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Tag: "Petra"

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/

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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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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

The-monastery-petra

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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