good rinse in the shower afterwards given how salty the water is, and they are fine.

The best way I can describe what it feels like is to imagine having pool noodles for limbs. No matter what, if you launch yourself into the sea, you will float to the top. I hooked my arms under my bent legs and sat in the water, floating around watching the sun dip lower and lower over the hills in Israel. Bizarre, and breathtaking. I can confirm, it is impossible to sink.

It's salty! That goes without saying. Don't get the water anywhere near your eyes or mouth. And don't shave in the day or two leading up to swimming, it will sting. But afterwards (even with my sensitive skin turning a very angry but temporary shade of red), once all the salt had been washed off in the shower, it made my skin feel lovely. I spent a small fortune on bringing home Dead Sea beauty products- mud, salts, gels- to try to recreate the restorative spa like feeling I got when we were there. Incidentally, the Dead Sea was one of the very first health resorts, favoured by Herod the Great. The density of minerals in the mud and water must be good for you... maybe.

The Dead Sea is quite narrow, you can see how close Israel is, and the border between the two countries goes straight up the middle. The surface of the water is 420 meters below regular sea level, and the Dead Sea is actually landlocked. It is the deepest hypersaline lake in the world and is 9.6 times more salty than the ocean. The level of salinity makes life for animals and plants near-impossible, hence its name, the dead sea.

Watching the sun set behind Israel was magical. The lights flickered on across the water, and we dried off with smiles on our faces. It was quite an experience. I am not typically a resort holidayer, and we never usually seek out sun and surf, but I would happily spend a few days back at Movenpick on the Dead Sea sleeping late, relaxing in the water and in the spa, and enjoying long buffet dinners as the sun sets.

Earlier that day we had visited Bethany beyond the Jordan to see the baptismal site of Jesus. This was an interesting place, it felt hugely remote and almost desolate. The sun was absolutely beating down on the desert, and we had to walk a fair way into the site in near-forty-degree heat. There are numerous churches of various faiths built on the hills around this stretch of the River Jordan, signalling its importance as a religious site for Christians. 

The baptismal site

Israel, taken from the Jordanian side of the river

Interestingly there seemed to be very little military presence at this part of the border. I couldn't see any Israeli soldiers, and on the Jordanian side there was a single soldier. The ropes stretched out on the water were the only physical barrier separating worshippers in Israel from those in Jordan.

Kate  x

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Jordan, Part 2: Jerash and Umm Qais (Gadara)

I pulled water from a 3000 year-old Moabite well in the basement of a Catholic Church. At that same church I listened to a mass spoken in Arabic. In every village, town and city we heard the Mosques calling Muslims to prayer, the sound of Salat echoing out through valleys and off hillsides. I observed the twinkling lights of Israel from across the Dead Sea, and took in views of the Holy Land from atop Mt Nebo. At the Baptismal site of Jesus, the River Jordan is just five metres wide, the border delineated by a thin rope floating on the river's surface. On the Israeli side a group from the Greek Orthodox church were carrying out a religious service with olive branches and holy water from the river, on the Jordanian side, a single soldier rested in the shade, rifle by his side. From Roman ruins to Crusader castles, from roadside stalls selling figs and remote cafes on back roads (where a mobile phone and Google translate was the only means of communication)- everywhere we went and from everyone we met, the common refrain was, "Welcome to Jordan."

Jerash is an extensive site, containing some of the best examples of Roman masonry and stone vaults in the entirety of the Roman Empire. The area has recorded human history since the Neolithic age. As a city of significance in the ancient world, Greek inscriptions reveal Jerash's Hellenistic history dating back to the 2nd century when it was occupied by veterans of Alexander the Great's army. The Romans arrived in 63BC and Jerash was annexed by the Roman province of Syria.

Hadrian's Arch

This beautiful Greco-Roman city of wide colonnaded streets, temples and amphitheatres flourished until the mid Eighth Century BC when the powerful 749 Galilee earthquake destroyed much of it. It crumbled further when the 847 Damascus earthquake struck.

Re-inhabited, it became a centre for ceramics in the Early and Middle Muslim periods, though the city suffered more damage in the Crusade period. Throughout its incredibly varied history, Jerash has been occupied by Christians, Muslims, and Jewish settlers, for the most part cohabiting in peace. Excavation is ongoing.


Leaving Jerash behind, we drove further north to quickly stop by the ruins of the 12th Century Muslim castle of Ajloun, built by one of Saladin's generals. It sits high on a hilltop on the land of Jabal Ajlun, named after the Bedouin tribe that captured the area in the 12th Century. The castle commanded the fertile land below, containing three wadis that are directed towards the Jordan River Valley. From the highest point of the ruins it is possible to look across the Jordan Valley in all directions to Lake Tiberius (The Sea of Galilee in the Bible), Jerusalem, and to the north, Syria and Lebanon.

From its strategic position high above the valley, Ajloun Castle was an important link in the communication system connecting major cities of the region, including Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo. From here postal communications were sent out via horses and carrier pigeons. It was also one of several citadels that could issue fire signals in the black of night that would reach as far away as the Euphrates River to the East and The Nile to the west.

The remarkable thing about Jordan was the depth and breadth of human experience, past and present,
that it contains. This is especially emphasised given the proximity to places such as Syria, Israeli-occupied Palestine, and Iraq. Much like the physical ancient roads of the Roman and Nabatean Empires, it feels like Jordan contains a more metaphorical cultural crossroads where nearly all of recorded human history has passed through or is linked in some way or another. It speaks of a time when the boundaries of religion and culture and race all met, became intertwined, and for the past 2000 years has failed to be successfully or peacefully disentangled. I really got a sense of how the significance of 'place' can be the catalyst for so much... 

The myriad of human experience is especially poignant at Umm Qais, where Jordan meets Israel, Syria and Lebanon. As you stand at the ancient hilltop ruins of Gadara, Syria is so close, just across the narrow Jordan valley. Damascus is a mere 100km, as the crow flies.

Through the haze is Syria and Lebanon, across the valley 
to the left is Israel, and the hills bathed in sunlight 
to the right is Syria. So close!

It is at Umm Qais that Palestinian immigrants and refugees, who were expelled or fled following the creation of the Israeli state, come to look back over their former homeland.

Gadara was founded by the Ptolemies as a frontier station on the border to the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucids conquered the city in 218BC, and then a century later it was seized by the Jewish Hasmoneans. When the Roman General Pompey instated order throughout Syria in 63BC he had Gadara rebuilt as a personal favour to a Gadarene freedman. Roman rule saw the area flourish, especially post-annexation of the Nabatean Empire in 106AD. It became a sort of pleasure city for Romans; poetry, philosophy and theatre drew citizens to Gadara from across the Roman Empire.

Golan Heights and into Syria

In the haze below is the Sea of Galilee, where the Bible cites as the place Jesus carried out many of his miracles: turning water into wine, walking on water, instructing fishermen to cast their nets over the other side of their boat etc. It is also the body of water said to have been parted by Moses.

As you stand looking out over some of the Holiest places in the Christian world, there is an inscription of the words of ancient philosopher Albiouss (355AD), a citizen from Gadara. They are the words he had inscribed on his own gravestone:

"Whoever is passing through here... The way you are now
I was... 
The way I am now
You shall be... 
Enjoy life because you are gone"

It felt quite special to be there as dusk approached; the hills glowed in the warm light of the sinking sun, the haze had a soft golden-pink quality to it. It was the perfect time of day to take in everything about this place. Just the geography of where I was standing in the world blew my mind a little, let alone the religious significance and all that has stemmed from that in recent history.

[If you visit Gadara, do make sure that you take your passport with you. Given its proximity to the Syrian border, there is a military checkpoint that you need to go through when you leave the site. Slightly unnerving, especially when the soldier checking our passports thought that I might try to take photos of the checkpoint- I wasn't, my camera was just on my lap- but nothing to worry about.]


I'll cover "Bethany beyond the Jordan" and The Dead Sea in the next post.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Jordan, Part 1: Machaerus and Umm Al Rasas

I arrived at the hotel in Madaba by taxi at around 1.30am. I was awoken by the "dawn" call to prayer at 4.30am. This set the tone for my week in Jordan- very little sleep, running on equal parts pure adrenalin and a thirst to just see and do everything because I couldn't quite believe I was there and what I was seeing.

Before I begin though, i'll just explain how I came to be on holiday in Jordan. A few months ago my "mother in law" (Alex's Mum) called to say she was planning on going on a trip to Jordan with some friends (they all currently live and work in neighbouring Saudi Arabia), and asked if we would like to go along on the trip too. Alex was busy with work, but encouraged me to go. So, before he'd really even given me a moment to think about it, he was booking my flights. I had always wanted to see Petra and swim in the Dead Sea to experience the closest thing to weightlessness you can get on Earth... and it was easy to say yes knowing that I would be traveling with a group of people very familiar with the Middle East. I could not have been in better hands or had a more positive experience. The friends who had orchestrated the trip have travelled extensively in Jordan several times, and they went above and beyond to show us everything- the well documented tourist sites, and the sites that are so often overlooked. They were enthusiastic from start to finish and looked after us as though we were paying them to be our private travel guides, but they were doing it out of friendship and a deep love for Jordan and a desire to share it with us. I honestly can't thank them enough.

After that first very early morning wake up call, the rest of the party arrived at the hotel by mid-morning, we fuelled up on one-dinar chicken shawarmas and hit the road (in the largest Chevrolet that Amman airport could provide us). The first site we visited was Machaerus, or Herod's Castle, the ruins of a fortified palace built on top of a high mountain overlooking the Dead Sea. 

Needless to say the climb up was hot and dusty. Machaerus is remote and exposed, there is no shade and very little obvious human activity in the surrounding countryside, a few lone shepherds on the roadsides and a sprinkling of homes, but no real sizeable towns or villages nearby. 

Photographs will never properly communicate the vastness or the stark beauty of Jordan. These valleys are immense and provide breathtaking views. To convey a little of the scale, that is a house on the hilltop on the right most hill. Below is the Dead Sea and in the hazy distance is Israel.

Again, in an attempt to show scale, that tiny black spec on the middle hilltop is a group of people. I am pretty sure my camera lens was zoomed in as far as it could go too. 

At around 1,100m above Dead Sea level, it was an impressive and strategic fortress. Built in approximately 90 BC by Alexander Jannaeus, the fortress provided a clear view of invading armies from the East and from its high position could easily signal other citadels of impending danger. It was destroyed in 57 BC by one of Pompey the Great's generals, and rebuilt by Herod the Great in 30 BC as a military base. The Romano-Jewish scholar, Flavius Josephus, cites Machaerus as the imprisonment and execution place of John the Baptist. Today, all that remains are the foundation stones and two pillars, though under the current ground level the unexcavated remains are extensive.

One of the most fascinating things about this area was spotting the many caves in the hillsides that are home to the Bedouin. I couldn't imagine a more inhospitable landscape, and yet the valleys were full of cave systems with neat door shaped stonework at the mouth of the caves.

One of the absolute standout historical sites for me was Umm Al Rasas, a series of ancient church ruins containing remains from the Roman, Byzantine and early-Muslim periods. Largely unexcavated, the area began as a 5th Century Roman military camp. What is special about Al Rasas though, is the high concentration of churches- 19 churches according to our guide- in a very small area. The detailed mosaic floors of these churches are breathtaking. 

We enlisted an archeology student working in the tourist office at the entrance to be our guide, and this was one of our best decisions, his knowledge and enthusiasm for the site was wonderful. Though he stated it was up to us whether we should tip him or not, we were more than happy to do so, he really enriched our visit. 

[At many tourist sites in Jordan you will encounter people eager to play "guide"- this can be a good or a slightly annoying thing depending on their motivations and actual knowledge (or lack there of). In some places we were happy to be shown around, in others we just wanted to wander and absorb at our own pace. Don't be afraid to state clearly that you do not want a guide if you find them to be overly pestering, and have a handful of dinars on you to tip at the end if you do choose to be shown around. At the larger sites where the guide might stay with you for a couple of hours (such as Jerash and Petra) make sure you agree to a price at the start before you set off. Beware of anyone thrusting a "gift" into your hands. They will ask for money by the time they are done showering you with presents. That lesson cost me three dinar, and some slight annoyance at having to carry around things that I never wanted and tried to refuse in the first place. Likewise, if you visit a remote site that isn't overseen in any real official capacity, and is manned by a neighbouring farmer or shepherd, or a kindly local, do tip them. Five or so dinar was our general rule.]

These are the remains of the earlier Roman settlement. It is quite extraordinary that many of the arches and walls are still standing, some 2500 years after they were constructed, having also withstood two major earthquakes that rocked much of the Arabian region. The remains extend below ground, perhaps by another 2 storeys, but in order to excavate the site properly, the top storey would be ruined, and so it is preserved as best it can be as it currently stands. 

The most important and protected of the mosaics is the floor of Saint Stevens Church, dated from 785 AD, and the floor of the Church of Bishop Sergius from 587 AD. These mosaics are incredibly detailed and feature many of the important cities of ancient Arabia, as well as intricate hunting and fishing scenes. The lettering is Ancient Greek.

Constructed of tiny and precise, hand-cut, naturally coloured stones, these mosaics are utterly mind blowing. Very kindly, our guide took us to a covered over mosaic (many of the church floors are covered up with sheets weighed down by sand to protect them from the elements and animals), to demonstrate the true beauty of these works of art.

He swept back the sand to reveal the floor of the Church of the Lions, named quite simply due to the two mosaic lions, and poured water over their faces.

We all exclaimed in awe!

And then a shepherd came through the site with his flock of sheep and goats, 
so very Jordan.

As I go back through my photographs and collate them, I realise that my Jordan trip may need to be recorded over several posts. So, i'll conclude this initial post by sharing a few helpful hints. 

The Jordan Pass that acts as your visa when you visit Jordan is invaluable. I purchased the Jordan Wanderer for 70 Jordanian dinar and added the Baptismal site for an extra 8 dinar or so. This pass gets you in almost everywhere, and will save you lots of money if you plan on visiting Petra and Jerash. Buy it before flying into Amman to save on time and visa fees at the border. 

You will need to buy lots of water. I took a refillable metal water bottle, but couldn't use it as the tap water is not safe to drink. Most places sell water, but be aware of what you are buying. Make sure the bottles are new, fresh and safely sealed. I am pretty sure I bought a dodgy (old and refilled) bottle inside of Petra, and I was quite unwell afterwards. 

Lastly, Jordan is an incredibly welcoming country. It is very poor and many things about it can be a little confronting (the litter, the tent homes on remote roadsides, and the condition that some of the animals are kept in), but the Jordanian people are some of the most hospitable people on earth. They won't hesitate to invite you into their homes for tea, or assist you when your vehicle gets stuck down a particularly acute drop off the side of the road. 

Typical remote tent(s) of shepherding family.


I will cover the likes of Jerash, Petra, and the Dead Sea in further posts.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Summer reading

My intentions are always to read more books. Just recently I was musing out loud to Alex that there must be a word in the English language for that slightly anxious feeling you get deep down in your stomach when you think of all the beautiful books that exist in the world that you will never have enough lifetime to read...

To which he replied something along the lines of, "You big nerd."

With all of that in mind, here's what I have recently read, am currently reading, and what I'd like to read in the coming months.

I began the summer with The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, and it might just be my favourite book so far this year. It's sweet, and delicate, and warm, and just so beautifully constructed. I finished it and immediately went to see the film which was just as lovely. I now have a burning desire to holiday in the Channel Islands and an unquenchable crush on Michiel Huisman who plays Dawsey in the film adaptation (He is similarly gorgeous in The Age of Adaline and Irreplaceable You).

With good intentions to do a balmy evening walk in the Slad Valley this summer, I picked up Laurie Lee's classic homage to The Cotswolds, Cider with Rosie, but I must admit I have struggled to get really into it. It is lovely and nostalgic, with many funny anecdotes, but I am yet to finish it. I'll get there, it is an English classic afterall.

Like almost everyone else this summer, I gobbled up Dolly Alderton's, Everything I Know About Love (not pictured), in roughly 48 hours. It's an easy and very digestible read, and although she's the exact same age as me, we spent our twenties in very different ways! Dolly is funny and articulate, very vivacious in places, but with her own obvious insecurities. It's difficult not to like her and get something out of her memoir. I am looking forward to seeing Dolly talk at Calcot Manor later this month.

Having been incredibly touched by Me Before You by JoJo Moyes a few years ago, I bought the sequel, After You,  recently in a Bath charity shop. It took me a while to get fully absorbed in this book- I really wasn't expecting the plot to be what it is- but once I was perhaps a third of the way through I couldn't put it down. It's not moving in the same ways as the first novel, but it is rather enjoyable in a fluffy literature sort of way nevertheless.

Farm From Home is incredibly visually appealing and I bought it because it celebrates the English countryside through each month of the year, seasonal living being something I am very taken by. Amanda Brooks takes lovely photographs, though I didn't think it was the most amazingly well written book. It is very much a memoir in the form of a coffee table book, (yes, I read a lot of memoirs) recounting her move from being a high flying New York fashion figure to life on her husband's family farm in Oxfordshire. Many people have highlighted that Farm From Home is a celebration of a life that is highly unattainable for most people, and it is, but there's earnestness in the pages too. 

The Worry Trick is a rather practical guide to recognising how chronic worry can become part of some people's lives. I don't make a habit of reading "self help", but it is pretty insightful. Useful if you, like me, wonder where the line between acute worry and anxiety is exactly. 

And The Worry Trick may come in super handy because last night I started reading Joan Didion's gut-wrenching memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which contains one of my greatest fears- the unexpected loss of a spouse or loved one. For those unfamiliar with this very raw memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking details a particularly brutal chapter in Joan's life. A few days before Christmas 2003, Joan and her husband John witnessed their daughter fall seriously ill, being placed in an induced coma and put on life support. Just before New Year's Eve, whilst their daughter was still hospitalised, John died very unexpectedly. I had a knot in my stomach before i'd even finished the second page. It is such a devastating read, but is so exquisitely well written. 

With summer only halfway done, my summer reading list is still very much under construction. I am keen to get my hands on a copy of The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett because I adore her children's fiction. And as I am visiting Jordan next month, I hope to read Her Majesty Queen Noor's memoir, A Leap of Faith: Memoir of an Unexpected Life. 

Other short and lovely things I've read include:

Bill Nighy's list of things that bring him delight, HERE

This poem, below.

And this quote of unknown origin that sums up my existence with searing accuracy:

"Getting emotional over fictional couples 
is not how I envisioned my adult life."

What are you reading and loving?

Kate  x