CITY OF STONE
with Ernie Alderete
“Petra” may well be the root word for piedra, the Spanish word for rock. And Petra is, appropriately, a city carved from living rock, angular edifices seem to morph from the face of enormous rounded cliffs, and long-ago water-eroded boulders.
I first experienced Petra by night, as my microbus from Amman arrived after sunset, we were able to walk the dark rutted path through a long canyon down to the Treasury, the most renowned structure in a site awash in superlatives. The broad walk way was illuminated by a thousand candles flickering in ordinary brown paper bags on either side of the trail. To feel the crisp night air bathing my body in such an arid, blistering region was beyond refreshing, it lifted the soul to the sublime.
The winding canyon seemed to create its own atmosphere, the invasive cleavage in the massive body of rock attracted cooler air that seemed to swirl around me, lifting my spirit. Carrying me to a higher plane of spirituality.
The people who manage the site really know how to present it well. As you walk down that path you are following the sound of a flute, the unseen musician always just ahead of you, out of sight. Finally, you reach the wide- open plaza before the Treasury, and crane your neck as far back as it will go, like a camera tripod, to soak in the shocking height of the towering edifice.
As the music progresses, an unseen host describes the history of Petra and a young man passes among the spectators with trays of hot tea to sip while you enjoy the presentation.
The next morning, I walked down the same path in the bright sunlight, clearly seeing trees growing horizontally out of the canyon walls, and etched carvings that the night before were only distorted shadows, and imagined forms.
Petra is one of the undisputed treasures of the world and the number one attraction in Jordan.
SEA OF SALT
The reputedly Dead Sea really isn’t all that dead, after all. A new-to-science species of fish was recently discovered in its briny depths. Perhaps, thriving in a fresh water lake beneath the notoriously salty sea. Obviously, that one little fish can’t live without other organisms to feed on, so there just might be more discoveries pouring forth in the near future.
Even if it’s not quite as sterile as we once believed, the Dead Sea remains unique in many ways. It is the lowest point on earth, 1300 feet below sea level at the water’s edge. Even deeper, if you want to measure it from the bottom of the Dead Sea.
In this severe environment has sprung one of the most luxurious of resorts. Actually, the seemingly harsh climate is one of the strongest drawing points. Oxygen is 10% more concentrated at this depth in comparison with sea level. Salts and minerals are skimmed off the sea’s surface by the wind, and carried to the east coast of the Dead Sea, the Jordanian side of the body of water shared with Israel.
The mud on the banks of the Dead Sea is harvested for use in the spa in mud wraps, and baths that detoxify the skin, and body. They even package the grayish mud, as well as the sea salts, for sale around the globe.
I scooped up the silt from a natural open pit at the water’s edge, and covered my body with the slippery substance, washing it off in the Dead Sea. And its true, you don’t just float, you can’t help but float. Your body becomes an impromptu raft floating on the surface because of the heavy salt content.
From my room at the new Jordan Valley Marriott, popularly called the Dead Sea Marriott, which faces the Dead Sea, I could see the lights of Jericho at night, and behind those, Jerusalem, sparkling in the distance.
It is a surreal experience, being pampered hand and foot in this Biblical land of burning bushes, Sodom and Gomorrah, and people turning into pillars of salt.
Yet another world-class attraction in Jordan is Jerash, the most complete Roman Provincial City on earth. You will be awe struck by the hundreds of upright colonnades, and the virtually intact, still functioning amphitheatre.
I was graciously invited to a Royal Gala Dinner there by Her Majesty, Queen Rania. I dropped by in the early morning and witnessed the transformation of the ruins into a state-of-the-art stage for the extravaganza. Thousands of colorful traditional Arab carpets, not unlike Mexican “serapes”, were laid on the ground as paths, and on the hard stone seats to cushion the brutal impact of tender flesh on naked stone.
I watched as a sophisticated sound system was set up to carry the music and audio program to the audience of hundreds of guests from the United States and the United Kingdom.
That brisk morning a large group of Italian pilgrims arrived at the amphitheatre. They joined hands and sang Christian songs in Italian. I couldn’t help but think how close those Italian words were to the Latin spoken on the same ground some two millennia before. The Romans had returned, but this time they conquered only with goodwill and humanity.
I was more than surprised when about a dozen Muslim schoolgirls with heads covered joined the Italians in songs about Jesus Christ. The two groups melded into one, tears of joy flowing down the Italian faces. As they left, the Italians hugged the Jordanian girls and waved a heartfelt ciao.
I sat next to newspaper heiress Patty Hearst at the gala, and was impressed by her complete normality, her happiness with her look-alike daughter and husband. If anyone had a right to be dysfunctional, it would be Patty Hearst, prime victim of the Symbionese Liberation Front. And victim of the American justice system that put her through the wringer.
When I told Patty how much I liked her in John Water’s movie “Serial Mom,” her face lit up with delight.
The Gala began with a pageant presenting 2,000 years of Jordanian History in dance and song. Dozens of dancers in magnificent period costumes acted out the major themes of regional culture.
If you didn’t know Jerash was in the Middle East, you would be convinced you were in ancient Rome.
In the deep south of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan the parched land is stark and inhospitable. This is where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed forty years ago, and more recently, Red Planet. The naturally crimson sand was the perfect stand-in for the angry red planet.
Wadi Rum is the name of the geologic feature that is one of this former Ottoman vassal state’s secret glories. A virtual lunar landscape of canyons, sand dunes, caves and crevices.
Some might call the camp restaurants touristy, but I found the one I visited, Captain’s Desert Camp, wonderfully refreshing. All the staff is the real thing, actual Bedouins who live in the isolated sector. You dine under tents woven from the traditional black goat hair. It is so far off the beaten path, that there is virtually no walk-in traffic, everything is pre-arranged. The setting is magnificent. Set at the foot of a pair of gigantic rock outcrops that dwarf the people below them like so many ants.
Arab hospitality is legendary, and this translates into mega-servings. Your dining experience starts off with half a dozen entrees, small plates of salads, yogurt, sour cream and the ubiquitous green and black native-grown olives. The main course consists of a platter of chicken, beef and ground lamb shish kebabs served on a bed of rice with fresh-baked pita “pocket” bread, and shrek, which is virtually identical to a giant, square-shaped Mexican flour “tortilla”.
You can order a whole lamb baked in the age-old method of being buried underground to slow cook. Everything is there for you to see, and enjoy. The battered, old-fashioned tea kettle brewing over an open wood fire, the stone encircled barbeque pit, simple tented rooms, should you want to spend the night and enjoy a moonlit walk in the desert, or a camel ride up a sand dune and over to a distant canyon.
The one-time Eastern Emirate of Trans Jordan is one of the few Arab countries that is not dry, in a liquor sense that is. So you can order a cold beer, or wine with your meal. Every meal ends with mint tea, and coffee heavily spiced with cardamom.
There are several camp-style restaurants in the area that serve up similarly picturesque meals. You can stay the night at most of the camps, in rustic tents with cots and minimal modern comforts, a world away from telephones, television and fast food.
How safe is Jordan? Amman is safer than most cities in the United States. Although sandwiched between countries in perpetual turmoil, Jordan has steadfastly remained an oasis of peace and tranquility.
The people of Jordan were the biggest surprise, and brightest bonus, of my first excursion into the Middle East and the Islamic world. I never felt the slightest hint of anti-Western bias. Everywhere we went we were welcomed with genuine enthusiasm. Each school bus that passed by was filled with smiling children jumping up and down, waving, yelling hello, wishing us well.
At least twice, absolute strangers could see I needed refreshment and bought me a cup of hot tea.
The first thing you will notice upon landing at Queen Alia International Airport is the hordes of young, lean, uniformed porters, eager to help you with your bags. During down time they tend to stand in clumps, like so many meerkats, giggling, chatting and joking.
It is not unusual for two men to spend a lot of time together in a country where it is the opposite sexes that tend to live separate public lives. While Amman is the most liberal capital in the Arab world, where men and women can work and dine together, in the more remote areas of the country women still wear the veil, and eat in separate quarters. Many rural restaurants have separate dining rooms for women & children, and for men. I wandered into one such small restaurant well outside Amman with a female friend, expecting to sit together at a sidewalk table. I was welcomed to sit there, but my companion was shown to an upstairs room behind a curtain where she was expected to eat.
Mostly, exceptions are made for westerners. But, on occasion you might run across an establishment that hasn’t been frequented by foreigners.
I stayed at the Marriott in Amman, Petra and the Dead Sea. I liked coming home from the exotic world just outside, to the familiar luxury of the American-style hotels.
The superb weekly poolside seafood buffet at the Amman Marriott is closer to an orchestrated production than a mere meal. Choice chefs in smart uniforms stand at half a dozen woks, barbeques and grills ready to cook your selection of lobster, giant shrimp and scores of other fresh seafood.
You can contact Ernie Alderete by email at: