Jordan Feb 1-17 2016
1. Jordan Pass. Introduced on September 1, 2015, the Jordan Pass is a sightseeing package for visitors to Jordan. It covers prepaid entry to over 40 attractions in Jordan (anything covered under the antiquities department), free downloadable digital brochures covering all of Jordan’s tourist attractions, and waiving of tourist entry visa fees (40 JD) if you purchase the Jordan Pass before arrival to Jordan and stay a minimum of three nights. It also includes the entry fee to Petra – there are three categories of Jordan Pass determined by how many days you want to visit Petra: 1 day at Petra = 70 JD, 2 days = 75 JD and 3 days = 80 JD. The normal Petra costs are 1 day – 50 JD, 2 days 55 JD and 3 days 60 JD. So if you only use the visa and Petra part of the pass, you are already saving 20 JD. Go to www.jordanpass.jo to purchase online. Print it out or transfer it to your mobile.
I did not know about this pass before arriving so paid for my visa. But I am traveling a great deal throughout the country and it is still a good deal and I bought a pass after arrival.
2. Taxis. Of all the countries I have ever traveled in, I believe Jordan taxi drivers are the most malicious. They overcharge aggressively and always refuse to use meters. The meter cost is displayed in fils, but they have no problem if you pay in dinars. A Chinese man staying at my hotel used a taxi to go to the bus station to buy a ticket. He had not paid the driver, was told to leave his luggage in the taxi, and the driver told him he would wait – and then he left with all the guys luggage never to be found again.
As a result, find out fares before you take a taxi if possible, get them to use a meter, bargain hard and always record the license plate and company of the taxi before you get in. A taxi to almost anywhere in Amman should rarely be more than 3 JD.
3. Transportation. From the airport, a taxi is 18 JD, but the shuttle is 3 JD, then a taxi from 7th circle is 3 JD or take the shuttle to the north bus station and a service taxi (on the north side of the station) to Shapsogh downtown. From downtown, go to Shapsogh Station for a service taxi to the north or south bus stations for .4JD (taxi 3JD).
4. Hotels and Restaurants
Amman: there are many hotels with dorm rooms that are not listed on any of the typical booking sites (all prices without breakfast): Boutique Hotel (6JD), Sydney Hotel (5JD), Arab Tower (6JD) or Jordan Tower. Booking.com seems to be the only site with them listed but dorm rooms, if listed, are twice the actual price. All these hotels are downtown and close to the few tourist sites in Amman. Eat at Hashem Restaurant, arguably the best fast food in Jordan and then go just down the street to Habiba Sweets for dessert.
Wadi Musa (Petra): Stay at Saba’a Hotel (dorms including breakfast 8JD) with a lovely English woman owner. Just north of Shaheed circle. Eat at Restaurant – a Syrian-run fast food place up the hill east of Shaheed Circle just past the pharmacy. Better than Hashem.
5. Safety. Jordan is very safe despite the neighbourhood. There have been no terrorist attacks here. Avoid refugee camps and traveling next to the Iraq border.
Jordanis offer a open-armed welcome every day. It’s this, and a sense of stability amid a problematic neighbourhood, that makes travel in Jordan such a delight. With heavyweight neighbours pulling big historical punches, Jordan easily holds its own. Amman, Jerash and Umm Qais were cities of the Roman Decapolis, while biblical sites include Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan, where Jesus was baptized, and Mt Nebo, where Moses reputedly surveyed the Promised Land. Grandest of all is the sublime Nabataean capital of Petra, carved from vertical cliffs.
But Jordan is not just about antiquities – it also offers the great outdoors. Whether diving in Aqaba, trekking in the camel-prints of Lawrence of Arabia or hiking through stunning canyons, Jordan’s eco-savvy nature reserves offer the best of adventures in the Middle East.
Official name. Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
Population. 6.5 million
Language. Arabic (English widely spoken)
The currency is the Jordanian dinar (JD) also called the jay-dee among young locals. It is made up of 1000 fils. The coins 50,100, 250 and 500 fils have no numbers on them and it can be confusing at first. On January 30 2016 1US$ = .71 JD and 1JD = 1.41 US$.
Often when the price is quoted, the ending is often omitted, so if you are quoted 25, you need to work out whether it’s 25 dinars, or fils. But most Jordanians, except for taxi drivers, wouldn’t dream of ripping off a foreigner.
ATMs are everywhere except in the smallest towns. Arab Bank and Jordan Gulf Bank accept both Visa and MC. The Housing Bank for Trade & Finance, Cairo-Amman Bank and Jordan Islamic Bank accept only Visa. If an ATM swallows your card, call 06-5669123 (Amman).
Credit Cards are accepted in midrange and top-end hotels and restaurants, and a few top-end shops. A commission of up to 5% is often added.
Moneychangers. Present in Amman, Aqaba and Irbid and only deal in cash. Most hard currencies are accepted. Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Israeli and Iraqi currency can all be changed in Amman, usually at favorable rates but you may need to shop around. Egyptian and Israeli currency is also easily changed in Aqaba.
Tipping. Tips of 10% are generally expected in better restaurants. A service charge of 10% is automatically added at most midrange and top-end restaurants.
Are required by all foreigners entering Jordan (40JD). Single-entry visas valid for a month from date of entry are issued at land borders and airports on arrival. Multiple entry visas are obtainable from Jordanian embassies or consulates. Come with cash as the ATM next to immigration charges 5JD to withdraw money.
King Hussein Bridge (Allenby Bridge). This is the only border where visas are not issued and you must obtain them from Jordanian embassies or consulates outside the country (usually takes 24 hours). If you want to re-enter Jordan here, it is not necessary to reapply for a Jordanian visa providing you return the same way within the validity of your Jordanian visa or extension.
Aqaba. Arriving at this southern city by air or ferry entitles you to a free visa as part of the free-trade agreement with the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Area. If you stay in Jordan for more than 15 days, you must register with the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority. As of January 1, 2016, arrival by air or ferry is the only way to get a visa on arrival to Jordan in Aqaba – it is impossible to get a visa on arrival crossing overland from Eilat to Aqaba (to cross overland, you must have obtained your visa at home or through a Jordanian embassy on the road). But you can cross this border as part of an Israeli tour group visiting Petra on a day trip. The total cost of this trip is US$330 which includes the 90JD (US$135) Jordanian visa. That trip must be booked at least 48 hours prior to entry as the group must enter and exit as a group to ensure a smooth border crossing. Also included, of course, is the 50JD entry fee to Petra, transportation between Eilat and Petra (which is complicated if attempting on your own as there is little public transport), food and a tour guide in Petra. You only get about 3 1/2 hours in Petra and I am not sure if you could get to the Monastery in that time.
Connections. Jordan is easily visited overland from neighbouring countries, with visas available on arrival at border crossings and Aqaba port. Arrival in Jordan is by boat (from Egypt), bus or service taxi; you can bring your own car or motorcycle (but not hire car). Leaving Jordan by land requires more planning: Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are not possible (it is virtually impossible to get a tourist visa to Saudi Arabia). Onward travel in the region can also be problematic after visiting Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Exit Fees: 10JD if crossing by land (only possible in 2016 with Israel). Included in the ferry and air prices.
When To Go.
Mar–May The weather is perfect, with warm days, cool nights and spectacular wildflowers.
Sep–Nov A good time to go hiking, with fewer visitors and relief after intense summer heat.
Dec–Feb The Red and Dead Seas offer balmy dips, while upland Jordan shivers with winter chills.
»Bible Places (www.bibleplaces.com) Biblical sites
»Jordan Tourism Board (www.visitjordan.com)
»Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (www.rscn.org.jo) Nature reserves
»Ruth’s Jordan Jubilee (www.jordanjubilee.com) Petra information.
I flew on Middle East Airlines from Beirut to Amman (130$), a 70 minute flight. Flying over Israel and Jordan, there was only rocky desert below. There is an airport shuttle (3JD) but it drops you off at the 7th circle, a ten minute drive from downtown. Taxi drivers descended on us. They initially wanted 10JD and we negotiated 6JD. There was some confusion when I was dropped off at my hotel and I didn’t leave my share. So the woman I shared the taxi with refused to pay him more than her share – 3JD and that was all he got. It turns out that 3JD is the fair taxi cost from the 7th circle – so funny.
The woman I shared the taxi with was on my flight. She is an MD in the Canadian military and lives in Victoria, 2½ hours from me! We have decided to team up for a few days to share expenses on tours out from Amman.
I stayed at the Boutique Hotel and had booked one night on booking.com for $21, as there were no dorm rooms on the site. When I arrived I cancelled the booking and got a dorm room for 6JD/night for 4 nights (no breakfast). Just down the street is Hashem Restaurant, world-famous for its food: falafel, humus, other dips and pita.
A Chinese fellow in my dorm had taken a taxi to the bus station to buy a ticket, leaving his luggage in the taxi. When he got back, the taxi was gone with all his stuff. He was beside himself. It is obvious that taxis are going to be a major issue in Jordan.
I had dinner with a Swedish woman who has lived for 4 years in Aqaba with her husband and two children. She works for Maersk, the large Danish shipping company and her husband has a good job in the port. They have decided, while their children are young, to work as expats around the world, live in different places and explore the world that way. They plan on moving to Nigeria soon to continue their adventure.
They have a Filipino nanny who lives with her husband independently and works for them 8 hours a day basically babysitting the children. She is paid $400 per month, twice what a live in nanny would make and is free to go as she pleases. Almost all expats have a nanny/maid, almost all Filipino. The live–in nannies work on a contract, their passports are held by the family, they work 16 hour days, 7 days a week and only go home for 2 weeks every 2 years. This is remarkably similar to the “slave” labour situation in the UAE.
Almost all the men who work as foreigners in Jordan are Egyptian – not South Asians as in UAE.
Jordan has a poor economy – they import 75% and export 25% of their goods. The economy is based on the export of phosphate for fertilizer mined in the Dead Sea. There is no industry and the rest of the economy is based on tourism. And that has all but died. Aqaba is on the Red Sea and used to have 7 plane-loads of tourists arriving per week during the winter – mostly Brits and northern Europeans. Now there is one per week. The hotels in Aqaba are at 5% occupancy. This is driven by the fears of Europeans about terrorism and violence.
The summer tourist season is from the Middle East, mostly Saudis and Emiratis. It is still 45-50°C but is a dry heat, not the almost 100% humidity of the Arabian Peninsula. There is a significant sex tourism industry with these Arabs, mostly Eastern European women.
AMMAN (pop 2.8 million, now more like 5 million with all the Syrian refugees)
Jordan’s capital city, Amman, is one of the easiest cities in the region to enjoy the Middle East experience. The city has two distinct parts: urbane Western Amman, with leafy residential districts, cafes, bars, modern malls and art galleries; and earthy Eastern Amman, more traditional, conservative and Islamic.
At the heart of the city is the chaotic, labyrinthine ‘downtown’. At the bottom of the city’s many hills, and overlooked by the magisterial Citadel, it features Roman ruins and the hubbub of Jordanian life – best understood by joining the locals in the nightly promenade between mosque, souq and coffeehouse.
History. Despite its ancient lineage, Amman as it appears today is largely a mid-20th century creation – a homogeneous, mostly low-rise, cream-colored city of weathered concrete buildings, some clad in white marble, others in need of a facelift.
Impressive remnants of a Neolithic settlement from 8500 BC were found in the 1970s at Ain Ghazal in Eastern Amman. They illustrate a sophisticated culture that produced the world’s earliest statues – some in the archaeological museum.
Jebel al-Qala’a is the present site of the Citadel, and one of the oldest and most continuously inhabited parts of the city, established around 1800 BC. Referred to subsequently in the Old Testament as Rabbath, the city was besieged by King David who burnt many inhabitants alive in a brick kiln.
Visitors see it’s Egyptian heritage each time they see a company or restaurant called Philadelphia, after the Ptolemy ruler Philadelphus (283–246 BC). He rebuilt the city during his reign and it was named Philadelphia after him. It was one of the cities of the Roman Decapolis before being assumed into the Roman Empire under Herod in around 30 BC. Philadelphia, meaning ‘City of Brotherly Love’, was redesigned in grand Roman style, with a theatre, forum and Temple to Hercules, the highlight of downtown.
From about the 10th century little more is heard of Amman until the 19th century when a colony of Circassians settled there in 1878. In 1900 it was estimated to have just 2000 residents. In 1921 it became the center of Transjordan when King Abdullah made it his headquarters. Following the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, Amman absorbed a flood of Palestinian refugees, and doubled its population in a mere two weeks. It continues to grow, first by Iraqi refugees and now Syrians.
Built originally on seven hills (like Rome), Amman now spreads across 19 hills and is therefore not a city to explore on foot. That said, the downtown area – known locally as il-balad – with its budget hotels, restaurants, banks, post offices and ancient sites, is compacted into a relatively small area.
Citadel. On Jebel al-Qala’a – at 850m, Amman’s highest hill, as well as the longest inhabited part of the city. The complex includes excavated ruins of a Umayyad palace dating from about AD 720, of which the domed audience hall is the most impressive. The most striking attractions are two giant standing pillars, the remains of the Roman Temple of Hercules, constructed by Marcus Aurelius (AD 161–180). From under these pillars, there’s a panoramic view of the Roman theatre downtown.
Included in the Citadel’s admission fee is the National Archaeological Museum. Exhibits include three 8500-year-old statues from Ain Ghazal, thought to be the world’s oldest example of sculpture.
Roman Theatre. This restored theatre is an impressive remnant of ancient Philadelphia and vies with the Citadel as the main historical highlight of Amman. Cut into the hillside and able to hold 6000 people, the theatre was built in the 2nd century AD during the reign of Antoninus Pius (AD 138–161). Performances are sometimes staged here in summer. The wings of the theatre are home to two quaint museums, the Folklore Museum and the Museum of Popular Traditions, which include displays of traditional costumes and jewelry.
The row of columns immediately in front of the theatre is all that’s left of the forum once one of the largest public squares (about 100m by 50m) in imperial Rome. On the eastern side of what was the forum stands the 500-seat Odeon. Built about the same time as the Roman Theatre, it served mainly as a venue for musical performances – and still hosts the occasional concert.
Hashemite Square, in front of the Roman Theatre is a good place to relax.
Nymphaeum. Built in AD 191, this elaborate public fountain was once a large, two-storey complex with water features, mosaics, stone carvings and possibly a 600 sq metre swimming pool. Up until 1947, the ancient stream and Roman bridge still stood where the road now runs. There’s little to see, but it gives an idea of the grandeur of ancient Philadelphia.
Darat al-Funun. A tranquil complex dedicated to contemporary art, the heritage buildings house a small art gallery, library, artists’ workshops and a program of exhibitions, lectures and films.
King Hussein Mosque. Built by King Abdullah I in 1924, this compact mosque is in the heart of downtown on the site of an ancient mosque built in AD 640. Interesting as a hive of activity rather than for any architectural splendor, the mosque precinct is a popular local meeting place. Non-Muslims can enter.
Jordan Museum. Well laid out with good English descriptions. Not sure if worth the 5JD entrance fee.
Turkish Baths (hammam). The large, muscular attendants (male or female, depending on your sex) could easily retrain as Sumo wrestlers and you can rely on them to find parts of the body you didn’t know you had. A largely Ottoman creation, they are places of social gathering. The full service of pummeling, scrubbing and nose-hair plucking costs around JD28. Also, be sure to bring a modest swimming costume. Al-Pasha Turkish Bath.is easiest to find if you’re coming along Abu Bakr as-Siddiq St (Rainbow St) from the 1st Circle; it’s the fifth street on the right. Taxis know it as near Ahliya School for Girls.
Rainbow Street. Has many bars and restaurants usually at twice the price of downtown establishments.
AZRAQ & THE EAST
The landscape east of Amman quickly turns into a featureless stone desert, known as the badia, cut by twin highways running to Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It has its own haunting, if barren, beauty, partly because it seems so limitless: indeed this is what 80% of Jordan looks like, while supporting only 5% of its population. A whole assortment of ruined, known collectively as ‘desert castles’, have lured people into the wilderness for centuries. Most of these isolated outposts were built or adapted by the Umayyad rulers in the late 7th and early 8th centuries.
Accommodation and public transport is almost non-existent out here so most travellers visit the region on a tour from budget hotels in Amman. Alternatively, hire a car and make a thorough job of it by staying overnight in Azraq.
There are dozens of ruins belonging to the Damascus-based Umayyad dynasty (662-750 AD) scattered across the gravel plains of the Eastern Desert. They are believed to be way-stations, hunting lodges, bath houses and pleasure palaces on a route that connected Damascus with Jerusalem via Amman.
Each of the two sets takes a long, full day to cover. You can combine the two sets by staying the night in Azraq and using Hwy 5 to cut between the two.
Set 1: Desert Castle Loop (between Amman and Azraq): Qasr al-Hallabat, Qasr al-Azraq, Qasr ‘Uweinid, Qusayr Amra, Qasr al-Kharana, Qasr Al-Mushatta. Most tours visit the three below. We hired a car through the hostel and visited all three in about 5 hours round tirp . The cost was 65 JD. The driver would not bargain as this is what his company charges. The car was wi-fi equipped.
Located in the middle of a vast treeless plain, this 34m on a side, square fortress was most likely the inspiration of the ‘desert castles’ moniker. The two-storey structure is marked by round, defensive towers (actually solid) and narrow arrow slits (diagonal and more likely air and light ducts).
The origins are obscure but it was built either by the Romans or Byzantines, but what you see today is the result of renovations carried out by the Umayyads in 710 AD. 60 rooms surround a central courtyard. All have arches and domed ceilings. Two rooms are special with rosettes lining the upper walls, incised columns supporting the arches, decorative squares in the ceiling and other features.
One of the best preserved desert buildings of the Umayyads, it is UNESCO World Heritage listed and the only Umayyad building in the world with preserved frescoes. The building seen was part of a much larger complex and served as caravanserai, bathhouse and hunting lodge. It is famous for its rather risqué 8th century frescoes of wine, nude women and hunting scenes. Other features include mosaic floors in two side rooms, a bath house and a restored well. It is 26km from Azraq.
Qasr al-Azraz This black basaltic castle was built by the Romans, used by the Umayyad, rebuilt by the Arabs to fight the Crusaders and visited by Lawrence in 1917 during the Arab revolt. It was originally 3-storeys high but much of it crumbled in an earthquake in 1927. It does have interesting arches and roof structure.
Set 2: ‘Eastern Desert Highway’ or Hwy 10, which leads from the town of Mafraq to the Iraqi border. This other set lies on the so-called ‘Eastern Desert Highway’, or Hwy 10, which leads from the town of Mafraq to the Iraqi border. These are much more time-consuming to visit.
DEAD SEA & THE WEST
The Dead Sea is part of the Great Rift Valley; it is the lowest spot on earth at 425m below sea level and more than 390m deep. It is not actually a sea, but a lake filled with incoming water with no outlet. It is the second-saltiest body of water on earth (after Lake Aral in Djibouti) with a salt content of 31%. The Dead Sea is 3 million years old, but has shrunk by 30% in recent years (half a metre per year) due to evaporation, the demands of the potash industry, one of Jordan’s most valuable commodities and Israel removing water. Egyptians used Dead Sea mud (bitumen) in their mummification process; the last lump of floating bitumen surfaced in 1936.
Because of the salinity, nothing but the most microscopic of life forms can survive in it. Indeed, the only things you’re likely to see in the Dead Sea are a few over-buoyant tourists. A dip in the sea may be one of those must-do experiences, but be warned: you’ll discover cuts you didn’t know you had, so don’t shave before bathing!
I had originally planned on visiting, but it didn’t take long to change my mind. The main reason to go is to float in the sea itself. You cover yourself with mud and float – you can’t actually swim. Access to the water is via the public beach, Amman Beach or one of the resorts. But the public beach is often dirty and has no showers, Amman Beach access costs 20JD and the resorts with cleaner beaches much more (25, 40, or up to 100JD depending on the resort). And everything else is charged for: mud to cover yourself with – 3JD, a mandatory cold shower after – 5JD, a locker to store your stuff. And I had no desire to go in the water; I don’t like beaches or swimming at the best of times and it is cold out – January is not beach weather. I did not have to prove that I could float. And I did not have to see another body of water. I’ll go to the Dead Sea in Israel, it is the lowest point on Earth.
I was planning on going with another tourist, but there is nothing to do at the beach itself if you don’t go in the water. Nearby is Bethany-Beyond-the-Sea on the Jordan River; claimed by Christians to be the place where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, where the first five apostles met, and where the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot. It wasn’t until the 1994 peace treaty with Israel that the remains of churches, caves and baptism pools were unearthed. Pope John Paul II authenticated the site in March 2000. But this seemed like tourist kitsch to me. But on the way is Madaba, with lots of more appealing things to see.
MADABA (pop 152,900)
The relaxed market town of Madaba is best known for a collection of superb, Byzantine-era (332-635 AD) mosaics. Look for the chicken – there’s one in most mosaics, and trying to spot it may save ‘mosaic-fatigue’ syndrome. There is evidence of settlement here 4500 years ago. It was a Roman-Greek fortress, then Byzantine. In 750, an earthquake destroyed the city and it was abandoned for 1000 years until Bedoin Christians arrived in the 1880s. One third of Madaba’s population is Christian (the other two-thirds are Muslim), making it one of the largest Christian communities in Jordan. The town’s long tradition of religious tolerance is joyfully – and loudly – expressed on Fridays: the imam summons the faithful before dawn, then the carillon bells get the Orthodox Christians out of bed, and finally Mammon rises with the honks and groans of traffic. Madaba is worth considering as an alternative place to stay to Amman: Madaba is far more compact, has excellent hotels and restaurants, and is less than an hour by regular public transport from the capital. Madaba is also a good base for exploring the Dead Sea, Bethany and other sites such as Mt Nebo, Mukawir and Hammamat Ma’in.
Mosaic Map. Madaba’s most famous site is located in the 19th-century Greek Orthodox St George’s Church. In 1884 Christian builders came across the remnants of an old Byzantine church on the site of their new construction. Among the rubble, having survived wilful destruction, fire and neglect, the mosaic they discovered had extraordinary significance: to this day, it represents the oldest map of Palestine in existence and provides many historical insights into the region.
The mosaic was crafted in AD 560 and has 157 captions (in “Greek) depicting all the major biblical sites of the Middle East from Egypt to Palestine. It was originally around 15m to 25m long and 6m wide, and once contained more than two million pieces. Although much of the mosaic has been lost, enough remains (25%) to sense the majesty of the whole.
Shrine of the Beheading of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was arrested by Herod and put in chains in the prison. The daughter of Herodias (Herod’s niece) danced for Herod and he promised her anything she wanted. Oddly she asked for the head of John the Baptist and he delivered it on a plate!. This operational early 20th-century Roman Catholic Church has restored the ancient sites upon which the church sits on top of the acropolis of the city. The real gem of the complex is the Acropolis Museum, housed in the ancient, vaulted underbelly of the church. Here, an ancient well dating to the Moabite era, 3000 years ago, is still operational. Scale the belfry for the best panorama in Madaba climbing around the ropes, bells and girders. There is a copy of the incredible mosaic from St Stephens at Umm Ar-Rasas, 30kms south of Madaba: it lists 10 Egyptian churches, 8 cities in Israel/Palestine and 7 in Jordan with names and pictures and some great early photographs taken between 1901-1911.
Archaeological Park. This park includes exceptional mosaics from all around the Madaba area. The Hippolytus Hall, a former Byzantine villa with some superb classical mosaics (the upper image shows a topless Aphrodite sitting next to Adonis and spanking a naughty winged Eros). The other half of the structure is the 6th-century Church of the Virgin Mary Church of the Martyrs). There are also remains of a Roman road. The Burnt Palace is also here; it is the remains of luxurious house covered in ash when excavated.
Church of the Apostles. Has a remarkable mosaic dedicated to the 12 apostles. The central portion shows a vivid representation of Tahlassa, the Goddess of the sea, surrounded by fish and a comical little octopus.
Madaba Museum. Housed in several old Madaba residences, this museum contains a number of ethnographic exhibits and some more good mosaics.
I took the bus one hour to Madaba and visited everything above. Then I took a service taxi to Mount Nebo and back for 4JD, a good deal.
MT NEBO. On the edge of the East Bank plateau and 9km from Madaba, is where Moses is said to have seen the Promised Land. He then died (aged 120!) and was buried in the area, although the exact location of the burial site is the subject of conjecture. The first church was built on the site in the 4th century AD, but most of the Moses Memorial Church you’ll see today was built in the 6th century. The impressive main-floor mosaic measures about 9m by 3m, and is magnificently preserved. It depicts hunting and herding scenes interspersed with an assortment of African fauna, including a zebu (humped ox), lions, tigers, bears, boars, zebras, an ostrich on a leash, and a camel-shaped giraffe. The inscription below names the artist. This is a masterpiece but the church has been closed since 2008 for renovations. It is slated to open in July 2016. It’s worth coming to the lookout : the views across the valleys to the Dead Sea, Jericho, the Jordan Valley and the spires of Jerusalem are superb, especially on a cold day in winter when it is crystal clear. The views close were great but haze obscured anything far.
I didn’t go to any of the following. The logistics of transportation just seemed too difficult.
Hammamat Ma’in (Zarqa Ma’in). This is an area of about 60 thermal springs. A resort here has very mineralized water ranging from 45-60° in Roman baths, a family pool and swimming pool.
Machaerus (Mukawir). Just beyond the village of Mukawir is Machaerus, the castle of Herod the Great on a spectacular 700m-high hilltop. The ruins are only of moderate interest, but the setting is breathtaking with views over the surrounding hills and the Dead Sea. Known locally as Gallows Castle, the ruins consist of the palace, cistern, remains of baths and defensive walls. John the Baptist was beheaded here by Herod Antipas, the successor to Herod the Great.
Wadi Mujib. Stretching across Jordan from the Desert Highway to the Dead Sea is the ‘Grand Canyon of Jordan’, about 1km deep and 4km from one edge to the other. Just after Dhiban, the road descends after 3km to a lookout. It is possible to cross the 30 km Mujib from Dhiban to Ariha by taxi or hitching.
I went to the Israeli embassy to ask some questions about the Israeli visa. I have visited 12 Arab/Islamic countries this year and hear from other tourists that many get refused entry to Israel – if they have been in Iran, Afghanistan, or Lebanon for example. I did not want to get to the border and be refused. It was a waste of time. You needed an appointment, I was not applying for a visa and they wouldn’t let me in. They gave me a phone number to call. I phoned many times but it was never answered. I wrote an email that replied Canadians are visa and entry is determined by the border immigration.
The hotel I am staying at is great. An Iraqi man is doing the housecleaning/maid service. He is 35, has a wife and two children living here and is a registered refugee from Iraq. He is a trained teacher. He has been in Jordan for a year and will never return to Iraq. Democracy is not functional and he believes will never work there. He is not allowed to have a legal job in Jordan. The UN puts them in a refuge camp, unable to work, and they wait however long it takes to immigrate to another country – 2, 5, 7 10 years. He has no use for the UN.
This job is illegal. He cleans at this hotel and another one owned by the same guy under the table. He still feels like he is very lucky. He makes enough money to get by and support his family. Rent is 170JD, electricity 5JD, internet 20JD. I didn’t ask how much he makes. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a good country to live in. Iraq needed a strong dictator to control the country with its Sunni and Shiite populations. BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera on TV are not good in Iraq – it was much better when there was one government controlled TV station and propaganda was controlled. Jordan is a poor country with few resources with most of the economy based on tourism. The future doesn’t hold many positives.
I took a taxi back from the Israel Embassy. The driver was from Kuwait and well spoken. He expressed his frustrations with dating Muslim women. They were very sexual any everything but vaginal intercourse was possible – it is essential that you be a virgin in Islam to get a husband. He thought he would start to date Filipino women.
I decided to hang out in Amman for a few days and get caught up on business I have been procrastinating on. Accommodation and food is cheap. I started to rain on January 6 so stayed in the hotel for another day on the 7th. A big mushroom of water is boiling out of a manhole cover down on the street which is a river of water. Downtown Amman is in a valley at the base of all the hills. My plan is to do two-day trips north to see several sites there but waited for the weather to improve. To save transportation costs, take a service taxi from downtown to the north or south bus stations and then a bus to where ever you want to go.
You might expect that the far north of Jordan, with its exceptional Roman ruins, biblical associations, lively cities and complex terrain, would feature as a standard part of any visitor’s trip to the country. This, however, is not the case and the region receives relatively few visitors compared with Petra and the South.
Although many of the sites can be covered in a day trip from Amman, this ancient and populous region, dotted with olive groves and pine forests and liberally strewn with the ruins of Rome’s great Decapolis cities, repays a longer visit. The availability of public transport and friendly accommodation facilitate this.
JERASH (pop 123,190)
These beautifully preserved Roman ruins, located 51km north of Amman, are deservedly one of Jordan’s major attractions. Excavations have been ongoing for 85 years but it is estimated that 90% of the city is still unexcavated. In its heyday the ancient city, known in Roman times as Gerasa, had a population of around 15,000.
Allow at least three hours to do Jerash justice.
History. Although inhabited from Neolithic times, and settled as a town during the reign of Alexander the Great (333 BC), Jerash was largely a Roman creation. Rome annexed the Nabataeon Kingdom in south Jordan in 106 BC.
In the wake of Roman general Pompey’s conquest of the region in 64 BC, Gerasa (as Jerash was then known) became part of the Roman province of Syria and, soon after, a city of the Decapolis. The city reached its peak at the beginning of the 3rd century AD, when it was bestowed with the rank of Colony, after which time it went into a slow decline as trade routes shifted.
By the middle of the 5th century AD, Byzantine Christianity was the region’s major religion and the construction of churches proceeded at a startling rate. With the Sassanian invasion from Persia in 614, the Muslim conquest in 636 and a devastating earthquake in 749, Jerash’s heyday passed and its population shrank to about a quarter of its former size. It was basically abandoned until the 1880s.
Roman Ruins. The ruins at Jerash cover a huge area. The whole route, walking at a leisurely pace and allowing time for sitting on a fallen column and enjoying the spectacular views, takes a minimum of three to four hours.
At the extreme south of the site is the striking Hadrian’s Arch built in AD 129 to honour Emperor Hadrian who spent the winter here. Behind the arch is the hippodrome (220-749), the smallest and best preserved in the Roman Empire. It hosted chariot races watched by up to 17,000 spectators. In the 8th century, the hippodrome served as a mass burial site when the plague struck. The Church of Mariano is just across from the hippodrome; it has a wonderful quite intact mosaic floor.
The South Gate and the 3.4km long city wall were built in AD 130 after the city was looted and burned. The terrace below the Temple of Zeus shows the complete succession from early Bronze Age to late Roman times – successive churches dating from 27 AD, 70, 162 and a 5th century Byzantine church are represented archaeologically. There are also ruins of souks on both sides of the road here too. The Oval Plaza is unusual because of its shape and huge size (90m long and 80m at its widest point). Sixty-two Ionic columns surround the paved limestone plaza, linking the cardo with the Temple of Zeus.
The elegant remains of the Temple of Zeus supported by 38 columns was built around AD 162. It is a worthwhile climb if just for the view. Next door, the South Theatre was the most elegant and largest of the three theatres in Jarash. Built in 96 AD with 30 rows and a capacity of 5000 spectators, the acoustics are still wonderful as demonstrated by the two Arabs playing the drums and bagpipes.
Between the Oval Plaza and the North Gate is the 800m-long cardo, the city’s main thoroughfare. It still has 253 columns flanking it. It is paved with the original stones laid diagonally for easier driving by the thousands of chariots that once jostled along its length. Along the street is the Nymphaeum (190-749), the main fountain of the city and the Propylaeum or grand approach, with a 30m wide staircase leading to the Temple of Artemis (135-749). Bisecting the cardo are the North and South Decumanui, two east-west streets, both lined with more columns and with their original paving stones intact (manhole covers still have some of their original metal rings for exposing the sewer that ran under all the streets). At the intersections with the cardo are the North Tetrapylon (a massive domed arch) and the South Tetrapylon (only the bases of the original pink granite columns imported from Aswan in Egypt remain).
Walking up the North Tetrapylon leads to the North Theatre (165-749), a gorgeous 21-row theatre restored to its former glory. Next is the Temple of Artemis – Artemis was the patron goddess of the city – but the temple was never finished and subsequently dismantled to provide masonry for new churches. Twelve great columns remain.
23 Byzantine Churches were built in Jarash and several have been excavated many with great mosaic floors: the Cathedral (450-749), Church of Propylaea (565-749), Church of Bishop Isaiah (558-749), the triple Churches of St George, St Cosmos and Damiaes (twin brothers, both physicians martyred for providing free of charge medical care) and Church of St John the Baptist (largely intact mosaics), Church of Saints Peter and Paul and the Mortuary Church.
The small museum contains a good collection of artifacts from the site.
I took a share taxi (.7JD) to the north bus station, then a bus 51km to Jarash (.7JD). Jarash has no cheap accommodation so I continued with my big pack up to Ajloun in another share taxi. With no English and a misunderstanding, the driver demanded 2 more JD to get from Ajloun town center up to the castle. Neither the ticket office nor police office would store my pack while I toured the castle so I got some leg exercise climbing up to the viewpoint with spectacular views. Rather than going back to Jarash, I bargained a 5JD ride directly to Irbid.
AJLOUN (pop 94,458)
Ajloun is a popular and easy day trip from Amman, and can be easily combined with a trip to Jerash.
Ajloun Castle. 3kms west of town, the castle sits on a high hill 1100m above sea level. It is a fine example of Islamic military architecture. Built in AD 1184–88 by the Arabs as protection against the Crusaders, it was enlarged several times with seven towers and a surrounding dry moat that dropped to more than 15m deep. It has many high-ceilinged, large rooms with barrel and cross vault roofs.
The castle commands fine views of Ajloun and the Jordan Valley and was one in a chain of beacons and pigeon posts that allowed messages to be transmitted from Damascus to Cairo in a single day. Largely destroyed by Mongol invaders in 1260, it was almost immediately rebuilt by the Mamluks and used in the 17th century by the Ottomans. Ajloun Castle was ‘rediscovered’ by the well-travelled JL Burckhardt, who also stumbled across Petra. Earthquakes in 1837 and 1927 badly damaged the castle, though slow and steady restoration is continuing.
Ajloun Forest Reserve. Located in the Ajloun Highlands, this small (13 sq km) but vitally important nature reserve (year-round) was established in 1988 to protect forests of oak, carob, pistachio and strawberry trees (look for the peeling, bright orange bark) and provide sanctuary for the endangered roe deer. To reach the reserve, charter a taxi for the 9km from Ajloun.
Several marked trails, some self-guided, weave through the hilly landscape of wooded valleys. Particularly worthwhile is the Soap Trail, a guided trail (7km, four hours, year round) that combines panoramic viewpoints with visits to a soap workshop. I didn’t go here.
IRBID (pop 751,634)
Jordan’s second largest city is a university town, and one of its more lively and progressive. Irbid is also a good base for exploring the historic sites of Umm Qais, Pella and even Jerash. The town comes alive at night, especially in the energetic area around the university, where the streets are lined with restaurants and Internet cafes.
Dar As Saraya Museum. Located in a stunning old villa of basaltic rock, this new museum is a real gem. Built in 1886 by the Ottomans, the building is typical of the caravanserai established along the Syrian pilgrimage route, with rooms arranged around a paved internal courtyard. A delightful collection of local artifacts illustrates Irbid’s long history.
This museum is downtown, far from where I was staying and just too difficult to work out the logistics of getting there with no Arabic (ie. Too many taxis).
Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. This highly recommended museum features exhibits from all eras of Jordanian history arranged in chronological order.
I took a taxi from Aljoun to Irbid by a direct route that did not go back to Jerash. At 5JD it was a good deal. But the driver couldn’t find the cheap hotel I wanted (Al-Ameen al-Kabeer on Al Jaish St but it was uncertain if it was even open) and we had an hour drive around the big city. Unwilling to ask directions in a city he didn’t know, we drove everywhere around Irbid and he ended up simply dropping me off at a hotel, the Aphamia (20JD including breakfast). It was 3 blocks from the north bus station and close to two malls, a McDonalds and of all things, a Safeway supermarket, the first supermarket I have seen in Jordan. I took the opportunity to buy some cereal.
One meal that is easy to prepare for is breakfast: cereal, walnuts, banana and milk. I also always carry instant coffee; no matter how much you might dislike Nescafe, it is the only way to satisfy your coffee addiction.
Near the hotel was a furniture store, with living room sets so ugly, I had to go in and look around. Imagine huge sofas and chairs with gaudy fabric and wild carved wood/plastic embellishments. The salesman took me upstairs to see the “normal “ stuff and there was some that looked ok. The over-the-top furniture reminded me of Middle East jewelry – very gaudy, full of filigree and many little stones.
Most Jordanian women wear hajib and some full abuelah with veils. Long heavy coats and spike heels are common. These don’t do much for their appearance, but Muslim women are very distant at best with no eye contact. Makeup is unbelievably heavy: large dark eyebrows, huge mascara, big eyelashes, heavy foundation and bright lipstick – not very cute. Take off the headscarf and makeup, I think most would be real “babes”. If approached for directions, most don’t even acknowledge your existence.
It is a rare Jordanian man who doesn’t smoke. Here you can smoke anywhere including restaurants, taxis and buses. Most hotels don’t let you smoke in the lobbies.
UMM QAIS (Gadara; pop >5000)
Tucked in the far northwest corner of Jordan, and about 25km from Irbid, are the ruins of Umm Qais, site of both the ancient Roman city of Gadara and an Ottoman-era village. The hilltop site offers spectacular views over the Golan Heights in Syria, and into Israel, the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias) to the north, and the Jordan Valley to the south. The terrain here is mountainous with deep valleys and rocky terrain with sparse olive and pine trees.
Roman Ruins (5 JD – I have now more than paid off the cost of my Jordan Pass even though I did not use the 40 JD visa portion). Entering the site from the south, the first structure of interest is the well-restored and brooding West Theatre. Constructed from black basalt, it once seated about 3000 people. This is one of two such theatres – the North Theatre is overgrown and missing the original black basalt rocks, which were recycled by villagers in other constructions. Nearby is a colonnaded courtyard and the remains of a 6th-century Byzantine church. Beyond this is the decumanus maximus, Gadara’s main road running 1.5kms on an east-west axis. 6.5m wide, it is all basaltic rectangles set on diagonals, heavily rutted from chariot wheels. The road was colonnaded but only about 13 complete columns remain. The rest are lying all over the place. A set of overgrown baths are to the west. Further along is a basilica (360 AD) built atop a Roman mausoleum. This is the location of the “miracle of Gadara” described in the New Testament in Matthew 8:28: “On his way from Lake Genezareth in Gadarone country, Jesus met two possessed men who dwelled in the tombs on the outskirts of the city. Jesus healed them of their affliction by driving out their devils into a herd of swine, which thereupon plunged into the water.”
Beit Russan. A former residence of an Ottoman governor and now a museum, it is set around an elegant and tranquil courtyard. The main mosaic on display (dating from the 4th century and found in one of the tombs) contains the names of early Christian notables and is a highlight, as is the headless, white marble statue of the Hellenic goddess Tyche, which was found sitting in the front row of the west theatre.
Surrounding the museum are the ruins of the Ottoman village dating from the 18th and 19th centuries and also known as the acropolis. I did not go to this museum.
I took a bus near my hotel to another bus station and then a bus all the way to the outside of the ruins. On the way back, I hitchhiked into town and the bus back to Irbid was waiting. Public transportation is always slower and less convenient but a fraction of the cost.
So by going completely local, I traveled from my hotel to Umm Qais and back, saw the ruins, had lunch and took the bus all the way to Amman for less than the price of quarter pounder with cheese, large fries and large drink at McDonalds (4.5JD): I walked to and from my hotel to the bus depot 3 times, about 8 blocks total, 2 service buses to another bus station in Irbid – .2JDx2, a bus return to Umm Qais – .7JDx2, lunch, a chicken shwerma – 1.25JD and the bus to Amman – 1.25JD = 4.3JD total. The service taxi (.4JD) from the north bus station to Shabsogh service taxi station downtown put me over the top. The entrance to the ruins (5JD) was free with my Jordan Pass. In Jordan, transportation is some of the cheapest in the world – that standard is about 1US$ per hour of transport.
A fellow working at the front desk of Arab Towers had lived in the US and spoke very good English. The official population of Jordan is 5 million but is more like 10 million with all the Syrian refugees. Many of them live in Amman working in all the restaurants and shops. They have replaced Egyptians as the source of cheap labour as they are cleaner, better educated and better workers. Since Egypt raised the price of gas to Jordan, the country has made it much more difficult for Egyptians to come to Jordan to work.
After one night back in Arab Towers, I traveled on to Karak.
Of Jordan’s three highways (only one of which is a dual carriageway) running from north to south, the King’s Highway is by far the most interesting and picturesque, with a host of attractions lying on the road or nearby. The highway connects the mosaic town of Madaba to the pink city of Petra via Crusader castles, Roman forts, biblical sites, a windswept Nabataean temple and some epic landscapes – including the majestic Wadi Mujib and a gem of a nature reserve at Dana.
KARAK (pop 28,000).
Crusader Castle. One of a long line of castles built by the Crusaders stretching from Aqaba in the south to Turkey in the north, they are the sites of the 12th-century battles between the Crusaders and the Muslim armies of Saladin. At one point, the castle belonged to Renaud de Chatillon, an unsavory and treacherous knight of the cross, who was renowned for his sadistic delight in torturing prisoners and throwing them off the walls into the valley 450m below; he even went to the trouble of having a wooden box fastened over their heads so they wouldn’t lose consciousness before hitting the ground.
The castle has an Ottoman Gate, Crusader Gallery (stables), soldier’s barracks and kitchen, church, Mamluk keep and palace (built in 1311 using earlier Crusader materials), and un underground marketplace.
I don’t think I have had so much taxi and driver abuse in my life. I have lost faith in some Jordanians. I never did figure out if I could catch a service taxi from Shobsogh to the South Bus Station, but I could from the North Bus Station and after a couple of taxis got to the north. Nobody spoke English. Then I was told it was 1JD and after a very long drive across Amman, I was only charged 500 fils. I gave him 1JD. Then it was 2 hours to Karak and 2 buses across Karak to get 2 blocks from Karak Castle, high on the hill above town.
The castle has stupendous views to the west and south and east back to Karak, but is in itself possibly not worth the hassles of getting there. There are many big barrel-vaulted rooms and passageways.
I walked down to a bus station and after a bus to some town, it was a walk and a second bus to a third bus heading to Tafila, a transportation hub. Here the whole tenor of the people changed – to very nice. I had some great help from two guys and was finally on my way to Qadsiyya, the town 1km below the turnoff to Dana and the Dana Biosphere Reserve.
DANA BIOSPHERE RESERVE
This is one of Jordan’s hidden gems and its most impressive ecotourism project. The gateway to the reserve is the charming 15th-century stone village of Dana, which clings to a precipice overlooking the valley and commands exceptional views. It’s a great place to spend a few days hiking and relaxing. Most of the reserve is accessible only on foot.
The reserve is the largest in Jordan and includes a variety of terrain – from sandstone cliffs over 1500m high near Dana to a low point of 50m below sea level in Wadi Araba. Sheltered within the red-rock escarpments are protected valleys that are home to a surprisingly diverse ecosystem. About 600 species of plants (ranging from citrus trees and juniper, to desert acacias and date palms), 180 species of birds, and over 45 species of mammals (of which 25 are endangered) – including ibexes, mountain gazelles, sand cats, red foxes and wolves– thrive in the reserve.
Dana is also home to almost 100 archaeological sites, including the 6000-year-old copper mines of Khirbet Feynan.
The visitor center in the Dana Guest House complex includes a museum, craft shop, nature exhibits and a food-drying center for making organic food.
Most trails require a guide with a cost depending on time and number of people. One route is the unguided Wadi Dana Trail, a 14km trail that switchbacks steeply down into the gorge to Feynan Lodge (a vehicle back costs 45JD). This is the first day of most treks on the 3-5 day “back door to Petra”.
Getting There. Minibuses run every hour between Tafila and Qadsiyya with the turn-off to Dana village 1km north of Qadsiyya. Get dropped off at the crossroads and walk or hitchhike down the 2.8kms to the village.
I emailed Dana Tower Hotel (15JD including breakfast and dinner) to stay 2 nights.
I was let off at the top of the road in full cloud – basically white-out conditions, windy and cold. I put on my gloves and warm clothes and started the walk down the road, hoping to hitchhike. No more than a minute passed and I was picked up by a guy who worked at Dana Moon Hotel, and he took me there. The manager asked how much I wanted to pay (I hate that question). I didn’t respond and he offered 4JD!! for a single room with a king-sized bed. It was unheated but that would be my preference anyway. Mohammed, the manager speaks great English and is very hospitable.
I walked down through the tiny town and stopped in at Dana Towers Hotel. There were 5 travellers there and I sat around and gabbed for a couple of hours in the heated lounge. When their dinner arrived (a sumptuous banquet), I returned to my hotel for dinner in their restaurant next to a heater.
The next day (February 11) dawned with clear blue skies. The view from the “edge” looked straight down the entire wadi and past over a huge plain. Then everything disappeared into the smog-like haze.
The owner of Dana Towers complained about Mohammed stealing his guest and I decided to change hotels. Even though the room was cheap, Mohammed inflated the prices on everything else and the total bill came to 17.5JD. The bed and room was much nicer at the Moon but the Towers was better in other ways – a heated “lounge”, wi-fi and more tourists. I was also getting of tired of every sentence ending with “my friend”. Four of the guests were 2 French couples and the other a German woman here installing a 38 tower wind farm high above Dana. They all left the next day to be replaced by a French family of 4 traveling for 7 days around Jordan with their own guide. I sat around all day reading and relaxing.
I got a free ride up the hill with the hotel into Qadsiyya (normally there is a bus at 8am but today was Friday). I walked through town refusing more than one ride for too much money, but finally bargained a 4JD ride to Shobak. For another 1JD, he drove me the 3km out of town to Shobak Castle (free).
SHOBAK. Perched in a wild, remote landscape, Shobak Castle is less complete than Karak and there is almost no view. Formerly called Mons Realis (Mont Real, or Montreal – the Royal Mountain), it was built by the Crusader king Baldwin I in AD 1115. It withstood numerous attacks from the armies of Saladdin before succumbing in 1189 (a year after Karak), after an 18-month siege. This was the last time the Trans-Jordan had any historical significance – as an administrative and military role. Shobak was part of the Crusader defence system of the Outer Jordan (Aqaba, Petra, Showbak, Tafileh, Karak and Ahamant or Amman). Excavation has revealed a market, two Crusader churches and a semicircular keep whose exterior is adorned with Quranic inscriptions, possibly dating from the time of Saladin. The court of Baldwin I is also worth a look. It is impossible to sort any of the preceding and the castle itself is not really worthwhile but the real highlight is the underground escape tunnel that winds down seemingly forever into the bowels of the earth,. It starts off with good steps that quickly degrade into sloping steps into a slippery slope, but handholds are good (there are apparently 365 steps but at least 300 are no longer functioning). The ceiling is high so there’s no need to crouch. The tunnel ends at a chimney with steel rungs finally resurfacing beside the road. Bring a torch and confidence that it does end.
I hitchhiked back to Shobak, the town, through town and finally paid 5JD (everyone wanted 10 or 15 or 20) for a ride to within 30m of my hotel in Wadi Musa – Saba’a Hotel.
WADI MUSA (pop 20,000)
The village that has sprung up around Petra is Wadi Musa (Moses’ Valley) – a string of hotels, restaurants and shops stretching about 5km from Ain Musa, the head of the valley, down to the entrance to Petra. The village centre is at Shaheed roundabout, with shops, restaurants and budget hotels, while midrange hotels are strung out along the main road for the remaining 2km towards the entrance to Petra.
Accommodation. The price increases as you get closer to Petra. Stay in Central or Upper Wadi Musa for the cheapest places. Saba’a Hotel (dorm 8JD), just north of the circle, is owned by an English woman and her Jordanian husband. Very nice to deal with a Westerner for once. She said that since 2006, tourism in Petra is down 80% and 2015 was their worst year ever. She knows of 11 hotels in Wadi Musa that have closed.
Cave Bar. Occupying a 2000-year-old Nabataean rock tomb next to the Petra Guest House, this is arguably the oldest bar in the world.
History. There is evidence of habitation 70,000 years ago, houses from the Neolithic period (8500-550BC), Bronze Age (3700-1200BC), Iron Age (the Edomites 1200-539BC), Babylonians (5th century BC) and then the first arrival of the Nabataeans in the 6th century BC. The spectacular sandstone city of Petra was built in the 3rd century BC by the Nabataeans, nomadic Arabs from NW Saudi Arabia, who controlled the frankincense trade routes of the region in pre-Roman times. They carved palaces, temples, tombs, storerooms and stables from the sandstone cliffs. From here, they commanded the trade routes from Damascus to Arabia, and great spice, silk and slave caravans passed through, paying taxes and protection money. Petra was at the centre of several trade routes: Egypt to the west, NW by the Mediterranean to Europe, north to the Levant and the Spice route from the east. Frankincense and myrrh (used as incense burned at temples, in burials, for embalming, sacrifices and rituals, it was incredibly expensive at the time, but wealthy Romans were willing to pay) were produced in present day Oman and Yemen (in 100BC the Minaen Kingdom in Yemen collapsed and the Nabataeans took over), transported via 65 camel stages over 12 weeks to Petra and onto Gaza, a distance of 2750kms. They were able to control rain water by building 5 major aqueducts, cisterns and reservoirs, and using clay pipes and waterproof cement. In a short time, the Nabataeans made great advances – they mastered hydraulic engineering, intense agriculture, textile production, iron production, copper and silver refining, glass production, wine production (there were 40 rock-cut wine presses in the Petra area), sculpture and stone carving. There were 11 Nabataean kings until the last one died in 106 AD. They borrowed architectural ideas from Assyrians, Syrians (arches), Egyptians (obelisks), Greco-Romans (pediments, capitals, triglyphs, and metopes), all identifiable in the rock-cut structures. The structures were started at the top and worked down using metal chisels and then covered all the rock with a thing layer of plaster, now mostly gone. The surfaces, corners, and roofs are perfectly done, absolutely flat and covered in the fine chisel work. Their kingdom at its height supported 20,000 people and all the caravans and spread from Damascus to NW Saudi Arabia, the Sinai and well past eastern Jordan.
The Romans occupied the area for 2 centuries followed by the Byzantines (324, converted the Monastery and Urn tombs into churches). An earthquake in 363 destroyed much of the water system aqueducts and crumbled the free-standing structures of the Qasr al Bint and the Great Temple and after a second on e 551, the Byzantines moved to Karak. The Umayyads in the 7th century used it as a pilgrimage stop between Damascus and Mecca. The Abbasid Caliphate moved their capital to Baghdad in the 8th century. Crusaders built 3 fortresses here in the 11th century to obstruct pilgrimage routes, but were eventually overcome by Saladdin.
It was rediscovered by accident in 1812 by the Swiss explorer, Johan Burckhardt (the same chap who stumbled on the temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt). Until his momentous journey, disguised as an Arab, the neglected city, hidden deep in the rocky valleys of Wadi Musa, had escaped the attention of the Western world for hundreds of years. British explorers came in 1818, French artists in 1827 (first to find the Monastery), the first American, John Steens in 1832, and the first woman, Charlotte Rowley in 1835. It was a star attraction in the 1989 Indian Jones movie, the Lost Crusade.
A guide costs 50-70 JD (but all info is easily found in the museum and by reading). Avoid the horse ride after the entrance (it is free and included in the ticket, but you will be forced to pay a healthy tip). And be prepared for constant hassles from touts for donkey and camel rides and the many Bedouins selling trinkets throughout the site.
You approach Petra through the legendary 1.2km-long, high-sided Wadi Siq. This is not a canyon, but rather a rock landmass that has been rent apart by tectonic forces. Just as you start to think there’s no end to the Siq, you catch breathtaking glimpses ahead of the most impressive of Petra’s sights, the Treasury, known locally as Al-Khazneh. 39.5m high, it was carved out of iron-laden sandstone to serve as a tomb to King Aretas IV (9BC-40AD), the Treasury gets its name from the misguided local belief that an Egyptian pharaoh hid his treasure in the top urn. The Greek-style pillars, winged griffins, vases, scrolls, alcoves and plinths are truly masterpieces of of masonry work. In the centre is the goddess Isis surrounded by dancing Amazons.
From the Treasury, the way broadens into the Outer Siq, riddled by over 40 tombs known collectively as the Street of Facades. Just before you reach the weatherworn 7000-seat Theatre (cut from one piece of stone, it was started by the Nabataeans, it was enlarged by the Romans), notice a set of steps on the left. These ascend to the High Place of Sacrifice, a hill-top altar, an easy but steep 45-minute climb. Descend on the other side of the mountain via the Garden Tomb, Roman Soldier’s Tomb and Garden Triclinium and follow your nose back to the Street of Facades, not far after the Theatre.
Almost opposite the Theatre, you’ll notice another set of steps that lead to a fine set of tomb facades cut into the cliffs above. These belong to the Royal Tombs and are worth a visit not just as they illustrate some of the best carving in Petra, but also because they give access to another of the city’s mystic high places. To climb to the plateau above the Royal Tombs (one hour round trip), pass the Urn Tomb, with its arched portico, and look for stairs just after the three-storey Palace Tomb. If the tea vendor at the top is available, ask him to show you an aerial view of the Treasury. Return the way you came or search out a set of worn steps leading down a gully to the Urn Tomb.
Returning to the Theatre, the main path turns west along the colonnaded street, which was once lined with shops, passing the rubble of the nymphaeum en route to the elevated Great Temple (7500 meter square and boasting 60 columns) and the Temple of the Winged Lions on the opposite side of the wadi. At the end of the colonnaded street, on the left, is the imposing main Nabataean temple known as Qasr al-Bint – 23m high and one of the few free-standing structures in Petra.
From Qasr al-Bint, the path leads to restaurants: (from their prices, it is a good idea to bring your own lunch: lunch 10-17JD, drinks 2-4JD).
Behind the Nabataean Tent Restaurant is the small hill of Al-Habis (the prison). A set of steps went up to Al-Habis Museum (now closed and all moved to the new museum at the entrance). From here you can take a path anticlockwise around the hill with fine views overlooking fertile Wadi Siyagh. Eventually you will come to another set of steps to the top of a hill, the site of a ruined Crusader fort, built in AD 1116. The views across Petra are spectacular. Allow an hour to circumnavigate the hill and reach the fort.
Beside the Basin Restaurant is the opening to Wadi Siyagh and the start of the winding path that climbs to one of Petra’s most beloved monuments, the Monastery. Known locally as Al-Deir, the Monastery is reached by a rock-cut staircase (with 800 steps, it is a 45-minute walk to the top) and is best seen in late afternoon when the sun draws out the colour of the sandstone. Built as a tomb around 86 BC, with its enormous facade, it was most probably used as a church in Byzantine times (hence the name). Spare ten minutes to walk over to the two viewpoints on the nearby cliff tops. From here you can see the magnificent rock formations of Petra, Jebel Haroun and even Wadi Araba. On the way back down, look out for the Lion Tomb in a gully near the bottom of the path.
On Jan 13, I saw everything above. I spent the day with a very pleasant 48-year-old German fellow. A teacher, he is here during his school’s winter break for 2 weeks and is traveling by bicycle. We sat for a long time in front of the Royal Tombs. There I met a man (with his wife and 82 year old parents) who is originally from Australia but runs an evangelical church in Dubai. He has many Muslim converts who take a great risk to convert to Christianity and face death from their family. We also visited some ruins to the east of the Royal Tombs. The colour of the layered sandstone was amazing. From the Monastery, there are 2 viewpoints to the west with tremendous views down to some very rugged mountains and the valley in the distance. There I met Mina Guli, a young Australian lawyer who is running 40 marathons in 7 deserts on 7 continents over 7 weeks to raise awareness for water, its scarcity and the need to conserve it. She runs 6 marathons over 6 days in each desert (Antarctica, Mohave in USA, Simpson in Australia, Atacama in Chile, Karoo in South Africa, Tabernas in Spain, and Arabian in Jordan) and then presumably has a travel day. Go to www.thirstforwater.org to see all the information. She was traveling with 4 young cinematographers filming the runs. Jordan is the second water-poorest country in the world. We waited for sunset and walked out in the dusk and then dark.
On February 14, I had my second day at Petra – and I had one of my best travel/hiking days of my life. I ended up doing 3 hikes, and as I started late, it was hard to fit them all in. This would be one reason to get a three-day Petra pass.
1. Wadi Muthlim. This adventurous scramble is an exciting alternative route into Petra if you’ve already taken the main path through the Siq. The hike is not difficult or strenuous, but there are several places where you’ll need to lower yourself down pour-offs. Don’t attempt the hike if it has been raining or is likely to rain. As there was a fatality on this route, a guide is now required and the police stop you from entering from the top. I wasn’t stopped and entered from the top. The trail starts at the dam just to the right of the entrance to the Siq. You almost immediately go through a short tunnel (Nabataean Tunnel). Simply walk down the rocky creek bed. There are some spots with stupendous sandstone – dark red layers alternating with tan-coloured rock. And the lower end slots up with some nice narrow, twisty bits. The canyon ends about a kilometre from the Royal Tombs but on the walk back, you pass many rock-cut tombs. A good trail runs just along the south side of the wadi. If the police don’t allow you to walk down the wadi, plan on coming back out of Petra this way. It is well worth it.
2. Al-Khubtha Trail. Before you reach the Royal Tombs coming from Wadi Muthlim, this “trail” goes up a side canyon to the south. It is a long steep climb up a gorgeous (mostly) rock-cut stairway cut into the cliff face. The first view point gives a hint of the incredible views up ahead. Before the last short bit of stairs is a bench perched right at the edge of a 1000 foot drop. The view is of the entire centre of Petra with the theatre to the left and good views down toward the Great Temple and the start of the trail to the Monastery. Those last stairs bring you to the top of cliffs above the Royal Tombs. Walk in front of a small “house” rock-cut into a rock bump right at the top, descend a small cliff and walk south along a dirt trail. This eventually leads to a Bedouin home perched on the edge of the cliff immediately above the Treasury. The views are unbelievably nice. Return the way you came as there is no way down the vertical cliffs. There were a lot of goats at the top. Don’t miss this one.
If planning on doing the Mount Aaron hike, take the time at the top of the Al-Khubtha viewpoints to follow the road that is the first part of the route there.
3. Jebal Harun (Mount Aaron 1270m). Aaron was Moses’ brother and his tomb is in a sanctuary right at the top of this mountain.
Walk a few hundred meters past the Theatre and take a rocky trail to the left. This eventually hits a dirt road that passes just above the Great Temple and that is followed for the majority of the hike. The first landmark is ‘Amud Fir’awn or the Pharaoh’s Column. This is the solitary column remaining of a ruined sanctuary (and apparently on the route to Egypt via Naqa al-Rubai). Just after the column, take the right fork that crosses through a large wadi (Wadi Ras Suleiman) and continues past several rock-cut tombs and many Bedouin homes climbing up to reach a shoulder where you get the first view of your destination, Jebal Harun with the white tomb of Aaron on top. Scan the south flank of the mountain to see the faint white zig-zagging trail. Cross two tributaries of the headwaters of another large wadi. Just at the high point after the first tributary, leave this main road and take a faint track heading west. Scan ahead to the right of the wadi to see the beginning of the trail that winds along the bottom of a hill. Cross the upper end of the wadi, pass in front of a small block building and head up aiming for the start of the trail. The trail is easy to follow to the top of the mountain. Most is slick rock cleared of all rocks. When on top of the cliff below the summit block, walk along the west side to the stairway on the north side of the mountain that ascends the cliff face: back to Wadi Musa and for hundreds of miles to the west and north. Climb the narrow stairs on the NW of the tomb to get onto the roof. Descend the way you came.
It took me 2 1/2 hours from just past the Theatre to the summit. On the flank of the mountain, i met a young bedouin couple with a baby on donkeys. He offered a donkey for 20JD for the remaining hour to the top. I was only interested in walking. As the “keeper of the keys” to the tomb, he then offered use of the key to enter the tomb for 10JD. He discounted the view as being of any importance. We were miles apart on price.
Other Hikes. There are numerous hikes into the hills and siqs around Petra. You need a guide for any hikes requiring overnight stops (it’s not permitted to camp within Petra itself), but there are many other smaller trails that can be easily hiked alone.
Umm al-Biyara. This is a steep hike up the imposing mountain whose sheer cliffs dominate Petra to the west. The steep, exciting route climbs 300m to 1160m at the top. Start as for Jebel Harun to Pharaoh’s Column and cross the wadi. About 100m after crossing the wadi, go right 50m left of some stone tombs. Pass through a rocky defile into a little basin surrounded by caves, up diagonally past more caves then zigzag left and right to enter the gully at a new wall. Ascend the gully on ramps and reach steps, ledges and more steps to the top. On top is an Edomite settlement and Nabataean sites and cisterns.
Refer to the book “JORDAN – Walks, Treks, Caves, Climbs and Canyons” (available in Hotel Saba’a for the many other hiking possibilities around Petra: Wadi Sabra, for example looks interesting.
A Suggested Plan For Seeing the Most of Petra
Two full days are a minimum to see all the good things. Three is ideal.
1. One day. Enter at the Siq and visit all the big sites: Museum at the entrance, Treasury, High Place of Sacrifices, Street of Facades, Theatre, Blue Church, Great Temple, Temple of the Winged Lions, Qasr al-Bint, Al-Habis (the prison), Crusader fort, Lion Tomb, Monastery and the great viewpoints beyond the Monastery. Walk back and go up to the Royal Tombs following the cliff around past all of them and go up the Al-Khubtha Trail to the viewpoints down to the centre of Petra, the Theatre and the Treasury. Return down the stairs and descend to the trail heading east above the Wadi and walk about a kilometre to the lower entrance of Wadi Muthlim. Go up this wonderful canyon to the top emerging at the entrance to the Siq. Return to Wadi Musa and your hotel.
2. Two Days. Climb Jabel Harun plus if energetic also climb up to Umm al-Biyara.
3. Three Days. Separate day 1 and 2 into its components to make for easier days: Al-Khubtha Trail and Umm al-Biyara for example.
After my enormous two days in Petra, I decided to take a day off and relax before heading down to Wadi Rum and Aqaba before going to Israel.
TE Lawrence wrote about its sculpted rocks, dunes and Bedouin encampments in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” in the early 20th century. A quintessential desert: extreme in summer heat and winter cold and gorgeous sun at dawn or dusk. It offers one of the easiest and safest glimpses of the desert in the region, most easily done by going on a 4WD tour and staying overnight in one of the desert camps. Besides tours there are camel rides but one hour is more than enough. There are no hotels in Wadi Rum but a huge selection of camping choices. Some desert camps are located near the village of Diseh, 16km from the Desert Highway.
There was no else in the hostel who wanted to book a trip with Saba’a’s usual Bedouin guide, Saleem, so I got the bus at 06:20 with no reserved trip. There were five other Westerners on the bus: a Canadian from Toronto, and two Chilean women all with reservations for a jeep tour and overnight stay. However two nice young Israeli women, Or and Tzippy, had no trip and I joined them. They were university students in Tel Aviv at the end of a 7-day trip to Jordan. Few Israelis visit Jordan as they believe that it is too dangerous and that they can’t go if they have been in the Israeli army (not true). Or and Tzippy thought Israel was more dangerous than Jordan. They had both done their military time in the Israeli Army in the infantry working as border security.
While the rest continued on the bus, we had to get off at the Visitors Center, pay the 5 JD entrance fee (free with Jordan Pass) and be at the mercy of the touts trying to sell tours. But Abraham from Saba’a Hotel had phoned Saleem and he was waiting for us there. He offered a 5-hour tour to all the sites for 75JD. He drove us into Rum Village where we went to a “supermarket” and bought tomatoes, cucumbers, large thin ‘tortillas’, hummus and oranges for lunch (instead of the 5JD per person lunch offered by Saleem). The Israeli girls did things as inexpensively as possible.
Wadi Rum is a large area of sandy desert interspersed among huge blocks of eroded sandstone. Bedouin live in blanket tent encampments dispersed all over the place. Herds of goats and camels are everywhere. There are several rewarding hikes walking through soft sand. A 3-hour loop hike goes from the visitor centre to the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and up Makharas Canyon curving around the northern tip of Jebel Umm al-Ishrin back to the visitor centre.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom. A large rock formation with 7 fluted turrets is near the Visitors Center.
Jebel Rum (1754m) is an enormous dramatic tower above Diseh. A 1st-century BC Nabataean temple is also near the village.
Lawrence’s Spring. A leaking black hose descended from high above into a trough full of algae and ran over to a group of tents. We scrambled up boulders a few hundred feet to the source of the spring, a tiny dribble from deep in a cave that flowed into a small rock basin that fed into the hose.
Big Sand Dune (6km). Not a dune per se but a cascade of red sand spilling down from a rock cliff on the slopes of Jebel Umm Ulaydiyya.
Jebel Khazali (7km). Formed by tectonic forces, this narrow siq had pools of water and ended at a difficult to climb pour off. We sat in a large Bedouin tent full of rock benches and had tea by a fire. There was no pressure to buy any of his merchandise, a nice change.
Wadak Rock Bridge (the “Small Bridge” at 9km). Actually a small arch, it was easy to climb.
At lunch in somebody’s tent, we talked about the book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”, which if you believe what the Jewish Israeli author says paints a very damning picture of Israel (this book will leave you with little sympathy for the Israeli cause). The leaders at the time hatched a plan to get 75% of the land (and they have) by bulldozing selected Palestinian villages and killing Palestinians. The women said that is just one opinion (and one held by many left-wing Israelis), but they didn’t believe it. “Palestinians didn’t do anything with the land and look what we have done”. “Palestinians only want 100% of the land so there is no point in negotiating with them”.
Burdah Rock Bridge (the “Big Bridge” at 19km). Another arch, this opening is 8m high. It was a good scramble up slick rock to get to the top to walk over the bridge.
Barrah Siq (14 km). A long picturesque 15m-wide canyon with a large sand dune in the middle.
Lawrence’s House/Al-Qsair (9km). In a remote location, this collapsed stone building was not used by Lawrence but was built for the movie ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
We had some more nice Bedouin hospitality with tea. I got a ride with a German couple into Aqaba.
AQABA (POP 133,000)
On the Gulf of Aqaba, ringed by high desert mountains and with a pleasant climate year around, it is the most important city in southern Jordan. It has the small town atmosphere of a popular local holiday destination, but there’s not much to do for the tourist. It is a transportation hub en route to the diving resorts to the south, to Wadi Rum and Petra, by boat to Egypt and by land to Eliat, Israel.
Ayla. Located along the Corniche, this is the ancient port of Aqaba. It is incongruously squeezed between the marina and the Movenpick Resort.
Aqaba Fort. This squat 50m square fortification at the other end of the Corniche. Built between 1510 and 1517, it was used as a traveller’s inn for pilgrims on their way to Mecca. There is not much to see.
Aqaba Museum. Part of the fort, it was the home of the great-great-grandfather of the present king, Abdullah II. It has coins, ceramics and 8th-century Islamic stone tablets. There is not much to see and certainly not worth the 3JD fee (included in the Jordan Pass)
Diving and Snorkeling. The Gulf of Aqaba has over 110 species of hard coral, 120 species of soft coral and about 100 species of fish but no sharks or big fish. There are many good dive agencies.
Swimming. The café-lined beaches of Aqaba are aimed at sunset strollers rather than swimmers.
Boat Trips. Glass-bottomed boats to see fish but are expensive. You can snorkel.
Sindbad. Operate popular cruises around the Gulf of Aqaba and allow for snorkeling.
Aqaba Turkish Baths. Offer the full works – massage, steam bath and scrubbing.
Getting There and Away.
Boat. Two types of ferries operate between Aqaba and Neweiba in Egypt. Fares are paid in US$. The fast boat (US$75) leaves daily at 1pm. The slower car ferry service (US$65) takes 3 hours or more and leaves at 11am. You get a free Sinai permit on arrival at Nuwelba but not a full Egyptian visa.
To Israel. Cross at Wadi Araba (Yitzhak Rabin on the Israeli side). Open 6:30am-10pm Sun-Thu, 8am-8pm Fri &Sat. You can’t take your own car or motorcycle through this border. Taxis are necessary to drive the 15 minutes to the border, walk across and take a bus (2 minutes) into Eilat.
I stayed at Amir Palace Hotel (20JD) in Aqaba, a nice place. The next morning I visited the fort and museum and walked the corniche. There were lots of families having a picnic on the beach and many glass-boats, but it is not an attractive beach. I dealt on a taxi to the border for 5JD. It took me an hour to get through Jordan immigration. The guy repetitively asked me “Why did you go to Afghanistan, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran?” (this confused me as I didn’t go to Iran), and on and on. He made 10 phone calls, took copious notes and finally let me go on. What was he going to do – deport me?
I half expected to not be allowed into Israel. I had to unpack most of my pack. I was asked to sit and expected a several hour interrogation. On the bench was a woman my age from Anaheim who had been there for 5 hours and had been interrogated five times. She hadn’t eaten all day so I gave her all the food I had. After 10 minutes I got my stamp and was through!! I then hitchhiked into town (avoiding a 35 sheckle taxi ((US$8.75) for 3kms and stayed at Arava Hostel for 65 sheckles.