During April and March I got to spend a month in Jordan; a country which I had not visited in seven years, and which I had missed very much. Previously, I had always thought ‘oh, I will be back’, so I did not frantically photograph everything and I did not buy kilos of coffee to bring home. But, as the Bedouins say, you live right now, not tomorrow. Next time it might rain, or maybe there will be no next time at all.
Arriving in Amman
My trip was made possible by the Lutfia Rabbani Foundation, to promote Euro-Arab dialogue. This meant I did not have to hop through five different airports and sleep curled up next to the closed coffee-shop; I got to take a very comfortable Royal Jordanian flight from Heathrow to Amman. I did arrive at 11pm however, which some may consider past bed-time. Fortunately, I know some archaeologists, who know some archaeologists, and I found two fantastic hosts for the night. From their tiny apartment on Rainbow Street I woke up to possibly the best view ever: all of Amman.
Since there was no way I was going to make it to the excavation before the end of the working day, I decided to stroll down to the new Jordan museum. I remember vaguely, seven years ago, admiring some Dead Sea Scrolls in a badly lit and dusty back room on the citadel. In the new museum, the Dead Sea Scrolls got a very well lit and very spacious room all to themselves. There was not a lot to see, but what was there was very good. The rest of the museum has also been beautifully designed (I really appreciate good museums), with skeletons buried in the floor and 3D stratigraphy hung from the walls. Another plus: I understood the chronological route through the exposition (often I accidentally go from Neolithic to Middle Ages and wonder what happened to the centuries in-between). There was a room dedicated to different scripts, and also an educational area for children of all ages – not to mention little video clips of all famous movies shot in Jordan (Indie!). It also only took me around 45 minutes to see everything, leaving me wanting more, rather than feeling overwhelmed and in need of coffee. Two thumbs up, Jordan!
After this, my wonderful fantastic host helped me drag all my luggage all the way through the city, onto various buses, and to the coach station; where I accidentally took a coach to Irbid (not where I was going). I really enjoyed the view from the window all the way to Irbid, and then all the way back again. In Irbid everyone was so very friendly, trying to help me figure out what had gone wrong, and where I should go next. A lady gave me a hand-written note which said something along the lines of ‘I need to go here; do not take me somewhere else’ which got me onto the right minibus eventually. I wish I had saved it! It was fun to ride along with all the locals, and I can proudly say that by the end of my journey through Jordan I had the tick-a-coin-on-the-window-to-get-off totally figured out (although my colleagues did laugh at me the first time, when I was sitting ready with that coin for a good 20 minutes before we actually needed to get off…).
Most of the month I stayed in a little village in the Balqa Governate. It was just about possible to see the border in the distance, with a little Palestinian village on the hill and Jerusalem in the background. When I arrived I was not sure where to go, which is awkward, when you are the one blonde Dutch girl, with a giant purple suitcase full of excavation equipment. It looks a lot cooler when you have a purpose, you know. And when you speak the local language beyond ‘thank you’. I explained to one person that I did not speak much Arabic, and that I did not know where I was; he got another person; he got a third person; until the seventh, who was a Palestinian doctor, with some English. He said he would drive me to where I needed to go; it was just down the road. Now, I know one should never get into cars with strangers, but sometimes you can just tell it is ok. So off we went, down the road. Overall the village was a little rural, and a little conservative, but with people like that, how can you not love it?
Over the course of four weeks we visited all the sweet shops, went second hand clothes shopping, spent a lot of time in the sticky internet café, and had very many cups of sugar with tea (nb. not tea with sugar). I had never previously noticed this, but of course it makes sense when you think about it: there were separate hairdressers for men and women, and the women would go to places off the main street, hidden behind thick curtains. We had to go investigate, so one of my colleagues decided to get a haircut: now my new recommendation, if you want to get closer to the locals! Just make sure you know how to say ‘not too short!’.
Of course I should also write about the food a little bit. As travelling goes, Jordan is not a very difficult country to be a vegetarian in. While the Jordanians would primarily eat falafel for breakfast, it is possible to get it in most places, most times of the day. In addition, instead of ruining sandwiches with unhealthy mayonnaise, UK-style, the Jordanians have delicious hummus with everything. I was not a fan before, but after a month, I miss it a little. Very often a falafel sandwich will also include some salad (tomatoes, cucumber) and ‘potatoes’ (chips).
Other foods are often based around the concept of chicken with rice, or rice with chicken (e.g. maqluba). I found it quite easy to ask for the chicken to be left out; people might be slightly surprised, but it is not a problem. This is also where I become a more flexible vegetarian: maybe sometimes the chicken is just picked out of the rice, or I pick it out myself. Maybe soups and sauces are not always made based on a vegetable broth; I do not ask. When someone has bothered to cook and amazing fantastic meal, I tell my principals to go wait in a corner. They are based on Holland and Britain, and abroad they have to adapt a bit sometimes.
Another thing I really enjoyed is manakish, a kind of Arabic pizza. ‘Za’atar‘ is a classic breakfast variation, made with herbs and olive oil. Other than that, like with any other pizza, you can put any ingredients you want on top. I just need to figure out what the exact recipe for the bread-base is (it is like flat-bread but just not quite; perhaps it needs a rising agent) and I will be re-creating this at home.
It is impossible to leave out sweets. I used to have a favourite type of biscuit, which I called ‘Syrian biscuit’, because that is where I used to eat it. They are tiny little biscuits topped with sweet toasted sesame seeds, and sometimes also pistachio nuts. In Jordan they kind of favour them as bigger biscuits, but I much prefer the tiny ones. I have now learned these are called ‘barazek‘. They basically taste like happy childhood memories; like ginger biscuits and Christmas to others. I spent ages tracking down a bakery that makes the small variant, and a giant box of them is now sitting next to me on my desk. I am not sure if it will ever taste exactly the same, but this is another thing I will be finding a recipe for.
Although I was in Jordan for a month, I spent most of that time working. On Fridays however, we were free. Now, as long as you do not assume you can see everything in a country in a few Fridays, you will be ok. We just picked a few places to have a look at. Maybe we could have spent double the amount of time in each, but it is always nice to have something to return to as well, if you ever get the chance. Sometimes I love a book so much I read through it too fast; however, this means that on the second read, and on the third, there is always something I had not discovered previously. It keeps things exciting!
The first Friday we drove up the mountain to Ajlun, a 12th (!) century Muslim Castle (that is pretty early, as castles go). It was built by the Ayyubids and enlarged by the Mamluks. Driving up the steep mountain, you really get the sense that even today an army would struggle to conquer this castle. These things are always a little bit difficult to remember accurately afterwards, but as I recall the castle served as a point in the communication route between Syria and Jordan; it was one of many which lit beacons at night (and smoke signals during the day), to pass messages from the Euphrates all the way to Cairo. Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt visited Ajlun in the 19th century, and noted ‘I saw nothing particularly worth notice in it; its thick walls, arched passages, and small bastions, are common to all the castles of the middle ages.’ not realising not many of these examples of military Islamic architecture would survive. I am not sure; he did later ‘discover’ Petra as well, so I guess this guy was not easily impressed. We also quickly stopped by Mar Elias, which is a little site with two churches, believed to be the birth-place of the prophet Elijah. According to the story, he ascended to heaven in style, in a flaming chariot; make of that what you will. It is free and very fast to visit; the view was nice, and so were the mosaics.
The next stop was Pella. The theory goes that the city was perhaps (re-)named in honour of Alexander the Great (who was born in the Greek Pella). The site was inhabited since Neolithic times, and there is plenty of evidence for Iron and Bronze age occupation too (among other things, the site has revealed a fantastic Canaanite temple). Most of Pella as we can see it today became important as a Hellenistic city, and later flourished as part of the Decapolis. However, despite its extraordinary history, not much of the city is remains. There is a nice odeon (theatre) and a prominent temple (later church), as well as an early Islamic residential quarter I remember writing about in an essay once upon a time. The city was ruled by the Umayyads for a while later on, but it was destroyed in the terrible 8th century earthquake, and neither the Abbasids nor the Mamluks ever managed to restore its glory.
The following Friday, we travelled down to Madaba, which is famous for its Byzantine-era mosaic map of the Holy Land in St George’s Church. It used to be my favourite mosaic ever, until I saw the mosaic in Umm ar-Rasas for the first time a week later. Madaba itself is a very nice town to wander around in. It meets lots (and lots, and lots) of tourists, so many people will speak English. The atmosphere is very easy-going. While most visitors tend to stick to the famous mosaic and the souvenir shops surrounding it, we went for a walk to the other side(s) of the town. We visited the ‘burnt palace’ (closed on Friday of course, but not if you take the back entrance through a mosaic shop), which is actually a really silly name for the site, as it is simply a 5th-6th century CE villa, attached to the ‘martyr’s church’. More lovely mosaics, albeit some destroyed due to iconoclasm. Next we visited the church of St John the Baptist, where we wandered into an Easter celebration. The friendly scouts there were handing out free food, so that was lunch sorted. It was vegetarian too (lent = lentils), and we were forcibly helped to as much food as possible. Never thought I would write this (studying in Cambridge), but thank you very much, St Johns! You made us feel so welcome! Finally, we had a look into the Church of the Apostles, which has a really nice mosaic of Thalassa, the female representation of the sea. After this, we meandered back to the other side of town, past St George’s, past the souvenir shops, and into the actual shops. We had a look at the fresh vegetables on sale (a butcher was proudly displaying a life goat outside his shop…) and we tried some more clothes-shopping, away from all the tour-buses. On the way over to Madaba we had also stopped at Mount Nebo, supposedly the place where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land. However, the little church there has apparently been closed for the past two years, so apart from the nice view there was not much point climbing up and down the mountain.
Since it was Easter, we got a Saturday off as well! We decided to take the local bus to Irbid, in an effort to visit Umm Qais. We sat on a little minibus for about 1.5 hours, and then took a taxi from the South to the North bus station. Here we took another little bus, which took a little under an hour to get to Umm Qais.
Umm Qais (also known as Gadara) is a beautiful black basalt site, and (at least this time of the year) covered in endless yellow flowers. I may have gone overboard taking photos of the fields of flowers. It is possible to see the Syrian Golan heights in the distance. It is so difficult to imagine, standing there between dozens of Jordanian schoolchildren, fighting over who gets to ride the donkey next, that right there in the distance Syria was battling IS. Like Pella, Gadara was a part of the Decapolis by the 1st century BCE. They undertook monumental building projects: a stunning theatre, baths, and a well-preserved decumanus maximus (road) including traces of wheel tracks. The city became a centre for culture and philosophy, producing a handful of quite famous philosophers.
It took a little more effort to find a bus back to Irbid again, and we had to wander up and down the road down in the village for maybe half an hour. Back in Irbid, we took a taxi to Yarmouk University, with the hopes of finding a cleaner to let us into the (also closed for Easter) little Archaeological museum. We had no such luck, but we did have a lovely stroll through the spacious campus, and we had a look at the artefacts in the museum garden. Irbid was a really friendly city; no tourists, not too chaotic. We wandered in and out of a few more shops before returning to the South bus station, where we had to fight for a place on the minibus (rush hour!). You can tell I have become far too British, because I tried to see where there might be a line to wait in, and I let the lady with all the shopping go ahead, and then the bus was full, and it left. For the next one, we ran at the doors together with everyone else, and we elbowed our way on.
On our final Friday, we went to Jerash (or Gerasa). We spent around 3 hours there, which was not enough; we even ate lunch while walking. I know a few people who have been working at Jerash, so I feel a little self-concious writing about it, knowing I am inevitably going to get things wrong and forget to mention really cool things. But anyway. Like the sites previously mentioned Jerash became an urban centre around the 3rd century BCE, and of course it was also part of the Decapolis. You (currently) enter the city through a massive monumental gate built to honour Emperor Hadrian’s visit in the 2nd century CE. Then, you get to an amazing oval forum, which connects to the cardo. I know it is a little funny, but I just love the sound of footsteps on the ancient stones. Tourism in Jordan has been down, and it was a bit cloudy that day, so it was just me and my footsteps. Silence and footsteps. Jerash also has two beautiful theatres, and temples dedicated to Artemis and Zeus. Not to mention a fascinating drainage system. I love hydraulic constructions; like sculptures, it is something the Romans were so good at; yet in the Middle Ages it all seems to have gone again from a lot of places.
On the way back, we also stopped by Iraq al Amir, and walked around a small Hellenistic ‘palace’ in the outskirts of Amman. It is a change from all the Roman ruins. Also, I write small, but that is because it looks small now; archaeological investigation has shown that it used to be a much larger estate.
On our way to Petra, Ali the Driver took us along the King’s Highway to Umm ar-Rasas. The settlement started out as a Roman military camp, but grew to be the agricultural centre of the region later on. This site contains more than a dozen churches (there are ruined arches everywhere). As I mentioned briefly before, St Stephen’s Church has the most breathtaking mosaic I have ever seen: the floor shows several Palestinian and Egyptian towns in the former Byzantine Empire (including Madaba), identified by their place names in Greek script. Due to the large quantity of religious architecture, not much is known yet about the character of housing, town plan and daily life. There is definitely a lot more to be investigated! Furthermore, the lack of visitors, and the huge area of open space, made the whole site feel very free; no gates, fences, signs (ok, could have used some signs), nothing limiting.
The next stop was Dana. Dana is a very large nature reserve, popular with eco-tourists. A little 15th century village has apparently been preserved there too, but we came for the environment this time. The whole area is of course filled with archaeological sites waiting to be excavated as well; but again, we just wanted to have a look at the surroundings for now. We did not have a lot of time, so we aimed to get a feeling for the place, to see if it would be worth returning to. You can probably guess: yes, it is. We just drove straight into the reserve, so there were no paths to follow and no guides to bother us (note: if you go hike for a few days a guide is probably a wise choice). It was peaceful, and it made me feel like I wanted to keep walking further and further away from civilisation. Which is special, because I do not normally enjoy walking around mountains (more on this later).
Our last stop was Shobak, a true, magnificent, ruined Crusaders Castle. Built in the 12th century CE, the Castle was attacked by Saladin numerous times (and he won, too). In the 13th century it was passed on to the Mamluks, who, as usual, made some restorations and additions. The site is very (very) large, as ruined castles go, and the 1 hour tops we thought it would take to visit was nowhere near enough.
Last, but who could say least, we made it to Petra. This World Heritage site has been described as one of the new wonders of the world, and a place you must see before you die. Lets’ agree, shall we. Petra was the capital of the Nabataean people. There are a lot of very interesting things to be said about the Nabataeans, but of course for me the most interesting aspect of this society was their script. The little museum at the entrance of Petra itself really does not do it justice whatsoever. Nabataean, like Palmyrene, is a cousin of the Aramaic script. Scholars have recently pointed out that the category Nabataean is not as black-and-white as literature often suggests; like the Romans and the Roman Empire, the Nabataeans did not all live in the same place or worship the same gods; things are more complicated than that. However, like Latin, they did share a script. Of course, it looked different in different places; but the fact that it developed at all is a very significant course of events.
Anyway, clearly, Petra was an important city before the Romans turned up there. When they did conquer the area, Nabataea initially remained an independent kingdom, taxed by the Romans, until it too became part of the Empire in the 2nd century CE. The famous ‘treasury’ (Khazneh) (actually a tomb) and ‘monastery’ (Ad Deir) (another tomb) were both (probably) created in the 1st century CE. You have to be doing pretty well as a city, if you are making monuments like that. The city later became the seat of a Byzantine bishopric, producing some very exciting papyrus scrolls. I am not even sure what other details to add: you can walk around in Petra for 2 days, 3 days, several weeks, and see new things all the time. It is huge. The site opens at 6 am and closes as sunset (the guards leave; there are no lights; make sure you are at the exit, or carry a phone and a torch). And, be prepared, hold on to your chair, it costs an astonishing 50 JD (50 GBP) to enter (but not if you are a resourceful archaeologist); the same as return flights between London and Amsterdam.
On our second day in Wadi Musa, we decided to have a look at Little Petra, and from there hike back to Ad Deir at Big Petra. According to the little guide book we found at the hotel, it would be ‘an easy stroll’. (Can you feel what’s coming next?) Little Petra illustrates very well how people also lived in the monumental rock caves (rather than just burying people there). Other than that, it is truly quite little, and probably does not take more than half an hour to see. Up on one of the rocks a friendly Bedouin offered us sugar with tea and attempted to teach me how to play his flute. I really need to track down one of those things, so I can practice. We could not think of anything to possibly buy from his little shop though, having donated most of our dinars to things we did not want or need already, so, if you are ever there, please tell him we say hi, and please buy a souvenir.
In any case, according to one of the guides we had read, this was the place where you climb down and start walking. We ran into 2 dead ends, before finding a path that continued after a 1 m drop. Unsure whether it was the right path, and quite sure we would not all be able to climb back up (we are Dutch; not cool rough mountain climbers ok), we decided to turn back. We made attempt #2 from the entrance of Little Petra, and quickly ran into the Neolithic village of Bayda. It was (probably) a seasonal encampment, and some dedicated archaeologists reconstructed the traditional round (and square!) houses. It is well worth a visit, if you are in the area.
From here, we wandered into the desert (ok that is a little dramatic; there was still a path, and the ‘desert’ had plenty of plants growing in it; plus herds of goats; and camels). The crossings were a little tricky, as there were no signs and we did not have a great map. We asked every shepherd we passed by for directions, and eventually we found the right mountain to climb up. It had stairs and everything. Unfortunately, 3/4 way up this mountain, the road stopped, Alice-in-Wonderland-Style. A donkey just sort of blinked at us, and a few friendly men helped us jump over the rubble to continue our journey. I really do not enjoy heights, and shovelling along a mountain, minus path, is not something I love to do. I hope the others took photos!
Very carefully, we made our way down the mountain, and then back up the next… to finally find Ad Deir around the corner. Now, that feels like victory, seriously. It only took us… maybe 4 or 5 hours? I am going to state that it was definitely not an easy stroll. But it was certainly do-able. Afterwards, everyone was very keen on staying there for sunset, but careful as I am, I flew back down the steps as soon as the monestary was covered by the shadows. I just about made it to the treasury when it got dark, and clung on to my little torch all the way back. So happy I always carry a torch. So happy.
And, well, that was that. It was dark, so I never got to say goodbye to Petra and its beautiful ruins. I just about made it to my final falafel sandwich before collapsing in the hotel. The bedouins say to enjoy every moment as it is; the right now. But I do hope that I will get a chance to repeat it; again, and again.