24 October 2011


Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime,
A rose red city half as old as time
                                      John William Burgon

I am sitting at home, looking at grey skies, the wind whipping the branches of the trees into frenzy, and wishing it were this time last week when the view from the window was beautiful blue skies, temperatures were 45º and we woke early to the sonorous call to prayer.

It might seem like a strange time to be visiting the Middle East, but the idea of cancelling our long anticipated holiday really did not occur to us.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as with many countries in this region has a tangled history. Muslim Empires, Roman and Ottoman Turk occupation and the British Mandate have all left their footprints in the sand.

Bordered by Israel, Palestine (West Bank), Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Jordan is at the heart of the Middle East, where it manages to maintain peaceful relations with its neighbours, and with the West.

Because of its location at the crossroads of the Middle East, for centuries Jordan has been vital in linking trade routes from East and West, including being on the important and lucrative frankincense trail.

Walking around The Citadel, and looking over the Roman Theatre and the seven hills on which Amman is built, it was clear that there was more history here than you could shake a stick at.

There has been a settlement near Amman for over 9000 years. Under the Romans, Amman was called Philadelphia and during the Byzantine period, it was the seat of a bishopric and a regional centre when in 635 the city was captured by the Damascus based Umayyad dynasty. Although Amman’s influence began to wane under the Abbasids, as the focus of their power shifted to Baghdad, it remained an important stop on the pilgrimage trail to Mecca, and was made capital of Transjordan by Emir Abdullah in 1921.

The Citadel (Jebel al-Qal’a), formerly the ancient site of Rabbath-Ammon, has been settled since the Palaeolithic Age although little remains from before the Roman occupation. Crowning the hill is the large Umayyad Palace complex dating from the Umayyad period of the early half of the 8th century. The first building you approach is the domed entrance hall built over an earlier Byzantine structure.

Half way down the hill is the Temple of Hercules its huge columns visible for miles, and approached by a huge stone staircase. While northwest of the Temple is the Jordan Archeological Museum which although small, has some fascinating exhibits, although the Dead Sea Scrolls have sadly, been moved.

From The Citadel there is a panoramic view of the hills of Amman and the Roman Theatre and the Odeon. The Theatre dating from the reign of Antonius Pius (AD86-161) is carved into a hill that once served as a necropolis, and can seat around 6000 spectators on its stone steps. The Jordan Folklore Museum is housed in the right wing of the Theatre and has come beautiful exhibits. The costumes on display are timeless and they would not be out of place today. The smaller 500 seat Odeon would have been used for musical concerts as it still is from time to time today.

Jerash, north of Amman, is one of the most important and best preserved Roman towns in the Middle East with archaeological evidence of settlement here dating to the Neolithic age.

Jerash began to flourish during the time of Alexander the Great in 4th century BC, and after Syria fell under Roman rule, Jerash was named as one of the Decapolis, ten autonomous cities in Judea and Syria, on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, linked by commerce and political interests. In 106 AD the Nabatean Kingdom of which Petra was central, was annexed and Jerash reaped the benefits of this increase in riches.

You need your walking shoes to visit Jerash. Approaching the city by the south, you pass through the impressive sandstone Hadrian’s Gate dating from 129AD built to commemorate the visit of the Emperor Hadrian. 

On the left, you pass the Hippodrome which could seat some 15,000 spectators. Walking past the city walls you come to the Oval Plaza edged with Ionic columns with the colonnaded street, The Cardo, bordered by Corinthian columns running north. Along the side of this street, you can still see the remains of shops, and an underground sewage system ran the full length of The Cardo.

At the top of a hill to the north of the city you can find the Temple of Artemis, the patron of Jerash, small, but impressive with eleven of its twelve columns still standing. Just down the hill from the Temple are the remains of three Byzantine Churches. The most northerly of the three is the Church of St Cosmos and St Damian, twin doctors martyred in the 4th century. Here you can see the most beautiful mosaic floors found in Jerash.  The centre Church is that of St John the Baptist which dating from 531 AD. The most southerly of the churches is the church of St George. The lovely mosaics here were damaged by the Iconoclasts in the 8th century.

Drive southwest along the Kings’ Highway and you come to Madaba.  At the Greek Orthodox St George’s Church you can view the fabulous Byzantine mosaic map. This map shows the Holy Land with Jerusalem, depicted in astonishing detail, at its heart. Dating from about 560AD the map originally covered the front of the floor of the Byzantine Church. Now unfortunately only part of the map survives.  

One of the best places to eat in Jordan is the Haret Jdoudna complex. The restaurant is two old houses side-by-side where you can feast very reasonably on wonderful Jordanian fare. Opt to eat in the quite courtyard and enjoy watching dish after dish magically appear before you. Here, as with most Jordanian restaurants, if you want a decent coffee opt for the Turkish variety, flavoured with cardamom.

From Madaba, head to Mount Nebo to the northwest. Here is a site with enormous religious significance to Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. It is from the summit of Mt Nebo that Moses is said to have seen the Promised Land. In the Christian and Jewish traditions, Moses was buried somewhere on or near the mountain, while the Muslim tradition dictates that his body was carried off the mountain and across the river, where it was buried near the Jericho-Jerusalem highway.

Unfortunately, the Church was closed for renovations being carried out by the Franciscans, but it is worth a visit for the view. From the summit, on a clear day you can see Jericho and as far as Jerusalem.

Continuing along the King’s Highway, and with a stop at the Crusader Castle of Kerak, we arrived at the unprepossessing town of Wadi Musa, gateway to Petra. From the visitors centre you walk a path past huge jinn blocks and the Obelisk Tombs to enter As-Siq the long, beautiful, narrow gorge heading into the mountains.  The sides of the gorge appear to touch in places and it is easy to see how this place was lost to the world for 700 years, becoming legend lost in the mists.

I am not sure that you can be prepared for the first view of The Treasury despite the number of photographs you may have seen. You get a fleeting glimpse between the walls of As-Siq, and then suddenly it is ahead of you, glowing pink in the bright morning sun.

Carved deep into the rock face, The Treasury is incredibly well preserved, and was clearly positioned to impress. Imagine the reaction of the visitor 2000 years ago, walking through a narrow gorge to then be faced with this incredible building. When you think of the primitive tools which would have been available to the Nabateans, the fact that this city was carved into the sandstone at all is truly impressive. The carvings on the façade show how much Greek and Roman design influenced the builders of this unique city although the bullet holes in the central urn do nothing for the aesthetics.

As-Siq turns right at The Treasury and heads towards the city. Passing tombs, a Theatre which although it looks Roman is actually of Nabatean construction, a colonnaded street to the Qasr al Bint probably the city’s main temple. This is the only building which is freestanding and due to the addition of wood to its construction has withstood earthquakes and floods.

If you feel energetic you can climb the 800 steps to The Monestery, or take a hike to the High Place of Sacrifice. If not, you can visit the remains of the Byzantine Church to view the beautiful mosaic floor, or wander around the side paths to see what they will reveal.

Petra is a remarkable place, which has to be seen to be truly appreciated.
If you have the time, take a trip to Wadi Rum famous in the West for its connections to T.E. Lawrence, and if you don’t have time, make some. A visit here is a journey to another world. This starkly beautiful place of ancient valleys and towering sandstone cliffs reminds you of your insignificance as it stretches silently and spectacularly into the distance. Due to the abundance of water Wadi Rum was an imortant meeting place for caravans heading for Palestine, Syria and Arabia. Continuing archaeological investigations continue to uncover layers of habitation dating to Neolithic times.

At Wadi Rum you can see rose finches flitting in and out of the rock formations, Nabatean graffiti of camels scratched into the rocks, camel trains taking tourists back and forth, and Bedouin jeeps sailing over the sand dunes, or you can stop for coffee in one of the Bedouin black goat hair tents or go for a camel ride.

At once modern and traditional, Jordan is a country managing to tread a fine political line, pro-Western while maintaining peace with Israel and it has much to offer the tourist, and unusually perhaps for an Arab country, women have positions of power in business and government.

If you want to relax at a Dead Sea resort pampering yourself in one of the spas, if you are a history buff, or have an interest in religion Jordan is the destination for you. Moses, Aaron and John the Baptist all died in Jordan and Jesus was probably baptised here (you can visit Bethany across the Jordan where John the Baptist lived and where the baptism almost certainly took place). Crusader Castles, Roman ruins and ancient cities all have plenty to keep the history buff happy.

This is a country with something for everyone, from the ancient desert moonscapes, to modern thriving cities and it is well worth a visit.

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