2004 - Jordan
Tuesday 19th October 2004
Leaving home at 6.30 a.m., Jill, Adrian and Zoe joined what transpired to be a charter flight for Jules Verne to Aqaba. We later found that this was because JV combine their tours to the area for certain sections. In consequence our numbers would fluctuate from about 24 to close to a hundred. Most of the time we were 40 - a rather large group for our fairly taciturn guide Achmed, but it worked quite well.
The plane arrived at 3.20 p.m. but we had to assemble and then drive for 2 hours to Petra. It was dark by the time we arrived and we were quite tired. Meals were not included and generally comprised 4 basic dishes preceded by salad and completed by a range of small sweet baklavas, a hot dish similar to bread and butter pudding but rich in cinnamon, and jelly-based sponges. Not terribly exciting for us as we are less keen on lamb stew type dishes and bony fish.
Wednesday 20th October 2004
- a departure at 8 am. As the hotel overlooks the sandstone cliffs of Petra it was no more than a 5 minute walk to the site entrance. Then another 10 minutes of winding track to the beginning of the siq. This is a passage about 3/4 mile in length, always narrow (sometimes about 10 feet wide) and bordered on both sides by cliffs 300 feet high. The passage winds its way very gently downwards. In places the track is of sand, sometimes a form of concrete with numerous small stones (looks very natural) and at times large cobble or paving stones which are part of the original Nabutean surface.
Eventually one sees ahead the right hand half of Petra's most famous building, the Treasury. Rising to nearly 100 feet and carved out of the solid rock, it is a very impressive introduction to a spectacular city - city because it housed 35,000 people or 70,000 within its environs. So, all told, a far bigger site than we had envisaged. There are many tombs of various sizes - about 100 - and numerous tricliniums (dining rooms with 3 couches on which to recline). In addition there are a vast number of houses some of which had several different rooms and kitchens often below. Water was gathered in cisterns and distributed around the city by small channels.
After going into the Treasury (in fact a triclinium) we moved on to our right and passed into a wider passage leading to a wider space lined with houses, a theatre seating 3000, and the royal tombs.
We stopped for a drink opposite the theatre. Everything for tourists is always a minimum of 1JD (£1). In fact it was 3 days before we saw any money under 1JD - Jordanian Dinar.
We saw some coloured sand in small glass bottles and ordered one with Limei's name included in sand relief. This is done by painting the letters in glue on the inside and then pouring in black sand. When emptied again it leaves the black writing. We collected this in the evening and bought one for ourselves with the word Petra.
From this point we headed for the colonnade but on the way Jill could not resist a small Nabatean jug which was offered by a lady sat at the roadside selling bits of rock, coins and jewellery. Achmed pronounced the item genuine so Jill was happy to hand over 20 JD.
The colonnade had no standing columns of any height but the bases of columns at every 3 feet(?). There was also a Roman gateway which stood at full height.
A lunch was by now very welcome as we had walked a long way and had been on the go for 5 hours. Unfortunately the restaurant was run by our hotel and the buffet proved a re-run of what we had eaten the night before.
Then a challenge - a walk to the monastery. This site is about 3.5 km from the restaurant and 450 metres higher - so a long climb up a track that quickly became rock and at times concrete steps. Even here there was the occasional wayside stall manned by women on the whole and selling much the same as the items offered by the one whose day must have been made by Jill's jug purchase.
The temperatures were in the low 30s and so it was an energetic walk but rewarding for the views including those of the royal tombs from a distance. The monastery itself is similar to the Treasury with its pilasters, columns, broken pediment and urn.
Jill took a photo for a couple in our party and unwittingly left her Singapore baseball cap on the ground giving us the opportunity to go on a hunt later, aided by the directions of a kind lady in another party.
From this point we went a little higher and further to a viewpoint looking out over the surrounding hills towards the north east. Then... the long walk back. Of course it was interesting but we were all pleased to regain the hotel and to hear Jill say that her pedometer showed we must have walked 7.9 miles, which with the heat and the climb was equal to more.
The last 15 minutes or so proved a diversion as a young local man offering horse rides also offered Zoe the chance to meet him for a barbecue the next evening!
Thursday 21st October 2004
Today Little Petra. Although close by it took a 15-20 min coach ride to this site. Here were excavated remains of dwellings going back to 7,200 BC the oldest in Jordan. This time Zoe found a 13 year old girl to walk along holding hands whilst practising her English. Fatima proved to be another seller of wayside goodies. We were struck that here there were no mass produced goods - just rocks and sometimes bits of silver jewellery. The children had no visible toys and with no vegetation or even buildings there seemed little to occupy them - but then they should have been at school! Children start school at the age of six and leave at 15 or 16 years of age.
We then moved into the Nabatean area via a passageway perhaps 3-4 feet wide but far shorter than the outer siq leading to Petra. Once again there were spectacular tricliniums, one of which still had traces of a fresco in an inner recess. Access to this was gained via steep steps which being covered with loose sand proved interestingly slippery.
Whilst at Little Petra we met Ramsi a Cox and Kings guide with a great sense of humour. We subsequently met him when we were eating lunch in town and he joined us back at the hotel where we spent a pleasant hour or so chatting. He gave us his card and asked that, when we emailed him, we mention the "exploding meal" that we had shared at the Oriental Cafe in town. We also met Ramsi's cousin who is a French speaking guide and speaks English with a French accent.
In the evening we joined an extra trip for Petra by night. With perhaps 80 people it was surprising that we were able to follow the instructions to walk in silence through the siq to the Treasury. The route was lined by candles lit inside paper bags. They gave little general light but it was a bright three quarters moon that added a great atmosphere to the walk. The towering cliffs caught the moonlight in their upper reaches, contrasting with the dark lower sections.
The precincts of the Treasury had perhaps two hundred lights. A solitary flute player added to the atmosphere. He continued playing as a speaker shared a homily about God and his creation. Everyone was served mint tea before we took the rough path for the long walk to the restaurant we had visited the previous day. This time we think we identified a hotel that Achmed had been stayed in by Agatha Christie when accompanying her husband to Petra who was an archaeologist.
We were serenaded by musicians who later gave a display of traditional dance as we ate. We were uncertain whether the bagpipes were also traditional or had been borrowed from Scotland. A fleet of buses ferried us back to our hotel for 10.45 p.m.
Friday 22nd October 2004
We left Petra at 8.15 and headed to Amman stopping at a Crusader Castle at Karach. This 12th century castle was built on a precipitous slope and also had high walls. There was a maze of underground rooms which were described to us as being part of a Koranic School.
After a lunch we weaved our way through traffic and narrow streets in our large coach (negotiating double parked vehicles) and travelled to the 19th century St George's Church at Madaba where a 6th century mosaic of the Holy Land had been discovered in 1884. Our journey to Madaba included crossing an immense gorge known as Wadi Mujib. This was one kilometer deep and four kilometers wide. A series of s bends took us down to the river which had just seen the completion of a dam to create a lake to provide water to the area.
Our final stop of the day was at Mt Nebo being the site where Moses was shown the Promised Land and where he is believed to be buried. The memorial church on the site had some wonderful mosaics including a complete and undamaged one with scenes of wine making and hunting and an assortment of animals such as panthers, bears, foxes and lions. The view from outside was obscured by haze but it was still possible to see the Dead Sea and parts of Israel.
We arrived at the Crown Plaza Amman at about 5.30 p.m. and ate in the hotel restaurant that evening.
Saturday 23rd October 2004
The 6.45 wake up call and 8.00 departure were becoming routine for us on this trip. It was necessary and worthwhile however as our morning included visits to 3 desert castles and the afternoon a 2 and 1/2 hour walk around the Graeco-Roman city of Jerash. Add to this a three long and one short coach journeys and you have the elements of a tiring but fascinating day.
The purpose of the castles is unclear with suggestions including that they were inns, meeting places or pleasure palaces for wealthy city dwellers wishing to escape the city.
The first amazed us being from the early 8th century yet so complete. It looked rather fort-like but inside was a large courtyard surrounded by rooms on 2 floors. Some of these had ceilings decorated by stone ribs or decorated friezes. It reminded us a little of Koranic schools that we had seen in Morocco. It was still possible to gain access to both the upper floor and the roof,/from which distant views over the desert could be obtained.
The next castle was really just the bath house with three rooms and a low domed roof. Inside were paintings (frescoes) dating from the early 8th century like the building itself. They were very damaged but still extremely interesting in their depiction of animals, plants and certain trades.
A longer ride took us to a castle definitely suited to military purposes. Qasr al azraq. Made of black basalt it was striking - it even had large stone doors that moved in greased post holes. The roof was corbelled (no mortar - just stone beams supported at either end by other stones. T.E.Lawrence had lived here while and did
not like water coming through when it rained - not a problem that occurred too often if our experience was anything to go by.
We then headed north -westwards for 2 hours. After the usual very empty roads we approached the industrial area of Jordan and were greeted by huge lines of parked tankers which were awaiting the opportunity to approach a nearby refinery , we were told. Then endless commercial vehicles and service workshops. Totally different to the quiet roads and rural life we had seen so far - but still desert.
At about 1.30 we entered Jerash., a seemingly unremarkable medium sized town but one with extensive Roman ruins, we found. This proved one of the highlights of the holiday for us. Although not a really major Roman city it had huge arched gateways at the remaining entrances, a long colonnaded street, indeed a veritable forest of columns, a huge theatre, remains of temples and churches. It was by far the most significant Roman ruins we had seen apart from possibly Ephesus and one that more than justified the 2 1/2 hours that we gave to it.
Then a 40 minute or so ride back to Amman and our next hotel. That evening we felt too weary to fight our way across roads to try and find restaurants that we were told were some distance away. The hotel kindly offered for purchase...a buffet! However, the food was good and just slightly more varied than the standard which normally comprises lamb in a gravy, chicken drumsticks, perhaps beef in a bland gravy, rice, couscous, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. The desserts are a little better being pastries or cakes, a white jelly-like dessert with shreds of coconut and something akin to chocolate gateau. We wouldn't rush to return for the cuisine!
Sunday 23rd October 2004
Another 8 am departure - this was for a tour of Amman including the blue domed mosque built in the 1980s. For this Jill and Zoe had to dress up in a long black robe with cowl - something we had not had to do on visits to mosques in other countries and something one of our party refused to do, missing the visit rather than give ground. Mosques do little for us and this did the same! Then a visit to the citadel with Roman ruins and views over town to a Roman amphitheatre. Also the remains of a temple and a much restored section of the palace.
This we visited later with its adjoining museums of folklore (costumes and interiors of three types of home). The museums proved of interest but we have to confess to not paying too much attention to the theatre - probably our fourth so far!
Then a coach ride in which we dropped from 800m at Amman to the Dead Sea at 410m below sea level. We had the now seemingly compulsory buffet and then prepared to swim in the Dead Sea. This proved a surprise as the water close too looked much as any other sea or lake with no visible signs of the 30% salt content contrasting with the normal 3% of other seas. However, there was no disappointment with the effects - even Jill floated like a natural and we all posed for our turn in the family photos to prove our visit. The site had been developed just 5 years ago with the help of the French - a contribution attested to by the toilets and the presence of 2 changing cubicles per sex, such cubicles comprising a walled off section of floor but nothing in the way of a bench etc!!
As we travelled the lonely road beside the sea we saw odd salt encrustations, but mainly yet more desert. A very long (3 1/2 hour) coach ride brought us back to Aqaba , a bustling modern, western looking seaside resort - quite a contrast to what we had seen in just a few days, save that Amman was also very modern in many ways. We had to wait for 30 mins on the outskirts of Aqaba as the King was meeting the president of Egypt at the airport to discuss peace in the middle east (as announced in that day's paper) and the troops were anxious to keep everyone well away until at least one of them had flown off.
In the evening we headed for Ali Baba's on the recommendation of Achmed and it certainly produced a very good fish main course that Adrian enjoyed as we sat at the pavement cafe with many others of our group- watching the world go by.
Monday 24th October 2004
"A morning at leisure at Aqaba" - a sit by the pool, a walk to the uninteresting shops, lunch at the hotel and then...
an afternoon trip to Wadi Ram about an hour away. We left the coach and sat 6 in the back of one of several Land Rover type Toyotas for a journey deeper into the desert, We saw graffiti from people in caravan trains, spring sources and some older pictures carved in the rock in a narrow gorge about 700 BC. Then after gathering at a rocky outcrop to view sundown, we moved on to a pleasant barbecue type buffet in a Bedouin tent and the chance for longer chats with some of our fellow travellers. Most people raved about this half day trip but Adrian would have preferred about 150 less people so as to appreciate the remoteness, silence, moonlit sky and dark mountain shapes.
Tuesday 25th October 2004
Home again. First a walk along the harbour front to the fort that was quite dilapidated but apparently the British attacked it in the 19th century. The weather was exceptionally hot and more humid than most of the rest of the holiday. We headed inland a bit to the old town but this seemed to be dilapidated single story trading stalls of little interest to us. Jill managed to find a shop to buy a bag and a shawl before we returned to the hotel for a much needed drink and then time by the pool before lunch and the long journey home.
We had concluded that the itinerary was for the benefit of Voyages Jules Verne rather than us - it started in the south in Aqaba, went north close to the Syrian border and then headed south again to Aqaba - this was really because VJV used a chartered plane and wanted all its groups to start and end at Aqaba whereas it would have made much more sense to have ended in the north at Amman. For the same reason we were left at the airport a good 3 hours before the flight even though it is a very small airport and there was no sign of other flights. Zoe surmised it was to enable our incoming flight to unload its passengers onto our coaches.
All told a very successful and informative holiday. Compared with others there seemed a lot of extras (including all meals except breakfast) but our guide the country, the people, the sites, were all excellent. We had not interacted with the local people as much as we have on other occasions but were treated with courtesy and friendliness whenever we did and without the high pressure salesmanship or sense of being money on legs that we encountered just 6 months ago in Morocco, nor the (fully understandable) begging by cripples that we had found so hard in Cambodia. There is less sense here of abject poverty despite 38% unemployment. Tourism is a funny thing and we have yet to fully work out our views upon, but Jordan, like so many other countries is heavily dependent on tourists but here they seem to genuinely welcome them.