Jordanians call the rebar a sign of hope: everyone builds a bottom story and then says, “I hope I get an inheritance, I hope my daughter marries a rich man, I hope my business deal goes through so I can build a second story on this house.”
Traveling on one of the oldest highways in the world still in use, the King’s Highway that runs from Aqaba to Damascus via Amman, is an adventure even on the paved main roads that follow its route in the twentyfirst century. Somewhere between Petra and the Dead Sea is where Moses asked the Edomites if he could pass through with his horde of exiles, and the Edomites’ refusal ostensibly cost the Israelites a great deal of distance and trouble (Numbers 20:14–21).
Or maybe not. Shortcuts in Jordan take exactly the same amount of time as the long way. Jordanian guides often concur when they can’t get their tour bus microphone switches to work, and then remember to speak with the “on” button in the “down” position: “Everything is backwards in Jordan.”
The small towns all look alike, with the ubiquitous Muslim versions of the neighborhood bar that serves thick black coffee. On nearly every corner are the aluminum cases outside shop doors that contain rotisseries of what Tall el-Hammam excavation crews call GSC—“greasy spinning chickens.”
Anywhere near the highway is a dangerous place for pedestrians, who are fair game for any motorized vehicle, and people hurry across with wide eyes and robes streaming out behind them. A Mercedes-Benz bus just barely misses a truck with a hand-painted tailgate that reads “NI55AN” and careens from side to side in what is nervously referred to as “surfing Jordan.”
The Muslim call to prayer wafts out over the sound of honking horns, shouting vendors, and the near-shouts of “normal” Jordanian discourse. Here the mosques and minarets range from the colorless and austere to some that have strings of blinking neon lights not unlike those on the coffee shops.
Yet there are areas with high percentages of Christian believers, too, such as Madaba, where one in five of its residents is a Christian. It even has a mosque named “Jesus the Son of Mary.”
In Madaba is a rare, nonancient attraction: the St. George Greek Orthodox church, whose fifteen-hundred-year-old mosaic floor was discovered during a restoration in 1884. There in the tiles is the oldest map of the Holy Land in existence, even showing still-identifiable features of Jerusalem and other sites.
Most exciting of all for those who seek Sodom and Gomorrah in the details of that tiled depiction are two mosaic “cities” right where the Bible says they should be—in the Kikkar of the Jordan, though, unfortunately, the writing on the Madaba Map identifying them has been lost.