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Historical Jordan

A column-lined road leads along the sights

Jordan - Jerash, Artemis Temple

In a landscape with fantastically shaped rocks, deserts where the Bedouin receive tourists in their tents and sheperds herd their goats and sheep, lies the historical heritage of Jordan, like the Greek-Roman monuments in Jerash and Petra, the ancient capital of the Nabateans, which is hewn in the rocks. And last but not least, you can float on the Dead Sea and swim in the Gulf of Aqaba.

Travelogue: Ton Groothedde
Photos: Deckers, Henk Jaspers & Ton Groothedde

We meet our guide, a Palestinian named Ryaad, in the terminal of Queen Alia Airport, some forty kilometers from Amman. The van that takes us to the hotel, stops at a restaurant, where we eat mezze and mixed grill. No beer. In predominantly Muslim Jordan it is hard to find beer.

In Jordan, 95 percent of the population is Muslim, the majority Sunni and a small minority Shii. Approximately 5 percent is Christian.

Despite the fact that I'm exhausted, I don't sleep well en to make matters worse, around 4 AM a Muezzin calls up for prayer from the minaret of a nearby mosque. It's very loud, so I sit up straight in bed. It takes getting used to, but it is part of being in a Muslim country.


Theaters, temples, churches with mosaic floors and bathhouses

Amman is built on seven hills and sits on a height of 700-1000 meters (2100-3000 feet). We notice that when we leave with the bus. We drive to the North, in the direction of the Syrian boarder. We pass by an olives processing plant; we smell it long before we get there.

When I look out of the window to the right, I notice a respectable depth. Here and there, the sides of the mountains are crumbling and houses that used to be in a safe place, are now dangerously close to the edge.

When we reach the ancient city of Jerash, the temperature is perfect for a walk. Jerash is well-preserved. The Romans named the city Gerasa, but it is apparently thousands of years old. There are theaters, temples, churches with mosaic floors, bathhouses, a cathedral and a road; all of them more or less well-preserved.

Jordan - Jerash, column-lined road

After entering we find ourselves on a big square, surrounded by columns. A column-lined road leads to the other sights in Jerash. We see a church, of which the mosaic floor is preserved best. You can recognize birds and reindeer-like animals.

Ryaad tells us dat one of the texts in the church means "Praise the Bishop." In a church a little further, a Greek inscription reads: "Don't go further, or you will be punished by God."

We pass by the North and the South theaters, both of them well-preserved. The North theater has an inscription "165 AD" and names of guests on the seats. There are also VIP seats: stone benches, a little wider than the other seats, and of course in a better spot.

In the South theater some men are playing bagpipes. I would have expected that in Scotland, but not here. The South theater has, according to a sign, 6000 seats and was built between 90 and 92.

Our last visit is to the Artemis temple, of which ten columns in the front have been preserved.

Jordan - Jerash, travel company on the stairs of the Artemis temple

A man who is there with a group of youngsters, shoves a tea spoon between two parts of a column, to show how much play there is. The columns apparently "wave" in the wind. The spoon proves that, by moving up and down in a regular pace.

On our way back we see the Nymphaeum, a fountain from the second century, which was a famous spot for picnics, with the same function as the discotheque in our time.


Vegetable and fruit sellers yell their lungs out

Back in Amman we visit the Al-Hussein Mosque. It is a simple structure, without frills, where men are praying at this time.

Our next stop is at the impressive Roman theater. It has been restored and looks beautiful. It seats thousands and is still in use. On both sides are museums, one an art museum, the other shows how Jordanians live, really worth a visit.

Jordan - Amman, market

We walk back and buy dates from a friendly shopkeeper. He lets us taste different kinds and eventuelly we leave his store with kilos of dates. Next to the date man is a store which sell chickens. I talk, with hands and feet, with the owner about soccer. The man is watching a soccer match on a small, snowy tv set. I understand that the national team is playing.

We continue our walk in a nice souk, where the vegetable and fruit sellers scream out their lungs to advertise their produce.

I notice some blue containers with herring from Katwijk, The Netherlands. I try to gesture how we eat herring, I cut the air, take an onion and pretend to slide a herring down my throat, as is usual in Holland. The guy nods, smiles, shakes my hand, pats me on the back, but I'm sure he didn't understand anything.

Jordan - Amman, butcher store

In the butcher store skinned sheep and goats hang in a glass case. It's impossible to make a mistake, because the heads are still attached. Every now and then the butcher opens the display case, shows the meat to a customer and cuts a piece from the sheep or goat.

In Jordan almost all women are veiled; sometimes their face is completely covered, except for a small slit for the eyes. Sometimes their whole face is visible, but not their hair. Very few women wear jeans.

We have a meal in a restaurant, where I try the mutton and rice. We also have mezze; one of the dishes is green peppers. Anniek warns me, but I bite the whole pepper from its stem. I chew, swallow and then my eyes tear, my mouth is on fire, drinking doesn't help, more drinking neither and hours later it still burns.

Dead Sea

It's impossible to get underwater

Today we drive to Petra and on our way we'll visit the Dead Sea. En route Ryaan explains Islam to us. Among other things he tells us that Muslims have to pray five times a day. The first time is half an hour before sunrise, so that is the reason that during the summer the voice of the muezzin tortures the mosques' speakers at 4 AM.

On the way we pass by a sign that indicates sea level; from there we descend further and further towards the Dead Sea. We approach the boarder with Israel, which we notice because of the checkpoints we pass, apparently still necessary to prevent terror attacks.

We walk to the Dead Sea via the private beach of a luxury resort. The water is salt enough for people not to sink. In the resort is a medical center where people take cures. Dead Sea water is supposed to be beneficial for people with psoriasis or other skin diseases.

After a few steps in the Dead Sea, I trip and fall and hurt my leg on the lumps of salt on the bottom. But I float around happily and smear myself with the supposedly beneficial mud. Whatever I try, I can't get underwater. Even turning is hard because of the obstruction from below.

Mount Nebo and Wadi Mujib

View of the Jordan Valley and the "Jordanian Grand Canyon"

Jordan - View from Mount Nebot

We drive to Mount Nebo near Madaba. There is a monument in honor of the visit by the Pope in 2000. One has a great view here of the Jordan Valley. It is supposed to be green, but from Mount Nebo it doesn't look green. Scattered over the valley are Bedouin tents.

After lunch we drive to Madaba to see the mosaic floor in the Greek-Orthodox St. George church. The floor represents a map of the region. Originally it showed Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt with the Mediterranean. The mosaic was originally 24 by 6 meters (72 by 18 feet)en consisted of almost 3 million stones. Except for the countries, it also showed the home of Abraham and Sarah, the Dead Sea and the Nile.

Because of a conflict between two churches, in which one church took a large part from the mosaic floor from the St. George church, the floor is incomplete now.

We continue our trip to Petra on Kings Highway, through an charming and spectacular landscape. We stop at the edhe of a canyon, Wadi Mujib, which means Mujib Valley.

Jordan - Wadi Mujib

The canyon has a depth of hundreds of meters and is even wider than that. Wadi Mujib is nicknamed "Jordanian Grand Canyon." The view is overwhelming, a huge depth with high, weathered rock walls, through which a road winds to the bottom of the canyon and after that, as we'll find out, back up again.

On the way we see all kinds of column on sides of the road. They were markers for camel caravans. In Roman times they also indicated distances.

Scattered over the landscape are shepherds with their goats and sheep. Along the road are stalls and small stores, almost none of them have customers.

Jordan - Petra 'by night'

In Kerak we take a look at de Crusaders Fortress. We only get to see the outside, because the fortress just closed and whatever Ryaad tries, closed is closed.

In the last stretch of desert on our way to Petra, we end up in a sand storm and for a short while we can't see anything at all.


The pink-red city changes color with the sunlight

After breakfast we walk to Petra. The road descend steeply from our hotel. After twenty minutes we have reached the entrance of Petra, a city founded by the Nabateans.

Jordan - Petra, As-Siq

We walk on a dusty road and arrive at the place where horses take you to the entrance of the city proper, the Siq. Ryaad asks us to rent a horse, because the money is a much needed additon to the horse escorts' income.

The oldest of the horse escorts offers me his horse. Slowly we trudge toward the Siq. The old man pants and sighs and tries to slow down the horse even more. My travel companions pass me by, even the ones who walk to the Siq.

After we arrive at the Siq, I give the man his hard earned money. He looks at me as if he is going to cry. He begs me to give him more, but I put my foot down. I promise to keep him in mind on the way back.

Jordan - Petra, Al-Khazneh, the Treasury

Walking through the Siq is quite an experience. As-Siq is 1200 meters (3600 feet) long and is enclosed by rocks 80 meters(240 feet) high. The rock walls consist of layers in the most fantastic colors and shapes.

When we eventually reach the Siq, we find ourselves in a square enclosed by walls of rock. In the wall before us, rises up the Treasury, hewn in rock.

Its name in Arabic is Al-Khazneh. We get to see the Treasury in the morning when we arrive and in the evening when we leave and the difference in color is huge. In the morning the Treasury is bathed in sunlight and almost orange. In the evening it is in the shade and pink, the "pinkred city" as Petra is called.

The treasury has six columns on which it seems to rest. It is 43 meters high and 30 meters wide. Its gable has reliefs of different shapes. Ryaad tells us it dates from the first century and took thirty years to build. Originally it was a tomb of a Nabatean king.

As we walk on, we see elephants and camels carved in rock, the Street of the Gables with rows of Nabatean tombs and the humongous semi-circular theater that looks Roman, but was built by the Nabateans in the first century. Originally it seated 3000, later its capacity was expanded to 7000 seats.

Jordan - Petra, carved animal motives

After we have seen everything in Petra, Ryaan suggests that we climb to a high-lying place for sacrifices, where the gods of the Nabateans were honored. The staircase has 511 steps, none of them alike, as I notice soon enough.

But it's worth the climb. It has a great view of the valley of Petra en the tombs of the Nabateans. Scattered over the landscape are goats, donkeys and camels.

Jordan - Petra, view from the High Place

Back we take a different route via steep rocks stairs. Sometimes I am afraid to look at anything except for the wall of rock next to me, but I have to admit that the landscape is enchanting.

When we leave the Siq and the horse escorts with their animals are waiting for us, the old man jumps forward and walks straight at me. He may need a walker, but there is nothing wrong with his memory. I give him the Dinar I promised, but decline friendly to use the horse again.

Little Petra

Lizards climb the rock walls

Next day, on our way to Wadi Rum, we visit the less known "Little Petra." We pass through a Bedouin village, where we see a school for girls and a school for boys. Little children walk on the side of the road in bare feet over the rough surface.

Near Little Petra we see some Bedouin tents while we're walking. It is nice and quiet here, hardly any tourists. But there are lots of lizards, who climb the rocks.

Jordan - Little Petra, cave dwelling

In the Nabatean period dwellings were carved in the rocks. The Bedouin later used them as homes. They have two floors: the lower one is for goats and sheep, whose body heat warms the people who live on the second floor.

There are ingeneous waterworks that supply water from high in the rocks. Ryaan tells us that these cave dwellings were still in use forty years ago.

We arrive in a canyon where an old man walks in our direction. Ryaad tells us that he earns his money by singing an old Arabic song in which he says he is looking for a woman to marry and spend his last days with.

Jordan - Little Petra, Anniek 'proposed'

The man sits down and sings a song which he accompanies by a musical instrument that looks as if he made it himself. Eventually, after having thrown mischievous looks at all the women in our group, he chooses the "Israeli": Anniek. She looks a little Israeli indeed.

We drink a cup of tea with the Bedouin and continue our trip to Wadi Rum, a beautiful desert area fifty kilometers from Aqaba. The road to Wadi Rum crosses a mountainous area with deep canyons and no crash barriers.

Wadi Rum

We pass by groups of Bedouin with camels and goats

Ryaad tells us that fewer and fewer Bedouin live in the traditional way. Many Bedouin have moved to villages, following a "request" by the government. But scattered over the land there are still many who live authentically. They are hospitable and are eager to serve you coffee or tea.

Cardemom is added to their coffee, as a sign of hospitality. Cardemom belongs to the ginger family and is suppused to have a calming effect.

Jordan - Wadi Rum, Bedouin camp

Mansaf is a traditional Bedouin dish. It is made of mutton or chicken with Arabic rice, boiled in jameed, a kind of buttermilk. You eat it with your right hand, making balls of rice, meat and stock.

When we have almost reached the Bedouin camp, we see a train riding through the vast desert. It is going from the phosphate mines to Aqaba. Jordan exports phosphate.

Ryaad tells us that 45 days ago a torrential rainstorm caused a flood in Wadi Rum, in some places the water reached a height of 3 meters (9 feet). In those places there is still water now, even though the temperature is almost 30 degrees Centigrade.

The lunch in the Bedouin camp consists of salads, the ubiquitous flat bread and meat. It is my impression that the camp is catering to tourists, or in any case can only exist because of tourism. It is situated in a beautiful landscape, approximately 20 kilometers (14 miles) from the Saoudi border.

After lunch we go on a jeep safari in the desert. The sun is extremely hot and I decide to buy a headscarf from the first Bedouin we meet. Many men wear kefiyas, which are usually red and white checked.

Jordan - Wadi Rum, rock bridge near Al Garazi

The surrounding landscape is initially rather flat, but in the distance appear high rocks which have been shaped by the ages. We stop often, because the not so new jeeps need to be filled up with water again and again for their cooling system.

During one of those stops Ryaan takes us to a place with Nabatean cave paintings. He also shows us different kinds of plants, among which a kind of fennel. Ryaad says that sheep and goats, who love this plant, can only eat it for a week at a time. If they keep eating it, they can die.

We pass by small groups of Bedouin with camels and goats. They all wave at us friendly.

We stop at the next Bedouin tent. The proprietor offers us tea and I see that he has two scarves for sale, which I buy after some bargaining.

After a while we stop at Al Garazi. There are two natural bridges in the rocks here, very impressive.

Jordan - Wadi Rum, sunset

We have been on the road for hours and little by little it is becoming evening. Ryaad adds an extra stop to let us enjoy the sunset. Unfortunately a sandstorm at some distance clouds the sky.

When we return to the Bedouin camp hours later, they light a campfire on which they grill meat. We enjoy the beautiful starry sky with a beer.

Jordan - Wadi Rum, traffic sign

Erik takes the opportunity when two Jordanian musician start to play: he bought a musical instrument in Amman, I think it is called a djembé, and he joins the two others.

After a while a robust woman appears from the dark. She walks, dressed in a pretty dress and completely veiled, to the center and starts bellydancing in the rythm of the music.

The woman has very big feet and a remarkably masculin smokers cough. After 15 minutes the bellydancing changes into a wild, alomst insane dance, the veil comes off and the smiling face of Burhan, our driver, appears.


Everywhere are sea cucumbers and sea urchins

Jordan - Aqaba, view of Eilat

After a quiet trip we arrive in Aqaba, a city with 70,000 inhabitants on the Gulf of Aqaba, part of the Red Sea. We check into a simple but good hotel, where we have a view of Eilat, Israel from our room.

Aqaba is also a free trade zone. Many inhabitants of Amman visit here for a few days to shop.

After dinner we take a stroll in the Aqaba souk. It is small, but nice. Everywhere we're invited in. In a store that sells herbs and coffee we are offered tea. A man who is kneading dough in the front of a bakery, invites us to come and have a look. It is an old-fashined bakery, but they bake at a fast pace and, judging from the smell, delicious bread.

Jordan - Aqaba, fishers on the beach

We walk to the public beach. Ryaad advised against it, because it isn't clean. That is true, but if you want to see how the local population experiences the beach, you have to go there and look around, We watch two fishermen pick very small fish from their nets.

A man is washing his horse in the sea, he scrubs it thoroughly. The animal visibly enjoys the cooling.

I notice that men in swim trunks are accompanied by veiled women. Two women sit, veiled and dressed in black, on plastic chairs in the water.

Next morning we take a look at the 14th century Mameluk fortress with museum. The tourist information office, also situated in the fortress, advises us to take a taxi to a sea aquarium just outside Aqaba and after that to continue to the border with Saoudi Arabia.

We can't find a taxi, but we see an old, rickety van with three bored-looking man. With hands and feet we explain what we want. They take us to the border, along the Gulf of Aqaba, where we see freighters and beautiful beaches on the clear blue water. When we get a little higher, I see that the sea is at least three shades of blue.

Jordan - Aqaba, border Ad Durra

After thirty kilometers we reach the border post of Al Durra. Now that we're here, we'd like a stamp of the Saoudi-Arabian customs. We explain that we are tourists from Holland and that we'd like a Saoudi stamp in our passports.

The guy shakes his head, laughs and calls a superior. But even a visit to the office, with officials with more stars on their caps, doesn't help. It is not possible.

Jordan - Aqaba, sea aquarium

The sea aquarium could use some paint, but they have beautiful fish and the tanks are clean, so we can see the fish clearly.

Nest day we take a glass boat to watch coral reefs and fish. We get to see the coral with the fish that live there and the view through the glass bottom is very good. The fish have beautiful colors. The only kind I recognize is the trunkfish. Everywhere on the sea floor are sea cucumbers and sea urchins.

After a few hours of sailing, snorkeling and watching fish, the skipper docks his boat at a beautiful beach, where he and his companion prepare lunch for us.

The lunch consists of, no surprise, grilled fish. We stay to sunbathe, snorkel and just lie on the beach for a while, then go back, visiting another beautiful coral reef on the way.

Today we leave early, we fly to Amman in a Bombardier of Royal Jordanian and from there to Amsterdam. Our vacation is over.

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