It’s the school holidays which can mean only one thing, I’m off on my travels. This time I’m in Jordan continuing my theme of desert adventures. This small country nestled between countries which dominate the news is a friendly nation seeped in history with a fascinating impact on its geography. With the Middle East becoming a popular region of study at Key Stage 3, Jordan offers opportunities to look at a wide range of geographical issues. Here are the tales of my trip and what I’ve discovered to hopefully prompt you to look at teaching about this small but spectacular country.
Jordan is a country I knew very little about but I’d been to Lalibela, Ethiopia in 2013 and loved exploring the churches carved into the mountains so someone suggested I might like Petra. Looking for inspiration for a short trip at the Adventure Show in January, posters of Jordan seemed to be everywhere!
Day One: Amman
Arriving the day before the tour started, we spent the morning and early afternoon exploring the Citadel and downtown area of Amman. With a population of 1 million in the 1990s, Amman is now home to 4 million with the growth fuelled by an influx of wealthy Iraqis at the start of the conflict and leading to rapid expansion and property development in the city which has been blamed on why many Jordanians have been priced out of the property market in Amman.
A city built on 22 hills, the Citadel provides a 360 degree panorama of white and sandy coloured flat roofed low story buildings with its magnificent Roman pillars standing proud on the top and in the distance 5 glass and chrome tower blocks provide a striking contrast. Walking down towards the downtown area, the Roman amphitheatre is nestled in the side of another hill – although trying to get across the gridlocked dual carriageway to get to it was a little bit of a challenge!
Meeting our complete tour group after breakfast we set off for Jerash, the often referred to ‘Pompeii of Asia’ and considered one of the Middle East’s finest examples of a Roman city. On the way we picked up a member of the Tourist Police. Set up in 1993 with the growing tourism industry in the country and combined with the Israeli Tourist Police in 1994 (a move thought to be unpopular with the Jordanian people), the Tourist Police are tasked with protecting the archeological sites across the country and, in addition to being a presence at the sites, now randomly sample tour groups and accompany them on trips. We were one of today’s randomly sampled groups so were escorted by an armed policeman for the morning.
Driving out of the city we passed one of the early refugee camps from the Syrian crisis. Jordan has been the temporary home of many refugees from conflicts across the Middle East and during the Arab Spring but today most Syrian refugees reaching Amman are doing so to register and get official paperwork to move on to join families in North African countries; an estimated 2 million Syrians to date. There was also lots of evidence of intensive poly tunnel agriculture in the valleys.
The scale of the excavations in Jerash is greater than I’ve come across and careful restoration is taking place in partnership with institutions around the world and most noticeable when reading the information signs as the partner country’s language comes first. Wandering through the ancient streets, visiting the amphitheatres, imagining Roman chariots racing in the hippodrome and seeing the remains of the mosaics in the floors of the early churches meant 3 hours flew by.
After lunch we headed to Mount Nero, the place where Moses is said to have seen the Promised Land before passing away nearby. On a clear day you can see to Mount Sinai but today we had to be satisfied with the Dead Sea. Driving to Madaba, we stopped at a mosaic workshop run as a non for profit enterprise and sponsored by the Queen and employing local artists.
But the highlight of today has to be the Mosaic Map at the Greek Orthodox Church in Madaba. A picture map, it shows pictorially the known features and places with little consideration for scale as was popular in Roman times and is probably the best known example of Byzantine cartography.
Heading south out of the city we followed the Kings Highway to Petra, making a few stops along the way including the castles of Kerak and Shobak. Kerak is home to a Crusader castle built in around 1140 and is one of the largest and best defended. Wandering round the ruins and reconstructed sections provides stunning views in all directions. Shobak Castle is smaller than Kerak and less visited but there is lots to explore. The castle overlooks abandoned villages and homes that the inhabitants left in the 1980s in search of work in the nearby towns.
Driving through the Mediterranean scrub landscape the shortage of water is immediately evident. In 2010 Jordan was in the bottom 10 countries for water access per person and by 2016 it was one of the poorest with just 122 cubic metres per person. Water is mostly abstracted from the aquifer under Wadi Rum and piped to the major cities; the aquifer was estimated to be able to cope with current Jordanian consumption rates for the next 60 years but the recent influx of refugees is putting this resource under more pressure. Looking at desalinisation of the Red Sea as an alternative water source is currently too expensive while current issues in Syria are making it difficult to negotiate water volume along the rivers with their headwaters in Syria. Attempts to harness the water from flash floods are being made with 10 dams having been constructed with a total volume of 220 million cubic metres. The drive along the Kings Highway provides opportunity to see 2 of these dams and the construction near Shobak of wind turbines for renewable energy supplies.
Arriving in Petra late afternoon on a Monday gave plenty of time to eat, put on some layers and head down to the entrance to Petra for Petra by Night. An optional excursion on the tour I was on, Petra by Night is exactly that, the chance to walk through the canyon by candlelight to the famous Treasury that marks the most well known part of Petra. The candles cast shadows on the canyon walls with stars peeking through the narrow gap at the top. The first glimpse of the Treasury through the canyon is of a majestic shadow that gradually reveals itself. After sitting in more candlelight before the facade and listening to music, multicoloured lights lit up the Treasury to show it off before a candlelit walk back along the Siq. A slightly (well, very!) cheesy touristy event, it nevertheless was an amazing way to catch a first look at Petra as a taster of what was to come on the following two days. I would recommend it if it’s to be your first glimpse but if you’ve been to Petra during the day beforehand I don’t think you’d find it worth the money (and more walking).
Days Four and Five:
The reason I chose this tour was primarily as it is one of the few that included two days in Petra and you definitely need two days to see beyond the immediate sights. Taking our time walking down the Siq (and jumping to the side every time a horse cart carrying more visitors whizzed past) our guide pointed out so many things that had been hidden in the dark. Carved water channels and the remains of clay water pipes (at a precise 4 degree angle to maximise water flow) with shrines and water collecting points run along the Siq walls. Bulges in the rock seen at night turn out to be the camel caravans carved into the walls. Then, turning the final bend you start to see the Treasury revealing itself as you exit the canyon – the sight is awesome, if slightly spolit by the crowds, camels and tourist shops!
We spent the rest of the first morning exploring the main sights in the valley of the theatre and temples before setting off to climb up to the monastery after lunch. After a 40 minute climb up over 900 steps (the type that feels like every time you get to the top you turn a corner there are more steps and you wonder how the donkeys ferrying people up and down the steps haven’t knocked you down into the valley below!), you walk through a small gap overlooking a flat sandy area with a cafe on the other side. After a second you realise all the cafe seats are benches and are facing your direction. Turning to the right to look behind you, there is the monastery and the climb is definitely worth the view. At the top there are also different signs offering you the best view if you climb a just few more steps!
The next morning we were up early to walk back down the Siq to get ahead of the tour groups to find a quieter Treasury area to take photos and to set off for the High Place of Sacrifice. With fewer steps (only around 600 this time), compared with the monastery, this route has a much steeper ascent when you leave from opposite the Royal Tombs but the trail taking you back down through the lesser explored parts of Petra allows you to escape the crowds and see some of the other gems carved into the sandstone like the Roman Soldier Tomb. With many people obviously choosing to go back down to the main valley using the same steps they climbed, the trail seems, at times, to be deserted and at points you are left wondering which way next while you search for the steps cut out of the rock making the experience even better. After a quick lunch stop and an explore of the Royal Tombs, we headed back to the hotel to go on an optional excursion to Little Petra.
Driving the short distance to little Petra you travel through the Bedouin village which is now home to the Bedouin people who were moved out of Petra in the 1980s as it became a preservation site and tourist destination. Evidence the village is growing in population can be seen by the number of buildings having a second or third story added as the government, despite giving the land originally, seem reluctant to give more land to the settlement and they are running out of space.
Little Petra is significantly ‘little’ compared with Petra but well worth the trip just to see the Nabataean wall paintings in the biclinium carved chamber. The area is also home to an excavated pre-Neolithic settlement which is of major archaeological importance as it shows evidence of man making the transition from hunter-gatherer to animal husbandry. The signs talk about the changing environment at the time and the impact human activity had. In Neolithic times, rainfall was more reliable and trees on the hills would have encouraged the absorption of water into the soil unlike the pattern of flash flooding today. Increasingly intensive agriculture, goat herding and use of timber for building and fuel with the shift to animal husbandry marked the start of the destruction of the environment that continued through the the Ottoman times and continues today.
Leaving Petra today we headed south to Wadi Rum to spend the night in the desert in a Bedouin camp. It is difficult know how to describe the stunning desert scenery to do it justice; the reds, oranges, greys and greens of the sand, the stark black of the granite intrusions and the rusty red of the sandstone with lines of whites, yellows and oranges running through the layers. Driving through the desert in 4WD we stopped to see the Khazali Canyon to see the rock inscriptions on the way to our camp for the night. The afternoon was spent admiring the view with a little wander and scramble over the rock outcrops the camp is nestled in before climbing up onto the highest ledge to watch the sunset. Dinner was a traditional Bedouin zarb (barbecue cooked underground) followed by lying on mattresses under blankets to gaze up at the star lit sky.
Early birds catch the sunrise so headed back up onto the highest nearby ledge to watch the sun come up before heading back to Wadi Rum village in the 4WD for transfer to Aqaba.
Aqaba is on Jordan’s small section of the coastline of the Red Sea and is where locals and tourists gather to go snorkelling or diving to view the coral reef.
…and it is in Aqaba that I finished writing up my blog of my trip so far. Tomorrow (day eight) we’re off the visit the Dead Sea on our way back to Amman before an early morning flight home (day nine).
I hope reading this might have inspired you to visit this small but fascinating country and perhaps you might consider teaching about other aspects of its geography as a case study for learning about the Middle East (there are some suggestions below that I’ve thought of while on this trip).
Possible Teaching Ideas:
– exploring different types of maps of areas and how cartography has developed over time (Madaba map)
– the impacts of the growth of tourism on a nation – including animal rights issues concerning the animals used for transport in Petra, relocating the Bedouin from Petra and parts of Wadi Rum to settled villages, consumerisation of local cultures.
– the impact of different socio-economic groups as refugees on a country
– links to History with the significance of site factors and strategic locations in conflict through looking at the Crusades
– dry land ecosystems
– water conservation and living with water poverty
– renewable energy as a means for development
– shrinkage of the Dead Sea
This tour was run by Explore (www.explore.co.uk) and was called Jordan Discovery. The tour was 9 days starting and ending in Amman with options for land only or flight inclusive from the UK.