Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Jordan, that sweet desert rose

click photos for larger images
Traveling is a unique type of joy for those of us afflicted with the bug. Experiences derived from going somewhere new - from seeing a place I have not seen before, from immersing myself in the streets, smells and sounds of a foreign land - are unlike anything else out there. I have yet to travel to a place I did not love. Each with its own stories, lessons, and memories. Each one unique as a fingerprint.

Yet every once in a while a new destination catches me off guard. Try as I might to keep expectations neutral, every new dot on the map, nevertheless, comes with its own. On some level, I always think I know what to expect, and usually I'm right, for the most part. But once in a blue moon I get my snooty preconceived notions handed to me, when a trip leaves me breathless and embarrassed by my prior ignorance. The kind of place that I mentally return to, once I'm back in the stale circulating air of the office, only to get lost in a glassy eyed stupor, reliving moments of wonder.

Jordan is that kind of place.

To be honest, it was never very high up on my bucket list. Of course I had always wanted to see Petra, but it seemed like a heckuva long way to fly to see one archaeological site. My dear reader, I was an ignorant fool. This humble little country, largely avoided by tourist hordes due to its unfortunate location, is truly a diamond in the rough. Going to Jordan was like crawling into Santa's bag and maniacally rifling through a world of treasures I never knew existed.

But if Jordan has so much to offer, why is it such an offbeat destination? How come it gets overlooked? Well...

And I thought I had crappy neighbors.
Of the five countries sharing a border with Jordan, exactly zero are quiet, peaceful neighbors. They are surrounded by endless armed conflict and political unrest on all sides. As if that wasn't bad enough, they have to deal with the consequences of being the only speck of peace in the entire region. In a country with a population of 8 million, nearly 2 million are refugees. That's roughly 20% of the population. That's like 60 million refugees in the United States; think about that for a minute. These days they come mostly from Syria, but there are large populations of Palestinians and Iraqis as well, people from every corner of the region flooding in to escape regional volatility and strife. Jordan takes them in because they have nowhere else to go.

And this poor country... this poor little desert strip of land with its meager natural resources... They are facing a deluge of humans. Sometimes that struggle is very visible; for example, in the horrible littering problem that they have no resources to address. At other times it's not quite visible, but very much palpable, such as the water shortage that has reached crisis levels. We (tourists) may not see it, because in a tragic twist of irony, hotels and resorts don't see the cut offs that hospitals, schools and homes are forced to contend with. But it doesn't take an astute observer to see past the lush hotel lawns to the patchy baldness of the landscape beyond. The problem is profound.

So, in a way, it's a catch 22. I hesitate to sing Jordan's praises and potentially send even more people to siphon its strained resources, but I also see that tourist dollars are a big boon for their economy, and hopefully will play a role in creating viable long term solutions. Plus I can't think of better cultural ambassadors for the Middle East than Jordanians. In a time when we sorely need positive images of the Middle East, Jordan is the perfect candidate to run with that baton, and introduce the world to the region's rich history and heritage, while its neighbors get their shit together.

So I'm going to get off my soapbox here and get to the pretty pictures I know you've come to see. Just know that if you go, you will be enchanted and seduced by Jordan's exotic beauty. And that's before you even set foot in Petra.

Our story begins in the chaotic and cluttered mazes of Amman, in the souks, spice shops, citadels and smoky cafes of Jordan's capital city. Like many ancient cities in the developing world, Amman has a feel that's both timeless and unfinished.

The lively late afternoon bustle of produce and spice stalls in the Souk

Many "modern" buildings downtown are threadbare concrete frames draped in corrugated metal awnings and plastic signs. At night, very few are lit past the 2nd floor, so while the streets teem with energy and activity, the buildings tower above, dark and silent.

When I walk into a restaurant and see the staff confused by my presence, wondering if I want to order dinner or ask for directions, that means I've come to the right place. Sara Seafood was a fun little hole in the wall we braved for dinner one night. It's definitely where the locals eat, when locals want to eat imported seafood. People gather in restaurants not so much to eat, it seems, but rather to linger for hours, smoking endless packs of cigarettes, and multiple hookahs.

In the middle of downtown, on top of the highest hill in the city, sits the sprawling Amman Citadel fortress. Built, fortified, conquered, destroyed, and rebuilt by a carousel of civilizations, this site has been continuously occupied since the Neolithic era.
Please note the date.
There are temples, citadels, palaces, tombs, and mosques on the site, and that's just on the small portion that has been excavated. Most of it remains hidden below our feet.

View from the Umayyad Palace (7th century) to present day Amman

The Temple of Hercules, where a 40+ meter statue of Hercules once stood at the entrance. Today, only a part of his massive hand and elbow remain. Where'd the rest of Hercules go?
If Amman had a Facebook page, this would be its profile picture.

"Friends! Romans! Countrymen! Welcome to Philadelphia!"
Err... what?

It's true, Amman was called Philadelphia during the Roman period. And the theater is the most impressive remnant of those days. Carved into the side of a hill, capable of seating 6,000 spectators, the Roman Theater is arguably Amman's most spectacular landmark. Though the extensive restoration is not always historically accurate, it does have one advantage: it allows the city to use the theater, even today, for its original purpose. In the summer months, you can come see a production here, and for a moment pretend that you are a citizen of ancient Rome.

In its Philadelphia days, Amman belonged to the Decapolis - a group of 10 semi-autonomous cities that formed the Eastern border of the Roman Empire. A few Decapolis cities are still inhabited today (like Amman and Damascus), while others are just stone and dust, and breezes whispering in the branches of olive trees on silent hills. We visited two other Decapolis cities in Jordan, Jerash and Umm Qyas (or Umm Qais) pronounced "oom kai", or Hadara back in the olden days.

Umm Qyas is located in the extreme northwest corner of Jordan, straddling the triple border between Israel and Syria. High on a hill, it is a glorious ruin, with sweeping views of the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee. The parts that are still standing are standing strong, attesting to the Romans' craftsmanship and skill.

view from the top of the theater at Umm Qyas
from Roman temple to Byzantine church, to Mosque - everyone has staked a claim at some point.
arches that formed the roofs of shops along the Cardo Maximus (main street)
A well preserved shop entrance
the breathtaking panoramic views from the hills of Umm Qyas
The dramatic contrast of black basalt on white limestone 

In the 8th century, after an earthquake destroyed the city, it was abandoned and lost to history for a time. It wasn't until the 1960s that excavations began to uncover what was once a splendid center of trade and culture. Today, Umm Qyas' story is far from finished. Like all other Decapolis cities, it is only partially excavated, and much of its story is still below the surface, shrouded from view. Work continues today, teams of international experts are digging ever deeper, and hopefully we will continue to uncover Hadara's secrets.

A little further South lies Jerash.

I didn't know what Jerash was until the day I visited it, and I came away stunned into silence. To call it a ruin would hardly do it justice. Its sheer sweep and size can rival a modern day city, to say nothing of its beauty

It was first settled around 2000 BC, but had its greatest period of prosperity in the 1st century AD and for a few hundred years beyond, during Roman and Umayyad rule, when it was an important trade center. It declined in the 6th century after the Persians started running amok in the region, and was abandoned in the 7th century after an earthquake destroyed it; a familiar story by now.

Hadrian's Arch - built in honor of Emperor Hadrian's visit to the city in 130 AD

Jerash is huge and beautiful. It was so obviously a commercial and cultural powerhouse of great importance, prosperous and influential. After the earthquake, it was buried in rubble until its re-discovery in 1806 by a German explorer. Once that rubble was removed, I daresay the world gained something glorious. Today it is the second most visited site in Jordan, (behind Petra, obviously) which only adds to my original incredulity. How did I not know about this?!

A double colonnade flanks the Cardo.
The South Gate
In ancient Roman cities, roundabouts at the intersection of Cardo (north-south) and Decumanus (east-west) helped to control chariot traffic. I find the idea of chariot traffic kind of hilarious.
Original pavement stones of the Cardo

The nymphae, or public water fountain, that was a staple of every Roman city, and served as an important gathering place.
Old Jerash overlooking the new. Old Jerash is being carefully preserved from modern encroachment.
An epic mosaic floor of a Byzantine church

The massive oval forum of Jerash
The theater
Temple of Artemis

Forum with a view of the Cardo Maximus. 
Cardo was the main street in every Roman city, and a critical part of every Roman city plan. It was usually flanked by a covered double colonnade, populated by shops and market stalls; a place of great civic importance. It was the heart of every city in the Roman empire, quite literally, because "heart" is what "cardo" means in Latin.

Temple of Zeus with the city below
So, that was one day. Not quite even, because we also stopped in Ajloun to visit the fortress castle built in the 12th century by Sultan Saladin's nephew, a military commander, to protect against Crusader attacks. Are you keeping up?  We're in the 12th century now.

A view from Ajloun Castle

Though not quite as epic in scale as Umm Qyas and Jerash, the Ajloun castle offers an interesting glimpse of Jordan's early Islamic heritage.

Still with me? I know this entry is getting inexcusably long, so I will end here and try to figure out how to tell you about Petra the rest of Jordan's marvelous offerings with some semblance of sense and order.


  1. Пересечение времен, стилей, судеб. Красота!

  2. Yes, there's a lot of history, culture and art braided together into one beautiful tapestry.