Freesteel Blog » Israel and Jordan – 1997
Israel and Jordan 1997
In January 1996 Becka was between jobs, due to be taking on a post as an experimental psychology lecturer in February. The company I was working for was in the process of being sniffed around by a wealthy soap mould manufacturer for the purposes of a whimsical buyout when I decided to go on holiday with her. Who knows, maybe I would turn out to have been between jobs as well, with my new employer rehiring me as the man who carves the brand name in the bars of soap and puts the soap crumbs back in the vat. It’s a clean job, and someone’s got to do it. Such are the rewards of industrial programming.
We cleared off to Gatwick on the tenth and flew out to Israel prepared for seventeen days of Lonely Planetting there and in Jordan. I had only three places I wanted to visit: Jerusalem, Petra and The Dead Sea. Becka, on the other hand, had done this sort of thing before, and read the book, and had a several page itinery which included as well as mine Masada, Wadi Rum, Jerash, Jericho, Ein Ghedi, Acre and Tiberous. Hmmm, I thought, there doesn’t seem to be much scope for festering here. I know Becka well enough not to expect that. I was more or less here for the ride. And a good one it turned out to be too. Although my body was not very well impressed and displayed fatigue, sleeplessness, dehydration, impotence, insolence and intransigence, swollen knees, fallen arches and compacted soles of the feet. You know you’ve had a quality holiday when you come back from it a physical wreck.
We rolled into Jerusalem bus station at about 9pm and found our way to the old city and Damascus Gate. How can I describe the Old City? Well, it’s like Gormenghast, only more condensed. It’s a maze. It’s like a nest of stone tunnels. You can follow sets of steps and ramps and passages high up the hillside if you go west. To the south-east is the Jewish quarter with its Western Wall, their most holy site. On the other side of this wall is the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s second most holy site. Back in the streets where we were stuck because it was nighttime, it was crawling with spare cats. Cats with fleas, cats with one eye, cats in rubbish bags. There were cats in the dormitory on the roof of the hostel where we stayed. In order to check in we had to step over scores of bodies of gringos all on the floor watching television to get to the desk.
The next day was devoted to sight seeing in the old city. There is nearly as much to see and read about in this quarter square mile as there is in rest of Israel put together, and the hostels are cheaper than anywhere else.
We got up too early. People were just starting to roll their wheel carts down the ramps to their stalls. In order to reduce the chance of getting out of control on the slopes they all had these spare tyres attached to the rear of their carts by a chain which they would stand on and skid and look worried as they were going too fast.
We sussed out the right streets (the ones that lead to Damascus gate) and the wrong streets (the one from Jaffa gate to Temple Mount which seemed to be the tourist alley). Occasionally we would pass crowds of Christians singing hymns at one or other of the 14 Stations of the Cross. We paid our money and got onto the walls for a walk around half the city and were entertained by a happening on the main road outside. The police blew up someone’s suitcase in the street only to find that there was nothing but clothes in it.
We came down and walked out the Lion’s Gate, across the valley, via the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, to the Mount of Olives. One thing to say about all these Christian shrines here. Due to the Byzantine Empire getting this half of the world when the Roman Empire collapsed, the ancient and little known Greek Orthodox church have control over most of the places. Rather than investing their money in inquisitions, missionaries and PR like the Roman Catholics who made it big, they seem to have put all their money into floating candles and sensors. The latter are the size of hookahs and tend to hang from every square inch of the ceiling. They really do like them. I can imagine them giving each other these things as Christmas presents year after year until they no longer can get into their houses.
The Mount of Olives is, by the way, the site of the Resurrection of the Dead on the Day of Judgement when the Messiah comes. We failed to spot Robert Maxwell’s tomb.
Back in the city there was time to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified and entombed for a few days. The Greek Orthodox priests also have really amazing beards which remain black even when they grow old.
Becka’s itinerary ran smoothly the next day and we caught a bus down to the fortress of Masada on the Dead Sea which was built as an emergency backup palace by King Herod, and was then taken over by Jews on the run from the Romans who had kicked them out of Jerusalem in 66 AD. The Romans laid siege to the place until they got bored and then built a ramp up the side of the hill which was higher than the wall, whereupon everyone inside committed suicide because they knew that the Romans were complete bastards.
My knees got sore on the walk up and we caught the cable car down, fetched the bus south to Eilat on the Red Sea and struggled to get across the border into Jordan. No one would tell us if it was open at that time of the evening because they wanted us to stay at their comfortable hostel or hotel for the night. This was really the only bit of hassle we experienced on the trip. Whenever we approached the bus station too closely in our search for an answer to the question: “How do we get out of here?” this trail of dumb asses would latch onto us again as though they had forgotten that we really did not want to have anything to do with them. A taxi driver finally rescued us and took us to the border.
The Israel-Jordan border was very relaxed at that time of night. Everyone playing cards and drinking tea. As usual there is a series of offices you have to visit and moneys to hand over which the kind people are willing to direct you through as they must do to every other tourist who passes by. Obviously the boredom threshold is very high because they don’t try to simplify the procedure (and thus have more time to play cards) or print a leaflet telling you the instructions of what you must do. Israel lifted ** shekels from each of us for the privilege of leaving. Then Jordan lifted ** Dinars for entering. Finally at the far side we reached the last checkpoint on the road and tried to use a taxi that had just arrived from Aqaba to drop off some backpackers who were going in the opposite direction, but the guards sent it away. We had to wait for their extra special expensive rigged service which, predictably, took us to a hotel belonging to the driver’s brother. Fortunately the city is small and Becka negotiated a 5 Dinar room at a hotel around the corner.
Food in the evening was bought at a friendly humous joint further down the road recommended by Becka’s parents who had passed through a few years before. Then went to market and bought our staple diet for Jordan: Pita and Salad.
By bedtime I began to like Aqaba a lot. It was not an obnoxious place and if a shopkeeper saw you hesitate in front of their shop they would shout “welcome” loudly through the door and beckon you in so that you did not need to feel shy.
That night I was convinced there were fleas biting my skin, even though I failed to catch one, and moved onto the floor and then eventually out onto the balcony all curled up in my sleeping bag. My face continued to get bitten so I spread shampoo all over it to make it a bit less tasty. The night time chorus of mosques with their loud speakers started up every couple of hours it seemed. The odd mullahs from different corners of the city wailing their words from the rooftops were joined by more and more, all with different amounts of distortion in their amplifiers. Then, a couple of minutes into it, you could hear the guy with the really big system power up and begin to bellow like a foghorn across the night. It was rather like a cuckoo clock emporium striking the hour approximately.
We had a lazy day. Too much rushing around and it was only the second morning. It was a despicable thing to do on holiday. It would have been nice to spend some time in a cafe, but it was Ramadama-Ding-Dong time for Muslims that month and no one was allowed to eat or drink anything from sun up to sun down. We caught a lift out into the bay on a glass bottomed boat and snorkelled in the freezing cold scummy water until we had enough. You could tell that because the boat driver stopped hassling us to extend our tour to two hours for a special rate as we sat shivering in the corner all wet with no towels. We waddled back to the hotel with wet underwear and slept till the evening. In the morning the hotel owner set about busily ripping me off until Becka stepped in and put the deal straight.
Wadi Rum is a very popular sandstone climbing area a short journey north of Aqaba in the desert. It is a sea of sand with vast mountains of wind-weathered rock spaced several miles apart each. A Wadi in local speak means canyon. Now the local Bedouins seem to make their living here by driving tourists around in jeeps to see the sights on the different outcrops. A spring here, a natural rock bridge there, and a sunset site in the evening (you can see the sunset only from certain places due to the placement of the rocks). Naturally we didn’t hire one and cleared off as soon as we could to the rock outcrop called Jebel Ishrin on the opposite side of the valley with the town called Rum in it.
The outcrop was maybe eight miles long, half a mile wide and over 400 metres high, and shaped like a carrot. The plan was to find our way through it to the other side via the complex system of interconnecting canyons that were there. Five hours later after having explored half a dozen such promising canyons we were still not out of sight of Rum! There were these comedy cairn trails that tended to lead to cliffs going up, down and sideways. The rocks were kind of weird. They had holes in them, like swiss cheeze gone so far it’s about to collapse. In places there were huge overhanging cliffs with not a smooth patch on them. It began to rain on us. We ran out of food and energy and headed on back to the government guest house where we had rented a place on the flooded roof top.
“Don’t throw bulks / Heavy duty in the bowel / Papers thrown in bin” — sign on bathroom door in guest house.
After some food using pans probably belonging to a group of Italian-Swiss climbers that were there, we walked through the darkness of town and ran into Vernor, a Belgian caver who was getting a lift with a local Bedouin to his house. He’d just had a meal of sheep’s head with his family where they got him to eat an eyeball. They insisted we use the floor space in the Bedouin’s house, which we did, and had a long conversation with Vernor. Vernor is a landscape gardener who takes at least four month’s holiday a year and for the past eighteen months until December had a non-Belgian girlfriend whom he met in China going to University in Cambridge. He visited Cambridge every few weeks during that time, but failed to drop in on us local cavers in the pub, which was a shame because we would have been more sociable to him than Becka and I were at the time, but that’s how it goes. We’ve invited him on expo this summer; he’s in southern Austria anyway at the right time teaching his friends how to do Alpine climbing.
Vernor had also spoken to the pair of strange Germans who were on the bus with us when we arrived in Wadi Rum. They were big and wore black corduroy jackets with black corduroy waistcoats. Black corduroy trousers with bell bottoms the size of Big Ben, and wide brimmed black corduroy hats. What they were doing was going on a three year pilgrimage from their home to learn to become good carpenters in order to be let into a particular religious sect founded at around about the twelfth century. The asked the driver to drop them off in the desert some way off, and pick them up a week later. We had forgotten about them entirely because they couldn’t possible be for real.
Before six in the morning we cleared out while the sky was still dark, stashed our bags in the Government Guest house kitchen and began walking through and around Jebel Rum, the lower and wider rock outcrop on the same side of the sandy valley as the town of Rum. It was a long hot day and we saw not a single soul until we rounded the corner eight hours later, re-entered the Wadi with Rum in it and headed for Khazali, a most magnificent stone pillow-like outcrop way out to the south. There was a Siq, or narrow canyon like inlet on the north side which we were heading to. The thing about these rock mounds is you walk towards them for ages and ages with nothing happening, and then “Bang”, they are above you like a tower of ancient candle-dripped wax.
The Siq was two metres wide, had water in it and all sorts of Bedouin inscriptions in the walls. It was obviously one of those secret unlikely drinking spots that must exist for the camels on their way across the dessert in their caravan trains. Today there was almost a traffic jam of tourist jeeps rolling up there and arriving. In order to maintain our solitude we ran up the siq, did a difficult climb and hid on a shelf out of view of the noisy visitors. Then hurriedly climbed back down so that, if one of us fell, the other could run back out the siq and get help from the jeep before it went away.
On the walk back we climbed up a smallish outcrop in the middle of the sand and had the best view of the entire day. You could see the shape of all the wadis and their windblown mountains of sand piled up against the east sides of the outcrops. And, if you looked closely, you could spot tiny jeeps crawling about everywhere like ants you hadn’t seen on the ground before because they were so well camouflaged.
That night we slept on the roof. There was frost on our fifteen layers of smelly blankets when we got up at dawn to fit in another spot of walking before the eight o’clock bus out of here. We trekked up to Lawrence’s well in the rocks overlooking Rum behind us, and it was none too interesting. However, the shapes of the cavities cut into the walls overhanging the path up made the rocks sing like a chorus of a thousand howling voices in echo to a dog’s bark or the racket of the mosque. It was like tubular bells in a train tunnel, and was a very unexpectedly beautiful sound.
We caught the only bus out to the junction on the dessert highway and waited as 24 numbered luxury busses swished up from a P&O cruise ship docked at Aqaba on their way to Petra where we wanted to be. Finally an Arabic bus came and Becka drove a hard bargain which got us a taxi the last part of the way at no extra charge into Petra and even, miraculously, to the hotel we asked for: The Sunset Hotel, recommended by Becka’s parents because it is at the bottom of the hill so you don’t have to walk up to it at the end of a tiring day in Petra.
Let me explain what Petra is. Petra is a bizarre forgery in rock. It’s like a film set, all facade and no content. Supposedly set up by the so-called Nabathean kingdom two thousand years ago as the headquarters for a protection racket run on the caravan trails, the people got so much money that they began to carve monuments into the rocks. The simplest of these are the “God-boxes” for boxing up your gods in a rectangle of stone hacked separate from the cliff, to the vast edifices that you see in the books and brochures. Usually you have a five metre tall first floor fronted with beautiful columns. On top of that is a second floor with more columns and false windows, fancy split pitched rooves with a sort of skirting board effect around the rim, and usually a huge urn in the middle like out of some gothic novel. It’s ridiculous. Now you climb up the stairs and go inside, and what do you see? Nothing. It’s just a box. Absolutely square at the corners, and huge. They maybe removed four or five hundred cubic metres of rock to make this space, and they don’t even decorate it. In fact if they left a few columns in there to spice the place up it would have been less work to create because you wouldn’t have to remove so much rock! So what is going on? A crazily ornate exterior, and a needlessly blank inside. My own theory is they put glass in the front doorway and used it as a fish tank.
A half day trip to Jerash was on the menu for the next day, and it rained a bit. Jerash has a very well preserved Roman city, excavated by the French this century. There are temples and fountains and an oval meeting place, two amphitheatres and long, broadly paved avenues lined with columns. But I don’t believe any of it is real. Who would put up that many stupid columns made out of granite along a road for the purpose of holding up nothing? It’s silly. If you want to line your street with tall things you use trees. They’re a lot cheaper and also produce oxygen. Completely daft, these Romans. No wonder they died out.
The border was crossed the next day. Same old fun and games. Not. And we were back in Jerusalem checking into the much posher Al-Hashimi hotel this time, though it suffered a shortage of pans in the evening, especially when the Germans got going with their meal. We boiled our potatoes in a teapot and ate the rest of our beans. I farted continually during those days, and it smelt bad.
All that was left was time for three further jollies out of Jerusalem before we flew home. The first took us to Ein Gedi, a nature reserve the size of the Waterfalls Walk in Ingleton which they say gets 1.5 million visitors per year(!) and where you are not allowed to take any food. That’s because no animals live there any more. All the Ibexes (very tame goat-things) and half the Hyraxes (fat ginea pig things) have moved out into the carpark where they can get some food. The walk went well until I fell in a puddle up to my middle and never went there again. The Dead Sea down the road at the foot of the hill was chilly too. It looked beautiful, but tasted nasty. The signs said it was forbidden to drink it. I’m not sure they understand here what the word forbidden means. In Akko there was a sign saying “Walking on the walls is Dangerous, Forbidden, and it is At Your Own Risk.”
Apparently the Dead Sea is retreating fast due to the pumping of water from the rivers that are meant to be feeding it. It goes down by metre every year at the moment. This is a problem for the posh resort hotels at the south end of the sea where it is at its shallowest (and saltiest) as there would be no point in visiting them were they to be left high and dry in hundreds of acres of salt flats. The maps are not accurate now because it seems that the Sea has shrunk by a factor of four and fragmented into two pieces, with a canal running between them, possibly pumped from the north end to the south. Also, near to the hotels are dikes around their portions of the sea probably used to keep the water level up. Pretty soon all that will be left will be a bunch of hotels in the middle of nowhere with some really salty, slimy swimming pools out the back for people to bob around in on their own.
Julian Todd 1998.