A friend and I landed in Amman at the fag-end of May in 2009, bursting with excitement and a jam-packed itinerary with very little time to accomplish (4 days!). Travellers predominantly come to Jordan for Petra and/or the Dead Sea, using the modern desert highway to get to Petra from Amman. It’s faster, cuts right through the desert and doesn’t waste any time. We used the King’s Highway instead, starting at Amman, crossing Madaba, Mount Nebo, the Dead Sea, Wadi Mujib, Castle of Kerak and Lot’s Cave, relishing location specific stories and fables along the way. It’s longer, winding, and oh so much of fun as it skirts along the Dead Sea and dallies around the Jordanian countryside.
The King’s Highway is an ancient trade route of great importance between Arabia and the Levant. It is believed to have meant ‘principal highway’ or ‘royal road’, with no literal connection to a particular king or kingdom. It began in Egypt, stretching across the Sinai Peninsula to Aqaba, thereby turning northward across Jordan, leading to Damascus and the Euphrates River (ref: Damascus. Syria).
Throughout history, the highway has been used for trade, pilgrimage and conquest. The Nabataeans used it to trade luxury goods such as frankincense and spices from Southern Arabia. Christians and Muslims have used it as a route of pilgrimage as it passes through numerous sites of importance to Christianity and as a main path to get to Mecca during Haj (until the Ottoman Turks built an alternative in the 16th century).
It was the route that Moses and the Israelites might have taken after fleeing ancient Egypt to get to the Promised Land. And is most likely the path that Abraham used to pursue the desert kings who had taken his nephew Lot as hostage.
We started at the ‘City of Mosaics’, which is about 50 kms from the International Airport in Amman. Madaba is a small town famous for the 6th century Byzantine era mosaic of the Holy Land, preserved on the floor of the Greek Orthodox Bascilica of Saint George. The Map of Madaba as it is known, is a map of the Middle East with parts of it containing the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land and Jerusalem. Interestingly, part of the ancient map shows 2 possible baptism locations of Jesus.
We stayed overnight at the Mariam Hotel, which gave us enough time to explore the tiny city and travel to Jerash and back. We really enjoyed Madaba; it was quiet and small and easy to navigate, the locals were friendly and the air was fresh and cool. One of my most vivid memories is of the children with huge rosy cheeks, not quite out of the ordinary but enough for me to notice and tell my travel companion. I also remember panicking when I discovered the room we were staying in did not have an air conditioner! The night, as it turned out, was so cool and crisp, none was needed. It was a nice departure from the commercial, stuffy, energy sapping living we had become so accustomed to in Dubai.
After seeing the Map of Madaba at the Bascillica of St George, we were inspired to learn about how mosaics are made and buy a mini mosaic for ourselves; I bought the Tree of Life.
We drove north to Jerash, later that evening, the site of the ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Gerasa. Our hotel helped arrange for a car and driver for the journey. The driver, Ahmed, was helpful, animated, knowledgable and so eager to please that we ended up asking him to take us all the way to Petra via the King’s Highway the next day.
Jerash, as excavations allege, was inhabited as early as the Bronze Age in about 2,500 BC. Prehistorically named ‘Antioch-on-the-Chrysorrhoas’ or ‘Antioch-on-the-Golden River’, for the stream that ambles though it, subsequently known as Garshu to the Romans, later given the Hellenistic name of Gerasa and presently known by its Arabic name of Jerash. Ancient inscriptions establish the founder of the city as being Alexander the Great, however, there are various other suggestions. Some attribute ‘Antioch’ to Antiochus IV, the Greek king of the Seleucid Empire (175-164 BC), while others believe it was Ptolemy III (285-246 BC) when he changed Amman into the Hellenistic city of Philadelphia.
Often referred to as the Pompeii of the Middle East, albeit misleadingly, as Jerash was never buried by a volcano, perhaps drawing similarity to the scale, extent of excavation and preservation. Jerash was an important Roman city and part of a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in Jordan and Syria known as the Decapolis.
Artemis was the patron goddess of the city and was highly esteemed by the Hellenic population, while Zeus was preferred by the Semitic side.
The ruins are particularly spectacular, and I always find myself comparing the site to those in Palmyra (ref: ‘Bride of the Desert’. Palmyra. Syria). They include:
The Corinthium column
Hadrian’s Arch [Hadrian was Roman Emperor from 117 to 138 BC]
The two large temples (dedicated to Zeus and Artemis)
The nearly unique oval Forum, which is surrounded by a fine colonnade,
The long colonnaded street or the Cardo Maximus
Two theatres (the Large South Theatre and smaller North Theatre)
Two baths, and a scattering of small temples
An almost complete circuit of city walls
We started on our journey on the King’s Highway early the next morning with our first stop being where it is believed Moses saw the Holy Land he could not enter into. Mount Nebo is a hill located in Moab, about 1,200 meters above sea level with the summit delivering spectacular views of the Holy Land, the valley of the River Jordan, Jericho and on a clear day, Jerusalem.
According to Christian and some Islamic traditions, it is suggested that Moses viewed the Holy Land and died in Moab soon after and is buried on the mountain, although the exact location is unknown.
Unfortunately, we were short on time and could not stop at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where it is believed Jesus was baptised by St John the Bapist.
The Dead Sea
We drove from Mount Nebo, through meandering roads bordering the Dead Sea towards the crusader castle at Kerak. After driving for an hour, we decided to stop and go down to the shore to touch the salty water. At about 1,400 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea shore is the Earth’s lowest elevation on land. From where we stood, we could see Israel and Palestine across the sea stretch. (while driving through we often caught a Palestinian mobile network signal). I remember the water being very viscous with an oil-like consistency.
Due to the high salt content we had to immediately wash our hands and feet with bottled water provided by Ahmed, who it seems was prepared for any eventuality including driving away a pack of wild dogs who had followed us. He also filled us in on their version of the story surrounding Lot, Abraham and Lot’s cave.
According to the Book of Genesis, Lot left Zoar to settle in the mountains and live in a cave with his 2 daughters. In order to preserve their family line, the daughters came up with a plan to ply their father with wine, get him intoxicated and sleep with him. Thus, both Lot’s daughters became pregnant by him and had 2 sons, Moab, father of the Moabites of today and Ben-Ammi, father of the Ammonites of today. We however, heard a far more juicier version and many more from Ahmed as we traveled further south, through the natural gorge of Wadi Mujib till Kerak.
The Crusader Castle of Kerak
We stopped for a late lunch of delicious galayet bandora (tomatoes sauteed and stewed with garlic, olive oil, salt, and topped with pine nuts, served by rice) in Kerak, the capital of the biblical kingdom of Moab and home to the largest crusader castle in the Levant. Historically, Payen le Bouteiller (Paganus the Butler) received Kerak in 1126 from King Baldwin II of Jerusalem as part of the lordship of Transjordan. In 1142, he built Kerak Castle over the existing foundations on the site. The castle we see today dates back to the 12th century, but Kerak has been a fortress since biblical times.
The castle resisted attacks by Saladin’s (the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty) troops in 1183 and 1184, but finally fell after the Battle of Hattin in 1189. The Mamluk ruler Baybars added a tower on the northwest corner in 1263. It was later owned by local families until 1840, when Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt captured the castle and destroyed much of it in the process.
The castle, also known as the Fortress of the Raven, is more imposing than beautiful, though it is all the more impressive as an example of the Crusaders’ architectural military genius. We spend the better part of the afternoon exploring the castle leaving shortly before sunset. Our next and final stop, the magnificent Nabataean city of Petra.
We could not do a few things along the way, that I have bookmarked for another time and space, including Lot’s Cave and Wadi Mujib (whizzing past them in an attempt to make it to Petra before nightfall). Read: Rose red city, half as old as time. Petra. A photo-journey.
The 280 km long, 5,000 year old road that is the King’s Highway is certainly a veritable ride through the centuries!