Posted on January 25, 2015
Having been landlocked since leaving the Kenyan coast, we set off for the Middle East in the hopes of some waves to ride in the Mediterranean Sea and found ourselves tripping over one archeological marvel after another along the way.
Tramping the Hidden City
Within an hour of getting on the bus headed North from Dahab in Egypt, we passed a great spot for a photo, I had to take a piss, and the guy behind me was jamming his knees into the seat. I was missing our free and easy style of motorbike travel something fierce. Given that Egypt is our best bet for finding a boat to Turkey, the difficulty we had entering Egypt with the bike the first time, and the fact that she is traveling on falsified documents, we decided not to push our luck trying to get the bike in a second time. We’d love to continue riding north straight through the Middle East, but the situation in Syria would make that a less than festive affair. So for the next couple of weeks we were backpackers, relegated to public transport.
We left the windswept Sinai Peninsula and crossed to Jordan where the temperature dropped as we gained altitude until we finally were driving through snowdrifts. We’d ventured into these mountains eager to reach the hidden city of Petra. The next day we woke to a white world covered in six inches of fresh snow and all the roads closed. It was clear that we weren’t going anywhere soon as we huddled around the kerosene burning stove in the central room of the guest house, which was the only heat source in the place.
The next day the weather broke and after sliding our way down some icy streets, we began the trek towards the entrance of the slot canyon leading to the ancient city of Petra, which fortunately sits just below the snow line.
Pink layers of sedimentary rock flowed on either side of the passage (the Siq) leading our way down a canyon, which for me was fantastic enough in itself to make the journey.
While I’d seen pictures of the of the rock carved buildings of Petra and remembered the scene in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that featured the city, I was still unprepared for the view peeking through the end of the canyon.
The ancient treasury building stood before us glowing pink in the mid-day sun, its 2000-year-old craftsmanship perfectly preserved by the overhanging rock. I keep using this word lately, but I just don’t know a better one to describe the feeling – it was spellbinding.
The Treasury was just the beginning of the city, and as we wandered forward the canyon opened up and lots more ancient buildings could be seen ahead.
We were allowed free run of the place and found ways to climb up to any of the buildings perched above the canyon floor that we pleased. Most of the other buildings in the city were less well preserved than the Treasury as none of the others featured the same protective overhang that would have shielded them from weathering.
We hiked up the canyons radiating out from the valley floor get a view of the city and its surroundings.
Petra was constructed in somewhere around 312 BCE as the capital city of the Nabataeans and was a center of their caravan trade. With towering rocks above a narrow passageway and a perennial stream, the city could be protected as well as a fortress. The site was unknown to the western world up until 1812, when the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt publicized its existence.
After a day of our own investigations, we left this wonder of the world to the next round of explorers. Trotting back up the canyon in the afternoon, when the late morning rosy glow of the treasury had faded to dull beige, it was hard not to start singing the Indiana Jones theme music on the way out.
After spending so much time in Africa, arrival in the state of Israel induces a mild culture shock. Everything is well organized, roads are perfect, and there are dudes in full spandex pedaling $4K road bikes around. We got a change of pace from not understanding Arabic to not understanding Hebrew. We thought that Egypt was tight on security, but Israel is on another level with soldiers everywhere, who carry their weapons even when in transit. Jamie made it through the border OK, but they were less sure about me, with lots of questions about where I’d been and what I was doing there. They kept us at the border for nearly three hours while they checked me out. Israel was also a shock to our budget as everything was much more expensive than we’d become accustomed to. We told ourselves that it was well worth the trouble since as we may never be in this neighborhood of the world again.
Jerusalem is a global focal point of history, culture, religion, and politics. In this city, these elements converge in a concentrated stew of people, traditions, and buildings, all of which portray some facet of the the stories born here. The layering of cultures and their artifacts continues to the present day with views of the Tower of King David alongside modern high-rise buildings and modern technology spilling over stones put into place millennia ago.
Muslims, Jews, and Christians all live side by side here, each with deep historical and spiritual connections to the city and its holy sites. The Temple Mount is the supposed site of the creation of Adam from the dust of the earth, Abraham’s binding of Isaac, the First and Second Jewish Temples, storage of the Ark of the Covenant, and Muhammad’s ascent to heaven.
Before destruction of the First Temple, The Ark of the Covenant containing the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments was stowed in its inner sanctum, the Holiest of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed. Since no one knows exactly where the Holiest of Holies was located, many Jews don’t visit the Temple Mount for fear of inadvertently treading upon it.
The history of Jerusalem is a dizzying who’s who tour of ancient civilizations that began at the first settlement of Gibbon Spring around 3500 BCE. It’s taken me a while to keep it all straight, but went something like this:
King Solomon built the first temple forty years after King David had conquered the city in 1800 BCE and everything was groovy until Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians showed up in 560 BCE to tear down the temple and sent the Jews into exile. After the Persians took the city from the Babylonians, the Jews returned and built the second temple in 516 BCE and a couple centuries later Alexander the Great rolled in to take charge. When the Romans finally arrived to the party in 70 CE, they destroyed the Second Temple built by King Herod, then came the Byzantines in 324 CE, followed by the Muslims in 638 CE, and finally the Crusaders in 1099 CE (insert Monty Python Joke here). Saladin took Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, followed by the Mameluks of Egypt, until the Ottomans absorbed it into their empire in 1517, and everything was cool for 400 years until the British conquered the city in 1917. Got all that? With the rise of the Zionist Movement, the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, and then the six-day war of 1967, the region has remained a hotbed of conflict throughout the 20th century with Jerusalem and its sacred sites at the center of it all. If you’ll look at a map you can see that the disputed Palestinian Territory of the West Bank virtually encircles Jerusalem.
Religious pilgrims of one sort or another, many of whom had traveled far to visit their sacred places, surrounded us wherever we roamed. To me, the structures we wandered through were the subject of histories and stories that just never seemed like real places. I suppose that its just a normal side effect of being on the road for a long time to feel like everywhere you’re headed is just another new place to find some food and somewhere to sleep. But Jerusalem made us pilgrims of our own sort as we wandered around trying to connect this real place and people living their lives to events that transpired millennia ago and generated one of the most important human mythologies.
The lower portion of Western Wall of the temple was the only structure left standing after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and always holds crowd of people praying.
We visited the hall of the Last Supper. But it was lunchtime.
I lit a candle at the Church of Dormition, resting place of the Virgin Mary, pinch hitting for my Mom, who was raised Catholic.
We walked the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus walked carrying his own cross. The path leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been tried, crucified, buried, and resurrected. Christians offer prayers and rub handkerchiefs on the Stone of Unction, where Jesus’s body is said to have been anointed before burial.
There’s all kinds of cool stuff in there – the Prison of Christ where Franciscan Friars allege that Jesus was held, the Rock of the Cavalry that bears a hole that is said to have been where Jesus’s cross was raised, and tombs of the Crusaders.
We usually had no idea what anything was and gravitated to anything that a crowd was staring at and put on our own solemn stare hoping to be within earshot of a tour guide. Are a few explanatory placards too much to ask for the uninitiated? Now I can hear you thinking, “Ancient ruins, historical sites, and churches are nice and all but I can see all this stuff in National Geographic with better photos than yours. What about the surf?! Where da waves bro? “
A Mediterranean Baptism
We’d been landlocked since Kenya and I’d never surfed in the Mediterranean Sea, so we were pretty keen to find a wave. We enlisted the help of our friendly neighborhood Couch Surfer, Guy, as our host who gave us a spot to crash in his ocean-view apartment and a crash course in Israeli culture and nightlife.
We found some boards to ride and spied some little waves that looked like just enough to keep the surf journey stoke alive.
Swell is generated over relatively short fetch in the Med compared to the open ocean, so the waves tend to be of the short-period gutless variety. I’ve had more exciting surf sessions, but we weren’t complaining. Jamie hasn’t been surfing very long and the small waves were just about her size. For me, it felt fantastic just to be in the ocean riding waves again after months of riding through jungles, mountains, and deserts.
When we’d had our fill of Mediterranean peelers, we headed for calmer and denser waters at the Dead Sea. Filling a depression along the Israel-Jordan border created by tectonic rifting, the shore of the Dead Sea boasts the lowest surface elevation on the planet at more than 425m below sea level.
Pretty sure I’m going to be in trouble for posting that one.
Since it became disconnected from the Mediterranean Sea about two million years ago, its inflows have historically been balanced by surface evaporation, causing salt and mineral concentrations to rise, so that it’s now almost 9 times more salty than the ocean. It stings like crazy if you get even a drop in your eye, and it counter intuitively leaves an oily-slick feel on your skin when you emerge from the water. With most of the Jordan River (its main input) now being diverted for agriculture, the Dead Sea is drying up and its surface drops about 1.2 m every year and makes it even more briny. The super high salt and mineral content of the water makes it very dense and you float to the surface like styrofoam, which is pretty fun.
Having left our camping gear in Egypt with the bike, our budget could only stand so much tourism in Israel, so we hopped back on the bus and retreated to the Red Sea of Egypt. As it turned out, the waves we rode were just icing on the cake of our vagabonding trip through to the Middle East, which included more history and culture that we could wrap our heads around in two weeks. When we returned to Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula, I was relieved to find our beloved motorbike safe and sound right where we’d left her and ready to go for a ride. Unfortunately, we’ve now just about run out of Africa to ride.