By Heidi Trautmann …
www.heiditrautmann.com

Before you start reading about our experiences of a ten day trip to this country, open a map of the area and see for yourself the situation Jordan finds itself in geographically and politically.

They only have one chance and that is – what they have been doing since the foundation of The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – to promote peace and to act as negotiator.  Only today I listened to a speech King Abdullah II was holding at the European Parliament which deepened my respect for this country and its royal leader.

In 1999 my husband and I took part in the famous EMYR Rally with our sailing boat Early Bird and we visited – coming from Turkey – North Cyprus (for the first time), Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt; we had planned to go to Jordan then but somehow it did not work out. So, we were quite happy to join a group of TRNC German residents this year in May 2018 to visit the missing link on a custom-made trip that was organized by the Kyrenia Travel Agency, Kaleidoskop.  (email address – info@kaleidoskop-turizm.com).

Here is a link to some basic information on the country.  Click here 

The Near East, the cradle of the monotheistic religions, a region which had been visited, crossed and conquered by numerous cultures, cultures that left their marks, wars that went on from antique times till today, with Jordan in the centre of it, Jordan a kingdom since 1921.

Our travel programme for ten days took us more or less along the ancient King’s Highway, a trade route of vital importance in the ancient Near East, connecting Africa with Mesopotamia, coming from Egypt across the Sinai Peninsula to Aquaba turning northward across Jordan to Damascus. It also served as a pilgrimage road to Mecca. Today the King’s Road or Highway 35 and Highway 15 follows this road, connecting Irbid in the north with Aquaba in the south.

We arrived in Amman, the capital of Jordan, coming from Larnaca after one hour and ten minutes with Royal Jordan Airlines and were met by the Jordan travel agency taking us through formalities in no time. Amman lies at an altitude of 800m and has a moderate climate at this time of the year; it was once built, they say, on seven hills just like Rome, today on over twenty, and on our way into town we got an impression of its architecture and its way towards modernity with great centres of education, welfare and health, and… numerous refugee camps for those coming from Syria and Palestine these last years – we encountered refugee camps all over the country, camps that were also supported by other countries.

In Amman itself are plenty of antique cultural monuments; the Citadel of Amman, a historical site dating back to the Neolithic period, was inhabited until the time of the Umayyads; it is situated downtown Amman on one of the seven hills and its buildings show the presence of many different great civilizations, and the ones still visible are from the Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad periods. It is fascinating to see the past and the present so close, Roman ruins against the hills covered with today’s residential zones.

We visited the desert castles around Amman :

Al-Azraq built by Ancient Rome (one of its past commanders was T.E. Lawrence …..

Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, CB, DSO (16 August 1888 – 19 May 1935) was a British archaeologist, military officer, diplomat, and writer. He was renowned for his liaison role during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The breadth and variety of his activities and associations, and his ability to describe them vividly in writing, earned him international fame as Lawrence of Arabia – (a title used for the 1962 film based on his wartime activities).

Quseir Amra, built in the 8th century, a sort of ‘maison de plaisance’ for one of the Umayyad caliphs with frescoes of hunting scenes and naked women) and Quasr al-Kharaneh, built during the Umayyad period before the 8th century, an Islamic architecture, well preserved, did not have a distinct purpose, most probably as a caravanserai, it does not suggest military use.

The past becomes tangible and appears to me like a Fata Morgana – in these safe places along the trade roads, camel caravans, coming from all directions carrying loads of precious trade ware, sought shelter here in those days. Today, however, the Bedouins have been persuaded to settle in cities but, as I learned, they have not become accustomed to stay for a longer period in the narrowness of a city, they need to breathe the desert air, and they often spend time in the desert, probably in their own desert tents. I have experienced myself how relaxing some days and nights in the desert can be.

Jerash/Gerasa (Arabic: جرش, Ancient Greek: Γέρασα) is the capital and the largest city of Jerash Governorate, Jordan. It is located 48 kilometres (30 mi) north of the capital of Jordan, Amman.

The history of the city is a blend of the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean Basin and the ancient traditions of the Arab Orient. The name of the city reflects this interaction. The earliest Arab/Semitic inhabitants, who lived in the area during the pre-classical period of the 1st millennium BCE, named their village Garshu. The Romans later hellenized the former Arabic name of Garshu into Gerasa. Later, the name transformed into the Arabic Jerash.

A very important and impressive place; since 1981, the old city of Jerash has hosted the Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts, [28] a three-week-long summer programme of dance, music, and theatrical performances. The festival is frequently attended by members of the royal family of Jordan and is hailed as one of the largest cultural activities in the region.

In addition performances of the Roman Army and Chariot Experience (RACE) were started at the hippodrome in Jerash. The show runs twice daily, at 11 am and at 2 pm, and at 10 am on Fridays, except Tuesdays. It features forty-five legionaries in full armour in a display of Roman army drill and battle tactics, ten gladiators fighting “to the death” and several Roman chariots competing in a classical seven-lap race around the ancient hippodrome.

The Ajloun Castle or Rabad Castle was built by the Ayyubids in the 12th century and enlarged by the Mamluks in the 13th century. It is placed on a hilltop belonging to the Jabal Ajloun (“Mount Ajloun”) district, also known as Jabal ‘Auf after a Bedouin tribe which had captured the area in the 12th century. From its high ground the castle was guarding three wadis which descend towards the Jordan Valley.

The name ‘Ajlun’ goes back to a Christian monk who lived on this mountain in the Byzantine Period. The castle stands on the ruins of a monastery, traces of which were discovered during archaeological excavations.

As such, Ajloun Castle is one of the very few Muslim fortresses built by the Ayyubids to protect their realm against Crusader incursions. Its walls have an interesting story to tell where we hear of the coming and going of invaders of different cultures, and also of Saladin, a figure which appeared in the books of my childhood years.

On day (4) we left Amman for Madaba, Mount Nebo, Kerak and finally Petra. We travelled in a small bus with plenty of room for the ten of us. Our guide Ahmad speaks German very well and introduced us to the history of Jordan from different angles, political, social, and entertained us with stories of family life and Bedouin traditions. He and his wife have both studied in Germany. On one of our tours through Amman he took us to have coffee at his house where we met his wife and two of their three sons. His family is from the city of Kerak which we were going to visit later.

The colour of Jordan is the colour of the desert, from siena to umbra, most of the buildings are covered with tiles of this colour, very practical, it does not need repainting. Sometimes we saw the desert plains covered with black stones, volcanic, Ahmad explained.

Madaba, southwest of Amman, mentioned in the bible, famous for its Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics, especially a large mosaic map on the floor of a Byzantine church, is a city I liked for its atmosphere. The mosaic art is still taught today and we had the chance to learn how it is done in a Mosaic Centre nearby.

On the top of Mount Nebo we admired the mosaics in the beautiful church of Moses from the 4th century, which was renovated from 2007 to 2016.  From Mount Nebo summit we had a great view around and it is there where Moses was supposed to have been shown the Promised Land for his people. In the Christian belief Moses is buried here on Mount Nebo but nobody knows where. In March 2000 Pope John Paul II visited the site during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On a clear day one is supposed to see Jerusalem but we only saw the Westbank city of Jericho.

On our way to Petra, in Kerak, we visited the largest crusader castle in the Levant, built by the Franks; construction was started in 1140. The crusaders called it ‘Crac des Moabites’. Saladin tried to conquer the castle but did not succeed, only his nephew later succeeded by cutting off the supply of food. A long story right through to the Ottomans and to 2016 when a terrorist attack at the castle took place and the garrison was killed.

It was a long day and we got to Wadi Musa in the late afternoon, a city built around Petra, the famous ‘Rose-Red City’, the symbol of Jordan, the most famous touristic attraction. The landscape itself is fantastic with its gorges cut through sandstone, deep and narrow alleys most probably cut by water and wind, disclosing beautiful rock layers of different colours. And when you have walked along through this alley, the Siq of 1.2 km, which we did the next early morning, you suddenly are confronted with a vision, a temple, the treasure house,  cut out of the rocks, it is the entrance to the Nabatea, the city of the Nabataean Kingdom; the Romans renamed the city to Arabia Petraea. The place is one of the new 7 Wonders of the World. We walked along the bizarre world of rock formations with tombs cut in the horizontal walls. Over rocky steps one can discover even many more structures of astonishing architecture. It is assumed that there are still many more temples/tombs and living spaces hidden in the vast mountainous area around. You can read more about it in detail on the internet, for example click here and click here 

The many tourists appear to the eye like ants; camels and donkey carriages are waiting to transport tourists in both directions and the noise of the fast galloping animals and the carriages over the uneven rocky floors of the gorge bounces back from the walls. The rides are hard and not to be recommended to people with back problems. Anyway, it is recommended to take at least a whole day to discover the various sites on foot, mounting stone stairs to higher levels. Over the centuries various tribes and cultures left their imprint, so did the Romans. Its height of development Nabatea/Petra had 100 BC and 100 AD, though the Nabateans established their kingdom in the 4th century BC, the Nabatean Kingdom, a seemingly highly cultured people coming from Northern Arabia. The place lost significance with the surrender of the net of trade roads. Some of the gigantic temples were used as Byzantine churches and I vividly can imagine that the serenity of the place induced humble and religious feelings. The amphitheatre in the centre of the city Nabatea cut out of the rocks invited the thoughts of a concert in the early evening; at full moon, perhaps, since it is a touristic highlight offered but the going was too rough for us in the middle of the night.

Back at the entrance to this enchanting place is a museum which is worth visiting as it gives many answers to questions you had during your visit.

In the evening of this day, full of visual and spiritual impacts, we experienced quite a different impact on our palate in the unusual place called ‘Petra Kitchen’ where people are invited to prepare their own meals under the eye and direction of local cooks. The idea is to bring together people of different nationalities; we met with Israeli, American, French and Australia travellers, and together we learned about the Jordan cuisine in a playful way, a cuisine which is very similar to our Cypriot and Turkish cuisine but also to that of other Mediterranean countries.

The following day, it was already day (6), we visited Little Petra, the entrance village to Petra, a sort of former checkpoint into the rock city of Petra, a very charming place with today small cave restaurants in the narrow rock alleys.

We were on our way to Wadi Rum or rather Ram, also called The Valley of the Moon, the largest Wadi in Jordan at an elevation of 1,750 m. Many cultures have lived here leaving their marks in the form of rock paintings. T.E. Lawrence passed through the desert during the Arab Revolt of 1917-1918. One of the rock formations is called ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ after T.E. Lawrence’s book.

It is another world we were entering when we mounted jeeps taking us on a three hours tour through the desert pleasing the eye and filling the lungs with clean dry air. One could see far into the distance, rocky hills, pink to purple, in the vast desert plains, the colour of the sand yellow to red, the sky a fantastic blue, so pure and transparent. Wind and sand have sculpted the sandstone into fantastic pictures of animal forms, bridges, have smoothed the surfaces and uncovered bright streaks of colour, a feast for the eyes. Bedouins still lived around here in their goat hair tents and we often met them with their camels waiting for tourists, I am sure.  Before returning to our desert camp where we stayed overnight in huge luxury tents, we sat in the dunes to wait for the sun to set. Ahhh, an evening under the stars of the desert, with a lamb cooking in the earth oven, is something which you will always remember. Alcohol was not served but they have good alcohol-free beer or a creation called ‘lemon-mint’ whole lemons (skinned) and fresh mint passed through a blender and topped up with soda water. Delicious!

The next morning we explored the desert on camel’s back, at least those who were brave enough and had no back problems. It was a sight to see the acrobatic mounting and dismounting.

The bus drive down to Aquaba on the tip of the Red Sea was then for the brave riders a welcome time to get lost in adventurous dreams. It was already day (7) and it meant descending from 1750m down to sea level.

Huuuh, it was hot when we arrived. Ahmet, our guide had promised to take us around the Old City to the market and there we got lured by the scents of Arabia, into a spice shop, hundreds of spices which we got to taste and explained, I got roasted and salted sesame for myself… But then, we were glad to arrive in the harbour, where the boat, a glass bottom boat, hired for our group was already waiting and for half a day we deeply enjoyed the breeze, a lunch on board and a swim in the Red Sea. Our boat was heading for the coral reefs and we gathered around the glass bottom compartments where we could see the rich underwater world, so rich and colourful. The area is a very active divers’ paradise; opposite Aquaba is the Israeli holiday resort of Eilat.

In Aquaba is another famous castle, the Mamluk Castle or Aqaba Fort. The fortress was originally built by Crusaders in the 12th century, and named Helim. (Ha, don’t tell me our cheese is named after the Crusaders). Ayla (Aqaba) was recaptured by Saladin in 1187 and the fortress was destroyed. It was rebuilt in the early 16th century under Mamluk sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri. In July 1916, Aqaba Fortress was the scene of a great victory of the Arab Revolt, when this heavily defended Turkish stronghold fell to a daring Arab camel charge. Lawrence of Arabia rode triumphantly from here to Cairo to report the good news to an astonished General Allenby. The port of Aqaba became a major supply base for the advancing Arab Revolt.

At the end of the day we were all delighted to rest in the cool luxury of a hotel by the coast of the Red Sea. The hotel was full with tourists from many parts of the world. So is the personnel, from Asian as well as African countries, all very well trained and charming.

Another highlight was waiting for us on day (8),

Dana Biosphere Reserve is Jordan’s largest nature reserve, located in south-central Jordan. Dana Biosphere Reserve was founded in 1989 in the area in and around the Dana village and Wadi Dana comprising 308 square kilometres. click here 

What a fascinating view from the Dana Guest House, high up in the mountains again. In Bavaria we say that God must have spent an extra day when he created beautiful Bavaria, but when you have travelled through Jordan with its fascinating nature, then you slowly doubt whether he had not done likewise in other places as well. The village Dana is coming back to life with eco-tourism, hiking, landscape photographing and researching its nature environment. A village initiative was formed to promote local handicraft so people would come back to live in the village. Renovations and new constructions are very sensitively done. We could easily have done with another day in this pure mountain air.

On day (9) we followed the King’s Highway again, down towards the coast again, to another nature reserve, the Wadi Al-Mujib, a mountainous area where river waters have vertically cut deep canyons into the sandstone. We visited a sports and adventure centre where you are fitted out with equipment to do adventurous hiking along its fast running waters. We wisely stayed behind and restricted ourselves to watch younger ones balancing on ropes over some rapids.  Click here

We arrived at the river Jordan near Bethany where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. We stood there facing the Israeli side where dozens of religious tourists, clad in white tunics, were rowing up to immerse and be baptized in the water of the Jordan river. Nobody in our group felt the need to do likewise.

Jordan valley, Jordan’s garden and provider of vegetables for the entire country gave us some Green for the eyes. River Jordan carries little water since the Israeli have built a dam. They control the flow of water into Jordan. Read the BBC article Click here. The Dead Sea is slowly dying by one metre a year. However they have ambitious ideas to build a canal to refill it and also bring water to the Jordan valley.

The afternoon of day (9) and day (10) we ladies were given the opportunity to improve our body and facial beauty by floating in the Dead Sea….. all efforts to swim the normal way were in vain in the high percentage of salt in the water.

A weird theatre play went on all day long on the beach, people covering each other with mud from top to toe and baking in it for a while to later wash it off in the sea; the mud contains a lot of minerals, it is said, a fountain of youth, the advertising goes for products from the Dead Sea. For our last dinner at the hotel we had true beer to drink…. Draft beer!

In the morning of day (11) our guide Ahmad collected us from the hotel and brought us back to Amman to the airport for our flight back to Cyprus.

Conclusion: It was a great trip, I would even say, necessary to correct our understanding of Jordan, a country in the midst of a critical area, also to appreciate its importance as a carrier of old cultures, of which we are part in one way or another. A big thank you for the excellent organization and the choice of travel route.