Day 1 – Northern Jordan: Umm Qais, Ajloun and Jerash

Sunday 15 May 2022 – Five hours’ sleep was all we got, but that didn’t seem too much of a problem as we got up and headed down for what turned out to be a perfectly decent international hotel breakfast, with a target of meeting Said at 9am.

The itinerary for the day involved heading right up to the north-west of Jordan, some 120km and a 2-hour drive.  Many useful things happened during that time: a rapid education into a more detailed understanding of the highly variable quality of Jordanian road surfaces (made more so by the apparently random insertion by The Powers That Be of some pretty aggressive speed bumps); the driving philosophy among the locals, which appears to rely heavily on the “Insh’Allah” school of self-preservation; and small repayment on my sleep debt.

The bits of Jordan we saw revealed a country with charming and hospitable natives, exceedingly crappy road surfaces, a complete disregard for the rules of the road and a pervasive roadside rubbish problem consisting mainly of plastic bags littering the verges. (I realise that we in the UK haven’t got much grounds for moral superiority here, but it was noticeable.).  The speed bump thing appears to be a test of concentration for the driver, as the bumps are sometimes mild and sometimes aggressive, placed without any connection to reality and surrounded by  some pretty impressive potholes at times.  The net effect, when combined with the locals’ attitude to speed limits, road positioning and courtesy, is to make everyone cram the anchors on a few yards before each speed bump and then accelerate off as fast as possible once having established that tyres and suspension are still OK.  It doesn’t do much for fuel economy or passenger comfort but it stops life on the road being dull. And it didn’t detract in any way from our enjoyment on the day, because, Insh’Allah, we weren’t involved in any accidents.

So, a couple of hours after we started out, we arrived at Umm Qais, or, more specifically the proximate ruins of the ancient Gadara. Compared to Jerash, which we visited later, it’s a compact site – no need for a dedicated guide, as Said showed us around and talked about the history as we went.  The site’s museum has on display some lovely mosaics

and fine statuary

which have been extracted from the ruins.  It also has some wonderful displays of the intricate pottery that the people from the Graeco-Roman period were capable of

as well as some considerable ability to mould massive stone into useful things such as doors.

There are the remains of ancient shopping arcades

a very impressive Roman theatre

and many slabs of remarkably well-preserved carved marble to marvel at.

From the top of the site, you can see the Golan Heights

and the Sea of Galilee

which gives a clear indication of how near the site is to the border with Israel.

Having got to pretty much the top of Jordan, we then turned south, and our next stop was the historic castle at a town called Ajloun (reached via a stop-start drive through the traffic congestion of the rather scruffy city of Irdib. Jordanian traffic congestion isn’t as bad as Indian traffic congestion, but that doesn’t mean I’d be prepared to risk my bodywork by driving around there). However, en route we got a few more sidelights into Jordanian life.  For example, we were in peak chickpea season.  Said was given a bunch by a mate in the Umm Qais car park

and we saw several pickups loaded to the gills with harvestings.

Roadside fruit stalls are commonplace.  Some of them look well-established and flourishing

but others not so much.

These stalls are clearly a good way to get produce cheaper than normal markets, but the corollary of this is the need for alertness for people screaming to a halt unexpectedly in front of you to pick up a few loquats or whatever.

Anyway….

You can see Ajloun Castle from a distance away –

yes, there it is on the top of the hill.

It’s a massive slab of masonry, originally started by Saladdin in the 12th Century as part of his successful attempts to get rid of the Crusaders.  Since it sits at the highest point hereabouts, it gives a great view over the surrounding countryside if you happen to be on the lookout for marauding Lionhearts.

It is very photogenic.

so a pleasure to walk around, as well as being quite well described by information boards. There was one thing that gave me pause:

“Tourism Police”?  “I’m sorry, sir, but I must arrest you for wearing Bermuda shorts that aren’t garish enough.  And those sunglasses!  Couldn’t you afford Oakleys?”

In the car park area outside where cars and buses were randomly strewn about there was a rather lovely coffee stop, which underlined the hospitable nature of Jordanian life.  It was clear that Said was well-known by the people running it and we were invited for some delicious  cardamom coffee served by an imposing but charming chap called Nazih.

And then it was time for lunch, which we took in Jerash.  Well after time, actually, since it was nearly 4pm by the stage.  Said took us to a restaurant called Artemis, obviously a popular tourist destination, judging by the number of tourist buses in the car park and from the bread-making theatre going on outside.

 

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It’s rather a neat way of serving customers with the bread that accompanies their meal. The restaurant offers a very tasty buffet meal and there’s a lot of room inside so it was easy to get a decent lunch.

Jerash is a large city and it contains a very substantial architectural site featuring neolithic, Graeco-Roman, Byzantine and early Muslim influences.  It’s sufficiently substantial to warrant having a guide specially to take you round the site; ours was called Suhir and he did a very good job of conveying the history of the place.  Some of the Roman ruins are the largest remaining in the world, eclipsing even those in Rome – the most striking example is the Forum.

The site is really quite large, with the main drag being over 800m long.  There are any number of fascinating historical details to be seen en route, for example the tracks left by the chariots on the main street.

There are smaller details to be seen:  recesses which held olive oil lamps

manhole covers enabling access to the drainage system

and some phenomenal mosaics.

There’s the inevitable tourist attraction, of course,

but the chap was still charming even when we didn’t want to buy anything.

At the north end of the main street is the colonnaded road leading to the Damascus Gate

(the main gates are all named in recognition of the countries that border Jordan – Syria to the north, Palestine to the west, Egypt to the south and Iraq to the east).

At the north end of the site is a Roman Theatre,

But the highlight of the day happened as the sun was sinking and we were walking towards the other Roman Theatre, near the Forum.  As we neared it, we heard a completely unexpected sound and so we went in to see what was going on.

 

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On investigation, it turned out to be a Jordanian bagpiper whose only English (apart from the word “welcome”) was to emphasis how he’d been to Swindon and to the Edinburgh Tattoo. Jane got him to play the Skye Boat Song (and told him its history) and he then jammed a few other numbers whilst a little impromptu Scottish dancing went on around him.  I’ll spare Jane’s blushes by not publishing that video clip, but it was surprisingly affecting to have this confluence of very different cultures in such a remarkable setting.

This was the end of the day’s tourism, and we headed back to where Said was waiting to whisk us back to our hotel. A couple of apples, a couple of dates, couple of gins and a mug of Twinings Earl Grey have been the necessary fuel to feed this blog posting. It’s been a long, intense and enjoyable day; a full-on introduction into the sort of thing we can expect over the coming weeks as we travel round Jordan.  I hope you want to come along for the rest of the ride.

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