I am still in Amman as I write this, and had one more day before I head to Petra and Wadi Musa. And was unsure of what to do for the whole day, since I had pretty much covered Amman entirely the previous day.
Thankfully, the hostel I was staying in, had a tour organised for the day, heading towards Jerash. I had wanted to visit Jerash using public transport, but given my lazy disposition and Amman’s hard, cold climate, I decided to bite the bullet and joined the tour.
Our tour-guide was a huge, bald Jordanian, who I called Kojak from the moment I met him. In turn, he called me Amitabh Bachchan throughout the journey. It was gladdening that we both believed in stereotyping people!
We were a tour group of 7 people, which included a grandma and her 2 granddaughters from Maryland, 2 guys from UK, and 1 guy from Canada. We all hit it off immediately upon entering the minibus like a house on fire. It helped that the grandma was the most ardent traveller of all, having even lived in India for 4 years! She kept reminiscing about her stay in India back in the 1960’s, and I had to keep reminding her that I wasn’t even born then, and neither was my mother!
Umm Qais Archaeological site
Our first stop was the ruins at Umm Qais – also called Umm Qyas – after passing the university town of Irbid. On the way there, we had the unique privilege of seeing a road divider that would take us to 2 different countries. There was a road sign to turn left for Israel, and to turn right for Syria. Up ahead, we also saw a sign to take a U-turn for Iraq! But guess that would have been a really long road, since Iraq was nearly 200 Kms away!
At Umm Qais, the tickets cost 1 JD (Jordanian Dinar), and we had an option to hire a tourguide for 5 JD. Lonely planet won over the tourguide, and it also informed us that Umm Qais was one of the 10 cities which formed an ancient Decapolis for the Roman Empire. Just that it was called Gadara back in the days. What remains of this once-glorious hilltop city now is an almost 3 km stretch of ruins, which includes everything from theatres to churches.
But one of the best aspects of Umm Qais was that you could see, from some of its points, some of the most famous places in the region. To the north, in no specific order, you could see Golan heights, Mount hermon in Lebanon, Tiberias, and the sea of Galilee. That’s on a clear day, because we saw only the Golan heights and sea of Galilee when we were there.
From the top-most point of Umm Qais, one could look to the north, and see Syria, Israel and even portions of Lebanon.
After Umm Qais, we continued our journey. On the way, I had a brain stroke to have cheap falafels, and Kojak stopped at a streetside eatery. When I said ‘cheap’, I had no idea what I was going to get. We were given no less than 50 falafel balls for 1 JD! And to top it up, 2 bottles of 7UP for 1 JD again. So, a word of advice. When in Jordan, eat like the Jordanians do. That’s by the street for sure.
Another 20 minutes, and 50 falafels later, we were on our way to Ajloun, when I finally saw what I came to see. Snow! And entire mountains covered with them! I was singing Christmas carols somewhere in my daydreams!
The snow kept intensifying as we were closer to Ajloun, so we kind of knew what to expect when we reached our destination. When we finally drove up to Ajloun castle, or Qallat Aljoun, what greeted us was an Edinburgh-esque castle with snow over and around it. And right in Jordan! Who would have thought!!
We had to pay 2 JD to get inside, and I don’t think it was the castle itself that made me pay up. It was more of the thought of taking some pictures of snow-clad Ajloun city, from the top of the castle. There was a small museum inside the castle, which also contained some creepy-yet-interesting tunnels, and hidden stairs. I kept finding each and every one of those hidden stairs to get to the top of the castle, and click away at the snowy city below.
The Ajloun castle was originally built by the Ayyubis and then expanded by the Mamluk dynasty. It is considered the foundation of the city of Ajloun which surrounds it, and was an integral part of Jordanian history during the crusade years. So, it may be a little ironic that the castle was built on top of the ruins of a Christian monastery which was constructed during the Byzantine period. And Ajloun itself was the name of a Christian monk during that time.
Jerash and the hippodrome
After Ajloun, we had to hurry to our main location of the day, Jerash, because the ticketing for the Jerash archaeological site closed at 3 PM. It was already 2, and we decided to skip a church on the way to make up for lost time. After driving as fast as Kojak could (he was pulled up earlier by the cops for speeding. Typical Jordanian!), we made it to Jerash at about 2.30. All good with the tickets.
Jerash, also called Gerash or Gerasa in ancient times, must have been special, because the tickets cost a whopping 8 JD! I shudder to think about Petra coming up tomorrow. But, I think the 8 JD was worth everything, because the Jerash archaeological complex was huge! It took us a good 2 hours to walk around and see everything. It was all ruins, but the immensity of the whole structure was just awe-filling.
What greets you when you enter Jerash, after the long-winding corridors of the bazaar, was the fabled Arch of Hadrian. Well, all the history I knew screamed at me that something was amiss here. Apparently, this is a remodel of the original Hadrian’s arch, which is located in Athens, Greece, and which I would have the pleasure of seeing a year later. The one in Jerash, was erected to honour the visit of Hadrian to Gerasa, back in 130AD. And after considerable restorations, the arch almost looked like a brand new structure.
Next to the Hadrian’s arch, you could find the hippodrome, where they ran the famous chariot races. During the tourist season – this was December, so definitely off-peak – there is a daily chariot show at the hippodrome, which mock-fights between gladiators and Roman charioteers, complete with uniforms and authentic dressing styles from those days. Well, guess I am not seeing any of that today!
And once inside the giant Greco-Roman complex, there are plenty of sites for you to walk around a explore. You could ogle at the giant oval column, two large theatres (north and south), and two large temples (for Artemis and Zeus). Plan at least 2 hours for the whole walk, and carry water. And good walking shoes, since some parts of the stretch are unpaved. And if you get to stay till sunset, which is around 5 pm, you will be rewarded with a spectacular sight of the sun settings against ancient Roman ruins.
And to top it up, a Jordanian marching duo will hit it up in the south theatre, with some drums and a bagpipes. Yes, bagpipes! The whole British connection I had learnt of through the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ stories, slowly came back to me.
If Jerash itself is so good, I am all hyped up for Petra tomorrow. Nothing eventful happened on the way back to the hostel. Had a couple of cheap shawarmas, and headed to sleep, because I have a petra-fying day tomorrow!