Medieval Castles, Crusaders & Returning to Iraq

We drove from Jerash a dozen kilometers and eight centuries to the castle at Ajloun.   It was built in 1184 by the Muslims to secure local iron mines and as a counter to the Crusader castle at Belvoir, across the plains.  They say you can see Belvoir from Ajloun, but the day was a little too hazy in that direction for that, or maybe we didn’t look in the right spot.  If you notice the picture up top is very clear sky. That is looking NE.  I don’t know why there was so much haze to the west.

Ajloun never fulfilled its original purpose.  Saladin defeated the Crusaders at the battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1189, which was the beginning of their expulsion from the region.  Castles are interesting to look at and sometimes beautiful, but it is well to remember that they were part of a military technology.  Before the advent of accurate cannon, it was very difficult to capture a well defended castle.  It was a real force multiplier and also a potent psychological symbol of the power and control. 

This castle looks like others I have seen.  It is a little less sophisticated than those I saw in Poland or Germany since it is an earlier version than most of those.  The most sophisticated castle I have ever seen in the Teutonic Knight’s castle at Malbork in Northern Poland.  That one is made of bricks, however, not stone.

below are some pines on the landscape. I think they are Turkish or Alleppo pines, but I am not very good at identifying such species.  Some of them almost look like my loblolly pines.

Ajloun is situated on a hilltop with wonderful views of the surrounding area.  The area here is semi-arid, but it supports olive, apricot and pistachio groves as well as significant pine forests.  As you can see from the pictures, it is a pleasant countryside.

As I write this, the pleasant countryside is a pleasant memory.   I am on my way back to Al Asad.   Right now I am stuck in Baghdad, in the Internet café waiting.  I have learned that I cannot get a flight to AA until Tuesday and then I have to go a circuitous route, on rotary wing, so I figure there will certainly be a dust storm somewhere to strand me in some shit hole along the way.   I have decided to go down to Kuwait instead.   I have a good chance of getting there tonight and then I have a better chance of catching a fixed wing flight to Al Asad.   The longer way sometimes leads faster home.  Wish me luck. It is going to be a long trip no matter what.

I am looking forward to getting back to work at Al Asad.  The work is usually interesting, even if conditions are sometimes challenging. There is still a lot for me to do in my last months.  I read the news about improvements in Iraq.  Casualties are way down for both Iraqis and Americans.  I think we are going to succeed here in Iraq put we have to finish our job and I have to finish mine.  Less than four months to do.  Hard to believe.  Time flies when you are having fun.

Jordan Travel Tips & Observations

Friendly People

Jordanians are very welcoming and English is common, at least around the places tourists go.  I have written and include pictures re some of the great places in Jordan.  It is not as cheap as you might think, largely because a foreigner had to spend a bit more for the reasons below and because of the lack of a western style middle class.  Let me explain that one. 

In developed countries like Germany, France or the U.S., things cost more in general.  But you can take advantage of the amenities the ordinary folks enjoy in terms of moderately priced hotels, restaurants and transit.  In developing countries, you tend to have two classes of accommodation – first class and not really good enough, so you have to either move up or down scale.  Old guys like me are less enthusiastic about repeating our youthful hostel experience, so we move up and tend to spend a bit more than we would for a week’s U.S. vacation.    The class or Marriott resort we enjoyed here is better than we would get for the same price in the U.S., but in the U.S. we would have gone to a cheaper – but still acceptable – hotel.  In Washington or Paris, I happily take ordinary public transportation; in places like Jordan or Egypt, maybe not.

Taxi Driver

We had a good taxi driver that we used all week.  His name is Sami and I recommend him.  He knows his way around, doesn’t get lost and doesn’t take you a lot of shops owned by his friends who give you a “special deal.”  He has seven brothers and they all own cabs, so you can be sure to get a good ride.  His number is 079/5921225. 

Affirmative Action in Cola Pricing

Foreigners pay more for most things.  A can of coke costs a Jordanian dinar, maybe two.  Locals are not paying that much.  Sometimes there is even a sign saying so.  The entry fee at the Jordan River was $2 for Jordanians; $3 for other Arabs and $7 for everybody else.  At least that is transparency.   

If you ask people about this, they don’t think charging foreigners more for everything is dishonest.  They view it as sort of an affirmative action programs.  They say that they are NOT charging foreigners more; they are just giving a break to the locals.   The practical effect is identical, but it sounds much nicer when you are giving one guy a break instead of ripping off someone else. 

You get a fair break at places with posted menus and at shops that have those electronic scanners.  The scanners don’t cheat or recognize ethnicity.   The real cost of a can of coke is around $0.25 – 0.40. Another problem for a foreigner in an Arab country is that the numbers are different.  I though that math was almost universal, but its not.  Arab numbers are completely different from those used in other places.  I was surprised by this, since I know that they call the numbers we use the Hindu-Arabic number system.  Arab numbers are actually like this ٠١٢٣٤٥٦٧٨ .  The Jordanian currency has the international numbers on one side and the Arabic on the other, so that is helpful, but the initial glance makes it easy to give the wrong amount of money. 

Of course, we really cannot complain too much.  English is common here and signs are mostly in English and Arabic.


And beyond that, the trouble we have had with the American company Travelocity.  Chrissy’s flight back to the U.S. was moved from 1030 to 1330.  She got an email telling her that.  It would have made her connection to Dulles impossible.  She tried to get in touch with Travelocity.  They don’t have an international number.  It cost us around $50 in telephone charges, being put on hold etc. to find out nothing.   Finally they just seemed to have cancelled her flight.  Finally, we got it figured out – we hope.  But we still have no confirmation, although two operators promised email confirmations.  She had no confirmation on their site.  My advice is that if you travel overseas, don’t use Travelocity.


We stayed at Marriott in Petra, Dead Sea and Amman.  Marriott is great.   They understand the international traveler.  I recommend Marriott whenever you can.  Marriott in Jordan gives really good discounts if you have a CAC card.  Book early, however.  The CAC rates get used up fast.

The Cities of Civilization Are NOT Forever

“In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces.  Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury.”  This is the opening line of Gibbon’s “Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire.”  Visiting the ruins of the once great city of Jerash gave us something to think about.

Below is Hadrian’s Arch.  The Emperor Hadrian traveled a lot and evidently erected arches wherever he went.  This is the entrance to Jerash.

The second century was indeed a great time.  Pax Romana has created the world’s first globalization.  Like today, diverse peoples mixed in a world market and a type of world system.  Greek was the language of educated commerce and Latin was the language of the law.  The world would not really see the recreation of this sort of trading system until 19th century.  English now plays the world language role of ancient Greek & Latin.   Our situation is like that of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century and like them, we think it will never really end.

Jarash shows the breadth of Roman civilization.  It was nowhere near the center of the empire.  It was not a key Roman city, but Roman civilization reached here as it did in Petra.  Look at the pictures of this ordinary Roman town and imagine how it must have been. 

I suppose it was a lot like today.  People hangin around selling trinkets, calling out “Mr. Where you from?  Rome.  Rome number one.” 

Below – Yay Rome

The wonder of Rome, however, was not in only the buildings you see here.  A great part was in the “software” – laws and administration and much of physical base of Rome’s greatness was literally on or under that ground.  Roman roads tied the Empire together.  You can still walk on Roman roads and bridges from here on the edges of the Arabian Desert all the way to Hadrian’s Wall on the edge of Scotland.  It was the Internet of the times. 

Under the ground was something as astonishing – water works.  Many Roman cities sat in semi arid places.  The Romans brought in water from distant mountains and provide sewage systems to take out the waste.  When the Empire collapsed, so did this infrastructure and Roman towns shrunk and sometimes disappeared.

Above is the Hippodrome, home to chariot races. 

Imagine the Barbarians, scratching their keisters in the forums of Roman cites wondering where that water in the fountain is coming from and knowing they would be unable to keep the system running.     When the Germanic tribes in the west or the Arabs in the east conquered Roman territory, they did not usually intend to destroy everything   Even the Vandals, despite their fierce reputation, tried to keep things going.   But as the Roman engineers and administrators died out, w/o suitable replacement, the light of civilization dimmed, not all at once.  It was more like breaking up a campfire and letting the isolated embers of a fire gradually die.   The empire was a network and the parts nourished each other.  Without the network you get Jerash – beautiful ruins but dead as the rocks around them. 

The other thing you learn when visiting abandoned cities is that cities are not forever.  I think about that in relation to a great American city like New Orleans.  Much of that city will need to be abandoned soon and returned to the cypress and tupelo.   The engineering required to keep a below seawater district dry is just not worth the ecological harm.  But – as usual – I digress.

We had a really good visit to Jerash.  This link has a few more details.


Most of you are familiar with Petra, even if you do not know.  It is often featured in pictures and it was the backdrop for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” 

You get to Petra down a long narrow gorge long ago carved by the action of water.   Petra was an important & prosperous trading center until trade routes shifted.  An earthquake that damaged the water distribution system ensured its continued decline.  Eventually, most of the people wandered off and leaving the site to Bedouins.  The Bedouins are still there, offering donkey & camel rides and selling various trinkets.  Their goats wander the neighboring ridges, picturesquely destroying the local vegetation.

Seeing the Petra ruins is an all day trip.  Of course, you could spend years exploring the whole complex and visiting all the side structures.  We climbed a couple.  There were mostly large, cavernous spaces.  Tomb raiders have long since cleaned out anything of value.  Some of the climbs are difficult and probably dangerous.  Take a look at this steep climb and rickety bridge.

On the plus side, the rocks in the region are some kind of sandstone, which stays rough and provides a good gripping surface for walking.  The rocks in Athens were some kind of marble or alabaster.  It got very smooth and slippery. 

The hardest part of the trip is from the main area up to the monastery.  It is a steep climb that takes around 45 minutes.  The Bedouins offer donkey rides up.  I would not want to ride the stinky animals nor would I trust them not to hurl me into the abyss.  They seem ornery and nasty.  I know they are supposedly sure-footed, but I prefer to be on my own feet. 

It is a hike with many beautiful views and well worth the effort.   You have to get out of the way  as the donkeys come down.

The Romans controlled the place for around 500 years.  Say what you will about them, the Romans built to last.  Even at this edge of their world, there are roads that are still useful after all this time and there is evidence of their good government.  BTW, Chrissy asked me when the Byzantines took over from the Romans, as we visited a Byzantine church.  Of course, the Byzantines WERE the Romans, the Eastern Roman Empire just transitioned.  There was no clear break for them.  The Byzantines called themselves Romans until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.  The term “Byantine” is a 19th Century creation.

The picture on the left shows the treasury at Petra. This is the part of the city that is generally shown on all the pictures.  It is literally carved out of the rock. 

The Nabataeans, who made these structures, were tolerant and eclectic.  They mixed and matched their cultural influences and probably were themselves a diverse people, typical of one sitting on trade routes and so actively engaged in commerce,  with a Semitic/Arab base.  They left no significant literature and not even inscriptions on their buildings, which makes it hard for historians to categorize them.  This makes then a sort of stealth people and the mystery appeals to some. 

In structure on left, as in most others, you can see influences of the Greeks, Romans, Persians & Egyptians.  Of course, the shapes and types of rock face dictated some of the forms.  

On the way back out through the gorge we saw why you might not want to ride the horse carts.  As we came in the passage, we saw a driver having trouble with his horse.  We noticed, but didn’t think too much about it.  When we were about half way up, we heard the sound of hoofs coming behind.  It was the same cart – cart # 3 – careening until semi-control, with too terrified Japanese tourists hanging on for dear life, not having a wonderful day.  I bet they never rent another horse and buggy.  

Below shows what these horse carts look like.

I will let this link explain re history of the place.  There are a few inaccuracies in the link. For example, Pompey was not a Roman emperor, but the site does a good job with other background.

Petra – Chrissy’s Comments

Petra is amazing; I am glad I got to see it.  Photos cannot do it justice.  We got a map/tourist guide from the visitor’s center; they were out of English ones, so I picked Spanish.  I thought we would be able figure out what it said.  Luckily, there were signboards in English along the path giving details on the main sites. 

We decided to go to the end of the trail, to Ad-Deir (the Monasterio), which is the second most famous attraction after Al-Khazneh (el Tesoro, or the Treasury) in Petra.  The brochure said there were over 800 “peldanos tallados” on the way to Ad-Deir; we didn’t know what that meant, I figured it was some sort of carved rosettes or decorations on the Monastery facade.  Eight-hundred seemed like a lot, but they probably had a lot of free time.

I was pretty wrong; “peldanos tallados” actually means “carved steps”–and there are waaay more than 800 of them.  It took us about 45 minutes to get to the top—uphill all the way–and because we are good planners, we went up during the hottest part of the afternoon.  I was pretty happy to finally get there—but it was worth the hike. Bedouins set up tables along the walking paths and even on the switchbacks on the way up to Ad-Deir.  They were selling drinks, jewelry and trinkets-mostly junk; lots of beaded necklaces (from India).  Even the kids were selling; a pair of what appeared to be three year olds had a stand selling rocks, and seemed to be making money at it.  John took a photo of a little girl holding a baby goat; she charged him a dinar.  That’s a dollar and half, pretty good money for just sitting there looking adorable for 10 seconds. 

This is John’s new hat, it speaks for itself.  At least he got the guy to knock 5 dinars off the price.

Up From the Jordan Valley & Meeting Friendly Natives

Above Chrissy at the Petra overlook. 

We climbed from the Jordan Valley up the ancient city of Petra.   It is hot in the valley, but it gets cool quickly as you gain altitude.  The landscape is very rough and the road winds around and up and down.  When donkeys and feet were the only means of transportation, this must have been a nearly impossible trek.  But people obviously made it.

Above is our driver Sami.  We met him in Amman.  He came down to the Dead Sea to drive up to Petra. 

Petra is one of the wonders of the world.  It is a whole city built into the rock face.  We will visit the actual site tomorrow and I will write more when I learn more.

The panorama in this part of Jordan reminds us of north-central Arizona. 

We are staying at the Marriott in Petra.  Marriotts are familar and I like to have some stability when traveling. Chrissy and I walked into down from the hotel to the modern Petra city center, about three kilometers.  The people were phenomenally friendly.  A couple of kids on the street gave Chrissy a part of a plant and me a piece of candy.  They wanted nothing in return.  Everybody was asking where we were from and shouting welcome.  Frankly, I don’t know why people are so outgoing.We went to a bakery and got five pieces of that great Arabic flat bread  and half dozen cookies for one JD.  We had some good kabobs at a local restaurant.  It is a pleasant city, but very hilly and hard to walk around.

Above is the wadi that leads to the old Petra sites.

I have traveled all around Europe and recently in Iraq, Jordan, Egypt & Greece.  I don’t notice that anti-Americanism we always hear about.  I am fairly obviously American and I am always very clear whenever anybody asks me.  I have always felt welcomed.  People approach me, ask questions, tell me about their trips to the U.S. or their friends and relatives there.

Below is me at the Petra overlook.  Same spot as Chrissy’s picture above.

I understand the sources of measurement bias.  Very likely those who take the time to talk to me are already more pro-American.  Maybe they just want my business/money or they like my smile.  But the way I figure it, if all it takes is a couple of dollars and a smile to counter anti-Americanism, the price is not very high.

I don’t trust those polls showing the world dislikes us and I don’t need to ask that question “why do they hate us?”  The general question is bogus.  I know it is as sweeping generalization to sweep all that off the table, but I have seen the polling data and I don’t think it is getting at the deeper realities. Most people in the world are probably indifferent to the U.S. most of the time.  When asked by an opinion researcher whether or not they like the U.S., the recall whatever recent negative news they have seen in the media and answer based on that.  It is a true opinion, but it is ephemeral and not deeply held in most cases.   An actual encounter with a friendly American tends to tap into an entirely different area of response. 

Put the shoe on the other foot.  Remember all the gnashing of teeth about France and the whole freedom fries crap?  Did you really dislike the French?  If a friendly French traveler asked you directions, would you mislead him or be angry with him?  In other words, did Americans’ stated preference really amount to a hill of beans?  The same often goes for others. 

We need to be less concerned with this supposed general opinion and concentrate on the specifics that often DO create troubles.

Jesus, Moses and Mosaics

“And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho.  And the LORD showed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan…”

We went from the Dead Sea, 415 meters below sea level, to the top of Mt. Nebo, which is 656 m higher.   This was the place were Moses saw the promised land, as you can see form Deuteronomy 34 above.   Moses must have had better eyes than I do because I could not see beyond the escarpment over the Dead Sea.  Mt. Nebo was a pleasant place, however, with some trees and significantly cooler temperatures. 

From Mt Nebo, we went down to a town called Madaba.  It still has lots of Christian churches and used to have even more, so the town is full of mosaics from the late Roman and Byzantine times.  Even after the Muslim conquests, the native Christian communities continued to thrive. 

Jordanians seem interested in the Christian and other pre-Islamic heritage of their country and very tolerant of religious diversity.   At least they recognize the tourist value of emphasizing Christian heritage in the birthplace of Christianity.

It is interesting to speculate how different world history would have been if Islamic armies had not conquered this area.  There certainly would have been no Crusades and very likely the center of Western civilization would have remained in the Mediterranean, and even the eastern part, rather than shifting toward the Atlantic and Northern Europe.

It has been more than a quarter century since I studied Greek and forgot almost everything, but I can still put a few things together from a combination of looking at the pictures and tortuously making out a few words.  I was telling Chrissy re some of the pictures when a local guy overheard and in English told me how surprised he was that an American could read that Greek.  I didn’t tell him that I only made out something like three words and guessed the rest from the illustrations.

We went back down the hill into the Jordan Valley.  The river Jordan is a lot smaller than I thought.  In fact, it is really not much bigger than Genito Creek, which runs through our forest land.  It doesn’t look very clean either.  I think that Baptism in the Jordan would risk infection or dysentery.

A lot of the water has been drawn off for irrigation upstream and presumably it as bigger and cleaner back in the old days.  We went to the Jesus baptism site – the place they have identified where John the Baptist baptised Jesus.  The river has changed course, so the place is no longer actually on the flowing part of the stream, but the flood sometimes comes through and a spring keeps the basin full of water.   In ancient times, there were churches at this spot.  Now they are just ruins, although you can still see some of the mosaics.  Below is a more modern mosaic re the site.  Notice the webpage.

I enjoyed going to these sites, maybe because they were so unpretentious.  Not many people make the trip, since it is out of the way.  Notice the transportation.  It was hot out and it was sweaty, but that sort of added to the charm. 

Below is our bus to the baptism site.

Everything is Looking Up

We are at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth that is not under water.  The sign claims it is 415 meters below sea level.  Let me point out first of all that the idea that you don’t get sunburned here because the UV rays are filtered through so much extra atmosphere is a myth.  Maybe you get sunburned less, but you still get sunburned.

It is not a myth, however, that you cannot sink in the Dead Sea because of the high salt content.  As long as you arch your back, you can comfortably float like a little boat.  I tried to stand up, but you float up and tip.  I tipped face first into the water.  It is horrible tasting, much worse than seawater, and it kind of burns your lips.   The water has some bitumen in it besides the salts, so it smells.  People claim the mud is good for your skin and people smear it all over themselves.  I didn’t. 

Above – Chrissy came to meet me in Amman. 

The northern shore of the Dead Sea is now home to lots of really nice Hotels.  We are in the Marriott.  It is like a paradise and not very expensive.  We get the government/military discount because I am on official travel orders. 

Before development, it must have been like hell around here.  Imagine a person coming through the desert and seeing this “lake” for the first time.  He goes down to take a drink and gets that poisonous salt water.  If you drink a cup of it w/o rinsing it out with fresh water right away, it will literally kill you.   After swimming, you have to wash off. 

Saddam & Gomorrah were nearby.  Lot’s wife supposedly was turned into a pillar of salt nearby and lots of pillars of salt rise out of the Dead Sea.  Irrigation and people making salt by evaporating water are lowering the level of the Sea and making it even more salty.    There are proposals to bring in sea water to replace the water drained out of the Jordan for irrigation.  At various times in geologic history, this area was completely dry or an arm of the Mediterranean Sea. 

The Jordan Valley is part of the same rift that reaches into East Africa.  The continents of Africa and SW Asia literally are being pulled apart by the action of plate tectonics.  In a couple million years, this whole valley will be part of the Red Sea.  But until then it might be a major engineering feat to bring in that sea water.

Tomorrow we are going to visit some of the local archaeological sites.   We had planned a side trip to Jerusalem, but we learned that the border crossings are difficult and time consuming.  That, coupled with the distance, makes it unlikely we can make a successful day trip, so we will have to hold off the trip to Jerusalem for another time. 

Above is the view of other hotels from the Veranda.  It is sort of like S. Arizona.

The Jordan Valley should provide enough to do for now.  After this, we will go down to Petra.   

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Above is Amman from the Citadel 

Empire is politically incorrect these days but the Roman Empire was a great thing.  It brought together disparate people under the rule of law.   The Romans controlled almost all the world they knew about and certainly all the territory they thought worth having. 

In our modern world, we are used to progress running in one direction.  We might suppose the past was more pleasant, but we never believe that people of the past could do more than we could.  This was not always the case.  For around 1000 years, people looked back on the ancient Roman Empire with a sense of envy.  The Romans had a better general organization than the states that followed them.  Cities fell into ruins after the fall of Rome and they sometimes stayed in ruins, with people poking around among them like some characters in a scifi book.  Amman did not regain its Roman size until well into the 20th century.   People could look at the ruins and wonder how those building came to be.

On left is the Temple of Hercules.

Jordan was at the edge of the Roman world.  Beyond here was that desert I know only too well.  The Romans were wise enough not to go very far away from the Mediterranean Sea (Mare Nostrum – our sea, they called it) very often.  When they did, they tended to come to bad ends.   Crassus, the associate of Julius Caesar’s,  was captured by the Parthians who poured molten gold down his throat in recognition of his status as one of the richest men in the world.   

The Mediterranean really is a paradise.  It is like California, northern or southern depending on where you are.  Jordan is like southern California.   It has been hot during the day, but not uncomfortable in the shade.  In the evening it is comfortably cool.  There is a fair amount of green.  There would be more if it were not for the goats and the general bad management of soil resources over the past millennia. 

Amman is quiet today because it is Friday.  I went up to the citadel.  Every ancient and medieval city of any size has a citadel or an acropolis.   Life back then was nasty, brutish and short.  You had to have a place to repair to during the inevitable periods of bloody disorder.   After a while, these places became the sites of public buildings so they usually feature interesting archaeology.  Beyond that, there is almost always a good view from the high ground.

As I sit here writing this, I can hear church bells ringing.  I have been hearing the Muslim call to prayer all day, so this is a change.  I understand that the Christian population was once significant.  It has dwindled in modern times, but is still here.  This is the holy land after all.   Tomorrow or the next day I plan to visit the place where tradition says John the Baptist baptized Jesus.