Rock of Ages

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Rock of Ages

By Natalie Amos, frequent Exodus traveller

The thing about winter in the UK is that it is cold.  Freezing cold.  On the spur of the moment after trudging through the snow to my office I booked Exodus’ Week in Jordan.  It sounded so perfect.  Only five hours away from the UK, yet 15 degrees warmer.  Jordan has history and culture in bucket loads and the itinerary meant I could really get under the skin of the country in a short time, and without having to fly halfway across the world.

The trip began in the Greco-Roman city of Jerash, 30 miles north of the capital, where we spent several hours exploring well preserved monuments including the Temple of Artemis and Temple of Zeus.  Buried under sand for centuries until being rediscovered in 1806, Jerash was famed as one of the ten wealthy self-governing cities of the Decapolis. With a long and colourful history, Jerash enjoyed a golden age with luminaries including Alexander the Great and Emperor Pompey amongst the visitors to this great city.

Fast forward several hundred years and Jerash still impresses with highlights including the dramatic South Theatre which seats up to 3,000 people, and the imposing Hadrian’s Arch built to celebrate the visit of the Emperor in 129 AD. The air hung heavy with history, and the faint scent of olive trees floated on the breeze as we marched through the Cardo Maximus and gazed at the Oval Forum.

The next morning we rose early and continued our journey southbound along The King’s Highway, the 5,000 year old trading route which conjured up visions of traders and caravanserai.   Passing through towns and villages we paused at Mount Nebo and gazed down at the River Jordan, squinting to make out Jerusalem through the haze.  We stopped in Madaba home to more than 6,000 Byzantine and Umayyad Mosaics before arriving in Petra in the early evening.We left Jerash with the taste of Arabic coffee in our mouths and headed for a float in the Dead Sea. At 1,300ft below sea-level it is impossible to sink. Even the non-swimmers of the group were persuaded to dip their toes in. Later, we covered ourselves in the thick, tar-like mud which promised ‘eternal youth’.  Sadly I didn’t look any younger, but I certainly felt invigorated!

I had always wanted to visit Petra. It was almost a decade and a half since the poet John Burgon described Petra as a ‘Rose Red City Half as Old as Time’ but my cultural reference was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  I kept that bit quiet until that evening when I found myself whistling the soundtrack as I laced up my boots.

We had decided to join the Petra by Night tour as we had been told it was a magical experience.  After a clear day, the evening was chilly and we wrapped up in scarves and sweaters. After a short walk by candlelight we were swallowed up by the mountain and rewarded with our first view of The Treasury. Hundreds of flickering candles created a haunting effect and giant shadows danced across the façade.

The next two days were spent reliving my childhood as I clambered across rock faces and peered into tombs. We learnt about the Nabateans and their elaborate irrigation systems – when most of civilisation was scrabbling in the dirt, they were constructing sophisticated sandstone cities and trading Frankincense and Myrrh.

We climbed the 800 steps to view the Ad-Deir Monastery squeezing past donkeys and pausing for coffee and a chat. Everyone we met welcomed us and we would occasionally be pointed to hidden valleys and secret look-outs by charcoal eyed men and toothless women.  Petra’s modern day inhabitants it seemed were keen to share her secrets.

Sunrise brought camel trekking across the desert and sand surfing by 4WD.  How appropriate in a country with so much history that we would depart by the oldest and then newest forms of transportation. As we accelerated across the desert I looked back at the timeless landscape and promised that I would return.Before long it was time to leave and head towards Wadi Rum for an evening of camping under a million stars. Exhausted after our time in Petra we sat and gazed into the campfire and exchanged our highlights of the last few days before retiring early.

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