Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Updates, elsewhere

Yes, it's been far too long, but the beginning of the school year is always overwhelming. And here it is, already the end of the first quarter! Yikes. My third graders are studying Africa right now, and their final project is to research a country and write a 'realistic' travel journal. As a demonstration, I've used my own trip to Jordan to make an example journal. It's got some of the information that I put in the original blog, as well as some other thoughts.

If you are curious, you can check it out at http://mrsdewall.weebly.com . (I'm also planning on re-posting many of the original blog entries there, but that part is incomplete.) Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Just a quick note to say that I am now back in Wisconsin. I am planning on posting some more pictures and thoughts soon. Also, there appears to be some issues with posting comments, so if you have posted a comment and it doesn't appear, feel free to shoot me an email about it too.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Swing Low

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see ... ?

The West Bank and Israel, only inches from me ...

I couldn't help but be surprised at the very narrowness of the Jordan River. After having heard about it for so long, it was almost shocking to be confronted by an only 10-15 foot width of water that is so politically, historically, and symbolically important. This is not the 'Jordan River' of African-American spirituals; it doesn't hold a candle to the physical dangers of the mighty Ohio. But here it was, nonetheless.

(In fairness, Israel has dams on the Jordan, causing water shortages further down the line, like here, and the Dead Sea itself is actually shrinking away. Water is a very big issue in Jordan.)

In the late 1990s, archaeologists discovered evidence that 'Bethany on the Jordan' and the site of Jesus's baptism by John was actually on the east bank of the Jordan River, rather than the west, as had been thought previously. This area, owned by the Jordanian military as a training ground and buffer zone, was opened to tourists in the year 2000 (as well as visited by Pope John Paul II). I imagine that tourists still visit the West Bank / Israeli side, but it was empty when we were there. (I can now update my 'distances to countries' to "5 to 10 feet" for Israel, give or take where in the water the border occurs.)

The picture below is the remains of arch footings for a fifth/sixth century Byzantine church, where worshipers came to be baptized in a branch of the Jordan River, where they considered the baptism to have taken place. This is one of several of the recently discovered archaeological sites in Jordan.

After the baptism site, we headed up hill to another hugely relevant Biblical site : Mt Nebo, the mountain from which God showed Moses the Promised Land and where Moses died and was buried. There is some dispute about whether Moses's remains remained at Mt. Nebo. (They have not been found, and there are several other purported places where the Israelites/Joshua were said to have brought them with them.) While it was quite hazy for us, you can make out the mountains of Israel poking around in the hazy browns below.

Franciscan monks bought the hill from Jordan in the early 1900s and established a monastery. There is a Byzantine church with wonderful preserved mosaics, but renovation was underway, so we were unable to see it. Below is a statue representative of Moses and his staff, entwined with the serpent.

From Mt. Nebo, we headed to the town of Madaba, famous for its Byzantine churches and mosaics. Below is the most famous example of all, the map of the Biblical lands from the Church of St. George. This shows a close-up of the walled city of Jerusalem (even the gates and their placement is accurate) with the Dead Sea above (here, east is to the top). You can see that some sections are missing.

This picture is a close up of where we were earlier in the day. You can see the Jordan River flowing into the Dead Sea. There is also some humor here. If you look closely (click to zoom in), you can see the one fish swimming happily in the Jordan while the other (on the left) is looking panicked and is trying to swim upstream, away from the deadly salty waters of the Dead Sea.

Finally, here is a picture of a modern mosaic workshop that we stopped to visit. You can see a lot of the mosaic is already laid out, and the artists is snipped up the rocks to make the right shapes. These modern mosaics are created upside down and then the paint and backing are applied. Pretty incredible.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Weekend Thoughts (days two and three)

(You may want to start by reading Day One ... )

The next morning our mini-bus drove us further south, in to the true desert of the Wadi Rum, a site made famous to the West by Laurence of Arabia (and it served as the location for much of the 1960s film). Tourism expanded here in the 1980s when the local Bedouin tribes began facilitating rock climbers. We started our trek with a traditional camel ride. (I am hoping to get some photos from others of me on the camel, but for now you’ll have to content yourself with everyone else ... and my camel’s head.) It was a bit rocky and jarring, but I found that the traditional method of riding (crossing one foot across out in front of the saddle) provided enough stability for me to get my hands free for picture-taking. Just like the times I’ve gone horseback riding in groups, the camels were inveterate eaters – stopping constantly to grab mouthfuls of the green sage that was surprisingly abundant in the red sands of the desert. My camel, tied to the saddle of the camel ahead, was clever enough to pick up the pace toward his guide before stopping and grabbing large mouthfuls until the lead tightened, and we were pulled forward again.

After the camels, we upgraded to bench seats in an open-air Land Rover, and we sped out into the desert, stopping occasionally for views, lunch, exploring, and rock scrambling. (It’s a little hard to get a sense of how high up we were from the picture I posted, but there is one taken from the ground by Bryan that is linked to my facebook profile.) Our final destination was a traditional-style bedouin camp, albeit with some modern conveniences too. We scrambled again up the hillsides to view the sunset from above the camp, returning only when we were tempted down by the promise of dinner – chicken and potatoes cooked under the sand. After much talking and more tea, we were treated to a short oud concert (a rounded body instrument, guitar-style, but with 11 or 12 strings). It was wonderful to feel the music and the desert and to lose a sense of time and history.

We elected to move our pallets outside of the camp tents and pitch them under the stars. We waited patiently for the moon to set and were rewarded by breathtaking expanses of stars. I spent some time experimenting with star photography, which was really rewarding.

The morning dawned early, and I couldn’t be bothered to stay in bed once I spied the pinks of day peaking out from behind the surrounding hills. After some more pictures, us early risers spent time just sitting and contemplating the desert and the silence and the distant, grazing camels. (Although all the camels belong to families, most spend days grazing and traveling in groups – only returning home for water or rest.) I’d spent the morning barefoot, enjoying the cool sand scrunching between my toes, and experiencing the desert firsthand (firstfoot?).

We rode out of the desert after a quick breakfast, picked up some Turkish coffee in the bedouin town, and hit the road. We traveled south awhile further, turning north again after passing through the Red Sea coast town of Aqaba, which I am calling the “four corners” of the Middle East. On this little spit of the Red Sea, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia cram into an area where they are all within about 5-10 km from each other, and you can see the tall hills of Egypt rise in the background of the high rises of the Israeli town of Elat fronted by the shorter, squatter buildings of Jordanian Aqaba. Confounding. We didn’t stop, but people say the diving and snorkeling in the Red Sea is fantastic.

We followed the border with Israel the entire distance, noting the contrasts between the desert and sands around us and the hills, towns, and farms across the way. Then we reached the Dead Sea. I was shocked at how blue it was. I’m not sure why. The shore was ringing with rocks and sand covered in white crystal accumulations, but the water itself was an immaculate deep crystal blue. In some places, the shallow edges of the water turned a bright green, reminding me of pictures I have seen of the color changing pools in Yellowstone.

We ate lunch at a hotel with its own pools and beachfront, and then we had some time to experience the sea itself. You could feel that something was different about the water walking in. It was extremely warm, and there were little swirls of viscousness along the surface as you moved through. I didn’t feel like my feet were taken out from under me, but when you shifted your weight back, the floating was incredible. Effortless. It was possible to orient yourself straight up-and-down, but you tended to bob like a toy. The funniest was when I tried to turn from on my back to my front. Rather than a smooth transition, it was almost instant – popping from one position to the next with unexpected suddenness. I was a human cork. I even found a method to swim on my belly, which involved arms almost straight down, pulling through the water. You didn’t want to risk splashing, or you might end up with a mouthful or an eyeful of burning salt. Even the air itself was hazy and muggy. (The guidebook claimed that the haze blocked UVB rays, so you wouldn’t sunburn. I wasn’t crazy enough to risk it, but I doubt the spray-on sunscreen we applied almost immediately before submersing had any measurable effect.) There were tubs of deep black mud, supposedly with curative properties, available along the shore. After rinsing down and then cooling off in the hotel pool, we were ready to head back ‘home’ to our hotel in Amman. It was an overwhelming, exhausting, and ultimately very rewarding weekend.

Weekend Thoughts (day one)

We have a bit of a break between meetings today, so I thought I'd steal some time to write down a few of my impressions from our last trip. The pictures I posted previously follow the story too.

Our first stop in our journey to the south was the Crusader castle of Karak. The castle was built during the first Crusade and commanded an unbelievable view of the valley below (you can get a little of that sense from my photograph looking straight down). It was also well-fortified with countless rows of arrow slits, both in the main building and in the walls around. During the 1180s, the castle was repeatedly besieged by Salah ad-Din, the leader of Muslim campaign against the foreign Crusaders. The garrison reportedly sunk to selling off their wives and children in exchange for food, but they still eventually surrendered. The castle was occupied on-and-off again by various groups through the years after that. Several members of our group are medieval historians, so this was one of their highlights of the entire trip.

But for the majority of us, the best was yet to come. We piled back on the bus for our afternoon in Petra. After scouring the guidebook and much discussion, our group split into two smaller groups for Petra – my group headed first to “The High Point of Sacrifice” with designs on reaching the Monastery at the end, while the other group headed towards the Monastery first.

Petra is truly indescribable. At its height (around the BC/AD transition), it was a city of upwards of 30,000 people. The main thing people know about Petra, if anything, is the building known as the Treasury. Featured in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” it served as the location for the Holy Grail and the climactic finale of the movie. It is incredible, but it is such a small part of what Petra has to offer.

The journey into Petra begins with an easy downhill sloping path that terminates abruptly at the mouth of a geological wonder known as the Siq. Formed by a tectonic split and smoothed out by the waters of the Wadis, the Siq is a smooth, undulating chasm, and you walk along the bottom of it, with the cliff walls soaring 150 meters above. The colors and the patterns in the rock are incredible (see my picture of ‘melting rocks’ as one example). Looking around at everything there was to see, I wasn’t even bothering much to look forward until Jay stopped us. He wanted to see our faces as we came face-to-face with the Treasury for the first time. It was there, peaking through the curves of the Siq – completely inexplicable proof of the human influence. We had a good amount of time to spend photographing and peering up at the Treasury as we waited for the others in our group and our requisite group picture (of which I hope to have copies soon).

Loath to leave, we were drawn by curiosity about what the rest of Petra had to offer, and we set out. Rounding corners, we were constantly startled and amazed by the size, scope, and engineering feats necessary to create such a city. An amphitheater for 8500 carved out of the rock. Tombs and facades poking out from every exposed surface. We lost count of the number of times we said trivial words like wow, amazing, incredible, oh my, and all the other weak expressions that failed to capture the feelings inside.

We hit the steps to ascend to the High Point of Sacrifice, a twisting route of Nabatean-carved stairs that wove its way up along the surrounding hills. We took a perfectly timed break at the stand of a bedouin friend of Jay’s who treated us to the best cup of tea I have ever had (though that statement may have been influenced by the fact that I was winded and overheating from all the stairs and sunshine ;) ). The High Point of Sacrifice commanded an impressive vantage of the valleys and mountains below and after snapping our pictures, we decided to continue on over the back of the mountain on a more winding and rewarding route than the one we’d take up. (See the picture of our fearless leader overcome by the dangers warned against in the sign we disobeyed!)

We saw so many other structures, tombs, homes, and rubble that it all starts to run together. One of the most memorable was the Qasr al-Bint (the misnamed but intriguing sounding ‘Palace of the Pharoah’s Daughter’). It was erected in the first century BC and is the only remaining free-standing building in Petra. It is surrounded by the strewn remains of other buildings, homes, temples, and palaces that fell victim to the major earthquakes that shake this area every hundred years or so.

By this point, our time was quickly running out in Petra, and we had reluctantly decided to abandon our plans to also reach the Monastery (accessible by a mere 800 step uneven ancient staircase). We headed down the main colonnaded street, stopped in a few more tombs, took in the last views, and returned the way we had come – past the Treasury, gleaming its trademark rose in the fading late afternoon sun, through the Siq, and out of the hills. We celebrated our successful travels with ice cream and milkshakes in town before driving out to our fancy, ancient town-inspired hotel.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

More Petra Pictures

I have so much I'd like to share about the past weekend, but I've run out of time tonight to tell it all. Instead, here is a link to an album of about 50 pictures from the weekend.

Petra Weekend

Or if that doesn't work, try copying and pasting directly: http://picasaweb.google.com/116101552714421147152/PetraWeekend?feat=directlink

Just to orient you, we began at Karak Castle, spent the rest of the afternoon hiking in Petra, slept, headed out into the desert where we spent the day camel riding, jeep riding, hiking, and climbing before sleeping under the stars in a bedouin camp, and then we left the desert, relaxed in the Dead Sea, and returned to Amman. (No wonder I'm still so tired.)