Yesterday we said goodbye to Maria Gadnaor, a joyful, funny, sprite of a travel companion.
We enjoyed her company so much. She saw us from Eilat, through Petra (Big and Little), to the place where John baptized Jesus and set the forces of Christianity in motion.
The baptismal site is such a poignant place. There are currently at least eight churches of different denominations under construction.
Fewer than five percent of Jordanians are Christians, though the country is home to some of the oldest sects, so the rash of church construction is clearly designed to draw pilgrims. There is more than one prominent mosaic of King Abdullah II meeting the Pope (including one in the “Pope Mobile,” not shown.)
We stood on the Jordanian side of the Jordan river watching pilgrims on the West Bank side sing and pray. How weird that we were just in the West Bank, watching the check points and the protests. Armed guards are prominent on our side of the Bank too.
Later in the day our very nice driver showed us a huge and sprawling Palestinian refugee “camp” north of Amman. I use quotation marks because it’s not very camp-like. It’s been there since 1948, the residents are now Jordanian citizens, and from the outside it just looks like a regular (huge) town.
It’s only in their hearts that they are refugees. And they don’t want to go back across the river and live in Israel; they want to go back and live in their own state. The intractable problem, from all sides.
I ask him how hard it’s been on Jordanian culture to absorb the refugees and he says not hard at all. After all, they were separated, most of them, only by a trickle of a river. Their dialect, their food, their culture are nearly the same. The same, and yet, not.
This is such a hard part of the world to really understand.
After we visited the baptism site with a bus load of tourists who arrived immediately after us and about 50 million flies, we left Maria to wait for her driver back to Eilat. Our best efforts couldn’t persuade her to come with us — her son broke his hand recently and she had to get him to an orthopedist.
So we drove on to Jerash, north of Amman. En route, our driver asked us what we thought of ISIS. Hard to know how to answer that, exactly. Hard to know what he was asking.
What he really wanted to say was that ISIS is not Islam. He is a Muslim and killing others is forbidden by his religion. The Muslims in Jordan and Palestine are Sunnis. But so is ISIS. And yet their violence has been directed more at fellow Muslims than at westerners.
This is such a hard part of the world to really understand.
People kill, our guide insists. Evil people. Religions don’t kill. He reveres his religion and it is painful that people think it endorses the slaughter of fellow humans. He clearly feels himself to be in part an ambassador for his religion which he feels is badly misunderstood by some Americans and he wants us to understand its goodness.
That part, at least, is easy to understand.
When we get to Jerash we stop for lunch. It’s a huge restaurant, clearly designed to handle the bus loads of tourists who come to visit the ancient city. And yet, the food is really fabulous.
The first thing we see, right up front, is an enormous oven. Adept young men take flattened rounds of dough, spin them in their hands to stretch them out, maybe brush with olive oil and sprinkle with za’atar or black sesame seeds, and shovel them into the oven, directly onto the coals. A few minutes later, out they come. Blistered, fragrant, hot and incredibly flavorful. The best pizza crust you can imagine, hold the pizza. Magnificent.
Have a great video of the bread but I’ll need a faster connection to upload it.
At our table, the only choice we are offered besides drinks (and that choice does not include alcohol) is chicken, lamb or mixed grill. I pick neither. Within minutes the table is covered, covered, with bowls of hummus and herby labne, and pickles and olives, and tabouli and salad, and a big basket of the huge warm bread loaves. And French fries, for some reason. I am sipping on my mint lemonade, my favorite new thing.
And then bowls of rice and pans of vegetables baked to melting softness in the heat of the bread ovens and platters of grilled chicken and lamb sausages.
Halfway through lunch I get online and cancel our dinner reservations. New Year’s Eve or no, there is no chance we’ll be hungry enough for a full meal any time soon.
After hitting the WC, where we tip a guy for handing us tissues to sub for toilet paper (something most Jordanians eschew in favor of a blast of water from a conveniently located hose and nozzle) and then for paper towels and then for spritzing our hands with some exotic spray that I imagine perfumed the harems of rich and powerful men, we head out to see Jerash.
And my goodness, I had no idea. Like so many places in these parts, civilizations are leveled by earthquakes and war and shifting sand and built over, time and again, until under your feet might be layers of towns and villages and homes. Layers of places where daily life used to happen buried under places where daily life happens today.
In Jerash, early Arabs settled more than 1000 years BCE, and then the Roman army came in during its heyday. Within the span of a couple of hundred years the place was rebuilt along classical, Greco-Roman lines. Visitors walk through Hadrian’s Gate, along a real avenue lined with columns, passing a temple to Zeus and one to Artemis, one to Bacchus (later turned into a mosque), ancient frames of shops and places of commerce, a theater with eerily perfect acoustics (where retired members of the Jordanian military band play the drums and, oddly, the bagpipes), and a hippodrome where chariot races were held before up to 15,000 spectators.
An earthquake, the first of several, destroyed the town in the 8th century. The place has been partly restored by modern archeologists but the road is original, only the strange, uneven arrangement of the giant paving stones suggesting that the earth underneath had roiled their path.
Looking down at my dusty sandals as they walk on stones polished warm shades of pink and yellow by feet much, much earlier than mine, I close my ears to the sounds of today — the chatting tourists and guides shouting explanations in German and French — and tune into long ago voices. The calls from the markets, the clatter of carts, the negotiations and deals being made in a language I don’t understand.
They are so haunted, these ancient places. It seems impossible to me that those long-ago residents can be gone without a trace. Even if it’s only in my imagination, their feet tread the stones with mine.
As the sun gets close to setting, the columns and buildings are lit with that late afternoon glow photographers love. And it gets cold. We head back to our warm van, heads reeling with the unexpected time-travel. A nearly full moon rises over the gate, as it surely did more than 2000 years ago. I have goosebumps.
We drive through the New Year’s Eve traffic to our hotel, about 45 minutes south, back past the endless array of lights that indicate the refugee camp. We are staying at the Grand Hyatt, a far cry from the guest houses, home stays, and small inns we’ve been in for the last two weeks. I wouldn’t have missed those for anything, but the expectation of soaking in a really hot bath, drying off with plush towels, and sending my laundry off to be washed —not in a sink by me — makes me dizzy.
In a nod to New Year’s Eve, we join Gale and Tom in the Hyatt Club and everyone drinks champagne and wine while I sample the appetizer buffet. That’s enough for dinner after that monster lunch, even with centuries of walking in between.
In keeping with our tradition, Jerry and I head off for an early night, only to rise and greet the first light of the new year a healthy 8 hours later.
Happy First Light, everyone. Happy New Year’s!! Looking for the best in 2018.