Monthly Archives: July 2016

Heading North, the Adventure Begins

First stop, Umm Quais, in the far north of the country, to visit the Roman ruins of Gadara, part of the Decapolis. (

The Cardo was the main street of a Roman city.

The Cardo was the main street of a Roman city.

We hired a guide and from him learned a lot about the theatre (and how to find the perfect spot for a voice to carry) and a group of rectangular ruins along the Roman road, which were clearly shops. Much of the city is constructed of black volcanic stone.

Kids at Play

A row of shops in Gadara.

A row of shops in Gadara.

We also learned that blocks were placed diagonally on the roads so that the chariots were quieter but pedestrian crossings had squared blocks placed for ease of crossing.

Chariot and Cart Wheel Marks

There is a complete Roman town to be discovered here with temples, baths and other buildings common to Roman life. In fact, excavations were being undertaken at the far end of the Roman road on two storey shops and homes.

You can see how much is left to excavate.

You can see how much is left to excavate.

Years ago, in Arequipa, Peru, we thought that it was wonderful when Peruvians and not just foreign tourists visited historic and other sites. Again in Um Qais we were delighted to see how many Jordanians were touring the site.

Roman building elements reused for a church.

Roman building elements reused for a church.

And, as always, Denise quickly attracted an entourage.


From the lookout point at Umm Quais, the view was stupendous. We saw Mount Hermon, the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights (now Israel), and Syria, in the distance. We even heard the distant sound of artillery fire or bombing, which brought home to us the reality of the conflicts in that part of the Middle East. We enjoyed a lovely lunch at the Rest House, gazing over the Sea of Galilee and down into Israel at the foot of the valley.


We then headed south to Ajloun Castle, a former Ayyubid Castle, set on a hill with more great views. (

Castle on the Hilltop


It was never taken by the Crusaders and the full range of fortifications, from moat to murder gaps (not just holes), trebuchet balls, and extra towers can be clearly seen.


The castle was later damaged by the Mongols and restored.


Again, we toured with and around busloads of schoolgirls and, as always, Denise made their day! (And they made ours.)

And, after a hard day to touring, a cup of coffee.

The Starbucks at Ajloun




To say that you will see changes when returning to a country that you left 55 years previously, is putting it mildly. Fred had talked a lot about his time in Jordan so Denise was eager to see it.

Amman in the 1940's

Amman in the 1940’s

The flight on Royal Jordanian was pleasant and immigration and customs were easily dealt with. We had procured visas in advance but probably this was unnecessary as airport visas are readily available. The shock began at the airport. Amman’s airport in the 1950’s was a single runway (where Hussein bin Talal used to race his sports car) and a Quonset hut, which served as a terminal. A portly sergeant handled the formalities. In those days Air Jordan’s primary aircraft was a couple of DC-3’s and the heaviest traffic was old Avro “York” airliners carrying pilgrims to Mecca. Today’s bustling modern airport was quite different.

We were met by a driver from the company from which we had contracted transportation services ( and were taken to our hotel in Amman. Amman seemed a mixture of older and more modern architecture (with some ancient thrown in) though the traffic did seem especially modern!

Some notes on Amman. Amman is an ancient site, perhaps most famous as Philadelphia, part of the Decapolis: The cities of the Decapolis play an important part in Jordan’s ancient history and are a focus of our visit.

Greek was the lingua franca of the Decapolis and most of the east.

Greek was the lingua franca of the Decapolis and most of the east.

The next day we were picked up by our driver and began our explorations at the Roman theatre, to take advantage of the morning light.

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The theatre is wonderfully preserved and is still used for presentations. Fred remembers watching “Holiday on Ice” there – the concept of an ice show in a Roman theatre boggles the mind. We had the place to ourselves for a while before the first batch of tourists and school children arrived. April is apparently the month for school visits and we met bus loads of school children (primarily middle or high school level) at most sites we visited. They always wanted to practice their English and chat with Denise. She is now the star of the show on a great number of Jordanian cell-phones!

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In the gallery.

After the theatre, we headed up to the Citadel, which sits on Jebel al Quala’a, a fortified site since the Bronze and Iron Ages. Ironically, this is one of the few sites that Fred cannot remember visiting, but there must have been a school trip. It features great views of the city, the ruins of the Temple of Hercules dating from the Roman occupation (AD161-180), a Byzantine church, and an Umayyad palace and massive cisterns. Like most Middle Eastern sites, the ruins lie in layer after layer as the sites have been in constant use for thousands of years.


Our final stop in the busy morning was the Jordan Museum, which is housed in a fine modern building. A visit includes the history of Jordan up to the present day and includes a display of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The soundtrack of the film of Bedouin life was only an Arabic soundtrack but much could be deduced from the film. After a quick snack at the hotel, we returned to the theatre in the early evening visit another with a display of national costumes and mosaics from the Roman ruins at Jerash. Finally, we wandered the shops in the souk. Fred wanted to find a traditional incense burner but we discovered that we should have bought it in Jeddah. (Denise sought consolation at the silversmith’s.) We ended with a drive up Jebel Amman to see where Fred had lived but we could not find his house. As expected, the old directions of “the first paved road after the Third Circle” don’t work anymore – the Zahran District is wall-to-wall government buildings and the open wheat fields are long gone.

The old Home

The old Home



Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia remains one of the more mysterious countries on earth. A major producer of oil, an important market for US exports, and site of the two holiest sites in Islam, it is vitally important to millions of people. Yet because it does not issue tourist visas it is largely unknown to westerners. We were fascinated by the opportunity to visit.


We began the saga by flying to Jeddah via Frankfurt. Arriving at Jeddah in the evening we knew we were not in Kansas any more or for that matter anywhere else that we had previously visited. Ever. Let’s start with the airport; why does a country that does not issue tourist visas at all have a huge airport (15 square kilometers) with about a dozen terminals? For the Hajj, of course. In 2015 just under 1,400,000 non-Saudis made the Hajj, Umrah, or other pilgrimage. That is a lot of folk; over 80,000 on a single day. (Disney World does over 50,000 a day – you get the scale.)


Once we sorted out which immigration line to get in (the family one as we were neither diplomats nor both males), and passed our retinal and fingerprint scans, and shown our visas, which had been obtained with great difficulty, we were officially admitted and met our friend, Mary to begin our visit. It became clear that this would be an interesting experience as Denise would be wearing an abayat whenever she left Mary’s housing compound, which was reserved for foreigners and so more relaxed. This seemed odd at first but, amazingly, seemed quite normal after a day or so.


Mary is a wonderful tour guide. When we served together in Bolivia she saved Fred’s bacon at a major conference in Santa Cruz and followed up with a visit to the famous Jesuit Missions nearby. She is, not surprisingly, also very, very good at her (impossible) job in Jeddah, and like all good diplomats, knows everybody. And, like all modern Consular officers, she lives on her cell phone, even when taking leave to show guests around.

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After breakfast with a Marine colleague who was in Jeddah to inspect the Marine Security Guard Detachment,  we set out on the first day to visit the city of Taif, about two hours from Jeddah. Taif is up in the mountains and is known for its cool and even rainy climate (!) and the cultivation of roses. In fact it was raining when we arrived, which we were not expecting! First we went to the Alkamal Rosewater and Rose Products factory where we saw the process of distilling rosewater from the locally produced rose petals. We were made most welcome, covered with rose petals, and enjoyed Arab hospitality with local coffee. (Starbucks fans be warned, Saudi coffee is not what you expect – it is so lightly roasted that it is closer to a yellow color. Definitely an acquired taste for those of us rasied on Turkish coffee.)

Denise and Mary

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We tried to invite our host for lunch but he overruled us and we were honored to receive an invitation to lunch with the Alkamal family at their house. We enjoyed a wonderful meal of different fish and shrimp with two kinds of pilaf. Lunch included the complete family including teenagers and college students and Fred was a source of great interest to them. They thought his attempts at Arabic were hilarious. (He declined, however, to let them record him on their iPhones!) Lunch was followed by a traditional honeyed dessert with noodles and coffee, taken on the patio amidst much conversation. After lunch we visited the Festival of Roses before returning to Jeddah.


Juice seller in Turkish costume. They were everywhere when Fred was a child in Amman. This gentleman, in Taif, is updated with plastic gloves and disposable cups. The little cymbals let you hear him coming.

Juice seller in Turkish costume. They were everywhere when Fred was a child in Amman. This gentleman, in Taif, is updated with plastic gloves and disposable cups.
The little cymbals let you hear him coming.


On our second day, we tried to visit the Tayebat Museum in Jeddah. It was unfortunately closed for renovation but we were able to view some of the traditional architecture from the outside.

Then we went abayat shopping in the Al Shatie market where Denise bought one for everyday use and one more formal one.



Great fun! This was followed by lunch at Bab El Yemen (Gate of Yemen) where Denise finally got to try the fabled Yemeni fish that Fred had enjoyed both in Djibouti and in Yemen. We also discovered the wonderful lemon and mint drinks, which we enjoyed and found immensely refreshing for the next few days. (Think of a non-alcoholic Mojito.)

Later in the afternoon we went to visit El Balad, the old section of Jeddah, which is an amazing warren of streets and old houses, often in bad repair.

The old city.

The old city.

Our guide, Samir, is a former local employee of the Consulate General and is now conservator of El Balad was in charge of this. We visited the Beit Shorbatly a most interesting house and museum.

WE also visited the Al Shafi Mosque, a 700 year old building with a 1400 year old minaret. Fred and our guide were able to enter and take pictures but Mary and Denise stayed at the door as they were not in the women’s section.

Photo taken towards the minbar or pulpit.

Photo taken towards the minbar or pulpit.


Finally, we visited the Beit Naseef, a house where the first King of Saudi Arabia gave audiences. Now it is in the process of being renovated. We went to the roof, via the staircases made wide and high enough for loaded camels to climb to the upper floor, to watch the sunset and to hear the evening call to prayers from the six or so mosques nearby. We drank tea and after a snack of foule (a bean soup) with bread, we did indeed hear the simultaneous calls to prayer at sunset. It was very moving.

Home of a wealthy Jeddah merchant, previously used by the first king of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Azziz ibn Saud to hold audiences in Jeddah.

Home of a wealthy Jeddah merchant, previously used by the first king of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Azziz ibn Saud to hold audiences in Jeddah.

The street zig-zags so that you have to pass the store fronts.

The street zig-zags so that you have to pass the store fronts.

On our third day, we took a drive out of town again trying to find an old Ottoman fort outside Jeddah. This proved difficult so we returned to Jeddah and enjoyed a visit to the Corniche or road along the water, giving us the opportunity to take photos of the floating mosque and the huge fountain nearby, as the sun set.


The final highlight of our stay was a boat ride to show us some of the views from the bay. It felt a little odd to wear both an abayat and lifejacket but we enjoyed it!


Then it was our last day and we were off to the airport for our flight to Amman, Jordan on Royal Jordanian Airlines. We had no local money but found that we could buy a snack and a drink using dollars. As a foreigner in the airport Denise felt very conspicuous and, working on the premise of “when in Rome”, wore her headscarf until we boarded our plane.


Conclusions? Any discussion of Saudi Arabia quickly turns contentious, all the more so because it is a large and surprisingly varied country. We’ll just note:


— Wonderfully welcoming people. Arab hospitality is world famous and we had the impression that many people were especially eager to display it in a country that receives few visitors other than pilgrims. We were fortunate enough to be invited into a private home, but we noticed it on the street as well.


— Amazing scenery ranging from the mountains of Taif to the old and modern cities of Jeddah. There is a lot to see. The stereotypical image of Jeddah is that of steaming heat. Sitting on the Red Sea, Jeddah is warm and humid, but so then is Miami. And Jeddah’s old city shows that it has been a major trading center for a thousand years and in that thousand years, the local folk have built to beat the heat and capitalize on the cool sea breezes.

Jeddah's answer to Rodeo Drive

The “Can You Go Home Again?” Trip Begins


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Fred lived in Amman, Jordan from age six through ten. (OK, most of the time, not counting two six-month evacuations, first to Beirut, Lebanon – Suez war of 1956 – and then to Rome, Italy – Iraqi Revolution of 1958.) Jordan in the mid to late 1950’s was, in many ways, a magical place for a young child and certainly triggered Fred’s lifelong interest in history and religion. It is one of the ironies of the Foreign Service that Fred then went on to spend his entire career in Latin America and Africa, rather than in the Middle East or Asia, where he grew up. One of the goals in the design of Ndeke Luka was an orbit of the Mediterranean Sea, or at least a return to Jordan. Sadly, conditions in Syria and Libya have ruled this out, at least for the immediate future. So, we had to reconsider!


Our story began when Denise noticed that Cunard was offering exceptional prices from Dubai to Southampton, stopping at Aqaba, in Jordan. And the Queen Elizabeth would be stopping in Istanbul and Malta, places that Denise had visited or lived when younger. Hmmm, that would allow a visit to Petra but you can’t go to Petra and spend only one day … By the time the dust settled, Cunard had agreed to let us board in Jordan. And a colleague from our days in Bolivia chimed in that if we were going all the way to Jordan, then we had to come visit her in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Queen E  012


And so the question, “Can you go home again?” Herewith our answer.