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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 identified 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 Boğazkale 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 hundreds 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 Oultre jourdain) line was secure.
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 safeguarded.
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 worthwhile.
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 times.
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 forbearance.
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 horseback. 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 the city.
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.
Street of 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.
The Monastery (Ad-Deir)
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 Sacrifice
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 disappoint.
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.
Here is the photo album on my tour of Jordan