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El Deir, or 'the monastery', is Petra's largest monument. Photo courtesy of Diego Delso.

It was September, the first month of autumn. My two companions and I had arrived in the Btiny Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan just 11% the area of New South Wales.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom Wadi RumThe 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom' rock formation, named for Lawrence of Arabia's autobiography.Bordered by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Israel it is a haven of peace in a troubled region.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has been subject to human habitation since the Stone Age. Over a period of almost 2.5 million years what is now Jordan has seen the presence of nomadic tribes such as the mysterious Nabateans, ruled by Romans and Greeks and subject to invasions by the Mongols and Ottomans. Each has left visible signs of their presence on the landscape.

It became a protectorate of Britain in 1921 and in 1946 became an independent self-governing country known as Transjordan. In 1949 the name was changed to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, more commonly now referred to as Jordan.

With such a rich history, some of which is recorded in the Bible, a landscape ranging from arid to forest regions and an inland sea marking the lowest point on the earth’s surface it is not surprising that Jordan has an abundance of attractions for tourists.

Jordan mapIn researching our trip the above passage from the King James Version of the Bible resonated.

‘The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say Shibboleth.” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him.’

So our first stop on our travels was to be the River Jordan. However there are approximately more than 51 fords across the Jordan River and as none has been definitely identified as the place where Jephthah, the leader of the Gileadites, and his army routed the Ephramites we had to be content with visiting that part of the Jordan River which formed the border of the former tribal area of the Gileadites.

We then travelled by road southwards along the Jordan River to Bethany beyond the Jordan, a wilderness heritage area recognised as the site where John the Baptist baptised Jesus of Nazareth. It is now a place of pilgrimage for Christians. When we arrived, pilgrims dressed in white robes were taking it in turns to be baptised by immersion in the river to a background of gospel music. A moving and interesting spectacle!

Dead SeaThe shores of the Dead SeaJust nine kilometres south of the baptismal site is the northern shore of the Dead Sea, the surface of which is approximately 431 metres below the level of the Mediterranean Sea. The Dead Sea marks earth’s lowest point on land. We were informed by a guide that the level of the Dead Sea drops around one metre each year because of the reduced flow of water from damming of the Jordan River and the harvesting of salt at evaporation sites on the Dead Sea. There is a plan to construct a pipeline from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea to ensure the level does not fall any further.

Arriving at our hotel on the shores of the Dead Sea we did what almost all tourists do. We took a dip in its salty waters which are about nine times more salty than that of the oceans. However before entering the sea I asked a local if it contained anything which would sting us and did it have sharks? He regarded me quizzically and then responded ‘No. That is why it is called the Dead Sea.’
We were advised however to just float on our backs in the sea to avoid the dangers of ingestion of extremely salty water and to avoid contamination of our eyes.

Mosaic map Chuch of St GeorgePortion of a mosaic map found in The Church of Saint GeorgeThe following morning we commenced our journey southwards towards Mt Nebo. It is here that Moses is said to have visited shortly before his death to view ‘the promised land.’ The views from Mt Nebo are spectacular, being able to see Jericho in Israel to the West and the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea. For almost a quarter of a century this site has been owned by the Franciscans and is home to a Franciscan monastery.
A memorial church to Moses has been built on the former site of a Basicilia abandoned in the 16th Century.

Our next stop was the city of Madaba dating from the Byzantine period. It is known as the city of mosaics because of the discovery of a number of early Byzantine mosaics during building activities taking place over the years. The best known mosaic is on the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church of St George which dates from the 6th Century and is the earliest known map of Palestine. Leaving Madaba we stopped at a mosaic workshop, an initiative of the Government to provide employment for local people.

Continuing on we arrived at Wadi Mujib, known as the ‘Grand Canyon’ of Jordan. Measuring four kilometres across from one edge to the other and more than 900 metres deep it provides an impressive view as you wind your way down to the dam and river below which continues on its way to the Dead Sea.

Tombs at PetraTombs at PetraShortly after travelling along the Kings Highway with the trees bending towards the east from the continual force of the winds blowing from the far distant Mediterranean we reach the town of Kerak dominated by the remains of a massive Crusader Castle dating from 1140. After working our way through the traffic of the bazaar near the castle we paid our entrance fee and were permitted to wander through the remains. Views from the Castle were spectacular and it was obvious why this was one of the main Crusader Castles on the Crusader’s route from the Red Sea to Jerusalem.

Leaving Kerak, we soon reached the sandstone Shara mountain range, the location of the rose red remains of the city of Petra. We first visited Little Petra, thought to have been a ‘suburb’ of the former nearby Nabatean capital Petra. Both were built during the 1st Century BC. Petra is reckoned to be the major tourist attraction of Jordan whilst Little Petra has less tourist traffic. Both have remains of the carved facades of tombs in the almost sheer walls of the canyons in which they are located. Our guide, a specialist in ancient civilisations, informed us that there are more than 20 different interpretations of the history behind the ruins. His opinion was that the man made caves were the burial chambers of the Nabiteans, a Semitic Tribe that settled in the area around the 6th Century BC.

Finding Petra so fascinating we stayed two days to enable us to explore the canyons to our satisfaction.

Finally, leaving Petra, as we headed south on the Desert Highway to Wadi Rum, we passed the 117 megawatt Tafila Wind Farm, currently the largest in the Middle East, providing an estimated three percent of Jordan’s energy requirements.

Lots wifeThe rock formation known as 'Lot's Wife'Wadi Rum is the largest of Jordan’s desert landscapes and was the home of TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. He joined with local Arabs in Wadi Rum during 1916 to 1918 to fight the Ottomans. Its spectacular sandstone mountains rising around 700 metres above the red sands of the desert floor, which is about 1000 metres above sea level, has provided the location for many films. It is a World Heritage site, one of several in Jordan. On our entrance to this desert valley we were surprised to see a sign prohibiting hunting. Striped hyenas, wolves and Ibex roam this barren land as well as numerous Dromedary camels. Short of time we elected to use the services of a Bedouin guide with his four wheel drive to take us to some of the sites of this wilderness area. These included several named after TE Lawrence, notably the remains of his house, a spring in the desert where the animals of the desert gathered and the seven pillars of wisdom named after his book.

From the parched landscape of Wadi Rum we travelled to Jordan’s only sea port, Aqaba. On the Red Sea, Aqaba is a thriving tourist centre for nearby countries as well as travellers from Europe. It was in Aqaba we saw the Prince Hashim hospital. It is a state-of-the-art hospital providing complete medical services for the south of Jordan. The hospital has its own solar farm providing some of its energy requirements.

The next day it was a 7.00am start to travel the Dead Sea Highway 327 kilometres to Amman. For some time we followed the shore of the Dead Sea from south to north, passed the salt pillar said to be Lot’s wife, saw Lot’s cave and passed the numerous salt harvesting plants situated on the Dead Sea arriving that evening in Amman.

It was another early start the next day when we travelled north to Jerash, reportedly having had human habitation continuously for more than 6,500 years. It is better noted for its well preserved remains of a Roman City. Although it was autumn and temperatures hovered around 41°C we entered Jerash through Hadrian’s gate, walked along the 800 metre long street of pillars and sheltered from the sun in the colosseum where we watched a re-enactment of Roman Chariot races. Later we returned to the comfort of our air conditioned hotel in Amman where we topped up our fluid levels in a restaurant surprisingly named Murphy’s bar.

Our final day in Jordan was to visit some of the many attractions of Amman. We walked around the Roman colosseum in the old town, wandered through the souks with their rich aromas of coffee and spices assaulting the senses, visited the Mosque of the Martyr King Abdullah bin AlHussein which has a capacity for around 10,000 worshipers and gazed over the city from the nearby citadel.

The Jordan Museum was our final stop where Jordan’s past, present and future are linked and helped to tie together all we had experience over the past days.

We left Jordan with the distinct impression that this country of friendly people relished its past but was embracing its future with equal measure.

By RW Bro Neil Atkins
Article extracted from Freemason magazine, March 2019, pages 24 to 28.

Wadi MujabThe spectacular red desert of Wadi Rum.

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