A visit to our other side

A Beit Shmuel trip makes Israelis feel very welcome in Jordan.

Petra 224 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Petra 224 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Jerusalem's Beit Shmuel offers a two-day trip to Jordan with a particular focus on Jewish history, including the famous sites of Mt. Nevo and Petra, led by both an Israeli and a Jordanian guide. It's a fascinating program, but also tough and intense. After a 5:30 a.m. departure from Beit Shmuel (in downtown Jerusalem), with pickups in Tel Aviv and Megiddo, the bus - by now filled with some 30 people and guide Doron Yosho - got to the Beit She'an border passage by about 8:30 a.m. After the obligatory visit to the sleepy duty-free shop, we proceeded to passport control on the Jordanian side, where smiles and politeness made up for the lack of a computerized system and the many smokers. Our Jordanian bus awaited us on the other side, together with our local guide, Magid Abou Moussa, a young man freshly graduated from the Royal Jordanian School of Tourism, who warmly welcomed us to what he referred to as our "second homeland" - the Hashemite Kingdom. I've always been curious to see the country from "their" (although Abou Moussa would say it's also "our") side. Thanks to an ingenious irrigation system, the Ruhr Valley, which follows the Jordan River from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, is the agricultural reserve of the kingdom. Along the road, villagers displayed their produce in local markets in the middle of the road - forcing the bus to slalom around them. The fruit, vegetables, pottery and textiles provided a rich and varied selection, but I couldn't avoid the sight and smell of the lamb and veal hanging on meat hooks, outside in the heat without any kind of a cooling system. By noon, we had reached the little town of Medeba, which has a predominantly Christian population. Here we stopped to view the famous Medeba Map, a gorgeous mosaic on the floor of a church, which was almost destroyed when a contractor hired to renovate the building began to tear the work of art out of the floor. Saved at the last minute, the first map to put Jerusalem at the center of the world is still there. And it's easy to buy (a reproduction, of course) - at the souvenir shop for two dinars, which is less than NIS 10. They recognize Israelis here immediately, by the way, and greeted us with broad smiles and unexpected declarations of "We love Israelis, come again!" - in both English and Hebrew. At lunch, we had our first encounter with local catering: a huge table, filled with about 20 different kinds of raw and cooked salads, in addition to chicken, meat and fish dishes. It's eat all you can, for 8-10 dinars, drinks not included. The next stop was both a literal and emotional peak: Mt. Nevo, where Moses stood and viewed the Promised Land. The road was difficult - at times the sight from the window made me feel dizzy and a bit fearful - but the reward on top was worth it: Southern Israel lay at our feet, hauntingly beautiful, so close and yet so inaccessible. This is what Moses must have felt, and more than one of us had to swallow hard to ease the lumps in our throats. Today, the Mt. Nevo site is actually a church, built on the ruins of a Byzantine holy site, with a small museum. Unfortunately, the museum was closed, but our guide told us that the museum explores Christian history and the Byzantine era, rather than focus on the Jewish story of Moses. After an exhausting journey, made a bit longer by some detours, we reached Wadi Moussa, site of the famous Petra temples, by about 10 p.m. Though we arrived at the hotel well after the scheduled dinner time, the now-familiar self-service salad, meat and chicken bar awaited us, accompanied by the also-now-familiar "We love Israelis" welcome from the staff. The following morning we took the long and dusty road to the legendary red-rock wonders, crowded with souvenir shops and peddlers. The first temple was relatively easy to get to: about 1.5 kilometers down a gentle slope that has been paved and curved into the rocks led us to the first - and not last - breathtaking view. It was just as I imagined it, as I had read in stories and seen in other people's photographs. Then we moved to the second temple, which required another 1.5 km. walk, this time up a steep mountain and climbing 849 stairs curved in the rocks. After less than 30 stairs, I unabashedly opted for the donkey solution. But the fearless donkey immediately began to skip from rock to rock, showing an increasing and alarming affection for the side close to the precipice. His owner, a young Beduin obviously aware of my anxiety, encouraged me - in an almost unintelligible mixture of English, Arabic and Hebrew - to relax and concentrate on joyful thoughts so that I could reach nirvana and enjoy the sights ahead of me. He was right - sort of. When I finally reached the summit, the beauty of the upper temple and the amphitheater were a kind of reward for my efforts. But two things, unfortunately, put a damper on my enthusiasm. In the Nabatean civilization, which disappeared mysteriously centuries ago, death was a major issue - the amphitheater, according to our guide, was apparently the site of some pretty gory human sacrifices. And then there were the raggedly poor Beduin kids, who tried to sell us their crafts and souvenirs. Our Jordanian guide said that to avoid tensions, the government allows the Beduin not to send their children to school. "They earn enough money and are not a threat to the regime," he explained. Stepping out of Petra, we stopped for a short moment at "Moussa Spring," where, according to the Beduin, Moses drew water out of the rocks. The water was cool, clean and refreshing. And if Beduin are eager to preserve that part of our history, who are we to raise even the slightest doubt? To Israelis, Petra is more than a prime tourist site. It is also the mystical site of one of our most chilling myths: Generations of Israelis challenged death to get there, when the majestic site was out of bounds, before Israel and Jordan made peace in 1994. Some, like the legendary commando Meir Har-Zion, prevailed. Others were shot or caught. A total of 13 daredevils died trying to make it there. Our Israeli guide, Doron Yosha, noted a possible connection between the forbidden areas: the Land of Israel that Moses was allowed only to see, and the red rocks of Petra that Israelis were barred from visiting. But today, it is accessible to all of us, and a visit to the other side of the Jordan is highly recommended. The writer was a guest of Beit Shmuel.