Our June 2005 holiday
Introduction Amman Karak Petra Little Petra Wadi Rum Conclusion
"... match me such a marvel, save in Eastern clime
A rose-red city, half as old as time."
"Petra", a poem by the 19th-century British cleric Dean Burgen
"The English have a great hunger for desolate places."
Prince Feisal to T.E. Lawrence in the film "Lawrence Of Arabia" (1962)
After more than 30 years of travel, Roger & Vee had seen a couple of countries in north Africa - Morocco and Egypt - but nothing in the Middle East. We decided to start with Jordan, partly because it is a very stable Arab country but mainly because we wished to see the fabled city of Petra. It was the 41st country that Roger had visited.
As we have done on several previous occasions, we travelled with the company Voyages Jules Verne [click here]. The Wednesday flight from London Heathrow to Jordan's capital of Amman was with Royal Jordanian in an Airbus A310. Space on these airliners is always rather confined and Roger managed to overturn the entire contents of his glass of orange juice. It is difficult to be sure what irritated him most: having to sit for a couple of hours in wet trousers or having soaked several pages of the biography of T.E. Lawrence that he was reading.
The flight took four and a half hours and there is a two-hour time difference between the UK and Jordan, so we landed at the Queen Alia airport after midnight and were soon in bed at the Radisson SAS Hotel in central Amman. It turned out to be a very small group - just five others: Mike & Alison Laurence from near Newbury and Brian Higgins, Ana Kolkowska and their teenage son Oscar from west London.
In the modern sense, The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (to use its official name) is a recent creation as a nation state. Britain recognised the territory of Trans-Jordan as an independent state under its protection in 1923 and full independence was only achieved in 1946. However, the area has hosted some of the oldest civilisations in the world and the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks and Crusaders all helped to shape the region.
Like most Arab states, Jordan follows the Sunni Muslim faith. In 1958, the population of Jordan was only 586,000; today the country has a population of about ten times that at 5.5 million, just over half of them Palestinians including many refugees from the wars with Israel. The present king is Abdullah, the son of the long-serving King Hussein and his British wife Antoinette Gardiner, whose wife is Palestinian.
At 10 am on Thursday morning, we met our guide for the next four days: 32 year old Sami Mouammar who spoke excellent English (he has an English Literature degree) and was incredibly knowledgable (for two decades his father was Director of Antiquities at Petra which is his home town). We spent the morning in Amman where it was 32C/90F. Located on the plateau east of the Jordan valley, the city is some 800 metres (more than 2,600 feet) above sea level. The site was first occupied in the Stone Age over 9,000 years ago. Then, after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, it acquired its present name Amman. It became capital of Jordan in 1921. Almost two million people live in the city and, together with a further 700,000 in neighbouring suburbs, almost half the country's 5 million-plus population live in the area.
Most of our morning tour of Amman - two and a half hours - was spent at the Citadel, an ancient acropolis which rises in three terraces over the west side of the city on a hill called Jebel al-Qala'a which is 850 metres (2,788 feet) high.
One is first struck by the few remaining pillars of the Temple of Hercules which was built at the time of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (as seen in the film "Gladiator") who reigned from 161-180 AD. There are remains of a Byzantine Church which was probably 6th century and destroyed by earthquakes rather than invaders. The other notable structure of the site - which still remains to be fully excavated - is the Omayyad Palace. This was originally built around 720 AD as the residence of the governor of Amman and subsequently served administrations for the next 400 years. The walls of Audience Hall of the palace are still standing and the Spanish have reconstructed the wooden domed roof. The hill is home to the Archaeological Museum which we visited. This is located in a small building south of the palace and houses jewellery, pottery and sculpture dating back 100,000-250,000 years. Particularly fascinating are fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls.
From the Citadel, one can look down and see the Roman Theatre and this was where we spent our remaining hour in Amman. This was built in the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD) when the city was known as Philadelphia. It is cut into the northern side of a hill that once served as a necropolis and seats some 6,000. Standing at the base in the centre, the acoustics were impressive. Roger wanted a photograph of Vee on one of the tiers but, such was her enthusiasm for the place, that she climbed right to the top and suffered aching legs for her effort. At the base of the theatre, on either side, are two small museums - the Folklore Museum and the Museum of Popular Traditions - both of which we visited briefly.
About 1.30 pm, we left Amman and headed south. An hour later, we stopped at a service area just north of the town of Al-Qatrana to have some lunch. We all took the tasty traditional Jordanian dish of mansaf, lamb on the bone served with rice & pinenuts and a tangy yoghurt [click here]. According to a guidebook, in the most traditional version of this speciality, the gaping head of the sheep is on display and the delicacy is the eyes or tongue. Pressing on, we passed roadside stalls selling seasonal huge green water melons and, turning west for a while, reached Karak Castle.
The city of Karak itself is mentioned several times in the Bible and the 12th century castle - 900 metres (2,952 feet) above sea level - is an ancient Crusader stronghold built in 1142 that survives only as ruins which one guide book descibes as "more imposing than beautiful". There is not a great deal to see, but the history of the place is compelling. This was the castle of the cruel French crusader Renaud de Chatillon portrayed in the recent Ridley Scott movie "Kingdom Of Heaven" [for review click here] by actor Brendan Gleeson. He is notorious for attacking Muslim pilgrims and for throwing prisoners down the steep slopes by the castle's ramparts. In 1188, the castle fell to Saladin and his forces after a seige of eight months. There are remains of the Marmeluke palace added in to the castle in the 13th century. From the castle, one can usually just make out the Dead Sea.
We left Karak at 5.30 pm and continued southwards, reaching Petra at 7.40 pm, so we had been on the move for over nine and a half hours and were ready to check into the Petra Crowne Plaza Hotel [click here] for the next three nights. The location of the hotel was wonderful - beside a wall of lumpy red rock.
Petra - the name of which comes from the Greek word for rock - was the site of human settlements since prehistoric times but, before the Nabataean Arabs came, it was just another watering hole. It was first established by the previously nomadic Nabataeans sometime around the 6th century BC. The Nabataeans' original homeland lay in north-eastern Arabia but they migrated west in the 6th century BC. Their name means literally 'carving monuments'.
Between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD, the Nabataeans built a superb city supporting 20,000-30,000 people. Key to their success was their ability to control and conserve water and conduits and old terracotta piping can still be seen. The Nabataeans were merchants and entrepreneurs and used Petra's position on the spice and incense routes from East Asia and Arabia to the Mediterranean to lay the foundations of a vast trading empire that extended from Damascus in the north to Red Sea in the south.
Despite successive attempts by the Seleucid king Antigonus, the Roman emperor Pompey and Herod the Great to bring Petra under the control of their respective empires, Petra remained largely in Nabataean hands until 106 AD, when the Romans at last took over. The city continued to thrive for a time, but changes in trade routes and two devastating earthquakes eventually brought about its demise.
It was still inhabited during the Byzantine period, when the former Roman empire moved its focus east to Constantinople, but then declined in importance. Christianity arrived in the 4th century, Islam in the 7th century, and the Crusaders constructed a fort there in the 12th century, but soon withdrew, leaving Petra to the local people. The city lay almost forgotten for over 500 years and only on 22 August 1812 was it 'rediscovered' by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784-1817) who persuaded a guide to lead him there by claiming that he wanted to slaughter a goat in honour of Aaron. When T.E. Lawrence visited the site in 1914, he described it as "the most wonderful place in the world". It is now overwhelmingly the most popular tourist attraction in Jordan and featured in the final sequence of the film "Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade".
Our guide Sami was keen for us to make an early start for our Friday at the Petra site, partly to avoid other tourists (there are some 300,000 a year) but mainly to escape some of the mid-day heat (the temperature was 34C/93F that day). So Roger & Vee set their alarm for 6.15 am to give themselves time for the pick up at 8.10 am. Our hotel was only a five-minute walk to the entrance of the site where there were a small number of shops and hawkers, including inevitably one establishment featuring pictures of Harrison Ford in his role as the intrepid Indiana Jones.
Access to Petra is initially through a wide valley called Bab al-Siq (the Gateway of the Chasm) and we took ponies for the short journey from the visitors centre to the entrance to the gorge. On the way, we passed massive rectangular podiums which the local Bedouin call Djinn (spirit) blocks which are thought to be Nabetaean funerary monuments or dedications to the god Dushara. The ponies returning to the entrance were ridden at a sharp gallop by their attendants in a scene which could have come straight out of an "Indiana Jones" movie.
Having dismounted, we then entered a deep ravine called the Siq (the word means 'crack') [click here] that follows the bed of the Wadi Musa (Moses River) which is totally dry for most of the year. The entrance to the Siq was once topped by an arch that was built by the Nabataeans, but this was lost in 1896 as a result of an earthquake. We were surprised at how tall and long this gorge is, as we strolled in awe between the iron-red Cambrian rocks dating back some 500 million years through a crack created by mighty tectonic forces five or more million years ago and long before humans walked these parts. In fact, the walls tower up to 200 metres (650 feet) and the total length of the Siq is 1.2 kilometres (about three-quarters of a mile).
It is possible to take a horse-drawn cart through the gorge, but we were happy to take our time walking though history, smiling at the sight of Korean tourists wearing long gloves. There are very few remains of the original paving stones, so essentially the ground is a flat cement walkway. Frequently one could spot niches that would originally have housed statues of gods. Above all, though, one was conscious of the vaulting, luminescent blue sky and the varied colours of the rocks: predominantly red, pink, ochre, yellow, with some grey and even black, in marked striations - something we were to see and savour everywhere in Petra.
As the Siq descends, it becomes imperceptibly deeper and narrower until, at its narrowest, the walls are only 1 metre (3 feet) apart. At the deepest, darkest point, the Siq turns a corner and opens to reveal the most thrilling monument of the city, the Treasury. It is literally a "Wow!" moment: up there with our first view of the Taj Mahal in India or Machu Picchu in Peru - but all the more magical and mysterious because one does not see anything of the structure until the very last section of the gorge.
The Treasury - or El Khazneh to use its proper name [click here] - is a classic Greek-style temple probably dating back to the 1st century BC. It is 41 metres (134 feet) high and 29 metres (95 feet) wide and the true size is only appreciated when one looks at tourists around its base. The structure consists of two storeys hewn right into the sheer face of a rose-red cliff. The lower level has six columns, two free-standing, but none of these are load-bearing. Although the stone urn crowning the central tholos - a cylindrical domed structure - was thought to conceal golden coins and jewels, most scholars agree that the building was not in fact a 'treasury' but a monumental tomb, probably for the king Aretas III.
In front of the Treasury, there is a free space with a tented shop, some wooden seats and a few camels waiting to be hired. We were all amused to see one of the camels tipping the remaining contents of a small can of Coke down his throat before he chewed up the can and spat it out. We approached the structure for a closer look. It was not possible to go inside but, in fact, 'inside' is simply a single large room with no features other than streaks of red, black and yellow on the walls from the iron, sulpher, sodium, maganese and copper.
Before coming to Petra, we thought of it as essentially the Treasury because this is the prevailing image presented in all the publicity for the location, but we were surprised to find that the ruins of the ancient city encompass a huge area of some two square miles. There are no free-standing buildings to be seen because the homes were relatively insubstantial affairs and even the markets and temples have collapsed and crumbled. So what is to be seen are the structures carved in and out of the rock faces.
Around the right hand side of the Treasury, one enters an area known as the Street of Façades [click here], for the obvious reason that the rock faces display impressive carved frontages behind which are some 40 tombs. The 'street' is set off beautifully by lilac oleander bushes growing naturally.
It was becoming hotter and we needed to rest a little, so we stopped at the quaintly-named "Why Not? café" - basically just a tented area with a power supply where, in spite of the heat, Sami had his usual Turkish coffee and Roger had a cup of Nescafé. Still in this 'street', we came next to the Roman Theatre [click here] which was created in the 1st century AD and originally provided 45 rows of seats before later being expanded to seat no less than 8,500 spectators. Even standing on the rocks opposite and above the theatre, the acoustics were amazing. While on these rocks, we viewed four of the mutitudinous tombs carved from the sandstone.
At this point, the walking route branches into three: to the right up the hill called Jebel al-Khubtha which houses the Royal Tombs; to the left towards the highest hill in the city, the Umm al-Biyara (1,058 metres or 3,470 feet); and straight ahead to the Cardo Maximus running through the Lower Town. We took the central route but, looking backwards and upwards, we could clearly see carved into the hillside the first four of the five Royal Tombs [click here]: the Urn Tomb, the Silk Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb and the Palace Tomb (the final tomb, that of Sextius Florentinus, was round a corner beyond sight). All these grand tombs were built for wealthy or important people, possibly Petran kings or queens.
Proceeding to the long, once-colonnaded main street of Cardo Maximus [click here], we paused at the Nymphaeum or public fountain dedicated to the Nymphs. These days there is no water around, but there is a 450-year old turpentine tree which provided us with welcome shade from the beating sun. North of the street are located the Royal Palace, the Petra or Byzantine Church (where we saw recovered mosaics), and the Temple of the Winged Lions, while south of the street are the remains of the Upper Market, the Lower Market, the Great Temple, and the Qasr el-Bint al-Faroun or Palace of the Pharaoh's Daughter. All of these former buildings are 1st century AD and are in the process of excavation and reconstruction in a very slow and immensely expensive process.
At the western end of the once-colonnaded street are two restaurants and about 1.30 pm our little group stopped for a buffet lunch at the slightly more up-market one, the Basin Restaurant which is run by the Crown Plaza Hotel. Next to these restaurants is the Nabataean Museum [click here] which has a small, but interesting, display of artefacts, so after lunch we had a quick look around.
A little rested and refreshed, it was time to tackle the last and most challenging part of our visit to ancient Petra, the climb up to the monastery. A pathway weaves up and round the hillside of the Jebel al-Deir. The guidebooks state that there are more than 800 steps but Sami told us that there are 900. Frankly, it is impossible to make a precise count, since the rock steps are very irregularly shaped and positioned. Whichever way you look at it, it is a long and tough climb, especially when the temperature is 34C.
Roger & Vee - now in advanced middleage - have taken on some tough challenges in the course of their exotic holidays, ranging from climbing to the highest part of the Great Wall of China outside Beijing to braving the Inca trail at Pisac near Cusco in Peru - but this was the toughest escapade of them all. For Vee, it was the aching legs that did it, while for Roger it was the pounding in his chest. The guidebooks suggest that the climb will take about an hour, but we did it in three-quarters of an hour, with rest pauses about every ten minutes to catch one's breath and gulp some water. This is one of those climbs where the journey is as fun as the destination, since all along there are breathtaking views of the deep ravines and striated rocks.
Eventually we reached a plain with El Deir (the monastery) [click here] on the north side between two gigantic cliff walls. Although Christian crosses inscribed on the walls have led to the location being called a monastery, in all likelihood it was originally a shrine dedicated to a Nabataean king of the 1st century BC. The two-storey fašade is 45 metres (148 feet) high and 49 metres (161 feet) wide. Like the Treasury, one cannot enter the structure and in effect it is simply one immensely large room with little detail now remaining. Opposite the monastery is a drinks vendor located in a cave and the refreshment (we had mango drinks) and the shade were both immensely welcome. We were not quite finished. After our pause, we ventured forth to an even higher point (1,070 metres or 3,500 feet) for dizzy but stunning views down and over the cliffs with the Wadi Arabah to the south.
The sun was descending, bathing all the rocks with a golden glow, so it was time to turn around and make our descent - gravity proving of considerable assistance on this stretch of our tour. There were very few tourists left in the site as we retraced our steps. For one stretch of the route, three of our group hired camels, but Roger & Vee - in spite of tiredness and heat - wanted to walk so that we could soak in every last drop of this magnificent and utterly historic location. We passed by the Treasury again and strolled through the Siq again (this time ascending which, in some ways, is a cruel way to end such a long trek).
When we finally parted from Sami, it was 7.30 pm, so we had been out over 11 hours. Sami reckoned that we had walked about 16 kilometres (10 miles). Roger always wears a pedometer on his belt and aims to do 10,000 steps a day but, as he left the Siq, it registered over 24,000. It had been such an inspiring and memorable day in which Roger had taken almost 70 photographs. Back at the hotel, dinner concluded with a medieval Egyptian dessert called um mali [click here] which was very yummy.
Petra site (1) click here
Petra site (2) click here
On Saturday morning, we all took advantage of the optional tour of what is popularly known as Little Petra but is more properly called Beidha (this means 'white village'). The temperature was 34C/93F again. Leaving the hotel at 9.30 am, it was only a short ride - 8 km (5 miles) - to the location. Roger loves children and immediately befriended two young Bedouin: a 10 year old boy called Gasim (meaning 'destiny') and an 11 year old girl called Hadia (meaning 'gift'). He fell behind the group a little and walked with a child in each hand.
Before entering the gorge, we walked around the site of a neolithic settlement that has been discovered and is gradually being explored. Items excavated here have been carbon-dated back to 7,200 BC. Having looked around, we were taken inside a Bedouin tent where its aged occupant served us cardamom coffee and mint tea as we sat on the cushions and carpets. By now, Gasim and Hadia had been joined by young Ahmed and the three children sang a traditional song for us. It was so peaceful in that Bedouin tent out of the blazing sunshine that we could have stayed there for hours, but we had not yet seen Little Petra proper.
Like Petra itself, the entrance is through a siq, but the entrance is much narrower (not wide enough for a loaded camel) and the length is much shorter (just 400 metres or 436 yards). Once through the siq, there are dozens of structures built into the rock faces which are much lower than at Petra itself and therefore more accessible. Particularly notable among the remains are the four triclinium and the so-called Painted House (with badly-faded frescoes on the underside of an interior arch) - all created as dining areas for the Nabataeans and visiting traders and travellers.
We were back at the hotel before 1 pm and had a couple of hours for lunch which consisted mainly of a traditional Jordanian chicken & rice dish called maqlouba [click here].
Link: Little Petra site click here
Saturday afternoon and evening was devoted to another optional tour, this time to Wadi Rum which is located 100km (60 miles) south of Petra. Leaving Petra at 3 pm, we reached the new Wadi Rum Visitors Centre two hours later. An effort has been made to build the centre in natural materials but, in truth, it spoils the view of a 970 metre (3,180 feet) mountain named after the title of the memoirs of T.E. Lawrence "The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom".
From the centre, it is a short ride to the tiny Wadi Rum village where there are a couple of old First World War railway carriages from the Turkish Hejaz Railway and we had a little time for a drink. Then we set off into the desert and, for this excursion, we boarded the back of a four-wheel drive Toyota jeep with bench seats for eight, various members donning different types of headgear in an attempt to minimise the impact of the wind and the dust.
The region known as Wadi Rum is actually a series of valleys about 2 km (just over a mile) wide stretching north to south for about 130 km (80 miles). The desert landscape of red sand and rocks is dominated by jebels (hills) that have eroded into a soft sandstone over a period of up to 50 million years. The valley floors are about 900 metres (3,216 feet) above sea level and and the highest peak in the area and indeed in Jordan is Jebel Rum which is 1,754 metres (5,755 feet) and has a Nabetaean temple hewn from the rock on its eastern slope.
The location Wadi Rum captivated T E Lawrence during his leadership of the Arab Revolt against the occupying Turks in the First World War and the film "Lawrence of Arabia" - Roger's personal all-time favourite [for review click here] - was partially shot here. Lawrence described the area in his 1922 work "The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom" and was so in awe of the Wadi Rum itself that he devoted a whole page to describing its geographical features. He called it "this irresistible place: this processional way greater than imagination". He wrote that, on his first visit: "Our little caravan grew self-conscious and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills".
Bumping over the red desert sands, our first stop was a point just south of Jebel Rum called al-Ein (the spring). We would never have noticed them without Sami's guidance, but we were awed when he showed us inscriptions on the rocks here because they were 1,900 years old and pointed out to fellow travellers of the time the location of water and shelter. Driving southwards again, our second stop was at Jebel Khazali. Here we climbed up into a narrow canyon to see more rock insciptions - this time indicating acceptance of a man by a woman for marriage (the appropriate symbol was two feet). Partially retracing our route, the third and final stop was at a hill called Jebel Umm Ulaydiyya. This was the spot chosen for us to witness the sunset. The weather conditions on the day - hot and hazy - did not make for particularly dramatic colours, but there was still a sense of majesty as the sun slowly descended below the hills.
Throughout the afternoon, Maurice Jarre's haunting music from "Lawrence Of Arabia" - a film that Roger has seen nine times - was playing in Roger's head and he could picture Bedouin women on the cliff tops ululating. As the jeep returned to the village, it was very, very bumpy and very, very windy and very, very mystic.
Link: Wadi Rum site click here
This splendid day was not quite over. Our little group drove over to the nearby town of Disi where we spent a couple of hours at a camp called Hilawi. Located at the foot of a large rock, this provides local food and music in the open air and tented areas in a recreation of a Bedouin-type experience. At the request of one of our group, 19 year old Oscar Kolkowski, Roger gave a short account of the Arab Revolt of 1916-18. The journey back to Petra was almost two hours, so bed was after midnight.
The following morning (Sunday), Roger & Vee's alarm went at 5.40 am, so that we could pack and have breakfast before the group left Petra at 7 am for the three-hour drive north back to the Amman's Queen Alia airport. The five-hour return flight to London's Heathrow airport was routine and uneventful but, once at the airport, we found a state little short of chaos. While we had been in Jordan, Britain had been basking in similar temperatures and that day the weather had broken with substantial storms in the north, necessitating the redirection of aircraft to Heathrow. As a result, it was an hour and a quarter before a bus could be supplied to take us off the aircraft and drive us to a terminal. To use a favourite fatalistic phrase of Jordanians: "What can we do?"
Most of our holidays are to cities to view museums, art galleries, palaces, churches, mosques and temples. On this particular holiday, we had seen virtually no free-standing structures, but instead experienced the citadel ruins of Amman, the remnants of the castle at Karak, the rock caves and façades of Petra, and the sand and hills of Wadi Rum. We had viewed and imbued the history of two millenia and it had been a magical and even mystical experience.
Jordan Tourism Board click here
National Information System click here
Jordan: A Personal Guide click here
Ruth's Jordan click here
Ian and Wendy's site click here