I am currently sitting in my hotel room right across the street from the entrance gates to PETRA. Even with the call to prayer playing through our windows, it’s hard to believe that I am literally steps away from one of the most incredible wonders of the world. The site is closed for the night; otherwise, I’d be out exploring. I’m itching to be staring up at the famous Treasury!
After breakfast this morning, we met Maher, our driver, who was with Ra’ed, our guide, in the lobby of the hotel. Everyone who has seen us so far has told us how incredible Ra’ed is as a guide, and they were not lying!! From the moment we met him, I could tell we were in very good hands. Maher pulled up our car out front of the hotel, and both men helped us load our luggage into the back, before setting off through Amman for the Citadel. Ra’ed explained that Amman was originally built over 7 hills, but has since spread and now covers countless other hills to accommodate the growing population of 3 million. He said that Amman used to feel like “a very big village”, but with all of Jordan’s “guests” (refugees) flooding its borders from Syria, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories, the city is growing and changing rapidly. This, he explained, is less to do with a mixing of cultures, and more to do with how crowded the actual city has become.
We noticed groups of students hanging around the streets, and Maher explained that today is a very important day for high school seniors in Jordan because it is the day that they receive their grades from a Secondary School Examination that will dictate where and what they can study after they graduate. Maher’s daugher, Assia, is among one of the students waiting for her results. Maher told us later that she achieved an 80, which she was very happy with. Ra’ed and Maher laughed a little to each other before explaining that there’s a very specific Jordanian tradition when students get their grades. Once they know how they did, students set off fireworks and shoot guns into the air in celebration, and the party goes on all night. It was definitely a good thing they warned us, because when we heard the gun shots later we didn’t have to worry! I personally think it’s a great tradition, and wish we celebrated that hard in Canada!
The Citadel is a famous site of Roman ruins set atop one of Amman’s many hills. Maher dropped us off right at the gates, and we got out to explore. The
citadel was built over 7,000 years ago, and displays traces of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, which has helped historians to understand the evolution of religion in the region. It is largely made up of Roman ruins, centring around a Roman temple that has mostly been destroyed. It is widely thought to be a temple for Hercules, as there used to be a giant statue in hishonour behind the temple; now all that remains is a hand and part of a leg. Continuing on, we visited what used to be a Grand Mosque, which means that along with being a place of prayer and worship, it also had a Madrasa (school), and some other community components. It was still very well in tact, unlike most of the other ruins, because it was restored several years ago with help from Spanish architects. Ra’ed explained that it was the Spanish who restored it because they are the masters of that type of architecture.
From there we visited a very modest museum that held some of the oldest artifacts I have ever seen, including the first ever recorded representations of the human form. For the most part, it was a fairly accurate representation of the human head sitting on top of a rectangle, but it was still pretty cool.
Next we visited the Roman Amphitheatre, which we had seen from above at the Citadel. Speaking of that, the views from the Citadel were absolutely incredible. Because Amman is built on hills, it sort of lays out the city so that you can see everything, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Anyways, we visited the citadel, which is one of the only remnants of Greek history in the region. You can tell that it’s Greek, we learned, because it’s build on the side of a hill. The Romans were more advanced, apparently, and knew about the magi of arches, so they could build their amphitheatres anywhere, but the Greek relied on using the sides of hills or mountains for theirs. This particular amphitheatre seats 6,000, and is the largest in the region. We climbed all the way to the top, and my thighs are still burning bit after those steep steps at the top! The views were worth it, though, and we could see all around the downtown area of Amman.
Before leaving the city, Maher drove us through the downtown area, which was really cool to see. The main street was at the lowest point in the valley between two hills, and was lined with all sorts of really cool shops, selling everything from flip-flops to car parts to candy, and everything in between. Little side streets wound off the main road, all leading up the hillside, getting steeper and steeper as they went.
As we drove South out of Amman, we talked about all sorts of things from what we had seen that day. Dad asked about the Dead Sea scrolls, which sparked a bit of a conversation about Israel, which was interesting to hear from the Jordanian perspective (though somewhat predictable). Ra’ed said that Arabs do believe that Israelites are the chosen people as long as they abide by a certain set of rules, but said that Israelis tend to argue that them being the chosen people is unconditional. In his mind, an Israelite is a descendant from Jacob, while an Israeli is the current name for people who live in Israel. He commented on how Israel refuses to let the Dead Sea scrolls, which are in their possession, be studied by scholars and historians, arguing that it is because they worry something will be found that undermines their historical claims to the region. More than anything, he stressed Judaism as a faith, saying that the race has fragmented, and that a Jew from Poland is probably less likely to be a descendant of Jacob than someone from Jordan or Syria, or another neighbouring country. Speaking of Syria, we drove by their embassy in Amman, which was surrounded by crowds of Syrian refugees waiting out in the rain to speak to a representative from the embassy. It was a sort of overwhelming sight to see. It’s really hard to imagine where they come from and what they’ve been through, but actually seeing Syrian refugees was big.
Madaba was really, really cool. Madaba is actually the name of a small city a little bit South of Amman, but what we think of when we hear it is the famousmap it represents: the oldest map of the Holy Land found to date. The map is in the form of a mosaic, which is a very common form of art in the region, but as been largely destroyed due to earthquakes and renovations of the St. George’s Church that it sits in. What remains is still a very recognizable representation of the Holy Land. The centre of the mosaic is set around the walled city of Jerusalem, and depicts Bethlehem, Jericho, the River Jordan, the Dead Sea, Mount Sinai, and everything in between! It’s really intricate and beautiful, and it drives me absolutely crazy that no one will ever know what the full thing looked like. St. George’s Church was very simple and humble, which, juxtaposed to one of the most important historical artifacts in the region, gave a very interesting feeling. Parts of the map were destroyed by earthquakes, but other parts, mainly human and animal representations in the piece, have been manually destroyed. Many people attribute this mutilation to the Muslims, because human and animal representation in art is strictly forbidden in Islam, but Ra’ed proposed another theory that also seemed likely to me. Not all the animals were destroyed; the fish and a small deer are still in tact. Ra’ed explained that there was a period in early Christianity called the “War on Images” where a Christian emperor ordered all images of humans and animals be destroyed in art. The reason that this theory is somewhat more likely is that the fish were not destroyed in the mosaic. Fish is a very important symbol representing Christianity. When Christians were being prosecuted in the Roman empire, they used the Greek work for “fish” to identify other Christians when they met people, , so it makes sense that it the whole thing would be of Christian doing.
We also visited a little bit of a tourist-trap shop where we were shown how they make mosaics. Normally I hate places like that, but this was a part of the Queen Noor Foundation, which is a really successful program put in place by Queen Noor to help include women in the economy on their own terms. I read about it in her autobiography, so it was really cool to see it put into work in real life!
Next we visited Mount Nebo. This was such a cool experience. Mount Nebo is said to be where Moses saw the Holy Land for the first time. At is said that God spoke to Moses and told him that this was the territory promised to this people, but because he had disobeyed the word of God, he was never allowed to enter it. It is also widely considered the death place of Moses, though no one knows where he was buried. Ra’ed pointed out all the different famous places that could be seen from the lookout, including Jericho, the River Jordan, the Dead Sea, and through the fog he promised there was Jerusalem. It was really incredible to be standing there looking out at so much history. Even disregarding all the religious history attributed to it, there is no denying that these sites hold incredible historical value. The most amazing part was that we had the cite entirely to ourselves! We’re here in off season, so everything is much emptier than it would be in the Spring or the Fall, but Ra’ed also said that Jordan Tourism has suffered immensely with the surrounding conflict. He said that we are his first tour of 2014, and that with the Syrian conflict up North, and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to the West, Jordan has seen so few tourists that the industry is really suffering. He told us that if he were to go to Canada and tell people to visit, it would do nothing because he lacks credibility. It is up to people like us, he said, to go back home and tell people that it is safe to travel in Jordan.
Once we were done on the mountain, we went to lunch at a traditional Jordanian restaurant. It was delicious. Ra’ed asked the servers to bring us some of Jordan’s famous bread with olive oil, and a special thyme mixture called Za-atar. You dip the bread in the olive oil and then dip that into the Za-atar, and it is absolutely amazing!! I couldn’t keep myself from eating it, and by the time our actual meal arrived, I was already almost full. This proved troublesome, as we were served with 15 different plates, all representing different traditional Jordanian cuisine. There was houmus, tabouleh, babaganoush, and endless different salads and spreads. The main courses consisted of this incredible meat dish that combined lamb, beef, and potatoes in this delicious sesame sauce, as well as roasted chicken in a traditional sauce. It was all so incredible, and I kept eating long after I was full.
After lunch, we headed down the Desert Highway to Petra! Dad mentioned that I am studying Arabic, so Maher took this opportunity to quiz me on the basics. I definitely lost my confidence and didn’t do as well as I’d hoped, but I managed to spit out the basics like where I’m from, what my name is, and where I am studying Arabic. Both Ra’ed and Maher said that I pronounce the letters very well, which was extremely comforting, because sometimes it’s hard to tell! I’m going to have to study up for our next car ride!
Dad and I are watching the Canada/Finland game right now, which is the first Olympic coverage we’ve come across so far. It’s going into over-time, which is absolutely terrifying, though it’s hard to focus on the game with students shooting guns and fireworks outside!