18th Oct 2012 - Egypt & Jordan
This morning we had the slightly more convenient start time of 8am and a drive along the Kings Highway. This stretch of land has been travelled along for more than 3000 years by people heading to the Promised Lands, people on pilgrimages’ and those using the trade routes. The road has even been mentioned in the scriptures of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Our first stop along the route was at Shobak Castle, built in 1115 by King Baldwin to protect against the armies of Saladin. It withstood many sieges but eventually succumbed in 1189. Since then it has been restored, rebuilt and occupied by Mamluks and Ottomans. The castle was up a hill and would have commanded impressive views of the surrounding areas.
Further up the road we stopped at Karak Castle, built in 1142 and occupied by Renauld de Chartillon who liked to throw Muslims off the top of the castle for fun. After a 9 year siege the castle was eventually overrun and in 1187 it was converted to an Islamic castle. Unlike Shobak, we were able to go inside Karak castle and saw prison rooms, dining rooms, kitchens and a bakery. Both a church and a mosque were on site.
Further on we got our first glimpses of the Dead Sea. The sea is 410m below sea level and is 10 times saltier than any other sea on the planet. The sea level has dropped dramatically in the past 10 years and this was particularly noticeable when we stopped at a lookout and could see marks indicating past water levels and compared that to where it is now. We stopped at a resort along the Dead Sea where we were able to go and experience it for ourselves. The water was incredibly warm, just a few degrees below air temperature, and thankfully didn’t sting my Red Sea wounds too badly. We spent half an hour or so taking the typical “look, no hands” photos, reading magazines and so forth. It was very hard to swim in the Sea and also very hard to get out of the water. You’d find yourself floating out away from the shore and after desperately paddling with your arms to get back, due to the buoyancy, it was really hard to get your legs down in order to stand up. After a while we switched to use the normal swimming pools at the resort away from the Sea.
After 3 hours, we headed towards the town of Madaba. Madaba has one of the largest percentage Christian populations in Jordan and this is largely due to the floor of St George’s Church, which is covered in a mosaic. The mosaic is 1600 years old and is a map of Biblical cities and sites, with 157 shown in total from Egypt to Palestine, including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Sinai, Dead Sea, Red Sea and Hebron. The mosaic is believed to contain over 2 million pieces and was lost for hundreds of years, only being excavated in the 1860s. As builders were preparing to build St George’s Church, they came across the ruins of a Byzantine church and further excavation brought the mosaic to their attention. It is the oldest map of Palestine in existence. The new church was finished in 1889 and houses the mosaic in the centre. That evening we spent in a coffee shop having a beer or two and playing cards.