4-5 October 2015. According to Rough Guides: “Jordan’s public transport is a hotchpotch. Bus routes cover what’s necessary for the locals, and there is little or no provision for independent travellers.” There was a train from Amman to Damascus in Syria, but Syria is sadly not a good destination choice these days, and the last time the train ran was in 2006. There is little else available. Again from Rough Guides: “Locals know the system by word-of-mouth, but no official information about bus travel exists: in most situations, you simply have to turn up at the point of departure (which may not be advertised as such) and ask around.” We decide to take a tour.
Apart from the Galapagos Islands, where it is mandatory, it is our first tour, though I’d done a couple of extended overland expeditions when I was travelling in my twenties. Our group consists of eighteen people: mostly Brits, with a couple of Americans and us Canadians. There is a great luxury in taking a tour. Suddenly, and gratefully, all responsibility is handed over. We no longer have to think about where to go next, or how to get there, or where we’ll stay. We even have people to carry our bags. There is a great relaxation.
So it is day one of our weeklong tour through Jordan. We all pile into a big bus, and from Amman head north to the ancient Roman city of Jerash, a city that, until recently, had been covered in sand for centuries.
The site has been inhabited for over 6,500 years thanks to its proximity to fertile hillsides and a wide, deep wadi that is cultivated to this day. In 63 BC Jerash became part of the Roman Empire and the city’s golden age began. Known then as Gerasa, it is one of the world’s best-preserved Roman provincial towns. It is classic urban Rome of the Middle East. We enter through Hadrian’s gate
to find paved and colonnaded streets,
a grand public plaza,
and lofty hilltop temples.
There were once baths and fountains, a complex drainage system, and a main street lined with shops, public buildings, and the homes of the wealthy. The ruts in the paving from countless chariots help bring the scene to life, but in a place so long forsaken that it was buried for centuries our only company today is lizards.
Modern Jerash lies on the eastern side of the wadi. As in the days of Rome the population lives on this side. Ancient residential Jerash lies beneath. The western side was largely devoted to administrative, religious and commercial activities. In those days causeways across the wadi connected the two sides.
Of course, in the fashion of all Roman towns, there is a theatre, with acoustics so good that an annual music festival is held there. What is completely unexpected, in Roman ruins in the Middle East, is the sound of bagpipes. As we enter the theatre we see them: a drummer and a piper. They are wearing traditional Arab-style robes, or thawbs, and one is wearing a Jordanian headscarf, the tasseled red-and-white shemagh. The setting and their outfits are a surprising juxtaposition to a drum and the traditional instrument of Scotland. Afterwards I realize that since Jordan was once a British protectorate, the music would have come from that influence, and I discover that their robes, in that desert brown colour, are standard Jordanian military dress uniforms, though I doubt either of them is actually in the military.
A few million years ago the Arabian tectonic plate and the African tectonic plate started slowly moving apart forming a long north-south depression. It created the path of the legendary Jordan River, which today forms the border between Jordan and Israel. At its widest point the river became an ancient lake. The lake extended from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south, a distance of some two hundred kilometres. Eighteen thousand years ago the outlet from the Dead Sea into the Sea of Galilee dried up, forming two separate lakes. The Dead Sea was left behind in a desert basin at the lowest point on earth, some 400 metres (1300ft) below sea level. Because there is no way for the salt to leave the basin, salt and mineral levels increased as the water evaporated. Eventually the water reached the highest concentration of salt of any body of water in the world.
Slowly we all make our way into the water.
When I’m in far enough, when the warm water is deep enough I slowly sit down and lift my feet. Without effort I’m floating, bobbing like a cork on the ocean.
Floating in the Dead Sea is a unique experience. It is not our first time floating in extremely salty water. That came in Lago Cejar in the far north of Chile. The two are hardly comparable in size. Lago Cejar is lake sized. The Dead Sea is also a lake, but it is the size of a small sea. It is 67 kilometres (42 m) long and 15 kilometres (9 m) wide at its widest point.
And it has waves. Not big waves, but they are still waves. I mention the waves because it’s really not a good thing to get any of this hyper-salty water in your mouth, or eyes, or ears, or nose. So instead of just floating I find I am battling to stay upright. I have to constantly fight against flipping over. Not everyone, it seems has this problem.
The Dead Sea was one of the world’s first health resorts. The waters have been famous for their healing powers since ancient times. These days, even if you’re not at one of the high-end resorts to be found along the shores on both the Israeli and Jordanian sides, you can still cover yourself in the healing mud from the water. The mud is the alluvial silt washed down from the surrounding mountains and deposited in the water along the shores. Layers and layers deposited over millennia have resulted in a rich mud containing high levels of minerals. It is said to be very good for the skin, and several cosmetics companies market Dead Sea mud for facials. Don and I decline the mud, but others in our group dive in for the full experience.
On returning to Amman we don’t go out with the group for dinner because we want to go back to our favourite hookah bar near the hotel. We eat a huge Greek salad, a pile of hot pita bread, and a big bowl of hummus, finishing off with divine chocolate and vanilla custard. It’s one of the best meals, among many, that we have in Jordan.
The remains of the oldest known map of the Holy Land, created in the 6th century by an unknown artist, lie on the floor of the small Byzantine church of Saint George in the town of Madaba.
Crafted meticulously from coloured glass and stones, the map depicts the Holy Land in great detail. Much of it has been lost over the centuries with only about one third of it remaining.
Although it runs north-south the map shows the Jordan River in an east-west orientation surrounded by all the important landmarks of the time including biblical locations. Places and events are labeled with 150 inscriptions in Greek. Jacob’s Well, the Oak of Abraham at Hebron, Jericho ringed with palm trees, and John’s baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, are all depicted in detail. There are fish swimming in the river, one of which is turned away from the toxic Dead Sea. There are two boats on the Dead Sea, and ferries across the river. There is the Nile River Delta, Mount Sinai, and Bethlehem. Jerusalem is depicted with most detail of all: a sumptuous overhead view of the walls and gates, the main streets and over thirty major buildings, many of which are clearly recognizable. It’s an extraordinary work of art and an enormously important historical record.
Sadly I didn’t recognize the wonder of it when I was there. Perhaps I’ve seen too many ancient mosaics and was suffering from ancient mosaic burn out. It is only through my research for this post that I have come to understand what I saw: one of the earliest maps ever created, before the advent of any kind of cartography. I think it would be a wonderful thing if there could be a brochure at the church for visitors. The brochure could have a picture of the map, like the one above that is outside the church, and several pictures of detailed parts of the map, each with a brief written description, and a translation of the Greek. This would make it easier to decipher. I love details, but I really had no idea what I was looking at, and of course the Greek lettering was all Greek to me. If I’d had such a brochure I probably would have spent a long time looking for all the different illustrations contained in the map. I’m sure I would have been drawn in – where are those palm trees?, oh look, there are the fish in the river, and look there are even pulleys across the river for the ferry boats, and there’s John baptizing Jesus. It’s a map and an illustration of the events of the Holy Land, and I’ve been pouring over photographs of it trying to identify some of the details.
The second day of the tour is a long day that takes us from Madaba to Nebo to the fabulous Kerak Castle built by an ex-butler during the Crusades, and finally to Petra, the ultimate highlight of any visit to Jordan.
Next post: Scenes from the bus, Queen Rania, Syrian refugees, and the great Crusader castle at Kerak.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.