UNESCO World Heritage Site

We climbed this mountain in Petra for the views. We stayed for the friendliest cat ever.

Petra is stunning. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and Jordan’s most-visited site, it is on pretty much every list of things you have to see in the world. Mark was here 20 years ago but this was my first visit. A lot of places can seem over-rated once you get there but not Petra; it is stunning.

The quick history: Established in the late 4th century BC as capital of the Nabataeans – a nomadic Arabic people – it sat at the crossroads of various trade routes and thus flourished. The Nabataeans’ great talent was in controlling the water supply in this desert region, thus creating an artificial oasis. Through the use of dams, cisterns, and water conduits they managed the water that fell as flash floods and saved it for when it was needed. With the wealth created by trade (and selling water during droughts) the Nabataeans carved grand buildings and tombs into the sandstone rocks.

An early morning through the Siq en route to the ruins of Petra

Along with the entire region, Petra came under Roman rule some 2,000 years ago. Then, as trade routes migrated more to Syria’s Palmyra in the second and third centuries AD, the city began to fade. When a devastating earthquake hit in 363 the end of Petra as a major city was at hand. Eventually the city, though still known to local Arabs, was lost to Western thought for centuries until, in 1812 a Swiss explorer was shown the site by the locals. Today it is known as one of the great sites of the ancient world.

We hiked into Petra twice. We arrived in Wadi Musa – the modern town from which one enters Petra – in time for lunch, then walked down to the entrance. We weren’t going to go in as it was too late in the day, but we wanted to check it out for the next day. When we discovered that a one-day ticket was a little over $70 and a two-day ticket was under $80, we grabbed at the chance to go in and give it a quick look. We made it as far as the Treasury – the iconic site for Petra – but we ran out of time and had to turn back before seeing more of the ruins. The nice thing about being there so late was that most of the crowds were already gone.

As you exit the deep-cut Siq the first thing you see is the Treasury, this amazing building cut into the rock 2,000 years ago

The next day we got there early in the morning – before 7:00 AM – and had that walk up the Siq (“the shaft”, a narrow gorge formed from a split in the sandstone rocks) almost to ourselves. This was living! After taking more pictures of the Treasury we continued around and then up to the High Place of Sacrifice, a key religious site for the Nabataeans with grand views over the city and surrounding mountains. A lovely woman from Seattle who was already up there told us we had to climb to the Monastery as well and then relax at a little tea tent with the most amazing views of all.

Here we are atop the Place of High Sacrifice. From here it was back down then way back up.

So down we went, out and around through the rest of Petra, and then up, up, and up to the Monastery, some 800 steps if the travel guides are to be believed. We were blown away when we got there, this massive 500-square-foot facade carved into the rock. While it’s called the Monastery in fact it’s more properly a temple, probably to one of the Nabataean kings who was posthumously deified.

After some 800 steps you reach the Monastery – totally worth the climb

Recalling the advise of our Seattle acquaintance, I continued up to find these view points she told us of and sure enough saw one that had named itself Best View. While Mark rested with a comfy couch and some tea in front of the Monastery I continued up to that last spot.

The Best View viewing area was well named

The view was in fact stunning, across more mountains and down 1,000 feet to the Wadi Araba, the huge flat, dry area that forms the border between Israel and Jordan. The Best View’s proprietor had set up a great little area with cushions and pillows and shade right on the very edge of the cliff. Before I could even settle in, though, this cute little cat, not yet full grown, had run over and plopped herself on my lap. And there she stayed until I laid down on the cushions and she laid down on my chest. A great hike, spectacular views, and the friendliest kitty in the whole world sitting on me purring.

I texted Mark that he had to come and, when he saw the picture of me and the cat, he did. Then it got really bizarre. As he sat down with his tea that cat jumped off my lap and climbed onto his shoulders. Where she stayed. For the longest time, just chilling and purring. Leaving those views and that cat were hard but eventually we had to be going.

Mark’s selfie with me and the very comfortable kitty

So Petra was great. There was a weird thing though about Wadi Musa, the modern town on the edge of Petra. This is a major tourist destination, famous throughout the world. We expected to find interesting restaurants and good food but were sorely disappointed. It’s hard to remember the last time we were somewhere with just resolutely below average food choices. And to just rub it in, most restaurants here don’t serve alcohol. Thank god we only planned a two-night stop.

Next stop Aqaba!

As we were leaving Petra heading to Aqaba we stopped at a viewpoint where you can see the narrow Siq leading into Petra

This kind of stuff was all around us

The colors and shapes were almost hallucinogenic

More stuff carved into the sandstone

I’m sure a guide could have told us what this room used to be, but for us it was just a magnificently colored room

As Mark approached the Best View he saw me and the kitty admiring the stunning views. OK, the cat was probably more enjoying my lap, but the views were all they were cracked up to be.

We couldn’t not stop in the Cave Bar for a drink. Set in a 2,000-year-old Nabataean tomb it claims to be the oldest bar in the world.

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.

There it is – the very spot that looks down into the cave where Christ was born. Maybe.

If ever there was a place to learn to hate packaged tour hordes (pronunciation of the “d” is optional), Bethlehem is it. I shudder to think what the place is like around Christmas time.

As you may have heard, Bethlehem – just six miles south of Jerusalem – is reputed to be the birthplace of Jesus. To get there we took a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, then another bus into the West Bank. Then an entertaining walk through the Old Town’s souk to our hotel right near Manger Square. The main business in Bethlehem, not surprisingly, is tourism. Lots and lots of tourists clumped together, clogging the streets and restaurants and everything else.

To give a sense of the packaged nature of tourism there, when I went down to breakfast in our hotel the first morning it seemed as though every single table was reserved for one tour group or another. I asked where I could sit and the staff person asked what group I was with. He looked genuinely surprised and even puzzled when I said that we were not with a group. So he sat me at the staff table. Same thing second morning; they really didn’t have any concept of independent travelers coming down to breakfast. Strange.

Here I am in Manger Square outside the St. George Restaurant. We stopped for coffee one afternoon but the restaurant part was set up for huge tour groups so we passed on the chance to have dinner there.

There’s really only one thing to do in Bethlehem and that’s go to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Church of the Nativity. It was a bit of an underwhelming experience for me, but in large part I’m sure that’s just because I’m a non-believer. If I really believed that God’s son had experienced His earthly birth here I would have been more impressed. According to legend, St. Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine who made Christianity the official church of the Roman Empire, came here in the early fourth century, identified the cave where Mary had given birth, and had a church built on the very spot. After a sixth century fire largely destroyed the church Emperor Justinian had the current church built. Accordingly, the Church of the Nativity is the oldest Christian church in the world under continuous, daily use. That’s the kind of thing that impresses me.

Unfortunately, for me the most memorable thing was the horrible line to get up to the Holy Birthplace. When we went to the church on our first day in Bethlehem it seemed as though it would take forever to get through the line so we just left. We came back a few hours later, hoping that late in the day the line would be shorter but no such luck. Early the next morning the line was a lot shorter, but even then the process was just horrible. Big groups pushing through together (“Are you with the Bulgarian or Romanian group?”) to get up to the spot but no one moving fast or far. After our 90-minute wait we saw the issue: the faithful approach the spot one by one, kneel, pray, kiss the spot, etc., before the next believer comes forward to kneel, pray, kiss, and so on and on. For me, well, it would be crazy to come to Bethlehem and not see the sacred birthplace but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen again. Oh, and just to make things worse the church itself was undergoing a major renovation process so you couldn’t really see anything besides scaffolding and workers.

This section of mosaic floor apparently dates back to the original church built by Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. In other words, that’s some old mosaic there!

It’s worth noting that there is some debate among historians about the credibility of the claim that Jesus was born here. He is, after all, always called Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Bethlehem. And there is another town of Bethlehem quite near Nazareth that would make more sense. Why would second and third century Christians claim that He was born here? Well, King David of Israel was definitely born in this Bethlehem and it may have been considered good politics to link the Messiah to David this way. Let the debate continue but if they all decide it was in fact the other Bethlehem there’s no way I’m going through that whole ugly mass of tourists again to see the new real birthplace.

Otherwise? It was interesting and eye-opening to hike out of town a ways to see the walls separating the Jewish settlements from the Arabs on the West Bank. Big, ugly walls with fences above to ensure that the native Arabs stay in their place. It’s easy to imagine how frustrating – enraging, really – it must be for locals to be walled off by an occupying force from their own land. I’m sure at some point it becomes the new normal and you learn to live with it, but the walls are an ugly mark on the land.

The wall separating the West Bank from Jewish settlements

With the help of TripAdviser we found some good food, including one restaurant that was classy and cool beyond our fondest hopes. And while scouting out restaurants on our first night I even walked by what seemed like a cool bar that might even be lively. We stopped on our way out to dinner for an OK drink and while it seemed like the place had potential it was kind of dull. Only when we got to Jerusalem did we learn from our gay friend who works at the Consulate there that we’d stumbled into the only barely-but-kind-of gay bar in the West Bank, a place where you can meet other gay people but that is still really discrete. So discrete that even we didn’t notice!

Bethlehem’s one cool, funky bar that turns out to be kind of sort of gay

Two days were plenty in Bethlehem so from here it’s back to Jerusalem. I feel a little guilty experiencing all this when so many people I have known in my life would give anything to visit what for them genuinely is the Holy Land. I assume I’ll get over it.

Wandering the beautiful and winding streets of old Bethlehem

Real markets here, not just tourist places

More market

I’m not really a retail kind of guy so what do I know. But it seems as though if I were trying to market baby clothes I wouldn’t have the babies hanging by their necks.

More ugly wall, a constant reminder of the occupying force on your land

But walls of course do provide an opportunity for artistic expression