Jordan

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Brad and I were excited for our trip to Jordan. We utilized notes from a friend’s trip to identify our itinerary. Additionally, we used their recommended tour company, Jordan Select Tours. Prior to our trip, they made it extremely easy to build and book our trip. After a few emails back and forth, we set our custom itinerary and had our trip planned. It’s nice that the tour company takes care of hotel reservations and includes airport transfers and transportation between all of the sites.

The flight itself was uneventful and we were met right before immigration by a representative from the tour company. They had completed paperwork for our Jordanian visa and ushered us past the long queue through immigration. After collecting our luggage, we went through our itinerary, paid and were passed off to Ibrahim, our driver for the rest of our trip. It was snowing when we arrived and it was about a 30 minute drive from the airport to the hotel. Amman is higher in elevation than the airport and the snow was heavier as we drove to the city. Similar to England, it doesn’t snow very often where it accumulates and we saw many accidents on the slow drive north. We made it to the beautiful hotel late and got checked into the Fairmont. Before we left Ibrahim, he gave us a small cell phone so we had a way to get in touch with him during our visit. We were pretty tired from the day of travel and ready for bed, but not before some small Jordanian nibbles left for us in the room along with fresh dates in the lobby. These might be the best dates I’ve ever had.

We woke up to foggy and windy weather, but the roads looked pretty good. Breakfast was included and I’ve never seen such a spread. There was a mix of American and Middle Eastern options. I could get used to hummus and Zatar Manakhesh (kind of like a spiced sesame flat bread) for breakfast. And the honey with nuts was amazing! There were so many delicious options it was hard to decide. I had a small sampling of a few things including chocolate vanilla Halawa. Which was kind of like a crumbly fudge.

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Beautiful breakfast room

We set off on the King’s Highway which stretches from Amman to Petra. Our first stop at St. George’s Church. As we drove away from Amman, we passes thousands of olive trees and had some clearer weather. We arrived in the small town of Mabada and visited the Greek Orthodox St. George’s Church built in 1896. As the tiles of the new church were being laid, they discovered a large beautiful mosaic map. While only a quarter of the map was remaining, it depicts the Jordan River, Dead Sea, and Jerusalem. The walls of the church were lined with amazingly framed mosaics. It was fascinating!

As our drive continued, the landscape changed to wadis (valleys) and mountains. Our next stop was Mt. Nebo. Moses climbed this mountain at the end of his life to see the Promised Land. The hilltop had a small museum, beautiful lookouts across the Jordan River and Dead Sea towards Palestine and the West Bank and beautiful mosaics inside Memorial Church of Moses.

It was freezing and windy, but it was sunny so that was nice. The mosaics in the church were in fascinating patterns and images. The one large mosaic depicts man’s relationship with animals from hunting to domestication.  It’s interesting Mt. Nebo isn’t that high, but the valley below is below sea level which gives the illusion it’s much higher.

After departing Mt. Nebo, we stopped off at a mosaic workshop and store. We had a chat with a man who explained how his workshop teaches and employs handicapped individuals. He told us how mosaics are made, hand cutting the stone obtained locally, using glue from natural ingredients and individually placing the stones down onto the cloth with the drawing outline. The stones are placed smooth side down. Some of the more intricate mosaics could take six months to complete. Once finished, the mosaic is flipped over, the cloth removed and the now flat surface rinsed from excessive glue. We were able to see many of their products for sale including tables, wall hanging, coasters and jewelry. We ended up purchasing a small mosaic of the tree of life in a round wooden frame.

Our adventures continued south and we enjoyed the amazingly expansive views of the wadi. The valley was deep with the road snaking down and then up the other side. Ibrahim told us of the fairly recent dam in place which is actually causing the Dead Sea levels to drop significantly each year. We had pockets of silence where we could enjoy the scenery and opportunities where Ibrahim would explain things about his country and culture – marriage, politics, weather, food, and history. It was all very fascinating. He was very accommodating in answering all of our questions.

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We stopped at Kir Heres in Kerak for lunch. I had my first Turkish coffee which looks darker than it tastes. Just be sure to not drink the bottom which is where the very fine coffee grounds settle. We enjoyed a few small plates including hummus, grilled halloumi, fried eggplant with sesame sauce and fatoush, a salad of tomato, cucumber, green pepper and crispy pita. Everything was so delicious! We ended with a complimentary dessert similar to baklava.

We walked down the street to explore Kerak Castle. While it was sunny, it was insanely windy which made it pretty cold, even with down coats and winter hats. We would find sunny spots protected from the wind and enjoy the warmth.

The castle dates from the Crusader period, built around 1140 and served as protection for the Crusader states from attacks from the east while controlling the movement on the King’s Highway. The castle was quite large with upper and lower courts. My favorite were the subterranean passages and rooms which allowed much more exploration.

We had 2.5 to 3 hours driving before getting to Petra. While it was said to be on the Desert Highway, the road was paved, but not fast like highways in the states or U.K.  There were a lot of large trucks, speed bumps and it was one lane each way. Of course passing occurred without issues. The wind continued and you could feel the crosswinds and see the sandstorms.

We arrived in Petra with enough time to catch what we could of the sunset before checking into the Movenpick Hotel. We had some downtime before going out to find a bite to eat before Petra By Night. We were able to purchase tickets from the front desk of the hotel. It was very convenient being that we are directly across from the entrance to Petra.

For dinner, we went to My Mom’s Recipe upon recommendation from Ibrahim. Brad and I split hummus and fattoush for starters and Makloba for our main. Directly translated to “up side down”, it was chicken, rice, potatoes, eggplant and cauliflower.  I got the fresh mango juice and Brad ordered the lemon mint drink (my latest obsession – so so good!). For dessert, we were given some small treats. One tasted like a small donut soaked in honey (Zainab fingers). The other looked like shredded wheat and had a toasted nut flavored inside and could have been a version of baklava.

Petra At Night is an evening experience in Petra offered a few nights a week. We met at the entrance for an 8:30 departure. We walked the candle lit path at our own pace, first walking amongst large rock structures down the wide, dry wadi bed. The path narrowed and we entered the Siq, the narrow canyon path 200 meters high in some places. It was both hard and easy to see. It was difficult to see any details, but the light of the moon and candles allowed our eyes to adjust and extra light wasn’t necessary. The walk was about 1.2 kilometers and was peaceful and beautiful. We turned the corner and first saw all the candles on the valley floor. A few more steps forward and the amazing Treasury came into view. It was so surreal we were there experiencing it in person. Mats were rolled out and we took a seat on the ground. We sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the candle lit monument. Soon a flute player started and played three songs. We were offered warm sweet tea. We had many layers on so it wasn’t too cold for us. After the music, the gentleman explained to us the meaning behind the three songs. He asked us to close our eyes and when we opened them, the monument was beautifully lit. We took a few pictures and headed back towards the visitors center. It was an amazing way to first see Petra.

Petra was once the capital of the Nabateans between 400 B.C. and 600 A.D and grew rich from trade. The downfall was due to an earthquake and changes to the trade routes which left the area pretty much deserted with the exception of local Bedouins from the 7th century until 1812. At that time a Swiss explorer “rediscovered” Petra. Approximately 85% of the city is still buried underground.

We enjoyed breakfast in the hotel before meeting Aziz, our Petra tour guide at 7 am in the lobby. As we navigated down the wadi bed and into the Siq, he provided a thorough description of the sites and aspects. Since we got an early start, we beat the tour buses and had the Siq all to ourselves.

This theme continued on for a few hours. Aziz explained the history of Petra, what life was like during the peak and pointed out various interesting aspects such as carvings in the stone wall. We made our way to the famous shot where you can first see the Treasury through the Siq walls. And it was pretty magical.

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We enjoyed the quiet and calmness of the Treasury in the early morning. Aziz explained the different aspects of the facade and how years ago, locals shot at parts of the front thinking there was gold inside which is how it got its name.  The treasury is over 40 meters high is decorated with Corinthian columns and many other carvings. There is also legend it served as a tomb.

We continued on down the main trail (outer Siq) to the theatre. The theatre was originally carved by the Nabateans around AD 25. The Romans later expanded to have the seating reach 7000-8000.

Aziz showed us what would have been housing during that time and at the peak had approximately 60,000 people. He explained how the colors of the rocks came from the minerals. Some of them had spectacular colors and patterns. Over the years there have been many earthquakes which obviously affected the ruins. All around you can see what looks to be the start of a temple, but was left unfinished. They would drill holes in the stone and if it cracked, they know it was unstable therefore not finishing the temple.

Along the way, there are small vendors selling food and  goods (trinkets, scarves, jewelry and carvings). We stopped off at a small cafe to enjoy a Turkish coffee with cardamom. It was flavorful and strong, leaving the fine grounds at the bottom of the cup.

We were on a street parallel to Colonnaded Street which would have been a main shopping street. We had views of The Great Temple which covers over 7,000 square meters. It is suggested this area was a marketplace. Aziz explained how Qasr al-Bint, a large square monument, still stands 23 meters high today because it was at one time reinforced with wooden beams. It was quite a structure given that it seemed to be the tallest free standing ruins remaining.

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Our tour ended at the bottom about 40 minutes early since he said we walked fast. We felt satisfied with the tour though and he gave us a lot of interesting facts and information.

Brad and I set off on our own to hike to Ad Deir, or the Monestary. The walk itself wasn’t challenging. While it’s climbing for over 40 minutes, there were perfect stone stairs. We had the company of a random dog who hiked with us the entire way, even waiting for us when we stopped to take pictures. The views back down the valley were beautiful. We passed many vendors and a few small places to buy a snack or juice.

We had the trail to ourselves given how early it was (around 9:00 am). The Monastery is quite a sight at 43 meters high. Once used for religious meetings, it was later used as a Christian chapel which is how it got its name.

On our way back, the vendors were open and ready for business, everyone wanting to sell you something. I also made a cute kitten friend.

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By now the sun was out and the temperature was perfect. We hiked by the Temple of the Winged Lion and visited Petra Church. The remains were first discovered in 1990 and continued excavations occurred until it was open to the public in 1998. The floor has a beautiful mosaic and you can see the rippled ground from the earthquakes.

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We next hiked to the Treasury overlook. We took the stone stairs up behind The Royal Tombs and had some pretty fantastic panoramic lookouts. This was one of the things I was most excited to do in Petra.

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The hike up wasn’t that challenging, but took an extra keen eye towards the end when the trail was not well marked. Our end destination was this small covered and carpeted tent with amazing views of the Treasury (with the purchase of a drink). Brad and I split a freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juice and had a seat for a few minutes. There were some resident cats which made me happy. The one was so cute, small and curious. The views of the Treasury were so good. It felt pretty surreal to see it and from that view. We sat for a few minutes enjoying the view and seat and continued back down the path.

For lunch we went back to the place we had coffee earlier. Lunch included hummus, pita, zatar, tomato and lemon mints. Aziz suggested it to us earlier saying it would be better food and less expensive than eating down at the bottom of the main Siq at the large restaurants. He didn’t lead us astray.

We initially considered hiking the trail to the High Place of Sacrifice, but were pretty beat after lunch. We hiked out of the Siq enjoying the views now that the sun was out and illuminating the stone valley. It was significantly more crowded and we were continually offered horse rides back out of the Siq. On a related note, you can take a donkey or a camel ride up or down the main Siq. The path isn’t long or steep, but there are options besides walking. You can also get a donkey ride up or down to the Monastery or the Treasury overlook. It definitely would be a bit scary descending the trail on a donkey.

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Once out of the Siq, we checked out the visitor’s center museum before meeting up with Ibrahim and heading out of town. We drove through Little Petra and were on what Ibrahim describes as a major road which took Israelis to Petra.  The twisty turny road gave us expansive views of Wadi Araba.

We picked up the Dead Sea Highway and passed many tomato farms. Ibrahim told us how the tomatoes from Jordan are really delicious. We definitely need to try to find some. It was neat to see the mountains, desert and then green farms. We passed by Wadi Al Mujib which is the slot canyon Brad wants to hike (unfortunately closed this time of year). We made a stop on the side of the road overlooking the Dead Sea to enjoy the sunset. We had some time to explore the coastal cliff before Brad found a great viewing spot. It was a colorful and beautiful sunset and a great introduction to the Dead Sea.

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We finished our drive ending at the Kempinski Hotel where we checked in for two nights. We didn’t realize how much of an off season it was, but it felt like we were nearly alone at the resort. There were a few others, but some of the pools and restaurants were closed for the season. After exploring the hotel a bit and deciding not to swim since it was pretty chilly, we went to dinner at Ashur Pizza and Grill, one of the two restaurants open on site. The food and service was very good, but it was pretty pricey.

Saturday morning allowed us to sleep in which was welcome after the past few days. We enjoyed the breakfast buffet which was included. Once again, the spread was huge with a mix of Middle Eastern and American dishes. One of my new favorites is Um-Ali which is kind of like a mix between bread pudding and french toast casserole with shaved coconut and crushed pistachio on top.

We took the day slow, Brad running and me doing schoolwork and going to the gym. In the afternoon once it had warmed up a bit to around 65, we ventured to the sea. They provide towels and fresh water showers. There are lounge chairs by the water, an urn with Dead Sea mud and benches to sit and wait for the mud to dry. The water was initially chilly, but you get used to it and it wasn’t too bad. We floated for about 10 minutes. It was fun to try to stand just to have your legs pop up again. Next we got out of the water and applied the mud. You put it all over your body and face and then wait for it to dry. Once dry, you get back in the sea to rinse it off, all but your face. Given how salty the water is, you don’t want it to get in your mouth or touch your face. We washed our faces in the freshwater shower and could feel how soft our skin now felt.

Brad and I enjoyed some time by the infinity pool soaking up the warm sun. We had a pre-sunset snack at the beach bar (and of course lemon mints) and caught the very quick sunset from the terrace.

When Brad was out running earlier, he passed by Samarah Mall a short walk away from the hotel. Given the limited and expensive dinner options on site, we decided to venture out to explore a bit. The mall was small but adequate with a small gift shop,  spice and coffee bar and Buffalo Wings and Rings. We ended up eating at the wing place which was pretty good (considering we can’t really find wings in England) and significantly cheaper than the dinner the night before.

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Final morning at the Dead Sea

We went to the breakfast buffet before meeting Ibrahim and heading to the baptism site, also called Bethany Beyond the Jordan. We met our guide, boarded the bus and drove a few kilometers down a road on the grounds to a gravel path. After a few minutes walk, we arrived at the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus with water from the River Jordan. Next we passed a beautiful church and made our way to the river. There was a significant amount of military presence and a buoy line creates the border between Jordan and Israel. We touched the water, hung out for a few minutes and headed back up the path to the bus. The sites were beautiful, but our tour guide was pretty terrible which was unfortunate.

We had about a 90 minute drive before reaching Jerash. The Greco-Roman city came tumbling down, with many other sites such as Petra, in the 700s when a massive earthquake struck. It is now the largest complete Roman city.  Ibrahim purchased our tickets and escorted us to the tour guide shack where we connected with a guide. I didn’t catch his name, but he was fabulous. He was very knowledgeable, engaging and funny. Our tour started in the Oval Plaza which has the original limestone floor.

We gazed down Cardo Maximus which essentially was the Main Street. It was lined with colonnades and had a pedestrian sidewalk and shops running parallel. There were even manhole covers in the road and a full sewer system in the town. The guide explained this showed the wealth of the town. We visited Agora, the marketplace, again lined with a sidewalk and shops, one of which was a butcher with carved animals in the stone.

Our guide left us at the stairs leading up to the Sanctuary of Artemis. We explored the sanctuary and both theatres. It is amazing how much has been discovered and how much they believe is still buried.

Before leaving, we walked around the Hippodrome, where they would have chariot races. The weather was amazing and we were enjoying the sunshine and warm temperatures.

For lunch, Ibrahim took us to Green Valley Restaurant which was close to Jerash. We started by watching them make our bread. He first flattened the dough and then threw it on the hot rocks in the brick oven. You could see it bubble and blister. A quick flip and it was done. He pulled it out with a hook on a stick. We were shown to our table upstairs and immediate started eating the delicious hot bread. There was no menu, but we selected chicken kabob and mezze. We had a huge assortment of dips along with fattoush salad. There was so much food and it was all really delicious. For dessert, we were given fresh oranges. It was the perfect end to our tour.

Ibrahim drove us to our hotel and we said our goodbyes. He was an amazing tour guide and it was so great to get to know him and learn about his country and culture.

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Brad and I checked into the Four Seasons Amman and got settled. We took a dip in the indoor pool and hot tub before exploring the area a bit. We didn’t want a full meal and got a few take away mezze items from Jabri. They spoke no English but we were able to make it work. I also got Kanafa to go which I had been hearing about. Kanafa is a dessert made with cheese, honey, crispy dough, and pistachios. It was sweet and tasty, but very filling.

Monday morning started with another amazing breakfast buffet. My favorite was the freshly squeezed orange juice. It tastes like nothing else! We met up with a friend and headed out with our first stop being the Jordan History Museum. It is easy and cheap to get taxis in Amman which we were able to do right from the hotel. The museum was packed with so many items and exhibits which allowed us to learn more of Jordanians and their culture.  The most interesting exhibit to me was seeing the Dead Sea scrolls which were found in a cave in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd. They also had copper scrolls which had been sliced to lay flat and read once discovered. There was believed to be a message about treasures, but that theory was not confirmed.

The weather was nice so we decided to walk the mile or so to the Roman Theatre, passing the Souk (market). You could pretty much buy anything from clothes to food to things for the home. Entry to the Roman Theatre was a few JD and we explored on our own, despite many offers to take us all over Amman city on a taxi tour. Most of lower Amman is buried under the modern city, the Roman Theatre is one which is exposed. It was built between AD 169 and 177 during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It was fascinating to see the theatre nestled into the hillside with modern houses built above.

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We explored the one archeological museum before mapping out our route to get to the Citadel up on the hill.

The expansive views from the top were pretty spectacular. I was impressed with how large the hilltop was and how you could literally see 360 degrees around the city.  The Temple of Hercules displays part of the hand from the Roman statue. The Umayyad Palace was made up of the ruins of several buildings including baths, courtyards and a cistern.

Following the Citadel, we meandered the streets enjoying exploring the city and sites. We found lemon mints (of course) and stumbled upon Habibah Sweets by accident. I saw a queue and people eating something which looked like Kanafa so I just got in line, only realizing what I was in line for once I got towards the front. Ibrahim told me about Habibah so I was keeping an eye out for it. I had no true idea of the size I was ordering, but the Kanafa didn’t disappoint.

We found Rainbow Street (which was a small miracle since we didn’t have access to our phones and were relying on a paper map) and enjoyed some drinks at Ayyam Zaman. We didn’t stay too long since it was really smoky. That is something I had a hard time getting used to. So many people smoke and smoking is allowed in restaurants and bars. Before leaving city centre, we got some takeaway sweets which were insanely cheap (about $1 for probably a dozen things) and really tasty. After a little downtime at the hotel, we walked to dinner at Warak Enab where we enjoyed the typical Middle Eastern dishes we’ve come to love over the past week – amazing hummus, fattoush and lemon mints.

Before leaving Amman, we were able to try some additional yummy restaurants. Faroujna was in downtown Amman where we ordered a few cold mezze platters and mixed grills and just had a delicious family style dinner. We also tried Tannoureen with a similar set up of ordering many dishes and trying a little of everything. We enjoyed the garlic flavored soft cheese with the bread which was a delicious combination. They had amazing mutabal which is similar to baba ghanoush, but just a little different and quickly became one of my favorite dishes in Jordan. We also tried and really enjoyed muhammara which is  a spicy red pepper dish.

For an evening cocktail, we were able to find SIRR bar in our hotel, which was kind of like a speakeasy. Hidden down a hallway behind a purple door, the small, beautifully decorated and lit bar offered delicious drink combinations.

We managed to get back down to Rainbow Street again on our last evening and had a delicious meal at Sufra.

They had a beautiful patio and garden, but it was too chilly to eat outside. Our final meal in Jordan didn’t disappoint with a huge variety of amazing dishes. While we did order a mixed grill, we ordered a lot of delicious veggie dishes and commented on how easy it would be to be vegetarian in Jordan.

Prior to our trip, admittedly I knew very little of Jordan. We had several friends visit who raved about their experiences. Our trip opened my eyes up to a new part of the world which I hadn’t previously explored. The Jordanian people were some of the most kind individuals and were so excited, proud and willing to share their country. Not to mention the food was amazing.

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