We heard the news shortly after we landed. The King was dead. How would this effect our trip to Jordan? This thought, along with sadness for the passing of a great man, a peacemaker, was foremost in my mind.
Its first effect was to force us to dig into our backup passes. The El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Amman had filled up. As we were given the last two seats on the Royal Jordanian flight, we were asked if we, too, were journalists.
The night was chilly and wet when we landed in Amman's Queen Alia International Airport. Despite switching flights, we were still pretty much on schedule. Our tour representative, Hassam (a very Western-looking Arab), ushered us through Customs. He then introduced us to our very Middle Eastern-looking driver/guide, Mohammed. His head wrapped in a traditional red and white checkered khafeyah, he seemed a slightly ominous presence. Driving through the night along streets lined with assault-rifle-armed soldiers only heightened the feeling. Mohammed introduced himself and welcomed us to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. We expressed sympathy for his nation's loss. That first night, Mohammed seemed a solemn man who chose his words carefully.
Our hotel was Western style and way, way above the standard I usually stay in. Four star, was my guess. After settling in, we had a beer in the bar and watched Jordanian television show scenes of the mass outpouring of grief by the crowds in the streets. The only other occupants of the bar were a half-dozen Arab men in suits, who also watched entranced, speaking to one another softly.
The bright gray sky the next morning dispelled my worries of the night before. Today, our sightseeing began in earnest. A much more talkative Mohammed picked us up early and we drove about 45 minutes north to Jerash. He regaled us with a history of Jordan, from the Stone Age to present. History would prove to be a favorite topic of his. And as he parked the car near the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Jerash, History came alive.
Our first sight was of Hadrian's Arch - built in honor of the Roman emperor's visit. I paced through it, slowly drinking it in. Next door were the tumbled remains of the Hippodrome's oval chariot track. Past these, another arched gateway marked entry into the Roman city proper. I could have wandered for a day or more. The great Roman street, the Cardo, stretched away into the distance. Its surface was paved diagonally with large stones, its edges lined with columns, some capped by carved lintels. Great staircases lead up from the street to various temples, shops, fountains and other less identifiable remnants of buildings. I stood at the center of the stage of a 3,000-seat Roman theater, listened to the perfect acoustics carry voices to the far reaches of the upper deck. I crouched inches from a colorful, intricate mosaic floor in a 6th century Byzantine church. On the high points of the city's rolling hills, I gazed out over the ruins and imagined the city as it once was. Next to this, Italy's own Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculanaem paled. A staunch Romanophile, my heart soared.
A light drizzle began to fall as we drove further north, into the hills that ran all the way to the Syrian border. The Arab castle of Aljoun awaited us, sited majestically on the highest peak in the area. Its stones were slick and its interior damp as we poked through hallways and caverns. Once atop the battlements, we looked out on a foggy sea of clouds. Aljoun's famous views were shut to us, but a castle in the mist is hardly a real disappointment. It had been built to fence in the expanding Crusader realm to the south. It fell to the Mongols a century later, but was rebuilt after an Arab victory chased them out.
As we returned home, the clouds began to vanish. It was only early afternoon when our day with Mohammed ended, so after watching the solemn funeral on the television for awhile, we hopped into a taxi. We headed downtown to Amman's largest ancient site -- its huge Roman amphitheater. Built to hold 6,000, it dwarfed the ones at Jerash. We clambered around it for awhile, then stopped at a few more sights downtown. Then we hailed a taxi to take us to dinner, but Amman was a ghost town. All the shops and restaurants were closed in honor of the funeral. So, we settled for dinner at the hotel, and an early evening.
Tuesday, we proceeded south on the King's Highway -- a route already growing old in the biblical times. Mohammed pointed out Old Testament sights. Here was a valley the Israelites trekked through on their way to their land of milk and honey. There was a hill town they had to defeat to pass. In Madaba, the floor of a Byzantine era church was one giant, 1,000-year-old mosaic map of the Holy Land. Mohammed pointed out Jerusalem, Jericho, the Jordan River and other places. On Mount Nebo, the traditional burial place of Moses, we saw what the prophet saw when God showed him the Promised Land. The Dead Sea shimmering in the haze as a panorama of rugged hills with occasional lush green spots unfolded on three sides from the hill.
Miles to the south, we came upon the Crusader castle of Kerak. The cliff it was built upon dominated the town below, unapproachable on three sides. We wandered through the castle's maze of caverns, tunnels and dungeons, then climbed its towers and keeps. Kerak was crumbling into a romantic decay, semi-ruined. As I stood on the walls, it was easy to imagine myself lifting the visor of my helm and scanning the hills below for signs of Saladin's Arab army. We ended the day in Wadi Musa, gateway town of the fabled Petra.
It was Petra that brought me to Jordan. Written descriptions, photographs and video of the ancient Nabataen city carved out of red sandstone awoke a yearning in me to see it, much as a Muslim pilgrim thirsts for Mecca. We prayed that night for a day as sunny and beautiful as the last. In my mind, the colorful rock faces of its temples would not be as lustrous without the sun. What would Petra -- the city lost in the desert for a 1,000 years -- be without a wide open sky and blazing sun? I rushed to the window the next morning, tugged it open, and looked outside. No clouds. A chill morning, but clear.
And Petra was everything I'd imagined. Much larger than I'd guessed, it sprawled from canyon to canyon. The cliffs stared back down at us, the black eyes of their tomb entrances staring out from their ruddy faces. Mohammed guided us through the main sights of the central area for about four hours. We clambered up the sandstone seats of its theater, climbed carved steps to grand temple entrances and poked among the columns of ruined buildings on the valley floor. Mohammed then waved us forward to explore the nooks and crannies of Petra on our own.
We hiked a half hour to the monstrous temple face of Ad Deir -- largest in Petra (its facade bigger than London's Westminster Abbey). We climbed over the spine of hills into a less-touristed valley of tombs and temples, then spiraled our way up and up to the High Place of Sacrifice -- highest point in Petra. I shinnied up the rocks high above the Treasury for my own private view of Petra's most famous monument. There, I caught my breath and thanked the heavens for the gift I'd been given of being able to see the wonderful places of the world. Foot sore, we trudged back to our hotel, our hearts sated.
We began the final day of our trip driving south into the desert. Pausing to admire the view at the lip of Wadi Rum, we soon plunged down towards its tall, oddly-shaped granite spires and red-tinted sand. The dark-faced Bedouins who lived here did lucrative business taking tourists out into its surreal scenery. Guides could lead you afoot, by camel, or by jeep. Our tour called for a quick plunge into the Wadi's red sands, bouncing in the back of a Bedouin jeep. I would have liked a couple days to hike the area, where "Lawrence of Arabia" was filmed, but had to be content with a few hours. I could only imagine what fire the setting sun would spark in the colors of the sand and rocks towering above.
However, by sundown we were back at Queen Alia airport for our three-flight, 20-hour journey home. As we touched down in Columbus, I saw a much different color than Wadi Rum red -- the white of snow-covered roads, cars and rooftops. It was chilly and wet, but inside, my heart was still warmed by the sun of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.