Jordan

“Behold Petra, a Vision, a Memory…..Eternal”

November 2016

Strategically located in the heart of the Middle East the world’s most volatile region, Jordan is an intoxicating destination replete with history, culture and jaw-dropping scenery. Invoke the Bible as a guidebook and travel back in millennia, walk in the footsteps of the enigma that is Lawrence of Arabia, immerse yourself in a true world wonder and marvel at the uniquely extraordinary magnificent site that is Petra. All this and more awaits to be discovered in a journey that exceeds all expectations.

Some local traders take a break to pose for the camera

 A Brief History

Jordan is located in the region known as the Fertile Crescent, the cradle of all civilisations. The productivity of the land in this area enabled early humans to move from hunter gatherers, to establishing the world’s earliest villages that flourished through the cultivation of crops and animal husbandry. The seminal evidence of these early settlements was discovered on the west bank of the River Jordan and date to around 9000 BC.

 

The Bronze Age Period (3000 – 1200 BC) saw the region growing prosperous with the accumulation of wealth producing items such as the extraction of local minerals. During this period the Amorites migrated to this area, their arrival has been associated with the violent destruction of the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The exodus of Moses and the Israelites from Egypt is dated to c1280 BC, their 40 year sojourn culminating when they finally settled on the east bank of the Jordan River.

Down the centuries numerous regional aggressors came and went, among them the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians. By the 5th century BC the Nabataeans had established a sizeable kingdom based around the commercial entrepot of Petra.

 

The 4th century BC saw the Macedonian King Alexander the Great sweep through the area on his way to conquer Persia and India. The turn of the millennium saw the mighty Roman Empire swallow up the entire region attaining the zenith of its power in the 2nd century AD. Roman influence in various guises dominated the region until the early 7th century.  

 

In the year 622 AD the armies of Islam exploded out of the Arabian Peninsular spreading their message of submission. Through the 12th and 13th centuries the Christian Crusader Armies waged a holy war against the Muslim incumbents, great adversarial combatants Richard the Lionheart and Saladin faced off against each other on the field of battle. From the 16th century until the First World War Jordan fell within the remit of the vast Ottoman Empire.

The history of modern day Jordan ostensibly begins at the turn of the 20th century. The Arab Revolt in 1916 was a British sponsored operation against the Ottoman Turks who were allied with Germany in the First World War. At this point a certain British lieutenant T E Lawrence - aka Lawrence of Arabia - enters into the pages of history as he becomes the poster figure for the Arab Revolt. Lawrence has penetrated the conscience of generations through his exploits with the Arab armies, sabotaging Ottoman supply lines and capturing the town of Aqaba. Theories persist as to whether Lawrence was a British spy or merely a flamboyant adventurer, classified secret documents may contain the truth about this enigmatic character. Lawrence’s legacy and image have subsequently become mythical and somewhat romanticised in David Lean’s 1962 Oscar winning film Lawrence of Arabia.

 

At the conclusion of the First World War and the subsequent disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, Jordan fell under the control of the British Mandate, which continued until 1946 when the independent Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was established.

 

Bitter wars against its neighbour Israel in 1948 and 1967 resulted in the substantial loss of land and the influx of vast numbers of displaced Palestinian refugees. A peace treaty was signed with Israel in 1994 ending a 46 year official state of war.

 

The Arab Spring of 2011 – unlike for many of its Arab neighbours – passed moderately peacefully in Jordan with just a handful of political reforms maintaining overall stability. Today Jordan stands as a relative paradigm of stability in the heart of the world’s most volatile region.

The Journey

This Jordanian adventure is a more circumspect exploration of the country, a compliment to a visit undertaken there some 20 years previous. Jordan has a population of 10 million, poverty and wealth sit uneasily side by side in this westward leaning country. Religious diversity and tolerance is readily apparent where churches and mosques co-exist check by jowl. Jordan’s main industries are the mining of potash, cement and phosphate, along with agriculture and tourism. The capital city of Amman is a modern city with a population of 2 million, tremendous amounts of building work are being undertaken with new high rise buildings punctuating the city skyline, providing a stark contrast to the more traditional neighbourhoods. As with many a capital city Amman has its fair share of museums, galleries and sites of interest to keep any visitor well occupied, though as tends to be the case the star attractions are invariably located away from the capital.

 

Situated a short drive south of Amman is the town of Madaba, home to hundreds of Byzantine-era mosaics, the most famous of these is the 6th century Madaba Map. Housed within the Greek Orthodox Church of St George, the map is a physical portrayal of the Eastern Byzantium world, the centrepiece being Jerusalem with its Church of the Holy Sepulchre, this exquisite mosaic is the earliest known extant map of the Holy Land. Located close by is Mount Nebo, a pilgrimage site of great significance, being the place where Moses looked out over the Promised Land - never to enter -  after his 40 year sojourn from Egypt.

The first tantalising glimpse of the Treasury, Petra’s iconic 1st century poster image monument

Located a short 1 hour drive north of Amman the ancient city of Jerash is one of Jordan’s truly exceptional visitor attractions. First constructed by the Greek armies of Alexander the Great in the 2nd century BC, Jerash’s golden age was in Roman times and it is widely recognised one of the best preserved Roman provincial cities in the world, only Leptis Magna in Libya can compete on the same scale. Jerash is an exuberant display of the architecture of power, a city of columns, hundreds of them stand proudly astride temples, theatres and a chariot-racing arena. Every aspect of a typical Roman city is evident here, including fortified walls punctuated by monumental towers and gates, the classic north-south orientated Main Street, a splendid array of public baths, a market place, a vast plaza and a complex of churches. At its heart Jerash is a subtle blend of the Orient and the Occident, a result of where the Greco- Roman world of the Mediterranean basin and the Arab Orient clashed and ultimately coexisted.

 

Following the delights of Jerash it’s a long day on the road heading south towards Petra, the journey is through typical desert scenery a harsh bleak landscape with very little agriculture. Spectacular high mountains, deep valleys, hairpin bends and switchbacks, dramatic scenery that simply takes your breath away. In this challenging environment are dotted every so often encampments of Bedouin tents, nearby men are riding on donkeys tending their herds of sheep and goats, whilst children wave at the bus of tourists passing by.

 

After a numbing 4 hour drive there is a welcome chance to stretch the legs and explore the spectacular Kerak Castle. This ancient Crusader stronghold – building commenced in 1142 - is the most renown of a chain of fortresses built for the Crusaders Holy War against the armies of Islam. The castle straddles the top of a prominent hill and is riddled with a maze of stone-vaulted halls and passageways protected by deep moated walls. The Muslim warlord Saladin laid siege to the castle twice in 1183 and 1184 but was unable to breach the castles formidable defences. Today this imposing structure is a twilight zone where light and dark play games with the senses and present a challenging environment for photographic experimentation.

 

A further 2 hours’ drive and we arrive at Shobak Castle, one of the least visited Crusader castles on the tourist agenda. Saladin laid siege to the castle for 2 years eventually capturing it in 1189. Dominating its rugged surroundings and mercifully free of the tourist crowds, the castle – constructed in 1115 by the Crusader King Baldwin I - is an evocative disintegrating edifice.  Within its grounds are a Crusader church and a 12th century palace that have undergone sympathetic reconstruction, its crumbling walls and watchtowers enhance the castles atmospheric appearance.

 

And so to Petra, Jordan’s world wonder and the standout highlight of any visit to the country.  Founded by local Nabataean Arabs over 2,000 years ago, Petra was a point of convergence for trade, commerce and cultural exchanges, and grew rich on the levy of taxes of goods passing through the city. Annexed to the Roman Empire in 106 AD, a series of earthquakes in the 6th and 7th centuries, combined with the changes in trading routes precipitated Petra’s atrophy and ultimately lead to the abandonment of the city. This forgotten ancient Nabataean city – a UNESCO World Heritage Site - was “rediscovered” by the Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt in 1812.

A local entrepreneur at Petra waits to offer any tourist that ultimate camel ride

Petra’s treasure-trove of over 800 monuments – including hundreds of funerary tombs, numerous temples, a theatre and a Byzantine church - are set in a spectacular location deep inside a narrow desert gorge. Access to the site is through a kilometre long chasm, the walls of which soar to a height of 200 metres. Appearing dramatically at the end of the chasm is Petra’s most famous monument the iconic Treasury. Built in the 1st century AD as a mausoleum for the Nabataean King Aretas (9 BC – 40 AD), it embodies the classical Hellenistic style of construction. Carved out of the sheer rock, the 43 metre high façade displays a variety of architectural elements, including Corinthian capitals, statues of gods, animals and mythological figures.

 

After the Treasury, which is Petra’s most photographed poster image monument, the other most totemic structure is the iconic Monastery. Located a 45 minute hike up 800 steps - optional donkey transport available – the Monastery was constructed in the early 2nd century AD during the reign of King Rabel II.  The 45 metre high façade is every bit as architecturally impressive as the Treasury being carved directly from the sheer rock. This spectacular example of Nabataean architecture is a hybridized mixture of Hellenistic and Mesopotamian styles of construction, and is a hallmark of the various regional influences that have permeated Petra’s history.

 

As you penetrate deeper into the gorge the sheer scale of Petra’s monuments becomes apparent, there are literally hundreds of tombs, temples, colonnaded streets, obelisks and other archaeological monuments waiting to be explored. The magnificent Roman theatre from the 1st century which could accommodate 4000 spectators; the Great Temple constructed around the end of the 1st century BC is one of the few structures that is free standing at Petra rather than being carved into the rock; the Byzantine Church built in the 5th century AD, its exquisite mosaics attesting to the church’s significance, these are just a few of the incredible collection of magnificent monuments that history has bequeathed to this region. The two days spent exploring Petra really only enables at best a cursory exploration of all that this amazing site has to offer. Petra is one of those places - like the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal – no matter how much is written or however many photographs you see, nothing prepares you for the sheer impact of this unique site.

 

Next stop on this amazing journey is a visit to Wadi Rum with its magnificent desert landscape, where monolithic outcrops of sandstone and granite rock thrust upwards from the desert floor with an ever shifting blanket of sand visually softening this harsh, vacuous and inhospitable environment. Wadi Rum is redolent with associations referencing Lawrence of Arabia, as it was here that Lawrence was active during the Arab Revolt and was the region he wrote about in his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom describing Wadi Rum as “vast, echoing and God-like”. Cashing in on the enduring fascination with Lawrence and its obvious tourist potential, references to Lawrence are today everywhere. Exploration of Wadi Rum reveals many natural rock formations sculpted by the wind and rain into weird shapes that resemble giant mushrooms, and in some places this process has created spectacular rock arches. The sheer size, scale and majesty of Wadi Rum are simply an overpowering visual experience, an assault on the senses never to be forgotten.  An overnight stay here in a Bedouin camp is an opportunity to indulge in the desert experience; dinner is chicken, lamb, potatoes and rice sealed in a drum and then buried in the sand on top of hot charcoal to cook for several hours. A comfort break in the middle of the night and the sheer majesty of the night sky is revealed in all its splendour, the heavens are covered with a blanket of millions of stars that engenders thoughts of space and time and as to how this places in perspective man’s position in our vast universe.

Formed by weather erosion, this spectacular rock arch in the desert at Wadi Rum makes a superb photographic image

The Red Sea port of Aqaba is located at Jordan’s most southerly point where it butts up against the borders of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Aqaba was where Lawrence of Arabia and the Arab forces defeated the Ottoman garrison in 1917 securing a vital base for the Allied armies. Since I was last here some 20 years ago Aqaba has indulged in a hotel building extravaganza in a concerted effort to lure tourists that have for decades been frequenting the town of Eilat, a pebbles-throw just across the border in Israel.  Aqaba is a magnet for the scuba diving and snorkelling fraternity, the Red Sea being world famous for its preserved coral reefs and unique marine life. The city’s main point of interest is the Aqaba Fort, built between 1510 and 1517 it served as a caravanserai for pilgrims travelling to Mecca and Medina for the annual Hajj. Today this evocative ruin is the pretty much the sole cultural attraction in a city that now markets itself as a hedonistic destination for beach lovers, water sports enthusiasts and chill-out seekers.

 

Driving back north through magnificent desert scenery - the fabled River Jordan on one side of the road and the jagged peaks of the Jordanian mountains on the other – it’s a 4 hour journey to the last major stop on this trip, a visit to the world famous body of water that is the Dead Sea. Part of the Great Rift Valley, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on the earth’s surface being 1,310 feet below sea level and is one of Jordan’s premier tourist attractions. This unique expanse of water has an amazingly high salt content of 33%, meaning that no marine life survives and its’ buoyancy coefficient means it is impossible to sink in its waters. Have your photograph taken while you float naturally reading a book, or maybe indulge in a mud pack treatment, the mineral content of the mud being justly famous for its propitious health and beauty properties.

 

Arriving back in Amman it’s time for some last minute shopping and out for a traditional Jordanian meal to celebrate the final day of this wonderful adventure.

The spectacular Monastery at Petra was built in the early 2nd  century, and sports an impressive 45 metre high façade

An Overview

Jordan as a destination was always going to deliver an exceptional visitor experience, it did not disappoint. The standout highlight was unequivocally the 2 days spent exploring Petra. Add for good measure Jerash where the full splendour of a Roman city is laid out on a breath-taking scale, the incredible desert landscape of Wadi Rum and a couple of atmospheric Crusader castles, and you have the recipe for an unforgettable journey through one of the most fascinating countries in the Middle East.

Dedicated to the Memory of Petra

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