Wonders of Jordan: A journey through history and culture

From the ancient ruins of Petra to the serene waters of the Jordan River, Sarah James' personal adventure in Jordan becomes a path for profound connection to heritage and history

When I first received the email advertising an excursion to Jordan, my father was seriously ill in hospital. After listening to my father talk about his travels there and how wonderful it had been, I had always wanted to go there.

He unfortunately passed away later that week, so when the remainder of the email arrived two weeks later, it seemed that Dad was telling me to go there and share his experiences. I replied immediately and paid my deposit to go, with visions of flowing robes blowing in the wind, desert scenery and archaeological ruins from films like Indiana Jones, Lawrence of Arabia and Rogue One passing through my mind.

The history of Jordan is fascinating, with the influence of Greece consistent throughout the millenniums. Bronze-age pottery found in Jordan matched those found in Greece and Cyprus. This added to my excitement about booking a place on AMACO’s ladies’ trip to view the sights of Jordan.

The Petra Tombs. Photo: Sarah James

The city named stone – Petra

When you think of Jordan, your mind automatically goes to Petra (the Greek word for stone), but there is so much more. On our first night, we went to the Citadel, which is on an L-shaped hill and gives you marvellous views of Amman (previously named Philadelphia by Ptolemy II Philadelphus after himself) and at sunset, you hear the haunting sound of the calls to prayers across the valley and see small flashing green lights from the minarets on the hills. Once the capital of Amman, it declined after the 7th century CE, although some structures from its long history remain. The temple of Hercules/ Herakles was predominant. However, much of the marble was used to build the Byzantine church, which was metres away. In perfect condition are the three fingers and elbow of what is thought to have been a twelve-metre tall, white stone statue of Hercules; how awe-inspiring it must have looked. A bride and groom were having wedding photos taken in the ruins just as the sun was setting, which was adorable. The city is Westernised, with women wandering around in fashionable clothes on evenings out unaccompanied, and if they wear head coverings, it is through their own choice. They are educated and professionally trained in the career of their choosing. This was such a lovely way to be introduced to the Middle East.

More of Jordanian life. Photo: Sarah James

We got up early the next day to visit Jerash and were warned to take lots of water as it gets scalding by midday; they weren’t exaggerating. The city of Jerash would have originally been about 200 acres in size, but only a tiny part has been excavated. Built by Romans, it shows the perfect meld of both cultures, the influence of the Hellenistic period being walkways of Corinthian pillars (at two heights to show that it is an important place) theatres, with Greek numbering, inscriptions and decorations and the main Forum for sacrificing animals, even the hippodrome resembles Olympia and the nymphaeum fountain (20 metres wide) would have had Aegean green marble on the bottom of the pillars and with the concave wall, the effect would have been breathtaking. There are temples named after Greek Gods, which were fashioned into Christian churches; during Byzantine times, the stone and the floor mosaics were often reused to build churches.

Jerash. Photo: Sarah James

We spent hours and only saw half of it, but you felt the atmosphere of past times there. Unfortunately, the heat was so intense that my fingers swelled and became so painfully large that they couldn’t even bend. It took about 1 hour for them to regain normal size, but it was well worth it.

Jordan dessert rom above. Photo: Sarah James

Unravelling the mysteries of Madaba and Mount Nebo

The towns of Madaba and Mount Nebo were visited next. The early Byzantine Greek orthodox church of Saint George houses the Madaba mosaic map, the oldest geographic floor in art history, and the oldest cartographic depiction of the holy land. It depicts Jerusalem and the surrounding areas in picture form. The then-new church of the Theotokos was dedicated in 542 CE. Even though only a portion remains, it is such an exciting sight, with all the directions and explanations in Greek still so clear and bright.

At the Citadel of Hercules. Photo: Sarah James

According to the bible, Moses climbed Mount Nebo when he was about 108 years old to view the promised land before his death (not long after this immense climb) and is meant to be buried there. The view from such a height is phenomenal; apparently, you can see Jerusalem on a clear day. There are many religious mosaics from Greek and Roman times, and a Byzantine church was built to protect the most intricate and meaningful ones. Pilgrims still visit and, if requested in advance, can hold a ceremony in the church; I was lucky enough to observe one while visiting. It becomes mesmerising, and I found it very emotional hearing the choir singing there; the acoustics are incredible. It was not until then that I grasped the enormity of the church.

The famous mural of Amman. Photo: Sarah James

Water is more precious than gold

To visit Petra, we again left very early with lots of water because of the afternoon heat and to miss the crowds. Walking along the incredible passage to the Treasury, through the natural canyon, past altars to the gods, and the constantly changing colour of the stone, the excitement naturally builds up on what lies ahead. When we finally arrived and viewed the Treasury, we were not disappointed with its Corinthian-style columns, facade and carvings of the twin Greek gods Castor and Pollux to protect travellers. The hue of the sandstone validated the name of Rose City.

Although the bellowing noise of camels and donkeys braying and loud kohl eye liner-wearing Bedouins was a surprise and added to the mystical feeling of the place, it reminded me of scenes from the Indiana Jones films! There is so much more.

Jordan from a hot air balloon. Photo: Sarah James

Suppose you keep walking past the smaller carved facades, amphitheatre, Bedouin market stalls and cave dwellings. In that case, you come to the Monastery, a mixture of Hellenistic and Nabatean architecture. It was used in the Byzantine period for Christian worship and is now a holy site for pilgrim visits. The Great Temple is a grand, monumental complex reached from the colonnaded street. It is still being determined what the complex was used for, but I was lucky to spend two hours on the archaeological dig, learning all the processes for sifting and cleaning some of the more miniature pottery finds and how to mix mortar for the excavated walls—another thing off my bucket list. The Royal tombs carved in the cliffs are well worth the strenuous steep walk to reach them, as the view of the whole valley from here is awe-inspiring.

The Citadel of Hercules temple. Photo: Sarah James

Liminal memories of Wadi Rum

We then had a couple of days of rest and fun in Wadi Rum, which started with us trying to get on camels for our hour-long ride to the glamping site. Our guides had a sense of humour, putting me (the smallest person) on the tallest camel, but once they got moving, I could see why they were called the ships of the desert, with the gentle rocking when they walked. Our guides sang traditional Arabic songs while we rode, which was so peaceful, and we took in the calming view of the surrounding desert.

Getting henna for the wedding. Photo: Sarah James

When we arrived, beautiful Middle Eastern rugs were laid across the sand for us to walk between our air-conditioned, woollen rug-covered cabins; we were then treated to “Mehndi”, henna painting on hands. Bedouin women were intimidatingly skilled, however it was so funny when they both got out their mobile phones to search for artwork for us to look at and choose from. We all hopped into jeeps at dusk, driving into the desert for the most amazing golden sunset, viewed through the high rocks and dunes.

Glamping in Jordan. Photo: Sarah James

The dawn balloon ride over Wadi Rum proved how cold the early mornings could be in the desert while viewing from high in the sky the spectacular mixture of rocks, different coloured sand and solar panel farms on the edges of the Rum. It was a perfect combination of nature and modern life. However, the highlight for me was seeing where they filmed Rogue One.

Sunset in Jordan. Photo: Sarah James

Visiting the river Jordan is a must. You pass two Greek Orthodox churches on the walk to the river, where you will also pass “Bethany Beyond the Jordan”, where Jesus was believed to be baptised and John the Baptist performed many of his ministries. The site also contains ruins of John the Baptist’s first church and other Roman and Byzantine remains. Israel is literally across the narrow river, although on both sides were armed guards with machine guns on jeeps to deter illegal immigrants. I was lucky enough to see a mass baptism on the Israeli side; the singing and the sense of happiness were infectious. Even if you are not particularly religious, it is an incredible feeling to be there, and you can’t help but walk into the water to feel part of the moving experience.

The fingers and elbow statue with Amman in the background. Photo: Sarah James

There is a vast amount to see in Jordan, including Little Petra, Mamluk castle, the crusader castle of Kerak, the Dead Sea, and the port of Aqaba to cruise the Red Sea, which I was lucky enough to visit, but also so many other places I didn’t get to see on my tour. It was a fantastic trip, which I will remember forever.

The happy couple photographer in Jordan. Photo: Sarah James