The third country I visited in June 2014, in that period of quietude when nothing was moving in Sri Lanka except for an increasing sense of decline, was Jordan. I did not count it as a new country, for I had stayed overnight there in a hotel, when I was traveling to Turkey early in 1989 to join the SS Universe, for the University of Pittsburgh Semester at Sea programme. It was for a long interport stint, to cover the whole of Asia as it were, even though the ship was not coming to Sri Lanka. So I was able in that year to visit the pyramids of Egypt for the first time, and in India Tanjore and also Kerala. I also swam off Cape Comorin, and lost my spectacles in the waves, which meant I had to make do with contact lenses for Trivandrum and Cochin and the long train ride back to Chennai, where I had a spare set on board the ship.
It had proved very difficult to get a flight to Turkey. I had set off for Thailand, from where I was to fly back after finally disembarking in Penang, and in Bangkok I had got the Turkish visa without difficulty. But the airlines going to Istanbul were very wary of a Sri Lankan passport. Even the Romanians, and that in the days of Ceausescu too, would not allow me even to transit in their capital. The embassy staff in Bangkok obviously thought their regulations silly, and agreed that it was hardly likely I wanted to stay in Bucharest (this was the year in which Ceaucescu was finally overthrown), but they would not budge. Finally the Jordanians did give me a ticket, and provided me with a hotel for the overnight layover, but they took away my passport at the airport and ensured that I did not stray.
In Turkey I was able to explore to my heart’s content, taking advantage of their fantastic network of buses that enabled me to get to Ankara and even to Trabzon, a place I have always thought of as magical, ever since reading Rose Macaulay’s wonderful novel, The Towers of Trebizond (which begins with perhaps the maddest opening line in English literature, “Take my camel, dear”, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’) The city lived up to expectations, with its fantastic monastery up in the snow covered mountains, and so did the rock houses of Cappadocia and its extraordinary underground city. I went too to the remote East, the Kurdish area which proved more peaceful than I had thought, and Antakya in the south, the old Antioch, tropical weather even in January and wonderful mosaics.
I had been briefly in Turkey before, in 1986 when I first made the voyage round the world on the Universe, and then I had gone to Epirus and Izmir, the old Smyrna, and also had a mad dash to Troy, with some like-minded students. We managed that in a day despite the warnings of the administrators on the ship who thought we would never make it back before sailing time. And when in 1990 I did the full voyage again, I got to the terraced pools of Pamukkale, and the massive theatre at Pergamum. But it is the 1989 visit, more than a week wandering the country on long bus journeys, that I relish the most. And it was what I saw then that leads me to place Turkey, along with India and Italy and Mexico, as amongst the most impressive places in the world to visit, covering each of them a range of civilizations.
But I had seen nothing of Jordan, in 1989, not even a glimpse of anything of interest in Amman. And though then I did not know much about the country, I had long wanted to get to Petra, the Rose Red city half as old as time, cut out of red sandstone. And indeed Petra was the highlight of the trip when I finally got there in 2014, from the first glimpse of the Treasury, after you emerged from the long looming tunnel which seems effectively to have concealed and protected the city from invaders over the centuries, to the imposing library at the top of a hill which required an hour’s steep walk upward. But the view from there was spectacular, as were the views in every part of the city, of tombs and temples and amphitheatres across expanses of sand and stone. And I was particularly touched by the tomb of a Roman Governor who stayed on and had himself buried in a place he had obviously loved.
But there was much more to Jordan, a range of civilizations, and within a small compass, so we were able to see virtually everything I thought we needed to in just ten days. We were met on arrival by a car from the Embassy, so managed on that first day to have a glimpse of substantially Christian Madaba, and a couple of its churches, including St. George’s with its mosaic map of the area. But we had arrived in the afternoon, so we moved on, planning to get back if possible.
The next day we went to the Roman remains at Jerash, with its magnificient hippodrome, and an impressive arch built by Hadrian. It had a couple of well preserved theatres too, and classical temples as well as a cathedral. And having found an obliging taxi driver, instead of returning by bus, we were able to detour on the way back to Amman to inspect the Qal’at ar-Rabad, the first of the many fortress castles that are such a fascinating feature of Jordan.
We were staying in a very small hotel in Amman, but it advertised tours and, given the range of places I wanted to see, it seemed sensible to take a car. So the next day we set off to the fortresses in the East, including one that had been used by T E Lawrence during the Arab Revolt which he spearheaded against the Turks during the First World War. Given what an impression Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his account of that escapade, had made on me nearly half a century previously, I found it incredibly moving to climb up into what was supposed to have been his office, set above one of the entrances.
That castle was supposed to have been built initially in the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, and it had then undergone many revivals, under the 7th century Ummayads and then the 12th century Ayubbids and later the Ottomans. And in addition to another couple of impressive fortresses in that area, and a delightful bathhouse, there was an unexpected gem in the form of the ‘little castle’ Amra. It was more a hunting lodge really, with a bathhouse decorated with the most beautiful frescoes, hedonistic ones too, still well preserved.
Kithsiri was not well the next day, so I went by myself to the Citadel in Amman, which again had Byzantine Christian and Ummayad Muslim buildings, in addition to a plethora of classical remains and an impressive Museum. And having walked back to the hotel down twisting streets, I ventured out again after lunch, to the beautiful Roman fountain that was just a short walk away from the hotel, along with a couple of theatres.
The driver on the previous day had been excellent, so we got him back on the next day to go to Petra, with several stops along the way. He brought along his son, who had not travelled before on the impressively named King’s Highway. Mohed was as impressed by the sights en route as we were, beginning with Wadi Mujib, the Grand Canyon of Jordan as it is called, with beautiful views over the rocky landscape, and suddenly a reservoir gleaming below. The driver stopped to buy a crate of tomatoes on the way, and we got ourselves too a stock, which proved invaluable the next day when wandering around Petra.
Then there was the Crusader castle of Karak, with stables and barracks, a Crusader church and a Mameluk palace which that Muslim dynasty built when they took the place over in the 14th century. Further south we stopped too at Shobak Castle, another early 12th century Crusader monument in a wild and beautiful setting, high above the surrounding plateau.
Sadly Mohed and his father had to go back, but they found us a decent hotel which also arranged a tour for us to Wadi Rum, after two nights and a day at Petra. Wadi Rum was the desert area where Lawrence had spent much time, and one of the first places our guide took us to was what was termed Lawrence’s Spring, a source of water near overhanging rocks where he had often camped.
Attalak, who also drove, not an easy task amongst the sand dunes, gave us a marvelous tour of a range of desert places, a Nabataean temple, prehistoric wall paintings, different types of sand, stone bridges, and a cosy canyon where he cooked lunch while we snoozed. The night was at a desert camp run by a Czech student who was volunteering, though fortunately they had a more experienced cook who gave us a splendid dinner under the stars. And early next morning I got up to watch the sun rise from yet another rock bridge, with marvelous changes of the shadow of one mountain on another as the sun rose.
We had to head back to Amman that day, but had a very civilized dinner with the ambassador. I had wondered when I was told he had been a Member of Parliament, but he belonged to the 1977 vintage, and was thoughtful about his job and interested in the country and its archaeological marvels. He agreed then to send the car that was to take us to the airport two days later to Madaba, so the next day we went in our trusted taxi to Bethany, to the place where Jesus had been supposed to be baptized. I stripped down to basics to take a dip in the water myself, while a host of what seemed reverent pilgrims, clad in elaborate white robes, did the same from the opposite bank. That was Israeli territory, with armed guards, and the pilgrims I assumed were American revivalists.
Then we went on to the Dead Sea, which also I felt obliged to enter. As I had often read, but never quite credited, one floated on the water with no difficulty. But I was foolish enough to dip my head in. The immediate stinging in my eyes was almost unbearable, given the excess of salt in the water.
Finally, in this tour of Jordanian waters, we went through rolling hills to the Hammamat Hot Springs, which provided wonderful bathing in the various pools that had been constructed under the cascading warm to very hot waters. Kithsiri did not take the plunge, but I was joined by the Taiwanese youngster whom we had brought along with us when we found him wondering what to do at breakfast at our hotel that morning, before his flight that afternoon.
We were dropped at Madaba, at a lovely little hotel with a garden full of vines where we breakfasted the next morning. There was time enough then to explore Madaba properly, beginning with the Archaeological Park with a range of fantastic mosaics, including some gems from a Byzantine villa. The church of the Apostles had a mosaic, on the floor, of the 12 apostles, that was as impressive as the map at St. George’s. And the city also had a delightful museum housed in a few small houses, with an elegant courtyard.
Ceylon Today 15 Nov 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=9295