Gareth Huw Davies

Travel Features

Down the King’s Highway into ancient Jordan

Entrance to Petra, by the writer

We were heading down the King’s Highway, which runs as twisty as a desert snake through the high ground above the Dead Sea.

It reminded me of those stretches of famous old roads you come across in Britain, the A6 in Cumbria, or the A4 in Wiltshire for example, quiet now since the motorways took away their traffic, and a rare joy to drive. But the King’s Highway is much, much older.

This was a busy thoroughfare down the spine of Jordan when the road outside my house was still part of the floor of the Wild Wood in pre-Roman Britain. It’s so old it has a write-up in the Old Testament (Numbers 20:17), when Moses and the Israelites try to pass through without being harassed by the people of Edom. It links Crusader castles, Roman fortresses, early Islamic towns, and the fabulous rocks city of Petra.

Our driver never tires of this road. With a recall that would please a Heinz product manager he remembered exactly how many times he had driven it– “57.” He pulled up at the top of one of Jordan’s eternal nameless wadis, a wide, dry stony valley stretching down the slope. It’s the sort of place where prophets would halt and contemplate.

Driver chose a rock and flexed his arm for a sound test.  With a look that betrayed his inner small boy, he hurled it down the valley.  We heard it ricochet for ages off the steep walls. Then, from far below us came the scolding “kaaaark” of some big and exotic bird, as if reproving us for disturbing the solemn peace of this ancient place.

Most people come to Jordan to see two places, Petra and Wadi Rum. Now jade baths full of Nebuchadnezzar’s gold would not have been enough to entice us away from the fabled rose coloured ruins of that remarkable mountain city. And so we were leaving it to last.

However we had decided not to go to Wadi Rum. The sensational oasis under Lawrence of Arabia’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” sandstone cliffs was recently [January 2010] named by Wanderlust magazine as one of the world’s natural wonders we love too much. Too many visitors today risk ruining it for future generations. Fortunately Jordan has many other, less well-known marvels. We were riding the Kings Highway on our way to one of them.

We soon reached Dana, one of the world’s 553 biosphere reserves. (The name comes not from the 1960s Irish chanteuse, but from the village on its edge).  This is nature’s determined fightback in the parched and strife-ridden Middle East, and it’s as remarkable as Wadi Rum in its own quiet way.

Species for species, Dana holds its own with some Africa reserves. The Kenyan savannah may have its “big five” — all those lions and elephants– but Dana is much more subtle. It has the “small to medium-sized 449” – an abundant list of rare creatures including the sand cat, Syrian wolf, Nubian Ibex and spiny tailed lizard.  (In the interest of honest reporting I confess we didn’t see any on our brief visit.  I blame our rock-chucking driver, sending the rarities diving for cover.)

Income from tourists pays for the reserve’s upkeep. So it’s worth joining one of the walks, where guides show off some of the 800 plant species. Or visit the villagers’ workshops, where they make jam, and silver jewellery.  Dana is a heartwarming triumph, so close to the Dead Sea, where life is in retreat in a hot and arid landscape.

The warm winter sun was collapsing in a fiery mass somewhere over Israel as we headed deep down to the basement of the world.  It’s the nearest thing I know to life on another planet. At 1200 feet below sea level, the lowest point on the Earth’s surface, we joined the main north-south road running alongside the east bank of the 50 mile long Dead Sea.

Our guide guide Iyad casually ticked off the Biblical highlights. “That’s where Lot’s wife was turned to a pillar of salt, so the Bible says.  Her big mistake was looking back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Recently British archaeologists found evidence that the twin towns of sin really were destroyed here, on the edge of the Dead Sea, probably by earthquake and landslide.

Jordan has enjoyed an enduring peace since it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1993. King Abdullah is pressing ahead with tourist development. That includes a line of hotels along the edge of the Dead Sea, where they exploit the allegedly wondrous medicinal properties of the mud.  Cleopatra was so smitten, she had bulk orders sent by camel train to Egypt.

Since my last visit in the 1990s, the level has fallen by another few feet, as they continue to extract water from the River Jordan, which feeds the Dead Sea.  Nowadays the shore line hotels would rather you took your aqua-therapy in their salubrious spas, which include pools of Dead Sea water pumped up for guests.  It is still possible to walk down to the receding waters and float on the real thing. (Bring a good book or a newspaper — there’s not much to do.)

We stayed at the new Kempinski Ishtar. The entrance is a Hollywood epic in itself, a full size replica of the original Ishtar Gate in Babylon.  We walked through into an immense ornate lobby, all marble pillars and Arabian carpets, built on the same scale.  Outside, to create an authentic, ready-made landscape, they shipped in mature olive trees. One is said to be 800 years old.

There is a strange dreamy quality to the air down here. UV rays are filtered by an additional 1200 feet of oxygen. The sun feels more benign, even on a hot day.

The Ishtar is well placed as a base for day trips to most of Jordan’s attractions.  Our first outing was a little way north, for proof that good things do happen in the Middle East.

The Baptismal Site (Bethany beyond the Jordan) is on the  border between Jordan and Israel. Since the peace treaty, archaeologists have been able to dig here. We looked down on the newly uncovered steps leading down to the point on the river where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus, alongside were the remains of several early Christian churches, built on top of one another.

The once mighty Jordan is now narrow and shallow.  We looked across to the visitor centre on the Israeli side, close enough to carry on a conversation. It was big and expensive and a little intimidating. There was far less ceremony on our bank, with only a wooden platform alongside the water.

A devout party from the American Bible belt were holding a service. The pastor asked me to take a photograph of him.  He composed the imagery with the care of a film director, skillfully masking the military post on the opposite bank.

This place is powerful and compelling whatever your belief. It has enormous significance to the Christian world, but we were lucky to find it serenely quiet.  You buy tickets at the reception point well away from the river, and they take you in open observation trucks the last mile. To get there I advise hiring a car through your hotel — we paid £100 for a day, which included a driver.

Our next call was a very holy high point. Our driver set off on the switchback road up to Mount Nebo, past tribesmen, all in black, tending their sheep.  The Bible says Moses climbed the 2680 feet up from the plain to be shown the Promised Land that God intended for the Jews. Some say he was buried on this mountain.

It’s a sensational panorama. On a clear day you can see the Holy Land

even Jerusalem, far away to the south west. A modern church incorporates the original Byzantine basilica, with mosaics dating from AD 531.  It was discovered in the 1970s in almost pristine condition.

A few miles on was Madaba, “City of Mosaics.” The bonus here is the church of Saint George with its 6th century mosaic map, the oldest surviving study of the Holy Land.

Next day we drove to Jerash, the great Roman flourish an hour north from Jordan’s capital Amman. The scale of Roman Empire always amazes me, even in our jetabout days. A few weeks earlier I was on Hadrian’s Wall in Cumbria. Now here we were, a five-hour flight away, walking under Hadrian’s Arch in one of the Middle East’s biggest and best preserved Roman cities.

We wandered all morning through the scattered and still remarkably intact buildings, around the hippodrome, down an original street lined by a hundred columns, and into the massive oval forum.  When we entered the amphitheatre a bagpipe band from the Jordanian Army struck up, just like the light that automatically comes on when you enter a room.

Then we found another answer to that eternal question from the Life of Brian — “What did the Romans ever do for us?” Traffic control.  Two major roads, rutted with cart wheels from 2000 years ago, intersect under a still solid four-sided arch, where soldiers wpuld keet traffic flowing around the clock.

All this had been the hors d’ oeuvre. Now it was time for the main course. We took the fast Desert Highway south from Amman. Half way down we stopped at a traditional café, where, under the ubiquitous poster of the King, we feasted on kebbeh – meatballs made of lamb, pine nuts and mint leaves.

The road ran alongside a railway line, now a mere branch line of history.  This was once the mighty link pilgrims’ link from Syria to Mecca, the Hejaz Railway.  Lawrence of Arabia  blew it up, and it was was never fully reinstated.

And so to Petra, high and cool in the mountains, one of New Seven Wonders of the World.  We were unfamiliar with the layout, which gave our guide the licence build us up to the genuine thrill of discovery.

It’s a huge site, with about 800 different structures located down many side valleys. At first we walked down a great wide way, alongside camels and horse-drawn carts for those who need a ride. After half a mile the track funnels into a deep and forbidding chasm. Huge pink rocks loomed above us on both sides. Then just we thought it couldm’t get any narrower, we suddenly burst out into a wide space enclosed by high, sheer cliffs in rose, cherry, and violet sandstone.

Directly before us was the mighty temple-shaped Treasury building, so familiar from the final scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which were filmed here. 2000 years early the great but mysterious Nabataean civilization built a set even Hollywood could not better.

The writer travelled courtesy of Bales Worldwide,,  Royal Jordanian (Heathrow-Amman), and stayed at the Kempinski Ishtar