At the ancient crossroad where Silk Road caravans crossed the trade routes of the Jordanian Rift Valley, the Rose City once thrived as a major trading hub between the Asia (China, India and Arabia) and the Mediterranean world, and the capital of Nabataean kingdom. From 4th century BC to the 4th century AD, Petra flourished for seven centuries until the shifting of trade routes and the Galilee Earthquake of 363 AD, which led the city into a irreversible decline. Petra was enlisted to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1985 and has become one of the most iconic attraction in the Middle East, thanks to After a peace treaty was signed in 1994 between Jordan and Israel, tourism has thrived in Jordan ever since. From 138,577 in 1994 to 918,136 in 2010, tourist numbers have skyrocketed until the Syrian Civil War broke out and greatly affected international tourism throughout the region. Back in 2006, our two full days at Petra was definitely the biggest highlight of our experience in Jordan.
After a long day on the King’s Highway, we had some good rest at Petra Moon Hotel. After an early breakfast at 6am, we quickly headed down the road for a 5-minute walk to Petra’s ticket office. After obtaining our tickets, we walked over to the entrance of the Siq, a narrow gorge serving as the natural entry path into the lost city. At several occasions, the Siq became so narrow and dark that made us felt like walking in a tunnel no wider than a car. A water channel, at about 1m above ground, was carved on the cliff surface along the Siq, reminding us the marvelous engineering in the ancient times that brought water from flash floods into Petra for storage and daily use.
At the end of the Siq, about 1.5km from the gorge entrance, we arrived at the spot where every visitor would stop for the iconic photo of the rock-cut Treasury (Al Khazneh). No matter how many times the Treasury has appeared on travel photos and TV travel shows, nothing could prepare us emotionally for our first encounter with the stunning view. Groups after groups of tourists gathered in front of the iconic Treasury building to take photos. Taking the iconic photo of framing the Treasury between the narrow Siq passage without any tourist required good patience. Unlike how Steven Spielberg depicts in his movie, fans of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would be disappointed to find no deadly traps, fancy sculptures or glittering treasure behind the famous rock facade. The interior of the Treasury is actually just an empty cave carved out from the cliff. Legends have it that robbers and pirates might have used the building to store their looted objects. Probably this explains the reason why the building is called the “Treasury”. Though most archaeologists would agree that the Treasury was likely used as a temple and a royal tomb of the Nabataeans.
A sandy path led us towards the entrance of the Siq.
One of the first monuments we encountered was the Obelisk Tomb. The four obelisks on the tomb facade are actually nefeshes, pointed pillars to embody the people buried in the inner chamber.
The rugged desert canyons at Petra is largely made of sandstone.
We followed a few local visitors to enter the Siq, the winding and narrow canyon leading into the lost city.
The 1.2km Siq passage provides the most dramatic approach to the lost city.
The Siq is formed by a geological fault split apart by tectonic forces. The height of the cliffs range from 91 to 182m in height.
From aerial photos one can clearly see how narrow the Siq is – a split in the rose-red sandstone plateau no wider than 3m at some points.
Under the early morning sun, the rock cliffs along the Siq glowed in a golden colour.
Certain parts of the Siq are in shade for almost the entire day.
The 1.2km long water conduits along the Siq are still visible.
The water conduits and the pavement were built in the last decades of the 1st century BC.
At last, the majestic view of the Treasury of Petra emerged between the cliffs.
The famous rock facade of the Treasury was a prominent filming spot for Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The Treasury, or Al-Khazneh, was carved out of the sandstone rock cliff as the mausoleum of Nabatean King Aretas IV in the 1st century AD.
In the 19th century, nomadic bedouins in the region believed the iconic structure contained treasures left by bandits or pirates.
Humidity from tourist crowds and years of touching and rubbing have caused damages to the sandstone building.
The King’s Highway of Jordan has been an important trade route from Egypt to the Euphrates River for thousands of years. The route roughly runs along Jordan Rift Valley, from the source of Jordan River, passes through the Sea of Galilee, Dead Sea, Arabah Depression, Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea, in Jordan, Palestine and Israel. The Jordan Rift Valley lies in the crossroad of the tectonic plates, including the Arabian Plate, Dead Sea Transform Fault, Sinai Microplate. The dramatic valley landscape is formed by the geological movements of the tectonic plates, forming an interesting backdrop for the historical King’s Highway. Today, tourists and pilgrims travel on the historical backbone of the country, the King’s Highway, from Mount Nebo and Madaba in the north, passed by the Crusader castles of Karak and Shobak, and arrive at the magnificent Nabataean lost city of Petra.
From Karak, our hired taxi brought us to Shobak Castle, the second Crusader castles that we visited in Jordan. In 1115, Baldwin I King of Jerusalem ordered the construction of Shobak Castle, establishing the oldest Crusader castle in the region. Also known as Montreal, the Shobak Castle is not as big as Karak, but the ruins and the surrounding landscape is no less impressive. We met few tourists (except a local family of six) in the castle, despite the admission was free of charge. We wandered freely in the castle ruins. Apart from the ruins, what truly impressed me the most was the surrounding landscape of the Jordan Rift Valley.
Castle Shobak is also known as Montreal, or Mont Royal.
Baldwin I King of Jerusalem built the Shobak Castle to control the caravan routes between Egypt and Syria.
Tunnels were constructed in the castle to access two spring cisterns down the hill.
The tunnel access to water source allowed the castle to hold longer during a siege.
Yet, in May 1189, the castle fell to the army of Ayyubid sultan Saladin.
Probably for defensive uses, a number of stone balls are in display at the ruins.
Some stone balls were placed on the defensive walls of the castle.
The stone balls looked interesting against the blue sky.
During our visit, we met a local family who waved to us and posed for our photo.
Despite mainly in ruins, visiting Shobak Castle was an impressive experience.
Ayyubid force controlled the castle for 70 years and embellished the complex with carved inscriptions.
From the castle, we could get a decent view of the landscape of Jordan Rift Valley.
Down below, the landscape and ruined buildings blended into one coherent picture.
The pristine landscape surrounding the castle was a pleasant surprise.
We spent quite a long while just to admire the impressive landscape.
Looking carefully into the surrounding landscape, we could find many ruined buildings.
The ruins and the landscape almost seemed like an abstract painting.
From Shobak, there are various hiking trails toward different directions, including north to Dana and south to Petra.
In a foggy afternoon of December 2016, gunfire broke the silence at the remnants of Kerak Castle. Following a series of attacks on police patrols and station in Al-Karak, five ISIS terrorists seek refuge at the 12th century Crusader castle as the Jordanian force was closing in. The government force besieged the castle and eventually killed all terrorists. 14 people were killed in the shootout, including one Canadian tourist. Terrorist attacks are not common in Jordan, but the 2016 siege of the Kerak Castle and the unstable conditions in Syria have hampered tourism of Jordan in recent years. Built in the 12th century, the former Crusader stronghold Kerak Castle was not stranger to military siege in history, with the siege of Saladin’s force in 1183 being the most famous. The siege by Saladin, the Muslim leader from Damascus, coincided with the royal wedding inside the castle between Humphrey IV of Toron and Isabella of Jerusalem. The siege ended when the force of Baldwin IV, the King of Jerusalem, came for rescue. The historical incident serves as the background for the 2005 movie Kingdom of Heaven.
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It was Friday, 19th of May in 2006, a weekend holiday for the Muslims. At Wahadat Station in Amman, buses were running on holiday schedule. It took us sometime to find a bus bounded for Kerak Castle. Our goal for the day was to make our way on the King’s Highway from Amman to Wadi Musa, the popular base for tourists visiting the splendid lost city of Petra. It was a two hour bus ride from Amman to the town of Al-Karak. When we got off the bus, the driver told us that there would not be any public transportation from Karak to Tafila on Fridays. Our original plan was to visit Kerak Castle, take a bus to Tafila, and then hire a taxi onwards to Shobak and Wadi Musa. Without public transportation, we had to settle with hiring a taxi driver for the day at 40 Jordanian Dinar, taking us uphill to Kerak Castle, and then to Shobak Castle and Wadi Musa.
Kerak Castle is one of the largest castles in the region. Compared to Krak des Chevaliers, Kerak has a simpler design and rougher craftsmanship. Kerak Castle has a nice little museum. I enjoyed reading a little about the history of the castle, the Crusades and the Muslim conqueror Saladin at the bookshop.
We were lucky to find a bus going to Kerak Castle that was running on the Friday holiday schedule.
The castle looked spectacular from the town of Al-Karak.
The scale of Kerak Castle is enormous when viewed from the town below.
The castle was empty, but a large portion of the structure remains intact for over 800 years.
Due to the large size, tourists dispersed all over the castle once inside the complex.
Kerak Castle contains many covered passages protected with thick defensive walls. During the 2016 terrorist attack, most tourists were hiding in a separate part of the castle to avoid contact with the attackers.
Al-Karak lies 140 km south of Amman, on a hilltop 1000m above sea level. The Dead Sea is visible from the castle. Beyond the Dead Sea, the Holy city of Jerusalem is just a short car journey away.
We arrived at Madaba by a morning bus from Amman. Madaba was a decent sized city during the Byzantine era. Today the town is frequented by tourists enroute to the Dead Sea. There are a number of archaeological sites still under excavation in Madaba. What makes tourists (including us) to stop by Madaba is a 6th century mosaic map depicting the Holy Land of Jerusalem at the Greek Orthodox Church Saint George. We stopped by the archaeological museum briefly to see other pieces of mosaic from the Byzantine era, before heading over to Saint George. The church was packed with tourists, all crowded around the mosaic map of the Biblical World. The mosaic map centered around Jerusalem, with other towns and geographical features such as River Nile, Mediterranean Sea, and Dead Sea, in the surrounding.
After checking out the mosaic map, it was time to get a dip in the salty water of the Dead Sea to get a taste of the floating experience. After some bargaining, we hopped onto a taxi for the Jordanian Dead Sea beaches. From Madaba, our taxi sped through the rough arid landscape towards the waterfront. Along the way, the driver pointed towards the Moses Spring at Mount Nebo and Moses Memorial Church as we passed by the holy sites. At the waterfront, we entered a whole new world of luxury resort hotels. The contrast to what we have seen in other parts of Jordan and Syria was phenomenal. We knew we had arrived at the touristy Dead Sea coast. Our driver dropped us off at Amman Beach Resort. We paid 4 Jordanian Dinar admission for entering the beach. We took our turns swimming in the water. Just for fun, we grabbed a bit of mud and apply it onto our skin, tried the unique floating experience, and took a few typical Dead Sea photos. It was hot and humid at the world’s lowest point 422m below sea level.
As many researchers point out, the Dead Sea is in deep trouble, as less water from Jordan River is feeding the salty inland lake every year. Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel all rely on the area’s limited water resources, such as the Jordan River, for their growing population and agriculture usage. In matter of decades the Dead Sea may disappear altogether. We heard that the Jordanian government is planning to divert the water from the Red Sea to feed the Dead Sea. At the beach, we could clearly see traces of the old water level. Just like seeing the retreating glacier on the Swiss Alps, witnessing the gradual death of the Dead Sea made a huge impact on me. People in the developed nations may never have to worry about their water supply, and understand the alarming situation of the Dead Sea. Sustainable water management in the Dead Sea area is crucial, not only to the survival of millions, but also to the political climate of the region. Successful cooperation of water management offers the basis of peaceful co-existence of the region’s major players. If that fails, dispute fighting over water supply may not be too far away.
The magnificent 6th century mosaic map of Jerusalem is the biggest draw for tourists coming to Madaba. (Image: Public Domain)
It was hard to imagine where grazing of the sheep could take place in the arid landscape near the Dead Sea.
The arid landscape at Dead Sea is actually susceptible to flash floods.
The Jordan Rift Valley is a long depression between Israel, Jordan and Palestine. The valley’s lowest spot is the lowest point in the world, located in the Dead Sea at 790m below sea level.
Despite touristy, we amused ourselves in the salty water of the Dead Sea.
For thousands of years since Neolithic times, the “L” shaped hill known as the Citadel of Amman has been inhabited. Ruined temples, churches and palaces dated from the Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad period stand on the citadel hill today. Most of the site remains unexcavated, despite archaeologists have been working here since 1920. The most impressive remain on the hill is the ruins of Temple of Hercules, a Islamic palace and a modest archaeological museum, in which parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display. After dropping off our dirty clothes at a laundry shop, getting ourselves some stamps at the post office, and having a peek at the 2nd century Roman Theatre through the metal gate, we turned to the Citadel hill. On the hill, we chatted with a group of cheerful girls who were playing on the street. They spotted us from afar and seemed pretty curious about the three of us. One of them spoke to us in simple English, and we ended up taking pictures with them in the midst of innocent laughter.
In the evening, we had dinner at a restaurant with a large balcony overlooking a busy street. After dinner, I had a short break at the hostel before returning to the restaurant that we had supper to watch the 2006 UEFA Champions League final on their live TV. There were 15 local men in the tiny restaurant watching the game. I sat down at an empty chair behind a man and ordered a bottle of coke. The large balcony window was opened and I could hear the noise and cheer from restaurants and tea shops down below. It felt like everyone in the city was watching the game. Almost all the other men in the restaurant were smoking cigarette or shisha (water pipe), and the place got pretty smoky. When Campbell scored the first goal for Arsenal, the restaurant owner came out and teased all of us. He yelled at me saying “Barca finishes, Arsenal good!” Throughout the game, the men around me kept on sneaking out to the balcony and yelled down to people on the street. I wasn’t sure whether they knew each other or they were just too excited about the game. Assisted by Henrik Larsson, at around 76th minutes Samuel Eto finally scored the first goal for Barca, and then the second came 5 minutes later through Juliano Belletti. It was the perfect night for the Barca supporters in Amman. As I walked back to the hotel, I passed by groups after groups of joyful locals coming out from tea shops and restaurants after watching the game. Some were walking home in laughter, while the others hopping on cars that packed both sides of the street.
The first impression of Jordan was clean and pleasant.
Amman is a popular Arab city for international visitors. It also receives the most medical tourists in the region.
Locals that we met in Jordan were all very welcoming and friendly.
At the Citadel, the uncompleted 2nd century Temple of Hercules was the most prominent Roman structure. Probably destroyed by earthquakes, it once housed a 12m stone statue of Hercules.
Lying mostly in ruins at the Citadel, the Umayyad Palace was built in the 8th century.
A new dome was restored at the entrance hall of Umayyad Palace in 1998, though not all experts have agreed on whether there was truly a dome in the old times.
Looking down from the Citadel we could get a good view of the Roman Theatre.
Situated at the foot of Jabal Al-Joufah opposite to the Citadel, The 2nd century Roman theatre could seat 6000 people.
The Raghadan Flagpole was once the tallest in the world. It is visible from allover the capital city.
As of 2015, the 126.8m Raghadan Flagpole is the 7th tallest in the world. It flies a 60 x 30m flag.
Mainly cladded with limestone or sandstone, residential buildings in Amman are limited to 4 storeys above ground.
At the Citadel hill, we stumbled upon a group of cheerful children.
The young girls were quite curious about us.
Amman is considered to be one of the most liberal cities in the Arab world. Many children have been exposed to the global commercialism since very young age.
One of the girls tried speaking to us in simple English.
I passed by Al-Husseini Mosque on our way to supper. Erected in around 640 AD, Al-Husseini Mosque was one of the oldest mosques in Amman. The structure was rebuilt in 1932 by King Abdullah I.
After a rather heavy-hearted account of a brief stay in Syria, we move on to the next part of the Middle East journey: Jordan. Although small and almost landlocked, Jordan is a country of a relatively high development with an “upper middle income” economy in the region. It is also a major tourist destination, thanks to the ruined city of Petra, Dead Sea and Wadi Rum, the desert of Lawrence of Arabia. After a little more than a week in Syria, my first impression of the Jordanian capital Amman was the reemergence of global businesses and commercialism. We started our Jordanian route from the very north of the country at Jerash, one of the best preserved classical ruined cities in the world.
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In the morning we took a minibus from Amman’s Abdali Bus Station (now closed) to Jerash, about 50km north of the capital. Known as the City of Gerasa or Antioch on the Golden River in the Greco-Roman period, Jerash is now a major tourist attraction in Jordan. Many have compared Jerash to Pompeii in terms of the extent and level of preservation. To me, they are actually two very different archaeological sites. Founded by Alexander the Great or by Seleucid King Antioch IV in 331 BC, Gerasa flourished in the Roman period as a trading hub. The three of us entered the Arch of Hadrian, wandered around the site and visited the ruins of Temple of Artemis, saw many Corinthian columns, early churches, the Oval Piazza, and two theaters. At the second theatre, a band of musicians, dressed in military uniforms, were playing ceremonial music on the stage and prompting us to stop for a while. We exited the ruins through the north gate, and hired a taxi to the bus station. At the station, we met an old man who claimed to be an experience tour guide. He told us a bit about his journey to Hong Kong back in early 1970’s, and recommended a cheaper Amman bound bus to us.
The 22m high triple archway was erected in 130AD to commemorate the visit of Roman Emperor Hadrian.
The Oval Forum and Cardo Maximus, the colonnaded road are the most recognizable features of Jerash.
The Oval Forum is bounded by 56 Ionic columns. The large square was probably used as a marketplace and a social gathering spot.
With the beautiful scaenae frons (stage backdrop) and proscenium (front face of the stage), the South Theatre is another popular attraction in Jerash.
Built between AD 81 and 96, the 5000-seat South Theatre is famous for its acoustics.
Just like many other tourists, we came across a band playing Jordanian Scottish bagpipe at the South Theatre of Jerash.
The Jordanian Scottish bagpipe is a legacy from Emirate of Transjordan, the years of British protectorate before 1946.
Artemis was the patron saint of Gerasa. Built in the 2nd century AD, the Temple of Artemis was one of the most important building in the city, at least before the end of the 4th century when pagan cults were forbidden.
Temple of Artemis has several beautiful Corinthian columns.
Each column weighs over 20 tons and are 39 feet tall.
Built in AD 165, the North Theatre was used for government meetings in the Roman times. Many seats are inscribed with names of city council members.
Once-in-a-century pandemic has brought international travel to a complete halt. With the pandemic still raging in many parts of the world, it is unrealistic to plan for new travel anytime soon. As a result, we will take this opportunity to share some of our past travel experiences that predate this blog. The pandemic compels us to cherish our travel memories more than ever, and acknowledge that we should never take things for granted especially in turbulent times. The first travel memory we are going to write about is a 40-day journey through the Middle East from Turkey to Egypt via Syria and Jordan. In the recent decade, the Middle East has gone through drastic changes after the Arab Spring movement in early 2010’s and the rise of Isis, particularly for Syria where the ongoing civil war has displaced over 10 million and killed about half a million of Syrians in the past 9 years. Places visited and people encountered may no longer exist, but they live long in our memories.
In spring 2006, I and five other friends embarked on the 40-day journey from Toronto, Canada. We first flew to Athens via Zurich, and then landed in Istanbul on 29th of April. We spent 11 days in Turkey, visiting the splendid architecture of Istanbul and Edirne, archaeological sites of Bergama and Ephesus, and natural wonders of Pamukkale and Cappadocia, before crossing the border at Antakya into Syria. We spent a week traveling from Aleppo to Damascus, visiting Crusader castles and archaeological sites near Hama, Palmyra, Bosra and Maalula along the way. From Damascus, we hired a taxi to Amman in Jordan, where we stayed for 8 days. While Petra was our main focus in Jordan, we did manage to visit classical ruins and medieval castles, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum Desert, and Aqaba diving resort. Then on 25th of May, we hopped on a ferry to cross the Gulf of Aqaba for Sinai Peninsula. In Egypt, we spent the remaining week to visit the diving town of Dahab, hike the sacred Mount Sinai, admire the pyramids in Saqqara, Dahshur and Giza, and the mosques and Coptic churches in Cairo, and finally ventured out into the far western end near the Libyan border for Siwa Oasis and the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert.
Back then, I didn’t have a DSLR or smart phone, but traveled with a Nikon FM2 and 50+ rolls of films, including some Fuji Velvia (slide positives) and Ilford Delta (B&W negatives). Number of shots were limited and low light photography was restricted by the film ISO and the availability of a flat surface to place the camera. Yet, the photos’ film grains and occasional blurry effects due to hand movements somehow provoke a unique mood and vaguely remind me each distinct moment when I released the shutter. Each shot has no second take or immediate image editing. Compared to the multi gigabytes stored in memory cards, the slides and negatives of the Middle East trip are much more tangible as if one-of-a-kind souvenir from the trip. Scanning the films afterwards made me to spend a whole lot more time on each photo, and sometimes led me to rediscover bits and pieces of forgotten travel memories.
The 40-day Middle East trip in 2006 remains as one of my most memorable travel experiences to date.
The first time seeing the great architecture of ancient Constantinople was like a dream come true to me.
It was hard to perceive that all the ancient architecture in Turkey were maintained by generations after generations of craftsmen throughout the centuries.
The old Ottoman houses of Istanbul provoke a sense of melancholy that can only be found in the works of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.
With the otherworldly landscape, hiking in Cappadocia was fun and felt like walking on another planet.
In the past decade, reading the news about how Syrians have suffered and learning about so many cultural heritage, including the Aleppo Citadel, have been destroyed or badly damaged was really upsetting.
Archaeological sites in Syria like Palmyra and Apamea (pictures above) has become venues for frequent looting and destruction under the Isis.
10 million people have been displaced by the Syrian Civil War. Cities like Hama, the city famous for its ancient norias, has been standing in the forefront between the rebels and the government force.
I have encountered so many innocent Syrian children, including these school kids in Damascus, back in 2006. No one would have foreseen the brutal civil war coming in a few years’ time.
Compared to the Syrians who are still going through the civil war, the Jordanian children that I’ve met in Amman during the trip have been much more fortunate.
Every time meandering through the Siq, the narrow gorge that leads into the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, and approaching the Treasury was like going into an Indiana Jones movie.
Riding a camel in Wadi Rum Desert offered every visitors a chance to feel like being Lawrence of Arabia.
I would never forget hiking the pilgrim route up Mount Sinai at 2am in complete darkness, standing at the summit in bone-chilling wind, and watching one of the most anticipated sunrises in my life.
Getting lost in the chaotic Islamic Cairo would be so much fun if not the scorching heat.
Venturing out to the remote Siwa Oasis on my own was one of the most adventurous event in my travels.
Heading out from Siwa into the Great Sand Sea gave me the perfect Sahara moments: doing rollercoaster Jeep rides up and down the dunes, watching sunset over the undulating desert horizon, and sleeping under the Milky Way in the open desert.