Amman and Petra - Andrew - 2009
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is one of the most stable and "west friendly" of all the Middle East states. Years of diplomacy by the late King Hussein is being continued by his son, King Abdullah, helping to make Jordan key to the future of the region.
Jordan, however, has one of the longest histories of any country with some of the earliest relics of civilisation being discovered within its borders, including the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. It's capital city, Amman, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the planet.
Amongst its many famous sites are the spectacular Roman remains at Jerash, a number of well preserved medieval castles and most famous of all, the Rose City of Petra, hidden amongst the desert and carved into the rocks - one of the great sights of the world.
Amman and Petra - Andrew - 2009
I travelled to Jordan to attend a conference for work. Having been to Morocco the previous year and not entirely enjoyed it I was in two minds about visiting another Arab country. This, thankfully, turned out to be a misconceived worry.
I arrived at Queen Alia Airport in the mid-afternoon and was efficiently sent through customs and got my Visa stamp into my passport. I then ventured outside and was immediately hit by a wave of heat. This was February when Id left England it was buried under snow so the shock of 25 degree heat was a bit stunning. I found a taxi driver and the very long journey into Amman began.
I was staying at the Holiday Inn in West Amman, nowhere near the City Centre, but still a very long drive from the Airport. The taxi driver was the first time I encountered the tipping culture in Jordan which ended up costing me a surprising amount (1 JD was about £1.15 at the time I visited and 1 JD is the smallest denomination note I never saw a single coin in Jordan).
I ate that evening in the hotel restaurant and went to bed early. The next day I woke to an amazing sunrise over the houses of West Amman. This really looked the part like something out of an Indiana Jones movie I really felt like I was in the Middle East now!
Once the sun was up a more mundane tumble of white-washed houses was the view from my window Amman, just for once, living up to its nickname of the White City.
Day One was entirely taken up at the Conference, coughing up second hand smoke as nowhere in the Hotel was non-smoking except the restaurant and being very effusively greeted by my Jordanian hosts and treated like an honoured guest. I was persuaded to give a short talk and present prizes for the best papers.
That evening our hosts took all the delegates to a superb Arab-style meal at a picturesque old house near the hotel. We sat down on a massive long table and served ourselves from huge copper trays on which were placed what would be called mezze in Turkey. My hosts carefully pointed out all the veggie options for me (even though they were non-plussed that I should not eat meat) and I had my first true Middle Eastern hummus of the trip (it would certainly not be the last!).
I had set aside the next morning to go into Amman City Centre to explore the place. During my taxi ride into the City Centre I began to realise (1) just how big Amman is and (2) just how far from the Centre the Holiday Inn is! The taxi took me virtually to the gates of Jabal al-Qala strictly speaking Castle Hill. Amman is built on a series of Jabals (Hills) the one with the Castle on it is pretty much the centre of the old town.
Of the actual Castle itself relatively little remains a solid looking wall around the top of the hill, a few crumbling towers and some solid bastions pointing towards the outside of town. This mostly dates to the Roman/Byzantine period.
More impressive are the other remains on the Hill.
Walking along the walls you get a great view across to the area of the Royal Palaces where a huge Jordanian flag flies. At this end of the Jabal al-Qala is the remains of an ancient palace, the Diwan, built by the Ummayad Dynasty around 750 AD. This is the best preserved of the ruins on the Hill and the only sizeable one with a roof. A window caught a shaft of light and produced a superb pattern on the darkened floor which I photographed.
Beyond this are more scattered ruins and walls which are home to masses of big green lizards which, as ever, I tried my best to photograph and which, as ever, managed to dart out of shot as soon as I made the slightest of moves. I did manage to get at least one decent picture though.
Passing back through the Ummayad Palace, you arrive at the Roman ruins, dominated by the Temple of Hercules. This looks down one of the ravines in which the bulk of Amman was built, towards the ancient Roman Amphitheatre more of which later.
At one end of the Hill is a small Museum. Although small, it contains what purports to be the oldest figure of a human being in the world.
Also in the Museum in their own little special room are some of the almost mythical Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the 1940s and 1950s they are written texts dating back to 150 BC, in Hebrew and containing amongst them the very earliest versions of the Bible. It was really quite special and thrilling to be in the presence of such things.
After a brief, and by now much needed drink break, I decided to be lazy and take a taxi down to the Roman Amphitheatre could have walked it but it was already blazing hot, so I decided on the wheeled approach. The taxi dropped me by a small square and I walked along the Roman colonnade to the Amphitheatre entrance. This was only place in Jordan that I was met by people trying to sell me stuff mostly trips out to Mount Nebo which I would have loved, but had no time for this time around.
The Roman Amphitheatre in Amman
Once through the ticket gate you are presented with a particularly steep but very well preserved example of a Roman amphitheatre. I managed to clamber up the exceptionally vertical steps which felt like they were each a foot high and eventually I got to the top and was treated to a spectacular view of both the Amphitheatre and also the Jabal al-Qala where I had just been.
From here I was most pleased to have taken a taxi down the side of the hill!
Small Museums occupy the side buildings at the Amphitheatre which I had a quick look around, then I had to try to find myself some food before heading back to the Conference. I walked by the Central Mosque and headed up onto Jabal Amman the oldest and most central of Ammans hills. I was trying to find my way to the Wild Jordan Centre which I was told offered great views and great food.
I found myself clambering up through what looked very much like a building site, but which I was assured by helpful locals was the quickest way to reach the Wild Jordan Centre. Shockingly, it turned out to be true and I enjoyed a tremendous pasta meal overlooking the valleys where they met between Jabal Amman and Jabal al-Qala.
From here I walked up onto Rainbow Street the road which runs right along the crest of Jabal Amman and was, during the period of British rule in the area, the main street for all the ex-pats staying in Amman. Whilst it is lined with some impressive mansions and boutique shops I tired of it after a while and thumbed a taxi to take me back to the Conference.
The Conference finished that afternoon. On my last day my hosts had originally organised for me to go to the Castle at Ajloun. However, at the last minute I was given a choice go to Ajloun, or join a small party who were going to be bussed down to Petra at the other end of the country. Petra the Rose City buried in the Rocks. One of the worlds dream destinations and I was being offered to go there for free. That isnt a choice at all!
So the next day I found myself in the company of six others from the Conference on a little bus heading down the Kings Highway towards the south of Jordan. Quite literally in the middle of nowhere we stopped by a small café (and souvenir shop) for a comfort break and I took some pictures of the stark nothingness all around.
The long journey carried on and soon we began to see signs of civilisation once more. The little town of Petra arrived and beyond it we could see the rounded tops of rose coloured hills. Everywhere else was dusty yellow, but here everything was pink. This in itself made the place look odd.
We got off the bus and were immediately hit by a massive wave of heat. During my trip to Petra the mercury rose to well over 32 degrees Celsius. In February! Imagine how hot it must get in July!!
From the car park it is a long dusty walk downhill (or a short donkey ride if you are feeling less mobile) to the first of the ruins at Petra. These are interesting without being astonishing but soon you start to get to jaw-dropping mode.
When we arrived at the entrance to the Siq we found it guarded by two Nabataeans. These were the people who built Petra in the 6th Century BC (although these particular two were just modern folk dressed up to look the part). The Siq is what protected Petra both then and for centuries afterwards. To the world at large this place was hidden until 1812 when Swiss explorer Ludwig Burckhardt arrived here.
You seem to be faced with a blank wall of pink rock with only a big crack running from top to bottom, looking for all the world like a cave mouth. This is, as it turns out, the main entrance to Petra the Siq a kilometre long fissure in the cliff which twists and turns through amazing wind-carved convolutions to allow passage to the main city beyond.
Walking through the Siq you are treated to weird rock formations where the wind and (believe it or not) rain have carved through the soft pink sandstones and eroded out different minerals which stain the rocks with streaks of different colours. The same colours also run in bands of strata in various places giving the whole thing a rainbow look. Also running along the whole length of the Siq is a channel which supplied fresh water to the city beyond.
Those familiar with the Indiana Jones films will certainly recognise the Siq from the sequence in The Last Crusade where Indy is chased on horse back through it at great speed.
As you get deeper into the Siq you begin to feel like you are going around in circles and that it never going to end. In certain places you can almost reach across it then unexpectedly it will open out into a large chamber with occasional trees. You can see why it was such an effective, if passive, barrier to people trying to get into Petra. Lawrence of Arabia trapped some Turkish soldiers in the Siq in World War I.
Then you reach the end and you begin to glimpse what lies beyond. This is the moment all visitors to Petra are looking forward to, that slow reveal as the Siq slowly comes to an end. One great advantage of being so off-season was that there were no crowds here to spoil the moment. For a few steps you can see rose-pink carvings through the narrowest of cracks and then you are out into the open and rising up before you is the Treasury, one of the most astonishing structures that the human race has ever produced.
The Treasury is estimated to date from 2nd Century BC. It is, quite literally, carved into the cliff face directly opposite the Siq. The scale of this place is almost impossible to describe, it towers to 150 feet tall. The rooms are carved back into the cliff from the façade. Although it is now around 4,000 years old, the desert and its hidden status has helped preserve it in magnificent state.
Outside the Treasury we encountered our first camels of the trip. The donkeys and horse drawn carriages which go up and down the whole site from outside the Siq to the very end of Petra some kilometres away are now joined by the ships of the desert who sit around patiently waiting for customers.
Interior of the Treasury
Standing in front of the Treasury the Siq is even less visible than it had been from outside. What a weird thing.
The Treasury is just the start of the wonders at Petra. You now find yourself in a valley that goes horizontally across from the Siq, turning right you walk through a series of tombs and chambers, all carved into the rock. Incredibly, this is a place for the dead it was never really a living city in the traditional sense of the word. That this much effort has been expended on tombs says something about the Nabataeans, although we know so little of them that they are as much a mystery as the ancients who built Stonehenge.
A series of intricately carved tombs seem to stand halfway up a cliff where the valley opens out and bends to the left. These are the best preserved and also last to be constructed by the Nabataeans. We didnt have time to walk right up to them, but seeing them from a distance could not help but make you wonder not only how but why they were built where they are.
It is unclear what happened to the Nabataean civilisation, but a clue must surely lie in the Roman ruins which are the last major attraction in the main part of Petra. It would scarcely be a surprise if it wasnt the Romans who put an end to Petra as a city of the dead and began to turn it into a city of the living.
Beyond the Roman ruins are cafes where we had a rather overpriced drink and some food. It was now about 2 pm and scorchingly hot.
Some More Camels ... or possibly the same ones!
There is more of Petra beyond here, but it is a long donkey ride to get there and we had to return to our coach. Thus began the painfully long and hot walk back to the car park. As the heat began to become oppressive and my bottled water began to run out it was actually a relief to get back to the Siq and relative shelter. Before leaving we had a group photograph taken outside the Treasury.
Going back through the Siq was almost as mysterious as coming in through it had been, but eventually we were out again and walking up the track to the car park. By this time my water was gone and by the time I reached the shops by the entrance I was delighted to buy a big bottle of water and tip a good deal of it over my head.
Everyone was oddly subdued on the trip home, as if contemplating the place we had just been. Even the effusive Mohammed from Malaysia was quiet and Im sure the desert must have been a shock to someone from the Tropics. I sat trying to photograph the desert from the bus, although the most effective shot I took was looking straight through the window. Annoyingly I missed the most iconic picture I could have taken, a four wheel drive thundering across the flat desert with a camel trotting along behind tethered to the vehicle.
On my return to the Holiday Inn I looked at my poor shoes and took a photograph of them.
Next day it was up, breakfast and off to the airport for the journey home, passing the last of my JDs over to various taxi drivers, porters and others who wanted a tip for doing little or nothing. I had found Jordan as fascinating, exciting and unusual as it had promised to be. The trip to Petra had been along the dreams come true line and my visit had certainly restored my faith in Arab countries as a destination. I would love to return to see Mount Nebo, the castle Id missed as Ajloun and the Dead Sea so perhaps one day I would be back.
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