Jacqueline Khale goes on a cultural expedition
Jordan is a country rooted in ancient history, with a past that is rich in culture and home to some of the finest relics of human civilisation.
This small but fascinating nation has set the scene for some momentous events in Arabic peacekeeping efforts, and continues to play an important role as a mediator for peace in the region.
For such a tiny country, Jordan has a surprisingly varied climate. The Jordan Valley can be incredibly hot in summer, while Amman and Jerash are considerably cooler. Likewise, winters can be bitterly cold (with snowfall) in most of the country, but the Red Sea area and Aqaba are still very pleasant.
The best time to appreciate the country is in spring or autumn when the weather is at its mildest.
The diverse geography of the country also belies its size. There are mountains, fertile valleys, barren desert lands and, of course, the famous Dead Sea.
Amman is the capital of Jordan and in the Greco-Roman times was referred to as Philadelphia. Amman is a cosmopolitan city with modern state-of-the-art facilities. Add to this the mystique of old Amman, which is at least 5,000 years old and dotted with Roman ruins including a citadel and a forum, and you have an eclectic mix of sights, sounds and experiences.
The crowning glory of this vibrant city is the ancient Citadel, which features an Umayyad mosque, a palace complex, and a small Byzantine church. The best-preserved monument in Amman is undoubtedly the Roman Amphitheatre, just ten minutes away from the Citadel, which can accommodate almost 6,000 spectators. Recent excavations and restoration have made it possible for it to be used today for cultural performances. Other cultural attractions include the Odeon and the Nymphaeum, which is the city's main fountain.
As Amman is no more than five hour's drive from anywhere, it serves as a convenient base for touring the country. To the south along the 5,000-year-old King's Highway, which winds its way through some of Jordan's most beautiful landscapes, is Madaba, also known as the ‘City of Mosaics' for its many Byzantine mosaic works.
Madaba's chief attraction is the sixth century map of the Holy Land, found in the contemporary Greek Orthodox church of St. George. It is a wonderfully vivid, Byzantine mosaic map showing Jerusalem and the holy sites. With two million pieces of coloured stone, measuring 25 x 5 metres, the map depicts hills and valleys, villages and towns as far away as the Nile Delta.
Jordan's biblical links become more evident in the revered site of Mount Nebo, the memorial of Moses and the reputed site of the prophets death and burial place. It is widely believed that it was from the heights of Mount Nebo that Moses was shown the Promised Land, shortly before his death.
Further south is Petra, the most famous and lauded of all of Jordan's historical sites. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this soul-stirring, rose-red city is the legacy of the Nabateans, an industrious Arab people who settled in south Jordan more than 2,000 years ago, eking a living by taxing passing caravans that were moving between the Far East and Europe. By the 16th Century, Petra was completely lost to the west and so it remained for almost 300 years. It was in 1812 that a Swiss traveller named Ludwig Burckhart rediscovered this treasure.
Much of Petra's appeal comes from its spectacular setting, entering through a deep, narrow, desert gorge. Threading your way through the chasm, between wall cliffs that soar nearly 200 metres, you pass inscriptions in various ancient languages and rock cut chambers and facades. Various walks and climbs reveal literally hundreds of such buildings, tombs, baths, funerary halls, temples and haunting rock drawings and reliefs. There is also a 3,000-seat theatre from the early 1st Century AD.
The façade of Petra's grandest monument, The Treasury or El Khazneh, which is carved deep into the rock, has become the signature of Jordanian antiquity. This splendid monument is thought to be a grave, a temple or a mausoleum. Its name refers to the urn, which allegedly contains the treasure of the Pharaohs from the time of the exodus.
The façade of The Treasury is remarkably well preserved as it has been carved deep into the rock and is therefore shielded from climatic influences. These magnificent sights are even more spectacular when viewed in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun warms the multicoloured stone they are etched into.
While Petra may be the country's most famous man-made creation, Jordan's most famous geological wonder is the Dead Sea - the lowest point on the surface of the earth, where the salinity of the water is so high that visitors float effortlessly in the waters. So strong is the concentration of minerals in the water that it is believed to have medicinal properties and curative powers. The unusually salty, buoyant and mineral-rich water has attracted visitors since ancient times.
The Sanctuary Spa at the Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea is Jordan's first five-star resort and spa on the Dead Sea. Besides its unique location, the resort has been built in the style of a traditional stone village and offers a comprehensive facility including a spa that offers more than 60 different health treatments.
Contrasting the Dead Sea experience is the Red Sea experience. Aqaba, Jordan's only seaport, offers an enviable combination of temperate waters (averaging 23 degrees Celsius), clean sandy beaches and coral reefs teeming with life. Aqaba's reef is healthy and thriving, adorned at least 110 species of soft corals, 120 species of hard corals and over 1000 species of fish. It also boasts some of the best scuba diving available anywhere.
About 50 kilometres to the north of Amman, is the ancient city of Jerash, which is also known as the world's best-preserved Roman City. A major portion of the 2,000 year-old city has been uncovered and preserved, including the unique elliptic forum and a colonnade street extending 600 metres. Although excavations began in the 1920s, it is estimated that only ten per cent of the city has been excavated. Inside the city wall is The Temple of Zeus and the Temple of Artemis, which is also the largest building on the site.
In ancient times, Jerash boasted many theatres – particularly notable are the Northern and Southern Theatre. The latter accommodates 5,000 spectators and has two circles with 29 alphabetically ordered seat rows. The circles and even the stage are decorated with colonnades, recesses and monumental gates, which are still in excellent condition. Because of its impressive acoustics, it is still used for many performances and public events.
One such internationally known event is the Jerash Festival. Held in July each year, this festival features folklore dances by local and international groups, ballet, concerts, opera, performances by popular singers, theatrical plays and poetry competitions – all in the brilliantly floodlit dramatic surroundings of the Jerash ruins.
The desert landscapes of Jordan are best appreciated in Wadi Rum, described by Lawrence of Arabia as ‘vast, echoing and God-like'. The dramatic combination of massive canyons and strange rocks, weathered into weird shapes and colour, and surrounded by the desert, is magnificent.
The forbidding majesty of Wadi Rum attracts an increasing number of tourists, but as there is no hotel in the area, your trip to this magnificent landscape could be restricted to a day trip. Or if the adventurous spirit in you comes to the fore, you could hire a guide and stay overnight with the Bedouin families or camp in the desert.
Jordan's unique offering in terms of tourism niches is religious tourism. Considered a Land of Prophets, Jordan is the nursery of the world's greatest religions and biblical and historical tours are a prime attraction. It is believed that some 2000 years ago, John the Baptist lived and baptised in a settlement that is today called Bethany beyond the Jordan. With many references in the Holy Bible, Abraham, Job, Moses, Ruth, Elijah and even Jesus are supposed to have performed pivotal elements of their divine mission in Jordan.
The very name of the country and its famous river of baptism and spiritual cleansing retain the unique heritage of the land as a refuge of peace. Most of the holy sites where the biblical prophets performed miracles or reached out to ordinary people have been identified, excavated and are easily accessible to visitors while new sites are being discovered every year.
For Muslims, Jordan is a blessed landscape marked with holy shrines and tombs and visiting these sites is approved behaviour in Islam, for men and women. Located between Mecca, the holiest place on earth for Muslims, and Jerusalem, which is sacred to each of the three monotheistic religions, Jordan forms a part of the blessed ‘neighbourhood' mentioned in the Holy Quran and has twice played a part in the life of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him). Also, Jordan was the first country into which Islam expanded beyond the Arabian Peninsula.
The ancient legacies combined with the comfort and ease of modern life make Jordan one of the most fascinating tourist destinations in the region. Nowhere in fact, do modern times work so harmoniously with the ancient world as in Jordan.
HOW TO GET THERE
Qatar Airways flight depart from Dubai at 10:30 on Mondays / Wednesdays / Thursdays / Fridays / Sunday and arrives in Amman at 14:10.
Inbound flights depart from Amman at 15:40 on Mondays / Wednesdays / Thursdays / Fridays / Sunday and arrive in Dubai on at 22:15.
Special Excursion Fares -
Economy Class - Round trip – One Month = Dhs899
Economy Class - Round trip – 14-days = Dhs799
Fares valid till 31 May 2002 – Conditions apply.
If Jordan has caught your interest, you might like to read another travelogue on it! Click here