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Report from the Field: Crossroads of Empires: Jordan to Crete
Published on Saturday, April 14, 2007
We had a leisurely start to our day, after many late night arrivals, at the Movenpick Dead Sea Hotel & Resort. By late morning we were in the capital city of Amman, Jordan, to view the highlights of this rapidly developing city built on 19 hills. Our journey into ancient civilizations started at the Roman theater and continued on to the hilltop citadel with its Roman Temple of Hercules and the 8th-century Umayyad Palace, noted for its restored Audience Hall. A splendid Arab-style lunch followed at one of Ammanâ€™s most traditional restaurants.
Amman / Karak Castle
A two-hour drive down the modern Kingâ€™s Highway brought us to the vast Crusader fortress of Karak, a massive structure with a commanding view over the surrounding landscape. Almost 1,000 years old, the ruined castle conjured up visions of the fierce battles fought by the Christian Crusaders against the great Muslim leader, Saladin.
We awoke to brilliant blue skies and warm early morning sunshine. An eight hour day on the magical site of the ancient Nabataean city of Petra followed. We walked up to eight miles through the red stone ruins and carved rock formations of this World Heritage Site, from the ancient Treasury building to the Al Deir (or monastery) located 1,500 feet up in the mountains.
Famous as the haunt of the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, Wadi Rum, with its vast sandstone outcrops, is surely one of the natural wonders of the world. An exciting drive across the sands in four-wheel-drive vehicles brought us to a newly tented encampment in the heart of the red sands of the desert. There, chefs prepared gourmet food and uniformed waiters served cool drinks and wines. We dined under canvas and then traditional Bedouin dancers, complete with bagpiper, appeared as if from nowhere to entertain us. In the late afternoon we reached the port of Aqaba and our new home aboard Le Levant.
Sharm el Sheikh / St. Catherineâ€™s Monastery
The Sinai Desert provided the dramatic, rugged backdrop for our drive from Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt to St. Catherineâ€™s and its ancient Greek Orthodox monastery. There we viewed the remarkable museum with its 6th-century icons, the legendary burning bush, and the ornate chapel. From the hillside above the monastery we captured photographs of the walled complex with Mount Sinai behind.
At Sea / Transiting the Suez Canal
We spent yesterday cruising through the Red Sea, and shortly before 11:00 this morning, we joined the convoy of world shipping which had gathered at Port Suez to transit the Suez Canal. In perfect weather we sailed through the canal, one of the worldâ€™s great arteries, stopping for two hours in the Bitter Lake where north and southbound shipping gathered. Eleven hours later, we exited the canal out into the Mediterranean.
Limassol, Cyprus, Greece
Following a turbulent but fast voyage across a distinctly choppy Mediterranean Sea, Le Levant docked in Limassol, Cyprus, in the early afternoon. Our first stop was Limassol Castle and its historical museum, followed by visits to the Roman theater and villa at Kourion and the ancient Castle of Kolossi, once home to the Templar Knights and the Knights of St. John.
We sailed into Beirut at dawn, the first cruise ship to enter the harbor since the war in July 2006. It was to be a day of extraordinary experiences: the vast Roman remains at Baalbek, in the very heart of Hizbollah territory; the Phoenecian relics of Byblos; and a city tour like no other around Beirut. We witnessed the flower-garlanded graves of murdered Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and his bodyguards; the bomb crater outside the St. George Hotel; ruined buildings and the reborn city center with its elegant shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Grey skies greeted us in Syria but we enjoyed a packed day ashore. We started with the ancient Christian monastery of St. George and then moved on to the famous Krac des Chevaliers, a 12th-century Crusader castle, dubbed by Arabist T.E. Lawrence as â€œthe best castle in the worldâ€ due to its enormous size and commanding position. We then moved on, after a lunch overlooking the castle, to the Phoenician site of Amrit, dating from the 6th century b.c. A tour of the museum at Tartus, with its early Phoenician relics, brought our day to an end.
Latakia / Saladinâ€™s Castle / Ugarit
A short overnight voyage brought us up the Syrian coast to Latakia. Our morning was taken up with a visit to the ancient fortification known as Saladinâ€™s Castle, an impressive and large medieval structure occupying an impregnable rocky promontory above deep wooded valleys. The afternoon took us to the Phoenician settlement of Ugarit with its unique Royal Palace and gatehouse, tombs, and residences.
Our first day in Turkey dawned bright and sunny at our anchorage off the small resort of Anamur. Having cruised to the jetty by Zodiac, we were greeted by the mayor and by dishes of gigantic local strawberries and delicious bananas. We visited the beautiful and romantic ruin of Mamure Castle, whose walls plunge into the blue waters of the Mediterranean, and the mysterious hillside site of Anamurium spanning the period from the 2nd century b.c. to the 5th century a.d. with its evidence of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine occupiers.
Antalya / Perge / Aspendos
We started our day with a look at the seaside city of Antalya, with its dramatic backdrop of towering mountains. Then it was on to the outstanding museum which boasts many Roman era exhibits from the ancient site at Perge. Most impressive were the statues and sarcophagi. With this mouth-watering foretaste, we set off for the city of Perge where we viewed the stadium, the agora, and the colonnaded street, as well as the Hellenistic buildings from the period of Alexander the Great. The afternoon saw us in the largest and best preserved Roman theater in the whole of Asia Minor at Aspendos.
Kas / Kekova
We anchored off the quaint little town of Kas and took Zodiacs in for a morning of walking to take in the Roman theater, early tombs, and Hellenistic temple. Colorful carpet shops, luxury yachts in the harbour, and a towering mosque lent the town a cosmopolitan air. We relocated in the afternoon off the island of Kekova for exploration by land and by seaâ€”on glass-bottomed boats or, for the truly energetic, a hearty climb up to the castle high above the town.
Fethiye / Rhodes, Greece
We left Turkey by clearing out of the modern port of Fethiye. A four hour voyage took us to the Greek island of Rhodes with all its memories of the time of the Knights of St. John, who were besieged there by the Turks in the 15th and 16th centuries before retreating to Malta. In the old city of Rhodes, we viewed the fortifications, the Palace of the Grand Master, and the picturesque winding streets.
Today, we added another civilization to our list: the Minoan, which reached its peak at the 3,000 year-old Palace of Knossos, extensively restored (some would say over-restored) by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. Others of us visited the former capital of Gortyna.
Eventually many of us flew to Athens to prepare for morning flights back home. Others stayed aboard to continue the journey to Venice. Both disembarking and continuing passengers agreed that this voyage from Jordan to Crete was a wonderful history lesson and a most memorable adventure.