Discovering Jordan

The most exciting thing about travel is to explore the unknown, the chance to have first-hand experience of a country. The more I travel and the more I believe I know about the country and its culture, the more I realise how little I actually know when I get there. Jordan was a real life teacher and I feel I have learned so much but there is still so much to learn that I will have to go back for some more classes.

From the moment I hear the first ‘ahlan wa sahlan’ (welcome), I knew that Jordan was going to be more than just a tick on my travel list. A safe oasis located in a troubled area, Jordan is a peaceful gem in the heart of the Middle East. It amazed us with its hospitality, welcoming people, friendly towns, world heritage sites and breath taking desert landscapes. This is the perfect destination for first time visitors to the Middle East – and also repeat travellers, Salem Aleikum.

Blessed with an uncountable number of wonders, beauty can be found in many different ways. From the fascinating cultural and historical heritage in Jerash and Amman to the majestic ruins of Petra’s. Passing by its diverse natural wonders from the Dead Sea to Aqaba with the vast desert in between. Although a small country, Jordan’s great diversity will make your trip one to remember.

The sights were quiet which gave us the opportunity to admire and enjoy them peacefully, making a perfect time to visit Jordan and be enchanted by this amazing destination.

From the top of the citadel with Roman and Greek ruins to the beaming-with-life markets in downtown, lose yourself in the streets of Jordan’s capital. Amman is an exciting city to spend some time in.

Located in the East of Amman lies the Desert Castles, they are not castles as we are used to but isolated buildings that were used as caravan stations or secluded baths. The architecture of Qasr Amra and Qasr Kharaneh is really impressive and very well preserved. Qasr Amra, however, stands out as it’s covered by well-preserved fresco paintings in its interiors.

The Roman ruins of theatres, public squares, fountains, paved and colonnaded streets were hidden under the sand to be found, excavated and restored over the past 70 years. The ruins of Jerash cover a big area and to make the ruins come to life arrange a guided tour with one of the knowledgeable guides that you can meet at the ticket checkpoint. Abed, native from the city, is a great English speaking guide who has a vast knowledge about the ruins and also Jordan’s history.

On the way to the Dead Sea we visited the archaeological site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan, which is believed to be the actual site where Jesus was baptised. Located in an unspoilt natural environment, respectfully displayed and maintained we found Roman and Byzantine remains of baptism pools marking the religious character of the place.

We were taken to the Jordan River which divides Jordan and Israel where it was great to see the pilgrims on both sides contemplating and bathing together in the river. To be part of this experience was overwhelming and yet humbling at the same time.

At 400m below sea level lies the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea receives its name from the fact that the high levels of salt in its waters makes intolerable for any form of life, in fact the only things you will probably see in the Dead Sea are a few buoyant tourists.

The salinity will not allow you to swim but it will enable a relaxing flotation experience.

The water’s minerals and mud are very well known for its beneficial properties to the skin. However, they might not feel as helpful at first as if you get water in your eyes you might experience some minutes of misery (do not splash about) and you will find cuts you didn’t know you have (do not shave before visiting)

From the Dead Sea you can easily reach the historical site of Mt. Nebo, where Moses first saw the Promised Land, and the market town of Madaba, home to St George’s Church where you can see the oldest known mosaic map of the Middle East.

Kerak Castle is one of the largest crusader castles, its dark tunnels and little doors are very well maintained which makes a very interesting stop on the way between Amman and Petra.

Siq Al-Bariq, is a small scale version of Petra and with its gorge and similar carved facades is most known as Little Petra.

The picturesque area was a nice introduction to what we were going to see in Petra and it is fun and interesting to explore as we can find here one of the oldest settlements in the world.

Our first night in Petra was a very special night. We had dinner under the stars in a traditional Bedouin camp with food cooked in the traditional Bedouin way in a pot buried in the sand.

We had the opportunity to interact with the Bedouin people and ask as many questions as we wanted; we were shown how to make flatbread

and were entertained with traditional Bedouin music round the campfire.

Afterwards, we had kohl make up put on our eyes and also tattooed with henna. It was a very memorable experience and everything was done on a very traditional way which made us feel very welcome and as part of them.

As a first time visitor to Jordan, Petra is what I was waiting for and it did not disappoint. The ancient tombs and temples dating to around 300 B.C. were carved out of the dusky pink sandstone cliffs were very impressive.

Most people identify Petra from one of its best known sites, Al-Khazneh or Treasury, which first glimpse is from the narrow Siq. The walk along the naturally formed Siq is absolutely stunning and suddenly the path snakes into the sunlight in front of the Treasury, a spectacle that does not fail to impress.

However, Petra is a lot more than just one building and it is a vast city that requires at least two days to explore, involving lots of long walks. The walk down from the Treasury to the Basin is full of amazing historical sites that words do not do justice to describe.

We were given the option to ride horses, a drawn cart, donkeys or even camels but we decided to explore on foot all the way to the Monastery. After a break in the shade at the Basin we set off to the “Top of the World”.

The views across the Jordan Valley’s mountains made the way up even more breath taking. Everywhere around Petra you can smell the fire going from people making tea and we were grateful to accept a cup of tea and seat under the shade for a few minutes before we reached our destination.

Ad Deir or The Monastery receives its name as some crosses scratched inside suggest it was Nabatean temple. The Monastery is a monumental building measuring 50m wide by 45m high which resembles the Treasury but less decorated. The façade is so big that it doesn’t seem real; I have read the door way is taller than a house!!!

In my opinion, The Monastery is the most impressive monument in Petra. I sat in the shade sipping my own personal reward, a delicious pomegranate juice, and I could not move my eyes away from it. While taking in the vastness of the view in front of me, the enormity, the age and the hand carved details made me feel I was looking at a more astonishing sight than the Treasury. So my advice is: Enjoy it because it worth it!

After a good rest we started our descend the exactly same way we came from. We had a goal and our reward was the achievement of walking the whole way to the top and back, the sensation of conquering Petra. In the end of the day Tom’s tracker said we walked 20 kilometers that day.

I am sure you read this somewhere else already but I will reinforce and advise you to:

  • wear comfortable shoes, trainers would be your best option
  • comfortable clothes, I would say loose trousers and a top that covers your shoulders to protect your skin from the harsh sun
  • wear a hat – if you are a girl that doesn’t like hats, like me, carry a scarf to shade your head and neck (there is a reason why the Bedouins are never separated from their mendeels)
  • drink lots of water – you can either carry with you or buy it along the way from many stall.

At 5:30pm facing the entrance of my hotel I realised that in the beginning of the day little did I knew how difficult it would be to walk all those km’s, climb up almost 800 unshaped steps to the Monastery and stop to admire and photograph beautiful views. Your legs will burn; your mind will try to tell you to stop but your soul will be filled with ecstasy from the accomplishment, something you can only feel on rare occasions such as this. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity of going back into this part of History.

On the next day our masochist-selves climbed even more steps up for a different ancient Nabatean sight: The High Place of Sacrifice. The climb was a little bit easier than the one up to the Monastery and it has amazing views from Petra.

As you arrive at the top you will see a long and wide platform carved for religious ceremonies, the place where they slaughtered the animals and the altar set up on four steps where they take the blood up to offer it. Being there felt like if I was involved in the Nabatean ancient culture and rituals. The views from the High Place down to the Royal Tombs are spectacular and the sense of freedom you feel when you are up there is really liberating.

You can go up from the steps next to the theatre and go down from the northern side ending at the Royal Tombs. It’s easier to go back the way you came from but the route down the cliff opposite the way you came is way more scenic and you will see lots of monuments on the way.

Looking down from the colourful steps you will have great views from the facades below. As soon as you reach the bottom you will see the Garden Triclinium, which is a beautiful cave located in a hidden setting.To the left from the Garden Triclinium will bring you down to the Roman Soldier Tomb, which receive its name from the figures carved on its top. However, this is a Nabatean tomb and not Roman.

On the opposite side we have another cave unique in Petra as its outside is not decorated, however its inside is surprisingly colourful and its walls have been decorated with columns and bays.

Who was buried in the Roman Soldier tomb and the reason why the triclinium has a well decorated interior is unknown, although the mystery around them just makes them even more fascinating.

We returned that evening for Petra by candlelight which is not something that you can really do justice to in words, but it’s a show that really enhanced this ancient wonder. The 2km path through the Siq is all lit up with the soft glow of paper lanterns opening up to hundreds of candles lighting up the Treasury.

Rows of mat are lying on the floor and we sit quietly in front of the Treasury. Admiring. Absorbing. The atmosphere completely changed from what we saw during the day. The place is now silent, even though there are lots of people there. To make the ambience even more magical a local Bedouin plays traditional music on a flute and sweet tea is served, we were then emerged into a usual Bedouin night back when they lived inside the ancient city.

Sitting in front of a candlelit Treasury listening to Bedouin music was a dream come true, I always wanted to be there and at that point I put my camera down and in my thoughts I thanked for that opportunity.

I must pause my tales here to mention something to you that I wished I knew before I went to Petra. When at Aqaba airport waiting for my flight back home I found a book at the souvenir shop called Married to a Bedouin. The title caught my attention and I have to read it. Marguerite Van Geldermasen, the author, is a New Zealander woman who fell in love with a Bedouin in the 70’s when she was backpacking in Jordan with a friend and never left.

The book is great and it transports you to the real Petra when the Bedouins still lived in there and there were no visitor centre or entry fees. She has an amazing story to tell, she still lives in Jordan at a Bedouin village next to Petra and she has a Jewellery shop inside the ruins of the ancient city where you can also purchase a signed copy of the book. I wish I could have visited her and got a signed copy of the book but I am sure I will go back very soon. You can find more information about her, the book and the shop at the website www.marriedtoabedouin.com

Aqaba is a Jordanian port on the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba. Its numerous beach resorts and relaxed way of life creates an on-holiday atmosphere.

It’s a top destination for water sports and its one of the best snorkelling and diving opportunities in the world. The crystal clear waters allow you to interact with amazingly colourful sea life. Aqaba is home to the Aqaba Fort and it’s a perfect stop to easily reach the breath-taking Wadi Rum desert.

Also known as “The Valley of the Moon”, Wadi Rum is everything you would expect from a desert: extremely hot during the day and cold at night, the sandy landscapes, the breath-taking sunsets…

Actually, while sitting on a rock and watching the golden-red sunset I could understand why T.E. Lawrence was so impressed by this land.

Wadi Rum offers the easiest way to have a glimpse of this impressive reddened dunes valley cut into sandstone. As you drive around in an old 4×4 truck you can appreciate the terrain and its colours.

We tore up sand banks, had a short camel ride, drank tea with Bedouins and climbed up a rock to watch a fantastic sunset. We ended the night around the fire drinking tea and smoking shisha.

In general, I found most people everywhere are friendly. But I was really surprised at the warmth I found in Jordan. Jordanians were so friendly and eager to welcome us to their country that I couldn’t feel more comfortable and safe. They will go the extra mile to make sure your experiences are up or higher than your expectations and I dare to say that I don’t think I have been anywhere else in the world where I have found kind and helpful people from start to finish.

Maybe their tea is the only thing warmer than their welcome as from the ancient ruins of Petra to the deserts of Wadi Rum, wherever we went; the locals would always offer us a cup of tea.

This makes me conclude that we started our trip as strangers but we ended it as friends. Yallah! (Let’s Go!)

 

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