Camilla writes here about her recent trip to Jordan, travelling on a small group adventure with our trade partners ‘Intrepid Travel’ …
Our BA flight was only a few minutes late departing, we arrived into Amman almost on time and the transfer to our hotel just took 30 minutes at midnight with no traffic on the roads. So far so good.
We were gently awoken by the call to prayer, which would become a familiar sound throughout our journey. We still had a few more hours sleep before getting our day started.
After breakfast we hopped in a taxi, our first stop was the Blue Mosque also known as King Abdullah I Mosque. We had planned on heading straight to the Citadel, but our taxi driver was keen we saw the mosque first! Built in the 1980’s it has an impressive blue dome and capacity for 3000 Muslims at prayer. While the locals seem very proud of this building, it does not have the ‘wow factor’ of some of the other sites in Amman. Having covered myself from head to toe in a black gown I was glad to disrobe as the heat of the day set in.
After our unscheduled stop we arrived at the Citadel, known locally as Jabal al-Qal’a. If you only have time for one stop in Amman this should be it. Located high on a hill above downtown Amman the historic site comprises of a 1700-meter wall that dates back to the Bronze Age, the iconic Temple of Hercules, and the Umayyad Palace amongst other ruins. It was bigger than expected and there are some interesting artefacts on display at the Jordan Archaeological Museum in the middle of the site.
From the Citadel is it easy to navigate your way to the downtown area. My tummy was rumbling, we had been recommended Hashem Restaurant Down Town and it was no problem to get directions. Looking lost we sat at a table, which was instantly covered in a plastic sheet and following a trusting nod to the friendly waiter, was piled with dishes of scrumptious food. Just the typical houmous, Baba Ganoush, falafel, fresh vegetables and flatbread washed down with minty black tea, but so good, in hindsight the best houmous of the trip … and my life so far!
From here we took a walk along Rainbow Street and eventually made our way to the Roman Amphitheatre, where you can also find the Jordan Museum of Popular Tradition and the Jordan Folklore Museum. Dating back to the Roman period when the city was known as Philadelphia this site has been well restored and views from the top tiers are impressive if you are willing to scale the extremely steep steps.
It was time to head back to the hotel and meet our ‘Intrepid Travel’ group leader and the other 10 people we would be spending the next week with on our Comfort style ‘Jordan Discovery’ tour.
Our day started with a 4-hour drive along the Desert Highway towards Wadi Rum Village. We left the buzzing city of Amman behind and the landscape turned barren and sparse. At the height of our journey we stopped for a panoramic view across the desert to the largest wadi in Jordan. Clutching my copy of T E Lawrence’s well known book we passed by the rock formation originally known as Jabal al-Mazmar, now re-named ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’.
We offloaded into more suitable 4WD jeeps to continue our journey into the desert. Just beyond the village we made a pit stop to see the ancient inscriptions indicating a water source, which were used by Lawrence according to the locals. Sat on the back of a Toyota pick-up with a makeshift sun shade I wrapped my scarf around my face in an attempt to shield it from the dust. We journeyed through the vastness, stopping to climb a sand hill and marvel at the rock formations. The colours if the landscape constantly changing from sandy caramel to burnt terracotta and deep burgundy with every hue in-between.
After arriving at camp, we watched the enchanting sunset and were entertained by traditional music before tucking into the local dish Zarb, a Bedouin barbecue of meat and vegetables cooked in an underground pit.
After dark the stars twinkled in their thousands above us and the only sound that broke the silence were the camels roaring into the night.
The morning light warmed up the earth as the sun rose from behind the rock face shadowing the camp. We took a camel ride back to Wadi Rum village, I was teamed up with a very tall camel, while Tom’s was considerably smaller…not sure what to make of that! Led by 3 young boys our camels gently lumbered across the sand towards civilization. My unaccustomed posterior was certainly relieved to dismount.
En route to Aqaba we stopped to clamber on board the abandoned steam engine and carriages of the Hejaz Railway, a refurbished locomotive from a bygone era.
After an hour’s journey along the last stretch of the desert highway we arrived in Aqaba. Our hotel was opposite Aqaba Fort or Mamluk Castle, the site of one of the most famous battles of WW1, part of the Arab Revolt that swept through Aqaba in 1916 and featured in the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. It was built by the Mamluk sultanate and was used for centuries as a ‘khan’, or traveller’s inn, hosting pilgrims on their southward journey to Mecca for the annual Hajj. It had fallen in to a state of disrepair, but building works seemed to be underway to restore it.
This is the only site of cultural significance in the town, the main attraction is the beach and of course snorkelling in the Red Sea. We got our swimsuits ready and made our way to the jetty to meet the boat. The water was bright turquoise and crystal clear. As the boat motored towards our snorkelling site, above the water we could see Israel, Egypt and Sudan on one side of the Aqaba Gulf, Jordan and Saudi Arabia on the other. Below the water, through the glass bottom, we saw the purposefully sunken ship, Cedar Pride, and the delicate corals of the Japanese Garden.
Finally, we came to a stop and it was time to get wet! Equipped with our mask and snorkel we floated, swam and dived among the tropical fish and coral reef. When we had worked up an appetite, we climbed back on board to indulge in a well-stocked buffet lunch and cruised back to Aqaba. Surprisingly, this journey’s soundtrack was The Macarena, mercilessly blasted over the loudspeaker accompanied by the young Jordanian deck hands continuously demonstrating the accompanying dance moves. Who knew this was still popular anywhere in the world, least of all on the Red Sea!!
After dark we wandered around the markets in Aqaba, which seemed to mostly be selling pyjamas and heavy blankets. It was hard to imagine they would be needed considering the current climate! It only seemed fitting to end the day at a seafood restaurant overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba.
The next day day – long anticipated – we visited the lost city of Petra. We just had to drive a couple of hours along the Kings Highway to get to Wadi Musa, which literally translates to “Valley of Moses”, our base for the next 2 nights. Our first glimpse of the Siq leading to Petra was from above. We stopped on the road for views across the valley to Wadi Musa and Uum Sayhoun, the village where in the in the 1980’s, UNESCO and the Jordanian government began to relocate Bedouins from Petra.
We had a quick turnaround at the hotel so we could maximise our time at Petra. Once we were through the entrance, we started to make our way along the muted, sandy path on foot and our excitement was building. As we neared the start of the Siq some carved tomb frontages began appearing. The rock around us changed colour, becoming striped red and orange. The narrow gorge winds its way approximately 1.2 kms and gently slopes downhill towards the ancient Nabatean city. We marvelled at carvings and ceremonial sites as we made our way deeper into the canyon. Suddenly, through the crack in which we were walking the first glimpse of the Treasury came into view.
I marvelled at this epic edifice, having dreamed of standing in this very spot since the first time I had watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is believed to have been the mausoleum of the Nabatean King Aretas IV in the 1st century AD. It became known, in Arabic as “Al-Khazneh”, or The Treasury, in the early 19th century by the area’s Bedouins as they had believed it contained treasures. We then continued towards the rest of the city and realised the vastness of what we were about to explore. Built in around 300BC it is estimated only 15% of Petra’s structures have been uncovered. We had chosen to spend 2 days at the main site rather than visit Little Petra on our first day and this was certainly the right decision. We walked along the main thoroughfare, stopping for a quick lunch at one of the many small cafes. Everywhere we looked we saw more carvings in the sandstone rockfaces.
We passed the Nabatean Theatre, Great Temple and Temple of Dushares among many other spectacular structures before reaching the beginning of the trail to the Monastery or “Ad-Deir”. This was a steep stone path, mostly of steps carved from the rock, dotted with makeshift stalls selling trinkets and tea. We dodged the Bedouin men mounted on their donkeys as they effortlessly raced past in both directions. At the end of the path the carved façade is not in front of you, but to your right and is suddenly there without warning! Although it is not as intricately carved, I found this structure more impressive than the Treasury, possibly due to its location or because I had never seen an image of it before it was in front of my own eyes.
We wanted to get to the viewpoint higher up before we needed to make our way back to meet the bus, so we missioned on to the top. It was well worth it and by the time we came down there was almost nobody else around. It was comforting to know we had another day to explore as we retraced our steps back past the Treasury and through the Siq.
We were back at the entrance the next morning and raring to go first thing. It was very noticeable how much quieter it was at this time and when we reached the Treasury there were just a few people milling around. We wanted to get the walking trails under our belts before the heat of the day. There are 4 trails on the tourist map of Petra, the main trail, the red trail “Ad-Deir” (we had done the previous day), the orange trail “Wadi al Farasa” on the left of the map which reaches the high point of sacrifice and continues through Wadi Farasa as it circles back to the main thoroughfare and the green trail “Al-Khubtha” to the right on the map, heading high to look down on the Treasury from the opposing cliff edge.
We had chosen to do the orange trail first, taking the steps by the amphitheatre which climbed through remarkable rock formations. At the obelisks a diversion off the main path took us to the High Place of Sacrifice, this well-preserved site was built atop Jebel Madbah with drains to channel the blood of sacrificial animals. The main trail continues leading down off the back of the mountain into Wadi Farasa, forming a loop that delivers you to the Qasr al-Bint (temple). This trail was a real highlight of the trip for me, home to the most breath-taking views and some of Petra’s most extraordinary rock-colouring, as well as the Nabatean architecture, with tombs to explore at every turn.
Determined to pack the day with as much of Petra as possible we had a quick refreshment then made our way to the Winged Loin Temple and Byzantine church to see the impressive mosaics before we embarked upon the green trail. This started with a look inside Urn Tomb, which has the most spectacular naturally striped rock ceiling, followed by Silk Tomb, Corinthian Tomb and Palace Tomb before continuing up. The path consisted of another set of steep stone steps which gradually wound their way into a rough track. Following arrows painted or etched into the rocks the Treasury finally came into view, making the uphill slog worth it. At the very end of the trail there was a small shelter, where the inhabitants were offering sweet tea. Seeing the elaborate structure from this standpoint brought a whole new perspective to the immense scale of the entire city.
The heat had set in and by the time we made it down to the main centre and we needed to collect ourselves! The pomegranate juice being freshly squeezed in huge brass presses did the job nicely. Taking full advantage of our surroundings we spent the rest of the day wandering the site, haggling with the Bedouin selling souvenirs and briefly chatting with the son of the author of ‘Married to a Bedouin’, who sells his mother’s book and jewellery on a stool opposite the amphitheatre.
Before we made our final exit through the Siq I stood in awe of the Treasury façade for a long time, making sure I had taken in every detail and ingrained it in my memory.
That afternoon we treated ourselves to a decadent meal at the Movenpick Hotel along the road. I tried Mansaf, the national dish, which is lamb cooked in a broth of fermented and dried yoghurt served with rice and of course flatbread, much nicer than it sounds! The dates here were the best I have ever eaten and the Jordanian Shiraz topped off a very special day nicely.
On the way to the Kings Highway as we departed Wadi Musa, we stopped at a simple modern three-domed building housing Moses’ Spring, this is one of two possible locations in Jordan for the site where Moses supposedly struck the rock with his staff and water gushed forth to the thirsty Israelites (the other possible site is near Mt Nebo).
We briefly stopped to view Shobak Castle, a Crusader castle located on a round hilltop of strategic importance due to the fact that it also dominated the main passage from Egypt to Syria allowing, whoever held the castle to tax traders as well as those who were on pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina.
Our journey then took us to Madaba a small market town and amongst its churches are some superb mosaics. The most famous of which is in the early Byzantine Church of St. George and is a 6th century mosaic map, part of which contains the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land. Considering its historical importance, it was surprising there was no barrier or cover protecting the mosaic and I could literally have stepped on it! The town itself is pleasant and full of shops selling silver jewellery, sand art and local sweets.
Our next stop was the Christian pilgrimage site of Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have been granted his first view of the Promised Land, which he would never enter. On a clear day pilgrims can see the The Dead Sea, the Jordan River valley, Jericho, Bethlehem and in the distance Jerusalem. A small church was built there in the 4th century to commemorate the end of Moses’ life and was enlarged in the late fifth century AD into a large basilica. Little remains of the early buildings, but the Byzantine mosaics are well preserved, especially one dating to 530, a hunting and herding scene interspersed with an assortment of African fauna, including a zebu, lions, tigers, bears, boars, zebras, an ostrich on a leash and a camel-shaped giraffe. This is said to have been preserved from earthquake damage and defacing by a false floor.
Our final day in Jordan took us first north to Jerash. With no preconceived expectations I was blown away by the sheer size and how intact this site was considering that the 749 Galilee earthquake destroyed large parts of it and subsequent earthquakes contributed to additional destruction. It is one of the best preserved Greco-Roman cities, with evidence of settlement as early as the Neolithic period.
At the far south is the striking Hadrian’s Arch, behind which is the hippodrome. This originally hosted chariot races holding up to 15,000 spectators and more recently ‘Top Gear’ during their Middle East Special! The South Gate, one of the original four along the city wall was built in 130 and leads into the main city. The forum is unusual because of its oval shape and huge size (90m long and 80m at its widest point). Fifty-six Ionic columns surround the paved limestone plaza and the colonnaded Cardo Maximus, a straight road paved with the original stones complete with cart wheel ruts, connects the elliptic square to the northern city gate.
There is too much to describe, but the Temple of Artemis, which towers over Jerash deserves a mention, it is dedicated to Artemis, the goddess of hunting and fertility and patron goddess of the city. We needed longer here to take it all in, but we had to leave many stones unturned to fit in our next port of call.
We arrived at the Dead Sea having driven into and back out of Amman in rush hour! But soon enough I was belly up floating to my heart’s content. I could have laid on my back for hours in the thick oily water. The banks of the Dead Sea are more than 400m below sea level, which makes it the lowest point on Earth and its hypersaline water makes it impossible to do anything but float. Take care not to get the water in your eyes or mouth!
We were back in Amman in time to have a final stroll around the hectic streets and catch a sight of Al-Husseini Mosque lit up at night before our final meal with the group at Restaurante Tawaheen Alhawa. This was the best meal of the trip, but I will never forget our charming waiter, his service was more of a comedic performance spoon feeding people, cutting fruit into animals with moving parts and generally encouraging us to overindulge!
Our return flight was on time and soon we were back at Heathrow feeling the chill of the English autumn once again!
Speak with me about visiting Jordan … and also Lebanon for even more Middle Eastern adventures as I’m headed there too in the next few days! – Camilla