JORDAN: ALONG THE KINGS HIGHWAY

When one thinks of Jordan as a tourist destination, the places that first spring to mind are the magnificent ‘lost city’ of Petra and the luxurious coastal resort of Aqaba, but in addition to these obvious attractions, a wealth of hidden treasures are to be discovered along the long Kings Highway, starting with the Mosaic town of Madaba.

Just 30km from Amman, along the 5,000-year-old Kings Highway, is one of the most memorable places in this ‘other’ holy land. After passing through a string of ancient sites, the first city you reach is Madaba, the “City of Mosaics.” It is best known for its spectacular Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics and home to the famous 6 century Mosaic Map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. With two million pieces of vividly coloured local stone, it depicts hills and valleys, villages and towns, including Jerusalem and Jericho and stretches as far as the Nile Delta.

The Madaba Mosaic Map covers the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, built in 1896 AD, over the remains of a much earlier 6 century Byzantine church.

The mosaic panel enclosing the Map was originally around 15.6 x 6 metres, of which only about a quarter is preserved.

There are several theories as to why Madaba’s map of the Holy land was depicted in mosaics on the floor of a Christian building in the remote provincial town of the Roman Empire. Some have suggested it may have been an aid to pilgrims to help them find their way from one holy place to another. Others believe because it is close to Mount Nebo where, according to The Bible, Moses was granted sight of the so- called ‘Promised Land’, he would never enter. The Map may represent the vision Moses had of that Promised Land from the place where he would finally meet his maker. Other mosaic masterpieces are to be found in the Church of the Virgin and the Apostles, and in the Archaeological Museum, each depicting a profusion of flowers and plants, birds, fish, animals and exotic beasts, as well as scenes from mythology and the everyday pursuits of hunting, fishing and farming. Literally, hundreds of other mosaics from the 5th through to the 7th centuries are scattered throughout Madaba’s churches and homes.

The only project of its kind in the Middle East, the Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration, which operates under the patronage of the Ministry of Tourism, was set up to train artisans in the art of making, repairing and restoring mosaics.

Madaba also offers some of the best local cuisine to be found anywhere in the country at Haret Jdoudna, a beautiful courtyard restaurant where you can enjoy the local fayre. Across the road, the Queen Ayola hotel offers friendly accommodation and some of the best sizzling chicken around.

Mount Nebo, enjoys fantastic views all the way down to the Dead Sea and is a fascinating destination in itself. According to Jewish and Christian tradition, Moses was buried on this mountain by God himself, although the exact location of his final resting place is unknown. The scenery from the top of the mountain down to the Dead Sea is breathtaking and the hairpin bends hair-raising; only here does one truly understand the need for low gear on steep hills on roads with 8.5% to 10% gradients, set amongst the sheep and the Bedouin encampments.

Travelling further down the King’s Highway, the medieval castle of the Karrak boasts the remains of an amazing fiefdom, which dates back to the 12th century.

After a stunning drive through rocky mountains, the Kings Highway reaches the legendary town of Petra. Although many thousands of words have been written about Petra, nothing really prepares you for the first sight of this amazing place. It must be seen to be believed. A vast, unique city, carved into the sheer rose coloured rock- face by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled here more than 2,000 years ago, turning it into an important junction for the silk, spice and other trade routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome. Entrance to the city is through the Siq, a narrow gorge, over 1km in length, which is flanked on either side by soaring, 80m high cliffs. Just walking through the Siq is an experience in itself. The colours and formations of the rocks are dazzling. As you reach the end of the Siq you will catch your first glimpse of the famous Treasury.

This is an awe-inspiring experience. A massive fa├žade, 30m wide and 43m high, carved out of the sheer, dusky pink rock-face and dwarfing all around it. Carved in the early 1st century as the tomb of an important Nabataean king, it represents the engineering genius of these an- cient people. The Treasury however is merely the first of the many wonders that constitute the ancient city of Petra. There are hundreds of rock-cut tombs with intricate carvings – unlike the houses, destroyed mostly by earthquakes, the tombs were carved to last throughout the afterlife and 500 have survived, empty but bewitching as you file past their dark entrances. There is also a massive Nabataean-built, Roman style theatre, built to seat 3,000 people.

To add another dimension to what we have come to expect from Petra, there are several different experiences to be had. The Rock Camp set deep in the hills offers a night under canvas where the depth of the night sky is magical and one seems to step back to Nabatean times, sleeping amongst the spectacular rock formations, is a wonderful addition to the Petra experience and if cookery is your interest, there is a restaurant in Petra with a difference, in order to eat, you must first cook your own food at the Petra Kitchen. Under the watchful eye of several experienced chefs, diners prepare – under instruction – local dishes including lentil soup, flavoured with cumin and served with lemon slices; Bedouin pizza and makhlouba (upside down chicken and cauliflower rice dish). Preparation of the local dishes is enhanced by explanations about Jordanian customs, including how and why the dishes have become firm national favourites. Despite all the cooks’ best efforts, there were mounds of food left at the end of the evening, which was taken, that night, and distributed at Syrian refugee camps near Amman, yet another expression of the warmth and seemingly inexhaustible generosity of the Jordanian people.

Jordan’s amazing blend of fantastic scenery, friendly people and myriad monuments steeped in religious and historical facts, make it a winning destination for all.