Around the Middle East
in 80 days

February 25th to May 14th, 2004

Part 10:

Jordan - Jerash, Kerak & Petra

<< Part 9: The West Bank    -    Back to Index    -    Part 11: Jordan bis >>       


April 2nd (day 38): Jerash

Jerusalem to Jordan

I'd wanted to go to Jordan the day before but had appropriately fooled myself into leaving too late and was forced to stay in Jerusalem for another day. This time I wasn't takign chances: I woke up at 6am and took a taxi to the border, accompanied by a Canadian from my hostel called Matthew.

We were among the first at the border so we didn't have to wait long. Along the way we'd been raving about the Israeli border girls to each other and they didn't disappoint. One turned out to be half-Canadian or something and started flirting with Matthew, lucky guy.

When we arrived in Amman Matthew headed to a hotel, while I immediately started looking for a bus to Jerash. I wanted to make up for the lost day by heading to Jerash, visiting it and getting back to Amman all on this same day I came from Jerusalem. When the bus came it was already overcrowded, but I pushed myself and all my luggage into it anyway; I was in a hurry.

Jerash

Jerash is a beautifully preserved Roman city. It rose to prominence during hellenistic times and became one of the cities of the Decapolis after Pompey's conquest of the region in 64BC. It reached its peak in the early 3rd century AD but then started a long decline that was completed by the Persian and Muslim invasions of the 7th century.

After a longish walk from the bus stop in the modern city of Jerash, I arrived at the site with all my luggage and started looking for a place to get rid of it. As soon as I stepped into the visitors' centre, a clerk there came to me and asked "do you want to store your luggage?" Aaaaah I was really glad to be back in the friendly Arab world. It's strange sicne Israel is much more like Europe, but it felt like coming home; home now being my journey.

When we'd stored my backpack in a secure room I walked out, then decided I needed to go to a bathroom and went back into the visitors' center. The same guy was still there and now asked "you want to use bathroom?" - he was obviously psychic!

I spent an hour or four wandering around the site. I'd already had my fill of Roman cities in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon, but the last one (Bosra in Syria) had been 14 days ago now and I enjoyed Jerash with a fresh mind.
The Temple of Artemis, the city's patron deity, was the most imposing building of ancient Jerash.
From the temple I headed back south through the fields towards the southern theater.

Back to Amman

I'd made sure to finish my visit by 5pm because that's when the last bus back to Amman would leave. So it was rather painful to learn from some locals near the deserted bus stop that during my stay in Israel, Jordan had switched to summer time and it was now in fact already 6pm.

Of course taxi drivers were attracted like moths to the light by my situation and offered to drive me back to Amman for an exorbitant prize. At first both they and the locals assured me that there was no other way to get back to Amman, but as usual being stubborn and and patient brought a better solution; in the end they stopped a van for me which drove me back.

I'd already visited Amman on my way from Syria to Israel (cfr. part 6) so I was only interested in a bed. I checked into the Cliff Hotel this time, which a Japanese guy in Jerusalem had told me is the gathering place for backpackers heading to Iraq, and indeed Iraq was the main topic of conversation there.

I wonder if there are still backpackers heading to Baghdad now with all the beheadings. In any case I'd already decided not to go a few weeks before, when two Finnish guys were killed by insurgents just because they were foreign. After the war Iraq had initially been relatively safe to travel to since the insurgents were only targetting American soldiers; you only really had to worry about being robbed. Oh well, another time.


April 3rd (day 39): Kerak

So I'd managed to save a day by visiting Jerash on the same day I went from Jerusalem to Amman, and now I wanted to save another day by visiting Kerak in the middle of Jordan and getting to my next destination, the Dana nature reserve in the south of Jordan, on this one day. According to the owner of the Cliff Hotel in Amman this would not be possible since it was a saturday and there would be no public transport to that remote a place, but I decided to give it a try anyway and see where I'd end up.

Krak des Moabites

Kerak was a crusader town and is still dominated by its castle, the Krak des Moabites. I saw 8 crusader castles in total on this trip, and this was the second most impressive one after the unmatched Krak des Chevaliers in Syria.

Getting to Kerak was easy enough. Once there I left my backpack in a restaurant near the castle - which obliged me to eat there later on but it seemed good enough - and explored the castle for two hours.
Like the other Krak, this castle has an outer wall and an inner wall (at least on the west), so it's a castle around a castle really.
The view to the west is the most spectacular one. You're supposed to be able to see the Dead Sea in the distance but I didn't.
The inner castle seems to be in ruins, but its long underground corridors and catacombs were actually mostly intact and a lot of fun to explore.

On to Dana

So now for the difficult part: getting to the Dana nature reserve. For this you have to travel south along the King's Highway, which is an attraction in itself because it traverses a spectacular mountainous desert landscape, but is hardly used by public transport. Despite it being saturday I found a bus going south to Tafilah though, which was half the way I needed to go already. I was the only passenger.

It was a long, slow, bumpy ride through the mountains but with such a view it was great. These pics were taken through the window.
In Tafilah I found a small bus going further south to Al-Qadisya, this time with other passengers. How's this for couleur locale?
I arrived in Al-Qadisya in the dark. From there it was still a couple of kilometres over a small mountain road to Dana village at the edge of the nature reserve. I set out on foot with a Jordanian who was heading there too. It was cold and totally dark, but fortunately the owner of the hotel I was heading to (Dana Tower Hotel, one of only two in the village) happened to drive by us just after we set out and gave us a lift - mission accomplished!

By 8pm I was sitting in the hotel with a warm meal and planning a big hike through the nature reserve for the next day. On the roof of the hotel a big room had been built which was supposed to resemble a Bedouin tent. I didn't notice that until they told me, but in any case it was fun to spend the evening there with the other guests and the hotel owner Nabil.

The guests included three American ladies who worked as English teachers in Saudi Arabia and were on a week's vacation. They'd been to Kerak too that day (with private transport) and had spotted me making those "alien" pictures in the castle's catacombs, so they thought I was really weird :) There was also a Hungarian couple, he an ornitologist and she a geologist, there to study the birds and rocks of Dana. I was proud to tell them I'd recently met their president in Beirut :)

Later in the evening Nabil's friend, a retired soldier with a limp leg, came by and started dancing on a song called "Alush". Nabil was totally crazy about this song and repeated it all evening. Now I'd already heard this song a thousand times while I was in Syria (was a monster hit there), so this really drove me crazy.


April 4th-6th (days 40-42): Petra

From Dana to Petra

On the 40th day of my 80 day trip (but I didn't know I was halfway then coz I didn't have a return ticket), I woke up in Dana at 7am. It was freezing cold. The plan was that the hotel owner Nabil would drive me to the start of the canyon Wadi Ghuweir, the most spectacular part of the nature reserve. I'd hike through it all day, spend the night in the tent of a Beduin family at the other end of the reserve (Nabil had arranged this) and hike back through the main valley the next day.

It was a beautiful plan, so I woke up full of anticipation, and also a little nervous about making this trip alone. Nabil was going to lend me a hiking book (written by an Israeli friend of his) that described the route, but I'd heard that it might involve some swimming (!) and some difficult scrambling down. Well, I didn't get to do it, because as I discovered soon after waking up it had started raining and that made the trip impossible; the rain would cause flash floods through the canyon.

The other guests were going to make a walk through the main valley, but since it was cold and misty I didn't feel like doing that at all. I decided to just forget about Dana and head straight on to Petra, expecting this to be a wasted day. Nabil kindly drove me to the bus stop in Al-Qadisya and helped me find a minibus to Ma'an, the traffic hub of southern Jordan.

In Ma'an I quickly found a bus to Petra, so I arrived there at 11:30 already. Meanwhile the weather had cleared up, so I checked into a hotel immediately. walked directly to the entrance of the ancient city, took some time for lunch, and by 12:30 started my first forray into Petra, with the sun now shining brightly! What can I say, this day which had started so miserably turned around completely and became the most amazing of my trip (touristically speaking), because Petra turned out to be the single most beautiful place I've ever been to!

Looking back, it's amazing how fast I'd been traveling - I entered Petra only two days after I'd left Jerusalem, having been to Jerash, Amman, Kerak and Dana along the way.

About Petra

The ancient city of Petra was founded by the Nabataeans, an Arabic tribe that settled here in the 6th century BC. They carved the city into the sandstone rocks and got wealthy by controlling the trade route into Arabia from here. Pompey failed to capture the city, which was naturally protected by ravines and rocks, but the Romans finally took it in 106AD .

By the time of the muslim invasion in the 7th century, Petra had lost its importance. After a short stay by the crusaders who built a fortress here, it became a forgotten city, known only to the local Bedouin tribes who kept it secret. It wasn't until 1812 that it was rediscovered by the rest of the world.

Nowadays Petra is a big nature reserve, and a big tourist trap as well. Fortunately the tourists are all concentrated in the historic city, while the real highlights of Petra are the fantastic rocks and canyons that you can hike through for days.

I spent the rest of this first day and all of the next day exploring the ancient city and its immediate surroundings, and on the third day I walked through it again on my way to Jebel Haroun (Mount Aaron). I'll present the pictures place by place rather than day by day.

The Siq

The main entrance to Petra is through the Siq, a 1.2 km long gorge created by tectonic forces. In most places it is only 5 to 10m wide while its walls rise up to 200m high. Add to that the colourfulness and the sometimes crazy patterns of the rocks and you get an incredible sight. I was immediately awestruck, and this was just the beginning!

The Treasury

Near the end of the Siq you suddenly stumble upon Petra's most famous monument: the Treasury.
The Treasury is actually the rock-carved tomb of a Nabataean king, but got its name from a legend that pirates hid their treasure in here. It was constructed somewhere between 200BC and 100 AD.

The Altar (Al-Madbah)

The first walk I made from Petra brought me to an ancient place of sacrifice up in the mountains that is simply called the Altar. It took a while before I found the start of the trail near the Roman theatre, but I was rewarded with stunning views.
I saw rocks in many amazing colours in Petra, but the most amazing one of all I passed on the way down from the Altar. This rock looked like living meat, it was incredible.

More rock tombs

Petra has hundreds of ancient rock-carved tombs, many of them monumental in size and design. The Treasury (shown above) and the Monastery (shown below) are the most famous ones because they've been beautifully preserved and restaurated, but there are many more like them.

Wadi Al-Mudhlim

On my second day in Petra I did not enter through the Siq, but through a long narrow canyon called Al-Mudhlim. I was accompanied by a New-Zealander called Mark from my hotel. At two points we had to make a big jump, so it was useful to have someone to help with the backpacks, but it's easy enough to do it alone too.

Though not as high as the Siq, I found the Wadi Al-Mudhlim even more impressive because it is so narrow and incredibly colourful. Little light reached the bottom of the canyon this early in the morning though, so the pictures don't do it justice.

Climbing Jebel Umm al-Amr

After our walk through the canyon Mark and I climbed Jebel Umm al-Amr, which is shown in the first picture from the Altar. It took a long time before we found the start of the trail, but the climb itself was simple enough. Along the way we got a great view on the Roman theatre.
Once on top of the rock we walked on until we got a spectacular view on the Treasury.

The Monastery

After having lunch above the Treasury, Mark and I parted ways as we both wanted to go to a place the other had already seen the day before. I made the long walk to the Monastery, Petra's second most famous monument. To get there you have to climb up a mountain path between hundreds of sweating tourists for about an hour, but it's well worth it and you get great views along the way.
The Monastery dates from the 3rd century BC and is a whopping 45 meter high. Though similar in design and even bigger than the Treasury, I found it less impressive because it is not as exquisite and well-proportioned.
If you walk on a little beyond the Monastery you end up on top of a cliff and are rewarded with some stunning views.
Now I'd brought photocopies of a book about hiking in Petra, and it said you could descend from the cliffs here, so I set out to do just that. However the route description in the book turned out to be completely useless, and after half an hour I found myself completely off the trail (if there even is one) and doing ever more dangerous things to push on. It was getting late and the descent just seemed to be getting more dangerous ahead, so I gave up and climbed back up, much frustrated.

Around Petra

While I was sitting in the Roman theatre near the evening, a herd of sheep walked in on one end, walked all around the highest section of the theatre and exited at the other end, all without any human guiding them. They all jumped across an opening between the seats right in front of me, an incredibly cute sight.
I`ve avoided getting it on my pictures, but Petra is a big tourist trap full of souvenir vendors who continuously harass you. It's not quite as bad as Egypt, but not much better either. What particularly annoyed me was that all the vendors - mostly Bedouin women - used the same stupid trick: all day long they would shout "happy hour, everything half price". Those of them who didn't know any English had picked up on it too and just shouted "happy hour" at you all the time - truely idiotic.

Near the exit through the Siq there was a big tent where they were making and selling the famous glass bottles with layers of sand in different colours. It's amazing what patterns they manage to make with just sand. The big bottle in the left of the picture gives you an idea. The black shapes (usually camels) are painted on the inside of the bottles with ink though.

Hotel Valentine

I must say something about the hotel I stayed in for three nights, because it was the most enjoyable one of my trip. It is run by a young Italian woman called Valentine and her Jordanian husband, and specifically intended for backpackers. There are dorms for about 40 guests in total. Since everyone hung out in the common rooms and on the terrace, where a great warm buffet was served every evening (with plenty of choice for veggies too!), I got to know a lot of people and generally had a great time sharing stories, playing cards etc. Highly recommended! And incredibly cheap too at about 3 euro per night and 3 euro per dinner.


April 6th (day 42): Mount Aaron (Jebel Haroun)

On my third day in Petra I didn't pay much attention to Petra itself anymore, but just rushed through it on my way to Mount Aaron (Jebel Haroun in Arabic) at the other side of Petra.

Mount Aaron is the mountain which Aaron, the brother of Mozes and the high priest of the jews, climbed at God's command to die, being 123 years old. At least, it is assumed to be the Mount Hor of that bible story (Numbers 20:23-29). The christians built a church near the summit in the 7th century, and in the 14th century the muslims built a little mosque on the very top.

I didn't care much for all that, I just wanted to go up because it's the highest mountain in the region and I read that the view is spectacular. Until not so long ago the Bedouins only allowed muslims to go up but luckily that has changed.

I had little time because I'd agreed to head back to Dana at 5pm with an Englishman from my hotel, but I took the challenge of getting to the top and back in time. I set out from the hotel at 8am at a nice pace and was in the middle of Petra by 8:45. Walking on to the temple of Dushara and beyond I left Petra at the far side, where I found some rock tombs that are still inhabited by Bedouins. Beyond that I was all alone in a gorgeous landscape for most of the rest of the day.

At 9:30 I got a first look at Jebel Haroun, and I could make out a tiny white spot on top of it: the mosque I was heading for.
I'd already marched for one and a half hour at this point and figured I'd need several more hours to get to that little white spot on top of that mountain, so I rushed on at a crazy pace. Having walked many kilometres a day for the past 42 days I was in excellent shape by now and I really enjoyed the exercise.

It turned out I completely misjudged the distance and needn't have hurried though. Despite not finding the path and making a huge detour, I'd arrive at the mosque at 11:15, only 1h40 after making the above picture. I challenge anyone to do better ;)
I had photocopies from the hiking in Jordan book that described the route, but once again it proved to be completely worthless. I didn't find any path going up, and as you can see from the last picture the mountain didn't exactly invite me to find my own way up. So I stayed on the big path that goes around the mountain, climbing up and down the hills around it.

I was starting to get disappointed and got more and more worried that I'd already missed the path to the top and wouldn't get there. When I'd walked all around the mountain I ended up in a completely different landscape with a peculiar light green colour; it was lovely.
I knew for a fact now that I'd missed the path to the top, but I kept walking on, and a bit further I was very fortunate to run into a Bedouin women with a donkey, the first person I saw since leaving Petra. She didn't speak a word of English, and when I explained with signs that I was trying to get to the top she just pointed up at a rock that looked completely unclimbable. She kept insisting though, so I kept looking for a way up that rock.

Then I was very lucky again, because just then I saw a guy coming down a bit further, leading a horseby his hand. I went to where he came down and there I finally found a way up.
I stress how lucky I was because that evening I told someone in my hotel, who wanted to climb Jebel Haroun the next day, how I'd missed the path and where I'd found the other one, and he still didn't find it and just spent a whole day walking in the plain looking for a way up. That guy was also from Antwerp btw, he was the only Belgian backpacker I met on the whole trip, and it was the first time since I'd left home that I could speak Flemish with someone; felt good!

So I walked up that path with renewed energy. After a while I lost it again, but now the rock was climbable enough and I had a great time finding my own way up. Along the way I suddenly thought I was going crazy because I thought I saw a smurf!
Actually, the day before while climbing up to the Monastery there'd been a crowd watching a guy who was almost breaking his neck to get a picture of a lizzard just like this one, without success coz it kept running away before he could get near. I approached this one very cautiously and got a pretty good shot of it without breaking my neck.

After scrambling up for half an hour or so I ended up on a wide plateau. There were two peaks ahead of me; the mosque was on the furthest one.
I walked on and then was greeted by a very friendly Jordanian policeman on a horse. He spoke fluent English and accompanied me for a while, telling me that there was also a Finnish archeology student there working in the ruins of the Byzantian church. He offered to show it to me, and then offered to go up to the top with me to unlock the mosque, but when I hesitated he guessed I'd rather enjoy the view alone and didn't insist; very nice guy.

There are narrow stairs to the top hewn in the rock and they're much needed because it's a very steep climb. At 11:20, 3h20 after setting out from my hotel, I was finally on top of Jebel Haroun! The mosque turned out to be very small, which is probably why I misjudged the distance.
I stayed on top of Jebel Haroun for one and a half hour, all alone, enjoying the most beautiful mountain scenery I have ever seen. Since Jebel Haroun is the highest mountain in the Petra region, you can view very far in all directions. It was a gorgeous view all around, and I couldn't get enough of it. The pictures below show most of it, clockwise.



Breath-taking, huh?

...

TAKE A BREATH NOW!


Okay we can go on.

I had lunch on the roof of the mosque (there were stairs going up) and then got out the mini-tripod to make some pictures of myself. I also made a 360 degree panoramic movie up there, walking around the roof. I may post that later.
At 1pm I started the climb down.
Back on the plateau I met the policeman again. He told me he'd seen a few other people climbing up and galopped off to meet them. That guy obviously liked his job.

I completely forget from which direction I'd come up the plateau, so I just found myself a new way down, which was great fun again. Ironically, about halfway down I stumbled upon the path on the south of the mountain that I'd missed in the morning.
Back in the plain I just wandered around in the general direction of Petra without bothering with paths, since I had plenty of time.
When I got near Petra I passed the rock tombs that are still inhabited by Bedouins, and got some pictures.
I made one last walk through Petra on my way back.

These had been an amazing three days. There are plenty more hikes you can make through the Petra region, including some that take several days, so I wouldn't mind going back there some day. As I already said above, it's the most beautiful place I've ever been to.


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Godsmurf Tue 24 Feb 2009 @ 11:55
About equally funny I'd say. And I have no problem with anyone calling my clothes funny. Still, it's hard to beat men who wear women's shoes and put plastic bags over their big black hats when it rains. But there can never be too much funny-ness in the world so bless 'em.

Marvin Tue 17 Feb 2009 @ 15:02
You keep mentioning the "funny" clothes that religious Jews wear throughout your writings of the Israeli portion of your trip. Are they as funny as the strange copies of middle eastern attire that Catholic priests; nuns; and the Pope wear?
You look strange as well wearing funny European clothes.

My suggestion look in a mirror before you comment on others.

Flylice Tue 10 Jul 2007 @ 09:17
Alright, thanks for helping me waste 3 hrs at work...but anyway great travelog! I'm going to Syria & Jordan in august, but only have 3 weeks :(

Silvia Thu 29 Jun 2006 @ 04:13
I just love your website. It's excellent. Didn't read everything, but great pics.

Godsmurf Mon 10 Apr 2006 @ 13:41
I wouldn't recommend it, based on what a German girl who lived in Damascus told me (cfr the last paragraph of part 5), but on the LP forums I often see female solo-travelers who say they had no problems.

Ira Sun 09 Apr 2006 @ 20:58
Nice pics...very interesting.
Is it safe for a single woman to travel to Syria? Do we have to wear head scarf too?

Zoltan Fri 07 Apr 2006 @ 17:15
Hi Godsmurf!

Excellent site;I spent hours to read Your comments and check out the photos.
Good Job!

zeituni Sun 02 Apr 2006 @ 12:29
Hi again!

According to my sister(who until recently lived in East Jerusalem), there are quite a few Christians living in the old quarter and other parts of Jerusalem. However, they might not use the churches most commonly visited by tourists. When I was there there was also a grand celebration taking place at the convent of St Mary Magdalene and the neighbouring Greek Orthodox convent. There were hardly anyone but Palestinians there, admitedly, some of them were from areas like Bethlehem or Beit'Jallah.

I know I'm not bringing firm statistics to back up this, but that was her notion and my impression as well.

Anyway, just a comment!

Still a very great travelogue! And on point on the Israeli border personnel!

Godsmurf Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 22:05
Thank you! If you have any questions feel free to ask, my mail is linked at the bottom of each page.

Vedica Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 09:17
i love your travelogue!!....it is amazingly interesting!
Am planning a trip to middle east myself (around July - yes i know itll be hot) and your site has been an EXCELLENT guide and resource! thanks for sharing!

cathleen Tue 28 Mar 2006 @ 08:36
great writeing and photos you really have a talent at breaking things down e.i. the formation of the isreali state etc. very objective

Godsmurf Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 23:04
Thanx for the compliments, glad to have readers :)

Well I'm not sure (I said they're *probably* not christians) but firstly I don't think I ever saw a Palestinian in any of Jerusalem's churches, and secondly I sensed humour instead of devotion in the way they were selling christian souvenirs. But I could be wrong of course. Am I?

zeituni Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 08:25
Fantastic travelogue! Are you writing a book?

One question however; why do you assume the Palestinians in the Christian quarter are not actually Christians?

hasof_TT Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 00:11
Great trip report. Was going to just scan, but got intrigued and am reading it word for word. Thanks for sharing!


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