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Tag: "Mt Nebo"

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.

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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!

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