In Jordan: Ancient Sites and Legendary Hospitality
by Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller
"While you are here in Israel, I highly recommend a four-day excursion into Jordan," the travel agent in Tel Aviv suggests. "It's a very hospitable and safe country and Israelis are going there in droves. And I see that you already have visas for Jordan. Great! It's best to cross at the Sheikh Hussein Bridge near Beit She'an." She continues her sales pitch: "Your Israeli guide will drop you off at the crossover, and after going through passport control, a Jordanian guide will be waiting for you, holding up a sign with your name." Obviously, our agent has made this booking dozens of times. "What do you say?" asks my husband with a gleam in his eye. "Let's do it," I agree, as does Elinor, our British traveling companion. "It will enhance our visit to Israel."

Israel's Beit She'An, formerly the Roman city of Scythopoulos, is located opposite Jordan's Jerash.

Avital has been our Israeli guide for about a week now. We board his SUV on a cloudless May morning in front of our historic Jerusalem hotel, aptly named Mt. Zion, quickly blending into a crowded highway filled with gutsy, prone-to-perilous-passing local drivers, continuing north along the coast to Haifa and Acre, inland to Zippori, and finally to a Golan kibbutz near Kiryat Shmona. Two days later, shadowing the Jordan River south along Route 71, we arrive at Beit She'an, one of Israel's most important archaeological sites, formerly known as the Roman city of Scythopolis, part of the Levant's Decapolis. "Wow, have a look at all these enormous fallen columns!" exclaims Elinor as we stroll on the site's impressive Cardo Maximus. "They all came tumbling down like match sticks when the city was destroyed by the great earthquake of 749," Avital explains. "It was a catastrophic event. Very little was left standing except portions of the hippodrome and a small theater which is still used today." I gaze in awe at some pristine basalt blocks that were hewn from nearby Mount Gilboa millennia ago. "Beit She'an was virtually abandoned for centuries," Avital explains. "But now it's time to take you to your crossing point."

A Jordanian guide is holding up a placard and waving vigorously at us. "I see that you made it through customs without a hitch. My name is Mahmoud and I am pleased to welcome you to my country. Let's load up your luggage and continue without delay toward Jerash. I will be your driver for the next four days." "Wow, his English is impressive," Elinor mutters, "but then many educated Arabs are fluent in multiple languages." We head east in the direction of Jerash, a much-visited ancient site, another important Decapolis city once known as Gerasa. Jerash is also called the "Pompeii of the East," renowned internationally for its size and remarkable state of preservation.

Most of Jordan is a barren desert, but its northwest corner and areas just east of the Jordan River are quite fertile, even lush, with thick stands of Aleppo pines, cypresses, wild olives, and extensive banana farms. "The Romans immediately realized that this region would be an ideal place to build a major city," Mahmoud explains. "Fortunately for my country, Jerash has become very famous and attracts visitors from all over the world." He deposits us near the entrance. "I will be waiting here for you, but please take your time. Jerash will not disappoint. Think of the history that was made on these streets as you walk through," he exclaims as we start out.

Jerash, the ancient Gerasa, was the jewel of the Roman Decapolis, rivaling Pompeii.

For the time being, a light breeze is blowing, taking the edge off the intense noon heat. We enter through Hadrian's monumental southern gate. The size of the city is astonishing: Everywhere, pottery fragments glint among unexcavated debris shielding treasures yet to be discovered. Not only is the site vast, it is surprisingly complex, distinguished by two theaters, a hippodrome that is utilized for staged chariot races, and most notably, an enormous oval forum surrounded by 56 Ionic columns that connect it to the Cardo Maximus. "Wow, ancient Gerasa is huge," says Elinor, but then I have not seen Pompeii." Leaving the forum, we continue slowly on its magnificent colonnaded Cardo still paved with its original stones, toward the temple of Artemis, the patron goddess of the city. Only eleven of its mammoth columns remain, each topped with a grand Corinthian capital. In the rear of the temple, the cella once shielded an arched niche that held the statue of the goddess. I look down at the floor studded with impressive polychrome mosaics agleam in the midday sun. Nearby, a massive circular fountain known as the nymphaeum was the major source of fresh water that was channeled into Gerasa from an ancient reservoir. Beyond, we can spot the city's northern gate. But the heat finally takes its toll and Elinor and I retreat to the cool of the visitor's center while my husband continues his photographic field day among the ruins. The center depicts Gerasa's history over time in interesting vignettes. Among several sculptures, the bust of Julia Domna, wife of Emperor Septimius Severus, catches our attention. "They had good hair stylists even back then," says Elinor, admiring her snake-like curls.

An hour later, my husband reappears, sweat running down his face, his shirt soaked. Mahmoud had promised us a delicious and relaxing lunch that will have us singing praises for Jordanian cuisine. He wasn't kidding. Lebanese House Um Khalil is known for its hospitality and our jovial waiter immediately brings out several bottles of ice cold water. Our thirst quenched, we dive into a large array of dishes, from their spectacular house-made hummus and baba ghanoush, to a piquant walnut dip known as muhammara, a sampling of warak enab, the local take on stuffed grape leaves, and a garden fresh fattoush salad with strips of crusty fried flatbread. "You must finish with a sweet," the waiter insists, returning with a plate of knafeh, a custard enclosed in shredded filo soaked with syrup and topped with shaved pistachios. We pause by Um Khalil's wood burning oven as we exit, eyes riveted on loaves of house-made flatbread which are removed from the oven at just the right moment, their bubbly browned surface exuding an intoxicating aroma.

The countryside east of the Jordan River is surprisingly green. We wind through a verdant area blanketed in pines and oaks surrounding a reservoir. Near these hills are several nature preserves where threatened species such as the beloved long horned Arabian oryx, the national animal of Jordan, are nurtured until mature enough to be released into the wild. Here too one can find lightning-fast Dorcas gazelles with curved brown horns, ostriches, cranes and rare falcons, not to mention small cats and desert hedgehogs. "Wouldn't you love to walk through these woods!" exclaims Elinor, "but I know we have to keep moving." We continue on the highway to Madaba, only 62 kilometers from Jerash. Once an important Moabite city, today it is a Greek Orthodox enclave internationally renowned for its churches and breathtaking mosaic floors.

The world's earliest rendering of ancient Jerusalem is the centerpiece of a magnificent mosaic floor in Madaba's St. George's Church.

The Basilica of St. George tops the list, attracting hordes of visitors who come to admire its exceptional sixth century mosaic floor comprising more than two million pieces of colored stones. While some sections are missing, the enormous, eye-popping map of the region is a standout, most notably its depiction of ancient Jerusalem complete with the Roman Cardo, major gates and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. "You are looking at the oldest representation of Jerusalem in existence. It was created during the sixth century," Mahmoud explains. We spend a good half hour staring at the map which is carefully guarded throughout visiting hours and covered by carpets during church services. While not completely intact, its imagery remains fresh and minutely detailed. "Check out the fish swimming in the Jordan River," I remark. At a nearby workshop, mosaic-like reproductions are for sale and we purchase a large round platter depicting old Jerusalem, bound to be a lasting memory of our days in Jordan.

The panorama from Mount Nebo was the only glimpse Moses had of The Promised Land.

Mount Nebo, the sacred mountain where Moses had his only glimpse of the Promised Land, is about nine kilometers northwest of Madaba. For millennia, the mountain site has been revered by Jews, Moslems and Christians who come to discover what Moses saw from this dizzying vantage point. Indeed, the panorama from a fourth century church built on his presumed burial site is magnificent: Canaan, the beloved land of milk and honey, with Jericho and Jerusalem in the far horizon, biblical Moab and Edom, the Dead Sea and a series of dry river beds known as wadis that punctuate the rugged landscape. A placard commemorates the visit made by Pope John Paul who came to Israel on a good will mission and then journeyed to Mount Nebo where he planted an olive tree as a symbol of peace. We spend a good half hour at the sacred site taking it all in. The only other visitors are a handful of Japanese tourists, their Nikon cameras clicking non-stop. "Moses died almost immediately after he viewed the Promised Land. He was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on the mountain. Muslims believe that his body was later transported to an area outside Jericho and reburied, but that may be an urban legend," Mahmoud reveals.

Jordan is traversed by an inland road east of the Dead Sea known as the King's Highway, an ancient route used by traders from North Africa and the Levant headed to Damascus and Mesopotamia. "Most traders primarily dealt in frankincense and myrrh that were commonly used for all sorts of medicinal and household purposes," Mahmoud explains. "But the Nabateans of Petra were the best of the best. They expanded their line of goods and returned with silks, fine pottery and useful knowledge from the greater region and as far as Rome, Greece, India and even China." There is not another vehicle in sight and we are making tracks on the well-paved road. "We have an old proverb in Jordan," Mahmoud announces. "The deeper you go into the desert, the closer you come to God!" It must have been an omen. Without any warning, the wind kicks up and thick gray rainclouds release a pelting rain, driving fistfuls of wet sand all over our car. We can see nothing. "Oh my God," Elinor freaks out, "we are going to be buried alive!" "Not to worry," Mahmoud says calmly. "This happens often and it doesn't last." Sure enough, the deluge vanishes as quickly as it appeared and Mahmoud spends twenty minutes scraping wet sand off the car. "That's enough," he proclaims, "the rest will dry and blow away." Back on schedule we zoom past Machaerus, one of King Herod's defensive castles, where Salome performed her infamous dance of the seven veils to be rewarded with the head of John the Baptist who had displeased her.

The Sharah Mountain Range stretches northwest from Wadi Rum, the hangout of Lawrence of Arabia in the south of Jordan, all the way north to Mount Nebo. Amid this rugged, sandstone landscape, lies the magnificent lost city of Petra, a place half as old as time that reached its apogee during the reign of the resourceful Nabateans from the 3rd century BCE to 106 CE. Their commercial brilliance, artistic sensibility, diplomacy and perseverance resulted in the creation of a magnificent hidden city, one that would be lost for over 1000 years due to several destructive earthquakes, only to be rediscovered in 1812 by John Lewis Burkhardt, an intrepid Swiss explorer and scholar. Petra was every archaeologist's dream come true. It also fired the imagination of ordinary folks whose desire to see its wonders hurled it front and center onto the world stage. "The Lost city of Petra has never looked back. Not only is it a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was recently added to the list of New Wonders of the Ancient World," Mahmoud boasts.

Built atop an old Bedouin village, Taybet Zaman's guest rooms feature local weavings
"You will have an entire day to see Petra tomorrow," he announces, "so I am going to drop you off at your hotel in Taybet. It is unlike any other hotel in the world and only 15 minutes by car to the ancient city." Indeed, the rambling Taybet Zaman is built stop the ruins of a derelict Bedouin village, tucked amid the rugged Sharah Mountains that comprise Jordan's tallest peaks. It is the brainchild of onetime mayor, Abu Firas, who successfully motivated all Taybet's residents to marshal their resources and convert their tiny village, stone by stone, into a luxury, full service property for visitors looking for a "different" hotel experience. We pull up in front of the lobby, pick up our keys and wheel our luggage down serpentine stone pathways to our rooms. "Each room is unique," they tell us in the lobby. Ours blends arches and rough stone walls with colorful Bedouin carpets and hand-woven bedpreads. Half an hour later, the three of us take a leisurely stroll around the rambling property, past its Turkish hamam and souk-like shops filled with-locally made handicrafts, by a luxurious swimming pool surrounded by cactus beds and an herb garden. By now we have worked up enormous appetites and continue to the dining room where an alluring buffet awaits. A cook wearing a shenagh, a traditional red and white head scarf, is frying fresh falafel and slicing shawarma off a vertical spit to be stuffed into warm pita with veggie sides and house-made tahini and hummus. There are platters of kebabs and at least two dozen salads. Jordan's national dish, Mansaf, is the centerpiece of the buffet. A slowly-simmered stew of lamb, it is flavored with cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom and piled over steamed rice. "This is beyond delicious," my husband sighs, as he goes back for seconds.

Local guide Ibrahim points to the Siq, a mile-long, serpentine passageway to the lost city of the Nabataeans.
Mahmoud is waiting for us by eight and we start out on the short drive to Petra without delay, taking in the morning rituals of some local Bedouins on our winding descent from the mountain. "Thank goodness it's cooler today," I remark as our Hyundai passes by several organic farms, a truck filled with chicken coops, three camels being fed their ration of the day, and a farmer attaching a plow to his workhorse. In less than fifteen minutes, the approach to Petra is dead ahead of us. "Today you will have a special guide who is an expert on the history of Petra," Mahmoud explains. "Say hello to Ibrahim." Wearing a wide-brimmed archaeologist's hat, Ibrahim points to massive stone boulders that lead to the Siq, the snaking, mile long approach to the hidden city of Petra. "Please try not to wander off as we walk through," he remarks. It gets very crowded when tour groups commandeer the space."

Tectonic forces pulled the rugged mountain apart, creating a path into the heart of Petra.
"Just how was this narrow passage created?" Elinor queries Ibrahim. "It was the result of two tectonic plates that gradually pulled apart," he explains. A couple of hundred tourists are scattered along the mile-long Siq. Now and then a horse and carriage carrying passengers forces the crowd to clear the way. Here and there are commemorative tombs, their shallow facades carved into the pink and beige striated rock face. "So this chasm is a result is the result of seismic forces," I mutter. "Interesting!" Ibrahim continues his explanation: "The Nabataeans were second only to Rome in their engineering prowess. They channeled water into Petra from distant springs and reservoirs through embedded clay pipes. Some of them are still visible today." The walls of the Siq begin to close in on us. At one narrow point the passage walls are just two meters apart, but more than two hundred meters tall. At a predetermined spot, Ibrahim pulls out a portable cassette player, adjusts the volume and presses the play button. The sound track for "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" bounces off the rock face. I sense that we've arrived.

Al Khazneh, Petra's magnificent treasury, is one of the world's most breathtaking sites.
In one fell swoop, the Siq corridor opens wide to reveal Petra's magnificent treasury, Al Khazneh, truly one of the world's most breathtaking sites. In a way, the passage through is Siq is like a Graeco Roman Sacred Way, and for the Nabataeans, ending at the Treasury was their ultimate reward from their head god, Dushara. Its Hellenistic façade is testimony to the brilliance of the clever traders who always gleaned the best from other cultures. The contrast between the narrow Siq and this vast open space is mind blowing. Several hundred people speaking a babble of tongues are scattered around, most of them staring in awe at Al Khazneh. A group of young Arab women are posing for a camera. Several camels are seated on the sand awaiting customers to mount them for a photo op. A local guard astride a horse is monitoring the crowd, laughing good humoredly. I pick up a familiar language: "Éla, Maria, páme na pároume fotografía," shouts a Greek mother trying to get her daughter to join the family for a photo in front of the treasury. Clearly this is an international crowd. We linger for nearly forty minutes, taking in the details, enjoying the polyglot ambience around us. "Wonderful, isn't it," says Ibrahim. "Now let's wander through the city at leisure. There is so much more to see. Consider spending the entire afternoon here."

Hundreds of visitors are dwarfed by huge boulders bordering the opening to Al Khazneh.

Petra's grandest monuments require arduous ascents up hundreds of stone steps.
"I wish we were twenty years younger," I comment to Elinor. Several of Petra's most spectacular monuments require arduous climbs up more than 100 steep stairs to see them close up. But even at a distance, they are breathtaking. One of the most eye-catching facades is the soaring Al-Deir Monastery crowning a mountainside that requires more than an hour to reach via rocky steps. "Perhaps this was the final resting place of an important Nabatean king," says my husband. It seems to have been converted to a church. Also on the mountaintop is the High Place of Sacrifice, known as Al Madbah, perched on a steep cliff and also reached by a very long flight of stairs. It was here that many animal sacrifices took place. You can even discern some side channels where the blood of these animals must have drained out. We approach Petra's massive theater, shaped like a giant bowl with seating that once held 8,500 people. It owes its design to the Greeks from whom the Nabateans borrowed freely. On a wide corridor are remnants from the Roman takeover of Petra. Still paved with original stones, it continues to a ruined public fountain that serviced what were probably public market stalls. From here twin lines of columns lead to a gateway into a sacred precinct known as the temenos. By now it is early afternoon, and we realize how hungry we are. We walk past several casual café-tents to the Basin Restaurant, offering an organized and freshly prepared buffet concentrating on salads. The return walk through the Siq takes at least an hour more, and by the time we find Mahmoud, fatigue is starting to set in. "At least the weather has cooled," I sigh. "Well, what did you think?" he asks. "It was one of our greatest travel experiences ever," my husband declares. "Petra exceeded all our expectations and we will always remember this day." Mahmoud breaks into a huge smile. "Have a nice rest," he bids us farewell front of our hotel. "Tomorrow morning we drive to Amman. Be ready by eight."

After the Romans conquered Petra, signature columns and a monumental road were added to the city.

Back on the King's Road headed to Amman, the vast desert is now on our right, the saw-toothed mountains on the left. As I stare at my map of Jordan, I notice that it takes the shape of an angel when viewed from its side, with outstretched wings comprising the vast desert corridor in the east. "The Hashemite kingdom is considered the Switzerland of the Middle East," Mahmoud brags, "because it is stable, peaceful, and politically neutral." I find his words reassuring and correct. "I also believe we Jordanians are very hospitable," he adds. Perhaps one of the reasons is British-educated King Hussein's marriage to American Lisa Halaby, who became Queen Noor. A brilliant woman of Syrian descent, the queen launched many important programs in Jordan that have greatly improved the lives of its people. Many years after his death in 1999, she continues to be an important force for peace, women's rights, the arts and the environment, and remains highly respected. "For sure under Hussein, relations with Israel had greatly improved," Mahmoud admits. That explains the many Israeli tourists we have been seeing during our time here, I realize. We speed along the highway, virtually empty for most of the 250 kilometers to Amman. It's just past noon when we pull into the five star Grand Hyatt Amman, one of the city's top hotels, known for its international dining and panoramic views. "Sabah Alkhayr (good day)," I greet the man at the desk with the Arabic phrase I have been silently practicing. "Marhaba" (welcome), he answers with a surprised smile. "Let's meet in the lobby in an hour," Mahmoud suggests. "We'll follow our tour of Amman with a delicious lunch at one of my favorite places."

Mahmoud begins with a quick spin through an upscale neighborhood dotted with mansions that could be plucked out straight out of Beverly Hills. We pass by the American Embassy and wind along Amman's jaw-dropping Abdoun Bridge, suspended on cables and part of an ambitious beltway project that will link North Amman to the city center. "The bridge was designed by a brilliant Indian engineer," says Mahmoud, "and it has won several awards. Our city is built on seven hills, just like Rome." He continues: "During the Roman period it was called Philadelphia. My very favorite ancient ruins from that time are Hercules Temple with its few remaining columns and our 6,000 seat amphitheater which is located opposite the citadel. Now, let's grab some lunch because I am sure you must be very hungry."

Amman's jaw-dropping Abdoun Bridge is dramatically suspended on cables.

Rainbow Street is famous for its many rooftop restaurants, but Mahmoud heads straight to one of his very favorites, Hashin, a casual eatery and veggie paradise with sidewalk tables and a reputation for having the best falafel in the entire country, if not the world. Celebrity photos are plastered on its walls and the place does smell incredibly delicious. "If you can't decide between their plain or stuffed falafel, I recommend you try both," Mahmoud advises. So, of course, we try both, along with a side of aromatic roasted eggplant and their special tahini sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. We wash it all down with freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. "This is may be the best Middle Eastern meal of my life," sighs Elinor. We linger at our table, watching locals and tourists devour their own falafel choices.

En route to the hotel, Mahmoud swings by a large shopping area known as Souk Al Sukar, continuing alongside a bustling street filled with vegetable stalls and several gastro pubs overflowing with customers. "You will enjoy the Hyatt's many amenities, especially its high-end restaurants and sweeping views. Also, from the terrace of the hotel you can get a good glimpse of the King Abdullah Mosque with its beautiful blue dome," he notes. "Have a great evening and I will see you around 10 AM to shuttle you to your transfer point, the Allenby Bridge, from which it's just a short drive to Jerusalem."

It's a blistering hot day. "We are officially at 1,250 feet below sea level here," Mahmoud announces at the historic crossing point, erected in 1914 on the bones of an old Ottoman bridge by British general Edmund Allenby. "You made our time in Jordan so incredibly interesting," we thank Mahmoud who stays with us until we successfully board a shuttle van packed with West Bank Palestinians returning home after their shopping sprees in Amman. "I guess we are the only foreigners here," I mumble. A friendly, English-speaking man strikes up a conversation and we all share highlights of our time in Jordan. As the van ascends the limestone hills around Jericho, I am reminded that it is the oldest city on earth. It was here that agriculture began with the successful cultivation of wheat and barley. Half an hour later, we arrive at the cusp of one of East Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods. From here it's just a short uphill walk on Hebron Road to our Mt. Zion Hotel, a historic property overlooking the old city. "Shalom," waves the smiling hotel guard who immediately recognizes us. "So how was the trip to Jordan?" asks the girl at the desk. "We really had a wonderful time, but nothing compares to being home again!" I reply.