Source: Daily Mail Travel
Christmas Day in Jordan. The sun shines on the Dead Sea, glittering but somehow sinister, while the grey shape of the West Bank looms on the horizon. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan seems like a haven of peace and friendliness surrounded by countries at war. Waves of invaders have swept over this area, leaving stunning traces of their passing: desert castles, Roman ruins, Byzantine mosaics.
The best way to understand the country’s archaeological and artistic history is to visit the Jordan Museum in Amman, a superb modern building designed by a local architect.
The collection covers 1.5million years, beginning with the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic). There are weird, baby-faced Neolithic statues like something out of a science-fiction horror film, and a baby’s skeleton gruesomely crammed into a jar. There are two handsome Greek-looking heads of Nabateans, founders of Petra, with straight noses and chiselled chins but disconcertingly empty eyes.
One room houses copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Copper Scrolls found in a cave overlooking the Dead Sea. Outside the building, a battered-looking wagon is a memento of the old German-Turkish Hejaz railway attacked by Lawrence of Arabia riding with his Bedouin and Arab forces through Jordan down to Aqaba on the coast.
Lawrence spent the winter of 1917 in one of the still-impressive desert castles, Azraq. He later wrote: ‘The blue fort on its rock above the rustling palms, with the fresh meadows and shining springs of water, broke on our sight.’
Sadly, traffic has long dispelled the unfathomable silence’ which Lawrence described when he made Azraq his headquarters. That silence, however, is one of the things that first strikes you about Jordan away from its towns, as you travel along the King’s Highway through folding bare hills and desert uplands, black with basalt pebbles, and uninhabited except for Bedouin settlements with donkeys and the occasional camel.
Have you ever seen a bear sitting cross-legged on a chair playing a guitar? I have. He is depicted in an 8th Century fresco on the wall of a delightful Arab bath house, Qasr al-Amra, built by the Umayyads, a Bedouin dynasty from the Hejaz who won the Caliphate in 661AD. Qasr al-Amra is now surrounded by desert, but back then it was fertile countryside.
The Caliphs clearly had a very jolly uninhibited time: the guitar-playing bear is featured on the same wall as some well-endowed women, while a hunting scene features a pack of salukis chasing deer into a prepared ambush of nets.
Other historically important portraits feature Roderick, the last Visigothic King of Spain, King Chosroes of Persia, and the Negus of Abyssinia, a mixture that illustrates the cultural crossroads which the area represented in ancient times.
I have a weakness for crusader castles inspired by a visit three years ago to the most spectacular of all, Krak-des-Chevaliers in northern Syria. Romans, Crusaders, Mamelukes and Saladin, the greatest Arab warrior of all, built forts and castles to maintain their power and restrain the marauding Bedouin.
One of the most impressive is Shobak/Montreal, built by Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem, which held out against Saladin for a remarkable 18 months in 1187-89. On the day we visited, friendly castle staff dressed as Saracen warriors offered a helmet complete with chainmail to my husband to try on.
The headquarters of the Lordship of Oultrejourdain was transferred from Montreal to the great castle of Kerak, or Karak, under its unpleasant lord, Reynald de Chatillon, a particular enemy of Saladin. Kerak has been described as one of the great monuments of medieval military architecture from which its lord could dominate all the traffic between Syria and Egypt.
Saladin attacked Reynald as a wedding feast was being held at the castle. According to a charming story, the Lady Stephanie, mother of the bridegroom, herself prepared dishes from the wedding feast which she sent out to Saladin.
In return, Saladin asked which of the towers was to be occupied by the newlyweds and gave orders that it should not be bombarded by his siege engines.
For all his gallantry, Saladin could not breach the walls and retired towards Damascus. The end for Kerak came when an Egyptian army laid siege. After more than a year, the defenders were close to starvation, the women and children were turned out to fend for themselves or sold by their menfolk to the Bedouin in return for food, and it was only when the last horse had been eaten that the castle surrendered.
But we had come to Jordan to see Petra. ‘The rose red city half as old as time’, created by the Nabateans around the 2nd Century BC, remained hidden for 1,600 years until rediscovered by a Swiss traveller, J.L. Burckhardt, in 1812.
Its beauty and mystery are almost impossible to describe. You enter it by an increasingly narrow gorge, the red cliffs closing above your head against a deep blue sky, and you arrive in a small plaza dominated by what looks like an Italian baroque church but is in fact a Nabatean masterpiece known as the Treasury, carved out of the rose-coloured rock.
Crowds of Arab Bedouin children mill around the tourists offering silver bangles and bracelets, fake coins, hideous scarves, and camel and donkey rides. People say you must be there by 6am to avoid the crowds, but in December the sun would be too low at that hour and the light is an important part of the Petra experience.
One boy, 11-year-old Abdullah, who spoke remarkably good English, took a photograph of us but refused to accept a tip. Embarrassed by his good manners, we bought a bracelet from him instead.
English is relatively common in Jordan, as I learned to my cost when I commented on the ugliness of one stallholder’s offerings and was told off for my rudeness by the owner.
Exhausted by the end of an afternoon’s trekking over stones and sand, we hired a horse and carriage back from the restaurant at the end of the track and suffered a Ben Hur experience when our driver chose to liven up his afternoon by racing his mate in another chariot with wild cries and swerves.
There is much more to see at Petra for the energetic: the High Place, where Nabateans worshipped and offered their sacrifices, is up some 365 worn steps, and even further up is a temple known as the Monastery. Both sites offer infinite views of stone ridges coloured all shades of pink to dark red, streaked with basalt. Magical.
We also travelled to Jerash. Its golden age came under the Romans; then for centuries it was hidden under sand, which is why its long, column-lined street with paving marked by chariot wheels is still so well preserved.
As I sat panting on a stone towards the end of the main street, the Cardo Maximo, there was a sad reminder of the ongoing tragedy of the region – a Syrian boy, a refugee from Deraa, came up to beg. Just a few days before, the excellent Jordan Times reported that on Christmas Eve, 600 refugees had crossed the Jordanian border and nearly 400 people had been killed in the massive air campaign around the city of Aleppo.
Yet despite the tensions in the region, Jordanians seem the most friendly and cheerful people you could hope to meet. Their battlegrounds consist of terrifying traffic jams on the streets, where the Ben Hur technique of muscling each other out of the way still reigns.
Next we headed for the town of Madaba, which lies on the King’s Highway – the main artery of Jordan. It is known for its famous but disappointing 6th Century Byzantine mosaic map of the world in which a colonnaded Jerusalem is represented as its centre. Far more beautiful mosaics can be seen in the ancient Chapel of the Memorial of Moses at Mount Nebo and the nearby Chapel of Saints Lot and Procopius.
We spent nine days in Jordan on a tailor-made tour arranged by Original Travel. We had well-informed drivers and guides, and stayed in hotels that varied from top-class to not so good. The food was delicious and healthy, the wine excellent but expensive. Now, back in a grey, cold London, the experience seems like a wonderful dream.
Jordan is one of the unusual places featured in this article.
And for a wonderful place to stay, treat yourself to Le Royal Amman, part of the Royal Hotels & Resorts Division of the GMH Group founded by Sir Nadhmi Auchi.