Madaba, a christian city in the desert

I believe the statistics say that around 6% of Jordanians are Christian. This might not seem like a lot, but we’re talking a couple hundred thousand people in a very small Muslim country. If you plan to make a pilgrimage to the ancient Holy Land, then Madaba is NOT to be missed!

Madaba is a medium-sized city of roughly 60,000 residents. It has been a  Christian city since the days of Constantine. It is most famous for the church of St. George, a still-functioning Greek Orthodox church with beautiful byzantine mosaics decorating the interior. Most impressive is the floor, with a mosaic map of the Holy Land… the OLDEST map of the Holy Land still surviving! The tickets were about 1 JD when i went. You buy the ticket in the gift shop. I didn’t understand this, and there wasn’t a guard on duty when I went, so I accidentally got in without one, but found the gift shop when I finished and bought an ex post facto ticket to support the church.

Just to the side of the church is the tourist district! Lots of lovely shops selling all sorts of trinkets, including Petra labeled gifts. Although they might be cheaper than those you can get IN Petra, this still seems a little silly to me. But BEWARE, lots of shops in Jordan sell illegally acquired antiquities!! DO NOT BUY ILLEGAL ANTIQUITIES!! They will get confiscated in customs, you could be slapped with a fine, but most of all, it encourages GRAVE ROBBERY and LOOTING! This is a huge headache for archaeologists and the Department of Antiquities. It ruins the scientific integrity of the site. DO NOT buy ancient coins, pottery (pieces or whole) that looks really old, etc. If it is a legitimate antique rather than an “antiquity” it should come with papers. “Antiquities” belong in a museum or a lab, and are not legally allowed to be sold. Please don’t support grave robbery!!

Another note to be careful of… Madaba is an unusual city by Jordan standards. It is a relatively large city that is rapidly expanding. Traditional Bedouin families are migrating into the city (diluting the Christian population to around 40% these days) but many of them are traditional pastoralists all of a sudden settling into a fairly large, fairly modern, very touristy city. Culture clash is an ongoing issue here. If you are a woman traveling alone, I recommend sticking with touristy tracks and not hanging out alone at night. Use basic safety sense. In all honesty, the most you probably will get is a creepy stare or, in extreme situations, you might come across a young man trying his luck with the women of MTV by brushing your arm or touching your hand. He won’t likely know what to do more than this, but understand that touching like this is FORBIDDEN in these parts. If any man comes too close for comfort, try to walk away or walk into a local shop. If he touches you, give him an angry look, turn around and go the other way.


Field Trips of Jordan: Part 1

On the first dig at Balua, we had one free day a week. Every Saturday, we would go on an adventure somewhere in Jordan. The first weekend was a trip to the Dead Sea. We made it a full day trip by stopping at Bab edh Drah, a bronze age site with a massive amount of tombs, and a local wadi (canyon) to cool off. Next, we made a quick stop by Lot’s Cave, the supposed site where Lot and his daughters hid from the fire and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Whether or not this is actually THAT cave, it IS the spot of the ruins of a monastery that certainly thought it was.


Bab edh Drah


Enjoying the view while trying to survive the heat


Our Balua Team 2012


View out of a wadi


Rather intimidating rock formation. Perhaps blown out of the sky?


A nice place to take a nap on a hot summer day in Arabia


A very exciting little waterfall makes the well-over 105 degree weather


Ruins from a monastery at Lot’s Cave


Relaxing in the buoyancy of the water


Sunset over Jerusalem

We finally arrived at Amman Beach, a western resort on the lowest point on earth. Very nice place with a lovely pool and nice locker rooms. Going down to the Dead Sea was pretty cool. The water is so salty, it is impossible for a human to sink! What a cool science lesson! This also means you never want to get a drop of it in your eye or mouth. It is quite painful. But to be at hip-level depth and be able to lie back and float completely relaxed as if you are on a pool floatie… it is out of this world! We relaxed, swam in the pool, and watched the sun set over Jerusalem on the other side of the sea.

Life in a Christian Village

Our work day was pretty well scheduled. We were up by 5 am to have oatmeal, drove out to the dig site before the sun rose, watched the sun rise over the Wadi Mujib, worked in the dirt taking a break for tea brewed over a fire (shai narr) around 10:30, and headed home around 12:30 for lunch. After we ate, we had a chance at a nap and a shower before scrubbing the pottery sherds we had collected that day. We each took turns cooking and cleaning in the evenings. This didn’t leave a whole lot of free time, but the time we did have was spent relaxing. My favorite thing to do was to sit on the porch and watch the neighborhood. The kids would walk by and wave “Hi how are you? Hi how are you?” without knowing the response if you asked them the same question. It seems that every Jordanian learns three phrases in English: “Welcome in Jordan!” and “Hi how are you?” and “I love you!”

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Sometimes you find kids who have learned some rather interesting offensive phrases, probably learned from an older brother who taught himself the most offensive English phrases he could find on the internet. Sometimes, when I was very bored, I would walk to the local shop for an ice cream. The neighbors all invited me for tea or a meal, and all wanted to talk to me. Unfortunately, at that point I didn’t know more than 5 words in Arabic, so you can’t get very far with “Hi how are you”. The neighbor girls all loved to sit with me on the street. They would play with my hair and steal my iphone to take pictures and play music.

One night the neighbors across the street invited me over for dinner again. They were barbecuing meat and taught me how to make mansef. When we started eating (most meals are with your hands or using bread as a utensil) it was unusual and amazingly delicious! I ask ‘what meat is this?’

‘Sheep. I kill him myself last week!’

wow, you killed a sheep yourself?

‘yes. he was in the wild. I shot him once and he didn’t die, so I chased him and shot him again and he was dead’.

Wow, I didnt know sheep could run that fast!

‘no, wait, not a sheep. What’s the word in english? In Arabic it is gazelle’

Okay then, BBQ Gazelle is one of the best tasting meats I ever had! I would rather not think of it as that I just ate an endangered species, but rather that I ate the food that was served to me as an honored guest.

Before I came to Jordan, I met a man through our blogs. He actually helped me do my research paper on the region of Moab. Through some messages back and forth, I learned that he was actually from the village I was staying in! He had met the dig director in 2008 when he was in the area. I invited him over for tea with me and the director! He is studying to be a doctor in Karak. We discussed social issues in the area and compared cultures. He is very educated and worldly, and as such has a very different perspective on his country than the average Jordanian. It was interesting to learn about how people live in a city with limited civil works; how they deal with trash collection and water issues. It is really remarkable to me how much the internet can bring people together! What are the chances of me moving to a rural, tiny village in the middle of a desert that is mostly populated by bedouin tribes living in tents, and already knowing someone on facebook from there!

A big look back

Since work and adventures got the better of me, I ended up with no time or energy to post on my blog. Let me take a big step back and start my adventure from the beginning.

My first dig was at Balu’a, an Iron Age city in the ancient kingdom of Moab (think Biblical times, the land where Ruth was from). We lived in a house in a nearby village, As-Smakieh. This small village looked like just about any other village in the region, except that it is exclusively Christian. There is not a mosque in sight nor a call-to-prayer to be heard. There were two rivaling churches, however, that faced each other and would have competitions over who could play church bells louder over their PDA systems. The first thing a newcomer is asked when they come to the village is “do you go to the latin church or the greek church?” This does not actually mean catholic versus orthodox. It is actually roman catholic versus greek catholic.


In my natural state: filthy and exhausted

Because it is a christian village, no one walks around wearing hijabs and everyone wears t-shirts. They are still very conservative and traditional, but it is a contrast to the conservative bedouin villages in the south. There is distinctive gender segregation, not by any law but simply by social customs. Guys and girls simply do not hang out together. Even in the church service, women sit on one side of the church and the men on the other. During hymns, the women held hands and so did the men, but they did NOT hold each others’ hands. This made it awkward when I accidentally sat on the men’s side. Even communion had separate lines for the men and the women! Even during the “peace” the men would hug and kiss each other, and so would the women, but for me I had to sit still and not touch anyone, including my male friend sitting next to me. Oops! 🙂


The two rivaling churches and the local sheep herd

I had an interesting time getting used to the culture. Because this is a small village, we were very exciting. Because there was a handful of single women with us, we were VERY exciting! It didn’t take long at all for every middle-school boy in the village to know my name. They would play ball in the street right outside our house.


Local bedouin tents

I learned pretty quickly that in conservative societies, it is not good for a girl to walk around alone, even in daylight. The boys would surround me and ask me tons of questions. The most important questions included “Are you married? Why not? I have a cousin your age who is unmarried too!” It actually got pretty scary when that particular cousin drove by and they drug me over to his car and tried to shove me in it. The 25-year old man emphatically pointed at his ring finger, silently asking if I was married or not. One night, the boys all went crazy trying to drag me into his car. A neighbor girl saw me and ran over to rescue me, dragging me into her house. Her father and grandfather ran out to yell at the boys. They sat me down and yelled at me “Sit! Eat!” I sat quietly and ate.


Ancient Ottoman ruins at the edge of the village

A whole new world

Jordan is a strange and beautiful place. It is safer than I could have expected, children run free on the streets, goats and donkeys and camels are parked on the sidewalks, tribalism is the main form of government and people live like they did in biblical times! The difference now is the shepherd boy has an mp3 player and Bedouin tents have satellite dishes and solar panels!

Lettuce is unheard of, but Betty Crocker is readily available. Milk is largely imported from Saudi Arabia (which I don’t understand) and cars stay on the road until they are barely held together by duct tape. Speed bumps are usually unmarked, meaning I have bumped my head countless times in the back seat. Drivers use both sides of the road, and hitch hiking is considered public transit! Women in burkas and school children hitch rides (and always offer a small payment).

Western women are stereotyped by MTV (very popular here) and the radio is America’s top 40 with American speaking DJs! You get 3G almost everywhere. Dating does not occur here. If there is no ring on your finger, you are up for grabs! Or, haggling, that is. A good wife can go for a couple camels from a wealthy family!

Courting is an important part of the culture. A boy sees a girl. He falls for her. He tells his mother or sisters. They do all the “dating” for him. They check her out, see if she’s a good girl, and see if she’s interested. If yes, they are engaged! She is off limits until they decide to get married or not. If not, back on the daughter in law market! Word of mouth moves faster than Facebook! Everyone knows everyone’s business, and that keeps everyone moral. Sexual harassment is punishable by brutal beating and rape is punishable by death.

I have been living in a tiny village in rural Jordan for a month now! It all feels almost normal now!