Besides being home to Petra (see post on Petra) Jordan has one of the world’s most beautiful deserts, Wadi Rum. It has a famed crusader castle (Kerak Castle). Jordan is the Christian site of the Baptism of Jesus (Bethany beyond the Jordan).
It is is one of the most progressive states in the middle east and one of the few Arab states to have cooperative relations with Israel (Peace Treaty in 1994). Sitting on the east bank of the Jordan River, it is defined by ancient monuments, nature reserves and seaside resorts (Dead Sea).
Jordan is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south and the east, Iraq to the north east, Syria to the north and Israel and Palestine to the west.
Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone – Jordanian proverb
Amman is one of the oldest cities on the planet, having witnessed human settlement as far back as the 13th century BC. It is the capital of Jordan (4 Million population) and the largest city in what is known as the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine). Its large size is partly due to the wave of refugees having come into the city; Palestinians in 1948 and 1967; Iraqis in 1990 and 2003; and Syrians since 2011.
Amman is Jordan’s economic, political and cultural center, a modernized city with excellent hotels and considered safe for tourism.
Kerak Castle is one of the largest Crusader Castles (built around 1140s) in the region and is located in al-karak, Jordan about 2 hours south of Amman.
Historical note on the crusades
The crusaders’ objectives involved recovering the Holy Land from Islamic rule.
From 1092, the Middle East disintegrated due to the deaths of several Islamic leaders and something akin to what the historian Carole Hillenbrand describes as “the fall of the iron curtain”.
The division that resulted lay fertile ground for the crusades that followed.
Although the “recovering of the Holy Land from Islamic rule” occurred between 1096 and 1271, there were other crusader campaigns in history, such as the ones to combat paganism and to resolve conflicts amongst catholic groups.
The Franks, the instrumental group during the crusades, were initially a group of Germanic tribes on the edge of the Roman Empire who converted to Catholicism during the 5th an 6th centuries.
They later became successors to the old rulers of the Western Roman Empire. Their name became synonymous with western european christians and crusaders.
The Franks’ architecture took advantage of the natural topography, by using plateaus and steep hills on which to build their fortifications. This type of castle was called a ‘spur’ castle and the Kerak Castle fits into this model. They also blended western and eastern architectural techniques to create the most impressive medieval structures. As the Muslim threat grew in the twelfth century, the crusaders updated their castle designs to prioritize defensive elements.
Wadi Rum is a spectacularly red place, a desert in the south of Jordan. Although considered barren, it is populated by 130 animal species and 120 bird species, including geckos, eagles, and camels.
There are over 160 species of plants, with hibernating desert plants springing out of the sand when it rains, changing the landscape from red to green. Whereas most people only see the goats and camels, in the early morning the foxes and Arabian cats’ footprints can often be seen in the sand around the Bedouin campsites, having rummaged for food overnight.
This desert has been inhabited by many cultures since prehistoric times, recent Archaeological evidence shows habitation in the area at least as early as 4500 BC. The site is believed to have been inhabited prior to Petra. The Nabateans (see post on the Nabateans), inhabited the area from around the 6th and 4th centuries BC and many left their mark in the form of petroglyphs, inscriptions, and temples.
In the 8th and 6th centuries BC, the area was known as Wadi Iram. It is not surprising that with the fresh water springs, the caravans traveling between Arabia and the Levant stopped here. Furthermore, inscriptions show that the Bedouin tribes of Ad, Thamud, Lihyan and Main all gathered here. The Bedouin remained and today, the village of Wadi Rum itself consists of several hundred Bedouin inhabitants with their goat-hair tents and concrete houses. They have availed themselves of such modern trappings as four-wheel vehicles.
In the West, Wadi Rum may be best known for its connection with British officer and archaeologist, T.E. Lawrence and his biography “Lawrence of Arabia”. He was renowned for his role in the Arab Revolt of 1917 and the Sinai and Palestine campaign against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
Lawrence was not only renowned because the breadth and variety of his activities and associations but also his ability to describe them vividly in writing, thereby earning him international fame. His contribution to the area was recognized in the 1980s when one of the rock formations in Wadi Rum was renamed “the seven pillars of wisdom”, a term found in Lawrence’s autobiographical accounts of the aftermath of the Arab revolt.
In 1962 David Lean arrived here to film his world renowned “Lawrence of Arabia”, winning seven Academy Awards and revealing this dramatic landscape to the western world. According to UNESCO, Wadi Rum is the world’s most iconic desert landscape and besides “Lawrence of Arabia”, it has been the location of at least 20 other films.
The area is centered on the main valley of Wadi Rum. The highest elevation in Jordan is Jabal Umm ad Dami at 1,840 m (6,040 ft) high, located 30 kilometres south of Wadi Rum village.
Room and Board in a Bedouin Camp
In order to fully enjoy the desert, you have to be here when the sun sets and rises, making an overnight stay a must if you want to experience the variations in the sounds, sights and colours. The only real option is a bedouin camp.
The tent was very basic (understatement) with a small bed, blanket, a candle and bottled water. The bathroom facilities were behind the tents in an outdoor, contained space, a common area with one sink and one toilet above ground (not a squatter).
Dinner preparation at the camp was very interesting. There were traditional “zarbs” or holes dug in the sand. A metal oven casing was then fit into the hole. A fire was lit at the bottom of the metal casing. In traditional Bedouin cooking, no metal casing is used, the food is wrapped in palm leaves and placed directly on top of the fire in the sand hole.
Our chef started the fire at the bottom of the casing and waited for only the embers of coal to remain. Once the fire was ready, a multi layer rack full of meat on one rack and delicious looking vegetables on another was wrapped in foil and placed inside the casing on top of the fire. Sand was then used to completely cover everything. After a few hours, the sand was removed and the wrapped rack was pulled out of the casing. The food was completely cooked and ready to serve. We ate inside the main tent sitting on built in benches covered with blankets. The meal included chicken, potatoes, carrots and onions. There were also side dishes of rice, hummus, mutabal and salad. We could recognize sage and thyme but many other spices were used. Of course, the dinner was not complete without a cup of Bedouin tea.
Petroglyphs are drawings of humans and animals that are made by pecking directly on the rock surface using a stone chisel and a hammerstone. When the desert varnish (or patina) on the surface of the rock is chipped off, the lighter rock underneath is exposed, creating the petroglyph.
The petroglyphs and inscriptions demonstrate to us that human presence in the area goes back to 12,000 years. They tell us stories about the history and evolution of human activity in the Arabian Peninsula. With 25,000 petroglyphs and 20,000 inscriptions, mostly in ancient non-arabic alphabet, it is one of the reasons for UNESCO to put Wadi Rum desert on the World Heritage List.
The images denote human figures holding bows and arrows, animals like camels, ibex and horses alongside the humans and then lines and circles in the same area. Some have concluded that these must be messages left by people for one another.
More than 25,000 petroglyphs, 20,000 inscriptions, and 154 archaeological sites have been discovered within Wadi Rum, tracing the evolution of human thought and the early development of the alphabet.
Along the Jordan River
Bethany Beyond the Jordan
The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist is a New Testament milestone. The location where this occurred has been identified as the shortest point across the Jordan River between Jordan and Israel, the place of John the Baptist’s Ministry. The area is full of remains of several churches, baptismal pools and water circulation system that dates back to the Roman and Byzantine periods. The excavations which began in 1996 have only reinforced the belief that this was the place cited in John’s gospel below:
John answered them, ‘I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.’ This took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee added the archaeological complex at Al-Maghtas (baptism or immersion) to its world heritage list.
Prior to 1996, excavations were not possible due to the fact that part of the site was a minefield. The 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel prepared the way for access by archaeologists and church officials.
Jordanian authorities maintain the site and have built a new road, a visitors’ centre and walkways, and in spite of the fact that the site receives a large volume of visitors every year, it has not been trivialized by trinket sellers and advertisements. The shelter structures and visitor rest areas are simply built, using local materials.
Several Christian denominations have built churches near the site, the most prominent being the gold-domed Greek Orthodox Church of St John the Baptist.
Mondisti’s Jordan Trip Tips:
- Jordan is one of the safest and most tourist friendly Muslim countries.
- If time is limited, after a tour of Petra, the Bethany beyond the Jordan is a very interesting site, with or without religious purposes.
- Kerak Castle is a good specimen for a crusader castle but if time is short, it can be eliminated.
- Wadi Rum is a place that must be experienced and a stay at a Bedouin camp is very memorable. One night is all that is required, unless you are a photographer.
- As always, a knowledgeable guide is indispensable.