Of mysterious desert moons

Of mysterious desert moons

Jordanian odyssey

Of mysterious desert moons

It was early in the morning and we had trekked over 5 km and climbed around 1,000 steps. With the sun peeking over the horizon, we were about to reach the top of The Monastery, an awe-inspiring ancient monument carved out of rocks in the Jordanian city of Petra.

I congratulated Suhail, my travel companion, on being the first to reach the peak, from where a majestic view of The Monastery awaited us. But Suhail pointed to a Japanese traveller perched on a rock and reading Murakami. However, that could not dampen our spirits as we took the last few steps to reach the top.

The astounding sight of The Monastery made every step we climbed worth it. No wonder Petra, “a rose-red city half as old as time”, is one of the seven wonders of the world.

Rose-tinted city

Petra had been abandoned for centuries. It is famous for its rock-cut structure and was established as the capital of Nabateans around 300 BC. The entrance to the city is through a 2-km-long gorge at the end of which lies The Treasury — a temple carved out of sandstone. The movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was shot here.

The path from The Treasury to The Monastery is dotted with tombs, gates, market streets, Roman theatres, temples and caves — all carved out of sandstone.

Our journey to this adventure-packed country had started a couple of days earlier at the Queen Alia International Airport. We were escorted to the cabin of the immigration officer. Over a cup of Arabian coffee and a cigarette, the officer discussed Amitabh Bachchan. And finally, we were greeted with open arms: “Welcome to Jordan, my friends from India.”

We took a short taxi ride to Madaba, a small town mentioned in the Bible. The town is best known for Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics. The most famous of these is a large Byzantine-era mosaic map of the Holy Land.

An Arab Christian family, the father being a Jordanian and the mother a Syrian, played our hosts. The family had four kids, but they had invited their relatives for a rendezvous with us. We discussed Bollywood, Indian TV soaps, the problems of common people of the region, the Arab-Israel conflict and the war in Syria.

We were served the national dish of Jordan — mansaf. The name comes from the term “large tray” as it is served in such a utensil. The lamb is cooked in a broth made with a fermented then dried yoghurt-like product called jameed, and served with a layer of flatbread topped with rice and meat, garnished with almonds, pine nuts, spices and herbs. Our discussions continued well into the night over Arabian deserts, snacks, mint tea and sheesha.

The next day, we headed to Petra. We took a more leisurely King’s Highway, which winds its way along numerous serpentine curves and hairpin bends and goes past biblical sites, crusader castles, deep gorges and nature reserves. Mount Nebo was our first destination, which, according to certain Christian and Muslim traditions, is the burial place of Moses.

Our next stop was the Dead Sea, the deepest hyper saline lake in the world. Because of its high density, it is possible to float in the water body. While photographing ourselves in the famous posture of reading a book while floating on the Dead Sea, the enthusiasm for a non-swimmer like me was enough to forget the basics of floating. I ended up letting the saline water get into my eyes, blinding me, and had to be rescued.

Rich heritage

We started our journey towards Petra with a stopover at the crusader castle of Kerak. The Arabian fighter, Salahuddin Ayyubi, had captured it in the late 12th century. We spent the day at Wadi Musa, the town closest to Petra. The whole of next day was spent admiring Petra. The following day, we left early for Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum, also known as The Valley of the Moon, is cut into the sandstone and granite rock in southern Jordan. My fascination with Wadi Rum started when I saw the valley in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and the valley with its evocative Mars like landscape ensured that it was worth the visit. We roamed around the valley in a jeep. We slept in Bedouin tents but not before enjoying zarb — a dish cooked in an underground oven.

Our next destination was the capital city of Amman, which has a lively downtown offering Middle Eastern cuisines, a Roman amphitheatre and a grand citadel.
On the last evening, we were invited by our Jordanian friend — a philosopher, author, Reiki instructor and self-confessed healer with the ability to communicate with the dead — to his father’s birthday. We gorged on Arabian sweets with knafeh (a cheese pastry soaked in sugar syrup) being my favourite. We were amazed by the knowledge of the guests about Bollywood of the 70s and 80s. Many of them belted out songs from Deewar and Amar Akbar Anthony.

We left this country of wonders, myths, history and religion with happy memories and lifelong friends, carrying red sand grains in our pockets. On the way to the airport, our taxi driver said Shahid Kapoor was the “King of Romance”.

Other attractions

Baptism Site: A pilgrimage spot alongside River Jordan at the place where Jesus was baptised, commemorated by dozens of ancient churches and hermitages.

Jerash: A spectacularly well-preserved Roman city, complete with colonnaded streets, grand temples, intimate marketplaces and mosaic-floored churches.

Umm Qais: Atmospheric Roman and Ottoman site in the far north of Jordan, offering spectacular views over the Sea of Galilee, and relatively few tourists.

Madaba: This easygoing Christian market town near Amman was a centre for mosaic art in the Byzantine period. Roam its souks and take in the splendour of ancient mosaics.

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