The trepidations we may have had about traveling to the Middle East almost completely disappeared upon our arrival at the small, clean and efficiently-run Queen Alia airport in Amman, Jordan. A representative met us, whisked us thru the visa purchase and a quick baggage pick up, then introduced us to our driver who was waiting to take us to our hotel.
Waiting for us at the beautiful Four Seasons Amman was an energetic, well-informed and enthusiastic Israeli who arranged our visit to Jordan and whose name was passed on to us by Indagare. We were introduced to our guide, who would be with us from morning to night for the next seven days. His openness and hospitality was echoed by all the Jordanian people we met during our trip.
We were picked up early next morning in a Toyota van, which would be our vehicle while we were in Jordan. Our destination the first day would introduce us to the Eastern part of Jordan (Eastern Badia) by visiting desert castles, known as Qsars. Jordan is a small country, 80% of which is unpopulated desert. It has some seven million inhabitants with three million living in the capital of Amman. The roads were good and our driver, like most Jordanians, drove at a fast clip. Our first stop after two hours was Um al Jimal—loosely translated as mother of camels—which is currently the largest archaeological dig in Jordan. We also visited Azraq Oasis, Qsar Amra and Qsar Kaharanh. All of these castles were not used for defense but were stopping places for caravans or hunting lodges from the Byzantine era. They are all well preserved and interesting examples of life at that time.
That evening, we went to a local restaurant in Amman, Tawaheen Al-Hawa, complete with a tent and bagpipe players. We had the traditional Arabic appetizers: hummus, babaganoush, tahini and tabouleh, all freshly made and served on a giant brass platter sunk in the middle of the table. This was followed by the national dish of Jordan, mansaf: lamb, rice and aged yogurt sauce. After we finished, our guide ordered a water pipe scented with spiced apple, which he smoked while we had a desert of various sweets made with phyllo dough and pistachios and washed down with thick, sweet Bedouin coffee.
On our second day we drove north to Jerash, which is the world’s best preserved provincial Roman city, often called “the city of a thousand columns.” We climbed and explored fascinating temples, ornate fountains, altars decorated with faded frescoes and two amphitheaters, their acoustics perfect to this today.
We attended a show called RACE (Roman Army and Chariot Experience), which was presented in the smallest but best preserved hippodrome in the world, complete with warriors in full authentic Roman armor. During the gladiator fights, the audience gave its “thumbs up or down” in judgment. The show finished with a chariot race.
Lunch was at a local Jerash restaurant centered on a large charcoal oven for baking pizza-sized pita bread. We watched the dough being made, then slid into the oven, where it puffed up over the coals, was quickly baked and then shoveled out into our hands. It was delicious!
We ended the day with a visit to Umm Qais, a city made of basalt in the northern part of Jordan. After climbing the black wall of this city, we were rewarded with the remarkable view of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights, its greens and blues a stark difference to our immediate surroundings.
The next morning, our third day, we checked out of the Four Seasons and drove to Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land. Next it was on to Madaba, a city known for its mosaics and churches (6% of Jordanians are Christian, and most of them live in this city). Of the many churches we visited, the standout was St. George, home of the famous floor mosaic “Map of the World” made in the 6th century. Lunch was at Haret Jdoudna restaurant, which has hosted many dignitaries and kings during the past 50 years. Once again we were served numerous, fresh platters of delicious Jordanian specialties.
We continued on the King’s Highway on our way south to Petra. By now, we were becoming accustomed to road signs indicating the borders to Syria and Iraq and license plates from trucks from Saudi. “We are the Switzerland of the Middle East,“ said our guide. “We live within and around all that is going on—we are neighbors.” And that is the extent of politics. He asked us no questions and we inquired only about Jordan’s history and culture. We were comfortable with this arrangement of mutual respect and understanding.
It was late afternoon as we approached Petra. We settled into the Mövenpick Hotel, located at the gate to the famous entrance of Petra’s rock-carved monuments. The hotel is a chaotic change from the Four Seasons in Amman, with tourist buses barely fitting through heavily guarded gates and only one elevator functioning for many luggage-laden tourists. We had a nice and comfortable suite at the end of the hallway, which was surprisingly quiet. We completely unpacked and went to the bar, ordering Jordanian white wine, which we loved, along with grilled-ham-and-cheese sandwiches.
After dinner, we joined the large group nearby that was going to see the monumental archaeological sites of Petra. They are carved out of the soft sandstone, edifices of massive buildings, holding the secrets of the lives of the ancient Nabateans, whose empire height was from 312 BC to 106 AD. Petra was lost to the world around the 12th century and found again some 700 years later by a Swiss explorer in 1812.
is a relatively new event and is done only three times a week. Our itinerary was well planned for this to be included on our first night. Led by a local guide, we began our decent along a rocky path into the siq leading to the famous Treasury building of Petra. Hundreds of candles in paper bags marked the way through the dark canyon, in some places only wide enough for two people. The effort of the walk, the silence of the crowd and the anticipation of what lies ahead, is palpable. When we reached the magnificent site, we were seated on the ground on carpets surrounded by more candles and offered tea. Soon a Bedouin played the Ud (twelve string Arabian guitar) and later another played the flute. It was a magical setting, especially as the moon rose and slowly illuminated the immense edifice before us.
The next morning we returned to the area via the siq and saw the Treasury by daylight. The building is completely empty and might not have been a treasury at all; the only reason it was given the name was because the façade is topped by what was thought to be a jar holding jewels. Carved out of the stone cliff, its detail and three-dimensional appearance makes it look as thought it’s a completely freestanding building. After photo ops on camels, we continued past the Treasury to explore the rest of Petra, home to almost 2000 Bedouins. In the afternoon a Bedouin named Samul took us up the trail to the Monastery. The hard trip up took one hour but it was well worth the effort. The Monastery is even more enormous and impressive than the Treasury—and a lot less crowded. That evening, we joined twenty others for a cooking class called Petra Kitchen. We prepared a Levantine meal, made new friends and had a great time.
On our fifth day, we went for a seven-mile trek through the “secret road” over the top mountains and valleys of Petra. This ancient trail is called al-Madras, a kind of pilgrimage road. We returned tired and dusty but proud of our efforts. That night as we drove away, the sun was setting and turning the surrounding hills into shades of orange and red. We suddenly turned off the road and went down a path between several hills into a mountain canyon. Sooon another Jeep arrived with our guide’s friends, who brought carpets, blankets and the fixings for dinner. A local Bedouin musician with his Ud began to play Arabian love songs and the setting was complete. After the main course a birthday cake appeared topped with fresh fruit, a delightful surprise for all.
We left Petra the next morning and continued to drive south for Wadi Rum, where we would spend the night. We stopped off at a butcher to purchase lamb for our desert lunch. Our guide cooked us galaya bandura, a Jordanian spicy lamb stew.
We awoke early the next morning and wandered around the silent dunes as the sun rose. Leaving our camp, we headed north for nearly three hours to visit the impregnable hilltop castle of Karak with its warren of rooms, stables and kitchens, enclosed within mighty stone walls. This was one of the resting places of Richard the Lion Heart while on crusade.
After grabbing delicious street food for lunch, we continued north along the Dead Sea, passing all the newly built luxury hotels and spas. After an hour we came to the Jordan River where we collected and brought home holy water from the area where Jesus was thought to have been baptized by John. Here the River Jordan is very narrow, totally brown and framed by tall reeds on both sides. Israel was only some 20 feet away from where we were standing.
It was late in the day and we were tired and realized that our time in Jordan was soon coming to an end. We had seen much and made new friends and were a little sad. We hope some day to return to where, as the Jordanians say, “Life is Good”. Insha’ Allah.
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