His family was Bedouin, still living in the desert. One of thirteen children.
We lost Farouk at the bottom of the climb to Ad Deir. There were 900 steps he said, and it was too hot. We’d have to pay him extra. But we’d already heard all the stories, starting as we walked through the Siq. His family was Bedouin, still living in the desert. One of thirteen children. Childhood adventures. Falling from a tree. Hospital. A chance meeting with King Hussein. The only one to go to university, live in a city. The eucalyptus trees he’d planted in his front garden so everyone would know where his house was. When it came to a choice between going on alone or spending more time with Farouk, we chose the former.
The day was certainly hot. We paused by make-shift stalls, enjoyed cheerful Salaam alaykum and where-do-you-come-from greetings. Picked up small hand-stitched fabric dolls, glass bottles filled with layers of coloured sand, old silver coins and small pots. A woman in a black jalabiya with beaded embroidery fingered prayer beads. Held a pashmina. On the ground beside her, a man slept. At the top we sat opposite the monumental tomb of Ad Deir drank Arabic coffee and caught our breath. Cascading bougainvillea. Red petalled dust.
We went down more slowly, looked across hills dotted with tombs. Our turn now to encourage those struggling upwards. ‘It’s not far. Just round the next corner. Worth it when you get there.’ Beside a sign saying Lion Triclinium, a small girl appeared, pointed at the arrow, motioned to follow. We walked until I saw it in the distance up on the hill. A place for feasts, remembering the dead. I focused, took a photo. ‘See,’ she said, tapping the viewfinder of my camera with an impatient finger, ‘Lions.’ There were two guarding the entrance, one either side. I took another photo of my small guide. She told me her name was Yasmine and took out a handful of coins. ‘Dug up here,’ she said, and pointed to the ground beneath her feet.
We continued along the colonnaded road. Roman Theatre on one side, Nympheaum on the other. Refused offers of rides. ‘No, we don’t want donkeys, camels, horses or covered carts. We like walking.’ The disbelief was palpable. Small shops had tarpaulins thrown over wooden poles to create some shade. In rough lettering, best coffee in the Middle East recommended from Australia and in smaller letters nice atmosphere. Outside Why Not Shop, a stand with fridge magnets and postcards. All of them yellowed by sun, corners curling.
Turning off the road, we climbed to the Royal Tombs. Four of them. Palace Tomb, Corinthian Tomb. Silk Tomb, Urn Tomb. Interiors were cool and dark, the only carving, burial cavities around the walls. Outside, more souvenir sellers. I stopped by a gray-thobed man who held up a trowel, motioning in the air to tell me he’d dug all this up himself. I spotted a small oil lamp decorated with an almond-eyed Nabatean face. Bought it to remember this moment, this place.
‘No, we don’t want donkeys, camels, horses or covered carts. We like walking.’ The disbelief was palpable.
We have three million sheeps. And goats. And camels. But no lions.
The next day Farouk met us after breakfast. Travelling north towards Madaba, we discovered his predilection for driving in the middle of the road, then veering suddenly to one side. Our discomfort was not helped by the way he took both hands off the wheel and gesticulated wildly in the air as he talked. ‘We have no oil in Jordan you know. Our economy is not good. We are a poor country. We have very high taxes.’ The monologue continued. Waving his arms in the direction of passing fields, ‘We have three million sheeps. And goats. And camels. But no lions.’ We passed Kerak Castle, a Crusader fortress on top of a distant hill. On a blind corner, he took hands off the wheel, adjusted his hair. Smiled for a selfie. Later my husband told me that this had been a constant feature of the drive. I’d not noticed. He’d not alerted me.
At Madaba we parked outside the Greek Orthodox Church of St George. In 1884, a Byzantine mosaic map of the world was discovered. The east-west orientation had me staring down at the floor, following the Jordan River with head cocked to one side. A lion pursued a gazelle, fish swam in Jordan waters, palm trees and small houses lined banks, in a boat fishermen cast nets, and central to everything, the walled city of Jerusalem.
Mount Nebo was where God had shown Moses the Promised Land. We walked to the look-out, passed gnarled trunks of ancient olive trees, pink oleanders and a row of cypress. It was disappointing. We could make out Israel in the immediate distance, but there was too much haze to see anything else. A better time to come, Farouk told us, would have been early morning or late evening, when the sky was clear.
Our last stop before the border with Israel was Jerash. One of the ancient Decapolis cities founded in 300 BC by Alexander the Great, conquered by Pompey in 63 BC and an amazingly intact example of a provincial Roman city. We climbed to the hilltop temple of Artemis, overlooked the 160 Ionic columns in the forum and stepped inside the hippodrome. The heat was intense and seared my back and arms, but the sound of bagpipes drew us into the theatre. It was a moment. Scotland the Brave, a Roman theatre, an Arabic bagpiper. All in the heart of the Middle East.
Entry Header Jeff Nesanelis, "Petra".