A Visit to Jordan and Jerusalem
Next stop, 2,500-foot-high Mount Nebo. From its windswept summit Jerusalem is clearly visible, no more than 25 miles away across the Dead Sea and the Judea Desert.
On this desolate peak, God is believed to have shown Moses the location of Canaan, the Promised Land. Surely at that time the countryside was more appealing than its bare rocky hills are today.
A guide talking with a group near me remarked that Moses wandered in the desert for 40 years only because he didn't have a licensed guide with him.
Early one morning we drove east into the desert ourselves, as if heading to Iraq. Devoid of soaring white wind-carved sand dunes, it is a bleak place; flat, hard, and beige-brown. A fierce, chilling wind whipped a screen of sand across the road already clogged with giant Iraqi oil tanker trucks heading nose-to-tail for the Jordanian port of Aqaba.
I was there to see the desert"castles," a catch-all phrase for remarkable structures that include caliphs' pleasure palaces, hunting lodges, caravansaries (desert "hotel/trading posts"), and true Roman-style fortresses.
Qasr Asraq from the Romans to Lawrence
The first castle was Asraq, located near an oasis on an historic trade route. Built by Romans in the fourth century of massive black basalt blocks, it is utilitarian, designed for battle.
In 1917, T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), along with King Hussein's great-grandfather, used Asraq as a headquarters for the Arab revolt against the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Standing in the courtyard it was easy to picture revolutionaries leaping into their saddles to carry out a daring raid on the Turkish railroad supply line.
Qusayr Amra Designed for Pleasure
Amra was built by Umayyad caliphs in the eighth century as a pleasure palace where they could escape the restrictions on life in Damascus. What remains is in very good shape, including a three-domed audience hall and a bathhouse with both cold water and steam rooms.
Amra is further distinguished by vivid frescoes on walls and ceilings of naked ladies reclining, dancing, and bathing. Having escaped destruction by Muslim clerics for 1,100 years, they were recently defaced by outraged Bedouins who used the elegant castle as a stable. In the Western world, ancient sculptures lose their noses. In Jordan, damage is somewhat more personal.
The final stop in the desert was a limestone castle rising majestically from the barren sand. With turrets on each corner and false arrow-slits it looks very much like a fortress but was not. More likely it was a caravansary with 61 rooms on two floors, providing food and lodging beginning in the seventh century.
I imagined the relief felt by a hot, weary, parched merchant leading dozens of heavily-laden camels when he suddenly saw Hraneh appear through the swirling sand.
Any traveler interested in fine Roman architecture must not miss Jerash. It contains some of the most impressive examples of Roman design in the world. It is located about 30 miles north of Amman in an area of the Gilead mountains inhabited since at least 6000 B.C.
In its heyday it was a great trade crossroads as well as a vital military bastion. As a reminder of how transient are the works of man, a massive earthquake so decimated Jerash of 747 that it was deserted for more than 1,000 years.
Following a path through Hadrian's (triple) Arch, I entered an elegant open oval plaza about 300 feet long, enclosed by two curving stone colonnades.
From the plaza the wide, stone-paved Cardo (main thoroughfare) leads past the Hippodrome (racetrack) to the classically perfect Theatre. Some of its 3,000 seats are marked with Greek numbers.
Overlooking the Theatre are three interconnected Byzantine churches notable for their exquisite mosaic floors.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication