Sunday 24 April
I endured a very early start to catch the morning train south to Damascus. A short walk along darkened streets under a bright moon brought me to the station to begin the rigmarole of purchasing a domestic train ticket. First, you need to have your luggage scanned to enter station at all; then queue up for a ticket, only to be told that you need to go to identity registration desk; having queued for this desk, a man who can only type with one finger and who appears to have no knowledge of how a passport is laid out inputs your details very slowly into a computer with one finger; then you head back to the ticket desk to have passport checked
again and a ticket issued, including a laborious scraping around for change; then to the ticket check at the door to the platform where a uniformed official takes your passport and leads you back to a desk of plain clothes officials in the main hall with a very big picture of president, presumably the security services. These gentlemen flick through your passport and then the uniformed official leads you back through the mêlée around the platform entrance and points you to your coach. One more official needs to have a quick glance at ticket and passport before you can be granted admission to the platform and then, with one bound, you are free. Arriving 30mins before departure barely gave me time to catch the train. A genuinely impressive bureaucratic effort, and yours for just £3.11 1st class Aleppo-Damascus.
The train was almost full, even in first class, with – at a rough estimate – a 95% male clientele – the Syrian business sector who made up most of the customers clearly remains heavily male dominated.
Dawn had broken very quickly by the time we pulled out southwards, but an early morning mist still lingered in the fertile valley as we left the suburbs of flat topped apartment buildings, their roofs forested with satellite dishes. Even the cement works looked romantic, looming out of this mist. We experienced a long wait in a loop waiting for the sleeper from Damascus as the sun rose over a blossoming almond grove.
After a lengthy run through flat wheat fields, after Abu ad Duhur the train climbed to a strange, boulder strewn plateau. In places, these boulders had been collected to form walls, in a manner similar to the Burren, in western Ireland. Herds of straggly sheep, often indistinguishable from the boulders in the morning light, grazed the limited grass, overlooked by shepherds – and sometimes by dogs too, who made their displeasure at the train’s presence very clear. We continued across the plateau until eventually descending once again into well-watered lowlands around Hama.
A trip to the smoky buffet car found them out of everything except water. Given they were only supposed to sell coffee, tea and water, that’s quite some achievement. We ran through thick mist to Homs, one of the centres of disturbances over the previous few days. The line skirts the edge of the city and calls at a junction station some 2 kilometres out. From what little could be seen, Homs at 8am seemed quiet but normal – buses running, a handful of taxis on the streets, railway employees at work in the large freight yards. At the station a handful of people joined and left, and what looked like new posters of the President were in every window of the station buildings.
It is hard to say where, precisely, after Homs the desert begins. But slowly and surely the vegetation cover thins further, the orchards become less frequent, the herds of goat-like sheep cluster around more sporadic bushes. Eventually, orchards and sheep petered out altogether, leaving a gently rolling landscape of bare earth and scattered low shrubs.
Beyond the junction at Mahin vegetation became scarcer still and the line ran southwards between two ranges of bare mountains; Jabal Sharqiyat and Jabal Ru’us, on whose slopes the interplay of light and cloud shadow picked out the slightest details of topography, even from some miles away. Quicker than it had appeared, the desert disappeared as we approached Damascus, replaced with field of wheat and grass stretching as far as the eye could see, and even interspersed with a few trees.
The line curved around the Damascus hinterland to approach the city from the south, passing such sights as a one-eighth sized leaning tower of Pisa dwarfed by a 40 foot high tea pot. This struck me as an odd choice of priorities for height. We pulled in to the suburban terminus of the line alongside the rusting narrow guage tracks of the Hejaz railway, which could once have carried me south to Amman and beyond, and past tented nomads tending sheep amongst piles of rubbish.
The taxi driver who attached himself to me at the railway station claimed no such thing as a bus to Amman from the Sumriyeh bus station, though this may have been an attempt to get me to use his friend’s shared taxi for significantly more money and in much less comfort instead. Like pretty much everyone else I had met in Syria, he had an uncle or cousin living in England, though unlike someone yesterday, he didn’t try to convince me that Durham was in Yorkshire. The original plan was to conduct a quick sight-seeing dash into town once ticket had been obtained, but so far out was the bus station (it felt like it was almost halfway to Beirut) that the idea quickly palled in attraction, especially as the BBC was reporting that Syrian security forces had forced the cancellation of the traditional Easter Sunday parades in Damascus’ Old Town for ‘unspecified reasons’.
I began to think my taxi driver might have been right regarding buses, presented as I was
on arrival at Sumriyeh with a vast car park of shared minibuses, all labelled in Arabic script only. Buying a pide to cut pangs of hunger, the dignified old bus station manager insisted I enjoy it on his comfy chair in the sun, whilst I tried to ignore the man being pretty vigorously frisked by plain clothes officers round the corner of his office. The manager then pointed out that there was an international terminal with coaches hidden at the back of the shared taxi station behind a security checkpoint. This provided a pretty dismal and semi-deserted booking hall, with an hour to hide out of the increasingly hot sun and read.
The coach left at 2:30pm – left in this case is an approximate term, meaning to move 10 yards to the exit of the bus station in order for police to come on board to write passport numbers against the passenger manifest. One policeman wore an ostentatiously large al-Assad badge, the design of which looked like the President was either presiding over a blood-soaked Syria or was bleeding from the head. Neither, I would have thought, good images. Having spent 20 minutes winding through narrow back streets we then picked up more passengers at the bus company’s own depot – which turned out, annoyingly, to be practically next to the railway station. On the way out of town, it was noticeable that a number of exits from the highway into some of the Damascus suburbs had been blocked off with oil drums, presided over by armed troops.
As we cleared the Damascene sprawl, the snow capped Golan Heights, out of place in bright sunlight and 28 degree heat, loomed large on the western horizon. Where the motorway crossed into Deraa province, the heart of the uprising, a tank regiment was stationed by the side of the road. A group of soldiers were running a checkpoint: one of them made to pull the coach over, but appeared to be dissuaded by his comrade who sat in the shade of the tree by which his tank was parked. Beyond here, every turning had armed checkpoints, yet life appeared to be going on reasonably normally on this black volcanic boulder strewn plain. It is now clear that these were the military preparations for an all-out assault on Deraa which began the next morning.
The border process was immensely slow with around four stages to each side including the unloading of all luggage twice at the insistence of customs officials, it not being checked by anyone and then reloaded. The Syrians required a S£500 departure tax to be paid at a little hut round the corner from the main immigration hall. It was clear the Syrian immigration officials had no idea where Cobanbey, the arrival point from Gaziantep, was, and it seemed jolly, welcoming man might get in some trouble for not having issued me with the requisite arrival form. Half an hour and quarter of a mile further on, the Jordanians wanted 20d for a visa, issued in their very smart (by comparison with Syria’s worn out edifice) immigration office under numerous pictures of King Abdullah II, who seemed to have fewer poses than President al-Assad. Almost immediately, the historic British influence in Jordan became clear through the very British-style uniforms, cap-badges and berets of the Jordanian army. Five hours later, the Syrians closed this crossing, so they could conduct operations in Deraa – a couple of miles away – without prying eyes. I had timed my exit perfectly.
Within ten minutes of entering Jordan we had past the first field of camels and their brightly dressed Bedouin herders, and the tell-tale signs of the desert re-commencing had apppeared. These quickly transformed into a vast sandy desert with which the landscapes I had seen in Syria could not compete for sheer spectacular emptiness – though the effect of a sweeping view across miles of empty desert from one hilltop was spoilt moments later by the emergence of a vast cement works from behind a spur, twinkling like a Star Wars city. We passed tented encampments, flocks of sheep and goats, plus a kneeling camel or two, gathered round as darkness fell, which it did with one of those almost clichéd layered red and pink sunsets for which the desert is renowned. Before long – as travel was fast on this smooth, empty highway – the lights of Amman appeared ahead, spread over its many hills.
By an unusual stroke of luck, in a sprawling city with a thousand bus terminating points, I had booked a hotel just a short walk uphill from the Champion bus company offices. Not that the hopeless guide book maps didn’t prevent me from getting completely lost by locating the hotel on the wrong block. Fortunately, this was a lovely neighbourhood for a slightly bewildered evening stroll – Jebel Al-Lweibdeh is a prosperous inner suburb consisting almost entirely of fabulous 1920s art nouveau villas with gracious curves and pleasant gardens. Much of it wouldn’t have looked out of place in southwest London (although it felt much less so in the morning light thanks to the bright coloured stone in which they were built). Nevertheless, the falafel sandwich was almost certainly superior to that available on New Malden high street – curried cauliflower in particular was a fine addition. My hotel was housed in one of these villas – a little run down, but with vast rooms and some of the original fittings still in place. Once again, I was allocated room 101, which oddly contained 3 single beds. I resisted the urge to chop and change between them.
Monday 25 April
I was awoken by mix of muezzins, what sounded like an ice cream van, and church bells – al-Lwidebh had retained something of a Christian community, whose Catholic church I later stumbled across. The mystery of the ice cream van was also later solved when I came across the source of the jingle – a truck selling gas canisters…
I wandered through the suburb, past the Institute Culturel Francais’ adopted Parc de Paris (where they pumping in the croissant smell for authenticity?) to the contemporary arts institute at Darat al-Funun, a group of villas set in lovely hillside gardens, whose shady garden cafe quickly became my favourite spot in Amman. The interesting range of installations housed in the villas included a video demonstration of the use of hard Turkish bread as a percussion instrument. It might not catch on just yet.
Heading into Downtown, I was struck by how much I ought to dislike Amman, yet how pleasant it actually was – the ingredients were wrong: a new city, in a culture with no heritage of cities, with a lot of traffic, poor pavements, dusty, in a hot climate. Yet somehow the strengths overcame those weaknesses: a gentle breeze keeping the edge off the heat, the fantastic pale yellow stone, making even the worst constructed block look pleasant and adding genuine distinction to pre-War buildings. Then there is the fascination of the city’s topography – views across the valleys to the houses and apartments spreading up the hill opposite, expanses of open sky, sudden unexpected vistas of landmarks such as the pillars of the Temple of Hercules. The hills added a third dimension
to navigation: to follow the roads would inevitably take you a very long way round to your destination – so instead you take one of the many staircases: the trick is to work out which of the unlabelled stairways go through to the next level and which stop halfway up at the door of a house.
In search of a map, I found that in Books@Café, Amman has a better English language bookshop than many good-sized British towns. It also has a very pleasant café, though I remain perplexed by why, when asking for a second coffee, the waiter responded by asking if I owned a car. In a largely dry country, have the Jordanians adopted a caffeine-based drink-drive limit instead?
I walked into the centre of downtown to find the crumbling remain of a Roman Nympaeneum tucked amongst busy fruit and vegetable market – aubergines and vine leaves featuring heavily amongst the stalls. Amman had relatively recently started running formal bus routes – with astonishing stupidity one of these has been routed through the chaotic middle of the market – timekeeping on this route must be abysmal. The most spectacular sight in Downtown without question was the remarkable Roman amphitheatre, the third on the trip and definitely the finest.
Constructed into the hillside and immensely steeply raked with astonishing acoustics that could amplify a whisper from the centre of the stage so it could be heard on the top tier of seats. Well polished marble steps led to the top. I am by no means given to vertigo, but so steep was the raking that from the top tier I felt decidedly queasy, and a little Tiggerish: excellent at climbing trees, it’s just the coming down which is a bit tricky. The museum at the base of the theatre housed some superb 6th Century mosaics – I was particularly taken with a guilty looking guinea fowl.
On my way up to the hill top citadel I stopped at one of the many fresh juice stalls for a lemon juice – in the time it took me to drink it, the junior assistant decided to resign, with much dramatic chucking down of aprons. The citadel hill has been the basis of settlement here for centuries, with each successive civilisation simply chucking the remains of the last lot off the top – apparently the hill sides are very rich archaeologically in debris as a result of all this chucking. Roman remains now dominate, including the twin columns of the Temple of Hercules, reset upright in 1989. As I wandered the site, avoiding the shepherded groups of French and German tourists and considering how much
the topography of the city below resembled that of Edinburgh, surrealy, a pair of uniformed Jordanian soldiers began playing Scotland The Brave on bagpipe and drums – remarkably well – indeed, far better than the usual Princes’ Street caterwauling. Considering what their counterparts in the Syrian Army were up to that day less than 100 miles up the road in Deera, this struck me as a wholly honourable use for members of the armed forces (by the time you read this, no doubt the Jordanian Army will also have been implicated in the brutal crushing of an uprising, in which case the above will read rather callously).
I walked back along the delightfully name al-Rainbow Street, which also turned out to be a very pleasant strolling location, full of coffee houses in a very young neighbourhood. This part of the city adhered very strongly to the clustering of businesses that the Middle East seems to go for: in this case an entire street of pet shops and vets. Dinner was at the excellent Wild Jordan Cafe, in the offices and information centre of Royal Society for Conservation of Nature, with the cafe sourcing organic food from the Society’s reserves. From its terrace there are fantastic views across to the Temple of Hercules on the other side of the valley. Put simply, this was a great place for a vegetarian who might have reached temporarily their falafel tolerance limit… Later in the evening, I noticed a hijab wearing woman dining alone there and realised what a unusual sight that was.
In the taxi home, I was asked the usual question as to my nationality: “Ah, English. You are like bit older Prince William.” Given I am two months his junior, one Amman taxi driver went without a tip that night.
Tuesday 26 April
Having spent most of yesterday being honked at by vacant taxis, in the morning I inevitably had to walk almost an entire block to flag one down to get me to the South bus station out in the suburbs. The drive took us through the ministry quarter, over a strikingly curved and very new motorway viaduct above a house-filled valley and into the blocky suburbs, the roadsides lined with stalls selling huge watermelons. I had expected a minibus for the run to Karak, but was directed by taxi driver to full sized coach, whose interior hadn’t seen a broom for a couple of years. It seemed to be full almost entirely of students, who saw off the conductor’s half-hearted attempt to charge me 5 denar rather than 2 – or as he put it to one young lady who was insistent it was 2 denar , “Stop speaking English, young lady.” In fact, when he came round for fares, he seemed to have decided it was only 1.80 denar anyway… Whilst more comfy than a minibus, a coaches’ key drawback was that it operated on the same principle – it left when full, and this inevitably took some while. This is, I hope, not a concept that will be adopted by the Transport Minister who pontificated that subsidised buses and trains should not be in the business of ‘carting around fresh air’, though it certainly prevents it! Somehow, gender numbers panned out correctly so that the no men next to women convention was observed, and we set off, quickly grinding to a halt in an Amman traffic jam, which mysteriously cleared itself as quickly as it had occurred. Eventually we were out on to the southbound Desert Highway, passing the ‘Center for American Doors’ and, much less interestingly, the airport.
After Al-Jizah, the desert began, belts of coniferous trees planted to attempt to prevent its onward spread. Eventually these petered out and we were left with nothing but the rolling sands, a companionable pylon line and the occasional highway-side mosque – and in an isolated valley – a euphemistically named Penitentiary and Rehabilitation Centre, handily located next to an army garrison, built in appalling mock-castelated style. At occasional road junctions, a handful of people would stand patiently in the tin bus shelters, often looking more in hope than expectation of a bus to their destination appearing.
At Al-Qatranah we left the Desert Highway and headed west across a landscape that was, if anything, still emptier. The occasional dry wadi hosted a couple of nomadic tents and an attendant flock of goats. Then, suddenly, for the last 10 miles onto Karak, an unseen system of irrigation had turned the desert into a semi-productive land of weak arable crops.
The bus looped round to the huge university campus in Al Mazar, where it practically emptied, then terminated at a busy suburban crossroads leaving me with a slightly hair-raising taxi ride to Karak’s castle square. Taking the guide book’s warning as to the basic level of accommodation carefully, I got a room at the Tower Hotel. Yes, the room had certainly seen better days, but the welcome was friendly and the view from the room’s veranda (for some value of basic, you see) was astounding. A long curving valley cut through village-studded hills, with patches of vegetation marking the springs, down to the lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea, sitting placidly far below. Beyond the Sea rose the mist-coloured hills of the Occupied West Bank, bringing home just how small scale the geography of these disputed lands is.
The Crusader castle, clearly a popular stopping off point on the Amman-Petra tourist trail, judging by the steady rhythm of arriving and departing air-conditioned coaches, stood on the hilltop beside the hotel, the town – still within the footprint of its largely disappeared walls, sloping away beneath it, thus providing itself with that same view to the Dead Sea as well as into the other wadis surrounding the town. Whilst heavily ruined, the hilltop site was full of a complex series of levels of passageways, tunnels, chambers and galleries which could be explored freely, often picking your way through almost pitch blackness. The shafts of sunlight which shone through into the subterranean rooms gave the whole place an oddly ethereal air. Easiest job in Jordan seemed to have been assigned to the, mainly female, regiment of tourist police guarding the site, whose main task appeared to be cooing over the young children of Dutch tourists. The highest point of the remains of the keep gave the sort of 360 degree panorama it is hard to tear yourself away from, new details constantly attracting attention, perhaps most spectacularly the pair of kestrels circling far below.
The rest of Karak was unexceptional, but a lively and notably friendly place, particularly in the evening when roving groups of children would call “Hello” and immediately descend into fits of giggles, which only got worse when I responded with “Assalaamu alaykoom”. This was clearly the market centre for the region, centred on a modest equestrian statue of Saladin, commemorating his unsuccessful and later successful sieges of the castle. The most striking thing, wandering around the town and encouraging the local merchants by splitting my purchases of provisions as much a possible, was the number of shops which consisted simply of cages of live chickens for sale, stacked 6 or 7 high, clearly headed for their imminent doom. In one such shop, a stray ginger cat sat under such a high-rise of tasty cat treats with remarkable nonchalance.
Eating a picnic on my veranda as the sun dropped below the hills was a fantastic experience – the sky fading from deepest blue right over head to pale blue above the hills, then stratas of red and pink above the Dead Sea. Lights in the scattered villages of the valley twinkled on, followed swiftly by the call to prayer from half a dozen minarets, but which sounded like a dozen thanks to the echoing properties of the valley. This was shortly followed by the sounds of outdoor socialising across the valley as families emerged from mosques. A quick pop out for a cup of tea at a cafe in the castle square became several cups of tea, followed by a bottle of mineral water, all forced on me per gratis and for nothing by the charming proprietor. Thankfully by this stage I had learnt the Arabic touching of the hand to your heart action to signify deep gratitude!
One final glance down the valley after nightfall revealed a new facet of the view provided by darkness: the lights of Jerusalem seeping over the horizon beyond the Dead Sea. What such a sight mean to a Jordanian, seeing a city which until 1967 was largely part of their own country gleaming on your horizon, I can only try to imagine.
Wednesday 27 April
After stopping laughing at my pronunciation of the town’s name, locals at all four of Karak’s bus stations/informal street corners at which minibuses wait denied all existence of such a creature as a bus to Tafilleh, the assertions of guide book and hotel proprietor notwithstanding, so a taxi was located that was prepare to take me right through to the National Park at Dana. Fortunately the driver quickly found two Jordanians who wanted to head to Tafilleh as well, so the cost was cut somewhat. We headed south on the King’s Highway through awe-inspiring desert mountain scenery, looping around vast, deep wadis scattered with Bedouin encampments. The young driver undertook some remarkable demonstrations of how to drive on twisting mountain roads whilst simultaneously making mobile phone calls and eating a biscuit. South of Taffileh, he was clearly out of his comfort zone and stopped every passing car and truck for directions to Dana, evidently distrusting each one. Fortunately, there were few cars on this road, otherwise progress might have been very slow!
Eventually he dropped me at the National Park reception, somewhere he’d clearly never been either as he dashed off to admire the remarkable view. This turned out to be at the wrong end of the park for my guesthouse, and the national park staff kindly procured me a minibus to take me on to Dana village. As we picked our way down the hair pin curves to the village below, a tortoise ambled slowly across the road, disinterested in on-coming traffic.
The welcome at Dana Hotel was very warm, a series of basic rooms in a picturesque old courtyard. The whole enterprise was run as a co-operative with profits being ploughed back into local training opportunities and paying for young people to go though university. Slowly, the National Park and local community-owned businesses were restoring what had been a near derelict village in Dana slowly being brought back to life, using sustainable eco-tourism to replace ecosystem-destroying large scale grazing of goats, sheep and camels. It would all be very ‘Big Society’, if it wasn’t for the politically-incorrect pump priming of these projects by the state. On this particular afternoon, the hotel was dominated by a large group of Slovenian tourists who seemed determined to break every cultural norm possible in a Muslim country.
An afternoon wander into Qadisiyyeh, the nearest town, allowed full appreciation of the situation of Dana village, perched on the edge of dizzying drop down into Wadi Dana, a deep dry gorge whose floor dropped gently towards the Wadi Araba, exposed rocky cliffs on either side and sparse vegetation breaking up the dusty floor. Dana itself was surrounded by fertile terraced gardens, watered by a handful of permanent springs. Qadisiyyeh is a dusty main road villagein which I arrived at school exit time – clearly today’s curriculum had been ‘What is your name?’ in English, as six year olds had ascertained my identity about thirty times by the time I’d reached the end of the town, with several insisting that I should take their photographs. The local man with a minivan kindly gave me a lift to the nearest cashpoint and back, pointing out on the way the large herd of camels kept by the local Bedouin.
Returning to Dana, I found a spot on the edge of the drop for dinner, beginning to appreciate the immense silence of the place – something you could almost sink in to. It seemed like there were almost tiers of silence – the top few could be disturbed by a few noises: the gentle chime of goat’s bells, the shepherd playing his reed pipe in the valley below, a cuckoo echoing around the escarpments. But beneath that, undisturbed, was an emptiness of sound which is almost unknown in western Europe. Between that view and that silence, a few flatbreads on the edge of Dana turned out to be one of the finest picnics ever. As night fell, the goats could be seen slowly making their way back up the hill, their donkey-riding shepherd and his dogs only offering gentle encouragement. The cuckoo was replaced by the nightjar and down in the plain beyond the end of the Wadi, small towns – invisible in the day in the haze – became distant puddles of light in the darkness. Jordanian or Israeli, the towns looked quite alike in the darkness. Alas, there was no sunset, as the sun sank into a bank of dusty haze, causing the pure black night to fall very swiftly.
Thursday 28 April
The next day was spent slowly wandering the dry wadi floor – paying my entrance fee at the RSCN guesthouse (I was erroneously charged the student rate without asking – was it because I was now at the bottom of my rucksack and was wearing my Fibchester Student Union* t-shirt?) and then descending a seemingly never-ending series of rocky hairpins down the valley side to the floor below. It was only the end of April, yet there was already practically no sign of water, barring a couple of muddy puddles in a particularly verdant side valley. Nevertheless, there were patches of colour from oleander bushes in the dry river
bed and the thorn trees were in full leaf. Down here was a remarkable, almost primary and timeless environment, dominated by the dramatically eroded rock faces on either side. Every now and again I would stop for 30 minutes or so to let the lizards, insects and birds become accustomed to my presence. The aridness of the landscape had in no way prevented the development of a very rich ecosystem. Sadly, the last leopard was seen here in 1989, but caracal still haunt these heights, as do a handful of rock hyraxes.
I had passed the goat herd on the way down and exchanged salaams with the shepherd. At each stop, I would slowly become aware after a while of a vanguard of glossy goats working their way through the vegetation along the valley, followed by the remainder of the herd. This seemed a very democratic form of shepherding – the goats seemed to know that they worked down the valley in the morning and back up in the afternoon. The shepherd, with his donkey and pair of lean, fox-like dogs would simply follow at a distance, keeping an eye on any stragglers.
Sitting under a tree watching the goat herd, I turned to see that the sky to the west had turned a sickly dark grey. A few spots of rain began to fall and the temperature had turned decidedly sticky. With the portents pointing to a thunderstorm and mindful of the potential for flash flooding in desert areas, I left the bed
of the wadi and began the return along the path I had followed that morning. In fact, the few raindrops that actually fell had no effect other than to heighten the scents of the herbs growing along the valley floor, and as quickly as it had covered over, the sky cleared to produce the hottest part of the day yet, inevitably just as I was commencing on the hairpin ascent to Dana. Distraction from the ascent came in the form of 5 griffon vultures circling in the thermals above the northern cliff face. Whilst tough, the ascent if anything seemed shorter than the descent had, when the stony surface had made for very slow going. Sooner than I expected I was back amongst the terraced gardens and drawing level with the ruined houses on the edge of Dana. Nevertheless, it was a sticky me who dived for a cold shower on arrival. This evening there was something of a sunset to be enjoyed from the roof of the hotel over endless cups of tea. Slightly surreally, this was accompanied by a discussion with a fellow party member over the comparative merits of the 2010 intake of MPs. Never has this been discussed in a more beautiful setting.
As darkness fell I returned for the final time to my favourite view point on the edge of the village. The sky having cleared, tonight I had the fantastic, uninterrupted view of the stars and Milky Way I’d hoped for in such a spot: drama was added to the scene by the flashes of an electrical storm to the north west, silhouetting the hills with bright blue flashes. Despite the distance (the thunder was inaudible), the storm was clearly upsetting the village dogs and donkeys, whose combined barking and braying drowned out the muezzin. Whilst it stayed very windy all night, the storm itself clearly passed well to the north of Dana.
*: For those who are not members of the select band of ex-student union executive officers, Fibchester is the fake student union which you run as part of the NUS’ training course on the responsibilities of charity trustees. T-shirts are provided.
Friday 29 April
Having reassured myself that public transport availability on a Friday in rural areas really was as woeful as the guide books made out, I negotiated myself a minibus ride at an acceptable price to Wadi Musa – as usual, en route we became an unofficial bus service which lowered the cost a little further. It was a beautiful early morning drive across the high plains, past a vast army training camp guarded by an armoured Humvee – this was clearly a military that takes its carbon footprint seriously! The driver had a very keen sense of the geometry of the road – which is a euphemistic way of saying that he took the shortest route around every corner, regardless of road markings or the blindness of the bend. Assisted by this approach to driving, we were at Wadi Musa within an hour.
Somewhere like Petra deserves a better gateway than somewhere like Wadi Musa, but it isn’t getting it. An unremarkable, sprawling small town of relocated Bedouin whose sole purpose is to process, and extract cash from, the 3000 tourists a day in high season who pass through. Other than some fantastic views across the mountains around and beyond Petra, the town’s sole distinguishing feature is the fact that, unusually, the wadi runs right through the middle of it, partially filled with lush gardens and palm trees. The walk down to the Petra entrance gate took me through the town’s informal goat market round the back of the bus station, with large numbers of the creatures arriving in the back of pick-up trucks to be poked, prodded and inspected.
It is strongly recommendable to read plenty about the wonders of Petra before you arrive at the entrance gate, else the entrance prices might make you catch the next minibus back out. At 50 denar for a day ticket (slightly softened at 55 denar for 2 days) – that is pushing the £50 mark – there can be few heritage sights in the world topping this for cost. Quite simply, crowd control – and recouping the cost of upkeep for a vast site – is the order of the day. Just don’t visit on a day trip from outside Jordan, else you will find yourself being charged 90d. The long-threatened thunder storm finally struck as I was handing over my wadge of notes. The sky had turned a very dark shade of grey and thunder rolled across the hills, bringing with it huge raindrops. Within 2 minutes these had evolved into sizeable hailstones, shaking the metal cabins currently housing the ticket sellers. Then within 2 minutes the sky had cleared again and I was through the gateway, outpacing the large group of Italian tourists and the horseride hustlers. There is a veritable small zoo’s-worth of animals serving Petra. The horses, camels and many of the donkeys are there to carry – or pull – tourists, but donkeys are also very much beasts of burden. Every trinket stall – and there are plenty – has its attendant donkey who has carried the goods in that morning, quietly waiting or snoozing for the return trip; for most of the site there is simply no road access. So many animals are there that there is an English-run veterinary hospital for them in Wadi Musa.
So much has been written about Petra that it is hard to know what any description could add. It is utterly unique in scale, in scope and in the relationship between the built and natural environments. So many of its buildings and edifices have been awarded historically misleading names based on Bedouin myths (mainly based around the Pharonic pursuit of the Israelites), yet no such myth-making is necessary: the real history of the city, insofar as we know it, is remarkable enough. It isn’t rose red (that undersells the variety of colour) and it isn’t half as old as time, but no matter.
The first kilometre from the gateway gives little feel of what is to come, yet would be remarkable enough in any other context. In the acres of exposed white rock on either side of the wide path are carved tombs, enlarged caves, ‘God blocks’. Then, without warning, the broad path ends and you turn sharply and descend into
a fissure in the rock face – this is the Siq, the most astonishing entrance to any city, living or dead. For 2km you cut through the heart of the mountain in a gorge that varies in width between 2 and 10 foot, passing from patches of bright sunlight into dark gloom, the weathered rocks above you shaped into graceful, interlocking forms, the colours of the reddish tinged sandstone changing with the shifting light. This is a completely natural pathway – the result of tectonic activity, but has been adapted by subsequent civilisations: the Nabatean channel that brought the city’s water supply is almost wholly in place along the left hand side of the Siq, as are sections of the Roman paving. The curving path of the fissure meant that it was easy to suddenly find yourself alone, dwarfed by the scale of the walls which closed in on either side, the only sound the scrunch of your footsteps in the sand echoing around you.
The pictures of the sudden appearance of the Treasury facade as you round the last couple of bends of the Siq are clichés from a thousand guide books and brochures, but this does not serve to diminish the actual power of the moments – the first glimpses of disconnected sections of classical architecture seen between the walls of the Siq, then the sudden full impact of the scale and power of the facade as you enter the open space in front of it – and then the realisation that it is really little more than a facade – a 1st century BC film set. The
space in front remains, as it would have been in Petra’s heyday, a place of trade and the meeting of nationalities. So what if the bartering is now for camel rides and the meeting of nationalities is now Italians tutting at French taking too long over petting the tourist police horses and getting in the way of their photo?
I walked on, through the broad Outer Siq, the cliff faces lined with facades of tombs, houses and temples, which became gradually more and more grand as you approach the spectacular East Cliff facades. In one of the temple interiors, a German tourist was testing the echoes by playing the Ode to Joy rather loudly on portable speakers. I responded in part by wandering out whistling the theme from Lawrence of Arabia. Beyond the East Cliff, the horizons opened up to reveal an astonishing desert landscape with tombs and houses hewn from every cliff face, in front
of which lay the sparse remains of the ancient town centre, where a solitary pistachio tree bloomed amongst the low ruins.
I began the climb up the numerous flights of steps to the Monastery, in the early stages plagued by young boys offering me a donkey ride to the top, though to give them their due their patter was good – “Air conditioned taxi?”, they asked, gesturing at their steeds. Whilst the climb was long, it was easy enough, except where the two-thousand year steps had been worn out of shape by
the traffic of feet and hooves. The exertion was worth it for the astonishing scale of the Monastery facade, the red sandstone picking up the sun’s rays. Beyond it, outcrops could be scaled to give vast views across the whole Petra region and the mountains beyond.
The return to Wadi Musa, via the Treasury and the Siq was undertaken in the afternoon light, which made for a completely different experience, the hues of the rock now changed beyond recognition, different shadows picking up different details of the carvings. In Wadi Musa, I made the mistake of walking to the hotel rather than taking a taxi in the late afternoon heat – the climb was far tougher than anything I had come across within Petra, and the state in which I arrived at the reception caused the manager enough concern for him to immediately rustle up a glass of mango juice.
That evening, eating in Wadi Musa as soon as the waiter discovered I was English, he immediately launched into paeans of praise for that day’s royal wedding, which he had watched three hours of on television. He was entirely convinced that the honeymoon would be taking place in Petra, and wanted to discuss, at length, the wonders of Princess Diana. Neither I, nor the couple of Belgian republicans who made up his audience, were hugely impressed by this. Nor were the Belgians hugely impressed by my question of whether a country so famously incapable of electing a government could cope with a presidency as well. On returning to the hotel, the manager was in the lounge being brusquely advised by a very well spoken English consultant on how he should upscale his hotel. I feared this would be the last time I would stay there for just £30 a night, especially if Wadi Musa’s inhabitants were right about the royal honeymoon.
Saturday 30 April
I made an early start to take advantage of the morning cool for a day wandering off the main trail and to some of Petra’s highest places. My well-laid plans were quickly derailed at the top of the Siq where a tourist policeman waved me away from tunnel through to Wadi Mataha, politely but firmly explaining that late rains meant the route was still blocked with pools which could contain water snakes. Instead I walked down the Siq again, which proved to be still more
atmospheric before the tour parties arrive. Like all the best books, the ending – arriving in front of the Treasury – is still a surprise even when you know it’s coming. Beyond the Treasury, I almost immediately diverted off the main trail to climb impressively engineered steps – cut through solid rock – to the High Place of Sacrifice. Despite there being little there – a rock platform on top of a mountain, with a clear altar and various other small stone edifices, this turned out to be perhaps the most evocative place in Petra – perhaps it was the commanding 360 degree views across the Petran townscape and mountains, or the human scale of the monuments and their (possibly) dark purpose – though no evidence of human sacrifice has ever emerged. Regardless, the High Place of Sacrifice was a genuinely haunting location – even when shared with a grumpy party of French geriatrics. It was also a fine introduction to the remarkable Nabatean way of building obelisks:
“We’d like a 15m tall obelisk built on top of that mountain over there. It’s for, you know, god stuff.”
“Yeah, no problems mate. We’ve been building obelisks all over the place. All the rage. Last year it was sacrificial altars, this year: obelisks. Anyway, 15m you say? What we’ll do, like, is take 15m off the top of the mountain and just leave you with your obelisk. Simple.”
“Really? I mean, can’t you just, you know, construct an obelisk on top of the existing mountain?”
“You should have said it was a cowboy job you wanted doing, mate. Yeah, no end of dodgy geezers down Little Petra who’ll just knock you up an obelisk any old how. Palestinians, most of ’em, if you know what I mean. Mind you, can’t even talk about immigration these days without being called a racialist. Nah, build your obelisk the proper way and that way you get a nice flat rock platform on top of your mountain to do whatever it is you do up there. I’m not judging, mate.”
I dropped down from the High Place of Sacrifice via an equally impressive set of stone steps on the other side of the mountain, passing what was once a lion fountain (with attendant real cat) and a number of attractive, tucked away tombs. Turning left at Pharaoh’s Phallus (I’m not making this up) I climbed to the ruined kestrel-haunted fort on Al-Habees, a route no-one else seemed to use, despite the steps being recently and expensively repaired. Whilst this was quite a low hill by comparison with the surroundings, it gave a superb bird’s eye view of the former city centre (and the East
Cliff tombs) helping with a comprehension of the component parts of the vast site. Across the plain below, tour groups marched in disciplined single file like ants. Whilst I sat on top of Al-Habees, a group in costumes of Nabatean soldiers emerged on the collonaded street below, performed 5 minutes of desultory marching exercises, accompanied by lots of shouting, then retired back inside, presumably for tea.
I spent the afternoon exploring the vast desert landscapes to the north of the city centre, devoid of tourists, the rocky outcrops peppered with caves, facades and steps that led nowhere. I stumbled across an area where
Bedouin still lived in the Nabatean caves, their herds of goats eking out a diet from the straggly vegetation. At their invitation, I shared a pot of sweet tea outside one of these caves with a bedu who seemed genuinely surprised to see me main trails – we chatted happily enough, in astonishingly good English, mainly about the price of goats. Returning across the desert, another Bedu pulled up on his donkey to attempt to interest me in what he claimed were Nabatean coins, though they could have been any old pieces of dirty, circular metal to my untrained eye.
Heading back towards Wadi Musa through the Siq, a short sharp rainstorm was suddenly upon us. The fissure provided plenty of natural shelters, and once the storm was passed, the remainder of the walk through the Siq was punctuated by impromptu warerfalls spilling through the dams that block the hanging wadis on either side. Having showered at the hotel, I was about to return to Wadi Musa town centre for dinner when a second, larger rainstorm hit the town, the hills behind instantly disappearing in the cloudbank. The onset of the storm was accompanied almost simultaneously by a widespread power cut. Seeing little point lurking in a rapidly
darkening room, I left the hotel staff hurriedly lighting candles and headed out with what appeared to be the only umbrella in Wadi Musa.
I was rewarded with a surreal yellowy glow over the mountains of the Petra range on my walk into town, as sun and rain clouds battled for control of the western sky. The wadi through the centre of town, which had been bone dry up till now, was rapidly filling with water. With the centre of town largely dark, illumination came from the large 5* Mövenpick hotel, who had clearly invested in their own generator. Their all-you-can-eat buffet turned out to be pretty good value, and the house Jordanian red to be very drinkable (I take back what I said in Aleppo about Muslim countries and wine), which was enough for me to forgive it’s overly ingratiating staff, of the sort I react badly to. Both power cut and rain were over by the time I left to head back up the hill to bed.
Sunday 1 May
The mountains looked bright and rain-washed in the morning as I made my way to the bus station. Apparently for Wadi Musa, such a concept as a bus station, rather than a series of street corner terminals is very new. I finally cracked the curse of the Jordanian minibus, largely thanks to fact that in WM destinations on key routes are painted in English on buses. ‘Leaves about 8’ turned out to mean 7:55, so my natural caution paid off for once.
The minibus driver turned out to be the most cautious I’d experienced in Jordan, if you discount the constant mobile phone conversations. Indeed, at one point I was convinced he was participating in the phone-in programme playing on the radio. We headed south along the King’s Highway, just below the ridge top, views across the gradually lowering mountains towards the Wadi Araba to our west, the road dipping in and out of wispy cloud, passing Bedouin tents.
Eventually, we joined the Desert Highway, busy with trucks toiling up from the port of Aqaba. Looped down off the escarpment and into the floor of the Nafud Desert, rocky outcrops lining our route to the east, a camel suckling it’s young calf by the roadside.
By Ar Rashdiyya, mountains were closing in on either side once again. The Highway climbed slowly to re-cross the watershed and to finally take me down into the Great Rift Valley where it plunges into the sea to re-emerge in Africa. As we climbed, we paralleled the tracks of the Hejaz Railway, still in use here to deliver phosphates to Aqaba and the final leg of the unbroken line from St Pancras to the Red Sea.
At the top of the pass we passed, pretty much unchecked, through the heavily guarded customs checkpoint guarding entrance to the Aqaba Special Economic Zone. This was a little easier than Lawrence and King Faisal’s attack on the Ottoman-controlled port, when, as all fans of historically-inaccurate David Lean films know, the Turkish guns were all pointing out to sea. We twisted our way through the dry wadi and then, eventually, broke free of the mountains, coasting down towards blocky Aqaba and beyond it, the head of the deep blue Gulf of Aqaba. Barely half a mile from where Aqaba ended, the taller, whiter, richer looking blocks of Israel’s Eilat began, the two countries accepting miniscule seaboards around the narrow head of this Gulf in their search for Red Sea access.
We entered Aqaba along its palm tree-centred dual carriageways, the sudden lush greenery coming as something of a shock after the desert. Getting off the minibus – the driver finally remembering he needed to charge me a fare – I was plunged straight into the cosmopolitan commercialism of Aqaba’s inland streets. In particular, the shops teemed with Saudis – the border is less than 10 kilometres away, distinguishable by whole families in conservative dress and their well loaded land cruisers. All seemed to be buying large quantities of bedding sets: I know Saudi Arabia is a restrictive regime, but surely they sell duvet covers? Or had the onset of May reminded them all of the imminent winter and the need for warm bedding? Betraying its historic pre-Canal trading links with the Orient, there is clearly a small Chinese community present, running restaurants and massage parlours. The usual range of slightly odd shop combinations occurred again here: my favourite was definitely the mobile phone shop that also sold canaries: advertising their Tweeting potential perhaps? A surprise was the large number of ‘liqoure’ [sic] stores doing business in this special economic zone. Again, a town described by guide books as being ‘amongst the most conservative in the country’ gave the outward appearance of being anything but.
Checked into my final hotel, to be given room 101 again: the fire evacuation notice on the door amusing me with its statement that ‘In the event of a fire (god forbid)…’. Aqaba’s sea front proved remarkably pleasant: separated from the grandly and inaccurately named Corniche road, surprisingly, by palm lined neat market gardens, on what must surely be Aqaba’s prime piece of real estate. There were fine views across the Gulf to the arid Sinai mountains in Egypt. Large, rusty freighters moored out in the Gulf, awaiting their turn to load with phosphates from the Jordanian interior. Along the public beach were all the normalities of a popular working-class seaside resort, with some distinctive Middle Eastern tinges: women wading cautiously in the shallows in full burkhas, donkeys replaced with camels, and large numbers of distinctly questionable looking glass-bottomed boats cruising along the shore looking for business.
The promenade ends in a rather bare square entered, strangely, by unmanned turnstiles, named to commemorate the 1917 Arab Uprising. In the centre of this square was what might be the tallest free-standing flagpole in the world (no-one seems quite sure how to define this) flying a vast flag of the uprising, apparently visible from four countries. Behind the square was Aqaba’s small fort, where my visit inconsiderately woke the custodian from snoozing on his couch in the shade of the entrance gateway. The fort bore the hefty traces of British naval bombardment prior to the land assault by Faisal and Lawrence – contrary to the telling in the film, where any such maritime support is point blank refused. The little museum next door had no qualms about using Lean’s stylised charge on Aqaba as the starting point of its discussion of the town’s history, which rather wonderfully included a display of a Nabatean pottery design dubbed ‘Tupperware’ by archaeologists, due to its extreme stackability.
Dinner at a streetside cafe was punctuated by occasionally glancing up from my food to find myself a little below knee height of a camel as it trotted past along the pavement, contrasting oddly with the 4x4s and western dress conspicuously on show in this trendy part of Aqaba.
I took a post-prandial stroll to the seafront, thinking that by half past nine, the beach would be quiet, but it was still full with family groups chatting quietly on rented plastic chairs. However, there were now short stretches of waterfront free, so I chose one to conduct a ceremonial paddle. The water was warm and the sand smooth under my feet. This really was the end of the line, and it was only fitting that it be celebrated in a suitably dignified fashion: by photographing my shoes being lapped by the waters of the Red Sea. Other people on the beach were either too engaged in conversation or too polite to notice a slightly crazy European attempting to photograph his shoes whilst preventing them from being washed away. The photos didn’t really come out.
Across the Gulf, Eilat was a blaze of light, streets and apartment blocks spreading up the hills in this narrow wedge of land. Further round, Egypt was dark, barring a few paltry strings of lights in seafront villages. It struck me that this slightly odd geographical arrangement had surprisingly survived with relatively few tensions for the best part of 40 years, but that the future must be more uncertain. That morning, the post-Mubarak regime in Cairo had angered Israel by brokering a Hamas-Fatah unity deal and re-opening the Gaza border, actions far removed from the effective truce conducted by Mubarak with Israel over the Palestine question. And what of Jordan? Through careful political manoeuvring and, perhaps, by hiring one of Gordon Brown’s spin doctors (stop laughing. It’s true.), King Abdullah seemed to have nipped early stirrings of an ‘Arab spring’ in Jordan in the bud. This is a Hashemite monarchy that had largely convinced its people to accept the losses incurred in the 1967 war and to live within a political accommodation with Israel. It had ridden out the isolation within the Arab world that these stances had engendered, but could high unemployment, the demographic challenge or a stall in economic growth change that, ushering in a different outlook in Amman – either a new government, or a strategic shift from the monarchy in response to domestic pressures?
And what of the vast kingdom of Saudi Arabia, just a few kilometres to the south – signs of genuine, sustainable revolt there have been limited, but a serious uprising there which threatened the House of Saud’s autocracy could be the pivot on which the entire future of the Arab world turns. Could Aqaba find itself at the centre of geographical tensions once again? Was the prosperity it was so swiftly gaining through its special economic status under threat from instability? None of the families enjoying the evening warmth on the town’s public beach seemed worried about such a future. No-one cast worried glances towards the bright lights of Israel across the water. Another Friday had passed without major demonstrations in Jordan, whilst the government of its northern neighbour sent tanks against its own people. If this journey had taught me anything, it was that classifying deserts as a single ecosystem is a ludicrous over-simplification. So, perhaps it is a similar simplification to expect a homogenous future for the nations we handily group as ‘the Arab world’.
As I retrieved my shoes from the Gulf of Aqaba, I realised that such questions, whilst not unworthy of my concern, were above my pay grade to resolve. So, I caught the last camel back to my hotel, and decided to stop worrying.