Sunday July 8, 2012
Getting out of the city of Amman, we drove into the north of Jordan, visiting some major sites. The contrast between the crowded, sprawling urban Amman and the expanses of the North is immediately striking. Hilly, rocky, yet dotted with the green of trees and shrubs, I realized that Biblical sites were all around us and that I was woefully ignorant of much of the history of this region.
This is the region associated with Jacob from the Old Testament – Jacob, Laban, Rachel, and so on.
Driving through the countryside, we first stopped at Ajloun Castle, Qala ‘At Ar-Rabad. This castle was built by the orders of Saladin, one of the most important of the leaders who battled the Crusaders. His nephew (also one of his generals) built Ajlun Castle between 1184-1188 C.C. (Common Era). It overlooks the Jordan Valley and three wadis leading into it. It was an important element in the defensive of the Holy Land against the Crusaders. In fact, the castle is a counterpoint to Belvoir Fort, a Crusader castle on the Sea of Galilee in present-day Israel.
The castle is worth a climb, though I didn’t venture up into the highest part – I have problems at times with stairs and height and don’t push it. Rather, I people-watched as a number of other visitors came in. A family of Saudis entered, chattering children in tow. A woman fully veiled in black sat on the steps going up into the castle. I wandered through the small museum, and spent most of my time taking photographs.
I’ve read about the Crusaders for decades, but here I was in a place that was key in the defense of the Muslim lands and people. One book I now want to read is one that was written from the point of view not of a Crusader, but from one of the Muslims.
As we drove through the communities and the countryside, our tour guide, Abdullah, filled us in on the history of Jordan, including many references to Biblical places and people and events from the Old Testament. Again, I was reminded that I was now in part of the Holy Land.
I was in the Gilead Hills – the phrase “the balm of Gilead” echoed in my head on and off all day. No longer an empty place name, Gilead now had concrete reality for me.
Indeed, we were in what was one of four specific “kingdoms” – this was east of the Jordan River. In Amman we were in another one, Amon.
Today our journey took us to Ajlun Castle, also known as Qala “at Ar-Rabad. Built between 1184-1189 C.E. by a nephew of Saladin (and on his orders), the Castle looks over the Jordan Valley and 3 wadis leading into it. It was an important defensive position for Saladin and his troops – it was in counterpoint to Belvoir Fort, a Crusader castle on the Sea of Galilea in present-day Israel.
Near here, the prophet Elias (Elijah) was born.
I explored the lower part of the castle, not venturing into the upper areas – but I enjoyed taking lots of photographs and examining the displays in the small museum there. It was also interesting to see other tourists exploring the site – Arabs from Saudi Arabia, entire families, women in burqas. I was far from bored.
The second stop of the day was in yet another Roman Decapolis, Pella. Pella has been inhabited for perhaps one million years. At its peak in the Byzantine era, perhaps as many as 25,000 people lived here. First we sat on the shaded porch of the Pella Guest House and sipped mint tea while listening to a lecture on the chronology of the site. Because Pella was inhabited for so long, it was a natural site for such an historical overview, from the Stone Age through the destruction of the site due to an earthquake.
After the lecture, we were allowed some time to roam the site itself. Looking from the entrance to the site up to the tops of the hills above, it was easy to see areas where caves are and to imagine people living here.
Then it was on to lunch at yet another site, Um Qais, known as Gadara in the Bible. About 110 km north of Amman, this is the site where Jesus cast out demons out of two men and sent the demons into a herd of pigs, which then leapt off the mountain into the Sea of Galilea.
Yet today, looking at the distance from the precipice where the pigs might have leapt and looking at the Sea of Galilea (known now as Lake Tiberius), it’s difficult to imagine that – the water is in the distance, not at the bottom below me.
This was one of the Roman cities in the Decapolis. From its top, where the Rest House is located, you can see the Golan Heights.
I skipped lunch (the heights were too much for me and panic attacks aren’t fun) and wandered on the level of the Roman ruins. This is an area of basalt, and while the theatre looked familiar in design to me from other Roman theatres and amphitheatres, what makes it strikingly different – the use of basalt. Here you see black columns – basalt – not the white marble or limestone that is more usual.
In the area are other structures and areas common to any Roman settlement of this size – a nyphaeum, a temple, and so on.
For a while, I just sat on a step and looked at the landscape. It was very quiet – I could hear birds and the wind – and occasionally (but not very often) the noises from an occasional car on the modern highway below.
As I walked out of the site, I looked once more at the ruins of a more recent settlement – a late 19th century Ottoman village. It was abandoned in the early 20th century when the Ottomans were forced to move elsewhere. Now the roofless houses herald your entrance into and exit from the Roman site. There is some talk of renovating these houses into guest houses for tourists, but nothing has been done.
Much of the landscape is sandy – yet there is green too. I saw almond trees and olive trees, pomegranate trees and tamarind trees.
Since we could see the Golan Heights from Um Qais, it was a reminder just how close borders are here. Israel isn’t that far. Though Jordan has been at peace with Israel since 1994, at one time there were 734 checkpoints in the Jordan Valley.
This was a long, rather tiring day. Interesting, to be sure, but tiring. By the time we got back to the hotel, like everyone else I was ready for a shower and dinner.
After all, tomorrow was another day out of Amman.