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Tag: "Jordan"

Jordanian Dreams

I blame Blue Peter myself.

Somewhere back in the eons of time before the days of colour television and when John Noakes, Valerie Singleton and Peter Purves were still young, there was a dog called Petra.

The year I was eight Blue Peter did one of their famous historical stories all about her namesake, the rose red city of stone, Petra, and how the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt had rediscovered it in 1812.

I was mesmorised.

An Enid Blyton fan and obsessed with mysteries and hidden valleys and secret islands, I was immediately enthralled with a pink stone city carved out of the heart of a mountain, even better that you had to walk through a long gorge in the rock to find it. I had no idea where it was, but from that moment on I was determined to go and see it for myself.

Time passed. My children watched Blue Peter in their turn and every time that dog was mentioned I thought about that city, but somehow I never fulfilled my childhood ambition. Until this year, that is, when I finally decided life was too short and told my girls (by now in their early teens) we were going to Jordan for the Easter break. “Where?” they said “Petra, in Jordan” I said (having finally located it), “it’s pink stone city carved out of the inside a mountain, it’s one of the ‘new’ Seven Wonders of the World. It’s not the topless model. Or the dog.”

I have to confess they didn’t look exactly thrilled. But slowly over the months leading up to our departure, they researched it on the sly and when a shop assistant asked them the week before whether they were excited or not, their emphatic “Yes!” left me speechless. So far so good, then.

My original aim had been simply to see Petra, but when I started to look into Jordan itself I was amazed at the sheer weight of history, architecture, history, activities, geography and well, more history, that exists within this tiny desert kingdom. For such a young country, Jordan certainly has ancient and significant roots, which is not to take away from the modern Kingdom of Jordan and what they are trying to achieve on minimal resources, but just to acknowledge that history has certainly dealt them an extraordinary card – or pack of cards – in natural wonders and historical and religious significance.

Where else can you see the Dead Sea, Lawrence of Arabia’s desert, the castles of the Crusaders, the coral gardens of the Red Sea complete with angel fish the size of plates and the cutest green turtles, the earliest Christian mosaics, the mountain where Moses saw the promised land, the site where Salome danced and John the Baptist lost his head, the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized, the hot springs where Herod bathed and the Spice Road along which the Queen of Sheba travelled to visit Solomon…?

Cat mosaic in MadabarThen there’s one of the best-preserved Roman city in the world at Jerash and the World Heritage site of Umm Quais, and the fact it’s where farming, and therefore civilization, almost certainly started, as backed up by their extraordinary legacy of early mosaics. The variety of nature is stunning, from oasis to desert to pine forest, with the Dana nature reserve perhaps the most special as it incorporates terrain from 50m below sea level to 1500m above, although Wadi Mujib, a rocky canyon where you can go white water wading and which seems tailor-made for adventure, comes a close second, or maybe third, when you take into account Wadi Rum, the Bedouin’s desert.

Add to all that the Bedouins themselves look like they have just stepped out of one of very English primary school Christmas nativity plays, complete with camels and head dresses… plus beautiful and tough Arabian horses, world renowned spas, natural hot springs, and the handicraft and silver souks… and it was soon clear this was going to be a bit more than a ‘holiday’.

And, dear reader, it didn’t disappoint.

We travelled there in early spring and left England languishing under grey skies with temperatures barely making it into double figures and only the merest hint of green leaf on the trees. Five hours later and here we were enjoying balmy temperatures in the high 20s°C and some of the flowers were already going to seed – from late winter chill to mid summer in fact!

From the moment we arrived we were overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the Jordanians – from the hotel staff who couldn’t do enough to make us comfortable to every Jordanian man woman and child we met on our travels, I can honestly say we always felt like honoured guests.

On the down side it did mean allowing at least an hour per shop, simply because tea and a seat would be offered and couldn’t be refused, pictures taken, phone numbers and life stories swapped, and then gifts pressed upon us that were impossible to refuse without giving offense.

Obviously this may have been to do with the fact we were travelling independently rather than with a guide or on a coach, that we three were a mother and her daughters driving in a car by ourselves (this was considered very odd) and yes, that we are all blonde and blue eyed, all of which may well have ramped up the feeling of being minor celebrities. But since every other visitor we met there (and since) reported the huge amounts of kindness and friendliness shown to them by the Jordanians, I actually think it’s just the Jordanian way to be absolutely lovely.

As the lady we met on the plane going over said: “Your first time? Oh, you’ll be back!” And yes we will.

General Information on Jordan

• Dress code is modest and clothing should reach from neck down to the knee, and at least to the elbows. Jeans are very acceptable, and I found scarves an invaluable addition whether to cover the neckline of t-shirts, pull up over the head, or use as a shawl. Having said that, very Westernised dress (shorts, short skirts, strappy t shirts and low necklines) won’t get you harassed in all but the most mild ways (think teenage boys leering or nudging each other, or grown ups staring) they are way too polite and well bought up for that – but it just feels rude and inappropriate somehow.

• Social etiquette – always use your right hand to greet or eat (the left is for bodily functions), if you are invited to sit to eat or take tea make sure you tuck your feet out of sight, and if you are invited into a Jordanian home (or tent) it is polite to take and give gifts, even if just a box of baklava.

•  Costs – Jordan is still a poor country, despite its growing middle classes, and it’s economy has been put under pressure by the various influxes of refugees over the past 60 years. There isn’t full employment and so if you can buy, hire, use local skills and goods, try to do so.  Begging is not encouraged and Jordanians would rather do something for a JD (Jordanian Dinar) rather than take a hand out, even if it is just carrying your bags. Generally it’s a very affordable country – allow £70 -£100 per person per day for mid to high range accommodation, some activities and travel and eating well.

• Temperature – Aqaba in the south is warm to hot pretty much all the year round, but the rest of Jordan is subject to some mighty temperature fluctuations – they even get snow in the north. The best times to visit are spring and autumn, when temperatures average 27°C, although even these can vary depending on where you are and the time of day (or night).

• Responsible tourism – the water supply in Jordan is under immense pressure from increased population and therefore extraction, as well as, ironically, increased tourism – all those spas, swimming pools and extra showers have to be supplied from somewhere. Do your bit wherever you can – don’t leave taps running, have showers not bathes, and if you don’t need your sheets/towels changing every day, say so. Every little helps.

• Jordan is a five-hour flight from the UK. See Royal Jordanian and BMi for direct flights. You buy a month’s visa at the airport in Jordan.

• The currency is Jordanian Dinars (known as JDs – pronounced JayDees). 1JD is just a smidge under £1, which makes it easy to budget. You will need to order them at least 24 hours in advance. ATMs are widely available throughout the country and electronic payment is the norm – accept for in Wadi Rum and outside the entrance of Jaresh!

• Transportation. There are no trains and the buses are irregular and tend to meander, so best go as part of a coach tour, take taxis, hire a chauffeur or self drive:

  1. The pros of a coach tour is that someone else has organized it, you don’t need to do the driving and you have company; the cons that you can’t go off the beaten track and you have to follow the itinerary.
  2. Taxis are generally fairly affordable and you usually get a guide thrown in for free – you can also hire a car and a chauffeur, which is a good option if you want to go exploring all over the place but don’t want to drive yourself.
  3. Self drive is only for those of a fearless nature with an excellent internal compass as the road signage is near non-existent and obviously it restricts what the driver can see, although ‘stopping to look’ is very acceptable in Jordan! The pros are the freedom and contact you get with everyday people.

© Claire Burdett 2010

Images of the trip can be seen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/funkyangelclaire/4789814093/


Jerash – Roman City in Jordan

JerashThe remains of the provincial Roman city of Gerasa have been remarkably well preserved by the dry desert air of what is now Jordan.

Situated in rich farmland in the north of Jordan and blessed with a Mediterranean climate, Gerasa thrived as a cosmopolitan city throughout the Roman period, becoming one of the Decapolis (10 cities) situated between modern Amman and Syrian Damascus during the 1st century Ad.

Today the remains are so intact that it is incredibly easy to imagine how life would have been lived here – busy colonnaded avenues, small shaded shops, fountains around which people gathered to exchange news and gossip, theatres and the hippodrome for entertainment, and places of worship standing cheek by jowl with places of commerce and government.

Jerash is all the more remarkable because it is still very much in use – daily reconstructions of gladiator battles and Roman chariot races take place in the hippodrome, and for two weeks in July there is an annual culture and arts festival (www.jerashfestival.com.jo) at the theatre – one of the highlights is apparently the Jordanian Scottish bagpipe band performing military marches. Who knew?!

Jerash tips

• Bring more than enough cash – there are no ATMs and lots and lots of lovely handicraft stores in the entrance area.

• Guides can be hired and are well worth it, as they can help bring the city to life, plus ward off the hoards of friendly and inquisitive school children if you visit during ‘school trip’ time in April.

• Do watch the chariot races and gladiator performances at the hippodrome. If you are lucky the Swiss founder will appear and give you a personal history lesson.


Jordan – The King’s Highway and the Crusader Castles

The King's Highway at Tefila, Jordan

The King's Highway at Tefila, Jordan

Travelling down the spine of Jordan, from Amman in the north to Petra in the south, the King’s Highway is a very drivable A road that zigzags across the top of the mountain range through small towns and villages and many sites of great interest and beauty.

Travelling south, it skirts Mt Nebo as it goes through Madabar, passes the remains of King Herod’s castle at Mukawir and Umm ar-Rases before crossing the Wadi Mujib gorge. It then goes through the Crusader castle town of Karak, followed by the university town of Tefila, skirts around the nature reserve at Dana and passes Shobak Castle before reaching Wadi Musa and Petra.

While many coach tours prefer to take the more direct desert highway to the east of the mountains and just drive across to the main points of interest, driving along the King’s Highway is one of the highlights of a Jordanian trip if you self drive, as we did, allowing you glimpses into every day life.

We got talking to Jordanian families picnicking under the olive groves outside Madaba, stopped for a glass of tea above the Wadi Mujib gorge (Jordan’s ‘Grand Canyon’ – it’s entrance is on the Dead Sea Highway) with two Bedouin brothers, ate fresh chickpeas off the vine and were invited to stay at our hosts’ home for the night and meet the families (nine children in all!), waited for 20 minutes as a wedding party and all their guests crossed the road joking and laughing in their finery, and were given many armfuls of fruit by road stall sellers who wouldn’t accept any payment.

It’s sobering to think that this was the traditional spice route and road to Damascus and Jerusalem, that Moses and the Israelites were refused permission to travel it and therefore spent 40 years in the desert travelling around, and that many of the 11th century Crusaders’ battles against Saladin were fought and won up these mountains.

Some of the their castles still survive. Karak is toted as the leading light, although Shobak is easier to visit and probably more rewarding as Karak gets very crammed with visitors, whereas Shobak castle is almost as complete, blessed with spooky explorable catacombs, and often deserted – like so many of the sites that are slightly off the beaten track in Jordan. It also has the advantage of what is thought to be Saladin’s throne in the basement.

Another notable place on the King’s Highway is Mukawir (Machaerus), the spectacular 700m-high hilltop castle of Herod the Great. This is where Salome danced and John the Baptist lost his head, but you’ll need a hefty dose of imagination to reconstruct it as the ruins are very modest. However, the atmosphere is appropriately gloomy (it is known locally as Qala’at al-Meshneq – Castle of the Gallows) and the impressive views make it a great place for hiking.

Umm Ar-Rasas lies east of Mukawir and is a designated World Heritage site, although it has been very under promoted until recently and is still quiet on even a ‘busy’ day. Here you will find the ruined Church of St Stephen and its incredible mosaics (even better than Madaba’s) and the impressive ruins of four further churches, plus city walls, a stone tower and the remains of the town of Kastron Mefaa (Mephaath if you know your bible).

Dana Reserve is also on the King’s Highway, and well worth staying at if you love nature and/or hiking. Dana has a variety of accommodation, and its Fenian Lodge is well worth a mention as it is eco-friendly with quirky adobe rooms set in wild and remote countryside.


To Aqaba!

The Red Sea, Aqaba

The Red Sea, Aqaba

Aqaba is Jordan’s only seaside town, perched on their tiny foothold of coastline at the north of the Red Sea, and like so many places in Jordan, it is an ancient place now bought up to date in true Jordanian style. In recent years Aqaba has evolved into a funky seaside resort with this typically Jordanian mix of old and new, all helped by the glorious weather and great diving. One day we met up with one of Suzi’s sons, Amer, and he was in surfer shorts and would have looked perfectly at home in Newquay, which is very different from the way people dress elsewhere in Jordan.

In biblical times it was a historic port, which was originally known as Ayla and was where King Solomon built his navy. It is also the site of what is thought to be the earliest purpose-built Christian church in the world. Not much of a fuss is made about it’s origins however (again, typically Jordanian, probably because of their abundance of such riches!) and we could see it’s modest remains from our suite’s window, just across one of the main (and pretty busy) roads in Aqaba.

One evening I was fascinated to see a Bedouin in full traditional dress coolly leading his camel down the pavement on the hotel side of the road. He waited for the traffic lights to change, led his camel across the dual carriageway, made it kneel so he could mount, and then off they loped across the edge of Ayla’s ruins towards the Red Sea.

Aqaba is also a tax free zone, so we bought spices, jewellery and luggage, silver charms and beautiful beads (which are bought by the gram) and, as ever on this trip, we were given lots of presents by shopkeepers. One such gentleman ran a gift shop called …  and he looked very like Omar Sharif and claimed to have been in a film with him, which was true if the picture of them together on the wall was anything to go by! However, the quality of handicrafts elsewhere was generally superior in many cases, especially in Wadi Rum, around Madaba and in Jerash in the north.

Experiencing the coral reefs and getting close to the abundant aquatic residents is a must in Aqaba, and one of the main reasons many people visit (you can fly straight here from the UK). We opted for snorkelling as the girls hadn’t learnt to dive, and it was the most amazing snorkelling I have ever experienced,  just hanging over the vivid coral reefs a metre or so below and watching the fish and animals darting in and out of the coral and living their lives.

The Movenpick Hotel was, once again, fantastic. We had a suite with a balcony, and the pools were amazing, as was the beach. Our room lad was an Egyptian called Hani and he made our towels into swans and crocodiles to entertain us – bit like napkin art for dinner parties, but with towels!

Breakfast was monumental and there was a beautiful terrace on which to eat it, complete with resident black cat and her five kittens, which we soon realised they were not just tolerated but encouraged when the staff shook out a table cloth on the unused tables to get the kittens to emerge for the entertainment of the children one morning.

We had dinner at sunset one evening at the beachside restaurant, where I had grilled Sayyadiaah with a surprisingly good ‘Petra Winery’ Pinot Noir, another surprise in a country full of them.

Aqaba tips

• The town has got an international and laid back vibe near the waterfront, but this is still an Arab country, so modest dress is advisable for women, especially if you are renting an apartment in the residential areas.

• If you stay at the Movenpick in the centre of Aqaba, they run an hourly shuttle bus to Movenpick Tala Bay, where you can go snorkeling off the beach.

• The town is a duty free zone, so is a good place to stock up on jewellery, gifts and spices to take home.

• For the best diving, book yourself a day trip on a boat: contact Ash at Dive Aqaba (www.diveaqaba.com). His stepdad, Rob, who founded the school, is English and the instructors are the friendliest and most experienced bunch in town.


The Dead Sea and The Zara Spa, Jordan

The Dead Sea, looking from Jordan across to Israel

The Dead Sea, looking from Jordan across to Israel

There is nowhere on earth quite like the Dead Sea. As we drove down from Madaba the vista opened out as the road switched back and forth as if we were in the Alps (it descends roughly 750m in 25km – your ears pop more than once on the way down!), past vineyards and olive groves, avoiding the goat herds grazing by the roadside – and often across the road, and YOU stop for THEM – and past traditional camel grazing areas and, with ears still popping, down to the very edge of the Dead Sea.

They say you can’t burn here as the minerals that evaporate from the sea filter the sun’s rays, and I can believe it.

You can taste the minerals in the air and see them as you look at the intense blue water, which shines like a highly-polished mirror and gives you a peculiar close up clarity of the West Bank at certain times of the day, as if you are viewing it through a camera lens.

The scrubland is punctuated by river gullies bright with flowers and olive trees in groves, herds of multi-coloured goats, and camels ‘parked’ by the side of the road, tied to lamp posts as their owners take shelter to eat their lunch in the shade of the nearest olive tree.

The grazing lands alongside the Dead Sea are the summer residence of many Bedouin families – the tents are large family affairs made of brown, black and grey woven goat and camel hair blankets, while the 4x4s parked next to them are all equipped with television aerials, a true blend of modern and traditional!

We stayed at the Movenpick, one of the Dead Sea resorts, an oasis of luxury that despite its international status (it is part of the Swiss chain) has an authentically Jordanian feel, complete with traditional-style stone houses, and gardens of ancient olive trees, bougainvillea and oleander. It was utterly gorgeous and we had a huge suite with a balcony, a ‘help yourself’ mini bar, and a bathroom well stocked with delectable spa samples, such as Dead Sea mud and salt scrub, much to the girls’ uncontainable excitement!

The Movenpick boosts two infinity pools and a private beach where you can smother yourself in Dead Sea mud (don’t put it near your eyes – as Cecily did – it stings like crazy, and avoid cuts and grazes as well) and then wash it off while floating in the weird buoyantness that is the Dead Sea (walking on water anyone…?). The cliched newspaper reading would have been a doddle to be honest.

Minerals are extracted from the Dead Sea as part of Jordan’s core industries and used in a variety of beauty products, and the Movenpick also has the Zara Spa as part of its amenities, where you can get traditional Dead Sea therapies, such as mud wrapping, salt scrubs, hydro-pools and algae facials as well as a range of contemporary treatments, such as shiatsu massage. It was just a shame that the girls, being under 16, couldn’t join me.

Dead Sea tips

• Drive there from Madaba – the view is breathtaking as you descend down the side of the mountain past Mt Nebo.

• Try the spa treatments – children under the age of 16 can experiment with the complementary products in the suites.

• Careful with the Dead Sea mud, it stings if you get it in your eyes or if you have cuts or grazes

• Go floating! This is one experience you’ll never repeat anywhere else!


Wadi Rum – Lawrence of Arabia’s desert

Jebel Rum, Wadi Rum, Jordan

Jebel Rum, Wadi Rum, Jordan

“The crags are capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the body of the hill. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place, this processional way greater than imagination…vast, echoing and godlike.”

T E Lawrence

The desert which the Queen of Sheba crossed on her way to see Solomon, which the Israelites took 40 years to negotiate on their way to the Promised Land and where Lawrence of Arabia wrote the quote above and helped the Bedouins fight the Turks has captured the imagination of countless visitors over the centuries.

The hills Lawrence loved so much are today are called ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ in his honour and the area has been established as a protected area with a social mandate to promote tourism while protecting the fragile desert environment.

It’s a tall order with 100,000 visitors a year, but the authorities work closely with the traditional guardians – the Bedouin – and there are a number of initiatives to reintroduce previously abundant wildlife, such as the oryx, and boost numbers of other – increasingly rare – wildlife such as ibex, caracal, wolf and jackal.

We stayed at Bait Ali, a superior camp on the edge of Wadi Rum itself that is eco-friendly, versatile and brilliantly thought out, with a swimming pool, which felt very odd in the desert!  Our host, Suzi, is an English woman married to a Jordanian.

Suzi initially came to Jordan because of the horses and the desert racing and she competed in the annual Wadi Rum Endurance Race (120 miles in one day; about 100 horses usually start and less than 30% complete) until recently. She likens it to the Formula 1 (F1) of horse races and it takes place at the end of April/beginning of May before it gets too hot. Strangely enough, the chestnut stallion I rode in Petra (Irun) and Jarar, one of the grey stallions from the Al Noor Stables in Madabar where we rode later in the trip, were both entered in the race when we visited and it is televised and covered internationally.  I hadn’t realised it was such a huge equine event.

One day we visited the visitors centre near the Seven Pillars themselves. There was a museum and lots of locals with whom to organise guided tours in to the desert on camel, 4×4,etc, for an hour or a day or two, as well as buy local Bedouin handicrafts and view the Seven Pillars in all their glory. We then made our way to the small town of Rum for lunch at the traditional Resthouse, just across the sandy wadi from the utterly impressive sheer rock wall of Jabal Umm Ishrin.

The following day we took the camel ride and 4×4 trip arranged the day before, and explored some of the camping areas where the spice traders and camel trains would have rested on their way to and fro Petra and beyond. We had hired a Bedouin guide, the lovely and knowledgeable Aid Mohamed Soylhin, and he showed us ‘his desert’. His family had been proper nomadic Bedouin and he hadn’t ever been to school – he now drives a 4×4 (“camels are so slow and grumpy!” he said) runs his business with an email and mobile phone, and said that if his children (he has six) want to go to university, they can – Jordan is now one of the highly educated countries in the world.

As dusk fell the three of us were treated to traditional mint tea brewed over an open fire inside a goat hair tent with the Bedouins themselves, while the camels and 4x4s were parked together outside.

Once Aid Mohamed Soylhin had finished his prayers at the other end of the tent he bought over a traditional Bedoin woman’s headdress and face mask (complete with fringe) for me to try on. It was the most bizarre feeling, very claustrophobic and hot, and bought my view of the world down to what was basically a camera aperture. He laughed seeing my reaction, and said traditionally they would only have been worn outside the tents, and were designed to keep the hot sun off the skin and sand out of eyes, ears and skin creases.

It all left my teenage girls wide-eyed and very conscious of different cultures and ways of life.

Magical stuff.

Wadi Rum tips

• Come prepared for temperature fluctuations even during spring and autumn, when it is in the top 20°Cs/low 30°Cs as it can still get chilly at night.

• Bait Ali (00962 202262 suzi@baitali.com) offers eco-friendly, versatile and brilliantly thought out accommodation (including a swimming pool), as well as a wealth of local knowledge and contacts – English owner, Suzi Shinaco and her Jordanian husband, Taheen, know pretty much everyone and can organize anything you fancy, from horse trekking to hot air ballooning.

• Bring cash – it’s a desert and there are few electronic payment facilities and no ATMs.

• Buy local indigenous handicrafts – made by the local women it forms an important part of their economy. Look out for their depictations of antelope and hunting scenes made from beaten tin cans and placed in glass (see picture).

• Hire a Bedouin guide – ours was the lovely and knowledgeable Aid Mohamed Soylhin – 00962 795 624671 badouin_lifestyle@yahoo.com) and get out and explore the desert’s secrets. Whether you ride on a Arabian horse, a camel, or a 4×4 (or all three) or simply hike, spending time in the desert lets you see the hidden treasures, such as a natural rock arch; hanging gardens of melons near an oasis; rock carvings of camels and goats; a ruined Nabataean temple and experience it up close and personal.


Madabar and Mt Nebo, Jordan

Mosque at Madabar

Mosque at Madabar

A glass of sweet mint tea at the Haret Jdoudna in the heart of Madaba was our welcome to Jordan the evening we arrived. A traditional merchant’s house, Harat Idoudna is built around a courtyard complete with pots of vivid flowers sprawling over the stone stops and a fig tree in the central courtyard.

The rooms lead one from the other and the décor is simple and traditional, with stoves and comfortable couches for the colder months and shaded courtyard tables at which to sit in the summer, and it quickly became one of our favourite stopping points, especially as there is a lovely little craft shop at the rear where local artisan pieces can be purchased at a very reasonable price.

Madaba is only 25km from the airport and a perfect place to base yourself to explore the centre and north of the country, including the Christian mosaics, Mt Nebo, Jerash, the Dead Sea, the Desert castles and the Crusader castles, and Ma’en Hot Springs. The adventure trails of Wadi Mujib and a number of the nature reserves are also within easy reach of Madaba, as is horse riding at a selection of the Arabian riding stables, so it’s great if you are feeling active as well.

In the town itself there are is a huge variety of pre-Roman, Roman and early Christian mosaics, including the famous map of the Holy Land at St George’s, which was crowded every time we stopped by. The other mosaic sites were, in contrast, almost always empty and we usually had the guide all to ourselves, so it’s worth going off the beaten track a little if you can.

Possibly the best of the mosaics are to be found at the Church of the Apostles, where you can see scenes from the earliest human civilizations, often of the wild life or mythology, or just plain amazing, such as the man driving a bird in harness or a riding an ostrich.

We visited Mount Nebo, where Moses finally looked out over the Promised Land after a long sojourn in the desert as the tribes along the fertile mountains wouldn’t let the Israelites pass through. You can see the Dead Sea and River of Jordan, and on a clear day (it’s mainly hazy to be honest), Jerusalem and Jericho. Looking back east at the olive groves of Madabar, and then west over the scrubland towards Jerusalem, my eldest daughter, Cecily, began to wonder at the reaction Moses may have got when he declared it was ‘The Promised Land’.

“Hey dude’, said Cecily, aged 13, getting into what must be the ‘Walt Disney version’ of the one of the Israelite tribesmen, “You’re facing the wrong way! Look, the olive trees and corn are that way! No more deserts, please!”

We spent a day at the Ma’in Hot Springs, where the water gushes out of the rock at 70°C and which is where King Herod came to bathe, which is incredible and is treated like the local swimming bathes and picnic area by the locals. We also visited the site of Herod’s castle, where Salome danced and John the Baptist lost his head, which lies half an hour’s drive south along the King’s Highway – not much to see now and you will need to hire a local guide, but worth it for the atmosphere and view.

Being active types we also wanted to go white water wading in Wadi Mujib, but the girls were too young (it’s 16 or over) so we settled for horse riding instead at the Noor Riding Stables, beautifully situated in olive groves just to the south east of Madaba, where owners Mnawer and Helle Al Zaben speak brilliant English and run events, barbeques and group riding days. The children brushed up their riding with Egyptian instructor, Azzat, who is one of the best riding instructors I have ever met, and were allowed to feed the Arab horses and even wash them down at the end of the day – the stuff memories are made of!

Madaba Tips

• Centralise yourself here instead of Amman; the town is self contained and beautiful, and has a really friendly and welcoming atmosphere – Friday picnics in the surrounding olive groves is a local tradition.

• The best hotel in town is the Miriam Hotel, which has its own private pool and whose friendly staff, led by owner, Charl, know everything about everything and can organize anything from horse riding to day trips and everything in between.

• It’s worth visiting all the mosaic sites, not just the Church of St George’s, which is often crowded and, although unique, not actually much to see compared to the others.

• Amazing handicrafts abound in and around Madaba – there are handicraft souks on the road to Mt Nebo, as well as in town mostly centred along Artisan’s Street. Particularly look out for mosaics, hand woven rugs and wall hangings, and blown glass.

• Try the lemon and mint iced drink that is readily available in all the cafes here – it’s incredible!


Petra – The Rose Red City of Stone

We saw Petra for the first time at night.

Inky blueblack sky above, punctuated by a mesh of stars. Deep black in front, behind and around us, candles in paper bags lighting the path beside our feet but little else as we followed the Bedouin leader down the ceremonial Siq. As we entered the rock gorge and started to zigzag through the mountain the chattering of the 150 or so people walking in single file fell to a murmur.

In and in we travelled, aware of the sheer mass of rock on either side of us, but seeing nothing except the nightlights spaced along the path, shadowy figures and a glimpse of starry skies far above. The path turned abruptly right and through the slit in the rock the candlelit Treasury appeared.

It was surely the way thousands of pilgrims before us had entered this most ancient and peaceable city, and as we took our seats on the sand and the Bedouin piper started to play, it felt time had skipped backwards a couple of thousand years.

The following day we explored the Siq itself, which was a revelation after the night time journey the previous day – “It’s so big!’ the children kept saying, and so busy – with people streaming in both directions (on a ‘good’ year half a million people visit Petra) camels, and horse drawn carriages rattling up and down.

The colours of the sandstone were mesmerizing, and the water channels carved out on either side as well as the pools set at intervals along the 3km route and the ‘God slots’ where statues of deities were, or had been, set, were clear and present evidence that this had been a planned and important ‘Sacred Way’ into one of the major cities of its time, culminating in the famous and stunning-every-time glimpse of the Treasury through the slit in the rock.

There was a different atmosphere this time as we entered the courtyard and stood to take in the complete faced glimpse the night before. The reverence was still there, the carved facade is so amazing that it catches you somewhere in the bottom of your throat every time, but this time it was join and mixed with commerce as the sandy courtyard was now filled traders and camels, visitors and refreshments, again probably as it would have been thousands of years ago.

Another day, another echo of the past, although it is unlikely that the gaggles of Japanese tourists complete with fluorescent yellow hats would have been quite so evident in Nabataean times…

The Treasury

The Treasury is actually no such thing – it is a tomb façade carved for King Aretas III (c 100 BC) – but the Bedouins who lived in Petra for centuries between its demise in the 6th century and it’s new role as one of the World’s best loved antiquities at the end of the 20th century, believed that an Egyptian Pharaoh hid his treasure here in the large urn in the centre of the room, and it’s pockmarked by the bullets they shot at it to try and crack it open!

The Theatre

This lies half a mile down towards the city centre from the Treasury. In its heyday it was a proper working amphitheatre, complete with orchestra section, three entrances for the actors (still partly visible) on to the stage, and a slot through which the curtain could be raised. After the Romans arrived in AD 106 they enlarged it, making more upper seating tiers, so eventually it could accommodate 8500 people, about 30% of Petra’s total population.

On one of the days we were there the tiers were visited by a herd of lively goats, led by the inquisitive kids, a mix of colours from black to fawn, followed by their mothers, bleating as if in chastisement, and finally their Bedouin boy, his donkey ‘parked’ in the dry stream bed below.

Most people don’t venture beyond this point, which is shame as they’ve barely scratched the surface of Petra, which covers 38sq miles (nearly 100 sq km) and was home to nearly 30,000 people at its height. The site is crammed with the glorious remains of their temples, colonnaded shopping streets, baths, archways and tomb facades, all carved or constructed from the soft local sandstone with its pink and yellow stripy rock, which glows in the sunlight and which, together with the amazing carvings of animals, birds, gods, and mythological beings, give the city a heightened, almost supernatural feel.

The Monastery


Felice & Cecily at teh Monastary, Petra

The Monastery up on the mountain above Petra is a case in point – a huge and spectacular monument that was constructed in the 3rd century BC as a tomb and subsequently used in sacred ceremonies. It’s tucked away near the head of a mountainous peak above the Petra valley, a good 40 minute walk up very steep slopes from the Museum – donkeys are available – that is best done in the afternoon when there is some shade on the path.

Petra was a cultured and international city, as is evident from the Nabataean style, which is very trans-Mediterranean, including identifiable Greek, Roman, and Egyptian architecture and motifs amongst others, such as Assyrian. That it was a cultured international city is in no doubt: Petra was renowned in the 1st centuries BC and AD for it’s advanced legal and justice system, humane monarchy and technological and commercial skill.


Little Petra

If you have time in your itinerary, a visit to Siq al-Bayda, also known as Little Petra, is a must. It lies 8km or so north east of Petra central and was the main Nabataean ‘camel motel’ – well, if you live in a city carved out of the heart of the mountain and you survive on trade, with thousands and thousands of camels stopping and staying every year, where to put them becomes an issue, not to mention entertaining, accommodating and feeding the traders themselves as their goods are bought and sold. The Nabataeans solved it perfectly by carving a mini Petra in a valley (‘The Cold Valley’) that opens on to wide camel-friendly grasslands, and connecting it to the heart of the city via a path across the high mountains.

Here more than anywhere I could feel the life force of this trading city, as we explored the numerous dining halls and rooms, decorated with faded but still vivid frescos, and visualised the hungry merchants and travelers lounging on the couches, gossiping about their journey and shaking hands on deals.

Petra tips


• Do allow at least two days and get off the main beaten track if you can. Early morning and late afternoon will help you avoid the worse of the crowds.

• Contact Petra Moon in Wadi Musa (00962 03 215 6665 info@petramoon.com) for the best advice of hotels, what’s on and to book guides or excursions – we cooked an authentic Jordanian meal with Petra Kitchen (highly recommended) and had our hands henna’d at a local family’s home. The owner, Wendy Botham, is from Texas. She said of Wadi Musa, “It reminded me of home!”

• Try visiting Petra at night – www.pntours.com

• Do visit Little Petra – it’s usually practically deserted and lets you imagine how the city would have really worked. Take a picnic and dine in one the Nabataean dining halls!

• Wear flat shoes, take a hat, sunblock and a bottle of water, and pace yourself – hiring a donkey up to the Monastery is a good idea, it’s a long way to the top!

• Don’t say yes to the hawkers at the entrance of the Siq or at the Treasury – the stalls further in have a really good mix of jewellery and souvenirs at a much more reasonable price – visit Firouz’s stall in front of the Silk Tomb for a really nice selection, she speaks excellent English and, like us, you might get invited to have cup of mint tea with her and her young daughters. Priceless.

• For the best ‘sand pictures’ – you’ll see the glass jars of coloured sand pictures sold everywhere in Jordan – made from authentic Petra ground rock, then Ali Hamadeen at the Petra Magic Bazaar in Wadi Musa (00962 777 949160 hamadeen_ali@yahoo.com) is your man. He is a true craftsman and also gives demonstrations showing you how it is done.


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