Umm Al-Rasas and Madaba

I’ve been thinking a lot about travel.

Once upon a time, a friend said to me that she’d rather spend two grand on a car than on travel because a car would last longer. The practical part of me always felt uncomfortable thinking about that, wondering if it was true. I don’t think it is.

Today, I left the house at 7:30AM to meet up with four other people at the bus station to go to Madaba. Life lesson number one: never trust a taxi driver who tells you that there isn’t a bus. The bus ride was rather scenic, but mostly culturally scenic (which is the only way I can think to describe arriving at the bus station in Madaba).

We arrived in Madaba after a bus costing half a dinar. We visited the famous church with the oldest existing map of the Middle East. Which, you know, was nice, but that was really just the beginning of the day. We also wandered into what appeared to be a satellite station of the archaeological park (that seemed to turn into someone’s back yard at one point–we had to climb a few rocks and peep through a hole in the wall to see the ruins of the Byzantine Church). Then we found the real archaeological park, and saw some ancient mosaics, which were for the most part far more impressive than the ones at Saint George’s Church. Then we hit up the visitor’s center and asked if there was a bas to Umm al-Rasas.

There wasn’t. The guy at the center called up someone and offered us a taxi for thirty-five dinar. The taxi would only have taken four of us, and there were five, so we declined.

Then we headed back down to the bus station because we didn’t really think that the guy knew what he was talking about. We found out that he was right that there wasn’t a bus (because it was Friday), but we did run from taxi driver from taxi driver until we found one that would take us there and come back after two hours for 15 dinar. Four of us got cozy in the back seat and off we were.

Umm al-Rasas is in the middle of nowhere 40km outside of Madaba, so it’s not that surprising that it’s not a popular tourist site–but oh, what a sight it was. The journey alone was wonderful–desert and farmlands and oh! so many hills! In the back of my head I was worrying that the place itself would end up being lackluster (I had picked it out), or that our driver (who spoke no English) would leave us in a ditch somewhere or refuse to take us back if we didn’t completely overpay him. That didn’t happen, and the site certainly didn’t disappoint.

There was a huge visitor’s center there with essentially no people there except Khalid, a member of the tourist police who insisted that the site had the most beautiful mosaic in the world. I remained skeptical. We had lunch at the visitor’s center (with Khalid quizzing us on Arabic), then went up to the site and were given the run-down of its history by Khalid in Arabic. (He also made a quip about how his family had been Christians long before ours–there were no prophets in America or Europe, but the Middle East had so many! I was proud because I understand him saying that in Arabic.) I understood at least half of what he said, which I found sufficient.

Um al-Rasas is a site that has Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic ruins. It’s a huge site and it’s still being excavated, but they have found the remains of fourteen different churches. We wandered through (and climbed on) the remains for a while, occasionally glancing bits of mosaic tiling, but there was nothing quite as impressive as the huge mosaic. Under a shade to protect it from the sun, the mosaics were massive–the size of two entire churches. I could barely believe how vibrant they were. At first I had trouble making out what they were depicting, but shortly thereafter I realized that that was because iconoclasts had blurred out the human faces. (Iconoclasts! The Middle East had them while most of Europe was still pagan!) It was completely incredible, which is a word I use carefully after hearing it used to describe so many tourist traps. Best of all, we had them almost entirely to ourselves–there were maybe two other tourists who only saw the big mosaics and then left. Right before we had to run back to meet our taxi, we saw another mosaic that looked like it was still being excavated. If I ever come back to Jordan, I’m planning on spending at least a day here. It was that fabulous.

After getting back to Madaba, the taxi driver said that it would be 20 dinar because the trip took longer than he thought. Since that still only ended up being 4 dinar each for an hour-long trek each way, we conceded. We wandered around Madaba a little more after that, seeing a few more archaeological sites and drinking banana juice with milk (or, in my case, a liter of mango juice I bought from a market for 1 dinar) and watched part of the World Cup game in a snack bar. We tried to get back to St George’s for mass (our original reason for coming to Madaba), but apparently we were misinformed of the time. It didn’t matter, though. We grabbed some felafel for dinner and some kunafa for the road and hopped the next bus back to Amman.

This day probably cost me less than the equivalent of 30USD, and I will never forget it. It was the first time I accomplished a day trip without a fluent speaker of the local language with me. It was the first time I took an inter-city bus in the Middle East (an experience that will be repeated often over the coming weeks). And I planned it all out yesterday.

I could have bought a purse for the same amount of money, and I would have kept it longer, but I also could lose it, damage it, or have it stolen. My memories of days like today, I keep forever. They change me in ways deeper than my sunburn. They are what I mean when I say I love to travel.

Tomorrow, Jerash and Umm Qais. Can’t wait.

~ by putthisinyourrecord on 25 June 2010.

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