Castles in the Air

19 August 2004

Last weekend I got to do something incredibly neat.  The Jordanian Armed Forces gave me and a few buddies permission to camp out in the ruins of King Herod’s castle.  Situated on an enormous barren mesa overlooking the Dead Sea, Herod’s castle is the location of the Biblical story of Salome and her seductive dancing.  King Herod got himself into such a frenzy that he told Salome she could have anything she wanted, up to half of his kingdom.  (Similar behavior can be observed today in most of our nation’s gentlemen’s clubs.)  Unlike the thoroughly modern maidens of this millennium, the legendary young ingénue did not want diamonds or gold, but rather the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Wanting to be a man of his word, Herod had poor old John marched up to the castle and beheaded.

Now the exact location of most Biblical sites are quite questionable.  In Jerusalem, the Via Dolorosa in no way traces the actual path taken by Jesus on the day of his execution and the tomb of David is most certainly an imposter.  But physical places, like the Sea of Galilee, the Temple Mount, or the Mount of Olives are real.  The same goes for Herod’s castle.  The flat-topped mountain with its commanding, prominent location speaks to me of an authentic rather than legendary holy place.

It’s quite a hike to the top of this peak.  I was out of breath when I reached the summit.  The last pink streaks of twilight were giving their final tickles to the Dead Sea below.  The lights of Jerusalem glowed unpretentiously from the undulating mountains on the horizon.  I had just enough natural light to find a place amidst the toppled columns and crumbled walls for my bedroll and rucksack. 

When it was completely dark, my friends lit a campfire and we watched the sparks drift upward into the night sky.  The meteor shower predicted by the Jordan Times had already begun.  There were so many shooting stars that I soon ran out of wishes and had to borrow some from the others.  The sky was so clear that we could actually see man-made satellites traversing the heavens.

There was no moon to illuminate our surroundings.  This made the stargazing possible.  It also created an interesting visual effect.  The Dead Sea and the valley below us were shrouded in complete blackness, as were the smaller surrounding hills.  The highest points of elevation in the area were Amman and Jerusalem (both far in the distance) and our castle.  And so it appeared as if there were three islands of light floating in mid air, with a billion stars above us and nothing underneath.  I walked to the edge of the mesa and could not see anything below me.  It was incredibly surreal and sublime.  Like a boyhood dream, it was as if we were on a magic carpet floating in the sky.  (And, lucky for us, our adulthood reality included beer.)

For the rest of the night my friends and I sat on broken pieces of castle and stared at the campfire, drank Heinekens, and ate hot dogs.  Someone even brought a portable stereo and played CDs of some southern comedian who made amusing, profane observations about his neighbors, his wife, fishing, and some other matters.  It was as if we were camping in America.  Except we were not in America!  We were in the ruins of Herod’s castle, sitting and tooting and telling stories in the exact spot where Salome once shook her tush and where John the Baptist met his gory end.  And that realization kept hitting each of us like waves on the beach.  For one night, this place of legend was entirely ours.  The idea of that was so enchanting that each of us came back to it throughout the evening.  It was like when I saw Tutankamon’s mask in Cairo.  There was a huge crowd in the room, but for a few seconds, when it was my turn to stand in front of the golden face, it was entirely mine.  There is a bitter-sweetness that grips one as the thrill and fleeting nature of these moments are experienced at once.

“Who are you?” a voice asked in Arabic.  We all turned around and saw the lined, brown face of an old Bedouin man illuminated by the firelight.  One of the women in our group was Jordanian, so she served as our interpreter.  “We have permission from the Jordanian Armed Forces to camp here tonight,” we told him.  After that bit of information was translated, the man scrunched his face and said, “blah, blah, blah, blah.”  What does that mean, we asked.  “He said the army doesn’t have authority here. The Ministry of Tourism pays him look after this place.” 

Hmm.  This was awkward.  It seemed we’ve received permission to do something from someone whose permission it was not theirs’ to give.  It was too dark (and we were too drunk) to try descending the mountain.  “Ask him if he’d like a beer,” I suggested.  “La, la, la,” was his reply.  “No, no, no.”  Of course not.  He was a country Muslim and they don’t drink.  We all stared at each other for a moment.  “How about a juice box?” another girl volunteered.  This gift he accepted, and for a minute I got to enjoy the sight of an old Bedouin guy in complete costume sipping cran-apple juice through a little straw out of a little box.  After he was done, he told us that we could stay and wished us a good night.  “Just clean up after yourselves when you leave,” he concluded.  With that, he tossed his empty juice box into the weeds and disappeared into the darkness.

When the evening was over, I climbed into my sleeping bag and watched the meteor shower until I dozed off.  The spell was lifted with the dawn.  Herod’s castle was just another pile of rocks in the daylight.  As I packed my things, I looked down at the base of the mountain and witnessed a lone shepherd singing sweetly and talking reassuringly to his flock of goats.  They munched what they could of the ancient kingdom.  With pleasant memories filling our heads, and the anticipation of a big breakfast in town filling our stomachs, we turned in our keys to the castle and hiked back down into reality.