Tuesday, December 3, 2013

We escape the cold for a memorable visit to Jordan

We were very happy to escape unseasonably cold weather, heading off for an eight-day tour of Jordan. Since it was dark, our trip in from Amman airport was made up of impressions of a very busy and somewhat chaotic city. No lanes were marked on the roadway, making our trip a little scary at times. However, we had arrived and were looking forward to the morning and a start to a very full day.

Last night's impressions were confirmed by our drive through crazy rush hour traffic to the ancient city of Madaba, 30 kilometres south of Amman. An impressive sixth-century Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land was our first stop. It's size and style mark it put as special. What survives today are fragments of the original, which compromised over two million pieces, measured an enormous 15.6  metres long and 6 metres wide and depicted virtually the entire Levant, from Lebanon in the north to the Nile Delta in the south, and from the Mediterranean coast to the open desert. Part of it contains the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land and especially Jerusalem.

It is thought that the novel purpose of laying the map on the floor of the church helped pilgrims reach sites of significance. The mapmaker has reproduced settlements and geographical features very precisely. Even by today's standards the work is cartographically correct. It was certainly very impressive.

We wandered back to the parking lot through the old Ottoman houses of Madaba stopping for a  freshly squeezed glass of pomegranate juice. This was our first look at the handicrafts, mainly colourful scarves and trinkets, most made in China.

Our next stop found us over 800 metres above sea level at the summit of Mount Nebo. According to the final chapter of Deuteronomy, Mount Nebo is where the Hebrew prophet Moses was given a view of the Promised Land that God was giving to the Hebrews. "And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho." (Deuteronomy 34:1).

According to Jewish and Christian tradition, Moses was buried on this mountain by God himself, his final resting place unknown. Islamic belief holds that Musa (Moses) was buried not on the mountain but a few kilometres to the west, somewhere beyond the River Jordan. As the story is told, Moses viewed this Promised Land after spending forty years in the desert. I know that you cannot take this time literally but it is very difficult imagining spending even 40 days in this parched, arid sand and rock landscape.

On the highest point of the mountain, Syagha, the remains of a church and monastery have been uncovered. The church, discovered in 1933, was constructed in the second half of the 4th century to commemorate the place of Moses' death. Unfortunately, the church was under restoration so we were unable to visit inside. We did see remnants of mosaic floors from different periods. The earliest of these is a panel with a braided cross. The site has been visited by two popes. The day before writing this it was announced that Pope Francis was going to visit Jordan. I imagine this site will be on his tour route as well.

I thought the most spectacular thing was looking out from the viewpoint terrace. From here a panoramic view takes in the northern shore of the Dead Sea, the dark stripe of the river Jordan in it's valley and Jericho on its opposite bank, 25 kilometres away. It was somewhat hazy when we were there, but I suppose that you could say that it was truly biblical both in scale and significance.

Our next stop was a workshop where craftsmen and women made mosaic pictures as well as plates and really anything that you could put mosaic patterns on. It is a very intricate process requiring much precision and a lot of patience. This seems to be Jordan's only true handicraft. Perhaps the people of this area have been traders for an eternity and didn't need to develop the handicraft skills that you see in nearby countries.

Little Petra is nestled in a slot canyon about 350 metres long with alternating narrow and open sections with carved houses, temples and triclinia. There are quaint rock-cut stairs which lead off on all sides, turning it into a multistory alleyway that must once have hummed with life. People have lived in Little Petra since Neolithic times. In the first open area is what was probably a temple, fronted by a portico, below which is a little rock-cut house. The second open area has four large triclinia, which could have been used to wine and dine merchants and traders on their stopover in Petra. A little further on the left, stairs climb up to the Painted House featuring one of the very few Nabatean painted interiors to have survived the centuries. On the ceiling at the back is a winged cupid with a bow and arrow; just above is a bird, to the left of which is a Pan figure playing a flute. The third open area culminates in rock-cut stairs which lead through a narrow gap out onto a wide flat ledge. But enough travelling around, it was time to find our hotel.

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