Jordan: Amman - Jerash - Madaba - Petra
Updated: Jun 28, 2020
After settling into my room at the Kempinski Amman, I headed down to breakfast at 6.30 and tucked into a pair of fried cackleberries but passed on the beef bacon and other assorted amalgams of animal parts that I prefer not to ingest.
Alison arrived in time for lunch, but the assorted goodies that came with our aperitifs were so plentiful we didn’t need to bother – fantastic assorted nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios) gorgeous olives stuffed with pickled carrot, multiple cheeses, cucumber and cherry tomatoes – certainly sufficient to get us through the afternoon.
We headed up to the recommended tour agent so we could organise the next morning’s trip to Jerash – its Roman city is supposedly only bettered by Pompeii. Four languid Jordanian chaps, all chain smoking, organised our journey, with departure scheduled for 9am so we could check out the chariot races and gladiator show in the hippodrome, due to start at 11am.
Amman is called the ‘white city’ as all the buildings are made of the local limestone, which is very pretty. Surprisingly (for me), Amman and the country to the north is very hilly – steep rather than rolling – and the countryside became progressively more lush, with forests of Aleppo pine interspersed with intensive fruit and vegetable growing and olive groves, plus the mandatory goats barrelling up and down impossibly steep slopes and flocks of black-faced sheep doing what sheep do. Jordanian traffic is shambolic and tourist pedestrians and drivers alike are warned to ‘be brave and don’t hesitate’, which means take your life in your hands and hope Allah comes to the party. If in doubt, follow a little old lady into the fray. The freeways have no lane markings, which makes it easier to turn left from the right-hand lane in the face of oncoming high speed traffic, or break every road rule known to man when entering a roundabout. Utes loaded to the gunwales with ripe tomatoes, lovely cos lettuces, shimmering carrots and pearlescent cauliflowers – all travelling at high speed hither and yon – provided a pretty diversion from the imminent carnage on the road.
We arrived in Jerash in good time, our driver (a proud native of Madaba, the city to the south of Amman which is famed for its mosaics) went to the ticket office but no, the chariot races are cancelled today – it’s not busy so we’re saving them up for tomorrow! We entered through the massive triumphal arch and detoured into the hippodrome – a vast elongated racetrack with nothing but dirt to recommend it. There were four horses mooching about – we assumed they were the show’s star performers. Maybe the chariot race involved only one chariot? (The Jordanian tourism industry was suffering badly courtesy of the Arab Spring, with the cancellation of many tours, which typically bundle Egypt, Israel and Jordan as itineraries – hence the light sprinkling of tourists in high season.)
After a long stroll, the Roman road deposited us at a second gate where we picked up our guide and deposited our driver so he could while away 75minutes (the length of the tour) with his cafe cronies. Achmed politely introduced himself – probably 30 years old, of quiet demeanour, beautifully groomed and with excellent English. We headed into a small underground museum showcasing sections of carved friezes with birds, vine leaves and pomegranates. (Achmed asked “is it true that Grenadine is made from pomegranates?” “yes”)
We emerged back into the sunlight, then up a few steps and into the forum. Wow – we were in an enormous colonnaded ellipse in superb condition which funnelled into an equally colonnaded cardo (i.e. main drag, as in cardiac, or heart of the city) stretching as far as the eye could see. In the far distance, across a verdant slope littered with wildflowers, was a huge temple, with other grand ‘ruins’ in every direction. ‘Knockout’ doesn’t even come close.
But we were heading in the opposite direction from the cardo, and up past Zeus’ temple to the theatre. On the way Achmed pointed out an ancient form of nought and crosses in one of the steps – a double line of impressions in the stone where the object of the game was to surround your opponent’s tor thereby take it out of the game. A few steps further on and I spotted an unusual carving – three upside down chickens trussed by their feet on their way to becoming lunch.
Into the theatre – it’s pristine and utterly gorgeous – far and away the best I’ve seen (which is quite a few). And we had it all to ourselves – apart from a pair of local performers who marched in with drums and bagpipes and proceeded to belt out ‘Scotland the Brave’! But a tip dispensed with them and Achmed proceeded to show us the theatre’s sweet spot at centre stage. Standing on this semi-circular stone and speaking normally, one can hear ones voice amplified around the theatre. One small step left or right, and the sound is normal. I climbed up to the mid level of the theatre, which is built into the hillside so that the folks in the cheap seats in the upper level could walk in from the street. As well as the terraces and stage being intact, most of the backdrop, including niches, sculptures and columns, was also in excellent condition.
We then strolled up the dirt path toward the churches. An excited kindergarten class, all in uniform, came gambolling up the slope, chattering like so many newly hatched chicks. Achmed smiled broadly – he was a primary teacher before being accepted into tour guide college. Further along the track, a shepherd was tending his unruly flock of multi-coloured goats.
There are three Christian churches grouped together, and they were built simultaneously, it’s not known why. There’s St George, St John the Baptist and St Cosmos and St Damianus (the latter presumably Spanish or Portuguese Saints – they were both doctors, and they’re very popular with the South American tourists). There’s a viewing terrace from which you look down upon a fabulous mosaic that would have covered the entire floor. It’s glorious, with all manner of birds, beasts, flora, gods and patrons depicted. Achmed, who played here as a child, lives a short walk away and is justly proud of and passionate about Jerash’s heritage, but disgusted with the Jordanian government, which has done nothing to protect the mosaics against the elements.
This had all been mighty, but the temple of Artemis is something else again – a suite of enormous burnished columns crowned with intricately carved capitals. The capitals are unusually in two parts, with the lower acanthus leaves disguising the join with the capping.
Each column is made up of a number of drums, with carved interconnections to guard against earthquake damage. Unfortunately the temple wasn’t crusader-proof and these marauders inflicted serious damage to the guts of the temple of Goddess of the Moon, Hunting and Fertility (and daughter of Zeus). One of the columns moves with the wind, and Achmed demonstrated this by inserting a teaspoon into the lowest joint of the column, which proceeded to wobble up and down a couple of centimetres. We stopped for a reviver of mint tea, with a small, purring, very healthy tabby for company. Achmed named her Zeus.
We checked out more columns on this hilltop, then tripped down a grand flight of seven sets of seven steps and onto the Cardo. The staircase served a fine purpose, with the rising sun falling on the altar of Artemis’ temple giving biblical drama to the approach made by the citizens of Jerash who lived in the town on the opposite bank of the wadi (where the baths are still to be seen) – the eastern side of the wadi was the residential part of the city and has been randomly built upon by successive city dwellers.
At last we toddled along the cardo, past the extravagantly carved nymphaeum and then to the crossroads with a tower in each corner – it was the ‘meet you under clocks’ site for the locals. The last treat was the Agora (marketplace – a huge arcaded circle with shops around the outside including the butcher’s, with its carved lamb’s heads signage still in situ) – these huge plazas gave their name to the fear of open spaces.
The cardo was paved in diagonally-set stone blocks, allowing carriage wheels to roll freely across the uneven surface, and of course the drainage was excellent. Finally we returned to the enormous forum – our tour had blown out to nearly three hours, courtesy of our collective joy in this fabulous site.
Achmed was just wonderful – a lovely young man living his dream of showing off his homeland to the world and working his butt off to save money so he can marry his fiancee. He has to have enough for gold and the marital feast for several hundred guests. His prospective father-in-law given him the grace to forego the usual expensive wedding, but Achmed is adamant that it must be up to standard as a mark of respect for his future wife.
We gave him a very large tip ‘for the gold’ and regretfully parted ways. Jerash is certainly ‘worth a detour’ from anywhere, and we were delighted that the chariot race had been cancelled.
The drive back to Amman provided more vegetable-eye-candy, and the road was lined with nurseries – the Jordanians are keen gardeners, it seems. Our driver took a detour to give us the opportunity to stock up on souvenirs and we pulled up outside aclip joint specialising in major and minor dross and flogging most of the Dead Sea turned into cosmetic and health ‘product’. Most of it stinks, or is luminously coloured. The salesman, who had bolted himself onto my hip, couldn’t understand my excuse “I’ve been given cartloads of this crap over the years – no sale”.
Fake mosaics, Turkish ceramics, Chinese jewellery and Indian pashminas, likewise real plastic onyx statuary, all lacked appeal, so we gave it short shrift and headed back to Amman and an early dinner.
Thursday morning we were up and on the road. The rest of the passengers had arrived late the previous evening and we were headed for a brief city tour of Amman before heading south. The city tour was pretty bland - a photo stop at a mint green mosque then on to the Citadel - basically a rocky hilltop boasting a couple of columns, a few tired ruins and a couple of Arabs playing 'Scotland the Brave' on bagpipes and drums (again) with a box marked 'tips' at their feet. We gave at Jerash, Hamish.
The next treat was a panoramic view of the Palestinian refugee camp, which is enormous, covering a whole hillside and virtually abutting one of the royal palaces. This makes it easy for Queen Rania to pop out to see the relos. The Jordanians are a bit hacked off with the Palestinians. Jordan has absorbed 1.4million Palestinians and they are Jordanian citizens in all but name, insisting that they are Palestinians just hanging around using all the advantages of living here (including becoming filthy rich while still keeping their hovel address in the camp - complete with satellite dish, of course), waiting for the day the Palestinian state is created.
Then there's the Palestinian side of the story. When the state of Israel was created courtesy of a UN resolution in 1947, Palestine was partitioned and the Arab population (90% of the citizenry) of what was now Israeli territory, was robbed of its statehood and effectively exiled to the Palestinian territories of the West Bank. King Hussein was quick off the mark, and, having failed in Jordan's initial skirmish to nuke Israel, settled for annexing the remaining Palestinian territories in 1948 - this despite having paid lip service to the Arab declarations backing Palestinian independence and expressly ruling out territorial annexation. The Brits and the US supported Jordan's actions, which is not surprising, given the West's record of duplicity in dealing with the Arab States throughout the twentieth century.
So now the Palestinians had lost their entire territories to both hostile and not-terribly-friendly occupation, although Jordan offered a form of citizenship to the Palestinians. The upshot was the formation of the PLO in 1964, with the blessing of the Arab League, and the Palestinian National Liberation Council (PNC or Al-Fatah) with the express purpose of training guerillas to conduct raids on Israel.
The Syrians joined the raiding festival once Egypt promised support in the event of Israeli attacks. The Israelis massed troops on the Syrian border, and the UN, at the request of Egypt, withdrew its Emergency force from the Egypt-Israel border. Nasser then closed the Straits of Tiran (the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba), thereby sealing the Israeli port of Eilat. Egypt and Jordan signed a mutual defence pact.
On June 5, 1967, the Israelis got up early, jumped into their planes, zipped over into their neighbour's airspace and obliterated the Egyptian Air Force which had been conveniently lined up in the open air. They then hit the deck and decimated the Egyptian troops in Sinai, shoved the Jordanian forces out of the West Bank and stormed up the Golan Heights in Syria. Game over in six days.
The outcome for Jordan (and the Palestinians) was disastrous. They lost the whole of the West Bank including Jerusalem, which had been bringing in lovely tourism money, and valuable agricultural land - Jordan's two major sources of income. And the Palestinian territories were now entirely under Israeli rule. Bugger. No wonder the poor old Palestinians are crabby and intent on reversing their territorial fortunes - after three separate annexations in twenty years, they'd lost the whole of their homeland to Israel.
We headed for Mt Nebo where Moses slipped off his mortal coil at the tender age of 120. God had given him his marching orders - 'Go up unto...Mount Nebo in Moab, across from Jericho, and view Canaan, the land I am giving the Israelites as their own possession. There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die.' (Deuteronomy 32:49-50).
Moses' Memorial Church is on the site, i.e. a few old rocks onto which a modern edifice is being constructed by the Franciscan order. The Franciscans bought the site in 1932, the Micks being rather fond of hilltops. So the whole shebang - excavation and construction - is being financed by Rome. The church is closed during construction, but its claim to fame, an attractive mosiac with all the usual flora and fauna, is temporarily housed under a tent. One can see across the Jordan river valley to Jerusalem on a clear day, which it wasn't. Nevertheless, we caught a glimpse of the Dead Sea around the corner of some stupidly placed outbuildings.
On to Madaba, which is the most important Christian centre in Jordan. The Christians comprise one-third of the population here. It's a relaxed town, where Christians and Muslims happily co-exist, and there's a statue of El Lawrence on horseback in the main drag. Madaba's claim to fame is the mosaic in St George's church, which depicts a map of the Holy Land. Needless to say, the Christians went troppo when news of this discovery reached Europe in 1867. It deserves to be revered, showing all the biblical sites from the Red Sea to Damascus and the Mediterranean, with the most important area around Jerusalem, Galilee and the Dead Sea intact.
Further south by bus, and we checked into our hotel at Wadi Musa, at the entrance to Petra. The hotel is laid out to replicate a village, with 3 - 5 rooms sharing a walled courtyard, and mass plantings of deep blue rosemary and iris (the black iris is Jordan's national flower). It's very nice indeed, and so it should be, with the prices they charge for wine. So we settled for the local tipple - Mt Nebo Perlette Blanc, whatever that might be, but it was perfectly quaffable. So we'd finally made it to Petra - a journey three years in the making.
Next morning we were up bright and early for the big adventure. Actually, there wasn't much choice, as the calls to prayer- various, unsynchronised amplified recordings of cats mating - kicked off at 4:30am, and just as you thought it was safe, repeated the torture at 4:45 and 5:00.
Alison and I decided to hire a local guide for just we two (also, there would be 30+ per guide on the paid tour, which we figured would limit the quality of the content, given the usual ratio of stupid questions from a group that size). So £50 procured us the services of Nael and we headed off into the towering gorges.
By 200BC, the Nabataens had carved out a lovely business for themselves, taxing the caravans that transported spices and incense from the Arabian Peninsula to Syria and beyond to Rome. They'd also carved out a grand city from their rocky stronghold, impregnable courtesy of its dramatic, hidden entry though a dramatic winding gorge. By the time of Christ, the city was home to 30,000 people, with sophisticated hydraulic infrastructure, architecture which was an amalgam of Greek, Roman and local styles, and their own cursive script.
The Nabataeans were eventually put out of business by Rome and Palmyra. The Romans took advantage of newfound knowledge of how the monsoons worked, so they could sail their goodies up the Red Sea, and the Syrians used the time-honoured technique of providing a superior service thereby diverting trade from Asia via the Silk Road route. They built luxury caravanserais with lovely shopping, on-site parking and overnight entertainment, which rather put Petra's offering of 'holes in the rockface' in the shade.
The Byzantines swung past for a few centuries and created a bishopric of Petra and converted some of the temples, but a couple of major earthquakes in 363 and 551 ruined much of the city and when the Muslims invaded in the C7th, they had no interest in the city - any 'failed' site (including Christian sites, which they knew about and respected) was bad luck and a no-go zone.
The Crusaders swung past and built a couple of forts in the C12 but after Saladin's conquest in 1189, Petra became a forgotten outpost, a lost city known only to the local Bedouin (descendants of the Nabataeans), who guarded the secret.
But rumours persisted of its existence and in 1812 a Swiss explorer, Johann Burckhardt, conned his way in by telling the guardians that he had made a vow to slaughter a goat in honour of Haroun (Aaron) whose tomb he knew to be at the head of the gorge. He was able to grab a quick gander at a couple of key sites, including the Treasury, and reported "it seems very probable that the ruins of Wadi Musa are those of ancient Petra." Then: "the situation and beauty of which are calculated to make an extraordinary impression on the traveller, after having traversed.....such a gloomy and subterranean passage (the Siq) it is one of the most elegant remains of antiquity".
Needless to say, the romantic Victorians immediately packed their bags and set off in pursuit of the latest 'been there' trophy including David Roberts, the prolific watercolourist who seems to have sketched just about every ruin in the region. John William Burgon dubbed Petra "a rose-red city, half as old as time" in his poem, penned at Oxford, which was a fine effort, given that he'd never been within a bull's roar of the place!
Nael gave us an excellent tour, with lots of silly interludes, such as some absolute twaddle about the synchronised rock walls in the Siq being the origin of 'Open Sesame' (the last man out, and American in 1,000BC forgot to close the gate) - yeah, I'll buy that!
Our decision to get a private guide was vindicated when we came across a large group with their guide explaining the history of a niche opposite a holy carving. Nael was put out by his colleague's lame description and intervened to explain that this was a marriage altar - the priest stood in the middle, the bride and groom in the niches on either side, holding hands across the shelf behind the priest's shoulders to make their vows before God.
It's 2.5 kilometres from the main entrance to the end of the Siq (which is 800 long, 2m to 5 m wide, with walls 200m high). Nael then tricked us with a ruse about the water channels and the rock face, leading us from one side of the winding chasm to the other, then directing us to turn around. And there it was - the gleaming sunlit Treasury, hewn from rock by ancients, at the end of the dark funnel of the Siq. Glorious. Awesome. Stunning. Splendiferous. Worth the journey.
Mint tea at the cafe opposite the Treasury is a surreal experience. In fact the 'building' is a mortuary, but rumour had it that the urn atop the massive sculpture was full of gold. Barrages of bullets proved this to be a furphy, but the name stuck. The facade is a delectable melange of Greek, Roman and local style, including the unique split pediment, and the essential elements of the calendar - a dozen rosettes representing the months, while other architectural elements number weeks (52) days (365) and hours in the day (24).
The rest of our tour was tame by comparison, although still mighty - taking in the Royal Tombs, the Theatre, the colonnaded Cardo and more tombs hewn into the rock. After a pleasant lunch, we joined the group for the climb up to see the Monastery - a mere bagatelle as walks go - 1,000 steps plus! And at every step 'madam, you want donkey to top?' The idea of straddling a worm-infested nag covered with a filthy, flea-ridden rag saddle failed to excite, so we walked up, avoiding at every step the fresh and juicy donkey crotts strategically deposited along the way.
And the shoddy-droppers were just as numerous -'you want genuine onyx/amber/lapis/ turquoise...' The Bedouin have the commercial rights to all services within Petra, which was the only way the Jordanian Government could bribe them to abandon their cave homes and move to the new settlement (modern housing) a couple of kilometres away.
I must give up this practice of climbing to lookouts and settle for buying a swathe of tatty postcards instead. This was a bastard of a climb. Along the way, each of the Bedouin claimed 'you're not even half-way!', in the hope that we'd succumb to their donkey option. When one could catch a breath, the terrain was stunning, all manner of rock formations in grand colours of burgundy, ochre, beige and blue-grey swirls and striations.
Finally, we arrived at the Monastery, of similar but simpler design as, but double the size of the Treasury, weighing in at 50m high and 45m wide. After our exertions, it was mint tea for Alison and a fresh lemon juice with mint for me. I strolled on to one of the lookouts for the view down the Rift Valley toward Israel, which was impressive but it was very scary and dangerous having to clamber up shale and onto a small rocky protrusion with sheer drops into purgatory on three sides. I made a very careful descent. On the way back, a Bedouin was herding his goats, then, a little further on, I neared his tented shop whereupon a nanny goat emerged from under the canvas chomping on a plastic bag, along with her kid, and the Bedouin went ballistic, presumably because she'd gobbled a week's income of Bounty bars.
Suitable refreshed, we headed back down the mountain. A gorgeous Bedouin lass highjacked us: 'is happy hour, half price'. Hard to resist, so we ended up purchasing a couple of fake onyx prostrate camels for some horrendous fee, the profits from which should feed her family for a month. Every day she walks for two hours each way to man her stall high up on the mountainside.
Petra is enormous, and it took us an hour to get back to the Treasury, avoiding careering camels, donkeys and touts. We'd already decided on taking a carriage back from the Treasury to the ticket office and the next in the taxi line was a grey horse sporting an enormous erection (I took a photo of Alison striding towards it, unaware of its promise). It was a rocky ride back through the souk, at a price of 25 dinah ($45). At the ticket office, I handed over a 50 dinah note to Mohammed, whereupon he returned a 20 dinah note, offered a broad toothless grin and weasled 'you geev me baksheesh'? Whereupon I collapsed into fits of laughter and said 'I've been waiting all my life to be asked that. OK'. It was worth $8. Alison murmurred 'pushover', with some justification.
But we were buggered after an exhausting day, so put paid to the idea of coming back for the candle-light show through the Siq to the Treasury. It's a hard journey in and out, and a shower and glass of wine had grand appeal at this stage of the game, and brought some relief to our aching thighs and calves. And so to bed and deep sleep, until the call-to-prayer caterwauling kicked in at 4:30am.....
Next day it was bus time again - a most unpleasant method of moving numbers of people from A to B. We reached Aqaba at 4 pm and boarded our little ship - MV Island Sky, bound for Cyprus, via Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.