Jordan 2013 – Day trip to Madaba, Mt. Nebo, Bethany, and Dead Sea

DAY TRIP to MADABA, MT. NEBO, BETHANY, and DEAD SEA: This was a great day-trip to get out from hustling bustling Old Town Amman. We saw all the things that we wanted to see in Amman on our first day. 2nd day was kept for this trip which was booked thru Arab Tower Hotel/Al-Burj Arab in Amman. We rented a private taxi for 54JD for the whole day (entrance fee to the below places weren’t included in this fee). The driver spoke very little English but he was a friendly young man and could explain some histories on these places.

EATING and SHOPPING: We had lunch in a street-side restaurant in Bethany before entering the site. It was mainly bread, Jordanian style rice, hummus, salad, pickles, and kebab. It was nothing fancy but they had good food and clean bathroom. Food here, in these small villages, is very cheap; we ordered food for 2 adults and 2 kids but the bill was only around 14 JD…not bad at all.

Lunch (chicken kebab, hummus, pickles, bread, and rice near Bethany, Jordan
Lunch (chicken kebabs, hummus, pickles, bread, and rice near Bethany, Jordan

For shopping, you must buy some hand-crafted mosaics when in Madaba. That’s what the city is famous for, but don’t just go anywhere…otherwise the only thing you will get is mosaics made in China. Go to the real factories and showroom in Madaba…they are plenty of them here. They not only have wide variety of mosaic artwork, but also you don’t have to worry about buying fake things and pay extra prices. You can tour the factory, then they will take you to their shop. These hand-crafted mosaics are not cheap. The artists work very hard making these items with hand and many of them take months before getting the final products. These showrooms also usually carry Dead Sea products (like salt, mud, lotion, soaps, and etc.) for much cheaper price than the stores in Dead Sea.

Hand-made souvenirs in the showroom of Madaba Handcrafts Center, Jordan
Hand-made souvenirs in the showroom of Madaba Handcrafts Center, Jordan

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We left our hotel around 10 in the morning and headed straight towards Madaba. By the time we were done with Dead Sea, it was almost 5pm. The drive was very scenic thru the rugged mountains, stony deserts, some green valleys, and dramatic vast landscape. Look out for Bedouin settlements also, you will know they are Bedouins when you see tents in the middle of nowhere.

1) MADABA: This is a small city about 40 minutes south of Amman. The city itself dates from the Middle Bronze Age. Madaba is known as the “City of Mosaics” for its century’s old history of mosaic arts and designs.

Map of Holy Land from the 6th century inside Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, Jordan
Map of Holy Land from the 6th century inside Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, Jordan

a) GREEK ORTHODOX CHURCH of ST. GEORGE: This was our first stop of the day in Madaba. It is the chief attraction of the city which preserved the original piece of Byzantine-era mosaic map of “Holy Land” from 6th century on its floor. This 25×5 sq. m. map in front of the altar depicts some important details of that time, like hills and valleys, villages and towns of Jerusalem and other holy sites. The church itself is small but a wonderfully vivid and colorful place with many other mosaic wall-hangings and religious paintings. It’s 1 JD to enter the church.

Greek Orthodox Church of St. George in Madaba which houses the mosaic map of Holy Land from the 6th century.
Greek Orthodox Church of St. George in Madaba which houses the mosaic map of Holy Land from the 6th century

b) MADABA HAND-CRAFTS CENTER: As I have mentioned above that if you want to buy Madaba’s traditional hand-crafted mosaics then it’s better to go to a factory other than buying cheap, fake stuff from small shops on the streets. There are plenty of these government approved places here who will gladly show you around their factories and then bring you to their showrooms. Our driver/guide took us to one such place, called Madaba Hand-Crafts Center. All of the mosaic stones come mainly from the deserts of Madaba, Jarash, or Wadi Rum and they only use natural stone color to design each of their masterpieces. The man inside first showed us how they cut the stones into small square pieces, then how the artists first sketch a design on a piece of white cloth where later they glue the stone pieces one by one. Then it takes few days to dry the glue, after that it’s grouted on a frame upside down and finally, take the white cloth off the stones. It was quite educational for us and the kids. There were ladies who also paint on ceramics and clay pot and later give the mosaic-look on them. After that we walked over to the showroom. This was an incredible place and shoppers’ paradise for those who like collecting authentic and traditional artworks. They not only have furniture or wall-hangings with mosaics, but also very rich quality rugs, Bedouin jewelries, scarves, Dead Sea products, and many more attractive home décor souvenirs. And the good deal is that they can ship any big items to your city’s airport free of charge…all you have to do is just pick it up when it arrives at the airport. There were also some unframed mosaic works which you can take and grout them yourself on floors or kitchen walls.

An artist working on a mosaic decor in Madaba Handcrafts Center, Jordan
An artist cutting stones to make designs on a mosaic decor in Madaba Handcrafts Center, Jordan

2) MT. NEBO: After driving for about 20 more minutes from Madaba Handcrafts Center, we reached Mt. Nebo. This is a holy site for both Muslims and Christians. This is where Prophet Moses climbed at the end of his life to see the “Promised Land” which he never could enter. He also died and was buried here, although no one knows the exact place of his burial to this date.

View of "Promised Land" - Jericho, Jerusalem, and Dead Sea from Mt. Nebo, Jordan
View of “Promised Land” – Jericho, Jerusalem, and Dead Sea from Mt. Nebo, Jordan

From the summit of the mountain visitors can see, as Moses did, the vast panorama of Jordan River Valley, the Dead Sea, Jericho (about 27 km), and Jerusalem (46 km). This place has been a place of pilgrimage for Christians for hundreds of years. The Serpentine Cross on the mountain is one of the most photographed sculptures of this place that represents serpent taken by Moses into the desert and the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. A big stone-statue marks the visit of Pope John Paul II in 2000 AD near the main entrance.

The Serpentine Cross sculpture on Mt. Nebo, Jordan
The Serpentine Cross sculpture on Mt. Nebo, Jordan

There was a massive renovation going on in the sanctuary for Moses when we went to visit Mt. Nebo. We only could see the original mosaic floors of Mt. Nebo’ first church from the 4th century along with some other old mosaic pieces and artifacts. Mt. Nebo is open from 8 – 4 pm and the entry fee is 1 JD per adult (kids free). You can easily spend an hour or more walking on top of Mt. Nebo looking at the near and far distance pretty sights.

3) BETHANY: After about another half an hour drive from Mt. Nebo, we reached the visitor center of Bethany. Bethany has been identified as a biblical site where Jesus was baptized. The exact point of baptism is known as “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” and this is the place where John was living when he baptized Jesus.

"Bethany Beyond the Jordan" - The holy site where Jesus was Baptized by John the Baptist in Bethany, Jordan
“Bethany Beyond the Jordan” – The holy site where Jesus was Baptized by John the Baptist in Bethany, Jordan

Three chapels were built on the eastern side of the river during the Byzantine period (5th – 6th century AD) with colored mosaic and marble flooring. These excavated remains still can be seen by the visitors in their original states. There are many beautiful churches in this area from almost each sect of Christianity. This is supposed to be a holy site for all 3 monotheistic religions. For Christians it is obvious…Jesus was baptized by John at this very spot and the doors to heaven believed to open here during Christ’s baptism. For Muslims, Mohamed (SAW) said to have crossed this place before going to Jerusalem before his Night Journey (Mir’aj) to the heaven. Finally, one of the hills here is believed to be the place from where Jewish Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire. Some portion of “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” is actually in West Bank. Therefore, we had to go in a gov’t shuttle bus and an escort to access the area. This whole trip is for 12 JD per person which also includes audio guide. The service is open from 8:30 – 5 pm and bus runs every half an hour. It takes about 10 minutes from the visitor’s center to go to the Baptism site and the whole tour is for about an hour. First we walked to the Jordan River, then walked another 5 minutes to see the baptism site “Bethany Beyond the Jordan”, and then another site of Jordan River where you can see the Palestinian border only few feet away.

4) DEAD SEA: Dead Sea is flanked by mountains to the east and the rolling hills of Jerusalem to the west, giving it an almost other-worldly beauty. This is also believed to have been home to some Biblical cities, like Sodom and Gomorrah. Either for religious reasons or to enjoy the calm surroundings of the place Dead Sea is a must-see and must-experience place in Jordan. Look on the other side of Dead Sea and you will see Jericho in West Bank.

Dead Sea, Jordan...looking at West Bank on the other side
Dead Sea, Jordan…looking at West Bank on the other side

Dead Sea is not the place where people come to “swim”, you can only float on your back in this thick salty body of water. Amman Beach is the place where our guide was saying people pay to go inside for swimming, dining, spa treatment, and lot for things. Since we weren’t going to go for swimming and had little time left before sunset, we just went to a shore of Dead Sea which was free of charge and without any nice amenities. You can rent camels or horses for few minutes here to ride by the water. I saw people floating on their back in this beach too, but there is no shower to clean the heavy salt off your body. Please also visit my page on Dead Sea on the right-hand side under Israel/Palestine for more background information on this unique lake.

Trip to Jerusalem – Part 1 – Hebron and Bethlehem in West Bank

VISITING HEBRON & BETHLEHEM: Visiting these two cities during our trip to Palestine/Israel was something that will stay in my mind as long as I live. This is the feeling of excitement, nervousness, adventure, sadness, happiness which you don’t get anywhere else in the world. I won’t lie, I was a bit scared/nervous about our whole Jerusalem trip, especially with our 2 little girls. It’s just, I didn’t know what to expect there…reactions from the locals, political situations and etc etc etc. But once I set my foot there, I thought to myself “everything will be fine” and luckily everything was fine. Jerusalem is not really a perfect dream destination for many people; for lots of travelers, it’s not even in their bucket list. Even if not for religious purposes but for the love of history and culture, I think this place should be visited by every Muslim, Christian, Jew or even an atheist. It can be a bit overwhelming with all the information and knowledge you gather from this historical holy land but at the end of the day this place leaves you with hundreds of questions and thoughts in your mind.

A modern day donkey-rider on the street of Bethlehem

I was being a bit lazy on uploading posts on our Jerusalem trip, only because there are soooooooooo many places to visit and so many things to do here. But I was going thru our photo albums from this trip recently and just suddenly made up my mind that I have to let people know about this amazing country, its cities, people, and everything else. So, this is my first post on our memorable trip to Jerusalem. Next one is on Jericho and Dead Sea and the final one is the most important and the longest one…Old Jerusalem.

TIME OF TRAVEL: We flew to Tel-Aviv on the first week of January, 2012 from Brussels. I was so excited for this particular trip that the long journey or reaching in Tel-Aviv at something like 2 a.m. in the morning with kids didn’t bother me too much. As for the weather, it was a perfect time to visit Palestine, I thought. It was a bit chilly (a light sweater or fleece was ok for us) but at least didn’t get any crazy desert-heat wave.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Hotel Addar in East Jerusalem, which is about 10 minutes of walk from the Damascus Gate or Jaffa gate of Old Jerusalem boundary and about 7/8 minutes of walk from Garden Tomb. Location was very nice and close to some local markets and shops. The hotel had free Wi-Fi and free good breakfast. It wasn’t all that luxurious and spacious hotel but the customer service was simply awesome. It is far from Tel-Aviv Int’l Airport (if I can remember correctly it took us about little more than 45 minutes) but our hotel arranged a taxi pick-up from the airport for a reasonable price. They also arranged a private one-day trip to Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho, and Dead Sea.

EATING & SHOPPING: We had our lunch in a local street-side restaurant in Bethlehem. We had some kebabs, salad, hummus, pocket breads, and falafels in Old Jerusalem in couple of our meals, but they are so good that we really didn’t get tired of them. So, we decided to go with the traditional meal again (another reason is because we really didn’t see any diverse cuisine options in Bethlehem).

Lunch in Bethlehem – salads, hummus, shredded chicken, pocket breads, and falafel

Old Hebron would be a nice place to buy some local souvenirs, but 99% of the stores there were closed during our little visit there. I’ve heard Hebron glasses are something famous there, which we didn’t see anywhere. We ended up buying some key rings and bracelets with Palestinian flags from some local teen age boys. You can bargain with them for a better deal, but when you look at their faces and know their situations you really don’t feel like bargaining. Instead, giving them some extra money would be something they would really appreciate.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: As I mentioned above, we rented a private taxi for a whole day (which our hotel managed for us) to visit Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho, and Dead Sea (Kalia Beach). The whole trip cost us about 1200 NIS. The taxi drive spoke very good English and gave us all the history and necessary insights on all the places. I would recommend going to these places with someone local or tourist groups; entering these cities with your own car can be risky and hassle if you don’t know all the ins and outs. There are few check-points that we had to pass thru when leaving Jerusalem and entering each of these cities. Some of these cities are controlled by Muslims and Israelis aren’t allowed for safety purpose and some are Israeli controlled territories and not very safe for Muslims.

1) HEBRON: Hebron is about less than an hour drive from Jerusalem located in the southern West Bank. This was the capital of the Israelite state for a short time during King David’s era. The city is also known as City of Patriarchs. This is the 4th holiest site for Muslims after Mekkah, Madina, and Jerusalem and the 2nd holiest place for Jewish after Jerusalem. There is no modernization or development in this part of West Bank and the current situation of the country has made this place a ghost city. We really didn’t see any big buildings or any modern architecture while driving thru the city but saw many kids running and playing in the streets, which made me think about their unpredictable lives, if they actually go to schools, or how many family members have they lost so far in wars, fights, and attacks.

Streets of Hebron, on our way to Cave of Patriarchs

When we were driving toward Hebron, we saw an Israeli army or may be a civilian with a rifle gun guarding his family on the road side while someone else was fixing their car. We asked our taxi driver why the man had rifle in his hand and seemed like he was ready to shoot someone. Driver’s response was, since that was a Jewish family and they are in a Muslim territory…they are just always alert for the safety of their family. And you will see a similar site when a Muslim family is stuck in a Jewish community. It left me thinking, the unpredictable life that they and their family, kids live everyday. I can’t even imagine a life like this for our daughters. Thanks to almighty that we are so lucky…so lucky just to have a safe shelter, supposedly a safe community, good education system, and lots more for our kids’ better present and future.

One of the check-points of Israeli army outside Cave of Patriarchs in Hebron

a) OLD HEBRON: We had to pass thru the old part of Hebron to go to our final destination, Ibrahimi Mosque. We walked thru an old market passage before entering the mosque. Most of the stores here were closed (may be for the afternoon prayer) and looked very dead and colorless. Given the situation of this town, the face of this place really has a depressing look which leaves many mix feelings in one’s mind.

Bazaar in old Hebron – no development or modernization in this part of the country

b) IBRAHIMI MOSQUE or CAVE of PATRIARCHS: This is the main attraction and probably the single most important reason for Muslims, Christians, and Jews to visit Hebron. This is located in the old part of the city. It is kind of intimidating to see Israeli/Palestinian armies guarding the outer territory of the mosque. Visitors have to pass through couple of gates and a security controlled check-point to enter the mosque. There are 2 entrances to the mosque: one for the Jews and one for the Muslims. Non-Muslim visitors are also allowed to visit the mosque but it is usually via the doorway for Muslims. All female visitors must wear scarf and a long skirt or cloak to cover up before going inside, which you can find near the entrance.

Inside Ibrahimi Mosque or Cave of Patriachs in Hebron

This is the historical place where the father of 3 major monotheist religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) Prophet Ibrahim/Abraham (AS), was buried and his tomb is located in a small room inside the mosque which can be seen through a window. Jews can look at the same tomb from the other side of the room which is a part of a synagogue. Other than Prophet Ibrahim (AS)’s tomb, the mosque houses tomb of Sarah (AS) – 1st wife of Ibrahim (AS) and mother of Ishaq (AS) (Isaac), tomb of Ishaq (AS), tomb of Rukaiya (AS) (Rebekah) – wife of Ishaq (AS) (Isaac). There is also a spot which is believed to be the burial place of Prophet Adam (AS) and finally, a remarkable footprint of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). This is truly an overwhelmingly emotional place for these three religions. It takes you back in time to those important eras of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The mosque itself is simple with some Islamic calligraphy but all the tombs are covered nicely with colorful cloaks with Arabic writings.

Tomb of Abraham/Ibrahim (AS) inside Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron

Other than these two sites, tomb of Prophet Lot is also located in Hebron, which is about 4/5 miles away from Cave of Patriarchs. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go there for time restriction. But if you are interested in visiting the biblical sites, that should be somewhere worth going.

2) BETHLEHEM: After visiting Hebron, our next destination was Bethlehem, another city in West Bank, which was about another 45 minutes to an hour drive. If you go from Jerusalem, the drive is a lot shorter. Bethlehem is in an “Area A” zone which is administered by the Palestinian Authority. The road to Bethlehem from Hebron is very pretty. The rugged terrain and deserted hills continue even after you enter the city. Bethlehem is not as calm and quiet as Hebron. Many Muslim and non-Muslim tourists come here for the soul purpose of visiting the birth place of Jesus/Isa (AS). Another important site in the outskirt of Bethlehem is the tomb of Rachel which we couldn’t visit. Rachel was the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and her tomb is a holy site in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

A friendly reminder before entering Bethlehem

a) MOSQUE of OMAR: This is a significant and historical mosque for the Muslims in the main square of Bethlehem called Manger Square. Inside of the mosque is simple yet beautiful. The history goes that, in 637 A.D. when 2nd Caliph Omar (RA) conquered Bethlehem, he promised the Church of Nativity for the Christians. Instead he prayed in a place next to the church, which stands today as Mosque of Omar.

Mosque of Omar in Bethlehem’s main square, Manger Square

b) CHURCH OF NATIVITY: It is that historic place, where Jesus was born hundreds of years ago which used to be a stable during his birth. The church is heavily decorated with many ornaments, statues, and big hanging candle-holders/chandeliers. It is very crowded once you are inside the church. Make sure you have enough time to spare here because you will be standing in the line for a while to go into the basement to see the exact spot (marked with a star) of Jesus’s birth and where he was laid after he was born. Luckily, our driver knew people who got us in without standing in the line…phew. Be careful if you are traveling with kids, there are lots of pushing and pulling to go downstairs, since some people get really emotional and want to touch and pray near the star-marked place.

The star marks the exact spot of Jesus’s birth. This was a stable when he was born, now a church in Bethlehem, called Church of Nativity

The church is located also in Manger Square and there is no fee to enter the church or to visit Jesus’s birth place.

Big chandeliers of Church of Nativity in Bethlehem

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