Preparing for Jordan

I hadn’t thought of visiting Jordan until I saw a post on Jerash by Harinda Bama. Then I realized that right there in the middle of the middle east, a place so full of history, where the remnants of the European wars of a hundred years ago are still being fought, in the middle of a beautiful and once peaceful land, there is a part which is easy for tourists to visit.

There were over 4 million tourists to Jordan two years ago, and that number might have gone up to 7 million this year if it were not for COVID-19. I suppose only a small fraction of travelers blog, but that number still produces a lot of stories and opinions. I started by reading some of what wordpress has on offer: Amman’s street art, Kerak, Raqmu, also known as Petra, Wadi Musa and Little Petra, Jerash and the Cats of Amman.

This was definitely a place I wanted to visit. The Family was also interested. So I looked deeper. The first book I took up was a translation of the travel diaries of Johann ludwig Burckhardt, the man who rediscovered Raqmu (Petra) in 1812. The translation of “Travels in Syria and the Holy Land” that I had contained a very long and interesting foreword by William Martin Leake. I found this really interesting, not only for the description of the geography (it helped to keep a map with contour lines open on my laptop as I read) but also for the interesting tidbits about how accurately the Greeks and Romans had mapped this land. Raqmu need not have been lost at all.

There is quite a bit of European writing on Jordan. The most well known is “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by Thomas Edward Lawrence. From today’s perspective one can see the broad line between Lawrence of Arabia and to the present wars in West Asia. The book is a little too verbose for my taste, but I found it interesting to skim through, pausing at bits here and there. Gertrude Bell‘s book “The Desert and the Sown” was an easier read, from a slightly earlier time, and left me with the same unsettling feeling of imperial powers meddling in local politics. As a travel book, it too has its positive points. One could add a dash of whipped cream by adding Agatha Christie’s “Appointment with Death”, not one of her best Hercule Poirot books, but one in which the murder occurs in Raqmu.

Most of the British books from the early part of the 20th century CE are imperial and racist by today’s standards, and totally ignore the post-Roman history of the area. They deal with the Ottoman Empire as a vile occupying power (an Indian finds this ironic). It was only when I started in on the next phase of reading, guide books, that I began to appreciate the modern history of the area. After some thought I chose the Blue Guide and Lonely Planet. I like Blue Guides for their detailed explanations of cultural artifacts, especially in and around Europe. Byzantine power supplanted Rome in this part of the world, until it was checked by the Umayyads and, later, Abbasids. After the brief Crusader incursion, Ayyubids and Mamluks held this land until the coming of the Ottomans. Each of these periods has left its artifacts across the land. This was a good point from which to expand my reading. I was feeling a little rushed last week, since our plan would have taken us to Raqmu today.

Now, under the new social distancing conventions, I remain in my flat. Airlines have cancelled flights, and the world has broken up into little islands. It gives me more time to read about this tiny country. I hope that when this calamity has gone, The Family and I are still able to take this cancelled trip.

Hot Chocolate

When we started from home before sunrise it was not exactly cold in Mumbai. Now, at the end of the day, in the Library Bazaar of Mussoorie the little chill in the air felt nice. The Bazaar was named after the library which dominates one end of the square in which the Mall Road ends. We nursed our mugs of hot chocolate as we sat on some chairs in the arcade on the ground floor of the charming building whose upper floor is still the library. In the featured photo you can see the lovely iron pillars which hold up the second floor of this late 19th century structure.

The cafe had a large menu which we looked at with great interest before we disappointed the waiter with our order of two hot chocolate. He looked so disappointed that The Family qualified the order with “Special.” We were not up to burgers or Maggi, but the Family noticed that the Chemist’s shop next door also doubled as a bakery. So now, we sat with our drink and munched on the almond biscuits which The Family had found there. We had plans for the evening, a stroll up the storied Mall Road, and then perhaps a drink or two at the Writer’s Bar, of which we’d read so much, before heading back to our hotel for a quiet dinner. The day had been long, and the next day would not be any shorter.

But for now we were content to soak in the atmosphere of a little hill town, out of season, as the light slowly faded from the sky and the bazaar turned into a pool of light in the dark hills around it. The town of Mussoorie originates with a hunting lodge built in 1823 CE by Frederick Young, not too far from where we sat. My best guess is that this beautiful iron and wood structure where we sat was built in the middle of the second half of that century. The library was started in 1843, and it is not unreasonable to guess that it found a house here twenty to thirty years later. Soon it would be time to move on to the bar in the Savoy Hotel, where a sensational murder in 1911 became the seed from which Agatha Christie’s first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, germinated. Mussoorie is so full of the ghosts of the past!