Tuesday, November 05, 2002

Mohicans, Mosques, Mosaics and Mountainsides

Salam aleykum!

Ok, next up is Damascus. The oldest continually inhabited city in the world and former capital city of the Islamic world. Spent a sunny afternoon wandering the back streets, at first with four others then on my own (after they thought it would be a good idea to get mohican haircuts at the barbershop then didn't fancy going into the mosque).

The Umayyad Mosque was built to be an unmatched jewel and, although most of the gold mosaics and frilly bits are gone now, it still holds its own against Istanbul's Blue and Suleyman Mosques. A gigantic inner courtyard paved with blazing white flagstones (got a kind of snow-glare headache from looking at them too long) and surrounded on one side (originally all four) by a golden mosaic depicting Muhammed's vision of paradise. Inside is grand too, but slightly lop-sided thanks to the green-glassed mini-chapel built over the supposed final resting place of John the Baptist's head.

Elsewhere in the mosque is another chapel (I have to admit that I don't know the Islamic equivalent for a 'chapel'), this time full of weeping pilgrims from all over the Islamic world ranging from men in expensive looking robes (Saudis?) to women in head-to-toe black (Iraqis or Iranians, I've been led to believe). And all there to visit the tomb of Muhammed's grandson.

After the mosque, I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of old Damascus as well as the taste of the incredibly creamy ice cream topped with crushed pistachios. A very well spent 25p!

The next day was an early start for a run to the border, the crossing into Jordan and a trip up to Mount Nebo.

Mt Nebo is where Moses is said to have died, after seeing the promised land. There is a church full of mosaics and a giant brass 'rod of moses' (although the real one is in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, if you remember back that far!) as well as a fantastic view west across the Dead Sea into Israel and Palestine and north to northern Jordan. On a clear day (which it wasn't) it's possible to see all the way to Jerusalem.

From 1600m above sea level we descended to 400m below and went for a dip in the Dead Sea just as the sun was itself dipping, below the horizon. Dead Sea floating... very strange sensation - it's like gravity's been reversed. If you lie on your back, almost all of your body floats out of the water. If you lie on your front, your arms and legs float up into a sort of sky-dive position. If you stay vertical, you bob in the water like a buoy. And the water STINGS. if you have cuts, bruises or a case of the shits, prepare for a lot of... tingling.

We were forcibly ejected from the water by policemen with a giant searchlight and large automatic weapons (it's apparently illegal to swim in the Dead Sea after dark). So, salt encrusted and starting to itch, we decided to hike up a mountainside for 20 minutes, in the dark, to find a thermal spring to wash off the salt.

It was worth the effort, and risk to life and limbs, to find a large pool with a warm waterfall and a cave full of piping hot (40 deg C?) water. Excellent :)

The cooks rounded off the day with a fantastic dinner and I fell asleep in the truck (no camping - ie. tents - allowed where we were), curled up in my sleeping bag.

The next morning I was woken by half a dozen flies crawling on my face. Not nice. As I woke up and looked around, it got worse. A plague of flies, of almost biblical proportions, had descended upon us. Dozens of them on shoes and bags, and many more on the cooking pot and side of the truck.

We made ourselves scarce and headed back up to Mt Nebo, with an unrequested police escort. They had been patrolling back and forth all night, then pulled out of the car park in front of us and drove (too close) in front of us all the way to the town of Madaba. Not sure why... but I hear someone fairly famous got shot in Jordan about the same time we were there????

Madaba is a small town with lots of mosaics, in including a gigantic mosaic map of the middle east from Sinai up to Syria. After a morning there it was a long drive south to the village of Wadi Musa, gateway to Petra.

Up at 5am the next morning to get a full day in Petra. And it was well worth it! It's hard to describe why a city carved out of the mountainside is so awe inspiring, but it was. From the postcard-famous 'treasury' tomb to the djinn blocks and the obelisks up by the 'high place of sacrifice' down to the theatre carved from the mountain itself and up to the gigantic monastery 860-something steps up the mountain on the other side. 28km of walking up and down the scraggy half-paths off the beaten track of Petra, out of breath while our pot-bellied guide for the day barely spent 5 minutes without a cigarette in his mouth and never seemed to shed a bead of sweat. I think he was cross-bred with the mountain goats...

Like I said, though, I really can't explain it all... check out the photos on my Flickr site for a taster then go there. Preferably soon, 'a' because the tourists are staying away atm and 'b' because it now costs #6 instead of #20 for a day pass (partly because of 'a'). The next day I went back on my own at 5am and had the place entirely to myself until about 8am, save for a couple of donkeys and a group of Bedouins just visible and audible in the distance. Eerie, awesome and totally recommended. But Jordan had (even) more in store - Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum is a desert, and a certain T.E.Lawrence hung out there for a while. Then again, the Grand Canyon is a river bed and Niagra Falls is some water going over a cliff. And, to me, Wadi Rum is every bit as spectacular, in a different way, as the Grand Canyon (not been to Niagra yet, so can't comment on that one). Lots of desert, then rocks and mountains in fantastic formations rising from the shifting sands. Colours that shimmer and change as the sun rises and sets, mountains that fade in and out, nearer and further, when you pause for a moment on a morning trek and stare at them (not sure why - heat haze? dehydration? sand in the air?). Managed not to fall off a mountain (again) that I was circumnavigating on my own, although I can't guarantee the fate of the 6 apparently abandoned puppies that did their best to chew off my ankles during a particularly tricky rock face ascent.

After two days in the desert with jeeps, camels and trekking on foot, it was back to the truck and a jaunt down to Aqaba to catch the ferry to Egypt. We arrived here in Dahab a couple of days ago and I convinced myself that doing a dive course would be a good idea. For those of you that don't know - I can't really swim. Hasn't been too much of a problem so far, but I had to swim 200m at one point - managed to scam a face mask (ostensibly to prevent my contact lenses being splashed off) so made it in the end, mostly on my back but with a mix of freestyle (to call it 'front crawl' would be a lie), breast stroke (with arms and legs working at the same time, hence sinking between each stroke) and doggy paddle (thrown in when I hoped the instructor was looking the other way).

In 24 hours, if I haven't drowned or had my inner ears implode, I'll be a qualified 'Open Water Diver'! Who would have thought it?

Dahab is a strange old place, too. Apparently the dope capital of the Middle East until a recent crackdown - now there's nothing on show, but a few people have managed to seek out a score. The town, such as it is, is mainly along the sea front with dive shops, souvenir stalls, hotels and restaurants done out in whitewash-with-fairylights. There's the old cliche of women in black headscarves walking past (drop dead gorgeous) scando blondes in skimpy bikinis squeezing into a wet suit branded 'body glove' and oh how I'd love to be that glove covering supporting and caressing every curve keeping warm the skin beneath moving when she moves and --
But I digress.

Having a brilliant time, even though a slight head cold is doing its best to sabotage my diving. And I promise to take some time out and reply to everyone's emails before I leave Dahab (2 more days) too.


Post a Comment

<< Home