When one thinks of Jordan as a tourist destination, the places that immediately spring to mind are Aqaba and the rose red city of Petra, but don’t be deceived here are a wealth of lesser known, hidden treasures to discover along the long Kings Highway, which runs through most of the country, not least the mosaic town of Madaba.
Just 30km from Amman, travelling south along the 5,000-year-old Kings´ Highway, look out for directions to Madaba, the “City of Mosaics.” Renowned for its spectacular Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics, Madaba is the home of the famous 6th century Mosaic Map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. With two million pieces of vividly coloured local stone, the map depicts hills and valleys, villages and towns, including Jerusalem and Jericho and stretches as far as the towns of the Nile Delta.
The Madaba Mosaic Map covers the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. The church was built in 1896 AD, over the remains of an earlier 6th century Byzantine church. The mosaic panel enclosing the Map was originally around 15.6 X 6m, 94 sqm, 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 the map may have been of use to pilgrims to help them find their way from one holy place to another. Others believe because it is close to Mount Nebo, it may represent the vision that Moses had of the Promised Land from the place of his death. Other mosaic masterpieces to be found in the Church of the Virgin and the Apostles, and in the Archeaological Museum, depict 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. There are quite literally, hundreds of other mosaics from the 5th through the 7th centuries scattered throughout the Madaba area.
The only project of its kind in the Middle East, the Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration, which operates under the patronage of Jordan’s 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 at Haret Jdoudna, a beautiful courtyard restaurant where you can enjoy the local fayre. Across the road, the inexpensive Queen Ayolla hotel offers friendly if basic accommodation and some of the best sizzling chicken around.
Mount Nebo, a profoundly religious site with fantastic views all the way down to the Dead Sea is another must see destination.
According to the Bible’s final chapter of Deuteronomy, Mount Nebo is where the Hebrew prophet Moses was given a view of the so-called Promised Land.
And according to Jewish and Christian tradition, Moses was buried on this mountain by God himself, although his final resting place is unknown. Meanwhile, scholars – as they will – continue to dispute whether the mountain currently known as Nebo is the same as the mountain referred to in the Torah.
The scenery down from Madaba to the Dead Sea is breathtaking and the hairpin bends hair-raising; only here does one understand the need for low gear on steep hills on roads with 8.5% to 10% gradients, amongst the sheep and the Bedouins.
Travelling further down the King’s Highway, the medieval castle of the Karrak marks the site of an amazing fiefdom, which dates back to the 12th century and has been the site of a fortress of one kind or another since biblical times.
After a stunning drive through arid, majestic mountainous terrain, the Kings’ Highway reaches the legendary town of Petra.
Although much has been written about Petra, nothing really prepares you for this amazing place, which must be seen to be believed. It is a vast, unique city, carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled here more than 2000 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 façade, 30m wide and 43m high, carved out of the sheer, dusky pink rock-face and dwarfing everything around it. It was carved in the early 1st century as the tomb of an important Nabataean king and represents the engineering genius of these ancient people. The Treasury however is merely the first of the many wonders that make up Petra.
There are hundreds of rock-cut tombs with intricate carvings – unlike the houses, which were 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 cave-like entrances.