Mosques and Mosaics

Mosque

June 7, 2014

The next morning started early because we had a lot of things on our itinerary and not much time to finish it all. Our first stop for the day was to a mosque in Amman. Sam had told us yesterday that on visits to mosques he preferred that women wear long skirts or jeans, even though they give you a long robe to wear when you visit.

Every one of us came down to the hotel lobby in a skirt or dress, but once we hit the streets, we looked a lot like American tourists. Since arriving in Amman, I’ve realized that the long dresses and skirts are not very fashionable among the local girls. Almost all the girls wear jeans or leggings and a long tunic-like shirt that goes just below the butt. A few girls wore long dresses, but they had some kind of cute jacket or cardigan over it and pair it with cute sandals or heels.

Fashion

Fashion!

Anyway, my point is that it was completely obvious that we were American tourists trying to blend in and not succeeding at all. I didn’t really care, though, because I looked great.

The mosque we visited was called the King Abdullah Mosque, and is the only mosque in Amman that allows non-Muslims to visit. It’s a really beautiful building with lots of designs and colors and a distinctive blue dome on top.

Robes

Fashion?

We entered through the side door to the gift shop so that the girls could change. The women working there led us to the back into a little room filled with long black robes. We slipped them on over our clothing and flipped up the hoods to cover our hair. They sort of resembled graduation robes. The men didn’t have to wear any kind of special clothing, but before entering any mosque you have to take off your shoes. We left them outside on a shoe rack before going into the building.

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Inside the mosque was just as amazing as the outside. The ceiling was painted blue and white and gold with a massive tiered chandelier. At the center of the ceiling was a huge golden sun. Often the ceilings of mosques are decorated to resemble the sky and have images of the sun. Around the rim of the ceiling were beautiful stained glass windows and the rest of the walls were a bright white. The floor was a very large red carpet with lines running along it. Sam told us that the lines help them line up straight during prayer so they don’t bump into one another.

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Sam explained a little about the Muslim religion and their beliefs and practices. They pray five times every day, which is the purpose of the call to prayer. Mosques have big speakers attached to them and at each interval during the day they play the recording for any Muslims who aren’t in the mosque at that time, so they can pray along. The early morning prayer is optional because it’s at, like at 3 am and I know that no one would be able to drag me out of bed to pray at 3 am. They pray facing Mecca, their holy city, so all Mosques are oriented with the front in that direction. I noticed that even in our hotel rooms, there are little markers showing the direction of Mecca, and for tech savvy Muslims there are apps that show you the direction of the Qibla based on your GPS location.

In the front of each mosque is a small niche in the wall called the mihrab, which marks which wall is the wall to be prayed toward. Before modern sound amplification the niche was rounded so that when the prayer leader, the imam, would say the prayer, his voice would echo through the room even though he was facing away from everyone. Now its not a problem because he has a microphone, but they still keep the tradition.

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I am so very grateful to the King Abdullah Mosque for opening its doors for us. I think Islam is one of the most interesting religions around today because of the way it adapts Judaism and Christianity, and I admire the devotion Muslims have to their religion and how they allow it to become an intimate part of their lifestyle. I don’t think I could ever actually be Muslim because there are other things that I disagree with, but I have so much respect for the people who practice it.

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Now get this smelly robe off of me.

Our next stop was the Citadel, the old city center of Amman. The site of Amman has had some kind of civilization since the Bronze Age, and traces going back even further. It was eventually settled by the Romans and it was called Philadelphia. It had the most amazing views of the city that I’ve seen yet.

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Skyscrapers and an ancient Roman theater

One of the things I love about old cities is the mixture of the old and the new. Down below you can see the old Roman theater right in the middle of this lively city. Just standing on the top of the hill surrounded by ancient Roman ruins and then looking out over the next hill and seeing skyscrapers was a beautiful juxtaposition of the old and new human civilization.

In contrast to the beautiful mosque we toured earlier, here were the remains of a massive temple dedicated to Hercules. It was built in 160’s CE and there are still remains of the giant statue of Hercules that stood in the temple.

But as with almost all the older cities in Jordan, the ancient ruins were often reused later on in the Umayyad period, when Muslims began making their presence known.

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Inside the Citadel is a museum with artifacts dating back thousands of years. The artifacts come from all over Jordan and are some of the oldest pieces I have ever seen in my life. There were intact pottery jugs and stone tools from the Neolithic Age, almost ten thousand years ago. Like I said, I’m super impressed by old things. The older it is, the more amazed I am.

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One of the oldest and seriously most terrifying things there were these really creepy two-headed man-child statues. They’re crazy old, estimated to be as old as 7250 BCE, but they have beady little eyes that stare into your soul and make you really uncomfortable. They really freaked me out.

Why must your beady eyes be drawn on in Sharpie

After wandering around the museum for a short while, we headed down to the ancient Roman Theater just below the Citadel for a quick peek. We didn’t have much time to spare so we made a loop around the theater and then headed through the museum without stopping to look at much.

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It was filled to the brim with old clothing; headscarves and dresses and shoes of the various peoples and cultures that once populated the area, everything from wedding attire to everyday outfits. I noticed a few Bedouin engagement outfits but didn’t examine them as closely as, apparently, I should have…

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These weren’t the engagement outfits, they were just cool.

I wanted to spend more time there, but before I even had a moment to wrap my head around the thought, we were in the bus again, on our way to the next destination. We were dropped off in front of the new Jordan Museum, which isn’t fully opened to the public yet, but Sam talked to someone who got us inside. It was incredible. Starting from time as far back as anyone could find evidence of, it started with the earliest beginnings of human beings up through modern civilization in Jordan.

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Every corner we turned held an amazing surprise– in-tact stone arrowheads and tools from the neolithic period, thousands of years old ivory inlaid boxes, tablets with writing that no one had seen before and couldn’t be identified.

I even came across more of those thoroughly unsettling man-child statues with eyes that followed you across the room.

Almost at the end of our tour were two of my favorite things. The first was a row of computers into which you could type your name and it would print out your name in several different languages, including Aramaic and Nabataean. I printed off several of them to give my my siblings because it was just such a neat little souvenir, to have your name written in a dead language.

The very last thing that we saw was the most incredible of all. We went into a little room that was off by itself in a corner, without anything surrounding it. Inside, it was dark with only a few long inscriptions on the wall lit up. They were explanations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, how they had been created by a monk-like sect of Judaism and forgotten about and then discovered again in 1946, how they were the oldest discovered copies of the books of the Old Testament and hundreds of other books that had been written out of canon and discarded. Of course, I had read through some of my required readings prior to coming and had learned about the Dead Sea Scrolls from textbooks, but I had also heard about them from programs on the History Channel (Ancient Aliens, anyone?).

I skimmed the descriptions and then turned around, almost dropping my camera out of shock. Enclosed behind a thick pane of glass were the segments of the Copper Scroll, the most famous and most unique of all the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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Wow.

It’s the only one ever found written on any kind of metal, and it’s the only one that doesn’t have biblical or historical subject matter. Instead, the Copper Scroll contains the locations of hidden treasures throughout the desert, but it’s descriptions of their locations are so obscure that they have never been found. The amount of gold and silver that the scroll describes is estimated to be up in the millions of dollars. And of course, its uniqueness is what gives cause for lots and lots of conspiracy theories about it.

We knew that we would be seeing the other Dead Sea Scrolls when we got to Israel, but for me, this was the coup de grâce.

One thing that I noticed (or rather, failed to notice at first), was the fact that almost everything in the museum was translated into perfect English. In fact, almost everything we did in Jordan, from museums to restaurants to hotels, was in English. I never had to ask for a translation because everyone spoke English and everything was translated into English. Perhaps it was because we were always doing very touristy things, or because Jordan’s main industry is tourism, but I wasn’t experiencing almost any of the culture shock I had gone through in Germany.

We loaded back onto the bus and drove out to Madaba. I was particularly excited about Madaba because during the school year I had been assigned the Madaba Map as my research project for this class. Sam was also excited because Madaba is his hometown. We were starving so he took us to his grandfather’s restaurant, Haret Jdoudna, for lunch.

I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of eating Middle Eastern food. Everything is so fresh and healthy and delicious. It’s amazing what fresh, organic foods can do to your mood and how much different they actually taste from our fruits and veggies.

After lunch we headed over to the Church of St. George where Sam sat us down in a little room with a blown up picture of the map and explained what we were looking at. The map is on the floor of the church and was discovered during renovations, so it’s really broken and parts of it are missing. In spite of that, it’s a really special map because it gives us a picture of what the holy land of the Middle East looked like in the 6th century. Some people think it was for pilgrims making their way to various parts of the holy land, but it is also a work of art and shows scenes like a lion chasing a gazelle and fishermen in the Sea of Galilee.

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Finally we went into the church. The smell of incense was thick and kind of suffocating, and the lighting was low. The Madaba Map was roped off, but there wasn’t an tighter security than that. The amount of detail shocked me. The little stone mosaic tiles were so small, and the map was so huge.

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So small!

I couldn’t even imagine the amount of time and effort, to cut out each individual piece and then arrange it into such a massive work of art. The impressive part of the map is the city of Jerusalem, which is so accurate to what the actual city of Jerusalem looked like at the time that excavations have been done based on the mosaic and undiscovered buildings and roads have been found.

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We still had a lot of time left to kill in Madaba, and Sam had accidentally told us earlier that his antique shop was located in Madaba. We begged him to take us there, and it was basically the cutest little shop with lots of really cool stuff. I bought a small copper and gold inlaid box because I’d been having my eye on those kind of boxes and it was the most unique one I had come across.

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It’s always Christmas in Madaba!

Afterwards we walked around Madaba for a while, just roaming around the streets. The town Christmas tree was still standing even though its June, and Sam told us that it was just too much money to take it down and put it back up so they just left it up year-round. He took us to his church, the Church of St. John the Baptist, and showed us the ruins and little museum inside the church.

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Church of St. John the Baptist

There was a steeple on the church that you could climb up to get a view of the city, but Sam told us he would take us to the top floor of his brother’s hotel and it would be safer. So he led us to the St. John hotel and out onto the top floor balcony, which did have quite a spectacular view. For being such a big city, I was surprised by the way it just seemed to end– there were buildings, and then suddenly they all stopped and gave way to nothing but desert. In Amman I could see buildings in every direction as far as I looked, but I’ve never seen a city just suddenly end like that.

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Madaba

After that it was time to leave Madaba, which disappointed me because the experience felt really authentic. It was a big(ger) city with a really small town, friendly feel and relaxed atmosphere. But we got back on the bus and headed to our next destination, the Mount Nebo. On top of the mountain is a large Byzantine church that has been restored and is now functioning, but at the time we were visiting it was undergoing renovations and we couldn’t go inside. Sam was disappointed because he said it was the most beautiful church he had ever seen.

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Temporary mosaic house

Outside the church the mosaics were housed under big tents to keep them away from the construction. Sam told us that in order to get the mosaics from the inside of the church they had to flood the whole church with water until the tiles were loosened and detached from the floor, then paint the top of them with temporary glue and put a huge sheet of cloth down on top of them and slowly peel them up off the floor. Then they stuck them down outside and will have to do the whole process all over again when they move the mosaics back inside.

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Way over there, is Israel.

Mount Nebo is famous for being the place where God showed Moses the promised land, the land of Israel, before Moses died. I wasn’t expecting to actually see very much but the view was absolutely incredible. From the top of the mountain we could see straight over into Israel, the rolling hills and fertile green grass and very far off in the distance, Jerusalem. I could see why everyone was itching to get over into Israel back then– it was a welcome relief from the constant glare of the desert.

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We gazed out over the valley for a while longer and then started our long drive back to Amman. Along the way we stopped at a shop where modern mosaics are made by hand using the old techniques. The small tiles are cut from larger pieces of stone in the shapes they are needed and glued facedown on cloth, then the mosaic is affixed to whatever surface it will be permanently attached to (like a table, a block of wood, ect.) and the cloth is peeled away to leave the mosaic. The pieces were beautiful but very expensive. They did give us free tea, though.

We headed back to Amman and Sam wanted to take us out again like he did the night before, since it was our last night in Jordan. He had to drive over to our hotel though, since the bus driver was done working after he dropped us off. My mouths dropped open when he pulled into the parking lot in a slick Mercedes sports car, a classy two-seater with butterfly doors. Much to our delight he let us take turns sitting in it and taking pictures. He even let a few people drive it around the parking lot, which I was way too afraid to do.

My new ride

It was Saturday night, though, so our trip around Amman was a very different experience. We went to a bakery to get some desserts, called kenafeh, which is like a pastry with goat cheese and honey and it was so warm and delicious. It practically melted in my mouth. We ended up ordering way too much so I ended up eating more than I should have and I got a stomach ache.

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Here comes the stomach ache.

Because it was Saturday night all of the shops had closed down early, since Sunday is not part of the weekend in Jordan. Their last work day is Thursday and Friday is their first day off, but that means everyone goes back to work on Sunday morning, so it was very dead. We walked around the block and listened to the call to prayer from the green-illuminated mosques before heading back to our hotel and going to sleep.

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