Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jordan Challenge 8: Visit Jerash and the North

Sometimes the best thing to do when a plan falls apart is to re-group and figure out something else. That was definitely the case this weekend.  My friend Elizabeth and I had made a big, ambitious plan to head out to the Wadi Rum desert and check things out there.  We both really want to try a camel trek, but also neither of us have ever been there, and both of us are planning to take other people there this year. So, we wanted to go see it for ourselves as a sort of reconnaissance trip. But a lethal combination of deadlines, Arabic tests and drivers who turn their phones off for very long periods of time laid waste to our marvelous plans.

 And so instead, late on Friday night (which is functionally our Saturday night), we hit on the brilliant idea of calling up the backpacker hotels in Amman to see if we could tag along on one of the trips that they schedule for their guests if they can scrape up a minimum of four people.  Sure enough, the Farah Hotel (where I've stayed in the past with intrepid student/friend/travellers Siham, Connor, Kate and Alexsis) had two guests who wanted to go out to Northern Jordan if only two more people would join in. We signed up a little before midnight and showed up at the lobby the next morning at 8 am and off we went.

The loop we took had three stops, all of them great in their own way. Here's the list, actually, from the bulletin board at the Farah:
It all started out with a single little piece of paper tacked to a bulletin board...

My friend, fellow Fulbrighter and partner in crime for the day's adventure, Elizabeth. Here she is tucked into a little staircase of what we agreed was our favorite structure among the ruins of Jerash -- the smaller North Theatre.
So, the four of us, two tourists from Serbia and Croatia, Elizabeth and I jumped into a van and our driver headed north.  We first went all the way to the northwest corner of the country to the town of Umm Qais. For those who know their bible stories, Umm Qais is featured in a story from the book of Matthew (8:28-32).  According to the story Jesus was passing through the area and came across a pair of people possessed by demons.  So he cast the demons out of them but the demons, looking for some other lives to ruin, then took possession of a herd of pigs who, alas, dealt with their demon possession by flinging themselves into the sea, presumably the Sea of Galilee.

Plenty o' columns still kicking around Umm Qais

Elizabeth ignoring the multi-national view over her shoulder in order to decide whether we should get fattoush as well as hummus (silly question, we got them both, obviously.)

Although it's fairly unclear (at least to tourists) what route the suicidal pigs took, the area is also known for its amazing Roman ruins, though these are smaller and much less-visited than the ones in Jerash further south.  My favorite thing about Umm Qais, however, is the phenomenal Rest House there, where you can sit and have a late breakfast and see into Syria, the disputed Golan Heights, Israel and Palestine and the Sea of Galilee. Everything below looks so calm and sweepingly beautiful it's hard to reconcile with the turmoil in the news that mention of many of these places evokes.

From Umm Qais we started going south and stopped at the very impressive Qala-at Al-Rabad (Ajloun Castle).  You can see it for miles around, as it's perched up on a very high hill above the Jordan Valley.  The Crusades are a topic I never thought much about till I came here, but you can't help but think about them at the Ajloun Castle. It was built in the 1180s and was apparently an important part of the defense against the Crusaders. It's really pretty huge and just gorgeous inside and out. I'm a big castle-goer as a tourist, and I'd put this one right near the top of the list of ones I've ever walked through.

Among my less-bright moves of the day was failing to get a single of picture of the castle in its entirety.  But even from this one showing one of the corner towers you can get a sense of just how huge and impressive it is.

Our driver was pretty strict with our time limits (especially after Elizabeth and I went overtime at Umm Qais), but you could have spent all day exploring the vaulted passageways like these that were all over the place inside.

Our last stop of the tour was the biggest -- the ruins of Jerash.  They're located right in the middle of the modern town of Jerash, and they are pretty spectacular. There are parts of Roman streets, still paved with giant stone and lined with columns, two theatres, various temple and fountain ruins and, most fun of all, a hippodrome that has been restored so they can do shows for the tourists with recreations of army legions, gladiators and chariot racing. We sat in front of a group of super-exited kids who desperately wanted at least one of the defeated gladiators to have to get the thumbs down (though we learned that actually the signs were thumbs-up (live) or thumbs on their side (die).

Chariot racing!  How cool is that?

In Jerash there are still a bunch of places like this with intact stone-paved roads (where you can actually see the wagon ruts worn into the stone) and columns along the side.

Apparently, the desert weather here has done wonders in helping with the preservation of these historical sites. Tramping around the ruins, it was fun to try to imagine Northern Jordan as first the biblical land of Gilead, and then as the area of not one but ten Roman city-states, and finally what it must have been like when it was holding its own against the Crusaders from Europe. It was a phenomenal day, and I can't wait to have a second look with visitors and friends in future visits Northward. Next stop (hopefully) -- Wadi Rum!

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