After two days exploring Petra one would think I would have had enough of Nabatean ruins, but not so! When our guide offered us a choice of an early morning trip out to Siq Al-Barid or a sleep in before heading out to Wadi Rum I obviously chose the chance to see another well preserved site by these fabulous desert peoples. A short 8km drive out from Wadi Musa will get you to the Siq Al-Barid, which translates to “cold canyon”. The name is apt – even at 8am it was super hot but as soon as you walk through the narrow slit into the canyon you can feel the coolness that the canyon walls provide. What a relief it must have been for those crossing endless deserts to come to this little cool paradise! It is said that the canyon was an agricultural centre and a hub of trade, and also a resupply post for those who were continuing on to Petra proper. While obviously not as grand as Petra, the site does have a few interesting features. For me personally I enjoyed the “painted house”, which was a small dining room that has a beautifully painted ceiling of vines and birds and flowers. True paradise in the middle of nowhere!
After exploring the small site we headed back out to the small carpark. Our guide said he wanted to show us one of the oldest sites in the middle east. Just to the left of the entry to Little Petra was a rough trail, with no real signage to mention. After about 15 minutes exposed to the searing heat we came across the ruins of Al-Beidha. There are around 65 round shaped buildings that are said to be 9000 years old! The site is important as one of the earliest examples of humans going from hunter/gatherers to settling down and start ‘farming’. For me it was amazing that something so old and historic is not really pointed out for tourists at all. I would never have known we could visit this from the carpark at Little Petra without our guides knowledge!
Our walk back was a bit of a slog over rocky scree in searing heat, but our grumbles were put aside when we witnessed locals herding their animals towards their camps. Being the only people around it really felt like we had stepped back in time and were witnessing how life would have been all those years ago (I am sure the herders had mobile phones in their pockets but lets pretend they don’t!). It really was a fitting end to our little visit to this oft missed section of Petra. If you do have a spare hour or two do make the short drive over from Wadi Musa – both places are free entry, are quiet, and are perfect to get a sense of the true history that this region has to offer!
After an exhausting and hot first day we knew an early start was a must in order to climb the 900 or so steps up to the famed Monastery. At 6.30am my friend Ms L and I were already out the door and we walked straight through the whole site all the way to the start of the climb up. Even though we were relatively early it was already quite hot, and after a tough slog up we finally made it. We enjoyed our time sitting in a cave and drinking fresh pressed orange juice before continuing on with our walk. After lunch Ms L went off for a spa treatment (smart girl!) and I, being a total glutton for punishment made the steep climb up another of Petra’s high trails – the al-Khubtha trail. It was super quiet on this trail during the hottest part of the day because most people aren’t as stupid as me. lol. This climb up was pretty horrible in 40 degree heat, and I was questioning my sanity, but the views were so worth it! By the time I came down back to the main touristy area of the Treasury it was around 4pm. The hordes were gone and I finally got my Treasury posts sans people. Overall an epically exhausting yet exhilarating day!!
Where does one even begin when it comes to describing Petra? This huge ancient site isn’t one of the Seven Wonders of the World for nothing. It made the status because it truly is an awe inspiring amazing site, and after having visited a few of the other ones, I have to say Petra would be the best (in my opinion). Anyone who is half a tourist has heard of Petra. Everyone knows of the main iconic site, the Treasury. Even some of the dopey school mums who had no idea where Jordan was would realise where I was going when I said, “you know, Petra, that was in the Indiana Jones movie and has that beautiful building carved into rock”. You’d get a nod and a glint of recognition from even the most ignorant and least travelled of people. But even I have to admit I was totally ignorant to the sheer size of the site. I knew of the iconic Treasury building, and maybe the Monastery, and that’s all I thought it was. The truth is Petra is soooo much more. It is hundreds of countless tombs, where if you find one off the main path is all yours to savour (after walking in the 40 degree heat the natural cooling relief of stone is amazing!). Petra is seeing local Bedoiun riding camels and donkeys, with their eyes lined in kohl, looking exotic and some are very handsome. Petra is rock, in all shapes and sizes, rock that is natural, rock that is hewn to benefit those that settled here. It is a place which yes, can be overrun with tourists, but because of its massive size it is more than easy enough to find a quiet spot to yourself. Move away from the Treasury and the crowds do thin out.
I had two full days in Petra, which I was so grateful for. Being the peak of summer, at around 40c the chance to take it easy and not feel rushed was definitely required. I got to explore pretty much every main trail and side lookouts, I got to sit in a little shack and drink ice cold mint and lemon, I could take the time to chat to a cheeky local who says she has cousins in Sydney and could she have my suncream which I had hanging on a caribiner. (she thought the mini suncream hanging off my bag was the coolest thing she’d ever seen). Having two days is definitely my recommendation to experience all that this huge site has to offer. Please follow me on my first day itinerary….
Following on down south on the Kings Highway one will come across the town of Kerak (also spelt Al-Karak), a small town of around 25,000 people. While many tourists bypass this town as they speed on down towards Petra it is worth a stop to see one of the most amazingly preserved castles from the Crusader era.
Built in AD 1142 by Baldwin I of Jerusalem, this site was chosen for its strategic location between Shobak and Jerusalem. Being on a hilltop it’s strategic position between trade routes meant it could charge high taxes on passing caravans, and thus Jerusalem prospered significantly from this. It was then inherited by a hated crusader called Renauld de Chatillon in 1148, and his greed for control over the whole regions trade routes severely impacted Islamic trading. Because of this, the famed Islamic leader Saladin stormed and took the castle with his army, and executed the evil de Chatillon in 1183.
Today, after passing a security checkpoint (ISIS tried a terror attack here in 2016), you will pass through the Ottoman Gate and pass a bridge over a huge moat. There are numerous display boards throughout explaining what you are seeing, so a guide is not totally necessary, but having someone explain the history and functions of the various rooms did add to the experience of the visit.
While of course the castle is amazing; full of hidden rooms, secret tunnels and fantastic stonework, it is the views from the imposing castle that were really special. The surrounding countryside is so dry and barren – it was great to overlook the landscape and try to visualise a hording army coming towards you over the vast plains. Just imagine being in the castle and seeing the dust of a thousand soldiers charging towards you!
After a few days in Amman and Jerash in the north it was time to wind our way down south of the country to the famed Petra and beyond to the Red Sea. While many quick tours or self drivers might use the Desert Highway which is alot more direct and quicker to Wadi Musa/Petra we ambled slowly down the Kings Highway, a road that has been used for thousands of years by the people of past times. This road is steeped in history – from Christians to Israelites, to Nabateans, Romans and Crusaders. The first main points of interest just south of Amman is Mt Nebo and Madaba, home to early Christianity.
Mt Nebo is where it is said that Moses saw the Promised Land. As someone who was raised in a Catholic household and did the whole Catholic schooling and church lessons, being here was somewhat a surreal experience. All those stories about the holy land, names like Jericho and Canaan and Moses and Jesus… it all happened around here. Even though today I wouldn’t call myself a Catholic (or anything really) I still got goosebumps knowing that I was in such a historical place. Early Christianity sprung up from around this very spot! That’s pretty special indeed no matter who you are or what you believe in. Anyway the site of Mt Nebo is a great place to see over the Promised Land from where Moses stood. There is also a fantastic little church called the Moses Memorial Chuch on the site, inside it houses fantastic mosaics that are beautiful in detail. Overlooking the sweeping views towards Israel you will find a sculpture that shows Jesus suffering on the cross entwined by a serpent that Moses had collected in the desert. There is also an olive tree nearby planted from Pope John Paul II in the year 2000.
Just down the road from Mt Nebo, on the road towards Madaba we stopped by a modern day mosaic workshop. The workers who created the mosaics for sale were special needs or disabled, thus people who might not be able to get a ‘typical’ job were being employed. We got to see the young people carefully create their masterpieces with tiny pieces of “tesserae”. It’s fiddly work, and you need the patience of a saint in my opinion! Anyway the shop next door had amazing (but expensive!) pieces, all created next door in the workshop. As part of the charity, Queen Rania’s foundation pays for the shipping of any piece that a foreigner buys and needs shipped back home. Someone in our group bought a large heavy table, an absolutely beautiful souvenir from Jordan! 4 weeks later it arrived in perfect condition to Australia! All paid for by Queen Rania foundation, and thus helping to pay these young people and their skills. I thought this was a wonderful initiative to help give something back to the community.
After our visit to Mt Nebo we went on to Madaba, a city famous for it’s Byzantine era mosaics. Madaba is home to one of the largest Christian communities in Jordan, so there are quite a few churches in this town! The most famous of these is St George’s. In 1884, the local Christian community set about building a new Greek Orthodox church on the site of a Byzantine church. It was here that a mosaic map was discovered that blew everyone away not only for its artistry (it was made of over 2 million terrasae [small coloured stone]) but because of it’s details of the Holy Land at the time it was made. The map is one of the oldest maps of the Holy Land, said to be created in the 6th century. It’s most famous for it’s detail of Jerusalem – buildings made after 570 in Jerusalem are not shown hence why it is known to be made before that time. What excited archaeologists and historians most about the map is the incredible detail of Byzantine Jerusalem, showing such features as the Damascus Gate, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Tower of David. As a whole, the map showed an area from Lebanon all the way down to the Nile Delta, and from the Med to the Eastern Desert. Not much is known as to who actually built the map, but the mosaic artists were probably local Christians from Madaba, as the writing is in Greek and pilgrims who would have gone towards the Holy Land may have used the map for guidance. Before entering the church you can see a full size replica in the ticket office, which is definitely easier to see key features and familiar places.
For anyone with a religious background then Mt Nebo and Madaba are definitely a must visit. Having said that though, even if you are not religious at all, you cannot help but feel just how historical this region is to the whole world. It definitely feels like our thought systems, morals, values and beliefs originated from the people who plied this land many years before us.
For those that love Roman ruins you just have to get yourself to Jerash! Located an easy hours drive north of Amman these ruins are reknown for their amazingly preserved buildings and monuments. The ruins are said to be some of the biggest and best outside of Rome, and once you get to the site you can see why – it is a huge area full of columns, facades, arches, paved roads, temples, plazas and theatres. The years might have taken their toll on other Roman sites around the world, but with the hot dry desert air the ruins of Jerash have had the chance to withstand the test of time and still stand as a testament to this mighty dynasty to this day.
We spent about 3 hours here exploring, which was ample time to visit this sprawling complex from Amman. Starting at the ticket gate (entrance 8JD) you will pass through a large souvenir market and a cafe before hitting Hadrian’s Arch. The tip I offer you here, especially in the peak of summer is to buy a hat or headscarf if you do not already have one, and buy a bottle of water, because once in you will walk for quite a while through a sprawling desert like complex with minimal shade. I would also definitely recommend a guide who can share the history of the area and pinpoint certain features, or at least have a guidebook so you can learn a bit about Roman life in this city known as Gerasa back in the day.
For me personally Jerash was a highlight of Jordan that once again exceeded my expectations (a common theme of my time in Jordan- expectations were always exceeded). You know, you can read blogs, see photos, and google beforehand, but nothing can prepare you for how large the city was, and just how well preserved it is. Even with quite a few tourists around, it isn’t hard to find a quiet place, to immerse yourself in times past, and just picture ancient Romans walking around on the remarkable roads and paths of the city. Jerash really is a special place and I highly recommend a visit here!
I knew that I was going to love Amman the moment I stepped out of Queen Alia International Airport. After leaving Perth on a cold wintry evening and travelling for 17 hours, the first thing I felt when stepping out of the airport was the warm sultry air of a middle eastern summer. That gloriously warm air was a relief after a horrible winter, and I just knew that I had made the right choice in choosing Jordan as my destination.
From the airport the drive into Amman central confirmed that this was going to be a great city! I just loved the craziness of the traffic. Amman is a city built on numerous hills, and because of this roads are all twisty and winding and chaotic. The tooting of horns, the boys on the roadsides selling fresh melons, the ladies in various hijab and chador all added to what I pictured a middle eastern city to be like. As for when I heard my first call to prayer…. I just got tingles all over and it made me realise that I was about as far from my ‘normal’ life as I could get. This is what travel is about right? Well for me it is anyway!
After getting to our hotel my travel mate Miss L (who lives in Singapore but we connected at Dubai) and I were absolutely exhausted by our respective flights. We didn’t want to miss out on Amman though! Our tour was due to start the next day and the tour gave really minimal time to Amman. It would be a shame to miss out the capital of a country, even if it might not be the number 1 thing to do in Jordan. (amazingly, Amman might not even be the 3rd or 4th “best” thing to do in Jordan but I don’t know why that is because I thought it was great!). After freshening up we went out to grab a bite to eat at some random little fast food joint that had 3 old men in it drinking coffee. We entered and all eyes zoomed in on us. But then they all smiled, and even though nobody in the store spoke english we ended up with some tasty meat and chicken kebab things. I have no idea what we ate but it was delicious, and it was a sign of great culinary things to come!
From our late lunch we took a taxi to the Amman Citadel. As mentioned Amman is built on numerous hills. On the map we could/should have been easily able to walk. But with the heat, winding roads and uphills we opted for a taxi. Right call – we would have died before we even got up to the citadel! This is one thing I definitely recommend in Amman; take a taxi even if the distance doesnt look so great. Taxis are cheap, price can be agreed before getting in (and bartered a bit) and you will save your energy for the large sites and museums!
The citadel (Jebel al-Qala’a) is an amazing site situated high on top of a hill overlooking the old downtown and the urban sprawl of the city. This site has been occupied for centuries by various civilizations, from the Bronze Age, to the Hellenistic Age, the Ummayads, the Romans and many more believe it or not! After walking around exploring the various remains we visited the National Archaeological Museum which is inside the citadel complex. It really was an amazing museum signed well in English as well and spanning all the civilizations mentioned previously. The citadel was absolutely fabulous and a must not just for the history but the amazing views of Amman as well. From the citadel we went down to the Roman Theatre which we had seen from above at the citadel. Another cool place with lots of tourists and locals alike hanging out in the square in front of the theatre. After walking around here we went into the heart of downtown which was hectic! There was so many shops along the main street selling everything from the usual souvenirs geared towards tourists to dress shops for local ladies. I swear, I have never seen so many clothing shops for ladies in my life in one zone! There was also lots of streetside vendors selling grilled corn, nuts and juices. It felt like the whole of Amman was out and that’s when we realized it was a Saturday afternoon after all! We had forgotten what day it was! It was little wonder there were so many families out and about shopping and enjoying the city.
After feeling slightly claustrophobic by all the crowds we ducked into the famous Hashem Restaurant for a snack. Located on Al-Amir Mohammed street in a side alleyway we could relax and enjoy some of the cheapest but yummiest food you will ever have! For the two of us we got copious amount of felafel, hummus, salad, fuul and freshly roasted bread washed down with a mint tea for the princely sum of JD2.50 each. And there was soooo much left over from that! The place isn’t fancy, but it was packed full of locals and tourists alike. Definitely a must visit! It was after this meal that I realized I loved this sort of cuisine and couldn’t wait for each meal to come around (although I will admit after 9 days of Jordanian cuisine I did sink my teeth into a Big Mac at the airport on the way home. lol)
The next evening (after a day exploring Jerash) we decided to do one more thing in Amman that I personally had never done before, and that was visiting a mosque. Now, there are heaps of mosques in Amman, but the one that openly welcomes tourists also happened to be the one we could see from our hotel room, the King Abdullah Mosque. (although please note since writing this I have learnt that tourists can go to other mosques but having a local by your side would make it easier.) Famed for its impressive blue domed roof, this amazing place can house 7000 people inside and a further 3000 in the courtyard! Inside there is an amazing chandelier and the hugest single piece of carpet I’ve ever seen. For me it was interesting to see the interior of a mosque and the surrounding courtyard. It was also an experience to wear the chador that we were required to put on at the entrance. Now, I know the chador we were given was a cheap synthetic item that trapped in heat, and that perhaps the chador that locals wear is made of cotton or other breathable material, but by gosh I was sweating in the thing! I thought I was going to pass out it was just so hot in it! Anyway for the entry of JD2 you too can experience a cheap synthetic chador and go inside an amazing mosque and see such a beautiful peaceful place of prayer. Well worth it!
After an amazing 1 and a half days it was time to start touring the rest of the country. While I was satisfied that 1.5 days was enough to see the sites of Amman, I wish I had more time to explore some of the other museums and try more of the restaurants and cafes! I missed out on other recommended places to eat such as Wild Jordan cafe and Sufra, which I had really wanted to try. Oh well, I’ll have to try them next time I visit Amman (because trust me there will be a next time!)