Part I -- Lebanon
The trip starts in Lebanon and ends in Jordan, but a roundtrip air ticket is much cheaper than an open jaw. So I fly to Amman. Usual Amsterdam connection deal. I leave Friday evening and arrive in Amman 1 AM Sunday, which is technically Day 3 of the trip.
Because I will be staying in Jordan less than 24 hours, theoretically I am entitled to a free transit visa. Unfortunately, I am unable to turn theory into reality. There is no one at the transit desk. The regular immigration guy sends me to the diplomatic counter. That guy tries to direct me back to the regular queue, but I prevail upon him to do me. He charges me the full 10 dinars ($14).
Amman is 20 miles and a $25 taxi fare away. I will be spending the night somewhat closer in Madaba, which is exempt from the Amman taxi rip-off and a tourist destination in its own right. At arrivals are a number of sharp-uniformed drivers holding name signs. I don't see mine. Then I spot my name scribbled on a piece of cardboard held by a slouching guy dressed in bluejeans and a red-checkered tablecloth on his head. Issa (Arabic for "Jesus") turns out to be friendly enough. He has family in Youngstown. The hotel is perfectly acceptable and reasonably priced. It's past 2 AM when I get to bed, but with the time difference that's just about right.
My flight out isn't until evening, so I use the layover as a sightseeing day. Madaba is a historically Christian town known for its Byzantine mosaics. The most famous is a pilgrim's map of the Middle East on a church floor. Two-thirds of it is gone, but what's left is quite good. So are the other mosaics.
That was the morning. I still have a few hours so take a taxi to nearby Mt. Nebo. This is where Moses was shown the Promise Land, died, and was buried. Judging from the view, I would say that the promise was pretty hazy. At the top are the ruins of the Moses Memorial Church, containing more very fine mosaics. As I walk around, I keep my eyes to the ground hoping to find Moses' tooth or something (I could sell it on eBay), but no luck.
I pack up and head for the airport for my 6 PM flight to Beirut. When I get there, the monitor provides an unwelcome surprise: flight delayed, new departure time is 10:28 PM. Even worse, I can't get to the lounge without checking in, and the ground staff doesn't bother to emerge until 7:45. I have to spend four hours mingling with the hoi polloi
until I can repair to the lounge to salve my wounded ego.
In the lounge, I catch up on the English language Jordan Times
, which reports the response to Colin Powell's call for democratic reforms in the Arab world: they can't possibly do anything until the Israel problem is resolved. By "problem" they mean "existence."
In Venezuela one needs to fly hundreds of miles across roadless jungle in tiny prop planes. In contrast, the hundred mile flight to Beirut is in a jumbo jet. Flight time is 18 minutes, during which Middle East Airlines manages to provide beverage and meal service (at least in business class, where I am sitting). No movie though. The inflight magazine candidly identifies deep vein thrombosis as "economy class syndrome," but informs the reader that, despite press reports, "there is no scientific medical evidence relating it to air travel."
The Amman airport is modern but dinky. Beirut's is brand new and huge. Even though I already have a visa, the immigration guy carefully thumbs through each page of my passport looking for an Israeli visa or other evidence of a visit to the Little Satan.
The Lebanese pound is pegged to the dollar and the two are used interchangeably; the ATM at the airport offers a choice of either currency. Due to the lateness of the hour, I am stuck paying $25 for a taxi into the city. There is a new, multi-lane, mostly underground expressway to speed visitors to the city center, bypassing the south Beirut slums, refugee camps, and Hizbollah billboards. The downtown area appears clean and prosperous --even at midnight the streets are brightly lit, shops are open, and people are out.
For this and the next portion of the trip I am on a tour with Explore. In the morning I meet up with the group. Explore has strayed from their small group philosophy ? this one has 22 members plus leader: a couple of Kiwis; an Ozzie; and, except for me, the rest Brits.
The Lebanese civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990. At its end Beirut looked like Berlin in 1945. Everything was shot up, bombed out, or destroyed. In the past 14 years, it has all been rebuilt. The damaged buildings were not simply repaired, but for the most part were torn down and built anew. Surprisingly, most of them are attractive, a mixture of modern glass and steel, stone, and traditional Lebanese architecture.
We drive along the green line, which separated East Beirut (Christian) from West Beirut (Muslim). There are still a few buildings that are heavily damaged and some that bear bullet pockmarks, but everything else is sparkling, clean, and shiny. In the old city center, only the opera house, now a Virgin Megastore, is left. Everything else was completely destroyed and is now open space or new construction in progress. Although Beirut is back, tourism is not; the visitor count is down 90% from its pre-war level.
We drive south to Sidon using the surface streets rather than the expressway as our local guide narrated a fractured history. Who is to blame for the civil war? Israel, of course. The creation of Israel created the Palestinian refugee problem, which led to the civil war. Secondarily at fault is Britain for allowing the Jew to entire Palestine. Since everyone in Lebanon has now decided to get along, they have agreed that it must have been someone else's fault. The civil war was a "war of other people on our land."
We pass the shantytowns in which the exiles have been confined since 1948, from which black flags are flying to mourn the death of Yassir Arafat. The residents are not allowed to work outside the camps and must pass through army checkpoints and searches even to leave for shopping. Who is to blame for the squalid and oppressive conditions under which they must live? You guessed it ? Israel.
We pass the infamous Sabra and Chatilla camps, where in 1982 1,000 Palestinians were massacred by Christian militias. That's Israel's fault too, the crime of the century. Even worse, we are told, Israel continues its widespread slaughter of civilians without international criticism. What planet are they living on?
Sidon was a Phoenician port, but nothing remains of the ancient city. There is a crusader castle on the harbor, and in the hills above are some Christian holy sites where tradition holds that Jesus and Mary used to hang out. Having been through countless markets, I don't enjoy being trooped through another one. I don't even get a chance to bargain for a lovely cedarwood wall plaque with twin pictures of a cleric and of a balaclava-masked freedom fighter holding an RPG launcher. We visit a soap factory and move on.
We continue on the coastal highway (which ends at the border but "one day will go to Jerusalem") to Tyre, another Phoenician port city, famed for the purple dye extracted from local seashells. It continued as a major port under the Greeks and Romans. Major ruins have been excavated on two sides, with the modern city built atop the rest. Abandoned railroad tracks run right through the ruins. (The railroad stopped running in 1948; once again, Israel's fault.)
The south of Lebanon is Shiite, and the streets are festooned with pictures of martyrs (read "suicide bombers") and Ayatollahs along with Hizbollah banners. From here, you can see the border. ("On the other side is Palestine."). By the way, Hizbollah is not a terrorist organization; it is the official resistance to the Israeli occupation, targets only soldiers, and has never conducted an operation outside of Lebanon. Yeah, right. What I find amazing is that even educated people with access to the internet choose not to venture outside their closed circle of lies.
After a second night in Beirut we first drive into the Chouf, a mountainous area south of Beirut, where we visit the former governor's palace, now the summer residence of the president. The Chouf is also home to the Druze, a feisty independent Muslim offshoot sect. At a coffee stop I buy a copybook with a politically correct map of the Middle East, i.e., no Israel. One gal in our group learns not to order "white coffee," which is just hot water with a drop of aromatic flavoring.
Then, back to Beirut for the National Museum, which has small but very nice collection of Roman and some Phoenician stuff, including the contents of a couple of unlooted royal tombs. We watch a video showing how the museum fared in the war ? the building looked like the Reichstag in 1945. There was no time to move the large exhibits so they were encased in reinforced concrete vaults. The smaller stuff went to the basement, which flooded and remained under water for 20 years. About five years ago the building was carefully repaired and restored and reopened to great fanfare. Memo to self: commission a sarcophagus. It will reduce my cat's inheritance, but he'll get over it.
On to Byblos, 25 miles north and the source of many of the museum's artifacts. It claims to be, at 7000 years, the oldest continuously inhabited site on earth. (Distinction: although Jericho is older, the original settlement is outside the current city.) In 1920 archeologists tore down an Ottoman village and started digging through Byzantine, Roman, Greek, Phoenician, and Neolithic layers. The city name comes from the Greek for papyrus, which used to be trans-shipped to Egypt to ancient Greece. Among the royal artifacts are presents from the Pharaohs.
The next morning, a trip to the Jeita Grottos, a very impressive natural wonder featuring a surprisingly diverse collection of world-class stalactites and stalagmites. The visitor facilities outside were wrecked in the war and rebuilt as a miniature Disneyland. At the entrance is a flight simulator. (What I want is a civil war simulator.) To get from the ticket booth to the cave entrance there is an entirely unnecessary cable car ? the entire ride is perhaps 200 yards. A tourist train runs from the upper caves to the lower. The train is decked out as the Santa express, The cave staff all wear Santa hats, which, since the men haven't shaved, make the place look like a casting call for a remake of Bad Santa.
In the afternoon we drive to Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city and heavily Muslim. To get there, we pass through neighboring Junieh, the de facto Christian capital during the war. Junieh is home to the country's Casino and clubs featuring strippers from eastern Europe (read "white slaves").
If you've never seen a dirty, crowded Arab market, then Tripoli is great. Otherwise, it's a big yawn. There are several old mosques and madrassahs, but there is no escaping the fact that this is a poor city. In the evening we drive up into the mountains to a sort of ski lodge in a Maronite Christian stronghold. It's COLD!
The next morning we descend through the snow into The Valley of the Saints, a deep gorge in which lies the 4th century St. Anthony monastery, still in use. Adjacent is the Cave of Miracles. I am hoping for the miracle of heat. No luck. In the cave is an altar to which the insane would be chained until cured. Once they got their minds right, the shackles would miraculously pop open. The monastery also displayed the oldest printing press in the Mideast (Glasgow, 1607) with Syriac (a kin to Aramaic) type. The gift shop offers many depictions of the Holy Family but none with even slightly Semitic features; Jesus and Mary look like they are sojourning from Stockholm.
St. Anthony is the patron saint of hermits. Once a year, on January 17th, the hermits in the valley gather for a convention. All three of them. We go meet one: Dario, the sole occupant of a 13th century monastery tucked on a ledge in the side of the gorge. He is a doctor from Columbia who was working the psych ward when he got his calling, I suspect in response to a prayer which went something like "Lord, get me away from these nutters." Now, at age 70, he is a very engaging fellow, fluent in several languages.
Following our visit to Dario we begin our hike through the gorge. It's supposed to be nice in the spring and fall. In the summer, people come up from Beirut to escape the heat. But now it's just cold and snowy. The scenery is OK, but it's also good from the roadway atop the rim. But it would not be a proper English holiday without wasting a day walking from nowhere to nowhere. In Kahlil Gibran's home town, there is a museum of his stuff and work. Uninterested in bad poets, Lebanese or otherwise, I skip it.
Before leaving the snowy peaks we visit the famed Cedars of Lebanon. Logged since antiquity, by Roman times they were already becoming thin. This isolated copse is one of the few that remain. Eyewitness report: they look like trees. The road continues over the mountain into the Bekaa Valley, our next destination, but the pass is blocked by snow. So instead we have to take a 5-hour detour and drive back through Beirut.
In the Bekaa is Baalbek, site of the largest Roman temple ever built anywhere. Directly across the street from the ruins is the Palmyra Hotel, where we are staying. Built in 1874, some thirty years before the archeologists arrived, the hotel sits atop the unexcavated Roman theater. Its decor features genuine Roman statuary and scavenged architectural remnants. The rooms are large and high ceilinged. The furniture is antique (read "old"). The hotel has hosted a stream of dignitaries, including Kaiser Wilhelm II and Charles deGaulle. My room opens onto the upstairs salon and faces the ruins. It was General deGaulle's and possibly the Kaiser's, although the guest book for 1898 is missing. The place has an air of faded elegance; it has been a long time since the last rehabilitation (if ever), which is why we are staying here.
The ruins, partially reconstructed, are damn impressive. The weather is cold, but clear. There is nary another visitor to be seen. Think of the Acropolis in Athens without other tourists.
Back at the hotel, a surprise: the heat has failed. Last night the temperature dropped to 14?F, the coldest reading in ten years, causing the pipes to burst. It's not quite as cold tonight, but I am immobilized under three blankets.
The Bekaa is Hizbollah country, where the suicide bombers trained and the hostages were held. Banners, flags, and posters are everywhere. This was a no-go area for foreigners, but a couple of years ago Hizbollah put out the word that foreign tourists are welcome to return so here we are, under the protection of Hizbollah. The raison d'etre of Hizbollah is resistance to the now-ended Israeli occupation. Yet, the Bekaa has been occupied by Syria for the past 15 years. There are Syrian troops and checkpoints all over the place, but apparently no sense of irony. I spot the perfect souvenir: a Hizbollah piggy bank, beautifully decorated in martyr motif. ("Put a coin in to help buy a suicide bomber his last meal.") Alas, it is not for sale.
Since ancient times the Bekaa has been a rich agricultural region, good for grapes, too. We visit the Ksara winery, in business since started by the Jesuits in 1857. The wine casks are stored in Roman caves. We sample the products: not only drinkable, but quite tasty. Over in Iran, the mullahs have torn out the vineyards. The Shiites here have been more accommodating toward jobs creating industries.
Our last stop in Lebanon is Aanjar, another ruined city. It was a Roman trading center, than a Byzantine one, then a Muslim one. It all came to an end when the Umayyad (Damascus) caliphate was replaced by the Abbasids (Baghdad), who razed the city. Just another example of the practitioners of the religion of peace respecting their brothers.
Part II - Syria
Through the border we go. Right after the giant welcoming portraits of the late President Hafez Assad (always alive in our hearts) and second son President Bashir Assad (ascended to throne when playboy older brother got greased in a car crash), is a Dunkin Donuts. Just like Lebanon. It's all an illusion ? that is the last western franchise we will see. We pick up Saad, our Syrian guide and Baathist party minder, who speeds us through the immigration formalities. We arrive in Damascus in mid-afternoon. Hotel is a pilgrim stop for the Hadj to Mecca, so no booze. It's easy enough to locate: directly across the street is the skeleton of an unfinished and abandoned concrete highrise. They probably blew the construction budget on presidential portraits. Seriously, this place is like Saddamland, except substitute one, two, or all of the Assad trinity.
I grab a map and wander off. I am disappointed that the nearby military museum closed at 2:00, so I miss out on such exhibits as the triumph of the 1973 War of Liberation (you remember, the one where, after achieving complete surprise, the Egyptians and Syrians managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.) Displayed outside are various aircraft that are veterans of wars against the Zionist aggressors. Gotta credit the pilots for bravery ? going up against the IAF was the closest thing to a kamikaze mission.
A walk through Damascus' famous covered souks. Ho-hum, another Arab market. The high, curved roof is of corrugated iron but is perforated like Swiss cheese ? the result of upwards firing by overexuberant soldiers in 1917 and downwards strafing by the French when putting down a rebellion in 1925.
The Lebanon-only tour members are leaving, so I depart from my anti-social custom and join the others for dinner. The menu choices include sheep brains, sheep kidneys, and sheep testicles (I hope they mean rams'). At least they are priced right! The menu also identifies the chef as "ex-Normandie." My guess is that his cooking got him expelled from France.
In the morning is the group walking tour. The first stop is the National Museum. The Roman stuff is of mediocre quality with one exception: the well-preserved, intact Frescos from a 3rd century synagogue. They are entirely unique: scenes from the Old Testament painted in classic Roman style. Nothing like this has been found anywhere else. (Both Jewish and Muslim tradition prohibit reproduction of the human form.) The small stuff from the various digs on the Euphrates is excellent. There is also a modern art section, which I half expect to be devoted to depictions of the Maximum Leader but his presence is limited to large busts in the corner of each room. The museum bookshop, besides offering postcards and the like, sells booklets (in English) by various professorial crackpots explaining how the latest research has revealed that there were no Jews in Palestine until modern times.
Nearby is the Hejaz station, or what's left of it. It was the starting point of the Ottoman rail line that Lawrence of Arabia kept blowing up. All but the lobby is torn up for the construction a giant shopping mall that will probably never get built.
Through the city gates and down Straight Street, the old Roman street that Paul walked and that is still in use. The end point of the tour is the Umayyad mosque, one of the truly outstanding buildings of the world: big, beautiful, and old (8th century). In a bit of religious recycling, on the site were previously a Byzantine cathedral, a Roman temple to Zeus (remnants still outside), a Greek temple, and a Baal temple.
Unfortunately, by the time we are finished it is after 2:00 and I've missed the military museum again.
The next day we leave Damascus, driving northeast through the city sprawl. Damascus has experienced a population explosion: in the last 20 years a number of inhabitants has risen from 1 million to 4 or 5 million. Just over the hills in the opposite direction are the Golan Heights. We pass a gigantic building that looks like a circular fort. Saad says it's a movie theater that for the last 30 years has only shown one film: it's about the 1973 war. I am sure it has a happy ending, although I can't imagine what that might be.
While he has a captive audience, Saad favors us with political lectures. We learn that historically, there has never been a state of Israel. In 1948 the Palestinians were forced out or "left to wait for the army to sort things out, though it still hasn't been sorted out." And the suicide bombers are not terrorists, they are martyrs.
We also get a bit of religious instruction. Syria is mostly Sunni Muslim. The Sunni, we are told, follow the teachings of Mohammad. In contrast, the Shiite follow his descendants. (In Iran, the guards offer a different prospective: after the death of Mohammad, the Sunnis chose to follow Arab chieftains.) Not a word, though, on the errors of the Alawites, the tiny Shiite subsect to which the Assads belong. Ancient Baal worship was, of course, misguided because there is no such entity as Baal. (For people who have renounced idol worship the Syrians sure have erected a lot of Assad statutes.)
We visit Krak des Chevaliers, the largest and best-preserved crusader castle in the Mideast. There used to be a chain of these across the entire Levant, generally within sight of each other, but most are now in various states of ruin. This one is impressive, housing and provisioning 2000 knights. It was deemed impregnable, and only fell through trickery. Our visit gives Saad an opportunity to remind us of how badly the crusaders behaved, in contrast to the noble conduct of Muslim warriors.
A legitimate example of the latter was Saladin, who recaptured Jerusalem from the crusaders. We visit Saladin's castle, a crusader castle renamed for its conqueror. Also big, also impressive, but, as events proved, not impregnable.
We spend the night in Latakia, Syria's principal seaport just north of Lebanon and south of Turkey. (Antioch, to the north, is a historically Syrian city which was given to Turkey by the French in 1938 to keep them out of the coming war.)
Seeing what you believe department: returning to the hotel from dinner I pass Saad watching soccer on TV. As a pleasantry, I ask, "who's playing?" (As if I give a flip.) "Oman vs. Qatar." From a glance at the players, it could have been Nigeria vs. Congo. I remark on the obvious importation of talent, to which he replies, "No, Gulf people are dark."
There's nothing to see in Latakia. The next morning we visit Ugarit. Nothing to see there except the Turkish border and some holes in the ground.
Despite its lack of postcard appeal, Ugarit is an important archeological site. In Byblos a royal tomb yielded what is claimed to be the first alphabet. I find the rival claim of Ugarit to be more compelling: 1) it is a tad older; 2) the first two letters are alpha and beta; 3) they had trade contacts with the Greek; and 4) (this is the clincher) unlike other Phoenician and Mideast scripts, Ugaritic reads from left to right.
We head back east across a snowy mountain pass. It's odd to see a bunch of Arabs in robes and head dresses pushing a vehicle stuck in the snow. Since bald tires are the norm it doesn't take much snow to cause havoc.
Then, on to Apamea, a ruined Roman city. Its claim to fame here is the mile long colonnaded street. Luckily, the locals had a nearby crusader castle to move into. Otherwise, the Roman site would have been stripped for building materials. All the forts, castles, and temples that we visit had been used for housing until the residents were kicked out to make way for tourists.
We cross the treeless but fertile plains of the Euphrates. We stop at the Euphrates dam and Lake Asaad. The dam is constructed of rubble rather than solid concrete, designed by Soviet engineers to be easily repairable if breached (read "bombed"). The problem is that Turkey has had the temerity to build the Ataturk dam upstream which is STEALING OUR WATER!
A brief stopover in Hama, noted for its giant waterwheels and for what didn't happen in 1982, when Assad put down an uprising by bombarding the city. The death toll is estimated to have been 10,000-25,000, but since no Palestinians were injured, it doesn't count. The first pillar is Islam: thou shalt not ever criticize a fellow Muslim.
In the evening, we arrive at Aleppo, Syria's second city, where we will spend two nights. It is famous for two things: its citadel and its souks (markets).
The citadel is a mighty fortress set atop a high hill in the center of the city. (How convenient!) Although the site has been in use since antiquity, the current fortifications were built by Saladin's son. The dimensions are impressive, as are the views from the ramparts, but the architectural details have been largely lost to the centuries and continuous habitation by squatters or, as we would say today, the "multi-generational homeless."
The souk is a maze of stone roofed streets. Nothing unique, but the minimal hassle factor makes it a pleasant wander. Amusing sight: veiled women covered head to toe in black carefully inspecting lacey frocks and Cinderella ball gowns on display. A couple of guys ask me, "American? Did you make a wrong turn? You are probably the only American here all year."
Outside of town are the ruins of a 5th century Byzantine church that was the largest built until the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and dedicated to St. Simeon the Stylite. No, he was not noted for his fashion sense; he believed he could be closer to God (and further from his ill-bathed countrymen) by perching on a pillar. There he lived for 42 years, dispensing advice to pilgrims and passersby, the Dr. Laura of his time. He started a cult, spawning imitators across the Mideast. After his death, the church was built around his pillar. Not much remains: the pillar was chipped away by souvenir hunters, and the church columns were taken and installed in the mosque in Damascus. What's left fell into ruins, which are still quite beautiful and impressive.
We continue east, stopping at a village to see their "beehive" houses, traditional mud huts built in a cone shape. They don't really live in them anymore, but keep them around in hopes that tourists will come by and leave some money. The dead giveaway that they are not actual houses: no TV antennas sticking out the top. Then, back to the highway and Saad's explanation of the societal benefits of polygamy.
From here on out, the trip is a wreck, or more precisely, a series of ruins. We visit Rasafeh, the remains of a large walled city on the fringe of the desert.
Further east still is Duros Europa. A fortified city on the Euphrates, it was the edge of the Roman Empire. It was a major trading center and unusual for its multiplicity of religions. In simultaneous use were Roman temples, a Baal temple, a pre-Byzantine church, and a synagogue. It was from the latter that the frescos in the Damascus museum were taken. They were preserved when the walls collapsed under Persian onslaught in 256 and the city fell. No longer of strategic significance, the city was abandoned.
A bit down stream is Mari, a Babylonian city destroyed by Hammurabi around 1750 BC and not rediscovered until 1933. Many major artifacts have come from this site and now grace the Louvre and Damascus museums. What's left are a series of trenches. This is the guide's big chance to use his narrative magic to make the place come alive. He fails. At least we have the place to ourselves; the only other soul is the ticket seller, who says that tourists come by once or twice a week. (Actually, we have ALL the places we visit to ourselves. Come to Syria and avoid the crowds.)
The royal palace, containing of hundreds of rooms, is an underground warren. We climb onto an unexcavated temple, i.e., a dirt hill, to look at Iraq only 10 miles away. We ask to drive to the border but Saad says he and the driver would be subject to arrest. So we have to content ourselves with taking pictures of the road sign.
We spend the night in Deir Ez-Zor. The hotel's "internet coffee" is down so I take a stroll. An Armenian spirit shop is offering a large bottle of fine Syrian whiskey for $1.40. (I know what you are thinking, and the answer is, "No. Lighter fluid is somewhat cheaper.")
It is Thursday night, the equivalent of Saturday night in the west, and everyone is out on the town. Two young guys come over to chat me up in poor English. Three other guys join us. They are Kurds, and their English is impeccable. As we walk along, the two groups compete for my attention. "Don't talk to them. They are Kurds!" say the first two as they condemn US foreign policy. Pulling me away, the three urgently whisper in my ear: "WE LOVE AMERICA! WE LOVE GEORGE W. BUSH! AMERICANS AND KURDS ARE LIKE BROTHERS! ARABS ARE DOGS!" You find wisdom in all sorts of unexpected places.
The next morning we drive to Palmyra, another ruined and abandoned city. Situated on a large oasis in the middle of nowhere but on a major trade route, it was called "the bride of the desert." It was not Roman but the capital of a buffer state between Rome and the Parthians. The city was sacked by the Emperor Aurelian in 272. It was partially restored by Diocletian, but by then the trade route had shifted and it fell into obscurity.
The ruins are large and expansive. Too bad the blue skies have left us that day, depriving us of superior photo opportunities. The architecture is Roman in style with decidedly eastern features. Unique multi-storied towered tombs. The Baal temple was interesting enough, first Hellenistic, then Baalistic, then Byzantine, then Muslim, and then housing. The adjacent town is a burg 100% dependent on tourism, so the hustle and hassle are high.
That afternoon we drive back to Damascus. In a week we have driven 1300 miles. Saad says his goodbyes. He will repeat the circuit tomorrow with a new group, after which he faces two months without work. That will give him time to attend his Baath party refresher courses.
Oh, I forgot to mention, it's Christmas day. I failed to hang my stocking so I do not get my usual lump of coal (which I could have used in Baalbek). Most of the group is leaving, so we have a celebratory meal at an upscale hotel. I order the turkey dinner, figuring at least it is not left over from the day before.
Part III - Jordan
Since I entered Syria on a group visa, I must leave with what remains of the group, which means I get free transport over the border into Jordan.
On the ride south I get a bonus ? a visit to the Roman amphitheater at Bosra. Seating 15,000, it is the oldest/largest/best-preserved (or some combination thereof) amphitheater in the world. (It's in good shape because the Muslims built a fort around it.) Before the Romans, Bosra was the northern capital of the Nabateans (Petra was the southern capital) but whatever remains of theirs lies buried beneath the modern town.
Into Jordan and on to Jerash. I hang with the group and freeload on the guided tour of, yes, more Roman ruins. Good thing I don't get tired of this stuff.
Tourist-wise, Jordan is considerably more crowded than Lebanon or Syria, but at least they have a better sense of marketing: in the amphitheater a bagpiper in full Bedouin dress is performing a traditional tattoo; and the hippodrome is being restored for real-life chariot racing. The blue skies have returned, making for better photos than overcast Palmyra. By the time I am done, I have missed the last bus to Amman, so I take a not too expensive cab ride to my selected hotel.
Amman is supposed to be highly missable, so in the morning I head south. I decide to hit the highlight first, and take the bus to Petra. The ride is not bad, but they could wash the windows. And I could do without the loud caterwauling that passes for music here. By noon I am Wadi Mousa (the modern town), have found a hotel and am on my way to the site.
It's a 15 minute walk downhill to the gate, where I buy a two-day ticket for $20. (To promote tourism, all admission prices in Jordan have been halved, from too high before to acceptable now.) From there it's another half mile to the start of the Siq, the natural fissure that is the entry passage to Petra. They want to sell you a horse ride for this distance. The price, if you book at the ticket office, is 7 dinars. Once you start walking the asking price quickly drops to 1 dinar. I am wearing my gaucho hat from Uruguay, so they all call out, "Hey, cowboy!" or "Hey, Indiana Jones!" (I J and the Last Crusade
was filmed here.)
At the Siq, a different concession takes over. The horses are not permitted, only horse carriages. It's a scenic and pleasant 3/4 mile walk in the shade, interrupted only by clattering carriages containing Indian tourists. After all, they wouldn't want to be mistaken for low-caste pedestrians.
When you emerge from the Siq, the facade of the Treasury is visible through the crevice. This is the picture you have all seen, one of the major world sights. The only problem is that there are other people clogging up the scene. It's Spaniard Day, or so it seems. Plus a few Frogs, some Krauts, and a couple of fat chicks from New Jersey. That's the problem with travel during Christmas week: irreligious tourists who won't stay home and go to church.
Memo to Ministry of Tourism: the Petra visitor experience would be enhanced without revenue loss if one could spend a couple of bucks to rent a "leave me alone" hat/sticker/armband/whatever, with the proceeds split among the locals who approach you every 15 seconds to offer a horse/camel/donkey/carriage ride or genuine jewelry/coins/antiques/rocks.
There's not much left of Petra except facades cut into the cliffs and a few freestanding ruins. It is the setting and the colors that make the place special. I spend 2 1/2 hours strolling to the city center, from which it's a 3-mile uphill walk back to town. The days are short, and it is getting dark by the time I get back to the hotel.
My room is equipped with satellite TV. Real satellite TV, with a dish on the roof and a tuner beneath the set. There are 300+ channels: besides Al-Jazeerah, there's Al-Jazeerah in English (also known as the BBC); stations from Qatar, Somalia, Albania, and all the other postage stamp collector countries; several channels beaming programming from Los Angeles to Iran; and numerous Arabic phone sex lines promo channels. Iraq TV is in the lineup, but it is just broadcasting a test pattern. Predictably, there's nothing to watch. Maybe they would spend less time thinking of ways to blow us up if, instead of interviews with mullahs, The Simpsons were on 24/7 in those countries.
On day two I get an early start and beat the tour groups. My destination is the Monastery, the furthest high point, which I reach by 10:30. It is absolutely silent. When I stop, all I can hear is my heart pounding from climbing the 800 steps cut into the mountain. At an overlook, I spot an outline of a flying saucer chiseled into the rock at my feet. Quick, call Erich von Daniken! Another Chariots of the Gods sighting! (Like all true believers, I exclude the possibility that it was carved by more recent visitors.)
I hang around a couple of hours taking the views from various points and eating the lunch I brought. When I descend, the path is littered with droppings from the donkeys that fat, old, and lazy tourists hire to avoid the hike. At least they sweep up overnight.
I spend so long dawdling and visiting stuff I skipped yesterday that I mistimed things. By the time I get back to the start point for the climb to the High Place of Sacrifice it is getting late. Faced with the thought of racing to the top, racing back down, then the long uphill hike back to town, I scrub the mission. Next time.
I have two days left in Jordan. I decide to skip Aqaba because its sole attraction is the Red Sea and snorkeling therein, and it is too cold for that (at least for this Florida boy). I would like to go to Wadi Rum (where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed) but the logistics suck: the only bus leaves at 6 AM and doesn't return until the next day. I would have to stay overnight in a Bedouin guest camp (it's COLD in the winter) and pay the full freight for a driver and vehicle. Fuggedaboudit. So it's back to Amman, where at least it's not a tourist ripoff like Wadi Mousa.
Amman is a good place if you like living on a hill, because that's all there is. Walking anywhere is impossible. Besides the usual obstructions and disrespect for pedestrians, the distances are multiplied because the roads circumscribe the slopes. A stone's throw could be two miles by road. Plus, every direction is uphill. The good news is taxis are cheap (flag fall is 20?) and they all use the meter without prompting. Collective taxis are even cheaper (a flat 20? fare), kind of fun, and run all over.
There is not a lot to do or see, but my hotel is comfortable and I have time to work on this overlong trip report. The National Museum is right-sized: one room. It's all good stuff, including the world's oldest mural (4000 BC); fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls; and an 850 BC stele by the King of Moab thanking the god Chemosh for deliverance from the Israelites.
Walking around, I see some tourists, but mostly in groups. No one bothers me. The Iraqi Airlines ticket office doesn't seem to be open for business. Why are there lightening rods on minarets? I pass a real leper on the sidewalk and give her a coin; I feel just like Jesus. Well, not quite, because I didn't heal her.
Arab food sucks. The only thing edible is the chicken and bread. After 3 weeks I am about to sprout feathers. So I visit the posh part of town where there's a Burger King. At least their fare has ketchup and a pickle on it.
The flight out is at the inconvenient hour of 2:00 AM, so I depart the hotel in the late evening to begin the 31-hr. return journey. The KLM flight to Amsterdam is sardine city. In Amsterdam, checking in for the long haul transatlantic I get the good news: upgrade to business class. Must be clean living, or maybe it's my good looks. Trip date: December 2004