After an isolated retreat at Siwa Oasis, I once again headed back onto the road. This time, the destination was my home in Toronto. The journey from the Egypt’s Western Desert to Canada took me first to Alexandria and Cairo by land, and then Athens and Zurich by air before touching down on the North American soil. I took an 8-hour night bus leaving Siwa at 22:00, and arriving Alexandria in early morning the next day. I sat beside a friendly old lady who kept on offering me peanuts. After some snacks and chat, I felt asleep with my headphone music. When I get up, Alexandria was just minutes away.
Founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, Alexandria is the largest city by the Mediterranean and the second largest city in Egypt. In the Classical era, the city was well known for the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and its Great Library, the largest library in the Classical World with 400,000 scrolls. The city itself was once the largest city in the western world before overtaken by Rome. Alexandria remained as the capital of Egypt for a thousand years from Ptolemaic Egypt, throughout much of the Roman and Byzantine era until the Muslim conquest in 641 AD, when the political centre of Egypt was shifted to Cairo. By that time, the magnificent city that once rivaled Rome and Constantinople was already largely plundered and destroyed. In the modern age, Alexandria regained a part of its former glory as an important port of international trading, connecting Egypt and its products (such as Egyptian cotton) to the outside world.
Another day of snorkeling. I rented the snorkel and flippers at Big Blue, and headed to a dive site called the Eel Garden. I snorkeled in several lagoons at Eel Garden. Apparently the reefs at Dahab was significantly better than the ones in Aqaba. At a depth of 3-5m, I saw an abundance of marine life including fish, sea urchins, and of course, coral of different colours. In the afternoon we snorkeled at another dive site called the Islands. The reefs and marine wildlife there were equally beautiful. At one point, I passed by an area of open water towards the beautiful coral mounts. The coral mounts were spectacular. Perhaps those mounts could be what the locals consider as the underwater “islands”.
After the “Islands”, we went to the southern tip of Dahab to do some more snorkeling. There was not much corals in the area, and the water was a lot deeper and colder, despite it was 40 to 45 degrees Celsius above water. On our way to the south beaches, we passed by dozens of resort hotels facing the sea. Perhaps due to the recently terrorist bombing, all resorts seemed extremely quiet. We didn’t see any foreign guests, but only local staff killing time with card games and gossips under the shade. In the evening we returned to Bishibishi for dinner and took some rest before departing for our tour to Mount Sinai.
After the legendary lost city of Petra and epic desert of Wadi Rum, we finally arrived in Aqaba, Jordan’s only coastal city right by the Gulf of Aqaba at the northern end of the Red Sea. Serving as an essential port for the Middle East, Aqaba is also popular among tourists, thanks to its regular ferry services to Egypt and the world famous Red Sea coral reefs in the area. Before heading over to the land of pharaohs, we decided to spend a relaxing day in Aqaba.
In the morning, we took a shuttle bus from Crystal Hotel to the Royal Diving Centre. After paying a 10 JD entrance fee, my friend and I, who had never dived before, went for an introductory session. Then we spent the afternoon snorkeling with a disposable underwater camera. We saw some nice corals and a lot of colourful fish. We snorkeled for a few hours and returned to the diving centre. Upon leaving we tried to get the refund of the entrance fee. Their policy was that whoever diving at the centre would not require to pay the admission. The staff hesitated for a while and told us the cashier was closed for the day. We had no choice but to return the next morning. The next morning we returned to the Royal Diving Centre for our refund. The staff tried to avoid us. We expressed our discontent and at last a manager came out with a big smile and gave us the refund. Leaving the diving club behind, our hired taxi took us to the passenger ferry terminal. It took us over an hour to go through the customs and deal with the departure tax. At last we were led to board a shuttle bus that drove onto the ferry along with the passengers.
Once on board, we found the Egyptian custom officer to stamp our passports. The ferry didn’t leave the dock until way over 11:30, over two hours since we got to the terminal. At last, the ferry sailed slowly southwest towards the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, with Saudi Arabia to our east. At around 14:30 we arrived at the Egyptian port of Nuweiba. The hectic scene of Nuweiba was our first impression on Egypt. At the minbus station we met three Australians. The six of us hired a minivan to Dahab, the popular backpacker resort at the Egyptian side of the Gulf of Aqaba.
Dahab seemed pretty quiet to us, probably because of the recent terrorist bombing a month ago on April 24th, which claimed 23 lives in total. The town looked very young and causal. At the station we met Alex, a staff from Bishibishi Garden Village, a relatively new hotel in Dahab. We met Jimmy the owner and decided to stay at one of their air conditioned triple rooms. After dinner, we strolled around Dahab, dropped by an internet cafe, and bought another disposable underwater camera for the following day.
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.
Situated at the mouth of Bosphorus into the Black Sea, Anadolu Kavagi, which literally means Control Post of Anatolia (Asia Minor), has been an strategic outpost and fishing village since Roman times. Today, a small fishing community remained. The village also serves as the last stop of the Bosphorus tourist cruise. Compared to the bustling scenes of cosmopolitan Istanbul, the tranquil village expresses a distinctive ambience that keeps on luring foreign tourists and Istanbul inhabitants to come for a brief getaway.
After getting off at Anadolu Kavagi, the first thing that caught our attention was the street food vendors right by the dock. We picked a seafood restaurant, climbed the stairs to the upper floor, and ordered fish buns, fried mussels, fried calamari, etc. After lunch, we ascended the hill behind the village to the ruins of Yoros Castle. We wandered around Yoros Castle a little bit before finding ourselves at an open lookout overlooking the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. Some say the towns along the Black Sea coast are quite picturesque and interesting, but we would have to leave them for the next time around.
Anadolu Kavagi appears as a lovely fishing village.
The waterfront of Anadolu Kavagi is occupied a cluster of fishing boats.
During our brief visit, several fishermen were busy fixing their fishing net while chatting causally.
The peaceful fisherman life at Anadolu Kavagi offered a pleasant contrast to the chaotic and busy scenes of Istanbul just 90 minutes of boat ride away.
Each fisherman we met seemed friendly and relaxed.
A handful of seafood stalls and restaurants can be found at the fishing village.
Just like Istanbul, we had all sort of cat encounters in Anadolu Kavagi. This cat sat right by the dock looking at the sea.
Even the cats seemed content with their hassle free lives in Anadolu Kavagi.
Located at the hilltop above Anadolu Kavagi, Yoros Castle guarded the confluence spot of the Bosphorus and Black Sea since the Byzantine times.
From Yoros Castle, we could see the Bosphorus as well as the Black Sea.