History is a curious thing, isn’t it? It’s not just a reminder of the past, but is in many ways, a marker between what was and what is, and in many ways, sometimes points the way to what could be.
Across the world, civilisation, empires and nations have risen and fallen over the millennia, with each culture that rises taking something from those that came before. The Romans, for example, learned much from the Greeks. The French, in turn, learned much from the Romans.
And that’s what history is. It is the layers upon layers of how past societies have formed and influenced the fabric of the present. That the essence of the past forms the foundations of our present, is a lesson we must never forget, but also learn to appreciate – maybe that’s why we’re so fervently taught it at schools.
But we learn to appreciate history when we see just how it helped create and shape the modern world that we live in. Not for nothing have historians around the world petitioned governments to keep alive the relics of the past, and museums have gone through painstaking efforts to share the highlights (and lowlights) of yesteryear, so that the generations of the future can learn about them.
It therefore surely helps if we travel to the historical sites that played such an important role in moulding ways of life today, and realise how they’ve helped influence us today. Roman amphitheatres, for example, have been around for thousands of years, and were the precursors to the comfortable cinemas in which we watch the latest movies, often with 3D glasses plastered to our faces in anticipation of what is going to come.
The one place in the Middle East that does provide amazing insights into how generations of civilisation impacted our ways of living across the centuries would surely have to be Jordan. Located to the west and north of Saudi Arabia, south of Syria and to the west of Iraq, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan also shares a land border with Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Jordan has long been at the crossroads of Arab and Western civilisations, which have had tremendous cultural and social impact on the Middle East, and today features a rich heritage left behind by the many empires that had at one point or another during the course of history, incorporated the Kingdom as part of a greater entity.
From Ancient Egypt and the Assyrian Empire to the Romans the Byzantines and the Crusaders, Jordan has been on the crossroads of history, and bears witness to countless incidents that have shaped the evolution of mankind.
Let’s also not forget the Nabateans, whose wonderful legacy includes the stunning city of Petra. Should you have plans to visit Jordan in future, T Weekly has for you a carefully planned itinerary to ensure your trip to the country will not just last long in your memory, but change your perspective of how our ancestors came to define who we are today.
Amman, the capital of Jordan, and home to Queen Alia International Airport, is 2,779 kilometres from Muscat. Several carriers fly between the two countries, including Oman’s national carrier, Oman Air.
Other Arab airlines, including Kuwait Airways, Gulf Air, Fly Dubai, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Air Arabia and Fly Emirates all operate flights between the two cities. Should you book through a travel agent, they will organise everything for you. Royal Jordanian, the kingdom’s flag carrier, also operates between Muscat and Amman.
You are of course welcome to road trip the entire journey, but it will take you 26 hours of continuous driving, through both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, until the Khatmat Ramlah border crossing is officially opened, and you may need visas to enter both countries.
Please note that based on your profession, most GCC residents do not need a visa to enter Jordan. Visas are provided on-arrival.
A brief history of Jordan
Several civilisation have left their imprint on Jordan. The Ancient Egyptians were the first, and enjoyed brisk trade with the tribes of the Jordan River between 2,000 and 3,000 BC. They were quickly followed by the Canaanites, before the patchwork of Jordanian Kingdoms that then existed were assimilated into the Assyrian Empire.
The Roman Empire and the Byzantines came next. The Nabateans, who developed the stunning Acropolis of Petra, became a client state of Rome, which expanded its influence in Jordan by building the Decapolis of ten cities.
Around AD700, Jordan became the staging point of the Crusades, after it was integrated into the Ummayad Caliphate, until the Ottoman Empire captured much of it in 1517.
After they were defeated during the First World War, Britain and France split Jordan and the surrounding regions under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which saw France occupy Syria and Lebanon, the British take over Palestine, Iraq and what would soon be called the Emirate of Transjordan. On 25th May, 1946, Jordan became an independent nation and was accepted as a member of the United Nations in 1955.
A must-see for all who visit Jordan, archaeologists and historians are still debating why the Nabateans decided to construct the famed city. The UNESCO World Heritage Site was believed to have been settled as early as 9,000 BC.
Half-built and half-carved into the mountainside, it’s hard to not have your excitement and anticipation rise with every step you take closer to the great city. Surrounded by mountains and canyons, entry to Petra takes place through a gorge called the Siq, a twisting, turning passage that was first carved by Mother Nature, and then expanded on by the Nabateans, whose works remain to this day, and features a fusion of Hellenistic architecture with Arab styles. They built Petra as a trading hub that enabled merchant caravans and vendors to seek respite from the fierce Arab sun, as well as trade goods with others who came to the city, given its close proximity to ancient trade routes.
Constructed wholly out of pink sandstone, the city consisted of a Greco-Roman style theatre, a forum, and a vast temple, today called the Great Temple of Petra. The most iconic structure of Petra – the pillared entrance with intricate carvings and statuettes – belongs to the Monastery of Al Deir.
In addition, there are several clusters of Royal Tombs, apartments carved into the mountainside, as well as canal systems to feed water into the mountainside city. Petra’s population at its peak numbered around 20,000 inhabitants, and after an earthquake in AD 363 destroyed many structured, a declining Petra was then lost to the outside world, until it was rediscovered in 1812 by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.
The Jordanian Government has taken many steps to ensure Petra is accessible to all. For a modest fee, guides will take you on horse-drawn carriages to and from the entrance of the Siq to the city proper. There are also camel and donkey rides available for children. Just make sure you pick one with a kind face.
Jordan and the surrounding region is considered to be the birthplace of three of the world’s biggest religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Mount Nebo, located some 37 km from Amman, is believed to be the resting place of Moses, a figure of legendary renown and influence across all three faiths.
It lies to the east of Jerusalem and Jericho, and to the south-east of Nablus. A complex atop Mount Nebo, which is a really fun climb, recalls the tales of Moses, and the manner in which his legacy is honoured today. At the very summit of the mountain is an airy building decorated with lovingly restored mosaics that tell the tale of how Moses came to be such an important figure, and denote the key moments of his life. Built from timber and concrete, with a white limestone finish, the building has been purposely designed to let in plenty of light and air. It is also where his remains are rumoured to lie, and it is not uncommon to see travellers from all parts of the world come to Mt Nebo to stand on the steps of history.
Pope John Paul II visited Mt Nebo in 2000, and planted an olive tree by the chapel, while Pope Benedict XVI visited it in 2009.
On our recent trip to Jordan, we came across a party of South Korean tourists, who seemed particularly taken by the stunning mosaics on the walls and ceilings, and were overawed by the sanctity of the place. They decided to honour Moses in their own special way, and chanted hymns in his name, and in doing so, revealed the true spirit behind the construction of the Moses Memorial.
The Dead Sea
Another of Jordan’s famed tourist destinations, what makes the Dead Sea so famous is that you’re able to float on it, no matter how hard you may try otherwise. Believe us, we tried.
The Dead Sea is one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water – it is 9.6 times as salty as the ocean – and has a salt concentration of about 31.5%. Anyone who visits Jordan simply must have a float in the Dead Sea (or should that be on it?)
But this is not the only reason the Dead Sea is famous. The black soil that is found within and around the sea is very well known for its healing and restorative properties, and the salty nature and high mineral content of the soil means many people use the earth around the sea to make skin treatments, poultices and herbal remedies.
The ancient Egyptians also used the asphalt produced within the Dead Sea to mummify their dead, and even today, underwater excavations of the sea have unearthed Neolithic statuettes that go back thousands of years. The Dead Sea is simply a must-visit for those who head to Jordan. Do not under any circumstance wash your face and/or eyes with the extremely salty water of the Dead Sea. Your eyes will sting and burn terribly, and will tear up for a long, long time, causing you extreme discomfort. Should you accidentally come into contact with the water of the Dead Sea, please wash it with tap or mineral water immediately.
We owe the Romans so much for our modern way of life, but most of what we know of them comes from books and the TV. Jordan has some of finest Roman ruins outside of Italy, and many of these are concentrated in Jerash.
Founded by the Romans as the ancient city of Gerasa as part of their 10-city Decapolis when they arrived in Jordan, Jerash is home to several Roman ruins, including Hadrian’s Arch, which was built to honour Emperor Hadrian when he came to Jordan, which was then named Arabia Petraea, as well as a stunning Roman-era temple, which features the signature columns that Greek and Roman architecture was so famous for, as well as the white marble and sandstone that was used to build so many of their structures.
Jerash also features a Roman Forum, where people used to meet to discuss their problems, with most of its columns still intact, as well as the Jerash nymphaeum, a monument built to announce the coming of springtime. The main thoroughfare of the ancient city of Gerasa, called the Cardo Maximus, also has many of its columns intact, and is definitely a must-see if you want to step into the realm of history.
The Jerash Festival for Culture and Arts takes place every year from 22 to 30 July, and is part of the Jordan Festival. Founded by Queen Noor in 1981, the festival honours the heritage and culture of the city and the history of Jordan.
The capital of Jordan, Amman is built on a series of hills, giving it the impression of a city built in layers. At the very top of the city are the ruins of its Forum Romanum, which were built during the time of the Roman Empire, as well as a museum dedicated to the various periods of history Jordan has witnessed.
The capital is also home to some of the oldest religious buildings in the Arab world, and is actually great to walk around, either by yourself or with some friends. Jordan is a relatively safe country, and most locals speak English so you should be okay. Jordan’s Roman-era Amphitheatre is also an iconic landmark visible from the peaks of the city.
If you’re the sort of person who likes going out at night, then Amman’s nightlife is definitely for you. Once you’ve spent the day browsing through the souqs of the capital, head to some of the nightclubs to watch how Jordanian youth blow off steam. Just ask your hotel concierges for the nearest nightclub, and he will not just point you in the right direction, but call a taxi to take you there as well.
Other places to see
While this is but a snapshot of what Jordan has to offer, there are many other places to see in the country. Wadi Rum in the South has been a famed location for the filming of many movies, with one of the first being Lawrence of Arabia, much of which was filmed in Wadi Rum.
Other films, including Red Planet, Passion in the Desert, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Prometheus, the Frankincense Trail, the Last Days on Mars, The Martian, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Aladdin, and the upcoming Star Wars Episode IX all have scenes shot in Wadi Rum.
In addition, Aqaba, Jordan’s only port city that lies on the Red Sea is also worth a visit, given that it has some of the oldest settlements in the Arabian Peninsula. Other places of value include the Crusader castles that dot the Jordanian hinterlands, and are definitely worth seeing.
1.) Don’t give the tour guides free rein
While tour guides will of course take you to all of the popular tourist places, it what they do between these trips that you must look out for. They often have personal arrangements with restaurant owners and shops, to ensure that you only go there to eat and buy souvenirs. Do not fall for this, because in exchange for greater foot traffic, these guides receive a portion of the purchases made in the shop, and you’re the one who ends up paying more for goods that are readily found elsewhere at cheaper rates.
The same goes for eateries, where a guide will take you to a place of his choice even if it does not serve food that is agreeable to you, just because he is likely to receive a cut there.
2.) Don’t give in to the tourist vendors
Most of the tourist sites in Jordan have vendors who will try to sell you many antiques, including maps, bookmarks, wooden carvings, bracelets and so many more knickknacks, please do not show interest, because once you do show even the slightest sign of keenness, they will needle you throughout your time at said site, and you might need to be a bit harsh to ask them to go.
Many of these areas have designated spaces for stalls where you can buy souvenirs, should you wish to.
3.) Don’t enter tourist traps
Many of the tourist shops sell more or less the same things – books, furniture, soaps, sweets and many of the other things you’d expect to buy. However, the mark-ups for these goods are extremely high, and you can easily get them cheaper at the souqs.
These goods are probably made for a fraction of the price at which they are sold, and you’ll end up spending through the nose should you indulge in a spot of retail therapy. It’s only natural to want to spend, given that you are on holiday, but resist the temptation to do so, given that you will find better goods if you look around a bit.
4.) Beware of pickpockets
There are – as is the case in any country – undesirable elements of society that tend of linger around tourist areas, because they know there are unfortunately going to be gullible foreigners. Given that most people are busy exploring these areas and taking photos with their family and friends, they are particularly vulnerable to pickpockets. Please therefore keep a close watch on all personal valuables. [email protected]