Jordan ... beyond Petra!
Updated: May 14, 2022
All it took was a recent trip to the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) to view their newly re-interpreted and re-installed exhibition of Nabataean art to make me yearn for Jordan, again. Impressively, the CAM stewards the LARGEST collection of Nabataean art and relics in the world, outside of Jordan.
The Nabataeans were Semitic, desert-dwelling Bedouins in Arabia who through their exceptional water management methods were able to both monopolize and capitalize on the oppressively hot and dry, desert trading routes during 2 BC - 2 AD. It was THEN that they established a wealthy trade empire and built their capital in Petra, located in present-day Jordan. Likely, most everyone is familiar with Petra's Treasury monument, if for no other reason than its feature in the 1989 movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But I have already written a detailed blog about Petra and now want to focus on several other astounding sites in The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
I have very fond memories of my trip to the Middle East when I traveled from Jerusalem through the Palestinian West Bank across the Allenby Crossing into Jordan. Once in Jordan, I visited Jerash, Madaba, Petra, and Wadi Rum, passing the Dead Sea along the way. So, yes, there is A LOT to see in Jordan, beyond Petra.
The modern city of Jerash, located 30 miles north of Jordan's capital, Amman, has a significant history as an ancient Greco-Roman town, named Gerasa. While unclear as to who founded the ancient town in the 4th or 3rd centuries BC, it was annexed by the Romans in 63 BC, ultimately absorbed into the Roman province of Arabia by 106 AD, and became part of the Roman Decapolis. At that time, paved Roman roads were laid through the provincial town which enabled its economy to significantly flourish from increased trade. The city's wealthy citizens donated funds to civic projects to build many of the structures and grand monuments whose ruins are still visible today, nearly all of which were constructed in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Today, the ruins in Jerash are considered one of the largest and most WELL-PRESERVED sites of Roman architecture in the world, outside of Italy. Because of this, its ruins attract thousands of visitors per year, making Jerash second only to Petra (slightly) as the most visited attraction in Jordan.
The ancient city was graced with an impressive colonnaded Cardo which ended in a magnificent Oval Plazza, shown above. The Oval Plaza is a particularly unique design amongst Roman-era ruins. Ruins of two tetrapylons, two well-preserved theaters, a hippodrome, several arches and gateways, a monumental sanctuary dedicated to Artemis, a still larger one dedicated to Zeus, two thermae bath complexes, a large nymphaeum (public fountain) fed by an aqueduct, an agora, as well as remnants of the Roman-period city wall are present in the archaeological park.
Jerash even has ruins of a Christian cathedral, having been a bishopric, and several churches with exquisite mosaic floors from the Byzantine Period. By the early 4th century Jerash had a sizable Christian population. Many of its churches were built in the 500s AD as inscribed by their mosaics. Ruins of mosques and houses from the subsequent Ummayad conquest in the 7th and 8th centuries AD are also present. Ultimately, the town's importance faded after a massive earthquake in 749 AD left much of the city in rubble.
I highly recommend touring this remarkable site with a professional guide so that you don't miss a thing!
Perhaps less familiar to many is a town called Madaba, located about 20 miles south of Amman, renowned for its impressive floor MOSAIC MAP. The map was part of a floor mosaic in the early Byzantine church of St. George in Madaba and was rediscovered in 1884 during the construction of a new church over the site of its ancient predecessor. Hence, it is now located in the 'new' church of St. George. Beyond being beautiful, what makes this map particularly EXCEPTIONAL is that it is the OLDEST surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land and part of the Middle East. The map dates to the mid-6th century, likely between 542-570 AD based on buildings that are depicted in it.
While multiple locations are depicted in the mosaic such as the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, Jericho, Bethlehem, Hebron, the Mediterranean Sea, Mount Sinai and the Nile Delta, the largest, central, and most detailed element depicts the Holy City of Jerusalem. In great detail, it shows Jerusalem's prominent churches of that time, the Roman Cardo, the city walls, the gates, the citadel, and the Temple Mount. The map has shed much light on the urban topography of Byzantine Jerusalem.
Sadly, large portions of the map have been damaged by fire, moisture, and wear since its rediscovery. In 1965 restoration and conservation projects were undertaken and today it is intermittently protected with a rug covering. When driving between Jerash and Petra, a stop in Madaba to view this gorgeous and intricate Mosaic Map is certainly a worthwhile experience.
Another UNIQUE destination in Jordan is called Wadi Rum, It is located far south in the country, beyond Petra, close to the Gulf of Aqaba of the Red Sea. Wadi is an Arabic term referring to a VALLEY. Wadi Rum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a valley cut through sandstone and granite and depicts a magnificent lunar landscape comprised of both rocky areas and soft sand dunes. This valley has been traveled since pre-historic times and many cultures, particularly the Nabataeans, have left their traces throughout the area with petroglyphs, inscriptions, and temples. Like Petra, Wadi Rum is also "a movie star", having been featured in the 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia.
Today, Wadi Rum is very popular for eco-adventure tourism. Popular activities include desert hiking, trekking, 4x4 tours, camping under the stars, sandboarding, horseback riding, or rock climbing among the massive rock formations.
Unique Bedouin camps are available for lodging with spectacular sunrise and sunset views.
Jordan is a very friendly, welcoming, and beautiful country. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to visit it, as I learned so much about its people and history. Now, I cannot think of the Kingdom of Jordan without immediately associating it with the Nabataean Kingdom. For it was the Nabataeans who initially settled and controlled that territory in classical antiquity. Their hydraulic ingenuity and their acumen for trade resulted in power, wealth, and economic dominance, all of which solidified their position in a shifting political landscape. Later, other cultures prevailed in the area, like the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Arabs ... but, it all started with the Nabataeans.