Friday, May 31, 2019

Day -2: Desert Castles in the Sand

February 26: Karolina continues her guest blog posts of our pre-Jordan Trail adventures!


Our plan for today was a road trip to visit three desert castles. What are desert castles? Some of them were built so that caravans traveling across the Syrian Desert would have a place to spend the night. Others belonged to kings who stayed in them during their hunting trips – in the old days when the Syrian Desert was still bustling with animal life.

The first of the desert castles
We had an appointment with Abu Sameer, the owner of our hotel, at 9:00 – today he was going to be our taxi driver. Driving through Jordanian landscape was an adventurous experience on its own. Abu Sameer drove a very good and comfortable car. The seatbelts worked, so both Ryan and I were using them – but our driver didn’t. He also had a habit of talking on his phone while driving. It seemed that all car rides in Jordan looked like that – no seatbelts fastened, playing with phone, abusing the horn and maneuvering among and around other traffic participants. In these conditions particularly large numbers of kids were running around streets, playing or walking to and from school. Places near streets where there was a patch of grass were often claimed by shepherds herding their goats – inside a city! There were groups of people – sorry, correction: men – sitting or squatting along the streets, chatting or just looking around – just loitering. There were farmers selling their produce to passing cars, roadside tea shops and an occasional camel.

The road we were driving on out of Madaba was in a very good condition – our driver explained that it was built only six or seven years ago with American money, I presume USAID. The signage was both in Arabic and English – to make life easier for thousands of tourists who visit the area each year. The surroundings were green and full of flowers – at least until we reached the desert. According to Abu Sameer in a week or two the number of flowers was going to increase significantly and turn into a true flower explosion. The only thing that ruined the landscape were tons of garbage scattered around – mainly plastic bags dancing in the wind or caught up in vegetation. (We jokingly called them "Jordanian flowers" and they were in "bloom" everywhere!) During the rest of our trip we would learn the sad fact that garbage was part of the Jordanian landscape anywhere you go.

The first of the castles – Qasr Al-Mushatta – was located right next to Queen Alia International Airport. Planes flew very low right above our heads and there were many armed police and border guards with huge machine guns on the roofs of their trucks. Kind of a scary setting in my opinion, but at the same time fascinating. Ryan said he would have loved to be able to take a picture of one of the huge weapons but doing that was definitely out of question – strictly forbidden to photograph military and strategic zones or equipment!

Qasr Al Mushatta was pretty, with lots of decorative carvings on the walls. We seemed to be the only visitors at the site – except for lizards, scarab beetles and pigeons. Also here flowers were in bloom and also here garbage was everywhere.

To reach the other two castles we drove on a road which connects Damascus and Amman with Baghdad. Every now and then we would pass signs informing how far we were from the Iraqi border – I think the closest we got was about 270 km (168 miles). Never imagined I'd be traveling on a road to Baghdad!

Just 300 km away from Iraq! (And a mere 110 km away from Saudi Arabia, but we'd be getting much closer to that so we weren't as impressed with that one.)
The second castle, Qasr Al-Kharrana – was a cube-like construction in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a desert. It was a two-story building with an inner patio , many rooms and many windows. It even had a ventilation system – specially formed openings in the walls which created air drafts. In front of the castle premises there was a Bedouin tent which served as a souvenir shop.

This was castle #2

 Our driver came back and we set off for the last castle – Quseir Amra. Here we got a guided tour by a very short Bedouin. Qusair Amra was very different from the two other castles. It used to serve as a secret party-place for a certain king during his hunting trips. It had a very non-Islamic décor inside - wall paintings featuring naked ladies, dancers, party scenes, hunting scenes and the Zodiac. Our guide explained that the castle used to have a steam bath, heated floor and a hydraulic system which transported water from a nearby well.

On the way back our driver pulled out a little bag with some artifacts he found in the western part of Madaba – ancient coins, nails and some other items which I couldn’t identified. He told us they date back to the Roman and Byzantine periods and that he finds them with the help of a metal detector, cleans them and sells them. I was a little surprised about that – where I live you can’t just go digging for ancient stuff and if you happen to find some by accident you are obliged to give it to a museum, not keep for yourself or sell!

Back in Madaba we decided to do some more sightseeing and went to check out the John the Baptist Church. Madaba is where the Christian community of Jordan is concentrated and there are several churches in the area – right next to mosques. The main reason we wanted to visit the John the Baptist Church was its bell tower – we were counting on some awesome views. We walked 100 steps up a very narrow staircase to a little balcony. On our way we passed ropes which are used to ring the bells and Ryan was very tempted to pull them but he refrained from doing that, not wanting to end up in trouble. (Rule #1: Don't end up in a Jordanian prison! Rule #2: Don't get yourself killed.)

I was so tempted to pull the ropes that would ring the bells! Despite the sign (or maybe because of it?) behind me saying not to do so.
It was very blustery on the balcony and my fear of heights kicked in so I didn’t stay up there too long. I went back down and waited for Ryan at the entrance to Acropolis – the underground part of the church where you can see many very beautiful mosaics, a Bedouin tent and some tunnels.

For dinner we went to a shwarma place downtown Madaba. Most of you probably know shawarma under the name döner kebab – the former name is Arabic and the latter one is Turkish but it is practically the same thing. The waiter asked which type of shawarma we wished – they had one with chicken and one with meat. Wait a second, isn’t chicken meat? What do you mean by meat? It turned out in Jordan meat refers to lamb, sometimes beef. Chicken is chicken...and never called meat. Anyways, I ordered my shawarma with meat (it was lamb) while Ryan settled for the chicken version.

The waiter took us to a terrace with a pretty view on a bustling street and St. George Church where the famous Mosaic of Madaba is located – we were going to go see it tomorrow. We ate our dinner watching the street life, writing in our journals and listening to the sung prayers from the mosque.

After dinner we decided to go for a walk around Madaba. I wanted to visit some souvenir shops and buy fridge magnets and a Bedouin scarf – locally known as kuffiyah or shemagh and used by the Bedouins as sun protection.

In one of the shops I saw a display of scarves which got my attention. They were all very pretty and it wasn’t easy to decided which one I wanted. Ryan helped me by advising that I should go for the very colorful scarf – after all, I am a rainbow person and usually dress in many colors.

Michael, the owner of the shop, was very nice and offered to show us how to wrap the scarf around my head. Then I had a brilliant idea: let's film his instructions! I gave my smartphone to Ryan and let Michael work on my head. After he was done, Ryan realized that he had pressed a wrong button and instead of making a movie, he took two photos –one at the beginning of the instruction and one at the end. So we had Michael repeat the whole procedure a second time – and fortunately this time Ryan didn't mess up this time. But watching Michael wrapping the scarf around my head, he decided that it was fun and that he wanted to have a scarf of his own! So off he went to choose his scarf and we had Michael show us how to wrap it.

Michael shows Karolina a scarf... then how to wrap it around her head.

We learned from Michael that women and men wrap the scarves differently and that many men wear an extra decoration on their scarves – a circlet of rope called an agal. If you’re wealthy your agal is decorated with a thin rope with a thingy at the end which dangles down your back. Ryan, being a rich American, got himself the rich version of agal. ;-)

Once the scarves were draped around our heads and we looked like real Bedouins Michael invited us for a cup of sweet Bedouin tea with sage. I was shocked that Ryan wanted to drink tea, too  ;-o)

Michael arranged chairs and a table for us inside his shop and brought tea in beautiful clay cups decorated with mosaics. The top of the table was all mosaic, too. Michael introduced himself as a mosaic artist and told us that he even did some mosaic renovation projects in the United States where there aren’t many local mosaic specialists. In Madaba Michael ran a souvenir shop – the one we were in – and an artist atelier across the street from the shop where he worked on mosaics and produced other types of souvenirs which he sold in bulk to retail vendors. He showed us some figurines he had made for someone from Petra and said that producing them cost him 5 dinars per item, he sold them for 15 dinars and in Petra they went for 100 dinars.

Learning how to wrap those scarves around our heads had totally made our day and we returned to the hotel with giant smiles on our faces. Another great day in Jordan! =)

And more photos from the desert castles. Back at castle #1!

Genuine artifacts? Who knows?!
I'm taking a photo of the mileage sign that includes distances to... Iraq! We won't go quite that far, though.
Relaxing at castle #2
Just be careful of the drop!

Cute little guys!
Mural in castle #3

And back in Madaba!
Inside the church

Outside the church. (That's me standing at the top of the tower in the background.)
View of Madaba from the top of the tower

I know this icon is supposed to represent a mosque (and is a sign really necessary?), but I couldn't help but notice that both the dome and the minaret both look a little... well, you don't need to use your imagination too much.... =) How does something like that happen in such a conservative country?!

Learning how to put on a scarf.

Mosques everywhere play music through their speakers so everyone knows when it's time to pray. This is the last prayer for the day today from the window of our hotel room.

1 comment:

Mary said...

I love the scarf video! Too bad there weren’t any chairs for Ryan to sit down because it would have been so much easier for that salesman!