Wednesday, 19 December 2012


Kerak Castle atop it's steep glacis
Monday 3 December: Jordan should be an inexpensive country to visit but the lack of public transport means that, once again, I'm forced to hire a private taxi, but this time I haggle hard and get the price for the trip to Kerak down from 60JD to 20JD. We are happily travelling south along the King's Highway when a little worryingly my Bedouin driver, Muhammad, stops for an hour or so to bleed the car's brakes. We stop again to view Wadi Mujib before making the steep descent into the wadi. Scary stuff but we arrive in Kerak safely.
After another good lunch of creamy humus topped with chick peas I explore Kerak Castle. Protected by a steep glacis or killing ground around two sides and a deep moat around the others, the battlements tower over the surrounding countryside as far as the Dead Sea. It's one of the largest Crusader castles in the Levant and there are many underground rooms and corridors to explore as well as clambering over the more recently added Ottoman towers. Not a health and safety officer in sight, great.
Tuesday 4 December: Local bus to Ma'an and a taxi to Wadi Musa, the dormitory town for one of the seven wonders of the world, Petra.
Slideshow of Karak.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012


Map mosaic Jerusalem area
Monday 1 December: Madaba is famous for mosaics and one of the more interesting is laid out on the floor of the Church of the Map, St George's. With Jerusalem at it's centre, east topmost and the Mediterranean Sea at the bottom, the mosaic covers the Holy Land stretching from the upper Jordan river on the left to the Nile Delta on the right. Difficult to photograph in-situ information boards display a complete photomosaic of the map mosaic (if that makes sense?).
At the top end of town The Shrine of the Beheading of St John the Baptist is also worth a look particularly because you can climb to the top of the bell-tower and look over the town. Every church should allow this - what better use of a church tower? Mostly Muslim, but partly Christian, Madaba is noted for its religious tolerance and alcohol is available from liquor stores in town. Beer is expensive (3JD, about £3 a can) but ridiculously strong. I have a fridge in the Phoneix Palace Hotel (10JD B&B) so I buy three cans of Petra beer: black top (8%), red top (10%) and yellow top (13%). Surprisingly, black top tastes watery, red top tastes like a normal lager and, perhaps less surprisingly, I don't remember drinking the yellow top.
Tuesday 2: Taking a taxi to to Mt Nebo I survey the Holy Land from where it's thought that Moses viewed the Promised Land before being buried somewhere nearby. Unfortunately it's a hazy day.
Slideshow of Madaba.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Jordan: Amman

Roman citadel, Amman
Friday 30 November: Not a whole lot to see in Amman just the Roman amphitheatre, Hashem Restaurant (which serves a delicious traditional humus and falafel meal for just 2JD) and the tall columns of Amman Citadel overlooking the sprawling city. The Palace Hotel (10JD B&B) is all you would expect of a cheap hotel in a large Arab city, but it's clean and friendly so worth a mention, not least, because they also give you a free lift to Madaba, my next destination, and a better room for the same price in their plusher sister hotel there.
Slideshow of Amman.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Dead Sea

Life in the chemical soup
Monday 26 November: Israel National Trail abandoned, I’m heading west to the Dead Sea and out of range of Hamas rocket fire. Ein Gedi’s small public beach is where I go for a dip. It’s a very strange sensation to lie back and find your feet and legs shooting up to the surface. The water is actually a poisonous chemical mix of sulphur, magnesium, calcium, bromide and potassium, to name but a few. I’m actually quite relieved to get out of the sea and have a fresh water shower, two in fact, to cleanse the mineral salts from my skin. Ein Gedi is primarily a nature reserve and long-horned Ibex abound, several climbing trees to feed on the upper leaves, it’s an amazing sight.
Tuesday 27: Relocating down the coast to beneath the Roman fortification of Massada I take the bus into the hotel resort of En Boquet as this is where the tourist office certifies that you have been to the lowest point on the Earth’s surface.
Wednesday 28: Rising at 5pm I hike up to Massada fort to see the sunrise. Massada looms high in the Israeli psyche as it’s where a squad of Jewish zealots once held out against the legions of Rome before committing suicide. Brown wing-tipped Tristram’s Starlings now survive in this remote place. The sunrise is not great but the views of the wind-sculptured rock formations beneath are so fantastic that in the afternoon I stroll into the ‘lunar’ landscape for a picnic lunch.
Thursday 29: Bus north to Bit ha-Arava junction where I wait for a bus to Beit She’am. Here I miss the bus to the Jordanian frontier, so after lunch I walk the five miles or so to the border post. Following fairly painless formalities I enter the Hashamite Kingdom of Jordan but I’m miles away from anywhere and no one else is here. So, I’m forced to hire a relatively expensive, 22 Jordanian Dinar (about £20), private taxi to Irbid for an inter-city bus to Amman, a long day. 
Slideshow of the Dead Sea coast.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Palestine Territories: Bethlehem

Kissing the birth place of Jesus
Saturday 24 November: Israeli buses don’t run on the Shabbat so from Damascus Gate I catch a Muslim run bus towards Bethlehem, a small Arab town in the occupied territories. The main draw card here is Church of the Nativity which purports to mark the spot where Jesus was born. There’s a Bishop visiting from Jerusalem to announce that it’s one month to Christmas (I wonder if this is really necessary) and the church is cordoned off. So I have an early lunch of humus and falafel to wait for it to open again. Finally I bow down through a low doorway and enter the holy site. Thankfully there are no coach parties and for a short while I have the place to myself. Soon some weeping girls arrive and kiss the spot where baby Jesus was born. Behind us there are more weeping women praying to the candle-lit manger. I’m a little surprised to see that the manger is made of marble, perhaps this explains how it survived for 2,000 years. I don’t believe any of this for a minute.
Originally I intended returning to Bethlehem for Christmas, and yes there is room at the inn, but as it's a Muslim town there's likely to be little festive spirit and even less beer.
Slideshow of Bethlehem.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012


Dome of the Rock, Temple Mount
Monday 19 November: To give myself an overview of the ancient city I'm starting at the Tower of David and walking around the Crusader and Ottoman ramparts that enclose the city’s old quarters. I’m alone on the fortifications above Jaffa Gate when the peace is broken by the wail of sirens over the modern city. Some people below rush for shelter but these battlements have survived many explosions and still remain, so do I (later I learn that a rocket from Gaza has exploded near Bethlehem a few miles away). I’m not worried and enjoy the views over Mt Zion, the Church of the Dormition and the Mount of Olives. When I arrive at the western wall of Temple Mount there’s more wailing but this time it’s the sound of Jewish zealots worshipping the wall, black-hatted men with long pig-tails who clearly take it all too seriously. Segregated fat-bottomed females carry on in a similar fashion, eating is an obsession in Israel.
Tuesday 20: Today I opt for the 'free' walking tour of the old city. This time sirens sound close-by and we are ushered into a protected area - the missile shelter in the basement of the Tower of David, great. Soon it’s over and we head along the narrow market streets of the city’s four quarters: Armenian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. It’s fascinating that these divisions still exist, set in stone. I’m staying in the well-run Abraham Hostel where, in the evening, the manager briefs the guests on the political situation regarding the Gaza conflict. Tensions are running high in Palestine and the check-point to the occupied territories has been temporarily closed. All tours to Palestine, including Jericho and Bethlehem, have been cancelled until further notice, tour groups have not being going there for a while.
Wednesday 21: Today I take a walk across the Valley of Kidron towards the Mount of Olives. My first stop is at the pretty olive grove of the Garden of Gethsemane then the Basilica of Agony. Mary’s tomb and the grotto where it’s thought Judas betrayed Jesus are nearby. There are good views back over Jerusalem and I head back through Lion’s Gate and along Via Dolorosa. The street is marked by stations-of-the-cross as this is believed to be the route along which Jesus dragged his cross. Large wooden crosses can be hired here and a group of rather intense English Christians, clearly upset by the experience, grapple with a large cross carrying it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Part of me wants to make the experience more realistic for them, but I can’t find anywhere to hire a spear.
Thursday 22: This morning I queue for half-an-hour to gain access to Temple Mount and the exterior of the Dome of the Rock. Its blue tiling is stunning and this appears to be the sanest religious site in Jerusalem. No wailing, no mock crosses, just scruffy kids playing football in the grounds. The mental hospital nearby has a regular stream of Christians each year who believe they are Jesus. Apparently they soon recover. I just wonder what happens when two meet - “I’m Jesus.” “No you’re not, I am . . .”
Despite a midday bomb bus attack in Tel Aviv yesterday a ceasefire came into effect today, hope it holds.
Friday 23: It’s raining hard today so I’m off to the Israel Museum. A lot of archaeology and fine art but the Dead Sea scrolls in The Shrine of the Book are the collection’s most important possessions. Good to see but not of great interest unless you can read them.
Saturday 24: The Room of the Last Supper has been rebuilt so many times over the years it can bear little resemblance to the original. I wash down my supper with the locally produced Jerusalem Stout. Sweet and black with a frothy white head - delicious.
Slideshow of Jerusalem.