A Jaunt in Jordan: Amman, Petra, Karak & the Dead Sea
It was in our final approach to Amman Airport that Andrea asked what Jordan’s national airline was called, and a few moments for us to realise that it couldn’t possibly be Air Jordan. It is, of course, Royal Jordanian Airlines, which makes it absolutely clear for those of you who didn’t know that Jordan is a constitutional monarchy. And long may it remain so, because a battle in the courts between Nike and this Middle Eastern country over the brand name Air Jordan would result only in a financial bonanza for a brace of fat American lawyers!
Our main objective was Petra, of which there are many details later in this piece, but other sites also beckoned, so for those of you with an interest in all things historical...read on!
What a lovely country and what a lovely people; we were bowled over by the hospitality of the Jordanians, which was a completely unexpected pleasure. Quite who the Jordanians are seems to be a mystery even to themselves; they are Palestinians, they are Iraqis, they are Arabs, they are Africans; this last being an even greater surprise. And after so long playing along as the poor man of the region they have now discovered oil...sort of! Of these issues more later...
I guess we should learn to expect the unexpected in the Middle East. Amman Airport is dire but the new terminal towers above the old, awaiting its opening. Apparently there’s been a delay, which I hope they’re using on recruiting staff. The only people we met in Jordan who were not helpful and cheerful were the staff on immigration but the same could be said of many countries; someone somewhere should realise that the first impression of a new country is that given by the warmth or negativity of the immigration process; a smile and a pleasant word do not make these individuals less effective as border police.
It’s as if all immigration officers have been sent to the U.S. school of humour removal, based somewhere near Houston, Texas. I’d love to include a photo but of course you’re never allowed to catch these entertainers on film! It is likely we’ll fly into Houston again; I’ll try to get an audio recording of their humour bypass announcement and offer to play it to other immigration officials around the world so as to cheer them up!
Back to Jordan and the unexpected; the weather was foul! For our entire stay in Amman we were battered by gales, snowed on, hailed on and curiously burned by the sun, in that solitary ten minutes it appeared from behind the clouds. It was so bad we only managed one whole day investigating the city, a long brisk walk being necessary to keep warm, dry and functioning.
The two key sites in Amman are the Roman amphitheatre and the Citadel; both are fascinating, although being open air sites, and the latter grotesquely exposed to the elements, they did test our exploring mettle on this visit, even if they are urban features.
The amphitheatre was built in the second century AD (or CE if you prefer) and is so well preserved it is still occasionally used, seating up to six thousand. It’s impressive, standing at the top, realising just how steep the terraces are and how good it is acoustically. Interestingly it was built into a cliff face containing a necropolis, a rock cut graveyard, suggesting that the Romans had little respect for the dead of those who had come before them; this was confirmed in Petra where exactly the same thing had happened. How much can you write about an amphitheatre though; a picture is worth a thousand words.
There was a little museum under the amphitheatre, which proved surprisingly interesting, displaying items from the lives of more recent Jordanians. There are also some particularly old Roman mosaics in there as well and it seems that two museums may well have been merged; that said it’s worth a visit. The clothes on display point to a period before the current fashion for drab black abayas existed; one where hair and face coverings were for protection against the elements rather than the present thinking as regards covering up the females of our species. It was a relief to find that the Jordanians are much more relaxed today in this respect than some other countries in the area.
We had tried to locate a central museum in Amman, knowing the weather would continue to be poor but were somewhat frustrated in this regard; the one in the Citadel, our next engagement was less than comprehensive.
Like Rome, Amman is built on seven hills, albeit they are much steeper than those in the valley of the Tiber. Amman was Roman for quite a time, including the years under Romanized Herod, from 30BC to 614AD. Those of us from Western Europe tend to forget that the Roman Byzantine Empire sustained itself much longer than that of the one we are more used to. Obviously this has had a huge influence on the historical remains but it has to be said that it probably had a huge influence on the culture, including that of the Islamic Empires which superseded it in the region.
Structures on the site of the Citadel can be dated back to the Neolithic and it was certainly already fortified by around 1800BC. The Bible tells of King David capturing the city, and it can be supposed by this was meant the Citadel, but it slipped out of Judean hands and into the arms of a succession of empires, the Assyrian, Babylonian, the Ptolemies, the Selecuids (who I’ve never heard of and I’ll have to check out), the Romans, the Umayyads, Abbasids and Ottomans ruling after the coming of Islam. Which all goes to show that this was an important place, indeed Amman, Petra and the castle we visited at Karak (details later) all control the east-west routes, which can be argued to be the legitimate western extensions of the Silk Road or at the very least, part of the Frankincense Trail.
There’s some pretty impressive remains on the citadel, but as usual my own favourites are Roman; the Temple of Hercules, overlooking the amphitheatre, some 60metres below, was perhaps unfinished when it was abandoned, but if the statue of Hercules had been erected it would have dominated the skyline; at 13 metres it would have been one of the largest statues of Roman times.
The Umayyad Palace is also impressive, comprising a number of luxurious villas; quite evidently only the rich (and their servants) lived up here and, whilst the homes were well to do, they were rather cramped together due to the lack of space. The other lack was a water supply; there were no wells on the Citadel; rainwater was collected in numerous cisterns and channelled around but it has to be concluded that at times water was brought up the hill on the back of donkeys or people. The largest cistern would hold 1000 cubic metres of water and it would take an awful lot of rain to fill that baby! The Umayyad palaces point to a period when their owners might have need some protection from their own subjects; I guess the location might provide summer breezes but in the winter winds it wasn’t as attractive.
I will confess to being somewhat confused when I came across the “Ammonite Palace” on the plan of the citadel; we didn’t go to see this bit but it seemed odd that ancient shellfish should have found this hilltop suitable for a palatial home.
There is a museum on the Citadel, which proved quite interesting, if a little dowdy, but the greatest disappointment there was the empty rooms with a tape across the opening sand the aging and forlorn sign stating, “The Dead Sea Scrolls are on loan to .....” I can’t remember where it was they were on loan to but I would have killed to have seen them. I don’t suspect they’ll be coming back to the Citadel Museum any time soon!
We visited a nice old coffee house, found a tiny bar tucked away in a dark lane and had a desperately bad lunch when it proved the restaurant we plonked ourselves down in, to avoid another rainstorm, served food that was cooked up in a local takeaway burger place; it wasn’t good! Amman was easy to get around, although we mostly walked, the taxi drivers were very pleasant and the taxi fares cheap. Again, everyone was helpful but the obvious lack of other tourists might have made them more willing than they might otherwise have been.
We also spent some time in the Hisham Hotel, which had an excellent bar and a good restaurant, as at times the weather was just too awful to go out. It proved a pleasant place to stay, and we would return, but there are other, cheaper hotels, closer to the downtown nightlife and daytime tourist attractions, which might prove more attractive on a repeat visit.
Andrea and I don’t usually fail completely when we’re searching for something, particularly when it’s as big as a bus station and even more particularly when I had seen said bus station, on Google Earth only days before, adjacent to the Roman amphitheatre. Indeed we did find a very large concrete structure, with pretty bays for buses, spacious waiting rooms and that indefinable smell of freshly dried cement. The structure deserved an award in itself probably as the biggest white elephant ever constructed. It seems there was a bus station next to the amphitheatre, it was pulled down and rebuilt, probably to accommodate larger and larger flows of backpackers visiting the aforementioned ruins. Design teams ran riot, the civil engineers strove to meet their deadlines and the bus station opened...and then closed. It seemed the passengers, bus drivers and bus company financial directors, (obviously not in that order, we all know the finance directors come first!) determined that their temporary home, somewhere to the west, was far preferable to their newly built palace of transport. Now, sitting slightly to the East of the old amphitheatre, 30000 square metres of city centre land lie unused by any but a few enterprising parkers of cars.