Monday, June 1, 2009

castles stand on pillars of salt and pillars of sand...

After the race I would have preferred not to move for the rest of the day, but we didn't want to "waste" any of our vacation, so it was off in the car again. Not far from Amman is Qasr Iraq El-Amir, an unfinished palace, also known as Qasr al-Amir, palace of the slave, built around 175 BC.

The drive out though the countryside west of Amman was what I imagine Greece to be like; olive groves, hillsides of pale rocks and blooming flowers, a blue sky. All along the winding road were people riding donkeys, children getting into mischief, families out for a picnic, goats picking their way along, and brightly colored laundry hanging in the sun and breeze to dry. The hills were full of caves, some of which are apparently quite famous. Some contain tombs, others, legends.

Can you see the family sitting on the outcropping on the right-hand side, looking out over the valley?

Cheerful Jordanian boys, looks like they're up to no good.

The castle itself was set in an idyllic spot surrounded by a sea of yellow flowers, its white marble blocks and columns rising up and colorful wildflowers growing from every crevace in the floor. It was enchanting. I expressed such to another tourist who merely shrugged and said, "It's no Jerash."

I took silent umbrage at this comment. The place was beautiful, with carved marble lionesses, one nursing her cubs, and eagles at the corners and a panther fountain on the outer wall. Qasr Iraq al-Amir was created from the largest blocks of any ancient structure in the Middle East, and has a mysterious past, having been built by a man named Hyrcanus Tobiad who died an unnatural death, after which the palace was never completed. Then it was flattened by an earthquake in AD 362, but luckily for us had been largely reconstructed.

Beneath the entrance archway there were children "giving" necklaces of flowers, ("Gift, gift") for which they expected to be paid, but never directly asked for even when I asked "How much?" both in English and Arabic. Bethy accepted one of the flower chains and then the givers followed us around until we finally got the idea and turned over some coins. Apparently the amount was suitable.

A flower seller and the castle's gatekeeper

My photographs do no justice to the peacefulness and the beauty of the idyllic site, but it was lovely. Archeologists think that at one point the castle was surrounded by a reflecting pool, and the thought was positively romantic. Within moments the kids had found playmates and our family had been invited to a local's home for dinner. Sadly we had to pass on the invitation, since we were already meeting Jessica, my new friend from the half marathon in the evening.

It was fortunate that I had mentioned to Mike as we were getting out of the car that I'd finally found out how to say "no" nicely to an invitation: by placing your hand over your heart, bowing slightly, and saying, "Perhaps some other time, Inshallah." With the dinner invitation he got to try it out right away!

Driving back we were amused to see a woman completely coverted in the traditional black garb walking with a man, probably her husband, who was carrying a small child and wearing a Hooters shirt. Talk of your contrasts!

Jessica suggested Applebees for dinner (yes, that Applebees) which made Bethy deliriously happy---it's one of her favorite restaurants. We spent the evening listening to Jessica's compelling tales of being a single woman in the Middle East and impromptu Arabic lessons. The kids were too tired and goofy to get to stay as long as we might have liked, but Jessica was sweet about it and I think we all had a good time. Time for bed after a long, long day.

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