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Jordan: Ajlun, Amman, Aqaba, Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Dead Sea, Jerash, Karak, Madaba, Mount Nebo, Pella & Umm Qays, Petra, Wadi Rum
Pella & Umm Qays, Jordan: Roman grandeur
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Contrary to popular belief, Alexander the Great was not born in Pella. The city was renamed perhaps in honour of the Great Warrior. Located 130 kms north of Amman, Pella is extremely rich in antiquities, some of which are exceedingly old.
We were in a group of 6 all anxious to explore Jordan. We landed at Queen Alia International Airport at about 8:30 in the morning. Indian nationals get their visas on arrival and they are free of cost. The only catch is that you should be travelling in a group of at least 5 and must spend at least 2 nights in Jordan. And you should be in the hands of one of the many authorized inbound tour operators in Jordan. Individual travelers can also get a visa on arrival but need to pay a fee which was Jordanian Dinar 20. At the time of writing, 1USD got us 0.70 JOD. ‘JayDee’ is how the currency is called.
We were in good hands of Karma House, one of the leading tour operators. Their representative greeted us in the customs area. And in 20 minutes we were through with immigration. It might be a good idea to buy a local SIM card at the airport itself. Luckily, there was an offer that allowed liberal calls to India. We got our mobiles charged with JOD 10. Believe me, we couldn’t consume in the 6 days that we were there!
During our visit there was uprising happening in the Arab world. Before we commenced our journey, we were actually worried and seriously thought of cancelling the trip. However, we were assured that it was quite peaceful in Jordan. And sure it was. We didn’t come across any demonstration. There were banners placed all over – to praise the King!
At our disposal was a brand new Hyundai 7-seater van. Our driver was Joseph. I must mention about his excellent driving and his concern for keeping his van squeaky clean – to an extent that he was actually paranoid about it. Joseph’s head would shake and turn with every piece of snack packet we opened during the journey. And our guide was Mueen Akroush who was actually an archeology student with over 16 years experience. He was fluent in English and German. He was quite a guy to have around.
Jordan is a small country. It runs 380 kms from north to south and 150 kms from east to west. In other words within 4 hours you could be in Amman from any part of the country. It borders with Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel. The population of Jordan stood at 5.6 million of which 2.4 million live in the Capital city of Amman. Arabic is the official language but one can get away with English most of the times. Tourism, IT and Financial Services are the major earners for the country.
To get the maximum from the time on hand, we planned to visit the historic towns of Pella and Umm Qays before checking in our hotel for the night in Amman. Thus began our tour or should I say exploration?
It was a 2 hour drive to Pella from the airport. The road passed through the Jordan valley – the vegetable bowl of Jordan and most of the Arab world. This patch of green produces huge amount of vegetables. I could see many Turkish trucks lined along the road ready to load fresh produce. Barring this region, Jordan is all arid. Also along the road were families enjoying their Saturday picnic. It’s a common practice for Jordanians to enjoy their weekends with families out in the open. Visiting fine restaurants for their meals could be an expensive affair. After all, they are large families. On an average a Jordanian couple has 6 kids.
Favourite of archaeologists, Pella has ruins from the Graeco-Roman period. We saw the remains of a Chalcolithic settlement from the 4th BC, the remains of Bronze and Iron Age walled cities, Byzantine churches and houses, an early Islamic residential quarter and a medieval mosque. The town crafted chariot wheels and sold them to Egypt.
For lunch we visited a restaurant on top of the hill. The food was authentically local and offered a panoramic view of the ruins below and the Carmel Mountains beyond. We stuffed ourselves with fresh vegetable salad and the local bread. After washing it down with lemonade, we were ready to leave for our next destination.
60 kms from Pella is Umm Qays which is the modern day name of the ancient Gadara. It has a mention in the late 16th century in the Ottoman tax records as ‘Mkes’ which in Arabic means a frontier station for collecting taxes!
Umm Qays was a cultural centre. About 20,000 people lived in and was called the ‘Place of the Intellectuals’. It was home to several classical poets and philosophers, including Theodorus, founder of rhetorical school in Rome. One poet called the city ‘a new Athens’. It’s also the site of the famous miracle of the Gadarene swine – wherein Jesus Christ cast the bad spirits out of the demented man into the herd of pigs who ran down the hill and drowned in the waters of Galilee.
Perched on a hilltop, Umm Qays overlooks the Jordan Valley, Golan Heigths in Israel and the Sea of Galilie, also known as Lake Tiberius. Ruins of this Roman city boasts of colonnaded terraces, two theatres, mausoleum, baths and a Basilica. There’s a fine restaurant on one of the edges offering panoramic views. After the walk we had, a can chilled Coke was well deserved.
It was a 2 hour journey via Irbid (Jordan’s 3rd largest city) to Amman. For the night we checked into Le Meridien Hotel at Amman. While the hotel had all good things that can be expected from a 5-star property, unfortunately the room was warm and uncomfortable. We were told that the hotel close off their air-conditioning for winters and that they trust fresh air to keep the rooms comfortable. That hypothesis doesn’t work if zillions of cars pass down the street creating a racket all night long. Open windows is not a good idea unless one is deaf. Make a note when you book your hotel in Amman!
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