Sights and Sounds of Jordan, Syria, & Lebanon

November 11, 2008by Brenda Pierce

Below is a post from one of the participants from our Oct. 15-28 Jordan and Syria Tour. Enjoy!

Hi Everyone,

It’s hard to believe that I’m back in my comfy home after a long journey of 14 days, flying 12 and half hours across from Amman, Jordan and another 5 hours from New York to San Francisco; it was another time capsule of another world!!!The destination: Syria and Jordan..definitely the Middle East , Wonder of Wonders, the Cradle of Civilization and ten thousand years of civilization with twenty diverse cultural eras.

Before going any further, I would like to make a disclaimer that my historical knowledge and dates may not be accurate and my story are only my interpretations. My observations of the sights and sounds are my delight in the world of discovery.

JORDAN helped me complete my list of must sees, as National Geographic did mention that PETRA in Jordan as one World Wonders. No one can really appreciate the grandeur of this site, unless you are physically there. I soon realized that PETRA “Rose Red City” was more than the famed building of the Treasury, but a whole city behind, carved out of sandstone with a Roman amphitheater and spectacular Church to boot.

Little did anyone realize that on this trip, we would be treated to seven UNESCO Sites. FYI: (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Sites.It was founded to help preserve specific landmarks and natural sites and to draw public awareness to them.

Our group had the pleasure of spending an afternoon at DANA RESERVE (UNESCO site) where we were challenged to go hiking for several hours on very rocky mountain surfaces. Our Jordanian guide gave us the hope that we would find wildlife romping about, but the only rompers, were our exuberant tour members who could have been on a photography assignment as they romped precariously from rock to rock formations to get their pictures.

Little did we expect was to be really doing hard camping at another UNESCO site, WADI RUN. It is the vast desert land with jutting landscapes and more expected wildlife. I really expected to see Lawrence of Arabia reenacted on these vast plains; our group had the pleasure of sitting on the back of open air trucks riding & bumping through the fine sand. Needless to say, our wind tousled sandy hair demanded another shampoo.But not tonight..our camp was a two man Pakistani made canvas tent with two cots and bedding. No more, no less; oh yes, a bright burning lantern outside. Honeymooners would have almost loved this, but it was too challenging to find everything in the dark, much less the bathroom which was in a separate building, many tents away. Now try going to go the bathroom in the middle of the night when you only have a small Sharper Image light to guide the way. However, one lesson learned, the Jordanians cook their dinners like the Hawaiians do a kaula pig for a Luau. Their marinated meats, namely lamb and chicken, are put into huge cauldron submerged in the ground, covered with hot wood coals and cooked a whole afternoon. The end result was a culinary delight.

To compensate for the dire conditions for us “non campers” who are more like princesses, we were rewarded with a glorious stay at the Kempinski Hotel at the Dead Sea, which I have rated as 6 star!!! What awaited us was the chance to play and float in the Dead Sea, 400 meters below sea level, and to slather ourselves with the” cure all, make you beautiful mud.” Yes, we all did succumb to bringing our senior bods to test the waters and found it to be truly salty and very buoyant. With the promise of improving all skin tones to rejuvenation, we naively managed to spread this very licorice looking color mud, with the consistency of molasses, on our bodies from head to toe and that meant covering our faces. Before long, we could not recognize anyone, except by body size.

A ride through the Jordanian desert , totally void of any greenery or water on a straight road with an endless horizon, brought us to visit QASR AMRA, (UNESCO) which means “Construction”. Once a 8th century Palace, complete with baths and unique Christian frescoes, we were able to find the remains of a beautiful and glorious structure. This palace, in its hey day, was once occupied in a lush valley of trees and water. Again, it was a “Kodak moment” for us or should I say a “digital” moment.

AL MUIJIB, also known as APAMEA (UNESCO),13th century, Roman city,was one of my favorites; it was a “sleeper”, There are boulevards of impressive restored columns and my heart just felt my heartstrings tug. It was so spectacular!!! Imagine, avenues of bold impressive columns, ” Colonnade Avenue, “where it seemed like miles of tall, majestic columns, with or without it’s Corinthian curly cue tops. While strolling through the avenues, we had a well fed stray dog follow our group for a few blocks and he reminded me of my morning walk with my Sheltie dog, Monty. What is impressive is the distance that large stones had to be carried up the hill and be erected to form the columns. At the southern gate, known as the Homs gate, there exists twisted fluted columns, 2nd century AD, which was happily recorded digitally by me.

*Each morning, at 5 am, I am awakened by the Morning call to Prayer with a lingering chant.
*The city of Amman, consists of seven hills, dotted with very concrete,boxy looking, homes everywhere. It looks like Lego land and there seems to be a lack of color, like no one paints their homes with any color, very neutral sandy
*There hasn’t been any rain in the area since April 2007, very arid
*Hard to believe, there is a Sam’s Club and Safeway.
*All rooftops have an unfinished look: pillars with exposed metal.This is done in anticipation of adding another floor to the building for a family member to move in
*As we leave the city of Amman, the outskirts are hilly and dotted with rows of olive tree farms and pistachio farms
*One does not forget you’re in the 21st century as there is plastic everywhere: plastic bags of every color are scattered all over the countryside, as there are water bottles.
* Phosphorus is the country’s biggest natural product and loaded onto trains to be transported to different areas of the country. While at Wadi Run, our morning call was the rumbling sounds of a train, transporting phosphorus
* Camels are likely to cross a highway or be lumbering around the countryside on it’s own. Most of these camels are white and are smaller built as compared to their counterparts.
* One of my favorite little towns was Madaba, the city of mosaics where it was discovered a Byzantine mosaic map showing Jerusalem and other holy sites from Biblical times
* Jerash, a forgotten Roman ruin was also another visit that called for more digital moments.

Not reading my itinerary too carefully, I found out that we were going to be in LEBANON for one day. That was one of the most historic days in my life, for I have found another site that I have fallen in love with. This has to be another UNESCO site, if not a World Wonder: please let me introduce to you BAALBECK.

It is a fabulous Roman city ruins which could surpass Petra.Our visit to the Temple of Jupiter where amazingly ,much was in tact. However the piece of resistance was the Temple dedicated to Bacchus, the god of grapes and wine. Those Romans were party timers from the get go…as we were able to witness a Wine Hall that was extremely well planned and perfect for having little groupies of a 1000 for drinks and nibbles. ( ah, hummus again) Because of the recent excavation of this project, we were able to see all the many finer carved details and appreciate the grandeur. One historic note, most of the rocks and stones were monster boulder size and were secured with imbedded metal rods and moved by animals and hundreds of slaves. Each boulder had been carved up to eight steps and would be placed at each building. Water systems were “no problem” or cold, the Romans had it figured out. Their water pipes have held up for centuries!!!

*Did you know that they make wonderful wines,they have their own Napa Valley, Chateau Ksara has garnered the title of best little ole winemaker with multi awards; they used the old caves of the Romans who stored their wines there in the early days
*the architecture of their homes are nicer and more imaginative
* There are imported cars of every vintage and every make
*Kids all wear uniforms to school
*We are again reminded of the world of plastics, where plastic bags of every color are strewn all
over the countryside giving a confetti look
* Did I mention that you can purchase anything with your American dollar;?
* Taste of Lebanese food:similar to their other Middle Eastern neighbors:
Hummus, fattoch, baba,muharahma, kibbeh, cheese rolls, sabosa, lamb, chicken kabobs, and fresh fruits of the season. Persimmons were abundant and very sweet

Crossing the borders from Jordan to Syria and vise versa was serious business; strictly no picture taking and very serious border guards from both sides checked and double checked our passports to make sure that we weren’t on their undesirable list. Fortunately, our tour leader, Rita Zawaideh American Jordanian, kept everything light with her great sense of humor.

Upon arriving into SYRIA, it was like going into another world. They have water and their whole world is a lot greener. It boasts of the two major cities, Damascus,the capitol and Aleppo, former capitol. Their must see showcase is Palmyra.(UNESCO) Believe me, I had never heard of this ancient city and was truly delighted to know that we would be exploring another Roman ruin. As it was dusk, our group managed to drive up to the top of a hill where there was another castle awaiting our tired feet and begging us to explore. and to see the sunset. I chose neither. I was in “shoppers paradise”. All the Syrian or Bedouin vendors were hawking their gorgeous table covers & silver necklaces. Bargain, bargain and when you pay in Syrian dollars, you’re not sure if you paid too little or too much. But what a adrenalin experience.

Our morning walk in Palmyra was amongst the ruins and columns and camels;it was also another adrenalin rush, because the vendors from the night before chased us on motorcycles, yes motorcycles, trying to make a sale.We went from site to site and the motorcycles and vendors were right under our noses. We were in our element. Oh, yes.

Afew other must sees and also UNESCO site materials were in the major cities Damascus and Aleppo. Not to forget, the Citadel in Aleppo,the Street Called Straight in Damascus, the Omaryyad Mosque, also in Damascus.

We were beginning to feel “ruined ‘ out” but still manage to drag our tired bodies to see the other plums. The city of Bosra was nice and neat and their claim to fame is the largest Roman amphitheater. And who would have thought that the Syrians would have named a castle in French; Krak Des Chevalier.(UNESCO) It’s a complicated story, but a remarkably well preserved Crusader castle.

* I’m still awaken by the 5 am Morning call to Prayer with a lingering chant
* The traditional women of different sects all have their version of a black dress, called a burka or kaffeiyehs. If you go into the souk, (market place) you’ll see every conceivable black dress with many embellishments of trims and flowers. The best one was when I saw a lady in her black burka and it was trimmed with the Burberry plaid. Now how stylish can you be??
* The souks, a local market since time, is the Whole Foods of the Middle East; you will find the most fascinating and complete store in the world. I was more intriqued with all the fancy women’s lingerie that rivaled Fredericks of Hollywood. I certainly didn’t see the women wearing them, so I suspect there is a lot going on that doesn’t meet the eye under those black burkas.
* The souks gave us Americans of having a chance to interact with the merchants; when one of the merchants found out we were from America, he expressed his choice of our presidential candidate. We want” Obama, we want Obama” I had to hold my tongue.
* In the downtown area of Damascus, in the morning,the shop keepers all wash and mop their floors and even the frontage of their side walks. Shades of Japan and Korea.
* If you want a little morning exercise, try walking in downtown Damascus and try crossing the street. You have to play the game of chicken when you cross between a million yellow cabs and dodge quickly all the other oncoming cars. Great for your mind and agility
* If I haven’t mentioned it before, our bathroom stops were quite challenging. Question??? Is it a Western?? No, it’s a HOLY ONE!!!
* Did I mention that we traveled in a Chinese made bus ?? Yutong
* Many gorgeous pashmina scarves found in all the stores are from the Far East and even have the same familiar labels
* Upon entering the Holy Mosques, we women were required to rent a robe that covered us from head to toe and had to have our heads covered during our visit. Shoes were not permitted. It made us feel so “local”.

From our Christian background, it was exciting to be visiting the many places that Jesus Christ had been to or to relive a happening from our Biblical stories. Our stop to the Baptismal site of Jesus in the Jordan River, gave way to our getting our selves wet with the same water. The visit to the Church of Annais, Basilica of St Simeon ruins and the tiny villages of Ma’alaula and Sednaya, where it is the only place in the world that speaks Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. We heard a priest say the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic.

My head is still reeling from all this saturation of history, architecture, culture, religion, people, foods etc and feel so blessed to be able to do another Trip of a Lifetime. Now I can check off my list of Wonders of the World and add more UNESCO sites that I’ve seen.

AH, now for a good nights sleep….perhaps, I’ll be awaken by the early morning Call to Prayer.


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