Dispatch, Jordan 3: Beyond Petra

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Travel Weekly's Kenneth Kiesnoski just completed a visit to Jordan. His third and final dispatch follows.

My brief but moving visit to Bethany Beyond the Jordan (the river) whetted my appetite for seeing more of Jordan (the country).

Ibrahim Osta, chief of party for USAID’s Siyaha Jordan Tourism Development Project II, kindly offered to supply me with guides and a driver for a full-day tour.

Although I longed to see Petra, the archaeological wonder that’s the country’s top tourist draw, I asked to see something a bit different.

When foreign travel writers turn their attention to Jordan, they most often write about Petra. And, since many Travel Weekly readers are already quite aware of the site and its magnetic charms, I declined Ibrahim’s offer of an excursion south to Petra.

So I asked to go against the grain and see attractions in the opposite direction, to the north. (What sacrifices I make in the interest of readers!)

The following morning in my hotel's lobby, I met two Siyaha employees, Maha Abdelrazeq and Samira Al-Majari, and our driver, Abdullah (I never did catch his family name).

The planned itinerary included stops at the "mosaic city" of Madaba, where USAID has been particularly active growing a tourism industry; the restored, re-imagined hilltop Citadel in capital city Amman (another USAID project); the pristine and remote Ajlun Forest Reserve; and the city of Jerash, which, thanks to a huge inventory of surviving Roman-era ruins, is said to be Jordan’s second most popular attraction.

Our actual itinerary, while hewing in general to the preordained order, played out slightly differently. My first stop actually turned out to be Mount Nebo, reputed burial place of the Hebrew prophet Moses. It was on the way to Madaba and I simply couldn’t pass up Maha’s offer of a quick stop.

Experiencing the breathtaking view of the Holy Land from its summit, as the Bible claims Moses himself did, was an amazing and inspiring way to start the day.

We hurried on to Madaba, a small city that is home to the 6th century A.D. Madaba Mosaic Map, said to be the oldest surviving cartographical depiction of the Holy Land.

Not surprisingly, Madaba was a mosaic-making center in ancient times, and residents are reclaiming that once-endangered heritage thanks to efforts, aided by USAID, such as the new Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration.

They’re also staking a new claim to some of Jordan’s growing tourism revenue by opening a slew of restaurants and hotels and revitalizing their shopping districts, positioning themselves as a new, conveniently located and relatively inexpensive base for Jordanian and foreign travelers.

I met with local hoteliers and restaurateurs, and we soon fell behind schedule when one kindly café owner – in typical, warm Jordanian style – insisted we partake of a quick Turkish coffee with him.

Then it was off to Amman – an ancient yet very contemporary city built, like Rome, on seven hills – to inspect the hilltop ruins of the Citadel and the new visitors center, signage and landscaping installed thanks to USAID.

We were so pressed for time that we didn’t stop for lunch. Instead, we wolfed down beef and chicken shawarma wraps in the car.

By the time I’d quickly walked the citadel, it was nigh 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I was still wiping bits of shawarma from my chin while marveling at the citadel's Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic ruins with Siyaha project coordinator Ruba Sayegh.

We made a beeline for Ajlun but soon realized that if we toured the forest preserve next, we’d miss out on the chance to tour Jerash with a private guide. Nurture beat out nature, and we chose Jerash’s manmade marvels over Ajlun’s wilderness wonders.

I was stunned by just how much ancient Roman-era Jerash survives in the middle of a modern-day city.

In today’s Rome, one finds bits of imperial antiquity scattered about – a Colosseum here, a Roman Forum there – but in Jerash, acres and acres of adjacent colonnades, temples and marketplaces abound.

For the first time in my life, my jaw actually, perceptibly dropped.

It was hard to tear myself away, but the sun was setting, a chilly winter breeze was kicking up and my hotel back at the Dead Sea beckoned.

As I drove away from Jerash, I marveled at how much more there is to Jordan that one iconic site. I’m told many Western tourists visit Petra mainly on day trips from Israel as part of Holy Land tours.

They’re missing a lot by not lingering and exploring further. Jordan is a standalone destination not in the making but already made.

I only wished had more time to explore.

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