On the King’s Highway to find my pot of gold. Jordan.

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. 

King's Highway

King’s Highway

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.

Madaba

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.

The Greek Orthodox Basilica of Saint George

The Greek Orthodox Basilica of Saint George

 

The Map of Madaba

The Map of Madaba

Jerash

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]

Hadrian's Arch

Hadrian’s Arch

The Hippodrome

Hippodrome

the Hippodrome

the Hippodrome

the Hippodrome – chariot race, anyone?

The two large temples (dedicated to Zeus and Artemis)

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Artemis

Temple of Artemis

The nearly unique oval Forum, which is surrounded by a fine colonnade,

Colonnade on the Roman Oval Forum

Colonnade on the Roman Oval Forum

Colonnade on the Roman Oval Forum

Colonnade on the Roman Oval Forum

The long colonnaded street or the Cardo Maximus

the Cardo Maximus

the Cardo Maximus

I can smell rain?

I can smell rain?

Two theatres (the Large South Theatre and smaller North Theatre)

the South Theatre

the South Theatre

the South Theatre

the South Theatre

Two baths, and a scattering of small temples
An almost complete circuit of city walls


It started to come down quite heavily, thankfully just as we were winding up. We managed to seek refuge at a small tea shop located at the mouth of the ruins for some weather befitting hot mint tea.

Mount Nebo

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.

View from Mount Nebo

View from Mount Nebo

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.

the Serpentine Cross

the Brazen Serpent Monument atop Mt Nebo, symbolic of the bronze serpent created by Moses in the wilderness

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.

the Dead Sea

the Dead Sea

Halite deposits

Halite deposits

Beach pebbles covered in halite

Beach pebbles covered in halite

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 drive from the Dead Sea to Kerak

the drive from the Dead Sea to Kerak

the drive from the Dead Sea to Kerak

the drive from the Dead Sea to 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 Crusader Castle of Kerak

the Crusader Castle of Kerak

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!

 

 

24 thoughts on “On the King’s Highway to find my pot of gold. Jordan.

  1. You forgot to mention that your travel companion slept through most of the picturesque highway drive and woke up ever so often to say “I’m hungry!” And when we sat in the van you said “Ahmeddd.. ACeeee”. Hahaha. What a trip that was. Waiting to read your piece on Petra.

  2. I loved your pictures. Jordan looks amazing. I have always wanted to visit Petra! Thanks for the follow. I hope you will enjoy India! Big smiles. . . . Anne

  3. Thanks for this post – very informative. I’m planning a trip to Jordan and I’m glad to know you had such a good time. Do you think it would be easy for a solo female traveller to do the trip you did? And is the only way to get around renting a car, or is it possible to take public transportation?
    Many thanks!
    Johanna

    • Hey Johanna,
      I think it would be ok to travel solo. We found Jordan to be relatively safe; the people are extremely helpful and polite and are happy to see tourists / traveler. We literally sprinted through so needed a designated car and driver to cut out wasting any time but I’m sure you can use public transport (we used local buses in Syria and managed just fine).
      My blog on Petra is still pending and I hope to get it out there before you go! Try and book “Petra by night”, if I remember correctly it takes place every Thursday (we missed it unfortunately). Have fun, I absolutely loved Jordan and I hope you do too.

  4. Pingback: Rose red city, half as old as time. Petra. A photo-journey. « why is a raven like a writing desk?

  5. Ah reminded me of the Temple of Artemis and other amazing sites I saw in Ephesus. Feels grand to be at the spot and wonder about the magnificent ancient times, no?

  6. Hi Aradhana,
    You blog was just the thing i was looking for!
    My name is Saha. Me and my wife were planning to visit Jordan in December. But like you, we’ve got just 4 days. While researching, we stumbled upon your detailed and informative blog.
    Could you please suggest me how best to go about it, without rushing up everything.
    The rough itinerary that I had planned was
    Day 1 – Reach Amman in the morning. Drive to Jerash, Dead Sea and stay overnite at Mariam Hotel Madaba
    Day 2 – Drive by Kings Highway to Petra (via Kerak and Mount Nebo). Stay at Petra (Please suggest a hotel)
    Day 3 – Roam around Petra. In the evening head towards Wadi Rum. Overnite at Wadi Rum
    Day 4 – Roam around Wadi Rum. And then Head to the Amman Airport to catch a night flight back to Dubai

    I was planning to rent a car. Or does it make sense to ask Mariam Hotel to organise this trip with a car and a driver.

    Do drop in a line or two either here or at recklessrock@gmail.com

    Thanks again
    Saha

    • Hello Saha! Your itinetay lookd great except for day 1 since Jerash and the Dead Sea are in opposite directions. I would suggest is – driving from Amman to Jerash and spending the night in Madaba (as you’ve planned) and stopping at the Dead Sea on the way to Petra the next day.
      We stayed at the Marriott Hotel in Petra, however, check tripsdvisor for the best hotel today (we went in 2009 so its been a while).
      Are you planning on driving? It might be better to see if the hotel have any drivers with cars (they know the lay of the land better).

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