This is what you come here for, to bob in the extremely salty Dead Sea

It felt like the lowest point in my life. Oh, wait, it was the lowest point of my life. There we were at the Dead Sea, some 1,412 feet below sea level. To put that in context, the lowest point in North America is Death Valley, just 279 feet below sea level. The lowest point in Europe is Baku, Azerbaijan, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, 92 feet below sea level. (If you’re ever asked in a trivia contest, that makes Baku the lowest national capital in the world.) So yeah, the Dead Sea is way down there.

And then there’s all that salt. Around the world, salt makes up typically between 3.1 percent of the water and 3.8 percent. The Dead Sea? A little over 34 percent, so nearly 10 times as salty as normal salt water. The result is that you don’t so much float in the water as bob in it. It’s almost impossible to put your legs down since the salinity just pushes them right up. Needless to say you don’t want to get that water in your eyes; I splashed just a tiny drop in my eye getting out and it stung like the devil.

Our pool overlooking the Dead Sea with Palestine in the distance

And that’s about it. We stayed at a nice resort right on the “sea” (it’s really just a modestly big lake with a lot of salt) and besides lazing at the pool and occasionally going down to the sea there’s really not a lot to do. And you can’t even stay in the water very long: not to be too indiscrete but the saline compromises your private parts pretty quickly and then you gotta get out now!

The only interesting thing besides the Dead Sea itself and being lazy was the challenge of finding good food. A resort like that is pretty isolated so you’re typically stuck with whatever overpriced food they want to serve you. After a mediocre lunch on arrival and a mediocre dinner at an Asian restaurant in the resort, though, Mark did a little research on TripAdvisor. There was a Crowne Plaza hotel just a half mile or so up the road with a well-reviewed Lebanese restaurant so we went up to try that.

Security at these Middle East resorts is pretty tight, so at first it wasn’t clear they would even let us in, but eventually some manager-type guy said we could come in. We went to the restaurant and it was great. Good choices, good service, good quality, and – since a Crowne Plaza has a lower price point than our Kempinski hotel – a lot cheaper than eating at our hotel. Needless to say the staff at the Crowne Plaza got to know us over the next couple days.

This little cutie hung out with us for a couple days at the pool. She’d climb up on Mark’s lap, snuggle in, and just purr and purr. Unfortunately she almost made us miss lunch one day since obviously Mark couldn’t disturb her.

Oh, there was one more interesting thing: the flies. Oh my God the flies were bad. Apparently during October and November farmers in the area fertilize their fields with manure. The flies are reasonably fond of manure and they breed pretty intensively. Early in the morning when it’s cool they’re not too lively but as the day wears on they come out in force. It was crazy and meant that when we were lying by the pool we would typically have towels over us like blanket just to keep the many, many flies off.

My morning routine, out to the pool before anyone else was there, cover up with a light towel to keep the flies at bay, enjoy the view and read my book.

And that was it. A couple bobs in the Sea, lounging at the pool reading a Pulitzer Prize-winnng history of the Soviet Gulags (tell me I don’t know how to have fun), fending off millions of flies, and walking up to the neighboring Lebanese restaurant. Not a bad way to spend three days, but if I ever do it again it won’t be during manure-spreading season!

Next stop, the ruins of Petra.

One afternoon, unable to bear the flies at the pool I decided to take a hike up the hills behind the resort. I was curious to see if there was anything interesting up there, maybe some quiet place to sit and read. There wasn’t anything up there – it’s really dry and desolate around the Dead Sea – but the further up I got the worse the flies got. So I went back down.

Sunset across the Dead Sea

Here we are outside the second century AD Roman theater. It cost all of $2.80 each to go in, so a pretty good value.

Now we’re getting to see some exotic places. Amman itself isn’t that exotic, though it is one of the top Arab cities in the world, but it’s the gateway to a lot we’re looking forward to. We had a quick three-day stop in this city of 4 million people, capital of Jordan of course. And while it wasn’t the most scintillating of cities, there was plenty to capture our interest for those few days.

Here are some quick impressions. The traffic is crazy, some of the worst we’ve seen anywhere (and after traveling as much as we have in Italy, that’s saying something). They seem to pay no attention whatsoever to traffic lanes and aren’t so keen on pedestrians. Crossing streets sometimes felt like a great sport.

Mark atop Amman’s ancient Citadel, built on the highest of the original seven hills. From up here you get a sense of the four million Jordanians below.

Lots and lots of hills. Originally founded on seven hills (shades of Rome, and Jerusalem, and Athens, and apparently lots and lots of cities that claim to have been built on seven hills) today it spans some 19 hills. Steep hills, too. As the modern hotels are in East Amman and the historic sites are in West Amman, we walked a lot across the city. And there are lots of hills.

There are some good ruins here, too, especially a great Roman theater that is still used for concerts (though not this time of year). We spent some time in the old citadel as well, a site used by Romans, Byzantines, and early Islamic rulers where the Temple of Hercules reigns supreme.

The Temple of Hercules

The best ruins, though, are in Jerash, an ancient city some 30 miles north of Amman. We took a day trip up there and it was totally worth it. While human settlements in the area date back to perhaps 6,000 BC, the remains visible today are from the classical Roman period, especially the first and second century AD. And those ruins are pretty spectacular: the stunning Arch of Hadrian as you enter, a huge oval forum, a colonnaded main street, a couple of beautiful theaters, a Temple of Zeus, even a genuine tetrapylon. (Yeah, I didn’t know what that was either, but it was cool: a four-sided building in the middle of a major intersection with arches on all four sides for people to pass through. Maybe you had to see it, but it was good.)

There may be more columns standing in Jerash than in any Roman area we’ve ever seen. From up at the Temple of Zeus, this is the Forum and the main street heading north.

Food is kind of a mixed bag. To us, at least, it was nothing short of stunning how a city this big, with this many people and no small number of tourists, could have so few interesting restaurants. That’s probably related to the fact that so few places serve beer, wine, or alcohol. Absent that, who wants to eat out? Clothing stores? Thousands of them on the main street. Even a lighting district, an area of four or five blocks where nearly every establishment on both sides of the street sells lighting fixtures. But restaurants that are nicer than fast food falafel? Good luck.

There were basically two nice Lebanese restaurants near the old part of the city, both of which were quite good. Lonely Planet says of one of them, a place called Sufra, that “if the royal family are fans, we’re hardly ones to argue.” Sure enough, not long after we sat down for lunch an elegant group of maybe six women came in along with secret service protection. I can’t say for certain that there was royalty in the group but I would certainly guess ordinary citizens don’t travel in limousine caravans with secret service protection. And yes the food was great even though there was not a drop of wine to be had.

While kibbeh nayeh is the classic Lebanese raw lamb dish, it doesn’t work well for us: the bulgur added to it makes it a pretty high-carb dish. A year or two ago, though, we discovered habra nayeh, the same raw lamb but without bulgur. Here they mix it with chopped onions and a really garlicky aioli before dousing it with olive oil. It is pure heaven.

You certainly can’t talk about traveling in Jordan without mentioning just how friendly people are. Really, genuinely friendly, not just trying-to-sell-you-something friendly. Any time you were out and about in the city people – OK, men – would greet you, ask where you were from, and welcome you to Jordan. Pretty nice, though perhaps not too surprising. After Alexander the Great conquered the region one of his successors renamed the city Philadelphia – Brotherly Love – a name it maintained throughout the Roman and Byzantine eras. So naturally they’re friendly!

And finally, we liked our hotel, a Le Meridien in the newer, upscale part of the city. Since it’s part of the Starwood chain and we spend a lot of nights in Starwood hotels, they upgraded us to a spacious suite that felt so nice after multiple weeks in single rooms. And a not-too-bad bar and steakhouse off the lobby that was a nice alternative to catching a taxi into the old part of town for dinner.

All in all, then, Amman is a good stepping off city to see more of Jordan. From here it’s down to the Dead Sea, Petra, and then the Gulf of Aqaba.

The entrance to Jerash is framed by Hadrian’s Arch, a monumental entryway built to honor Hadrian’s visit in the first century AD. As we travel around the Mediterranean it is absolutely remarkable how many places Emperor Hadrian visited. And, like me, he did it with his boy toy!

Mark on stage in the North Theater. Yes, the city was so big there are ruins to not one but two theaters.

Here I am climbing around on the Temple of Artemis

The cardo, Jerash’s main street. As we worked our way north from the entrance the crowds grew smaller and smaller until we had the place nearly to ourselves.

That’s me way up there in the theater

What Jerash would look like if it still had statues in the niches

If you were wondering, this is what the tetrapylon looks like, though you’ll have to imagine the arches on the sides; I can attest that they’re there. This is on the main street through Jerash, near the north end, where a major street crosses.

And finally, here I am in our hotel room with an interesting magazine. I’m not sure why it was there, but it was a marketing piece for a high-end residential high-rise in London. Perhaps we’ll have to move there!

For some people, Jerusalem is all about the holiest places in their religion. For others, it’s about the cats.

Jerusalem is a big deal, a central focus for three major religions. While it is relatively small – fewer than 900,000 people in the entire city, while the Old City with its concentration of major religious sites is less than one square kilometer – it has obviously been one of the most important cities throughout the history of the West and Near East. Mark hasn’t been here in over 30 years and I’d never been to Jerusalem, so it was kind of crazy that we only had four days to explore the city. In retrospect it seems like kind of an unforced error. Someday we’ll have to correct it.

The history is complicated and I’m not going to even try to summarize it. Suffice it to say that over the last 2,000 years it has been occupied by Jews, Christians, a variety of Moslem rulers, and for a while even the British. As a writer in Wikipedia puts it, “Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.” So yeah, a lot of history here.

The Western Wall, perhaps the holiest places in the world for Jews, with a full moon rising behind it

Our first afternoon, after taking the short bus ride in from Bethlehem, we walked into the Old Town, through a teeming market, and out to the Western Wall. I had to read up to understand just what this big limestone wall is all about. The wall was built under the Jewish King Herod (he of Christmas story fame) as part of the Second Temple. When the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD this wall was all that was left.

Still, why is it such a big deal? Well, the Second Temple is thought by Jews to stand on the very hill where God created Adam and where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. As such it is the holiest place in the religion and the Western Wall thus abuts this holiest of holies. It is said, in fact, that the divine presence remains there to this day.

The bustling markets inside Jerusalem’s Old City

For Muslims, it’s a big deal, too. It was here, you see, that Muhammad flew one night in the year 621 so he could ascend to heaven and have a little chat with God. On the site of the rock – supposedly the same rock on which Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac – stands the Dome of the Rock mosque. The dome itself was built in the early 11th century and thus is one of the oldest Muslim building still standing, though the iconic gold leaf roof was added only in the 1950s.

I fully expected to understand it all a little better after taking the opportunity to tour the area, but that was not meant to be. We arrived on a Thursday afternoon and the Temple Mount area is closed to non-Muslim tourists Fridays and Saturdays. OK, fine, we’ll come down early Sunday morning – our last day before going to Jordan – and see it then. So at 8:30 Sunday morning, after spending a bit of time wandering around trying to find the entrance, we were in line. A long line. A really, really long line. After 15 minutes of moving a little, but not much, we calculated that it would take two hours before we got to the entrance. That’s a long time to wait but we both had our Kindles, so what the hell. We inch along slowly, slowly getting closer.

At some point, maybe around 9:30, we learn that the entrance is open only until 10:30. Well, maybe that means you have to be in line by 10:30? There is absolutely no one to ask and only one small sign in Hebrew that seems to indicate the closing time. It seems as though they wouldn’t just let us all stand in line for hours and then say to a few hundred people “That’s all, folks!”

Well, in fact, that’s exactly what they did. As it got close to 10:30 we saw a few big tour groups in front of us just leave. Mind you, this after standing for nearly two hours. We got closer and closer … and then they closed the gate. No more today! It’s inconceivable to me that a religious site would treat people that way, let them queue up and stand in the sun for hours if they’re not going to get in, but they do. Quite similar to the mess and massive crowd trying to get into St. Peter’s when we were in Rome a couple weeks ago. As though I needed another reason to think poorly of religious institutions.

One of the highlights of the Israel Museum was this scale model of Jerusalem from the time of King Herod, some 2,000 years ago. It really helped me get a sense of how everything fit together.

Enough about what we didn’t see, though after those wasted hours and the frustration and ensuing exhaustion from all that standing we didn’t have a lot of interest in seeing stuff for the rest of the day. The big highlight for us in Jerusalem was the Israel Museum, a massive institution that houses everything from a scale model of Jerusalem in the time of the Second Temple to the Dead Sea Scrolls to a big archeology wing and a variety of sections of fine art from both Israel and around the world. We spent maybe three hours there, far more than we would normally spend in a museum and we still didn’t see everything we wanted to.

The Shrine of the Book, part of the Israel Museum, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept

Oh, and there was that Church of the Holy Sepulcher. For Christians this is big: the place where Christ was crucified and the site of his empty tomb. (It would be a lot clearer to a lot of people – including me – if it were called the Church of the Holy Tomb, since who knows what a sepulcher is. But they didn’t ask my opinion.) Now, I’ve never given it a lot of thought, but I would have guessed that Calvary – to the extent that Christians thought they knew where it was – would exist in some lonely, sad, somewhat isolated spot. But no, there it is, right inside the church in the middle of the city. And then just a few yards away is the place where His tomb (or sepulcher for those who like big words) was. All this was discovered by Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine, just as she helped identify the manger where Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Early in the fourth century she came to Jerusalem, had some workers dig a bit, and found the True Cross right here, along with some of the very nails used to crucify Him.

I wasn’t convinced.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the very spot where Christ was crucified. Kind of an important spot for Christians.

And just a few yards away is the spot where Christ’s tomb was, from which, of course, he arose. I wonder if it’s crowded here at Easter?

At any rate, that was our historic experience in Jerusalem. On our last night we had dinner with an old friend Augie, who works at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. We were joined by a friend of his also at the Consulate, along with a couple from the British Consulate, and a friend of his visiting from San Francisco, all gay. That’s more gay socializing than we’ve done in a long time. The highlight was hearing of the tour one of them did in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi boyfriend he dated for a while. A gay Jewish American dating a Saudi man, just the kind of story that I’ll bet keeps the Wahhabi extremists awake at night.

From here it’s off to Jordan for a couple weeks and then we’ll work our way down the eastern edge of the Arabian peninsula, stopping in some of those little countries that are safe for Western tourists.

With our friend Augie on our last night in Jerusalem

Mark walking through the ruins of the citadel, or Tower of David as it’s known. Dating from the 13th century, today it hosts the Museum of Jerusalem, a good way to track 4,000 years of the city’s history.

For us the highlight of the visit was the Israel Museum, one of the biggest, most interesting museums I’ve ever seen. One exhibit was particularly odd. After an hour or so walking through the archeology section of the museum, you exit into an exhibit of … cats and dogs. It was incongruous, to say the least.

Along with the scale model of Jerusalem, the Shrine of the Book, and the cat-and-dog exhibit, there was a big section of fine art, including this Van Gogh

And a special exhibit of Ai Weiwei, a very prominent Chinese artist and activist. This was the middle of a three-part series. In the first he’s holding a two-thousand-year-old Han Dynasty vase. In this photo he’s dropped it, and in the third it’s smashed to little pieces. It’s supposed to be about the destruction of cultural heritage and history. Or something like that. And yes, it’s controversial to destroy ancient artifacts, even for art.