Date of Trip: November 2007
JORDAN: FOUR DAYS JUST AREN’T ENOUGH
In November of 2007, my husband, his sister, her spouse and I spent two weeks touring Egypt. Almost as an after-thought, we had scheduled a short side-trip to Jordan (primarily to visit Petra) before returning to the USA. Flying into Amman, the capital of Jordan, the four of us collected our luggage and waited in the customs line, only to discover a visa was necessary to enter the country. But at the visa counter, we were told nothing but dinars (the local currency) were acceptable and were directed to the exchange desk. Finally, with dinars in hand, we could purchase a visa and clear customs. Not until leaving the international area did we finally spot a cab-driver waiting patiently and holding a sign marked with our names.
It was a long ride from the airport to our Marriott hotel in Amman. After Egypt, the absence of heavy traffic was refreshing and the apartment complexes looked practically new. The weather was cooler too. People on the streets were wearing their winter jackets. Security was tight at the hotel with armed guards inspecting all vehicles that entered the premise. To get past the front door, our luggage went through an X-ray conveyor belt while guards passed screening wands over our bodies. A huge Christmas tree was being decorated in the lobby for despite its predominately Muslim population, Jordan is very tolerant of all religions. After checking in, we made reservations at the hotel for a tour of the city at 1:30. (Our “official” Jordanian itinerary wouldn’t begin until tomorrow, but nobody wanted to squander time today).
The hotel’s driver/guide was friendly but, as a source of information, his breadth of knowledge (or perhaps, command of the English language) was limited. We learned that numerous biblical references refer to Amman, one of the oldest, continually occupied cities in the world. In the 3rd century BC, it was renamed Philadelphia, after its Ptolemaic ruler, and eventually it fell under the Roman Empire. Philadelphia was reconstructed in typical Roman style, with an amphitheater capable of seating 6000 spectators cut into a hillside. This was the first stop on our tour. With little prior exposure to Roman antiquities, my husband and I found the amphitheater to be quite impressive. Remarkably well preserved, it is still used for special events. Nobody else was around and sitting on the ancient seats of stone, it seemed as if we were transported back in time.
From there we were taken to the Citadel, which towers above the city. Excavations at the site have recovered Byzantine, Roman and ancient Islamic artifacts. From the hill top, the city spread out below us. However, our first priority was the nearby Jordan Archeological Museum which wouldn’t be open much longer. Perusing the displays, I suddenly came to an abrupt halt. Before me were ancient documents encased under glass and labeled “The Dead Sea Scrolls”. Surely, these couldn’t possibly be the original ones, which must be in a vault someplace. But an English-speaking administrator assured me that, indeed, these were some of the famous scrolls. Amazing!! The museum was closing and while there was still some daylight, we hurried to explore the remaining structures on the grounds of the Citadel. There were columns from the Temple of Hercules and some ruins of an ancient Byzantine church.
However, the most impressive building on the site was a palace (still under renovation) which contained a monumental gateway, audience hall and four vaulted chambers. A colonnaded street ran through the complex. It was dark when we left the area. On a local street, our driver made a sudden stop, and after informing us he would be “back soon” left us alone in the car. We had no idea what was transpiring, but eventually he returned, bearing a gift of kadad, a warm cheese and nut dessert. Not wishing to hurt his feelings, we “dug in”, despite secret trepidations about sanitation. (It was tasty and luckily, none of us ever experienced any nasty “after-effects” from his generous gesture). Our light dinner back at the hotel proceeded an early bedtime.
The next morning we wolfed down the complimentary breakfast in order to be on time for an 8:30 a.m. pick-up. For the next three days we would be traveling with a guide and his driver assigned to us by a Jordanian tour agency. While waiting, it was fascinating to watch the diversity of people passing through the hotel lobby. Saudi men in their crisp white thobes and red checkered head-dresses mingled with Japanese in business suits. Women’s attire ran the whole gamut. One woman’s black burka was lavishly embossed with gold threads and, even to my untrained eye, the purse she carried cost a fortune. Just as we were getting worried, Abdulla arrived. Very fluent in English, we later learned he had been an English teacher for six years and had also served as a “tourist police” in Petra. He proved to be a fabulous guide! Abdulla had planned a city tour, followed by a visit to Jarash before ultimately arriving in Petra that evening. Having already seen Amman, we proposed instead that, enroute to Petra, we make a side-trip to the Dead Sea. Our suggestion gave Abdulla pause, as it wasn’t on the “official itinerary” and would involve a detour from his intended route of travel. He finally acquiesced, after indicating that it would entail additional money.
With this issue resolved, we set off to Jarash, acknowledged to be the largest and best preserved site of Roman architecture outside of Italy. It is second only to Petra as Jordan’s most famous attraction. Jarash is located 48 km. northeast of Amman, and during the ride, Abdulla enlightened us about the history of his country. Jordan was carved out of Palestine after WWI, and was under British governance until gaining its independence in 1946. Their current king, Abdullah II, assumed the throne after the death of his father, King Hussein, in 1999. Unfortunately, Jordan has no oil reserves. Although the vast majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, the country’s relative neutrality in the Gulf Wars has made it a mecca for immigrants throughout the mideast with the latest influx coming from Iraq. (According to our guide, the wealth of the Iraqi newcomers is rapidly putting the housing market out of reach for the native Jordanians). Jarash’s “golden age” peaked during the third century as a Roman colony although evidence of human settlements date back more than 6500 years. However, by 600 AD, the city began to decline when the lucrative trade routes became less traveled. A series of earthquakes hastened its demise and by the time of the crusaders, it was uninhabited. Jarash became buried beneath the sands which maintained the colonnaded streets, baths, theatres and plazas in a remarkable state of preservation until excavations began in 1925.
Entering the complex, we were astonished at its size. Abdulla took us first to the North Theater (remarkably intact with a capacity of 1600 seats) and showed us a spot in front of the stage with absolutely perfect acoustics. When standing there, our words echoed throughout the theater. Without competition from other tourists, it was great fun to explore the theater, and a roving band of musicians added to the experience. There were so many things to see in Jarash. A massive arena, or Hippodrome, which originally held 15,000 spectators, is still being used to host periodic chariot races. A large oval plaza was surrounded by a colonnade of 1st century ionic columns. The splendid Hadrian’s Arch, built to commemorate the emperor’s visit, was note-worthy.
Another interesting site was the Temple of Artemis where eleven massive columns still stood. Despite their size, an allowance for sway had been built into their design to withstand earthquakes. Abdulla illustrated this capability by manually shifting one of the columns sufficiently to place a shard of glass beneath it. Equally fascinating were the original stone streets that still bore the ruts worn by chariot wheels. There was even a drainage system with a series of manholes built into the roads. We also visited three ancient churches within the complex. One of these still had a fabulous floor of mosaics, designed to look like a carpet with various shapes and animals. All four of us loved Jarash! Unlike Egypt, there were very few other tourists around and we could take our time at the site. In addition, Abdulla’s comments and observations greatly enhanced our visit.
Back in our van, it was time to head south towards Petra. According to Abdulla, our detour to the Dead Sea would be adding two more hours to the drive but who cared? At 390 meters below sea level, it is the lowest spot on earth with four times the level of salt found in other oceans. How could we possibly pass up an opportunity to visit something that unique? Since the Dead Sea serves as a border between Jordan and Israel, we passed through two guarded checkpoints before reaching our destination. Expecting to find rows of hotels lining the coast, I was pleasantly surprised to see how sparsely populated it was.
Our van pulled into an attractive park-like area by the sea and we hurried down to the shoreline. On the far shore, the hills of Israel could be discerned and Abdulla pointed out the biblical city of Jericho. The rocks at the water’s edge were so covered with salt they resembled huge, snowy crystals and saline deposits on the seabed crunched beneath our feet. This was certainly a unique experience! While the rest of us merely waded near the shore-line, Vince (my brother-in-law) ventured into deeper water, floating almost on the surface. Apparently, it is just about impossible to become submerged in the Dead Sea and a few other intrepid souls were also enjoying the briny experience. Fortunately, showers and towels (for a fee) were available as everyone emerged from the water encrusted with salt. It was time to get back in the van and head towards Petra via the Desert Highway.
Ninety percent of Jordan is desert, but it contains less than ten percent of the population and this was a very desolate area. Enroute, we encountered a convoy of cars, which we learned contained guests heading to a wedding. Our presence in their procession precipitated much giggling and waving (which we enthusiastically returned) from the merry-makers. Abdulla remarked that contacts with “westerners” were infrequent in this part of the country and we would be a big topic of discussion for several days. Around 3:00, we stopped for something to eat at a multipurpose structure selling gasoline, souvenirs and food and later were treated to a magnificent sunset with distant mountains silhouetted against a sky of flames! Even our guide was impressed and confided that typically there are not enough clouds to provoke such a display. This celestial performance lasted for quite a while before the last vestiges of color (by now a deep lavender) disappeared. Darkness had fallen by the time we arrived at the Movenpick Resort Hotel in Petra. After such a late lunch, nobody was very hungry and we opted for a simple dinner of soup and bread at the hotel.
With Abdulla scheduled to arrive at 8:00, we couldn’t linger over the complimentary breakfast. Fortunately, our hotel was conveniently located right outside the entrance to Petra, a long (1200 meter) and narrow gorge known as the As Siq which is hemmed in by cliffs that soar up to 80 meters in height. Our itinerary included a horseback ride through the first half of the Siq and my pregnant horse was, by far, the pokiest. It was only after we dismounted and began walking that I could appreciate the incredible geological formations and the complex system of water channels and cisterns carved into the steep walls of rock.
Petra was primarily a burial site for the Nabataeans, an ancient Arab tribe who settled in Jordan more than 2200 years ago. Because of their strategic location along the caravan trade routes, the Nabataeans achieved not only wealth, but an exposure to many foreign cultures. These outside influences were incorporated into their buildings and tombs with a fusion of Greek, Roman and Islamic styles that culminated in a unique and unified type of architecture. Some archaeologists have ranked Petra as the eighth wonder of the ancient world.
Just as we emerged from the Siq, the magnificent Treasury burst into view! Despite having previously seen numerous pictures of this building, I was still unprepared for such a resplendent sight! In the early morning light, its massive elaborate façade, carved into the surrounding sandstone, was bathed in a golden glow. As we stood there gawking, Abdulla directed our attention to bullet holes in an urn above the portico. (Apparently, locals once believed gold had been hidden in the urn, and sought to dislodge it). Surprisingly, the interior of the edifice is unadorned. Under the impression that Petra primarily consisted of the Siq and the Treasury, I was stunned to discover that these were only the beginning of a huge complex, with tombs ranging from simple caves to elaborate monuments. Furthermore, I never imagined rocks could be so beautiful! Where the outer layer of sandstone had worn away, sinuous swirls and striations of colors ranging from pink to lavender to gold were revealed. Cut into the rock, 750 steps ascended to the High Place of Sacrifice. Heading up, we could see nearby Mt. Aaron where Aaron, Moses’ brother, was reportedly buried. Once at the summit, a panoramic view of Petra spread below us. This was definitely worth that climb!
On the way down we were shown ancient inscriptions chiseled into the rocks by the Nabataeans that directed worshipers to the High Place. Because of its immense size, Petra was not congested with tourists. In fact, the only crowded area was at the center of the complex where the restrooms and restaurants were located. Even there, lines for the bathrooms were not long and, carrying food from the buffet, we found outdoor seating without difficulty.
After lunch we visited the small museum on site before strolling along a colonnaded street flanked by the ruins of temples, public buildings and shops. Obviously, this part of Petra had once hosted the living, not the dead. Next we entered the magnificent compound of Royal Tombs. The largest, known as the Urn Tomb, had been altered around the 5th century to serve as a church. Climbing again, Abdullah kept detouring to give us peeks at some of the more incredible displays of rock colorations. Eventually, we reached an overlook of an imposing theater that had been carved into solid rock. Built by the Nabataeans in the 1st century, it had a decidedly Roman appearance.
All too soon we were back at the Treasury which in the late afternoon light had taken on a rosy hue. Unfortunately, with dusk approaching, it was time to leave. Horse-drawn chariots were available for visitors too tired to make the long trek back up the Al Siq. Those of us who were walking occasionally had to hug the sides of the narrow passages to avoid being run over by returning chariots during their frenzied efforts to transport as many tourists as possible. Personally, I was in no hurry to depart. This place was absolutely amazing and I wholeheartedly agreed with the guidebook’s description: Petra is a site where nature and architecture concur into conferring a mythical aura that, once experienced, will never be forgotten.
Although it was cold outside, our hotel room was roasting. Since no cool air would come out of the vents, we called the front desk to complain. They immediately sent someone up who explained there was no air conditioning in the hotel and if we wished to cool off, just open a window. (How embarrassing)! We joined Vince and my sister-in-law, Pam, for cocktails in their room before going downstairs to dinner. After walking all day, everyone was ready for an early bedtime.
With a 9:00 check-out, we could enjoy the latest departure in quite a while. Today’s “official” itinerary called for a return to Amman via the King’s Highway with an evening flight back to Cairo. Abdulla explained there was still time to view one more attraction (for additional money) if we wished. The four of us had a hurried conference and elected to see Karak Castle, which had been erected in 1161 by the Crusaders. With its commanding hill-top position almost 1000 meters above the Dead Sea Valley and proximity to Jerusalem (only 35 km. away), Karak Castle was one of a great line of fortresses stretching from Aqaba to Turkey. In 1187, however, it was captured by the Muslims and ultimately portions of the fortress served as a mosque and a castle. The ancient fortress was amazingly intact and we had quite an extensive tour. Abdulla even prevailed upon one of the guards to open an underground section of the structure which contained the best preserved rooms. As an added bonus, a movie was being filmed while we were there. Fierce-looking Arabs brandishing scimitars were swarming about the site. At one point, our little group was approached by four of the costumed actors who scowled, raised their weapons and then confiscated Abdulla’s water bottle! (Its return was accompanied by much laughter). We perused a small museum on the premises that contained skeletons, pottery and artifacts from the Neolithic to late Islamic periods and enjoyed great views of the surrounding countryside. Lunch was at a nearby restaurant where we finally got some really good baklava.
During our time together, we had learned Abdulla was a strict Muslim of Beduoin heritage. (His wife even wore a burka). As we drove north along the King’s Highway, Pam prevailed upon Abdulla to tell us how he met his wife, which gave us a fascinating insight into his traditions. As the oldest of 17 children, his “courtship” was preceded by delicate negotiations between the families and, once betrothed, the couple had spent only a few, well-chaperoned, moments together before their marriage. With so many relatives, over 1000 guests (not counting children) attended the wedding festivities which lasted for days. Married now for eight years and with three children, it was obvious that he still adored her.
This narration was interrupted by a cell phone call from his wife. Abdulla sheepishly explained that she was always apprehensive whenever he accompanied foreign women about the country. When I jokingly responded, “I hope you tell her we are all old and ugly” he replied, “Of course! I am no fool.”
Suddenly, the flat desert landscape underwent a dramatic metamorphosis: We had arrived at Wadi Mujib, an Arab version of our Grand Canyon. The road began a 1000 meter descent, through a series of hair-pin curves, down to the river. (It reminded me of a similar drive down Black Gunnison Canyon in Colorado). Now we understood why Abdulla had commented, “Nobody, who doesn’t have to, ever takes the King’s Highway”. Stopping at an overlook, everyone got out to admire the view, which included a large, recently-constructed dam. There was only one other car at the pull-off and the occupant stood alone, gazing forlornly into the base of the canyon.
While we were preoccupied with snapping photos, Abdulla engaged in an extended conversation with the stranger. Back in the van, we learned the man was also a Bedouin and as a child his family often camped along the river. Now with the dam, the shaded riverbanks he had loved were gone. It was a very sobering thought: What brings progress to some may create despair in others. The road crossed the Wadi (gully) and began to ascend. We passed several nomad encampments before stopping at a final overlook. A vender was selling local crystals and colorful rocks and after seeing one that contained fossils, I couldn’t resist. We had a 7:00 p.m. flight out of Amman and en route to the airport, Abdulla had the driver stop while he ran into a shop, ostensibly to pick up something his wife had requested. To our surprise, he returned with a parting gift of beautifully wrapped Arab pastries for us. I realized again how broadening travel can be. With Abdulla, I felt we had somehow made a connection that transcended our vastly different cultures. Onboard our plane, all four of us expressed the same thought: Jordan was far more than just Petra and our time spent there had been nowhere near long enough.