Jordan from north to south
Numerous ruins in rough landscapes with sand and rocks
Jerash has Roman ruins; Madaba has a 6th century mosaic with a map of Palestine and the Nile Delta. Moses saw the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo. From the Dead Sea to Kerak, with a crusader fortress; the Dana nature reserve is nearby. And then there is Petra, the hidden city carved out of colorful rocks. A camel ride in Wadi Rum, along rocks and sand dunes. Last but not least the port town of Aqaba.
Travelogue & photos: Johan Siegers
One of the best preserved Roman cities
Because Jerash lies in a valley, we don't bring our coats. But half-way the sun abandons us and it gets chilly.
Jerash, in the north of Jordan, is famous for its ruins of the ancient Roman city of Gerasa. It is one of the best preserved ancient cities in the Middle East. Jerash was alread a city in the Bronze Age (3,200 - 1,200 BC) and the Iron Age.
Jerash was annexed by the Roman province of Syria in 63 BC. The city prospered because of agriculture and ore-winning, but after the destruction of Palmyra (Syria) and the beginning of sea trade it fell into decline.
A Persian invasion in 614 and an earthquake in 747 brought the city almost completely to ruins. A large part was covered with sand, so the old city was preserved remarkably well. Only 30 per cent has been excavated so far.
It's worthwhile to visit the vast archeological site of Jerash. The Forum, the cathedral, the nymphaeum and other Greek and Roman buildings are well preserved.
6th century mosaic with map of Palestine and the Nile Delta
We travel southward to Madaba. One of the most important sights here is a 6th century mosaic of a map with Jerusalem and all other important biblical sites.
The mosaic, which was found at an archeological dig, is on the floor of a 19th century Greek Orthodox church which was built around it. It contains 2 million colored stones.
The map represents ancient Palestine and the Nile Delta, including modern Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. It is incredibly big. Too large to fit in one photo. Outside are billboards that show the mosaic in its entirety. Inside the church there are also other mosaics with biblical images.
Mount Nebo and the Dead Sea
Moses saw the Promised Land from this mountain peak
On the way to the Dead Sea we first visit Mount Nebo, from where Moses saw the Promised Land, according to the Bible. The mountains opposite from us are already in Israel. We can see Jerusalem vaguely.
We see the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea a little more clearly. On the top of Mt. Nebo stands a stylized cross with snake motives, a kind of replica of Moses' staff, which changed into a snake and with which he beat water out of the rock. This water stream still flows, by the way.
To reach the Dead Sea our bus has to descend from 810 meters to -420 meters. Our ears feel the rapid descent. The Dead Sea is very touristic here, with a promenade and shops.
There is a strong wind today and even real surf. This makes it harder to try and float on the water.
The sharp stones on the bottom don't help either. You should actually wear plastic shoes or sandals. The main thing is to avoid getting water in your eyes. The water is salty enough to make your eyes burn, just like little wounds you might have.
The high percentage of salt is caused by the centuries long influx of seawater that was rich in minerals and couldn't leave the Dead Sea again, because of its low altitude. The water just evaporated and the salt remained.
Some people are having Dead Sea mud rubbed on them. If you let it dry, it's supposed to cleanse the skin. The sunset in the early evening is wonderful. We see the sun literally disappear behind the horizon.
Crusader fortress in spectacular surroundings
The town of Kerak, southeast of the Dead Sea, has been inhabited since the Iron Age. The famous crusader fortress at 1,000 meters above sea level, was built in 1142 and is known as Krak des Moabites.
The fortress is less impressive than Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, but with its seven levels it's still worth visiting. It is also located in a beautiful and spectacular landscape. And because it's not as big, it's perfect to wander around in and explore by yourself. But without a guide you won't understand the function of some parts.
Towards the end of the afternoon we make a short visit in Siq al-Berid or Little Petra, a small version of the city of Petra which we will visit tomorrow. In Little Petra the building were carved out of the rocks as well.
Little Petra is pretty, but pales in comparison with what we'll see tomorrow, according to our guide. In any case, it's nice and quiet here.
Dana nature reserve
A ranger takes us for a walk on narrow, rock strewn paths
Dana nature reserve lies south of Kerak. It is the largest nature reserve in Jordan and has also an impressive eco-tourism project.
Its name is taken from the 15th century town of Dana. The altitude varies between 50 meters below sealevel in the low-lying desert of Wara Araba to peaks of 1,500 meters at Quadesiyya.
There are around 800 kinds of plants in Dana, 180 kinds of birds and 45 species of mammals, of which 25 are on the verge of extinction. There are almost hundred ruins in the area. We take a three and a half hours walk in the area with a local ranger.
I expected green surroundings, also because of the number of birds and plants in the reserve. But the walk takes us through a mountainous area, on a narrow path strewn with rocks. Because of the climbing and descending, walking is harder than I expected.
Still everyone can do it, if necessary with a little help. The views on the way are amazingly beautiful. It is impossible to convey this with photos, but of course I try.
A spectacular hidden city, carved out of colorful rocks
The historical city of Petra is without a doubt the most beautiful place in Jordan, with its buildings, temples and tombs carved out of sandstone. The Nabateans made this hidden place, which can only be reached via a narrow gorge, their capital. There are a few free-standing buildings, but the majority is carved out of the rock walls.
It's unknown when exactly Petra was built. Probably in the sixth century when the Nabateans began to impose toll on passing caravans that traveled through this area on trade routes.
Earthquakes in 363 and 551 destroyed most of the city. The city was abandoned and only local Bedouin knew about it. The Swiss explorer Jean Louis Burckhardt discovered Petra in 1812 for the Western world. By then, the city had fallen to ruins.
We arrive in Petra after walking through the 2 kilometers long siq, a natural gorge. On one side is an open trench which was used to bring water for the animals to Petra, on the other side is a covered system of tubing carrying water for human consumption.
At the end of the gorge we all of a sudden stand in front of Al Khazneh (treasury/, one of the most beautiful buildings in Petra. It is completely hewn out of the rocks. The rocks have many colors, from yellow to pink, and other parts that are very dark.
The majority of our group climb the stairs (600 steps) to the sacrificial altar; this is the only way to get there. From there one has a wonderful overview of Petra. I decide to first explore Petra: my muscles still ache from yesterday's walk in Dana.
Some buildings are very beautiful, others very simple. Petra covers a large surface. It is clear that this used to be a complete city. The monastery is supposed to be wonderful, but you need to climb 880 steps to get there. At the moment that doesn't sound appealing, so I am easily convinced to let myself be carried up on the back of a donkey.
The donkey had walked this route before: he knows exactly where to tread. Still it's a little scary with an abyss right beside you. I am also a little embarrassed. At three-quarters of the distance the donkey is showing signs of exhaustion. He clearly doesn't like walking on and his steps are becoming insecure as well.
It seems better to walk the last part myself. I give the boy who walked up with me an extra tip (the agreed fee for the ride goes to his boss) and walk the last leg myself. We are at a higher altitude here and I frequently am short of breath. I am not the only one, I see that others take frequent rests as well.
After more climbing the monastery appears. It's even more beautiful and bigger than the treasury. If you climb more, you can see Israel and Wadi Araba, but at the moment I don't feel like doing that.
I first sit down for a coke. From where I sit, I can admire the monastery at my leasure and play with a cat at the same time.
In the distance I see dark clouds forming, so I decide to walk back down, of course after having seen the monastery from close by. The spaces inside are very simple, without any decoration.
Half-way down the weather changes. The wind increases and every now and then I feel a drop of rain. This will last until I get back to the hotel. The strong wind also brings sand, sometimes causing real sandstorms. Fortunately they don't last very long, but they are unpleasant. Back at the hotel, I notice I am covered in sand.
The next day we are going to take a walk like the one in Dana. We will approach Petra from the other side. I decline and decide to work on my travelogue's backlog.
Towards the end of the morning, the hikers return and we leave for Wadi Rum. We have to divide our luggage in two: one part with everything we will need in the desert (sleeping bag, bathing necessities, spare clothes) and the rest.
On a camel along bizarre rock formations and sand dunes
Wadi Rum is a valley with sandstone and granite in the southwest of Jordan. The Arabic is pronounced wadi ramm. The British officer T.E. Lawrence used this place as his base camp during the Arabic revolt (1917-1918). The movie Lawrence of Arabia was shot here for the most part.
The area is popular among mmountaineers, because of its impressive rock formations. It is also a great spot for short safaris on camel- or horseback.
People have lived in Wadi Rum since prehistoric times. Nowadays it is mainly home to Bedouin tribes, who are often nomadic. They are closely related to one another and usually ruled by a sheikh.
On the way to Wadi Rum we cross mountains. On the roadside we see fresh snow. We joke: that's gonna be great! (We have been told that it gets cooler at night...)
It takes us one and a half hours to walk from the visitors center to the first place where we'll spend the night. It is wonderfully hidden between rocks. We spend the night in a Bedouin tent or, if you want to, under the starry sky.
At night the sky is full of stars, it's especially beautiful when you walk away from the campfire into the darkness. There you notice how much you usually miss because of the seas of light in our cities.
The next day one group leaves in a landcruiser to crisscross the desert and visit interesting places and see rock paintings. The alternative is the "ship of the desert": the camel. I choose the latter. It is wonderfully relaxing to see the extraordinary landscape from the back of a camel. I have seldom seen such incredible colors and bizarre rock formations.
One of the camels refuses to kneel to let its rider get on its back. It resists and roars. The camel-drivers try to pull it down and throw sand in its snout when it tries to get up. The other camels are meek as lambs.
On the way the camels try to eat from each shrub we encounter.
We all meet again at our next accomodation. Again we spend the night in a Bedouin tent. There are blankets in case you get cold. Dinner is again excellent: soup, mezze and chicken. The next morning we can choose to either walk or ride on camelback to the spot where we'll have our last lunch. From there a van will take us to Aqaba.
The tax-free city is popular with watersports afficionados
The coastal town of Aqaba on the Red Sea is a favorite destination for watersports afficionados. It also is a tax-free city. To enter or leave the city you have to pass through some kind of customs. It is also possible to go snorkling. Or diving, except that we can't, because we have to fly tomorrow. The difference in air pressure would be too great.
Some of us go snorkling. I decide to leisurely explore the town. I soon find out that it is hotter and more humid here. First I have a cup of mint tea and watch the bustle at the coastline.
Then I visit the local museum. It is small and has an exhibition of artefacts that were found at excavations. I increasingly feel that there must be remains of old civilizations everywhere in the ground here. Varying from pot shards to complete cities. The dry air and the sand help to preserve everything perfectly.
The museum ticket is also valid for the small castle of Aqaba. It's not an impressive building, but interesting because the castle is being restored as much as possible to its original state.
The rest of the day I spend wandering around. I eat, visit the souk and make a short visit to an internet café. At the end of the afternoon we drive back to Amman, where we'll leave by plane tomorrow.
Jordan has one more surprise for us: a real sandstorm. After dark the wind increases. The road goes through a desert landscape, so large quantities of sand are blown over it. At some point it gets so bad that the cars can only drive very slowly with blinking lights. The driver succeds to get us to Amman in one piece. One more night here and we'll fly back to Holland.