In the lead-up to my Turkey Tour, an
international Internet vote for the New Seven Wonders of the World was
finalised and the winners announced. Petra was one of the winners; and, along
with the other winners, received considerable attention in the travel media. A
large spread in The Weekend Australian Travel Section caught my attention; and
suddenly Jordan became a ‘must’ for a visit as part of the Turkey tour.
The Jordan component started as a
three day trip focussed on Petra. But as my research expanded, the trip grew to
a week’s stay. It could easily have been longer; there was so much of interest.
But I limited myself to the week and, therefore had to forego some key sights.
The tour was undertaken in a car and
accompanied by Khalil, my local driver, guide and fixer. We travelled from Amman
along the King’s Highway to Karak Castle; then across to the main highway to
continue south, cutting back into the King’s Highway to visit Shawbak Castle
and the City of Petra. We returned to Amman on the main highway, but continued
through to Jerash before coming back to Amman.
Map of Jordan
Here is a
map of Jordan indicating the route I followed. You can interact with the map by
using the arrows and the + and – signs. You can also change to ‘sat’ or ‘Earth’
view and zoom in to better appreciate the terrain.
If you're a potential visitor, make
sure you follow the King's Highway south from Amman rather than the main desert
highway, at least, as far as Kerak.View Jordan in a larger map
Amman was the obvious starting point,
not least because that’s the only practicable arrival point by plane. It’s
mostly a modern city, but contains gems from times past. The most notable of
these are the citadel, with all the ruins and history spread across its
plateau, high above the city; and several items of the old Roman town of
Philadelphia that are clustered together at the foot of the citadel on its
south western side.
My first impression of Amman was a
city in monochrome. Every building seemed to have the same light beige hue.
They were packed so tightly that the whole city could have been a giant
Legoland. Closer-up, of course, as you wandered the streets of old Amman, you
came to appreciate the diversity hidden behind the monochrome facade.
Amman was an interesting mix of
antiquity, long-established traditions and modern living.
An early encounter with ordinary
Jordanians was being besieged by a group of 11-12 year old school girls wanting
to practise their English, which was already very good. Each had several
questions of me, mostly relating to what I thought of Jordan. They were all
very vivacious and engaging. I think the teacher hovering nearby was enjoying
the encounter as much as both the girls and I. Eventually she intervened but I
wasn’t sure if it was to rescue them or me.
The centre of modern Amman is a
bustling city of shops of all sorts, cafés, street sellers and people going
about their daily routines. I found several sights intriguing and worth
capturing on camera.
Mt first stop on venturing into Amman
was the Citadel, a complex of buildings, monuments and excavations atop a
veritable mountain in the middle of the city. Here the National Archaeological
Museum featured several unique treats, such as statues from an early Neolithic
village, Ain Ghazal, near Amman. The statues are reputed to be the earliest statues anywhere in the world. Columns from the Temple of Hercules dominate the
site and can be seen from all over Amman. Of most significance is the Palace
site, whose centre piece is a large domed Audience Hall. A colonnaded street
leads to the Audience Hall, which was thought to be the link between the Palace
and the rest of the city. The site provides an important insight into
architecture of the Umayyad dynasty. Another eye-catching ruin nearby are the
remnants of an early Byzantine church dating from the 6th or 7th century. You
can see pictures of all these in the slide show at the bottom of this page.
From the Citadel, you can pretty much
see all of Amman, but you look directly down to the centre of the old Roman
town of Philadelphia, marked by the huge Roman theatre and the sprawling Roman
forum or open market place. I walked down the hill from the Citadel and
investigated the forum and theatre, the latter with its surprise embellishments
of back-stage venues, now galleries and museums.
The venture out of Amman began with
Mt Nebo about 40kms southwest of Amman and high up over the Dead Sea and Jordan
Valley. From a viewing area at Mt Nebo, you have spectacular views of the
northern end of the Dead Sea and across the Jordan River to Jericho, some say
the oldest city in the world; and the West Bank territory, of such contemporary
political sensitivity. Had the day been less hazy, you would have seen all the
way to Jerusalem.
A curiosity that caught my
imagination was to be looking across the Jordan (river) and being on the side
of it that had come to be known through various epochs as Transjordan or Oultre
Jourdain – implying “the other side of or beyond the Jordan.” All depends on
where one is standing, I guess.
Looking out over the Jordan Valley
would have been impressive in any context, but it was all the more so – and
moving – to ponder the scene knowing the deep-rooted Jewish, Christian and
Islamic reverence for Moses and the significance of his history to these three
great monotheist religions. You were looking across to the Holy Land, which, by
whatever name, is sacred today to all three religions. Mt Nebo was as far as
Moses got leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. The Brazen Serpent
Monument, inspired in part by the bronze serpent Moses created in the desert,
is probably about the spot from where Moses viewed the Promised Land. He was
forbidden to venture into it, however, as punishment for his doubts along the
40 year route from Egypt. He died somewhere in the vicinity.
I was particularly struck by the rugged,
desolate, uninviting nature of the countryside: rock, steep slopes, dry and
brown, except for some greenery in the distance around Jericho and along the
river. There were no lush, rolling hills or fertile valleys. Yet this was the
Promised Land, the land of milk and honey, the land the Israelites had been
dreaming of and aspiring to for 40 years. I couldn’t help thinking that you’d
have had to be wandering aimlessly and desperately in the desert of 40 years to
think this was anything close to what you might have been led to believe was
the Promised Land!
A short distance back towards Amman
is the town of Madaba, know today for its fabulous mosaics, the most famous
being a mosaic map of the Middle East in the church of St George.
The town has an interesting story. More
than 3,000 years ago, Madaba was a border town of the biblical kingdom of the
Moabites. A Christian community existed there around 450 AD. The Persian
invasion in the 7th century AD and an earthquake in the 8th
century AD resulted in the town being virtually abandoned until the late 19th
century. In 1880, Muslim tribes expelled Christians from Al Karak, much further
south, who then made their way to Madaba, but were allowed by the Ottomans to
occupy only sites of former Christian churches. It was this series of events
that uncovered the treasure of Madaba’s mosaics.
Early Christian monks, on settling in
the region from the 5th century or earlier discovered clay and stone
that they recognised from their experience and expertise to be well suited for
mosaics. They obviously set about creating them with great gusto, given the
virtual treasure trove that eventually emerged after only a few hundred years
of early Christian occupation.
The mosaic map of the Middle East in
the church of St George was discovered in 1896 and has been dated at about the
middle of the 6th century AD (gleaned from the presence and absence
on the map of certain buildings in Jerusalem whose dates of erection are
documented elsewhere). The original map would have been about 25m x 5 m and
would have contained more than 2 million mosaic stones.
Madaba today is a changing city. It
has lots of recently constructed elaborate homes – a result of the influx of
over 1m people from Iraq following the war in that country, who have bought
land from the Bedouin owners.
Heading further south might have been
a different experience than it was owing to some gaps in my local knowledge. My
research had indentified the historic significance of the King’s Highway, said
to be the world’s oldest continually used road, which dates back to prehistoric
times. It’s reputed that Abraham trod this path; and Moses is documented as
requesting permission from the King of Edom to use it during his Exodus trek.
The King’s Highway started at
Heliopolis in Egypt, came across the Sinai to Aqaba and then turned north to run
along the Rift Valley through Al-Karak to Madaba, Amman, Jerash and onto
Damascus and beyond. On my subsequent Tour of Turkey, I would learn of trade
via chariots between the Hittites, whose kingdom was centred in Bogazkale in
today’s Turkey, and Rameses II of Egypt; and the meeting of their kingdoms at
Kadesh (in today’s Syria), with the Treaty of Kadesh setting the border. All
this would have been along the King’s Highway.
Travelling the King’s Highway today
is, of course, a very different experience to bygone eras. There’s a bitumen
road to follow. In days long past, there would have been a series of goat
tracks changing their precarious way through the mountains and valleys to
accommodate floods, landslides and hostile tribes.
I had assumed that retracing ancient
journeys would be part of my tour south. However the driver had other ideas.
His preference was to take the new super Desert Highway. We negotiated and
compromised. We would take the King’s Highway to Al-Karak (Karak Castle); and
then revert to the Desert Highway before turning back to the King’s Highway to
Petra. We would return to Amman on the Desert Highway. And so we did.
Not too far into the King’s Highway
from Madaba, we first went through some fertile plains before plunging into what
many tourist books call Jordan’s Grand Canyon – a deep canyon gouged by
millennia of raging torrents heading for the Dead Sea. Some unimaginable
millennia ago, the valley itself was part of a sea, evidenced by an abundance
of sea-life fossils. You could buy pieces of such fossils at any of the
look-out points along the way. For miles, the narrow road of the King’s Highway
snakes down the canyon walls through several switch-backs to the very bottom,
crosses a dam wall which stores a mass of water from running away to the
salt-infused Dead Sea, then traces a similar pattern up the other side and
finally onto the high flats. After emerging from the valley, we passed several
historically significant but visually uninspiring ruins until we got to Karak.
Karak (also spelt Kerak) Castle was a
real treat. Its grandeur, complexity and history were mesmerising.
My introduction to Karak Castle – and
subsequent interest in it – stemmed from the movie The Kingdom of Heaven, which
depicted a segment of time from a long and tortuous period of East/West
history. The movie is set in the period between the second and third crusades
and seeks to capture the politics of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem leading up
to the Battle of the Horns of Hattin, in which Salahuddin defeated the crusader
armies and later re-took Jerusalem. There seem to be lots of historical
deficiencies in the movie but it features Karak Castle as the location of a
(fictional, I think) meeting between King Baldwin and Salahuddin. The
arch-villain of the movie, the manipulative and treacherous Reynald de
Châtillon took possession of Karak Castle and made it his base for essentially
defying the truce with Salahuddin. Salahuddin laid siege to Karak more than
once, eventually succeeding in capturing it after his victory at Hattin where
he had executed Reynald. A fictional account of one of the sieges was depicted
in the movie. (I should say that the movie was filmed in Morocco, so the real
Karak wasn’t in the movie.)
There was a time – at the height of
the power of Karak Castle – when the city was entirely within its walls, but
most of the city is now sprawled over a large surrounding area. The castle and
most of the city are perched on a high triangular ridge, with the main part of
the castle at its apex. A dry ditch separates the bastion part of the castle
from the old city that had been within its walls. Most of the city walls have
been quarried over the years to build houses and other buildings.
The bastion part of the castle has
huge sections of walls, internal chambers, corridors, basements and battlements
in a decent state of repair – certainly enough to appreciate the lay-out,
structure and what one source described as the “Crusaders' architectural
military genius”. The castle even today is a formidable structure, but is a mix
of crusader and later Mameluk architecture (the Mameluks were a powerful
military caste of people of Turkic origin that came to control many parts of
the Levant). It’s easy to conjure up just how impressive and intimidating the
castle must have been.
Having read a first hand of the
experience of a siege of Karak, you could feel and hear the siege as you crept
along sometimes totally darkened passage ways deep in the bowels of the castle
(I took the advice of a guide book and brought along a torch). Looking through
the arrow-shooting and oil-pouring slits in the battlements, it seemed to be
hundred of metres to the steeply inclined ground below which dropped further into
the valley. I wondered from what direction did Salahuddin come and how did his
siege engines reach the battlements? In the Kingdom of Heaven depiction of a
siege of Karak, all the surrounding ground was flat – quite different from the
reality of Karak.
A short distance from the central
section of the castle, there was a smaller part whose chambers had been
converted into a museum. Having visited it, one of the elderly keepers invited
me to follow him across a courtyard surrounded by a high stone wall whose arrow
slits provided a panoramic view down the Karak Valley to the Dead Sea. As I
gazed down the valley, I suddenly remembered reading that it was in this same
valley, closer to the Dead Sea, that Sodom and Gomorrah were thought to have
been located. On the other side of the courtyard was a rock building with a
large padlocked door. Ho opened it and we ventured down a flight of stairs into
a network of chambers, the main one of which was the length of a football
stadium – or so it seemed – with a rough-hewn vaulted ceiling. It was described
alternatively as a meeting hall or banquet hall. It was confrontingly huge and
located well below even the lower level of the castle. I thought this was something special. It’s
likely not on the regular tours but it was suggested in someone’s write-up that
you should ask to be taken there.
From Karak, we turned off the King’s
Highway and travelled along the wider Desert Highway to the turn-off to Petra (or,
more accurately, the town of Wadi Musa). This took us first to the town of Ash
Shawbak and the unexpected visit to ‘Shawbak Crusader Fortress’.
Along with Karak Castle and others,
Shawbak was one of a string of crusader castles and staging posts spread out at
distances that allowed them to signal at night to the next that they were
secure; and so inform Jerusalem that its Transjordan (or Oultrejourdain) line
My guide book said that this fortress
“is probably the most spectacular of Jordan’s crusader castles.” I wasn’t
convinced of this, having just visited Karak Castle, but the lack of any other
edifices in the vicinity certainly gave you a clear view of the of exact
perimeter, shape and structure of the castle, although given its state of
disrepair, the structure was evident only in a broad sense.
Shawbak Crusader Fortress is perched
on top of an almost symmetrically moulded hill of rocks and sparse ground
cover, exactly as it would have in the 12th century. Nothing of the
surrounds would have changed much. Its position on top of such a well-defined
hill was the key to its being such a spectacular example of a crusader castle.
It sat there like a toupee on a bald head. Its walls hugged the perimeter around
the summit at a distance from the rounded peak to allow sufficient space within
the walls to house its garrison and whatever other occupants it supported and
The castle today is very much a
scattered set of ruins but with recognisable outlines and providing insights to
what it would have looked like. There were still more or less intact various
vaulted ceilings, chambers, corridors and other storage or secret rooms. There
was no tourist lighting at all, so my torch was even more essential than it was
at Karak. One cavern I peered into with the help of the torch and the camera’s
flash, a seemingly endless tunnel, was, in fact, an escape tunnel descending
some 300m to outlets around the base of the hill.
The castle was built by King Baldwin
I of Jerusalem but became part of the “Lordship of Oultre Jourdain” centred on
Karak and so also came under Reynald de Châtillon, who used it to attack rich
caravans that previously passed unharmed. Salahuddin laid siege to the castle several
times before finally taking it. Its location on top of a steeply sloped hill
had prevented Salahuddin from using his siege engines.
As with Karak, the castle was later
captured and re-built by Mameluks.
The lure of Petra was the trigger for
planning the trip to Jordan; and here, finally, we drove into the town of Wadi
Musa, the launching spot for visits to Petra. I booked to stay three nights in
Wadi Musa and spent two very full days traipsing and poring over as much of
Petra as I could cover in that time. Every minute and every step were well
The city is very spread out, with
parts on a flat plain area and many key sections on surrounding mountains, on
the top of high cliffs and along gorges. The first day was the quieter one. I
was with a guide and group and followed the agenda with them. On the second
day, I was alone and covered some 14kms on foot over every imaginable type of
terrain. With the three enormous hill climbs involved, I reckoned I had done
the equivalent of the Blue Mountains (Katoomba NSW) Giant Staircase about three
The most famous part of Petra, aided
by its feature role in Indiana Jones and
the Last Crusade, is the Treasury or, more accurately, the Khazneh
(Al-Khazneh): the colonnaded facade carved into a high rock cliff. While it may
well be the most famous and most beautiful of Petra’s monuments, it is only one
of the countless edifices and monuments that constitute Petra.
While settlements around Petra can be
traced back to more than 1,000 years BC, the city complex of Petra itself dates
from around the 5th century BC when the Nabataeans, an industrious
Arab people, moved into the area and constructed their capital there. They
controlled a network of trade and commerce reaching to Africa, India and China.
It came under Roman rule around 100AD
and fell into decline owing to changing trade routes. It became, in effect, a
lost city until a Swiss traveller rediscovered it in 1812.
It was a 2 minute walk from my hotel
to the visitors’ centre and entrance to the Petra site. Fortunately, because
the guide had to come and fetch me since I mistakenly thought we were meeting a
half hour later. The relatively small group I was joining were kind in their
Once through the entrance gate, the
first part of the walk to Petra is along a sandy, rocky path of almost a
kilometre to the beginning of the Siq (Al-Siq) – a narrow gorge that winds its
way 1.2km through rock walls hundreds of metres high until it delivers you to
the Khazneh. Actually, our group made this first part of the journey on horse
back. That was obviously just part of the deal!
The Siq is a totally natural
formation, although the Nabateans had widened it in parts. Apart from the
towering walls, which blotted out the sun in sections, there was also the
fascinating demonstration of the Nabateans’ remarkable skill for hydraulics.
All along the sides of the walls were a trough (on one side) and the remnants
of clay piping (on the other side) – both of which were used to carry water to
As the Siq approaches its end, it
narrows to become almost impenetrable in terms of forward vision, thus teasing
the viewer with glimpses of what lies ahead until the full view of the Khazneh
emerges in stunning brilliance.
Al-Khazneh (The Treasury)
The first view of the Khazneh was almost
unbelievable. I was stunned as much by the realisation of being in Petra as by
the view of the unique and dazzling sight of the Treasury, which is the more familiar
name to Western tourists. I don’t think I took much in of what the guide was
saying. Then I didn’t really need to. I’d done enough research to get me
through. I stood deafly absorbing the grandeur while the guide talked about it
with undoubted familiar eloquence.
If you’re an Indiana Jones fan, this
is probably the time to break the bad news that there isn’t any Holy Grail
inside the Khazneh. No ancient Knight from the crusades. No labyrinths or booby
traps. In fact, there isn’t anything apart from a single chamber on the other
side of the entrance. The whole monument is a façade.
On my first day there, I had to
contend with large numbers of tourists, but arriving an hour earlier on the
second day, I had the Khazneh pretty much to myself. Over the two days, I
managed to see it in various lights and from different vantage points,
including from the high cliffs above.
Façades, Theatre and Royal Tombs
From the area of the Khazneh, flows
the Outer Siq – a much wider gorge that morphs into the Street of Façades, a
thoroughfare bounded by tombs of important Nabateans carved out from the rock
cliffs. At the end of the street, off to the left, is what looks like a Roman
Theatre – and it is in design, except that it was built by the Nabateans, but
after the Romans had taken control of Petra. Unlike most Roman theatres, this
one is carved into the solid rock, providing another example of the knack the
Nabateans had for working with solid rock faces.
Beyond the Street of Façades, off to the
right against high cliff walls are the Royal Tombs. Some are particularly
ornate, although erosion seems to have taken hold in many places. The largest, called the Urn Tomb, was altered
in the 5th century AD to convert it into a Byzantine church. It was
quite a climb to get access to the tombs, particularly the Urn Tomb. Most of
the detailed exploring had to be done on Day 2, as the Day 1 tour was more of
an overview. But that worked well.
The main street, so called, would
have been the heart of city activity. It’s particularly demarcated by the
remains of a colonnaded street, off to the sides of which are areas of markets
and what were once magnificent temples. At one end of the colonnaded street are
the remnants of the free-standing Temenos Gate, which was the main entrance to
the central sacred complex of Petra.
The areas that once housed great
temples still impress immensely despite there not being a lot of superstructure
except in some places. I found myself sitting and trying to comprehend the
enormity of the structures that once existed and the bustling life that must
have thrived in and around this main street area.
Ad-Deir, referred to as the
Monastery, is on the top of one of the many surrounding hills – more like
mountains. To get to Ad-Deir is a climb up some 800 steps carved into the rock,
including somewhat precarious walks along narrow paths. But the reward is worth
it. Ad-Deir is probably second only to the Khazneh in being the most impressive
and most visited of structures. There was the option of hiring a donkey ride,
but I walked (or climbed!).
High Place of
The High Place of Sacrifice was
definitely a visit only for Day 2: another, separate mountain climb, even more
precarious than getting to Ad-Deir. It took some time and effort to get to the
top. One advantage was that you could descend a different way, providing
opportunities to see a variety of rock-carved shines, tombs and houses on the
alternative way down. This I later learned was the more dangerous ‘back way’
which most tourists didn’t venture along.
The High Place of Sacrifice was
carved out on the very peak of a high rock mountain. It consisted of an
open-air altar, with drainage channels (for blood), where they performed ritual
killings of animals. I recall reading that, while they had their own deities
and sacrificial ceremonies, preserved over centuries, they succumbed to
Christianity sometime around the 4th century.
Quite near the High Place of
Sacrifice was another mound of crumbling rock that supported a brick wall of
sorts and a few other decaying structures. It was scary getting to it. I
recorded at the time that they were probably the remains of some crusader
outpost. There was a crusader castle definitely marked on a map but it was on
another ridge. Later I came across references to the mysterious structures
being houses for the priests. I haven’t tried to resolve the issue. I rather
fancied the crusader option. The outpost, if it were such, would have been
cold, bleak, lonely, with no easy access to sustenance, but with great views
all round of any and every route that armies would have had to take to pass by.
There were so many places to visit in
and around Petra I felt sure I could have spent a couple more days there.
However, I didn’t have that option. After descending from the High Place of
Sacrifice, with the little energy remaining, I ventured up the mountain behind
the Royal Tombs. There were some other tombs along the way but mostly it was a
steep, relentless climb. The attraction was having read about a goat track to
the top of the cliff overlooking the Khazneh. By the time I got to the top I
had lost all sense of direction and, with the track virtually indiscernible, I
was ready to retreat when a couple of people appeared and steered me in the
right direction. I got to a point where you could see that the top of the cliff
was a few steps across a deeply eroded section of the path, such as it was, and
then up and over a rounded expanse of rock. By the time I got to the last bit
of rock, despite seeing (or perhaps because of it) a few brave souls standing
on the edge looking way down to the Khazneh, I was stricken with vertigo and
jelly legs. That was where I resorted to the well-tried, pre-toddler mechanism
of the hand-propelled, bottom scrape. Even then, it was a matter of taking a
few photos and retreating rather than savouring the sight. I eventually did savour the sight but from a
more feet-on-terra-firma position.
One last comment: on every mountain
top, in addition to the special attractions mentioned, there were often large
cisterns carved into the solid rock – all part of the Nabateans’ elaborate and
efficient water management systems.
From Petra, it was a drive straight
up the Desert Highway, through Amman and further north onto Jerash. Jerash vies
with Ephesus, which I would visit on the Turkey tour, as being the most
extensive and best preserved Roman ruins outside Italy; and it certainly didn’t
I was offered a guide, which
seemingly was already included in the package, but declined for this tour.
Sometimes they are very useful and helpful, but often enough they can talk at
you with detail you don’t need to know and won’t retain beyond the visit. The
alternative, of course, does require a lot more research and effort on my part;
and I wasn’t as well equipped for Jerash as I had been for the other stops in
Jordan. But I still figured I had enough to appreciate the magnificence and
wonder of the city; and appreciate its days of grandeur.
The site was, indeed, extensive; and
that was the excavated and reconstructed part. There was just as much again of
more crumbing ruins that would inevitably reveal other splendours over time. The
lay-out was of a main colonnaded street with crossing side streets, along which
were monuments, temples, houses and a huge central plaza. However, Jerash
wasn’t all simply utilitarian. It also housed two theatres and a hippodrome, as
well as the ornaments of all towns, such as the public fountain or nymphaeum.
The tourist entry to Jerash was
through a huge arch built to commemorate a visit by the Emperor Hadrian in 129
AD. The city had really taken off from the time of its inclusion in the Roman
Empire several decades before that. The arch still dominates the site today.
The hippodrome looked splendid with
its sandy surface, looking more like a contemporary speedway than a horse
racing course. But it was mostly a forum for chariot races and gladiator fights.
In fact, there were shows of such events to watch but I gave that a miss,
assuming that they would have provided as much reality as the jousting
demonstrations that turn up at school fêtes and country festivals.
A particular treat was the incongruity
of a Jordanian Pipes and Drums band in one of the Roman theatres – obviously a
legacy of the days of the British Mandate over Jordan. It did provide a
revealing demonstration of the acoustics of a Roman theatre, the sound being
equally clear at ground level as in the very top stalls. You can enjoy their
performance in the video clips below.
Slide Show of
Here is a slide show of my Jordan tour.