We had more exploring today and our first stop was the small town of Madaba, a typical East Bank town which has one major surprise; underneath almost every house lies a fine Byzantine mosaic. Many have been excavated and are on display in the town’s many museums but it is estimated that many more lie hidden.
Madaba’s chief attraction, in the contemporary Greek Orthodox church of St. George, is a 6th-century Byzantine mosaic map showing the entire region from Jordan and Palestine in the north, to Egypt in the south. What was most striking to us was the depiction of the Jordan River, with boats sailing into the Dead Sea and bridges crossing from the East and West banks and large fish jumping out of the river; so very different from what we saw yesterday. The church was, like the Russian Orthodox Church yesterday, brightly painted with many murals of St George.
Under another church we found a series of tunnels, so low that you really had to crouch to get in. And above you could climb up to the Bell Tower… we started but the stairs became so narrow and so wobbly and high that we decided to forego the last few steps… and returned to the safety of the church below. We giggled like children at some of the mosiacs, it looked like folks we’re taking their Zebra and Emu for walks and in another the chap looks like he’s waving… I’ve no idea why we find this so funny… but sadly we did!
Madaba has one of Jordan’s largest Christian communities. The town’s long tradition of religious tolerance is joyfully ( and loudly ) expressed on Fridays, when imams summon the faithful to prayer and bells bid Orthodox Christians to rise. Sadly we never got to hear this but we did walk around all 7 of the suggested museums. At one we were amazed by the collection of photos taken in 1905 which showed almost nothing here, no town and just bare hills and pasture and certainly nothing of its 4500 years of of occupation and prosperity.
We enjoyed our visit but I have to say that we did get a little weary of mosaics after the 4th or 5th museum. And after all that walking we were very happy to return to the car for a sit down.
Our next plan was to visit Mukawer, otherwise known as Machaerus, a hilltop fortress founded by King Alexander Jannaeus in 90BC but extended in around 30 B.C. by King Herod the Great, who erected a city on the Machaerus hill and built a magnificent royal palace for himself.
I learned at Sunday School that Herod the Great had ordered the death of all boys in Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Jesus… what we read today suggests that this is disputed as it is likely Herod the Great died in 4 BC… many years before Jesus was born. However, historians tend to agree he could be a particularly unpleasant man and he did execute at least one of his many wives, and three of his own children. Following his death, his son Herod Antipas inherited the city and it was here in around 29 AD where Herod Antipas imprisoned and executed John the Baptist.
We drove out of the relative green valleys and hills of Madaba and returned to the more arid landscape we’d seen yesterday. Sadly when we arrived at the site it was closed for renovations so we could only gaze across at the remains of the hillside fortress in the distance. We were fascinated by the cave like constructions built into the hills. We’re on the opposite side of the Dead Sea from where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found and if that environment looks anything like this, we could well imagine how treasures would be lost and buried for millennia.
We wandered around for a little to take in the views, listening to the really loud brays of Bedouin donkeys in the valley below and trying to make out constructions on the hill opposite us. Once we’d explored all that we could, we put our hotel in the satnav for our drive back. And what a drive it was! The first half of the journey was along a single track road through a Martian like landscape of dry stoney red hills. Half way along we turned off to a second road and the landscape changed to hills of dark brown and black, revealing a prehistoric volcanic landscapes. It was an interesting drive with the road more of a track than a road and we were forever thankful that nothing came along in the other direction!
Finally we re-joined the Dead Sea Highway for an easier drive back to the hotel; we’ve certainly enjoyed the changing landscape of Jordan. We also decided today to forego our swim in the Dead Sea. We know its iconic and we know that we should but Gerry is concerned about the cold and I’m concerned about the salt in my operation scar… maybe that means that we’ll just have to save it for our next visit.
We’re moving on tomorrow, heading south for more adventures. We’ve enjoyed our stay in the resort but it’s a bit surreal. This barren landscape, Resort hotels with guards and checkpoints, checking who gets in and who must stay outside. We have lush gardens and warm pools whilst all around we’re surrounded by such harsh living conditions. Inside our hotel fences there are so many waiting staff; you daren’t open your water bottle without someone coming to try and pour it for you. It doesn’t sit so well with us, we’ve been very comfortable and the pool is amazing but we look forward to more shared dinners with other travellers rather than these fine dining experiences.