Some things in Jordan seem unchanged since my last visit which, scarily, was over 25 years ago. People are as friendly as ever to strangers; “Welcome to Jordan” is still a very common greeting and, though people are keen to sell us tourist goods when we venture into shops, the atmosphere is friendly and unpressured. Another constant theme is the desire to feed us well – which is even more obvious this time whilst we are among Jordanian friends!
One thing that does differ is that we are not invited into strangers’ homes for mint tea in the way we were last time. That might have been partly because we were travelling differently – even Pat probably isn’t up standing by roadsides in the heat and hitching rides in lorries, though she coped fine with the vagaries of the bus system! A bonus is that, when we were offered tea this time, we were asked whether we wanted sugar in it, rather than this being the default. Again, maybe this was because we were around friends much of the time.
One really obvious difference is the amount of new construction going on everywhere, especially around Amman. This was difficult to quantify, as we stayed centrally last time rather than in the suburbs, but I’d be really interested to look at some old aerial photos. The houses around Hanan are all new and the view from her balcony will soon be reduced by the new buildings appearing constantly.
Another, less happy change, was the presence of UNHCR tents alongside traditional Bedouin ones, particularly around urban areas. Some of these were surrounded by mountains of rubbish and it looks like people are really struggling to eke out an existance. Several people talked to us about the number of Syrian refugees currently being hosted by Jordan though, perhaps surprisingly, most saw this as an obligation they needed to meet rather than something to complain of. The population of Jordan is something like 50 % Palestinian in origin and Jordan has become home to many Iraqis too since the Gulf Wars, so I guess it is not a new situation to them.
The other thing that was very noticeable to us was the air pollution in the towns and cities – in both Madaba and Amman the air is thick with car exhaust fumes. The narrow, older streets certainly weren’t designed for the volume of traffic they now carry and there hasn’t yet been time for a good public transport system to develop to get to the rapidly-growing suburbs. Unsurprisingly, several Jordanian friends had anecdotes of children suffering from asthma and other breathing difficulties.
All that said, our overriding impression was of the warm reception we received everywhere and the friendliness, tolerance and openness of people we met – old friends and new. A fantastic experience. Where next is the only question; Algeria, Iran, Malaysia…..
Some of the collection of unlabelled cooking ingredients pressed on us which I’m glad we didn’t have to explain to anyone at customs! Freekeh, dried okra, Sumac, Za’atr and Nigella seeds. Using these will bring back many happy memories.
Free wi-fi at Amman airport is an unexpected bonus. We’ve said our goodbyes, gone through bag drop and security very quickly, and spent our last few dinars on sesame biscuits and some Jordanian wine to share over Easter. Despite looking emptier, my bag actually weighed in at 21kg – heavier than on the way out, largely because of all the cooking ingredients we’ve been given by both Hanan and Barween today – sumac, Nigella seeds, a type of cracked wheat called freek, okra, camomile for tea and zatar. I can feel an IWG session on Jordanian cooking coming on!
Another lovely day, feeling very much at home with Hanan – we’ll miss them all! We breakfasted with Barween, who had laid on a real spread for us. Some traditional tahini-based dips to go with flatbread, which we hadn’t tried before – one with ground Nigella seeds and one with date syrup, as well as a delicious omelette with lots of tomatoes and parsley. We spent the rest of the morning with Hanan, ostensibly helping her prepare pastries for lunch, but mostly watching.
Lunch was, as always delicious – pastries filled variously with spinach, cheese and thyme, chicken and sumac and home made ‘sausage rolls’, with salad. Hanan had made enough to feed a small army and we scored a selection each to eat on our way home. We left their flat about 5.30pm and were at the airport a little over an hour later. Having done our shopping, all that remains is to hope that this flight leaves on time!
A leisurely day at home with Hanan, learning to cook lots of delicious food – a rather high ratio of good food to exercise! We make stuffed vine leaves and get to eat these for lunch, along with Hanan’s delicious stuffed courgettes. Dinner is takeaway chicken shawarma – very tasty, and different from anything we’ve had so far. Hanan explains to Khalid that Pat and I have to go home tomorrow and he asks why she bought us new pillows if we are not staying for good – he is is funny!
Stuffed vine leaves in the making
Another early walk followed by a good breakfast – the lack of exercise is definitely getting to me! After breakfast we headed for the sixth century Church of the Apostles but, on finding the entrance to the Burnt Palace site open for the first time since we’ve been here, we popped in there en route. The guardian had limited English but did a good job of pointing out the important features to us. There are near-complete floor mosaics in several of the rooms of the Burnt Palace but the adjacent Martyr’s Church has had the majority of the animals and people removed during the period when mosaics were being defaced. It looked almost like a children’s jigsaw with shapes to remove embedded in the puzzle!
Defaced mosaics in the Martyr’s church
From there we made our way to the Apostle’s church, which has the biggest restored area of floor mosaic in Jordan, with a famous centrepiece depicting a personification of the sea. I thought the animals were particularly impressive. Some areas of the church were roped off – presumably restoration is still under way. The guardian here told us that he had worked on the uncovering of some of the best mosaics in the Martyr’s church in the 1990s.
From the church we ambled back to the hotel via the Archaelogical museum. This had yet more impressive mosaics, including some fairly explicit ones on the floor of one of the church buildings, but virtually nothing in the way of interpretation.
After an abortive attempt to buy Turkish coffee to take home yesterday (how to explain that we wanted the cardamon ground with the beans?) we got the helpful hotel receptionist to write what we wanted in Arabic on a piece of paper, so we picked up two freshly-ground bags on the way back to the hotel and sorted ourselves out in time to check out by noon. Our small rucksacks are fit to burst between the coffee and Dead Sea mineral soap, picked up as gifts. We buy still-warm cheese and potato-stuffed flatbreads for a picnic lunch which we eat in the garden of the visitor centre before heading to the bus station. Today’s bus driver has an interesting approach to road safety – he drinks coffee, smokes, talks on his mobile and, at one point, reads the newspaper, whilst driving. Not all at the same time, fortunately. Poor Firas has been waiting for quite a while at Tarbarboor bus station by the time we arrive.
We are greeted with Arabic coffee and delicious, freshly-made helpa when we arrive at Hanan’s and Barween, who lives immediately upstairs, comes down to join us for coffee. This evening Hanan has cooked delicious stuffed cabbage leaves for us and fattoush salad which is roughly ten times as nice as the one in the restaurant last night.
Costumes at ‘LaStoria’
Views from Mount Nebo
Jesus’ baptism site at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan
– the lunar landscape around Wadi Kharrar, the baptism pool and the Church of St John the Baptist
The Dead Sea
Mosaics in Madaba archaeological park
Mosaic making in MIRMA
The map in St George’s Church
– details are the river Jordan, a boat carrying salt on the Dead Sea (crew obliterated) and the West Bank
St John’s Church
– the Moabite well, serious coffee making kit in Ruth’s tent and the view from the bell tower
Even at 6.30 this morning I would have felt too conspicuous in running gear, so I settle for a walk instead, before breakfast. On reflection, I haven’t seen anyone of either gender running while we’ve been here. I walked south and west out of town on the Nablus road after having located the elusive Madaba visitor centre and bus station. I also found the Church of the Apostles, which we have yet to visit, and the archaeological museum – more by accident than design!
Breakfast at the hotel was good – a wide range of food, including plenty of Jordanian dishes – fuul, hummus and babba ghanouj, as well as more bland ‘international’ fare. Afterwards, we’d arranged a day trip by taxi to Mount Nebo, Bethany and the Dead Sea – much less scary than trying to negotiate Jordanian roads in a hire car. We stopped first at ‘La Storia’, a kind of Jordanian version of Beamish, en route to Mt Nebo. That was interesting – little tableaux of key biblical stories and then mocked-up workshops showing a wide range of local crafts. The inevitable shop was outrageously expensive though – little pieces of Palestinian pottery were selling for three times what we’d paid for them in downtown Amman. The church at Mt Nebo itself was closed for restoration but the impressive floor mosaics had been removed and were on display in an adjacent hangar. Many more tourists and much more interpretation than when we were here 25 or so years ago. Equally impressive were the views across the Jordan valley from where Moses is supposed to have looked out across the promised land. Pat and I, for some reason, were singled out for the attention of two groups of South Indian tourists, male and female, who wanted their pictures taken with us!
From Mt Nebo the road zig zags down to the floor of the Jordan valley, getting ever dryer and less green, to around 350 m below sea level – nearly the lowest place on Earth. I have no idea what the camels, sheep and goats we saw around the scattered Bedouin encampments find to eat. Our next stop is at Bethany, the site of Jesus’ baptism, which has only been accessible in recent times since the signing of the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. A shuttle bus runs us down Wadi Kharrar towards the Jordan, past the site where Elijah is supposed to have been taken up to heaven (Tell Mar Elyas) and a series of new churches of a wide range of denominations. Here the scenery is positively lunar – unstable looking cliffs of white marl, completely devoid of vegetation. This area is also where the Israelites camped before Moses went up to Mt Nebo – the abundant Old Testament history is why John is supposed to have chosen it. Ruins of old churches are abundant here. As in Madaba, these were built one on top of another as fashions changed.
We walk the last km or so to the Jordan on foot, pausing at the modern baptism pool. This used to be connected to the river but is now a rather stagnant green puddle which could only look attractive to an algologist! From here the path leads through more dry scrub to the pretty little Greek Orthodox Church of St John and then down to the river Jordan itself – a little insignificant to look at, given its historical and political importance. The Israeli flag is flying less than 10 m away on the West Bank of the river and we can see an Israeli army post in the distance. The bored looking Jordanian soldiers at the checkpoint on our side of the river look like they haven’t seen much action in a while.
After Bethany our driver takes us for a quick peek at the Dead Sea, before heading back to Madaba. As neither of us want to swim, we opt for the free public beach south of Sweimeh which is, as he warns us, absolutely filthy. The heat and isolation of the hotels scattered along the shore only makes us certain that we did the right thing by staying in Madaba and taking a day trip here. We are back in Madaba in time to grab some bread for a late lunch. This evening’s meal at Adonis restaurant is fine, but not a patch on last night’s. It seemed a bit boring to go to the same place twice but, with hindsight, it would have been a good plan!
One result of posting a photo of Hanan, Huda, Lama and me on the IWG Facebook page has been an invite to extend our trip by spending some time with Mahdieh in Iran. Not to be outdone, this was followed in short order by an invitation to Malaysia and a reiterated one to Romania!