My body was completely exhausted this morning. Because of trying to make calls back home and connect to the internet before bed, I had been staying up way later than I should have and was only getting about 5 hours of sleep every night. Couple that with a 10 mile hike yesterday, and I was pooped. Surprisingly my muscles weren’t sore, I was just mentally and emotionally fatigued.
Our itinerary for the day was the desert castles scattered throughout Jordan, but first Sam took us for a quick tour of the wealthy part of Amman. One plot of land in the rich part of Amman costs around 4 million dollars, and the houses themselves are often worth up to 10 million, so you can bet all those houses also had fancy cars parked out front. The houses weren’t as big as I was expecting, not like the mansion-style “wealthy” buildings I usually associate with the rich area of a town, but it’s probably hard to build something that large in a major city. Still, they were very elegant with their white and cream stones lining the streets with wealth and important last names.
The white blocks that the houses are built of are limestone, and there is tons of it in the area. Most of the buildings, both old and new, are made from limestone simply because it is so widely available.
We drove out into the Jordanian desert to the first castle, Qsar Al-Harrana. It is an Islamic fortress that dates back to the 8th century. From far away the castle doesn’t look so big, dwarfed by the massive expanse of desert around it. But once we got inside, it was amazing how large and elaborate it was.
It is believed to have been an inn or boarding house of some sort for travelers. There are stables in the first floor and many rooms up on the second. The tiny windows are to keep dust out but still let sunlight in.
The castle isn’t a huge tourist site, so we were relatively alone aside from a few other people. One of the things that we were warned about when we arrived was making eye contact with men. We were told that for women, making eye contact with most men is considered a kind of flirting. However, it is part of American culture that we make eye contact and maintain eye contact with people while we talk, and it’s something that’s so ingrained into my nature that I forgot about the cultural difference a lot. Most of the other girls did, too. It is common for Middle Eastern men say that American women are “easy” because of this, and because we are so friendly when they come up to talk to us.
Inside the castle in one of the areas where we were walking around was a man who appeared to be Middle Eastern. One of the girls was walking ahead of the group into that part of the castle. He approached her and introduced himself. She smiled and told him her name, and he leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. This didn’t scare her too much because we had observed that it is another cultural thing– everyone kisses everyone on the cheek to greet them, but usually only people that they know and very rarely tourists.
He asked her if she was married, and she answered no, starting to feel uncomfortable. He grabbed her and pulled her into an embrace. “Then you have to marry me!” he said, holding her very tightly. She struggled to try and get away from him but he was holding her against him as tight as he could. She finally freed herself and very quickly left to another part of the castle. The man remained there and talked to every girl in our group, one by one, as we walked past, kissing us on the cheek or holding our hands. When he approached me and asked me if I was married, I said no, not knowing what had happened before, and he grabbed my hand and told me I was beautiful. We left soon after that.
Outside of every touristy attraction there are salespeople trying to sell things to tourists. Most of the time these people are the Bedouins, who have very deep roots in Jordan. At one point they were traveling nomads moving all over the country and trading with lots of people. They still retain many of their historic customs and cultural identity, but now they typically settle in one place as shopkeepers.
Inside the tent I picked up a few souvenirs to buy, because I’m a total sucker. Once again, I forgot about the no eye contact rule and accidentally made and held eye contact with the Bedouin man who was selling me the souvenirs.
“Your eyes are not normal,” he told me, smiling warmly.
“Not normal?” I asked, confused.
“Yes, they are so so beautiful. I have never seen eyes like yours.”
He sold me the souvenirs at a discount because I was “so beautiful”, and I thanked him and then loitered around the tent while everyone else did their shopping. After a little bit he called me over and held out some clothing, telling me I could try it on. “But only if you agree to stay here with me for two months,” he said jokingly.
I laughed, even though that was pretty creepy, and told him I couldn’t do that, but I that was flattered he wanted me to try on the clothing. “Now you are a Bedouin girl,” he said after I had put on the hat and vest.
(After doing a little bit of research later on, trying to figure out exactly what the hat and vest were called, I found that they may be part of the traditional Bedouin marriage clothing. The hat with coins sewed on, specifically, is usually only worn by brides as a way to display their dowry. So I may have unintentionally been proposed to by/married a Bedouin man during this interaction. No wonder he asked me to stay with him for two months…)
I took some pictures with my camera, then he asked to take pictures on his phone. Our tour guide told him that now he owed me a gift for the pictures, so he gave me a free cup of tea and his business card.
I guess the moral of this story is that sometimes cultural differences will make people give you free tea (and an engagement?), and sometimes they’ll make people harass you.
We left that castle and moved on to the next one, Qusayr ‘Amra. It was my favorite castle and by far the coolest one we saw. Even though very few tourists go out to see the desert castles, visiting this one should be near the top of everyone’s list. It wasn’t not so much as castle as it is a sort of bathhouse/rest stop area, since it was one of the only places around that had water. The outside of the structure is pretty, but the inside blew me away.
Every inch of the walls and ceiling is covered in ancient Islamic paintings from the 8th century. They are incredibly well preserved and are some of the most amazing ancient paintings I have seen in my life.
These are the kind of paintings that pretty much don’t exist anymore because of later Islamic practices. A subculture of Islam, called the Iconoclast, declared that any depiction of human beings or animals was blasphemous and destroyed thousands of paintings and sculptures all over the Near East. These managed to escape the destruction because of thick black smoke that covered the walls and ceilings and hid the paintings. It has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Once again, outside of this castle were more Bedouins. Sam was good friends with them (just as he is good friends with everyone we meet), and he went into their tent and started dancing. He called us over and they started to teach us Arabic dances. They put on some very loud Arabic music and we danced in a circle around the tent, most of us stumbling over our feet and not getting the rhythm right. Afterward we sat next to their fire pit and they served us tea (a sign of hospitality) while they showed us a few more moves. I think they were just as entertained by our dancing skills as we were by theirs.
The drive to the next castle took us near the crossroads to Saudi Arabia and Iraq. I didn’t realize how close Jordan was to all of these countries with major conflicts going on right now, but Sam told us that many of the refugees from all of the neighboring countries are fleeing to Jordan for safety. Jordan is one of the only “conflict-free” countries in the area right now, meaning immigrants and refugees are coming by the thousands and actually becoming a big problem.
The next castle was Al Azraq, built in 198 CE by the Romans. It’s different from the other castles because it was built out of basalt instead of limestone. Later on it was re-used by the Muslims, much like many of the old structures in the Middle East.
This castle was the most fun to explore because the way the rocks had been built and then fallen apart created perfect climbing areas. I felt like a real adventurer climbing up the sides of this ancient fortress wall and walking along the narrow rooftops. There were a few times where I almost lost my footing, but I had a blast using it as a giant playground for a half an hour.
We stopped for lunch and had something called “upside down” or as it’s called in Arabic, maglobeh. The dish is basically rice and vegetables and meat cooked together in a bowl and then turned upside down onto a plate, sort of like the was pineapple upside-down cake is made. The chef brought out the bowl to show us how it’s done, flipping it over onto a plate and then whacking the bottom with a spoon several times to loosen the rice from the bowl before lifting it to reveal the dome-shaped concoction. We all cheered when it came out perfect, until he sprinkled the top with peanuts, much to the dismay of the boy in our group with peanut allergies.
We also ordered fresh squeezed lemonade, which was served with crushed mint on top. Why we don’t do this in America, I have no idea, because it was so refreshing and delicious.
I slept for almost the entire hour and a half drive back to Amman. It was only around 4:30 when we got back and we were planning on spending the whole rest of the day at the hotel, swimming in the pool or trying to call home. Sam decided that that was too lame. Even though he technically was off duty after we got back to the hotel, he told us to go upstairs and change and that he would take us to some really cool places in Amman. We got a little dressed up and walked around the city for a while.
Since it was a Friday, one of the outdoor markets was going on near downtown. It was sort of like a craft fair with lots of vendors lined up against the street selling jewelry and bags and headscarves. We walked around for while, picking up pretty souvenirs and trying some local foods.
Sam took us to a restaurant of a local antiques dealer that he knew, called Zorba. The restaurant serves as both a place to eat and a museum of his private collection. The amount of ancient pottery and statues and jewelry was mind blowing. Many of the pieces are totally unique and extremely rare. Sam pointed out several pieces in the collection that were worth more than a million dollars. We all thought it was a shame that it wasn’t in a museum, but Sam said with the current state of museums in Jordan it was better off in a private collection.
We sat down to eat at the restaurant, but we weren’t sure what to order since we were having dinner back at the hotel later on. Sam ordered a round of drinks for everybody and a few of us ordered Turkish coffee and tea. Hooka was a big attraction at this restaurant, so a few of the guys tried it.
We stayed for a really long time just talking and hanging out, but it was probably some of the most fun I’ve had yet. I will probably never forget the looks on everyone’s faces when they tried the liqueur, which tasted kind of like black liquorice, and not in a particularly good way. Called Arak, it’s a signature Middle Eastern drink that has such a high proof that we had it watered down. A few people had a little too much to drink and we all were being too noisy and touristy for the area, but we stayed for a while anyway because we were having such a good time.
When we left, the Islamic call to prayer was playing over speakers, ringing out across the city. By now I had become accustomed to hearing the melodic chanting a few times a day, and it was no longer so foreign and strange. We walked back a little ways into the city and then hailed some taxis to take us back to the hotel. We could tell that Sam really loves being a tour guide and genuinely cares about us and wants us to have a good time. One of the girls in the group has started calling him Uncle Sam just because he is so friendly and funny and enjoys being with us so much.
When we got back to the hotel there was a Jordanian wedding going on out by the pool. The music was blasting through the walls of our rooms. Most of the music was local Arabic music, but I couldn’t help but laugh when Party Rock Anthem and the Electric Slide came on. I guess the Electric Slide is a wedding standard no matter what country you’re in. They wouldn’t let us down to see the wedding, but we had partied enough that night, so we settled in and slept instead.