As a true traveller I had to go and visit Jordan. Since my initial visit I have been back many times. Here is a short overview of what to see; what to do and what to miss, if you are fortunate enough to be able to spend a few days there.
LAND OF CHRISTENDOM – JORDAN
In a way, you have to feel sorry for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which finds itself surrounded by some of the most troublesome neighbours anywhere in the world. It is bordered by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Also, considering its neighbours, and with an uncharacteristic sense of humour, God gave Jordan hardly a drop of oil. In the long run, though, this may have contributed to the country’s relative stability. Certainly, if one looks at the other oil rich countries in the region, oil (aka black gold as it’s referred to by the Oilmen) has done nothing for stability or peace in any of them, whereas Jordan remains relatively peaceful and stable.
The other thing about Jordan is that it is very small. It is just 300 odd kms from Amman in the north to port city of Aqaba on The Red Sea in the south. The population is only 7 million, although today many Palestinian refugees add to the mix. Geographically, three-quarters of the country is taken up by desert, the topography is extremely varied, much softer and more verdant than one would expect. But the real draw of the country is its very obvious historical roots, as it is packed with sights that are well worth visiting: Roman, Byzantine, natural, but overwhelmingly historical, beautiful and Biblical.
Let us start in the capital
Amman, the capital is built on 7 hills, although I’m sure that over the course of several visits, I have counted far more than seven, all connected with thundering highways. Unlike other cities in the region Amman doesn’t have the intoxicating, winding souqs and magnificent mosques of most Middle Eastern capitals. One really only gets a sense of the old city when visiting the ancient Citadel, atop one of the many hills, towering above downtown and the rest of the capital. This is the original city, with its winding narrow streets, the monumental Temple of Hercules, Umayyad Palace, The National Archaeological Museum and panoramic views of Amman’s hills. Its here at sunset, when one is rewarded with what to me is one of the most seminal experiences of The Middle East, The Adhan call to the Maghrib prayer from the dozens of minarets, never more than a few hundred metres away from one another.
Whilst there is a vibrant and varied nightlife, revolving around bars, pubs and restaurants. However it will please some readers to note that there are indeed ‘Hostess type bars’ – if you know where to look ! The resident hostesses are not Asian, but rather, Egyptian, Syrian and Moroccan girls, who it has to be said, are indeed stunningly beautiful. Be warned though, prices for a simple beer are fairly steep. Whether this is due to the fact that this is a Muslim country, or the type of services on offer is open to debate !
From Amman, it’s a short ¾ hour drive north to the ancient Roman city of Jerash, with its long column-lined street, paving stones scored by hundreds of years of journeying chariot wheels. Jerash was hidden under the desert sands for many centuries. This has resulted in the city being probably the best-preserved Roman ruin in the whole Levant region, and even within the entire Middle Eastern region … with perhaps the exception of Lepis Magna in Libya. Jerash however is well worth an afternoon’s expedition with a good guide.
and on to Jerash for Culture, History and so much more..
If you are fortunate enough to be there during the summer months, this ancient city once again comes alive with one of the World’s liveliest and most spectacular cultural events – the Jerash Festival of Arts and Culture. This ancient city with its Greco-Roman colonnaded streets, huge public plazas, temple precincts and theatres, provide a unique and unforgettable backdrop to the many singers, musical and folklore troupes, poetry readings, symphony orchestras, ballet, Shakespearean theatre, handicrafts, and art shows.
From here the 5,000-year-old Kings Highway takes us south to what must be the most amazing journey of discovery and biblical splendor. For me a sense of wonder – one that I will never forget. Having said that, we had vowed not to stay on the main road, preferring to detour onto minor roads to get a better and more intimate feel for the countryside, people and sights. Away from the heavily trafficked main Kings Highway, was where we saw the more agrarian side of the country, becoming ever dryer and mountainous the further south we drove. Olive groves abound … it is said that the best olives in the world come from this region and neighbouring Syria.
Our first port of call was the city of Madaba, or City of Mosaics as its known, which is home to the famous 6th century mosaic map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. With two million pieces of coloured stone, the map depicts hills and valleys, villages and towns as far as the Nile Delta. Literally hundreds of other mosaics from the 5th through the 7th centuries are scattered throughout Madaba’s churches and museums … a true insight into the lands of the Bible !
I recall standing on Mount Nebo in the blazing summer heat, where Moses himself stood (and is supposedly buried) looking out over a Promised Land that he would never reach. I dipped my hands into the waters of the River Jordan at Bethany, where Jesus Christ was baptised by John the Baptist. When in The Levant, the Bible is no longer something you had to read at school – it bursts into life and its stories and parables come rushing back to you, but now in real glorious 3D Technicolor. You can feel its power and mystery all around you, the history becomes palpable, something you can almost reach out and touch. Here in this land of Christendom, it’s almost as if you have stepped back in time and are part of a real-life recreation of bible scenes.
And not just that, you overlook Bethany, the baptismal site of Jesus Christ, you are just a few yards away from Israel … and but a few miles from Jerusalem, the third holiest site in all religions, home to the three major Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jerusalem, city of God, city of the birth of Christianity, Judaism and Islam … but yet the graveyard of men’s dreams l As one who studied theology, passages and scenes from The Bible keep flooding back …
The next day we travelled to Karak, an impressive and remarkably well-preserved Crusader castle built by The Knights Templar in the 11th century during the period of the First Crusade. It sits in majesty atop a hill overlooking its namesake town below. After an extended siege, it was eventually brought down by the Muslim commander Saladin. Even when I was a boy, Saladin was something of a hero figure for me. But that day as I wandered through the vast empty passages and halls of Karak castle I could easily imagine what it must have been like to be inside the fortress, listening to the boulders being catapulted endlessly and inexorably against the walls. If there were half a dozen tourists in this vast castle site when we visited I’d be surprised … Karak is amazing and unforgettable !
Dying for a swim in the Dead Sea
That night we stayed at one of the resort hotels at the Dead Sea, the next day ‘swimming’ in its saline buoyancy. The reality being of course, that we rather bobbed like oversized and ungainly corks on the surface – a most extraordinary experience ! I had the obligatory photo taken of myself lying on the water (note the lying ‘on’ the water) reading a newspaper. Although I suppose that this is one of those obligatory things that you must experience if you are there … as the Dead Sea is drying up at an alarming rate – losing more than 3ft of its depth per year. Plans to divert water from the Red Sea are evidently well advanced – but nobody is sure that the project will actually work. Maybe yet another historic landmark of history to be cast in the detritus bin of history ?
I do have to say that immersing myself in its saltiness, (supposedly eight times more saline than sea water) and covering myself with its supposed mineral-enriched and therapeutic mud, felt more akin to coating myself in battery acid. It almost fizzes and sparks with the mix of minerals; such is the salinity of the water and mud. I guess it was one of those “been there, done that, got the T shirt”, but don’t want to do it again experiences !
Petra – the jewel in anyone’s crown
But like most, we had come to Jordan to see Petra, ‘The Rose Red City, Half as old as time’, built and developed by the Nabateans around the 2nd Century BC; an official wonder of the world which is featured in just about every book of ‘must-see places before you die’. After being lost in a hidden valley for over a millennium, it was rediscovered only 200 years ago by the Swiss explorer Jean Louis Burckhardt, who entered the city disguised as an Arab.
So the following night we stayed at a little Arab hotel, on the outskirts of the town itself, with a view to being early at the entrance to Petra itself. This decision was in retrospect an extremely prudent one, as the light is an important part of the whole Petra experience, bringing out the real warmth of colours of the rock, moving as they do from pink to red.
Nothing can quite prepare you for your first sight of The Treasury – its beauty and mystery are almost impossible to describe, the silence of the dawn only adding to the experience. Entering as we did, by walking the 1½ kms of The Siq, originally a waterway, now merely an increasingly narrow gorge, the red cliffs ever closing in above your head against a deep blue sky several hundred feet above you. On rounding the final corner … there it is !
Although you’ve seen pictures of it and watched the movie, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’; nothing really prepares you for the sheer size and magnificence of it all – carved as it is out of the living rose-coloured rock. And if you are wise enough to be there as one of the first visitors of the day as we were, (they open at 6,30 am) you have the place almost to yourself, which adds to the mystique and experience.
But The Treasury (originally a mausoleum) is still only the start of Petra … a whole historic city and journey awaits, its empty streets, The High Place of worship, tombs carved into the living rock and its 7,000 seat amphitheatre – this was real history – alive ! As the day dawns, the city begins to come alive – the clink of hooves, the shouts of muleteers, the voices of the nomads, the complaining grunts of the camels all add to the ambience and the exoticness – you begin to understand Burckhardt’s excitement at his discovery.
Carved out of the very living rock by the Nabataeans in the 2nd century BC, this was the northern capital of their empire. They had another in the South – Madain Salah in North Western Saudi Arabia, another journey I had undertaken a couple of years previously. That was remarkable not only for its sandstone tombs standing alone like sentinels in the desert, but also as the terminal for the defunct Hejaz railway. The railway that was supposed to run from Damascus to Medina to carry pilgrims from The Levant to the second holiest site in Islam. The abandoned buildings and wrecked trains left lying and burnt in the desert. But that’s another story for another time…
There is just so much to see in Petra, a day really is not enough, but if you did as we did and get there early, take plenty of water, and are prepared to walk many kilometres, you will have an experience in a day to remember for the rest of your life. For me, the high point of Petra was exactly that: The Monastery (a misnomer, as it was originally a temple) is several hundred metres up a steep mountain, accessed by 900 narrow steps. For the faint-hearted there are donkeys, who will take you sure-footedly up the narrow, winding track, with vertigo inducing drops to the one side. What makes the cliff-top ruin so special is that it is relatively unknown. In fact, you feel you are discovering it for the first time. Impossibly large, carved once again straight into the living rock face of sandstone … it reduces you to slack-jawed amazement. Supposedly built from the top down, carved an inch at a time with what must have been incredible patience and skill. I felt a sense of wonderment and adventure as I climbed ever higher, past plunging ravines to eventually stand in front of this monolithic construction with the rest of the city far below.
Petra for me, was one of those seminal moments of the many sights and experiences that I have been fortunate enough to have seen in this life. The descriptor, ‘The Rose Red City, Half as old as time’, really does sum it up. This was probably one of the very few historic sites and experiences that really does exceed one’s own expectations. This was history leaping off the page !
That night at dinner in The Movenpick hotel, we discussed the day and although exhausted, we both agreed that Petra had been an amazing once -in-a-lifetimes experience. We both agreed that this was one of the rare times in life when the reality had been far better than the expectation – a rare, privileged and humbling experience ! That night I dreamt of climbing the worn steps to The High Place of worship and sacrifice, watching the camel trains, enter through The Siq, bearing trade goods and paying their taxes to the wealthy Nabataeans before being allowed to enter the sanctity of the city.
and so to Lawrence of Arabia
Our trip was nearing its end; we only had another couple of days, and today would take us into Lawrence of Arabia country. He was the one who ventured to build a new Middle East for Arabs, by Arabs. We set out for Wadi Rum, the vast desert that inspired T.E. Lawrence to write The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Personally though, I could only count six pillars, which are very near the railway that Lawrence spent a lot of time blowing up. Much remains of his endeavours, in the form of the original rails and wrecked Victorian engines and carriages, left to slowly decay under the relentless, burning desert sun and billowing sand. One thing is certain though, as one enters the area, Lawrence’s famous words echo through one’s head, when he described it as, “… vast, echoing and God-like”.
For me the desert holds a special beauty, one perhaps only matched by the African bush, its ruggedness and starkness, its simplicity. The light and shadows are ever changing, particularly here, as the sun moves, so do the shadows, the black basalt mountains seem to change shape throughout the day with each new shadow. It’s an ancient and alien landscape … there are no horizons – just more adventures … Lawrence’s words echo within your head all the time. Once again the stories of history come alive !
Until one has spent a night under the stars in a desert, one simply cannot begin to describe the sense of isolation and just how vast is the universe – juxtaposed with humanity so small and insignificant. The silence is total, overwhelming and deafening, you feel as if you have finally left the 21st century behind and have entered another cosmos. The stars dazzle in their brightness and multitude, the moon shines out from behind the blackness of the mountains that dot the landscape. It’s easy to become lost in this place, both mentally and physically.
We had hired a driver and his ancient beaten-up open Toyota Land Cruiser for the journey to our goal for the night – one of the tented camps deep into the desert. After a brief 10 minutes into our desert excursion, I had serious doubts over the vehicle’s ability to actually manage the 30 odd kilometre journey into the unknown and timeless sands. And although it rattled, clattered and coughed alarmingly, our driver Ali, didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned. More reassuringly, he knew each of the mountains and every natural arch and rock, as well as each and every track which he navigated unerringly and in typical Arab fashion with great abandon, speed and panache, with his red and white ghutrah flying in the wind.
We stayed in one of the tented camps some 30 kms from the nearest town. Perhaps more military than luxury, but it had decent beds, hot showers and western style toilets. And that night sitting around the fire, a cold beer in hand, the tantalizing smell of meat roasting on the open fire, the huge and appetizing Kabsa merely awaiting the sheep’s head. All set against the strains of the traditional Arab music, with the backdrop of the mountains and sand dunes glowing in the moonlight, I was entranced and prepared to forgive it anything.
The next morning, I awoke early, and stepped outside the tent that had been our shelter for the night. Underfoot the sand felt cool and soft, the sun had not as yet turned it into the foot-burning oven that it would soon become. Lawrence’s Wadi Rum was just beginning to awake to another timeless day with the early morning light of pink and violet reflecting off the nearby mountains in the crisp and dry morning air. I was once again struck by his words, “… vast, echoing and God-like”.
History/Religion/Geography/Archaeology – we had seen it all!
This was our final day, which saw us back aboard Ali’s aging and asthmatic Land Cruiser to visit firstly Timna Valley, with its unique geological formations of Solomon’s Pillars, a natural geological formation that were formed when the rock cracked and water eroded them to separate the rock into distinct “pillars”. Although not specifically mentioned in the Bible, the area was used for Copper mining in the biblical period, during Solomon’s time. Over 10,000 mining shafts have been found in the Timna Valley, so maybe this is the mythical site of Solomons Mines ? The Egyptians built a temple to the goddess Hathor against the face of Solomon’s Pillars in the 13th century, with many artifacts having been found in the area. But the real significance of the area is that it is perhaps home to the mythical ‘Burning Bush’ as described in Exodus 3:2 …“And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.”
As mentioned earlier, one is constantly reminded of the biblical tales of one’s youth and are never far from The Bible when in this land of Christendom…
From here it was a brief kidney shaking drive to return to the relative civilisation of Queira to rejoin our driver and air-conditioned comfort for our final brief road journey to the coastal resort port city of Aqaba on The Red Sea. The Gulf of Aqaba is the point for four countries meet, Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Sadly, we had run out of time and there only remained a brief respite sufficient for a brief tour of the largely unremarkable city and a lunch of freshly caught and grilled fish in a harbour side restaurant. It was then time to hit the road for the long and boring drive back along the Kings Highway to Amman, passing many heavy trucks, laden with freight from the port up to Amman and onwards to destinations within the region.
A one-night layover in Amman and a pleasant evening in the inevitable Irish Pub (there is always an Irish pub !) The next morning saw us board the 3-hour Emirates flight back to glitz and glamour of Dubai, brought our Jordanian adventure to an end, but certainly not forgotten.
I’ve visited Jordan maybe half a dozen times, yet never tire of unearthing its many stories and history. Part of The Levant, a land of unbelievable history, myth, legend and biblical tales, the experience is almost visceral. It is a land that demands to be visited and explored – time and time again …
Tony Lewis – Summer 2022
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