14 November 2011

His Majesty, King Hussein I

King Hussein bin Talal 1935 – 1999

Today is the birthday of His Majesty, King Hussein bin Talal, the fortieth generation direct descendant of Prophet Mohammad, who led his country through wars and *turmoil* and saw it become an oasis of peace and stability and inspired a spirit of openness, tolerance and compassion in the Middle East. Jordanians call him Al-Malic Al-Insan, The Humane King. His memory and legacy will serve as an example of guidance to the Kingdom of Jordan for many generations to come.

On 14th November 1935, Prince Talal bin Abdullah and Princess Zein al-Sharaf bint Jamil presented the world with a new son. Having finished his elementary education in Amman, the young Prince attended Victoria College at Alexandria, Egypt and Harrow School in England. His military education was received at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in England.

On 20th July 1951, Hussein was with his grandfather, King Abdullah when he was martyred at al-Aqsa mosque in al-Quds (Jerusalem) as they went in for regular Friday prayers. The King had recently given a medal to Hussein and insisted that he wear it. This medal saved the Prince from the bullet of the assassin.

On 11th August 1952 Hussein was proclaimed King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, succeeding his brother, King Talal. As he had not yet reached the age of majority, the kingdom was administered by Regency Council. Upon reaching the age of 18, according to the Islamic calendar, King Hussein ascended to the throne on 2nd May 1953. He guided the kingdom for 47 years. At the time of his death he was the longest serving head of state in the world.

His Majesty worked tirelessly to build the kingdom and to raise the standard of living for all Jordanians. He concentrated, in the beginning on building an economic and industrial infrastructure to achieve that goal. The 1960s saw a network of highways built and the development of phosphate, potash and cement industries.
Between 1960 and 1996 the literacy rate of 33% was increased by 85.5% and water, sanitation and electricity, which had been available to only 10% of the population, was increased to a staggering 99% of households. Infant mortality declined more than 47% during his reign.  Believing that the greatest asset of Jordan is her people, the King encouraged everyone, including the less fortunate, the disabled and the orphaned to achieve more for themselves and for their country.

The length and breadth of his reign was a struggle to promote peace in the Middle East. He was one of the main drafters of UNSC Resolution 242, calling for Israel to withdraw from the Arab lands occupied in the 1967 war. This resolution still stands as the benchmark for all peace negotiations. He further played a pivotal role in convening the Madrid Peace Conference. The Peace Treaty between Jordan and Israel, signed in 

1994 is a major step toward achieving a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in this region.
His Majesty’s peacemaking efforts did not end with the Palestine-Israel conflict. He worked to resolve disputes in all the Arab states, particularly in Iraq and Kuwait in 1990-91 and the Yemeni civil war.
Thanks to King Hussein’s leadership and guidance the Kingdom of Jordan is internationally recognized as having the most exemplary human rights record in the Middle East. His commitment to democracy, human rights and civil liberties has made Jordan a model state for the region. He appointed a Royal Commission in 1990 representing a cross-section of Jordanian political thought to draft a national charter. That charter serves until today as a guideline for democratic institutional and political pluralism in Jordan. The parliamentary elections in 1989, 1993 and 1997 were internationally accredited as among the freest and fairest in the history 
of the Middle East.

In his Speech from the Throne, opening the Thirteenth Parliament in 1997, His Majesty said “The role of women today has become more important and crucial than at any other time. The Jordanian woman has excelled in the field of education and succeeded in different professions and contributions in various organizations. Her support of official efforts to serve society and develop the countryside has become stronger. She also began to take part in the political life, becoming an important pillar of the democratic structure. This is why we must all pay serious attention to some of the dangerous phenomena that remain a source of women’s suffering, and which – unfortunately – constitute an inhuman violation of their basic rights. The most serious and dangerous of those is the visible and hidden violence, which was the focus of many international conferences. This does not befit our Arab and Islamic society: the society of solidarity. It is a flagrant contradiction with our ongoing calls to preserve human dignity and all human rights.”

Many books about His Majesty have been written, and he himself wrote three. In 1962 he wrote Uneasy Lies the Head, about his childhood and early years as King. In 1969 he penned My War With Israel and Mon Metier de Roi.

The King was very well known round the world to Ham radio operators who readily recognized the friendly voice of “JY1”. Toward the end of his life King Hussein began surfing the web and learned to appreciate the power of the World Wide Web as a force for progress and understanding. One more aspect of his massive legacy is his directive to provide internet access to every Jordanian school.

Twelve years after his passing His Majesty, King Hussein I is still missed. It’s a rare day that I go out and chat with friends and relatives that his name does not come up. His memory is still fresh in the mind of every Jordanian, and I suspect every Arab. Despite the fact that I came here ten years after his passing, I find that I too have learned an appreciation of and respect for his memory.

May he rest in peace.

01 October 2011

Jordan Hejaz Railway

I love a train! Riding the train makes me nostalgic for a bygone era I sadly never knew.

The Hejaz Railway was built by the Ottomans between 1900 and 1908, mainly to make it easier to make the pilgrimages to the Muslim holy places in Saudi Arabia. As an added bonus, it gave the Ottoman Turks better control of their far-flung empire. The main line linked Damascus to Medina; a distance of 1,320 km. It passed through Transjordan in Az-Zarqa, Al-Qatranah, Amman and Ma’an before reaching northwestern Arabia the Hejaz region. It was built as an extension of the already existing line between Istanbul and Damascus. Construction fell short of the planned destination of Mecca when the outbreak of the First World War interrupted construction work just as it reached Medina. The primary purpose of the Hejaz railway was to establish a connection between Constantinople and Hejaz in Arabia, the site of the holiest shrines of Islam and the holy city of Mecca, the site of the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage from Damascus by camel required 40-50 days. As they progressed toward Medina and Mecca, the pilgrims faced many risks including robbery, floods and epidemics in addition to the difficulties and suffering one might expect from such a journey. Sultan Abdel Hamid made the decision to establish a rail line linking Damascus to the holy sites.
The railway replaced the ancient caravan route that was formerly used to transport goods to and from Damascus and Arabia. The unhappy caravan traders saw this new form of transport as a serious threat to their livelihoods, and they made many attempts to disrupt its construction.

Construction, maintenance and security of the line required the services of some 5,000 Ottoman soldiers. The entire operation was enormously difficult, with unpredictable and often hostile local tribesmen, not to mention the difficult terrain. Some areas were very soft and sandy while others were solid rock. There were water shortages to contend with, and variations in the terrain itself made construction difficult. The extremely hot weather coupled with dust and sandstorms and the occasional flash floods washing away bridges and banks threatened the operation even more.

In September, 1900 the Sultan called for Muslims all over the world to collect donations for the construction of the railway. His call received enthusiastic response and support. The cost of the project was estimated at around 5 million Ottoman Golden Lire. In addition to donations, a special tax on all citizens to be served by the train and revenues from the sale of special Ottoman State stamps financed the new line. The costs were reduced by donations of materials from areas adjacent to the line, volunteer laborers, and the employment of members of the army.

Within four years of completion in September 1908 the Hejaz Railway was seeing about 300,000 passengers a year. Not pilgrims only; the Turkish government had begun transporting troops and supplies. During the War (1914-18) a great many attempts were made to disrupt the line and slow the advancing Turkish Army.

The famous British military strategist, TE Lawrence working with the combined Arab forces mined the tracks and derailed several troop trains and carriages. As a result of their sabotage, the track between Ma’an (Jordan) and Medina (Arabia) was irreparably damaged.

At the end of the war, the operative sections of the railroad were taken over by the relevant Syrian, Palestinian and Transjordan governments. Here is an excellent clip about the Hejaz Railway: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Nj0oAP1jXs

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the railway never reopened south of the Jordan-Saudi Arabia border. An attempt was made in the mid 1960s, but was abandoned due to the Six Day War in 1967.
In 1952 the Hejaz Jordan Railway was founded and still administers the Jordanian line and invests its real estate properties.

The Jordan Hejaz Railway Museum is located in the Mahatta district, about 2 km east of downtown. The opening hours are Sunday-Thursday 8 am to 2 pm. More information can be obtained by phoning +962 16 489 541 3.

Today the Corporation operates regular passenger trips between Amman and Damascus on Mondays and Thursdays. The train leaves Amman at 8 am and returns from Damascus at 8 am. Trips via diesel trains for school students and families and tourist trips via steam locomotive are available. The passenger capacity on either of the trains is 350.

The southern portion of the railway is used solely by the Aqaba Railway Corporation whose only customer is Jordan Phosphate Mines Company. Phosphate, which is our largest export, is transported from the mines in El-Hasa, Al-Abyadh and Shidyia to Aqaba for shipping. Jordan is the third largest phosphate exporter in the world.  Enjoy this video clip of the phosphate trains 

15 August 2011

Marvelous Madaba

The Moabite town of Madaba dates back some 3,500 years and is frequently referred to in the Old Testament. In those days it was known as Medeba and was mentioned in connection to Prophet Moses and the Exodus, as well as several others.

Numbers, chapter 21 describes the revenge taken by Israel on the entire country of Sihon. The Israelites sarcastically expressed compassion for the Moabites because their god, Chemosh failed to deliver them from the hands of their enemies. They then burned the cities of Heshbon, Dibon, Nopah and, in verse 30 "...We have destroyed even to Nopah, the fire did reach to Medeba".

As a descendant of Ruth, David may be said to have Moabite blood in his veins. He even sent his parents to the Moabite King when King Saul was on the rampage (1 Samuel 22:3,4). Good relations deteriorated, though and David waged war against the Moabites who lived around Madaba. King Mesha of Moab staged a rebellion against Israel. The biblical account and that of the Mesha Stele differ as to the outcome of the battle. Each side, naturally, claimed victory. Prophet Isaiah prophesied against Moab in the Moabite Oracles (Isaiah chapters 15, 16).

Mesha Stele, now housed in the Louvre Museum
Madaba became a prosperous ecclesiastical center between the 4th and 7th centuries CE. One of the world's greatest Byzantine mosaic collections was produced here. Many of them are still very well preserved. Some of the church floor mosaics, most notably the Map Mosaic at St George Orthodox Church, can still be seen in their original locations. Others have been moved to the Madaba Archaeological Park for protection and display.

So now, you have a bit of background on Madaba. Last Friday Zeek and I decided to visit our friend, Geries Hamarneh who owns a hotel there. We were also joined by Rami and Jasmin. The front door of his place takes you directly into the restaurant, and what an astonishing place it is! Geries has had the place for a couple of years or so and did much of the restoration work himself. The building itself is quite old, as are most of the buildings in this street. The restaurant is rustic, cosy and inviting. We sat at the first table and I reclined on a couch as we enjoyed our excellent Turkish coffee. The waiter is no slouch as a coffee brewer! It was tasty and refreshing after a morning of nothing but American coffee at home and on the short drive to Madaba.
Queen Ayola Restaurant

Geries, Ol' Big Jim, Jasmin, Rami

Rami, Abozaky, Geries, Ol' Big Jim, Jasmin

Jasmin, Rami

Geries, Ol' Big Jim

After visiting awhile, Geries asked whether I'd been to the Shrine of the Beheading of John the Baptist. When I allowed that I hadn't been there, it was decided that I must see it straightaway. Turns out it was only a few steps us the steeply inclined street and it was well worth the walk!

Stepping through the gate, I was greeted by a row of ancient columns standing guard over the entryway. Beautiful succulent plants were interspersed between the columns and down on the cobbled pavement. One in particular caught my attention. Aunt Frances used to have one; she called it "Crocodile Tears". Well, you know Ol' Big Jim had to collect a few of the "tears" to bring home and plant! As we continued our walk inside I could't help being amused by the whimsical placement of 5-gallon "pickle buckets" holding palm trees perched atop each of the columns.
Ol' Big Jim goin' to church!

The facade of the classic arched basilica design church is adorned by a mosaic (it's Madaba!) over the main door, stained glass made by Latroun Monks in 1958, with a cross attached at the top of the roof. The simplicity and clean lines of the church make it one of the most beautiful in the kingdom.

Have a look at this picture! The geranium is hugely popular over here and is usually planted outside, exhibiting enormous growth. I never saw such growth back in the states! This one though, must be the biggest one I've seen yet! Some of the blossoms were fading, but I can just imagine how beautiful it must be when it's in full bloom. I especially wanted Mother and Aunt Frances to see this.

Inside the little museum is a replica of the mosaic floor from the Church of St Stephen down in Umm Al-Rasas. Like the mosaic map down the street, this floor shows many of the towns of the ancient world such as Madaba, Jerusalem, Philadelphia (Amman) and others. The central field of the original mosaic did not survive the multiple earthquakes and the passage of time, so the artisans filled it in with some gorgeous designs in keeping with the character of the floor.
Reproduction of the floor of the Church of St Stephen in Umm al-Rasas
Standing in the nave of the church, looking at the main altar one cannot help feeling awed and maybe even a bit humbled by the beautiful craftsmanship evident in the Shrine. The mosaics, stained glass, statuary and vaulted ceilings urge reverence and quiet in this place of worship. Just for a second, I thought I was still a practicing Catholic and started looking about for the confessional. I managed to shake it off and we started making our way to the bell tower.

Climbing up and up and up...
I'm not sure just how tall the bell tower is, but Father Yacoub told me it is the highest structure in Madaba. Ninety-nine steps take one to the top. A series of stairs, both straight and curved (lighthouse style), and ladders led us upward past the bells and out onto the tiny, narrow balcony that surrounds the top. The commanding view of the countryside surrounding Madaba were breathtaking! The church sexton loaned us binoculars and a telescope to enhance our site seeing experience.
Geries, Jasmin, Rami

I was just lookin' back to see if you were lookin' back to see...

A tight squeeze for Ol' Big Jim!

Had to take off my shoes to back down the ladder

I rang his bell!

This wall is all that was left of one of the original houses of ancient Madaba; the traditional facade of the house of Ibrahim Twal was incorporated into the wall of the church entrance square. This, along with the ancient stone watering troughs, plants and trees create a quiet, serene spot that begs to be enjoyed. I believe I could easily have spent the entire day just sitting there, enjoying the solitude.

After the climb and descent from, the tower. Geries led us down under the church. Down two flights of stairs we found ourselves in a grotto of ancient arched rooms that is now the Acropolis Museum consisting of the grotto of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, a place of vows and an exhibition of the most significant Madaba mosaics. Down one more flight is an ancient Moabite well that's around 3,000 years old. We drew a bucket of some of the coldest, most refreshing water I ever had!

Following our visit, I met the parish Priest, Father Yacoub Rafidi. Father is a quiet, unassuming man with a scholarly, dignified persona. His warm eyes and smile make you know you are welcome in this place. After giving me a brief history of the Shrine, he told me that it is believed that there is a mosaic floor under the main altar of the church. Excavations will begin in December to determine what is there. This is exciting news and now I'm all in a dither to know what will be found. I'll definitely be paying return visits to check on the progress of the dig!
Jim, Fr Yacoub, Geries

After that very interesting excursion, Zeek, Geries and I returned to Queen Ayola to have a bite to eat. Only one word is needed to describe that meal: OUTSTANDING!

Our chef, Bady

You know me, though, I can't stop with just one word... Ba'donsieh is a dish I'd never had before. It consists of parsley in tahini and a bit of yogurt. It was unbelievably good.  There were two chicken dishes; fajita and sajieh. This was also my first time for sajieh. It won't be the last! It's chicken and onions coked with spices. It was probably 7-spice, but I don't know that for sure...yet. I will be trying to get that recipe, though. The fajita was pure Mexican and beautifully done. This most excellent meal was rounded out with a crisp, tasty Greek salad, a wonderfully tart and tangy tabouleh salad and pita. Queen Ayola serves food fit for a king!

If you are reading this post, you really should consider coming to Jordan for a visit. The country is safe and secure and the natives are friendly and welcoming. A week or two spent here will afford you the opportunity to see many sites you have only read about in scripture and history. Zeek and I will be more than happy to arrange an itinerary for you that ensures you see everything possible!

If you haven't taken the time to watch the video Zeek made, have a look at it right away. After watching it, contact us for a tour!
One more for Mother, Jenny and all the plant lovers