Friday, September 08, 2023


Jis wajah se fasaad hote hain, uska koi ataa-pataa hi nahin
(The reasons for strife, they are nowhere to be found)

— Krishn Bihari ‘Noor’, 1926-2003 (Uttar Pradesh, India)
[A delightful rendition available here.]

The Berlin wall, built in 1960s, was a concrete barrier that separated West Berlin of the Federal Republic of Germany from East Berlin of the German Democratic Republic. It was about 155 Km long, and 13 feet tall. The Separation Barrier, under construction since 2002, is partly an electronic fence, and partly a concrete wall in urban areas that separates Israel and West Bank in Palestine. It is about 750 Km long (approximately 10 percent of it being concrete), and 30 feet tall in some places.

I was greeted by a series of murals, mostly pro-Palestine messages and symbolism, on the West Bank side of the Separation Barrier near Bethlehem. These are beautiful pieces of art, including many inspired by Banksy’s works (there is also a hotel claiming that the artist stayed with them), amidst one of the most contested regions of the world. I couldn’t see the other side of the barrier, but a reasonable assumption is that murals there would depict the alternate side of this ethnoreligious conflict. The vocabulary changes based on where you stand and what you read (in my case, based on the VPN gateway): liberation for one is occupation for the other, someone’s resistance is another’s terrorism, aggression for me could be security response for you, and what one calls as settlements could be annexation for another. Amidst this exchange of words and gunpowder that arbitrate the nuances of power and hierarchies, hangs precariously the lives and livelihoods of the ‘common’ millions who are frightfully present throughout the unforgiving wheels of history.

The spectacle of barriers continues in the Old City of Jerusalem: they are there, inside and outside, shifting over centuries, determining who is welcome – or not – in different neighborhoods. Modern day Jerusalem consists of an urban sprawl that developed largely after the creation of Israel in 1948, and a medieval Old City enclosed by 16th-century walls and gates built by the Ottomans. The Old City is constructed in white, using picturesque “Jerusalem Limestone” (meleke) whose sun-kissed photographs are splashed across travel magazines, goading visitors to soak-in the culture and beauty of the holy land. The city could be a treat to the eyes, with its medieval bazaar bursting with smell of spices, and its narrow alleyways lined with restaurants and souvenir shops buzzing with tourists and pilgrims and guides. But with all its beauty, it is probably difficult to find another parcel on earth that is such a startling juxtaposition of tribal instincts of humans reflected in organized religion, of political opportunism that feeds it, and of military/militancy that enforces it.

(Image courtesy: israeltourism, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A walk through the Old City in Jerusalem is a distinctly unsettling experience; it feels like an exhausting drag through a viscous, thick concoction of faith and religion, traditions and orthodoxy, rules and checkpoints, and an unnerving feeling of being watched. There are points where one may be asked about one’s religion or nationality, and accordingly granted or denied access. The present day nomenclature of the territorial fragmentation of the Old City introduced in the mid-nineteenth century by the British – the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter – perpetuates the city’s history tainted by perennial disappointment.

Jerusalem’s tag as the “land of creation” derives from its veneration as a holy city by the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity whose believers constitute more than half of humans on the planet. The Temple Mount, a large compound on a hill in Jerusalem, contains the religious sites for all three. In Jewish scripture, this spot is where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, and this was also the location of the first temple (Temple of Solomon around 950 BCE) and the second Temple (around 500 BCE). Both temples were destroyed in conquests, but a large section of one of the retaining walls from the second Temple remains, and is known as the Western Wall, the holiest site for the Jews. After Islamic conquest, a shrine called the Dome of the Rock was built in the 7th-century on the site of the destroyed second Temple, and is believed to be the site of the prophet Muhammad’s ascent to heaven. After Mecca and Medina, this is the third holiest site of Islam. The Al-Aqsa mosque, located adjacent to the Dome of the Rock on the same compound, is also holy to Muslims. Christians also believe that this is the same site mentioned by the prophets in the Old Testament of the Bible, and was visited by Jesus according to the New Testament.

“Poets and storytellers are in error in matters of the greatest human importance,” wrote Plato, lamenting the pervasive legends of gods and heroes. On Good Friday, pilgrims walk the Via Dolorosa (“the way of grief”), through the 14 “stations of the cross” representing the path that Christians believe Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. As a tourist, one is bombarded with ‘facts’ and ‘counter-facts’ as promulgated by different Christian sects at various stations. The route ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed to be the site where Jesus was crucified and buried, and where his resurrection occurred. The church itself has continued to witness scuffles between Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Franciscans, Armenians, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac sects. In Bethlehem, a little south of Jerusalem, lies the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. It’s also where Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests have often attacked each other. Amidst brawls over stories and contests for the ownership of God, lessons on how to live with tolerance and righteousness were lost, replaced with an all-pervasive ennui of existence, and God being reduced to a refuge. In a book I read recently, truth was laid bare: “For two thousand years, Jerusalem has brought out the least attractive qualities in every race that has lived there.”

Outside the Old City walls, political drama of the last century has been playing out. It started with the British troops entering Jerusalem in 1917 under Edmund Allenby, who directed the Palestine campaign in World War I. My crossing into Israel from Jordan was through the Allenby bridge – the current land border between the two countries that came later – where immigration for a solo male traveler, arguably suspicious, was a predictable four-hour process. This was also the point at which the Arab hospitality, optimism, and smiles, largely disappeared and a palpable unease settled-in for the rest of my journey, until I reached Tel Aviv. Since the end of the British Mandate and subsequent wars and peace talks, Southern Levant has been a land perforated with political greed, false hopes, lost identities, and claims over resources. The last failed attempt at peace, Oslo Accords, turns 30 on Sep 13, 2023, marking yet another generation lost.  

Unless one is able to find repose in the Kotel, or the Dome of the Rock, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem will batter the soul and bludgeon the most stout of optimists. And while hope in general might be in short supply in Jerusalem, as one listens to the sound of the shofar, the muezzin, and the church bells, one is at least ‘hopeful’ of the judgment day that everyone here agrees upon. It’s dangerous, and ignorant, to be taking sides when witnessing the world’s most intractable, divisive, and perhaps the oldest conflict. Meanwhile, a taxi driver who drove me between Israel and West Bank said: “no mother will ever send her child to war either for the temple, or for the mosque, or for the church.” I did not ask his religion, or nationality.

Monday, September 04, 2023


Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”

This was apparently a pronouncement made to Moses, a prophet revered by three monotheistic religions, at the top of Mount Nebo, about 30 km south of modern Amman. Since three-thousand years, this pronouncement of the ‘Promised Land’ has united a horde of believers, continually reshaped the geopolitics of this region (and the world by extension), and left a long trail of beauty, art, faith, hope, belief, and often, violence in its wake.

Geography is a great tool to understand history, and tracing the Jordan river was helpful for me to gain a basic comprehension of the Southern Levant. On the map, the Jordan valley bisects the region from north to south, with the 250 km long Jordan river flowing roughly from the Lake of Tiberias (Sea of Galilee) into the Dead Sea. There is desert all around it: Syrian desert to the east, Arabian desert to the southeast, and Sinai desert to the southwest. The valley is amongst the oldest inhabited parts of Eurasia, and possibly a route through which early humans migrated out of Africa into Europe and Asia two million years ago. Northern portion of the valley has a higher population density, and more than 90 percent of Jordan’s population is concentrated here.

On a clear September day, I could see a good panorama of the southern portion of the valley (including the Dead Sea), and the national borders that currently encompass it from the summit of Mount Nebo, close to the city of Madaba about 30 km south of Amman. And on another day, I could see a good panorama of the northern portion of the valley (including Lake Tiberias), and the national borders encompassing it from the city of Umm Qais, situated on a high plateau about 25 km northwest of Irbid.

(Image courtesy: Google Earth)

A crude way to divide the better-recorded history of the valley is into the Nabataeans from the 3rd century BC (who built the beautiful capital of Petra), their alliance and cultural merger into ancient Romans who ruled until about the 4th century (a period which also saw the crushing of three Jewish revolts, altering the fate of Jews forever and ending their dominance from Southern Levant for the next 1800 years), followed by the Byzantine rule for about two centuries, until the rise of Islam and the Muslim conquest of the Levant in the 7th century and establishment of the Caliphate. It gave way to the Crusaders who established the Kingdom of Jerusalem and other Crusader states in the 11th century. Then came the Mamluks during the mid-13th to early 16th centuries, who were in turn defeated by the Ottomans in the early 16th century. The Ottoman rule lasted until World War I, when the British took over the region to the west of the river under the Mandate for Palestine, and established Transjordan as a protectorate on the east of the river. This forms the backdrop of the present-day conflict. Amidst all this churning, there were a plethora of cultures and people, tribes and nomads, customs and traditions, crafts and fabric, and arts and cuisines, that greet modern-day travelers with a maelstrom of a ‘Middle Eastern’ experience which is almost impossible to fully comprehend, and yet a delightful concoction to stimulate the senses.

Remnants of this complex tapestry of history and religion can be seen, in parts, through a narrow, serpentine road winding down the ridges, gorges, ravines, plateaus, and edges of the desert in modern day Jordan: the King’s Highway, believed to be one of the world’s oldest continuously used roads. This route has served as a vital artery connecting ancient kingdoms and empires for millennia, and warriors, merchants, and pilgrims have used it as a thoroughfare. In ancient times, it was an important trade route connecting Arabia, the Fertile Crescent, the Red Sea and Egypt. It was also an important pilgrimage route, for Christians during the Byzantine period visiting the Holy Land and for Muslims in early Islamic period traveling to Mecca. Ottomans also constructed the magnificent Hejaz railway in the late 1800s roughly along this route from Damascus to Medina, and I could see a refurbished Ottoman locomotive on display at the Wadi Rum Train Station near Shakaria.

The modern Highway 35, which I used, is a tarmac atop its ancient ancestor, running south from Syria and passing through Roman ruins, Byzantine churches and mosaics, Crusader castles, the ancient city of Petra, natural wonders of Wadi Rum, before reaching Aqaba with its Mamluk castle. It traverses the most fertile part of Jordan – through the country’s springs, water sources, olive orchards, and other agricultural land – and therefore is its backbone. In my itinerary, this highway took me north from Amman to the cities of Jerash and Umm Qais, and south from Amman to the cities of Madaba (with detours to Mount Nebo and Umm ar-Rasas), Shobak, Wadi Musa (where Petra is located), and Wadi Rum. A road westward from Wadi Rum connects to the Dead Sea Highway near Aqaba, from where I drove up north almost parallel to the King’s Highway, to Wadi Mujib and Sweimeh, before crossing over to Israel.

Traveling through the country, the first thing one notices is the kindness, generosity, and conviviality of the people in this land. Jordan shares the cultural traditions common to the Arab world, and their hospitality to strangers is exceptional. Long handshakes and conversations, cups of tea being offered everywhere, and faith in everything being ‘God willing’ lends an almost mystical elegance to the inhabitants, and a comfortable serenity to the visitors. A vocabulary of exactly one Arabic word – šukran – was sufficient to be felt accepted and welcomed everywhere. Jordan’s cuisine is rich, sumptuous, and a means to express hospitality and generosity, which also implies that one is always stuffed, and happily so. The dishes primarily feature beans, olives, yogurt, garlic, za'atar, rice, meat, khubz (flatbread), salads, and an umpteen variety of spices and dips; lavish breakfasts give way to even grandiose meals, interspersed with countless servings of tea and coffee through the day. For inexplicable reasons, I was stuck for days with everything that started with the letter ‘M’ – mansaf, maqluba, musakhan, and mezze – until the Bedouins fed me Zarb in the Wadi Rum desert, apparently a delicacy cooked in a large underground pit for several hours. Smoking is prevalent, and by some estimates, Jordan has the highest smoking rate in the world. It feels strange to find officials and civilians smoking inside most buildings and office rooms, something usually associated with days of monochrome cinema. Alcohol, on the other hand, is scarce.

Jerash (Image courtesy: John Romano D'OrazioCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Jordan has a lot to offer to tourists. Ruins from the Roman times are scattered throughout the country, most notably in Jerash, Jordan’s best preserved Roman ruins often dubbed the ‘Pompeii of the Middle East,’ and in Umm Qais, both cities located in the northwestern corner of the country. These cities were part of The Decapolis, believed to be a league of ten cities that were allowed significant political autonomy within Roman protection. Jerash (originally Gerasa) is imposing, with its paved and colonnaded streets, largely-intact temples, theatres, public squares and plazas, baths, fountains, and city walls – a marvel of human achievement from more than two thousand years ago. The vastness of the site made it a challenging walk for me; even the milder early-autumn sun seems to sizzle amidst the rocks and the sand, and lack of shade anywhere in the city can be tough on visitors. Umm Qais (originally Gadara) is similar, though less vast and more picturesque due to the use of black basalt stones conferring a dramatic hue to its structures. Another highlight of Umm Qais is its tremendous vantage point at a crossroads between three countries; I could see the Golan Heights, northern Palestine, and Lake Tiberias, but not southern Lebanon (Mount Hebron) which is also visible on clearer days. There are some Roman ruins in Amman itself, and a garrison for Roman military in Umm ar-Rasas. Many of these sites also have Byzantine-era churches with well-preserved mosaics and carvings, and are well-shaded for visitors, with large signboards describing the international agencies that paid for preserving the heritage. International aid often bends to divine influences of select variety.

The crown jewel of Jordan is Petra, a city spread over more than 250 square kilometers. It perhaps represents the pinnacle of human quest, and dedication of a people to shape rocks, over a hundred years or more, resulting in a city entirely carved out of red sandstone in the middle of a desert. Petra was built in 4th-century BCE by the Nabataeans, a civilization of ancient Arabic peoples. There are more than 500 buildings in Petra today, mostly tombs and mausoleums, in addition to the famed Treasury and the Monastery. Large, majestic rooms were created by scooping out rocks, often with colorful walls of red, orange, and grey hues. The city also has a unique system of conduits and cisterns to harvest, store and distribute rainwater, and a dam that must have bent a creek to the will of its inhabitants. Petra shows the essence of industry in our species, and sitting inside any of its numerous caves, there is a mysteriously tender feeling of not being alone, but being in the company of those who are buried here, everywhere, and continue to live on.

Another allure for tourists is the Dead Sea, a quirk of nature with waters containing 34% salt, almost 10 times that in oceans, increasing its buoyancy sufficiently to make a human body float. It was originally a much larger lake that extended to the Lake of Tiberias, but its outlet to the sea evaporated around 18,000 years ago, leaving a salty residue in a desert basin at the lowest point on earth, 1300 feet below sea level. Until the 1950s, the flow of fresh water from Jordan river and a few other tributaries balanced the surface evaporation, holding water levels steady. However, water inflow has since reduced due to large-scale irrigation and generally low rainfall. In addition, an Israeli dam collects significant water from the Sea of Galilee, further reducing the flow. And finally, there is Arab Potash Company that has been pumping Dead Sea’s water on the Jordanian side since the last 40 years into solar evaporation ponds to manufacture potash, a key ingredient in fertilizers. On the Israel side, the Dead Sea Works operates even larger evaporation ponds for a similar purpose. Over the past 50 years, the level of the Dead Sea has dropped by 45 meters, and water levels are falling at an average rate of 1.2 meters per year. Visiting the Dead Sea is more dystopian than delightful – abandoned resorts, receding shoreline, and rampant use of freshwater and energy to keep this place on life-support is distressing.

 Wadi Rum from a balloon (Image courtesy: Jedesto, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

And yet there is hope, and an eternity to the universe that remains untouched by the human hand. The moonrise in Wadi Rum, the ‘Valley of the Moon,’ is as exquisite as it perhaps was millions of years ago, when this sandstone desert was still under the sea. Its spectacular landscapes, stretching forever, and dotted with mountains, monoliths, canyons, and sand dunes, mirror the alien landscapes of the infinite stars and planets visible in the unpolluted night sky above. As I stand in the cold sand gazing through telescopes, the moon’s surface comes into view – a familiar landscape of craters and rocks, and Saturn appears – its rings smaller and monochrome than those in pictures. And there is the Milky Way, and the Andromeda, and a supernova explosion somewhere thousands of light years away. As I stand, I know that I am looking at all these events in the past, stuff that has already happened, in a perplexing ‘timeless’ reality that is incomprehensible to the unidirectional human mind that cannot comprehend time. And it’s the surest sign that in the grand scheme of things, we are inconsequential.