Abu Yoseuf, amman, Amman Beach, amman citadel, Aquaba, baptism, Bedouins, Bethany beyond the Jordan, Church of St. John the Baptist, Dana Biosphere, Dead Sea, Desert Highway, Floating in Dead Sea, Haret Jdoudna, Heritage belongs to humanity, Israel, Jordan, jordan pass, Kerak, KIng's Highway, Lawrence of Arabia, Madaba, Madaba Institute of Mosaic Art and Restoration, Mecca, Middle East, monastery, Mosaic map, Mosaics, moses, Mount Nebo, Nabateams, Petra, Petra by Night, Pilgrim's Route, River Jordan, Siq Trail, treasury, Wadi Mujib, Wadi Rum, wild jordan cafe, Zarb
This is a 10 day trip to Jordan in 2016. Fully for pleasure – no work. My birthday was the perfect excuse. It worked very well as I was joined by my dear friend Sherine for the first part of the trip (she had lived in Jordan earlier and flew in from Lebanon where she works now). The second part of the trip was with Sushma, a close friend from India.
Why did I choose Jordan? Two big reasons: One, Petra. Two, it was in the Middle East – a region I had not visited before and wanted to know about. But there are many more reasons one should visit Jordan, as I found out happily.
What to do before you go
Get a Jordan Pass: This saved me more than 30 JD as my visa fees got waived and entry to most sites was included in the pass. With the pass, you get great brochures on what to see and do. Please see http://jordanpass.jo/
Look up a map of the region: the past and present of Jordan is intertwined with that of its neighbours – Israel, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. This is the land traversed by Moses and Jesus and Mohamed giving the world three major religions. This is also the land that is the center of intense dispute and division with global ramifications.
Look up a good map with main tourist sites. This one worked well for me.
This trip report is organized around places I visited. I started with Amman, traveled down to the southern-most city of Aqaba and then slowly made my way up again.
Pit stop 1: Amman
The capital city. Sand coloured houses crowded together on a few hills. It is the city with the highest flag in the world!
It is also a city that has an ancient past. Relics from the Stone Age, Roman era, Byzantine period and the Ummayad dynasty are all packed together on one mound – the Amman Citadel. This is absolutely not to be missed. Keep about two full hours. Also peek into the Archaeology Museum here that gives you a chronological view of Jordan’s history.
Amman is worth a day of tourist action but several evenings of fun. It has lovely restaurants and shops on Rainbow Street. I enjoyed visiting the Soap Shop http://trinitae.com/trinitaestore/ and Wild Jordan http://wildjordancenter.com/. The Old Town is magical with small shops and eateries buzzing with action till late at night. For humus head to Hashem (this guy is a veteran and it is his rumoured that his delicacies made the King leave his palace and eat here!), for authentic Jordanian sweets like Knanef (it is a sweet – hot cheese base with fried. It should be banned!) go to Habibah and for fab home-done pizzas and great music, visit Jafra. ENJOY!
Pit stop 2: Dead Sea
I did a day trip from Amman to the Dead Sea and Wadi Mujib – left at the crack of dawn so I could arrive early at the public beach in the Dead Sea. The cab ride to the Dead Sea was full of excitement. We passed the hilly outskirts of Amman and then pretty much dived into the earth. The entire journey was downhill – from Amman’s 2500ft above sea level to Dead Sea at 1400ft below sea level. On the way, you feel your ears pop! And we stopped to catch a breath at sea level!
I chose the Amman Beach as the place to dip into the Dead Sea. This turned out to be a wise choice. It is a public beach so quite cheap – way cheaper than the 5- star hotels that offer you day visits. And it was just right – because you really can’t spend much time in the Dead Sea anyway. Probably an hour at the most. The water isn’t for swimming (that’s the point!) and the skin starts to sting with the high exposure to minerals and salt. Amman Beach has basic but clean facilities for showers and change. I reached there much to the surprise of the sleepy attendant and then had the entire beach to myself. I tried various poses of floating and squeaked and whooped around. And just as I was feeling hot and tired, few people miraculously appeared to take my photos. I could not have timed it better!!
Pit stop 3: Wadi Mujib
The next stop was Wadi Mujib – hugging the Dead Sea but 30kms beyond Amman Beach. Wadi Rum is a reserve made up of gorges carved out by the many streams that rush down from the high mountains of Jordan to the deep arms of the Dead Sea. Now the thing to do here is to take the Siq Trail – the journey upstream from the point that the stream meets the Dead Sea to about 3kms up to a high waterfall. Along the way, I had to pass (and heave up) many small waterfalls and rock faces. It is stunningly beautiful but also intensely foolish to do on your own. The start was easy enough with just about knee deep water to wade through. Soon tons of water were pushing me down and I had to keep holding onto hefty ropes along the way. There is a fair bit of rock climbing to be done. I could do all this only with the help of three people who thought I was mad but worthy of assistance. Anyway, gasping (due to the water) and gaping (due to the jaw-dropping rock facades), I made it to the waterfall. The feeling was heady and I would not have missed it for the world. BUT caution: you must go with friends (or organize through Wild Jordan), wear water-resistant shoes and be ready to go underwater a few times!
Once back, I had hot tea and a look at the wonderful exhibition on the special geology of the region. Then, headed back to Amman – knackered but ecstatic. Along the Dead Sea, there are other places to visit such as the “Museum of the Lowest Place on Earth” and Bethany Beyond the Jordan (where Jesus was baptized). I did come back to Bethany but only after going down south first.
Pit stop 4: Aquaba
I took a morning Jett bus from Amman to Aquaba. The journey was about 4 hours through the Desert Highway that runs through acres and acres of (yes, you guessed it!) desert. But Aquaba is an aquatic paradise. It lies along the Red Sea – the northern tip that is called the Gulf of Aquaba. I spent a couple of days with Sushma at one of the resorts – just idling. But I really could not get into the laidback beach feeling with the foreboding presence of the Israeli warships on the opposite shore. Of all the places in Jordan, I liked Aquaba the least. The only thing interesting is the shopping because of its duty-free status. The one thing you must not forget to get here are the BBQ and smoked nuts. They can be bought by weight and are to die for.
Pit Stop 5: Wadi Rum
From the bottom tip of Jordan, we worked our way back up to Amman. And for that the thing to do was to take the super scenic Kings Highway. This is the ancient trade route linking Africa (through Egypt) to Mesopotania (Iraq). It is also part of the pilgrim’s route to Saudi Arabia. It’s like a slow drive through history. We used a good map (see elsewhere in this blog) and decided the places we wanted to stop enroute. Our first stop was actually very close to Aquaba – off the Highway – but on the ancient pilgrim’s route to Mecca. As soon we turned off, we went back in time and space. Suddenly the landscape was desolate, vast and silent. The barren hills wore shades of crimson and gold. And the railway track from the last century that carried the faithful pilgrims added to the ghostly feel.
As the sun went down, we arrived at our Bedouin Camp sheltered by a massive rock face and settled for the night. The Camp was basic but that was part of the experience. Few other guests came around the fire and exchanged travel tales. Then we were served the traditional Zarb meal – chunks of meat with rice and vegetables all slow cooked underground in huge pots. After dinner, we brought our camp beds out of the little tents and spread ourselves under the moonlit night. I am not sure when I slept but once I woke up in the middle of the night and there was a soft light about, a slight breeze and a million stars. It was in the middle of nowhere, yet wrapped up in nature, I felt secure as ever.
The next morning, we leapt out at the crack of dawn and witnessed the sun coming up against the beautiful contours. Then, after a hearty breakfast, we went out to visit local springs, Lawrence of Arabia’s house and many ancient inscriptions – probably made by the pilgrims as they journeyed across this land. It was magical and all too soon we had to pack our bags and head out again to civilization.
Pit stop 6: Petra
Petra was the main reason for me to visit Jordan. I had researched it, seen pictures, but nothing could prepare me for the actual experience. After leaving Wadi Rum, we took a taxi and arrived into Petra by noon. By 4pm we were at Petra Visitor Center buying our tickets. We got the 2-day ticket and separate tickets for Petra by night. This was also a good choice as it does take two visits to get some sense of the magnificence of the place. And Petra by Night isn’t outstanding but can’t be missed either. We slowly walked through the canyon (Siq) passing important small sites that take you into the world of Nabateams in the 1st century BC. As you touch the rock faces, you can’t escape the feeling of awe that someone from 2000 years back may have touched them in the same way. The 2kms walk is stunning and that’s just the beginning. From the time you see the celebrated Treasury and till you reach the end of the gigantic city, you are humbled, gob smacked. I come from a very old civilization, but I just could not get over the scale and antiquity of Petra. We hurried through most of this, promising to do it in more detail the next morning. This was so we could go up to Monastery and watch the sunset over the Wadi Araba. It’s a very hard climb – by mule or on foot – but it is well worth it. We were the last people coming down and by the time we got midway, it was pitch dark. We were guided by the Bedouins and the stars. It was a thrill beyond words.
Infact, I am not going to use any more words. Petra has to be experienced, savoured and stored as a gem in the memory.
Late morning the next day, after another more leisurely visit to Petra, we resumed our north-bound journey on the Kings Highway. We stopped at Shobak, took in views of the Dana Biosphere area and meandered through the Kerak Castle. Each of these places and a few more along the way, could be stopped at and experienced for longer. However, we made small stops and by 4 pm we had reached our destination Madaba.
Pit Stop 7: Madaba
Madaba became our last stop before we took a flight out of Jordan. It’s a lovely town – much smaller than Amman but with hip restaurants and cafes and bustling markets. It is a better place to stay than Amman, in my opinion. We spent a great few days here. Madaba is famous for its mosaics – ranging from the 6th to 9th centuries. Literally hundreds of mosaics are scattered across churches and homes. The most outstanding is the Mosaic Map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land found within the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. But we spent loads of leisurely time just walking along the Archaeological Museum and Park and taking in spectacular scenes from ordinary life, stills and religious symbols – all in intricate mosaic. Then we dropped into the Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration where students come in to learn this ancient craft.
All through these meanderings, we drank beautiful pomegranate juice from road side stalls and ate at iconic places like Haret Jdoudna and Abu Yoseuf. One wonderful place we chanced upon late evening was the Church of St. John the Baptist. Since we reached late, we had low hopes of seeing the church complex. But when we got there, we were greeted by a large group of bantering, joking, friendly youth who had come there for a prayer service. As soon as they found out that we are from India – “Oh! You have come from soooo far!!” – they gave us an exclusive tour of the entire underground vault and the bell tower. The absolute highlight was a well in the underbelly of the church – dating back to Moabite era, 3000 years ago – and still operational!!
Pit stop 8: Mount Nebo and Bethany beyond the Jordan
This is a day trip from Madaba or from Amman. From Madaba, it is truly magical because you drive first to Mount Nebo. This is the hill from where Moses is said to have witnessed the Holy Land. This is also where he breathed his last. As I skirted around the simple white monument and exhibition on the significance of Mount Nebo, I stood at the spot where Moses may have stood. The hill sloped down to the dry arid land below to the River Jordan and beyond that spread present day Israel. It is difficult not to be overwhelmed.
Just as the hill sloped down, so did we. Right down to the River Jordan which today is only a small canal. Here I bought my ticket and took a guided bus ride to see the place where Jesus is said to have been baptized. The area is dotted with small churches – small and ornate. But the place of baptism itself is a simple shed.
And a little on the side, the river where faithfuls from all over the world come to be blessed with the holy water. As I climbed down the steps, I saw, just 20 feet away, on the other bank – the border of Israel. Both banks – so close and yet so far away!
Bethany beyond Jordan made my eyes teary. And I felt, even more strongly, that you don’t have to belong to a religion, any religion to feel the power of an ancient space held sacred over centuries. I came away touched by a signboard near the baptism site that said, “Heritage belongs to Humanity”. Amen.