Jordan is home to some of the most ancient civilisations on the planet, with archaeological evidence bearing witness to human occupation back into the Neolithic era. The country holds treasures as diverse as the famous rose-red city at Petra to the magnificent Crusader castle at Kerak and the comparatively modern sites at Wadi Rum where Lawrence of Arabia’s fought alongside the Bedouin against the Ottoman Turks.
Forming part of the land-bridge linking Europe, Africa and Asia, the area now known as Jordan was a unique crossroads for travel and trade over thousands of years with people of rich and varied cultures mixing, moving and settling throughout the area. Nabateans, Greeks, Romans, Christian Crusaders and Muslims have all played influential roles in the growth and development of the country. Records of human habitation date back 100,000 years and one of the first cities of the ancient world, al-Beed, lies in southern Jordan.
Here we outline some of Jordan’s ancient wealth – and link you to the articles we have carried in the magazine. Read on!
Secreted in the rocky northern highlands lies the recently discovered and evocatively called Copper Cave. Artefacts relating to late prehistoric habitation have been found in sites located deep within the cave system. More remains have been found, showing the caves were used intermittently right up to modern times.
Jerash : Roman delights
Jarash, also known as Jerash and Gerasa, is one of the great classical cities of the region and one of the best preserved. Situated on a fertile plain, archaeological evidence of Palaeolithic and Neolithic tools followed by Bronze and Iron Age pottery, bear witness to early occupation. However, the city became a powerful entity during the Greek and Roman era with its huge amphitheatre, built initially in the 2nd century and enlarged in the 3rd century, the massive Temple of Artemis and the spectacular avenue of pillars still stand proud today. Aerial photographs by Bob Bewley clearly demonstrate the huge scale of the site with clearly visible outlines of the roads and buildings still uncovered.
Madaba: the map and more
Any visit to Jordan should include a trip to Madaba: occupied by man from the Neolithic period right through to the Roman and Byzantine Empires from the 2nd until the 7th centuries AD, it is also home to the oldest known map of the Holyland: made entirely of mosaic tiles, this 6th century floor depicts the hills, waters and cities of the region.
Kerak: crusaders’ domain
The Dead Sea lies west of Madaba and, at 400m below sea level, is the lowest point on the earth’s surface. Following the road south, you come to the magnificent fortress of Kerak, a crusader castle built in the 12th century. Kerak itself was a town long before the fortress was built but it grew in strength and prosperity as a result of the fortifications. Straddling the King’s Highway, a lucrative trade and pilgrim route connecting the north with the south, Kerak was ideally suited to not only impose tolls on trafficking caravans but also to develop as a centre for trade and commerce. Acquired through marriage by the notorious Reynald de Chatillon, it was subsequently besieged by Saladin and finally fell in 1188 after which it was handed on to Saladin’s brother. Building works and more fortifications continued to be added to the castle until it was hit by an earthquake in 1293.
Jacob’s Ford: the crusaders’ lost fort
Saladin’s force was also felt at Jacob’s Ford, about 50 miles north-west of Jerusalem, where a massive crusader’s fort was reduced to ruin in 1179. Recently rediscovered, archaeological excavations are underway and studies are revealing more about this castle’s astonishing history. (CWA17)
Wadi Faynan: most polluted place on earth?
Wadi Faynan, in the harsh, dramatic landscape of Southern Jordan, south of the Dead Sea, is the site of one of the largest copper mines in the Roman Empire. Archaeological evidence of mining has shown this area was used almost continually from the Chalothic period (4500-3100 BC) until the 4th century BC. Excavation work proved the area was both wetter and more fertile during the Neolithic period and there is evidence of two village settlements during this time. The landscape became more arid and less hospitable during the Early Bronze Age when irrigation systems were introduced into farming. By the time of the Nabatean kingdom, smelting and metal-working techniques had become highly sophisticated. Production increased after the arrival of the Romans in 106 AD but with a consequential rise in contamination of the land. Pollution, both from the extensive burning of charcoal and from the piles of black slag, was the inevitable by-product of the smelting process. Workers suffered from serious health issues as a result of ingesting and inhaling dust contaminated with copper and lead. However, by the end of the late Roman/Byzantine period, archaeological evidence suggests that the pollution levels dropped as the copper resources were exhausted and mining practices were scaled down. (link CWA 13)
Petra: rose-red wonder
Heading still further south, the road comes to perhaps the most famous site in Jordan, and certainly one of the most dramatic: Petra, described in 1845 by John William Burgon as ‘A rose-red city half as old as time’ is as enigmatic as it is beautiful. Re-discovered in 1812 by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt and walled in by towering rocks, the natural fortress-like features formed the capital and commercial centre of the Nabateans. The Nabateans built a complex system of cisterns, aqua-ducts and dams to collect and control their water supply, creating an oasis in the desert. Pictured in most of the tourist brochures is the magnificent Al Khazneh, The Treasury, hewn directly from the sandstone and approached via a long, narrow gorge. The area holds a huge number of tombs, also carved from the red rock, perhaps the most famous of which is the Tomb of the Roman Soldier, which i
s only now finally giving up its secrets. (link to CWA 10)
CWA dig: Lawrence’s Jordan
The CWA-backed dig in Jordan is uncovering more evidence of the Ottoman soldiers fighting the local Bedouin tribes. Lawrence of Arabia, whose romantic story has been portrayed in books and on film, led the local tribesmen against the invading Turks in what Robert Taber, in his classic study of warfare in 1965, described as ‘the war of the flea’. As well as excavating the soldiers’ outposts, dugouts and bunkers, the CWA project has also uncovered possible pre-historic megaliths. Another prevalent trait has been the deep pits uncovered, resulting from attempts throughout history to ‘search for buried treasure’, a past-time popular in the region as legends of buried treasure hidden either by or from marauding armies, abound. (link CWA 23 & 27)
To visit the many amazing sites in Jordan, it is sensible to hire a guide or go with a reputable tour company as there is so much to see and so much history to absorb that a knowledgeable companion is an asset.
The climate can be punishing and therefore the best times to travel are when the sun is less fierce, in Spring or Autumn. However, when choosing when to travel, do bear in mind that during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, it is forbidden for Muslims to eat, drink or smoke in daylight hours and, although these laws do not apply to visitors, discretion to local religious custom should be observed.
Suntan lotion is a must, as is a hat and suitable, protective clothing – the latter not only to protect against the sun but also to show suitable respect to the local culture. Ensure arms and legs are covered when entering a holy place and women should also cover their heads. It is also polite to ask permission before taking a photograph of local people.
It is easy to forget that it can also get very cold, especially in the Petra mountains and in desert at night and therefore suitable warm clothes are a necessity. Mosquitoes can be a nuisance, so a good repellent is advisable.
Polio, typhoid, tetanus and hepatitis vaccinations are advised and it is sensible to pack a basic medical kit, with something for stomach trouble and any personal prescription drugs. Avoid tap water and ice cubes, use bottle water for drinking and cleaning teeth.
A visa is required on entry into the country (which can be bought at the point of entry) and there is an air and land exit tax of five Jordanian dinars to be paid on departure – so make sure you do not spend your last few dinars before you arrive at the airport!