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Cross-Roads of the Middle East - Jordan

Holiday in Jordan from Apr 17 to 28, 2013. Toured the length of the country - Umm-Qais in the north to Aqaba in the south and everything in between. We loved the country, it's people and all it had to offer by way of culture, art, history and food.

sunny 30 °C
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Photo Collection - http://www.flickr.com/photos/nileshkorgaokar/collections/72157633423887973/

When the taxi driver, in heavily accented English, cracks jokes before he has even deposited your luggage in the boot, you can be forgiven for thinking that he might be a particularly funny guy. Then you are met with the same good humor a few hours after you have checked into your hotel – from the café owner that you drop into for Arabic coffee, the assistant at the bakery that you enter because you can see mountains of Arabic bread being churned out from somewhere beneath, from the burly smiling guy behind the mounds of baklava and kunafa, when the Palestinian shop-owner can sing ‘Bol Radha, Bol Sangam’ – you are convinced that a great holiday with some of the friendliest people in the world is about to unfold.

For thousands of years, the Silk Route and the Christian & Islamic pilgrim routes to Jerusalem and Mecca crisscrossed thru what is now Jordan. The region has been a battleground for the Crusades and over the past couple of thousand years has been ruled by the Nabataens, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Ottomans. Lawrence of Arabia fought with the Arabs for the liberation of this land from the Ottomans. As a result the country is a smorgasbord of influences from these cultures and conflicts. Add to that Biblical tales - Moses shown the Promised Land from Mt Nebo, Jesus baptized in the Jordan Valley....you begin to get the drift as to why this country must feature on top of your ‘go to’ list.

As the taxi pulls out of the airport towards Madaba, you do notice the lack of trees – but this is more than made up by the wonderfully undulating nature of the countryside, the rolling green wheat fields and the olive groves. Most of the villages and towns were perched on ‘tells’ – basically hummocks. We decided to begin our 11-day tour of Jordan at Madaba instead of Amman. Since our flight had landed at 4 pm at the spanking new terminal at Queen Alia International Airport, we had enough time to saunter downtown from the hotel after checking in. My wife, Dhana, was awe-struck by the bakery right in front of the hotel that, 24 hours a day, churned out various kinds of Arabic bread by the hundreds. It seems nobody, including hotels, makes any bread – they buy it from such bakeries. ‘Why can’t some marketing whizz introduce this concept in India – we wouldn’t have to labor at making chapatis’, were her words.

After wandering about some more – just checking out the shops, meeting a few more friendly local souls – we decided to dine at Haret Jdoudna set in one of Madaba’s old restored houses it’s a favorite restaurant with locals and tourists. We feasted on traditional Jordanian food – mezze, falafel, mansaf (lamb cooked in yogurt and served with rice) and magloubbeh (similar to biriyani but yet uniquely different). On the way back we stopped by the sweet shop for kunafa (pastry over goat cheese baked in syrup). Sounds deliciously decadent – and it is – cholesterol chaos at its best (or worst)!

Madaba – the Christian town of Churches and Mosaics
In many respects Madaba is a typical East Bank town which differs in one major aspect: underneath almost every house lies a fine Byzantine mosaic. Many of these mosaics have been excavated and are on display in the town's museum, but it is estimated that many more lie hidden waiting to be discovered. Madaba's chief attraction – in the contemporary Greek Orthodox church of St. George – is a wonderfully vivid, 6th-century

Byzantine mosaic map showing the entire region from Jordan and Palestine in the north, to Egypt in the south. This map includes a fascinating plan of Jerusalem: on the left is the north gate from which two colonnaded streets run south. On the straight street through the heart of the city stands the domed Holy Sepulcher. Clearly inscribed above the north and east gates is the legend "Holy City of Jerusalem".

Other mosaic masterpieces found in the church of the Virgin and the Apostles and the Archaeological Museum, depict a rampant profusion of flowers and plants, birds and fish, animals and exotic beasts, as well as scenes from mythology and everyday pursuits of hunting, fishing and farming. Literally, hundreds of other mosaics from the 5th through the 7th centuries are scattered throughout Madaba's churches and homes.

All these places are within walking distance of each other and if you go to the Visitor Center (all tourist attractions in Jordan seem to have one) you can get a map but no guidance. Next to the Visitor Center is a Mosaic Restoration Center which is also worth a visit. One of the youngsters there was happy to explain to us how a mosaic is put together – right from stone cutting to gluing the pieces to form the desired pattern.

In the afternoon we took a taxi to Mt Nebo from where Moses, after wandering in the Sinai for 40 years with his flock, was shown (but forbidden to enter) the Promised Land. There is a church that is under restoration and more mosaics. At the ‘exact spot’ that looks out over the Dead Sea valley and where Moses stood, is a slab that points to the various cities currently in the occupied West Bank – Bethlehem, Jericho, Nablus, etc. On that afternoon, the sun shone thru heavy cloud cover in vivid rays and added to the drama of the story that the guide (again funny) was narrating. Moses is supposed to have died on Mt Nebo at the age of 120 but the exact location of his grave is still a mystery.

Dead Sea and the King’s Highway
After Madaba the plan was to head south. There are three Highways by which you can do this – The Dead Sea, The King’s and the Desert Highway. Since we had chalked out our route, in consultation with our driver, we agreed to switch between the roads as required. The Dead Sea is a unique global phenomenon formed because of the ultra-high salinity of the water and no outlet. The ‘to do’ thing about this location is the spa treatment and the mud baths that all hotels offer. We had unanimously agreed that we would give this the go-by but still drive by the sea. After breakfast we climbed down from Madaba via Mt Nebo and on to the Dead Sea Highway. The heavily salt encrusted shore of the sea at one of the public beaches where we took a brief halt speaks for itself. “Dead Sea Minerals” is a ubiquitous expression across Jordan and it will stare at you in almost every shop. Their extensive use in almost all products like soaps, creams, bathing salts and may be a cause for the level of the sea being reduced by up to 30% in the last couple of decades.

After having been there but not having done that, we headed for Dana Biosphere Reserve run by The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (rscn.org.jo), an independent voluntary organization devoted to the conservation of Jordan's natural resources. On the way we made halts at Mukawir and Al-Kerak.

At Mukawir atop a stark promontory overlooking the Dead Sea are the ruins of the Palace of Herod the Great, supposedly the site of the execution of John the Baptist. There’s a great photo op just beyond the village as you approach the Visitor Center. Hike up the hillock in about 20 mins and in all probability you will be alone with the ghosts of Herod, his brother Philip, Herodias and Salome who danced and demanded John’s head on a platter for condemning the marriage of her mother with Herod. A strong wind blows thru the few Corinthian columns and the keep of what may have been church to add to the eeriness of the place. It takes a little bit of imagination to re-construct what must have been a small but grand palace-cum-fortress, the intrigues that went on, the battles for domination, the rebuilding, and the final destruction by the Romans in 72 AD.

We then switched to the King’s Highway; an ancient route mentioned in the Bible that winds its way south thru the different ecological zones of the country, including forested highlands, open farmland plateaus and deep ravines. On the way to the famous crusader castle of Al-Kerak we stopped for a while to admire at what is termed the Grand Canyon of Jordan – Wadi Mujib – also the site to trap water from springs for this severely water stressed country.

The magnificent Crusader fortress of Al-Kerak soars above its valleys and hills like a great ship riding waves of rock. Kerak's origins go back long before the Crusades but it was the Crusaders who made Kerak famous. The fortress was built in 1142 on the remains of earlier citadels, which date back to Nabataean times. Kerak was made the new capital of the province, for it was superbly situated on the King's Highway, where it could control all traffic from north and south and grow rich by the imposition of road-tolls. The castle in itself is more imposing than beautiful, though it is all the more impressive as an example of the Crusaders' architectural military genius. Each stronghold was built to be a day's journey from its neighbor. At night, a beacon was lit at each castle to signal to Jerusalem that it was safe.

Even if you have a book with a map of Kerak, it’s better to hire a guide to show you around and make sure that you don’t miss its highlights. There are extensive signposts in English that make interesting reading as you stand right in front of a particular place. The upper levels are attributed to the Crusader period, and the staircases leading to the underground level of the upper courtyard provide access to Mamluk architecture complexes, most of which were probably associated with a palace. Among these ruins is a well-preserved school with an adjoining mosque. It was not until the end of 1188, after a siege of more than a year that Kerak finally surrendered to the Muslims.

Kerak is still a largely Christian town, and many of today's Christian families trace their origins back to the Byzantines. There is a small but interesting museum which is worth a visit.

Dana Biosphere Reserve
Amongst the many nature conversation projects run by the RSCN, this one is the most famous and well known. There are a few eco-lodges that provide accommodation and we chose to stay at Feynan Eco Lodge (feynan.com). To get to Feynan, you have the choice of getting to Dana village and then hiking for 5 – 6 hours to Feynan or get to their reception center 8 km away in your car and they will ferry you to Feynan in a 4-wheel drive because of the terrain. The Lodge uses solar power for water heating and candles at night for lighting. Obviously there is no TV or Internet but cell-phones had connectivity throughout. All meals are vegetarian and served in their dining room only.

The Lodge enables the local Bedouin community and a large part of the staff is from the vicinity. They offer various activities (graded 1 to 4 on difficulty) during the day like full-day and half-day hikes in the wadis as well as Bedouin Activity and sunset & sunrise walks. These walks give you a sense of the surrounding wilderness – stark, arid, treeless and stony but in its own way splendid. The guides during these outdoor activities are young Bedouins and having grown up in and around are able to explain the Bedouin way, the flora & fauna. During our half-day hike in Wadi Dana our guide, Ahmed, told us, apart from other things, how oleander leaves were used as ‘goat shampoo’, how herds of goat could be trained to behave to various flute tunes and how to make soap from a local bush. While returning we were very fortunate to witness the poignant sight a new born lamb being tended to by its mother. Its coat was still wet and its umbilical cord was still intact.

The Lodge itself is a fine piece of architecture with mud exteriors and protruding wooden stakes resembling an arabesque chalet. Each of the 26 rooms boasts of a different view of the surrounding mountains and a terrace offers remarkable views of Wadi Feynan. The interiors are also tastefully done and at night the mud walls and terra-cotta-like flooring reflects the numerous candles suggesting a fine flash-less photo op. For an arid landscape, however, the mosquitos at night were out in sufficient numbers to force us to use the nets provided.

As a nature experience, if you are used to mountains, streams, greenery, extensive flora and fauna, then Dana may disappoint. There isn’t much wildlife, very little water and no greenery. All I saw was a Spectacled Bulbul and a Tristram’s Starling . The dramatically gouged sandstone rock-faces that may have inspired Gaudi’s Church at Barcelona are present even in Wadi Rum which in addition has an even more awesome desert-scape. In hindsight, there are other places like Petra where we would have spent a day or two more.

‘To Aqaba’
As Lawrence of Arabia urged his Arab band, to Aqaba was where we headed next for a little rest and relaxation after three days of continuous outdoor activity. Aqaba is Jordan’s toe-hold on the Red Sea in an otherwise landlocked nation. Presciently King Abdullah traded about 6,000 sq km of desert with Saudi Arabia for a further 12 km of coastline. As a result the country has been able to exploit the exceptionally bright blue and crystal clear waters of Red Sea to build some beautiful resorts and marinas in Tala Bay south of Aqaba. We stayed at the Mövenpick Tala Bay rested our feet and took a ride in a glass-bottom boat on one day. One two evenings we went to Aqaba and walked around the town, the market place, the coffee shops, the beach and the ruins of the old city of Ayla. Determined to eat fish cooked Jordanian-style, on our last day we dined at Ocean Fresh Restaurant on sambousek (samosas) and Sayyadeih – fish baked with light spices and served with brown rice. Needless to say it was as delicious as it was fresh from the Red Sea.

Wadi Rum – Lawrence of Arabia Country
Wadi Rum is probably best known because of its connection with the enigmatic British officer T.E. Lawrence, who was based here during the Great Arab Revolt of 1917-18, and as the setting for the film that carried his name - "Lawrence of Arabia". A journey to Wadi Rum is a journey to another world. A vast, silent place, timeless and starkly beautiful. It’s one of Jordan's main tourist attractions being the most stunning desertscape in the World. Uniquely shaped massive mountains rise vertically out of the pink desert sand, which separate one dark mass from another in magnificent desert scenery of strange breathtaking beauty, with towering cliffs of weathered stone. The faces of the sheer rock cliffs have been eroded by the wind into faces of men, animals and monsters.

Although there are numerous ways in which you can enjoy Wadi Rum – camping, trekking, camel rides – we chose a 4-hour ride thru some of the main locations by 4-wheel drive. Those who have seen David Lean’s film will be able to relate to some of the landmarks like Lawrence’s spring, miles of scorching sand, camels and the complete lack of any shade. On the way out we even saw a small train – small steam locomotive, black wooden carriages – almost exactly like the one that Lawrence ambushes in the film. I was too tired to stop and capture the image – my only regret from the entire trip.

Petra – Nabataean Capital
Petra is, of course, the jewel in Jordan’s crown. Though we spent a day and a half here and didn’t miss anything significant, if I were to go again I would spend two whole days. Wadi Musa is the town that has sprung up around Petra and boasts of 55 hotels – a tribute to the popularity of Petra. There are several close to the Visitor Center. We stayed at the Mövenpick – barely 300 m from the entrance to the Center.

Although the Visitor Center opens at 6 am, we began the 2 km walk thru the Siq (a long, cool, and gloomy chasm) at about 8.30 am. If we had known better, perhaps, we would have planned to reach The Treasury (Al-Khazanneh) in time to catch the first rays of the sun. The approach through the Siq whose steeply rising sides all but obliterate the sun, provides a dramatic contrast with the delight to come. Suddenly the gorge opens into a natural square dominated by Petra's most famous monument, The Treasury who’s intricately carved facade glows in the dazzling sun. All this is well known but still doesn’t prepare you for the eventual experience. Seeing as they say is believing. And this is only the beginning.

The Petra basin boasts over 800 individual monuments, including buildings, tombs, baths, funerary halls, temples, arched gateways, and colonnaded streets, that were mostly carved from the kaleidoscopic sandstone by the technical and artistic genius of its inhabitants. Petra’s sights are at their best in early morning and late afternoon, when the sun warms the multicolored stones, you can view the majesty of Petra as it was seen first when discovered in 1812 after being lost for almost 300 years. More facades beckon the visitor on until the ancient city gradually unfolds, one monument leading to the next for kilometer after kilometer. The sheer size of the city and the quality of beautifully carved facades is staggering and leads one to reflect on the creativity and industry of the Nabataens who made Petra their capital. Petra is always breathtaking, and never to be forgotten. It flourished for over 400 years around the time of Rome and Christ, until it was occupied by the Roman legions of the Emperor Trajan in 106 AD. Not to be missed, if you have the time, is Petra’s neighbor, Little Petra which is about 30 mins from Wadi Musa. Both these places are extensively signposted and there is so much to absorb, its best to do some reading before venturing. Guides are expensive and we did without them. Donkeys and horse carriages are available for transportation and are useful to get back uphill to the Visitor Center after a day’s sightseeing.

Every other night there is the ‘Petra by Night’ show when at about 8.30 pm The Treasury is bathed in candlelight from the courtyard. It is a photo op not to be missed. A tripod and a good camera will be required to capture the magical moment when the sandstone glows a dark pink from the tiny flames of hundreds of candles. A narration of Nabataean tales with some music for about 30 mins adds to the fairy-tale like atmosphere. If we had had an extra day, we would have definitely gone in early one morning to catch the sunrise on Petra and then climbed to a couple of vantage points to get an aerial view of The Treasury.

The Desert Highway to Amman
Shobak and the UNESCO heritage site of Umm-ar-Rasas are short detours on the way to Amman. Even though we were by now ruin-weary we decided to take these detours and we were not disappointed. Shobak was built in 1115 by Crusader King Baldwin I of Jerusalem to guard the road from Damascus to Egypt, and was the first of a string of similar strongholds in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. The castle's exterior is impressive, with a forbidding gate and encircling walls three layers thick. The walls and projecting towers are still reasonably intact, but inside the castle consists mainly of tumbled stones with a few walls and arches. One of the most fascinating remains is the ancient well-shaft cut deep into the rock, with 375 steps leading down to the water supply at the bottom – not for the claustrophobic.

The main attraction at Umm-ar-Rasas is the recently unearthed Church of St. Stephen with its perfectly preserved remarkable mosaic floor, the largest one in Jordan. It contains the images and portraits of 27 Old and New Testament cities of the Holy Land from both East and West of the Jordan River and of Egypt, making it a discovery second only to the Mosaic Map of Madaba. Less than 2 km north of the fortified town, the highest standing ancient tower of Jordan puzzle archaeologists: a 15 meter high, Byzantine square tower with no door or inner staircase, thought to be used by early stylite Christian monks seeking solitude.

Jordan’s North and Amman
North of Amman lie some of the best examples Jordan’s Roman past. To the very north is Umm-Qais and in between are Ajloun, Pella and Jerash. All can be done in a day’s drive from Amman. We began at Jerash starting early and arriving at the Visitors Center just before the tourist buses.

Jerash is the grandeur of Imperial Rome being one of the largest and most well preserved sites of Roman architecture in the world outside Italy. To this day, its paved and colonnaded streets, soaring hilltop temples, handsome theaters, spacious public squares and plazas, baths, fountains and city walls pierced by towers and gates remain in exceptional condition. Walking thru Hadrian’s Arch, the Hippodrome imagining thundering chariots, the Temples of Zeus and his daughter Artemis, the Oval Plaza and colonnaded street best seen from the top of the South Theater, is a journey thru time.

Ajloun is a castle built by the Muslims in the 12th century as a military fort and buffer to protect the region from invading Crusader forces. The drive is thru beautiful pine forests and olive groves. Umm-Qais is the place where according to the Bible, where Jesus cast out the Devil from two possessed men into a herd of pigs. The use of black basalt along with lime in the construction of the theatre, the columns, the church and the Ottoman village gives the place a unique look. A profusion of spring flowers in various colors adds to the panorama. You get great views of the Sea of Galilee, Israel, Syria and the Golan Heights.

Amman is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. In the Old Testament it was known as Rabbath-Ammon, the capital of the Ammonites around 1200 BC. In Greco-Roman times in the 3rd century BC, the City was renamed Philadelphia (Greek for "The Brotherhood Love") after the Ptolemaic ruler Philadelphus. The City later came under various empires until it was made part of the Decapolis League - a loose alliance of ten free city-states, bound by powerful commercial, political, and cultural interests under overall allegiance to Rome. Under the influence of the Roman culture, Philadelphia was reconstructed in typically grand Roman style with colonnaded streets, baths, an Amphitheater, and impressive public buildings. Whatever remains of this grand past can be found in East Amman – The Citadel with the Temple of Hercules, the Ummayad Palace the Archaeological Museum and Roman Theatre with the Museum of Popular Tradition. Starting early in the morning, we saw all these places by about noon and facing the prospect of where to have lunch my wife suggested that we re-visit Madaba where we could also pick up some souvenirs. Our driver recommended that we go to Dana Restaurant and called up ahead to ask them to prepare a special Christian recipe - sajieh, lamb or chicken, cooked on wood fire with onions and spices, served with a covering of several layers of koubz. My wife detected a glaze of honey. It was scrumptious and there couldn’t have better way to end a marvelous holiday. We profusely thanked Mustafa said goodbye, wished him well and got back to our hotel in Amman for a breather to prepare for the long flight back home the next day.

With the Middle East in turmoil, Jordan has remained peaceful. Even so there were some anxious periods in the run up to our departure when I hoped that the troubles over the border wouldn’t spill over. Everywhere we went we came across the friendliest of people. Combine this with Biblical lore, imperial Roman antiquity, crusader citadels, a confluence of religions and peoples and a delectable choice of cuisine. As we waited for our flight we hoped that this country and its leaders can find a way to navigate themselves thru the numerous issues that face them to emerge as a nation at peace with itself, its neighbors and will continue to remain a fabulous destination.

Fact File

Time Zone – GMT + 3

International Dialing Code - +962. Local pre-paid GSM SIM Cards are easily available at the airport’s arrival lounge.

When to go – We went in the second half of April and were met with very pleasant temperatures – max 18-24 degrees C and min 8-10 degrees C. However, towards the end it began to get a bit hot but not uncomfortable. April first half seems to be a good time and so does Sep-Oct before winter and rains set in.

Getting there – Royal Jordanian (www.rj.com/en) flies direct to Amman from Delhi and Mumbai though not daily. Check their website for latest schedules. Emirates (www.emirates.com) and Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) fly daily from various cities in India via Dubai and Doha respectively. Cost of an economy class ticket is about ` 43,000.

Visa – Visa on arrival is available for Indian citizens and is supposed to be cheaper. To avoid the hassle of standing in a separate queue after a long fight we had already got our passports stamped from the Embassy in Delhi. It cost about ` 2,300 per person. The Embassy (www.jordanembassyindia.org) turns around the passports in one working day.

Getting Around – Hiring a private taxi with an English speaking driver is the most efficient, albeit expensive way of getting around in Jordan as public transport is as good as non-existent. We paid about ` 5,000 per day (excluding petrol which is locally called ‘benzene’). On the recommendation of a friend in Amman we used a NISSAN SUNNY from Khaled Othman who owns Eras Car Rental Agency (+962.795412260) (Khaled5_othman@yahoo.com). Email is not his forte and if you give him a call a couple of days in advance he should be able to organize a car. His driver Mustafa Salem was a great companion – punctual, discrete, knew the country like the back of his hand and always came up with useful suggestions to optimize time, distance and sight-seeing.

Guides - If you need tour guides hire them at the place of visit – these are expensive but are useful for you to get a flavor of the place. We used them in places but found that if you have a good guide book like the LONELY PLANET, you can get by without one.

Currency – 1 Jordanian Dinar (JD) = ` 76. Credit and debit cards are widely accepted. ATMs are also available in most of the bigger towns but may charge a fee per withdrawal. We carried enough US $ and changed it into JD when required. At all the hotels and restaurants we used credit cards.

Nabataens – It’s a term that you will come across as soon as you start reading about Jordan especially Petra. Nabataens were ancient Arabs of North Arabia, whose oasis settlements in 37 BC & 100 AD, gave the name of Nabatene to the borderland between Arabia and Syria, from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. Their loosely-controlled trading network, which centered on strings of oases that they controlled, where agriculture was intensively practiced in limited areas, and on the routes that linked them, had no securely defined boundaries in the surrounding desert. The Nabataean kingdom was later annexed to the Roman Empire, where their individual culture, easily identified by their characteristic finely-potted painted ceramics, became dispersed in the general Greco-Roman culture and was eventually lost.

Posted by nilesh 12:19 Archived in Jordan Tagged jordan petra jerash wadi_rum aqaba madaba ajloun pella treasury lawrence_of_arabia umm_qais shoubak little_petra umm-ar-rasas kerak karak sobak shobak al_khazanneh jordanian_food mansaf arabic_bread mosaic_map_of_madaba mozaic_map_of_madaba madaba_mozaics dana_biosphere_reserve wadi_feynan wadi_dana Comments (0)

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