In a foggy afternoon of December 2016, gunfire broke the silence at the remnants of Kerak Castle. Following a series of attacks on police patrols and station in Al-Karak, five ISIS terrorists seek refuge at the 12th century Crusader castle as the Jordanian force was closing in. The government force besieged the castle and eventually killed all terrorists. 14 people were killed in the shootout, including one Canadian tourist. Terrorist attacks are not common in Jordan, but the 2016 siege of the Kerak Castle and the unstable conditions in Syria have hampered tourism of Jordan in recent years. Built in the 12th century, the former Crusader stronghold Kerak Castle was not stranger to military siege in history, with the siege of Saladin’s force in 1183 being the most famous. The siege by Saladin, the Muslim leader from Damascus, coincided with the royal wedding inside the castle between Humphrey IV of Toron and Isabella of Jerusalem. The siege ended when the force of Baldwin IV, the King of Jerusalem, came for rescue. The historical incident serves as the background for the 2005 movie Kingdom of Heaven.
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It was Friday, 19th of May in 2006, a weekend holiday for the Muslims. At Wahadat Station in Amman, buses were running on holiday schedule. It took us sometime to find a bus bounded for Kerak Castle. Our goal for the day was to make our way on the King’s Highway from Amman to Wadi Musa, the popular base for tourists visiting the splendid lost city of Petra. It was a two hour bus ride from Amman to the town of Al-Karak. When we got off the bus, the driver told us that there would not be any public transportation from Karak to Tafila on Fridays. Our original plan was to visit Kerak Castle, take a bus to Tafila, and then hire a taxi onwards to Shobak and Wadi Musa. Without public transportation, we had to settle with hiring a taxi driver for the day at 40 Jordanian Dinar, taking us uphill to Kerak Castle, and then to Shobak Castle and Wadi Musa.
Kerak Castle is one of the largest castles in the region. Compared to Krak des Chevaliers, Kerak has a simpler design and rougher craftsmanship. Kerak Castle has a nice little museum. I enjoyed reading a little about the history of the castle, the Crusades and the Muslim conqueror Saladin at the bookshop.
We were lucky to find a bus going to Kerak Castle that was running on the Friday holiday schedule.
The castle looked spectacular from the town of Al-Karak.
The scale of Kerak Castle is enormous when viewed from the town below.
The castle was empty, but a large portion of the structure remains intact for over 800 years.
Due to the large size, tourists dispersed all over the castle once inside the complex.
Kerak Castle contains many covered passages protected with thick defensive walls. During the 2016 terrorist attack, most tourists were hiding in a separate part of the castle to avoid contact with the attackers.
Al-Karak lies 140 km south of Amman, on a hilltop 1000m above sea level. The Dead Sea is visible from the castle. Beyond the Dead Sea, the Holy city of Jerusalem is just a short car journey away.
We arrived at Madaba by a morning bus from Amman. Madaba was a decent sized city during the Byzantine era. Today the town is frequented by tourists enroute to the Dead Sea. There are a number of archaeological sites still under excavation in Madaba. What makes tourists (including us) to stop by Madaba is a 6th century mosaic map depicting the Holy Land of Jerusalem at the Greek Orthodox Church Saint George. We stopped by the archaeological museum briefly to see other pieces of mosaic from the Byzantine era, before heading over to Saint George. The church was packed with tourists, all crowded around the mosaic map of the Biblical World. The mosaic map centered around Jerusalem, with other towns and geographical features such as River Nile, Mediterranean Sea, and Dead Sea, in the surrounding.
After checking out the mosaic map, it was time to get a dip in the salty water of the Dead Sea to get a taste of the floating experience. After some bargaining, we hopped onto a taxi for the Jordanian Dead Sea beaches. From Madaba, our taxi sped through the rough arid landscape towards the waterfront. Along the way, the driver pointed towards the Moses Spring at Mount Nebo and Moses Memorial Church as we passed by the holy sites. At the waterfront, we entered a whole new world of luxury resort hotels. The contrast to what we have seen in other parts of Jordan and Syria was phenomenal. We knew we had arrived at the touristy Dead Sea coast. Our driver dropped us off at Amman Beach Resort. We paid 4 Jordanian Dinar admission for entering the beach. We took our turns swimming in the water. Just for fun, we grabbed a bit of mud and apply it onto our skin, tried the unique floating experience, and took a few typical Dead Sea photos. It was hot and humid at the world’s lowest point 422m below sea level.
As many researchers point out, the Dead Sea is in deep trouble, as less water from Jordan River is feeding the salty inland lake every year. Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel all rely on the area’s limited water resources, such as the Jordan River, for their growing population and agriculture usage. In matter of decades the Dead Sea may disappear altogether. We heard that the Jordanian government is planning to divert the water from the Red Sea to feed the Dead Sea. At the beach, we could clearly see traces of the old water level. Just like seeing the retreating glacier on the Swiss Alps, witnessing the gradual death of the Dead Sea made a huge impact on me. People in the developed nations may never have to worry about their water supply, and understand the alarming situation of the Dead Sea. Sustainable water management in the Dead Sea area is crucial, not only to the survival of millions, but also to the political climate of the region. Successful cooperation of water management offers the basis of peaceful co-existence of the region’s major players. If that fails, dispute fighting over water supply may not be too far away.
The magnificent 6th century mosaic map of Jerusalem is the biggest draw for tourists coming to Madaba. (Image: Public Domain)
It was hard to imagine where grazing of the sheep could take place in the arid landscape near the Dead Sea.
The arid landscape at Dead Sea is actually susceptible to flash floods.
The Jordan Rift Valley is a long depression between Israel, Jordan and Palestine. The valley’s lowest spot is the lowest point in the world, located in the Dead Sea at 790m below sea level.
Despite touristy, we amused ourselves in the salty water of the Dead Sea.