Jordan jewels

By NIGEL WRIGHT [email protected]

Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal five years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s and although now retired, still continue to travel as much possible and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.

We were high above the Arabian Desert travelling with Royal Jordanian Airlines from Jeddah to Amman, the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, for a long weekend away from the stresses and strains of business in Saudi Arabia’s strict Islamic society.

It was spring and the cool, crisp air in Amman was a welcome relief from the heat and humidity of Saudi Arabia. Our guide was soon showing us around the Central Mosque and Coptic Church. Here, the Christian and Muslim religions happily co-exist side by side.

Throughout our visit, we were overwhelmed by the people’s genuine warmth towards visitors.

Amman is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and has significant archaeological remains. Excavations have revealed numerous Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic treasures.

The city’s most impressive relic is the huge Roman amphitheatre cut into the side of a hill. It is in excellent condition, has superb acoustics and can accommodate 6,000 spectators.

Roman Jerash

Located around 50km north of Amman lies Jerash, one of the largest and best-preserved Roman sites in the world. It sits in a fertile valley and the structures of the colonnaded streets, baths, theatres, plazas and temples remain in exceptional condition.

We strolled around the superb Oval Piazza and through the main street of the city, where it was easy to imagine the sights and sounds of a typical market day 2,000 years ago, with buyers and sellers bargaining loudly!

Amphitheatre at Jerash
Amphitheatre at Jerash

Considering this is an earthquake zone, a remarkable number of the original columns were still standing. The guide explained that this was due to the cunning way they were constructed, allowing the individual pieces that make up the columns to move against each other during an earth tremor.

Moses and the Dead Sea

Mount Nebo, in the arid hills of Moab south of Amman, is a site of great historical and religious significance. It is where Moses was given a view of the Promised Land and here, according to Jewish and Christian tradition, he died and was buried by God himself. It is a spectacular drive to the top, from where there is a panoramic view over the Dead Sea to the Judaean hills and, on a clear day, as far as Jerusalem.

At the summit, there is a cluster of monastic buildings around a sixth century basilica church and within there are remains of an earlier chapel.

It was a short trip down from the summit to the Dead Sea itself. It was much bigger than we expected, 67km long by 18km wide. The surface is 420m below sea level, the lowest dry land elevation on the earth’s surface. It lies in the Jordan Rift Valley and its only major source of water is the River Jordan.

We soon discovered that swimming in the warm waters is nearly impossible! The high salinity, over 30 per cent (more than eight times that of the oceans), gives you astonishing buoyancy. If you try to swim on your front, you flip over and end up on your back with arms and legs sticking up in the air!

The City of Petra

Our final two days in Jordan took us south through arid desert to Petra via the spectacular Shobak Crusader Castle. It was built in a commanding position on a cone of rock in 1115, was home to 6,000 Christians and used to control commerce on the caravan trade routes from Syria to Arabia. The castle was later used as a base to attack the rich caravans and this upset the Ayyubid Sultan Saladin, who after capturing Jerusalem in 1187 besieged the castle for two years, eventually forcing surrender. Among the interesting ruins are two churches, baths, cisterns and a 375-step stairway to the original well.

Arab children at Jerash
Arab children at Jerash

Our arrival in the glorious Nabataean city of Petra was meant to herald my ‘Indiana Jones moment’! I planned to ride through the spectacular entrance gorge, called The Siq, on horseback and arrive in a cloud of dust at its most famous building, The Treasury. I was to be very disappointed. The tourist authorities were only allowing horses up to the beginning of the gorge!

Nothing really prepares you for this astonishing city and it was the highlight of our visit to Jordan. We walked for one kilometre through the towering narrow defile of The Siq, and came face-to-face with the glowing perfection of The Treasury. It is Petra’s loveliest monument and its original purpose is unknown.

We spent a full day hiking among amazing tombs, temples, obelisks and sacrificial altars, all meticulously carved out of the sandstone rock.

Jordan is a stable country that offers the very best of Middle Eastern culture, history and Arab hospitality. Although you cannot fly direct from Lisbon, many airlines fly to Amman from Europe and we would heartily recommend the Royal Jordanian Airlines experience.