In November 2022, I travelled to Jordan with Charlie Waite on another Lightandland organised trip. Our first stop was at Jerash, home to Gerasa, one of the best preserved Greco-Roman cities and one of the most visited sites in Jordan. Ancient Greek inscriptions suggest that the city was founded by Alexander the Great and his general Perdiccas, who allegedly settled aged Macedonian soldiers there during the spring of 331 BC, when he left Egypt and crossed Syria en route to Mesopotamia. However, other sources, namely the city's former name of "Antioch on the Chrysorrhoas", point to a founding by Seleucid King Antioch IV, while still others attribute the founding to Ptolemy II of Egypt. After the Roman conquest in 63 BC, Jerash and the land surrounding it were annexed to the Roman province of Syria. In 106 AD, it was absorbed into the Roman province of Arabia, which included the cities of Philadelphia (modern day Amman), Petra and Bostra. The Romans ensured security and peace in this area, which enabled its people to devote their efforts and time to economic development and encouraged civic building activity. Jerash is considered one of the largest and most well-preserved sites of Roman architecture in the world outside Italy and is sometimes misleadingly referred to as the "Pompeii of the Middle East", referring to its size, extent of excavation and level of preservation.
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We then visited the Citadel and Roman amphitheatre in Amman and walk the streets. The citadel is an archeological site at the centre of Amman on one of the seven hills (jabals) that originally made up Amman. It has a long history of occupation by many great civilizations. The hill became the capital of the Kingdom of Ammonsometime after 1200 BC. It later came under the sway of empires such as the Neo-Assyrian Empire (8th c. BC), Neo-Babylonian Empire(6th c. BC), the Ptolemies, the Seleucids (3rd c. BC), Romans (1st c. BC), Byzantines (3rd c. AD) and the Umayyads (7th c. AD). After the Umayyads, came a period of decline and for much of the time until 1878 as the former city became an abandoned pile of ruins only sporadically used by Bedouins and seasonal farmers. Despite this gap, the Citadel of Amman is considered to be among the world's oldest continuously inhabited places. Most of the structures still visible at the site are from the Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad periods. The major remains at the site are the Temple of Hercules, a Byzantine church, and the Umayyad Palace. Archaeologists have been working at the site since the 1920s, including Italian, British, French, Spanish, and Jordanian projects, but a great part of the Citadel remains unexcavated.
We then travelled south, a drive of 3 1/2 hours, and spent two nights at Wadi Musa to visit the fabulous ruins of Petra and Little Petra, which must be the highlight of any trip to Jordan. Access to Petra is through a 1.2 km gorge called the Siq in some points no more than 3 m wide. It is a natural geological fault split apart by tectonic forces, later worn smooth by water. The walls that enclose it are between 91 and 182 m high. The entrance contains a huge dam, reconstructed in 1963 and again in 1991, designed to bar its mouth and reroute the waters of the Wadi Musa river. The dam is a fairly true reconstruction of what the Nabataeans did to control the Wadi Musa in the 1st c. BC. The entrance also contains the remnants of a monumental arch, of which only the two abutments and some hewn stones of the arch itself have survived. The Siq was used as the grand caravan entrance into Petra. Along both walls of the fissure are a number of votive niches containing baetyli, which suggest that the Siq was sacred to the Nabatean people. In 1998, a group of statues were uncovered when digging was conducted to lower the road by more than 2 m. Although the upper part is greatly eroded, it is still possible to recognise the figures of two merchants, each leading two camels. The figures are almost twice life size.
Petra is also called the "Rose City" because of the colour of the stone from which it is carved. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. Towards the bottom of the Siq, the gorge dramatically opens up on to Al-Khazneh ("The Treasury"), one of the most elaborate temples in Petra. As with most of the other buildings in this ancient town, including the Monastery ("Ad Deir"), this structure was carved out of a sandstone rock face. The structure is believed to have been the mausoleum of the Nabatean King Aretas IV in the 1st c. AD. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in both Jordan and the region. It became known as "Al-Khazneh", or The Treasury, in the early 19th century by the area's Bedouins as they had believed it contained treasures. Its name derived from legends regarding the decorative stone urn high on the second level, which in reality is solid sandstone. One legend is that the Egyptian Pharaoh and some of his army escaped the closing of the Red Sea, created the Khazneh by magic as a safe place for his treasury and continued in his pursuit of Moses. This led to the name Khazneh el-Far'oun, "Treasury of the Pharaoh". Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt wrote of another local legend that "ancient pharoanic treasures" were hidden in the urn. Significant damage from bullets can be seen on the urn, which the Jordanian government attributes to Bedouins who believed the legend. Many of the building's architectural details have eroded away during the two thousand years since it was sculpted from the cliff. The sculptures are thought to be those of various mythological figures associated with the afterlife. On top are figures of four eagles that would carry away the souls. The figures on the upper level are dancing Amazons with double-axes. The entrance is flanked by statues of the twins Castor and Pollux who lived partly on Olympus and partly in the underworld. In contrast to the elaborate facade, the interior comprises a plain main chamber and three antechambers with interior volume of around 2,000 m3.
The area around Petra has been inhabited from as early as 7000 BC and the Nabataeans might have settled in what would become the capital city of their kingdom as early as the 4th c. BC. The Nabataeans were nomadic Arabs who invested in Petra's proximity to the incense trade routes by establishing it as a major regional trading hub. The trading business gained the Nabataeans considerable revenue and Petra became the focus of their wealth. The Nabataeans were accustomed to living in the barren deserts, unlike their enemies, and were able to repel attacks by taking advantage of the area's mountainous terrain. They were particularly skillful in harvesting rainwater, agriculture and stone carving. Petra flourished in the 1st c. AD, when its Al-Khazneh structure was constructed, and its population peaked at an estimated 20,000 inhabitants. Although the Nabataean kingdom became a client state of the Roman Empire in the 1st c. BC, it was only in 106 AD that it lost its independence. Petra's importance declined as sea trade routes emerged, and after an earthquake in 363 destroyed many structures. In the Byzantine era, several Christian churches were built, but the city continued to decline, and by the early Islamic era it was abandoned except for a handful of nomads. It remained unknown until it was rediscovered in 1812 by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.
Some of these images are of Little Petra, also known as Siq al-Barid, an archaeological site located north of Petra and the town of Wadi Musa. Like Petra, it is a Nabataean site, with buildings carved into the walls of the sandstone canyons. As its name suggests, it is much smaller, consisting of three wider open areas connected by a 450 m canyon. It is part of the Petra Archeological Park, though accessed separately, and included in Petra's inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I also include here some more images around Petra illustrating the wonderful rock formations. These sandstone layers were key to the choice of this location, the scale of its monuments, the fine architectural details and its good state of preservation. Most of Petra monuments were carved in two layers of sandstone referred to as “Disi Sandstone”, in the upper parts of the site, and “Umm Ishrin sandstone” below it, together dated to the Paleozoic period, 540 to 260 million years ago. To create this Petra sandstone in these brilliant tones, nature used various iron and manganese oxides, together with hydroxide minerals within the sandstone. From the Visitor Centre down to the Siq, you are surrounded by the upper “Disi sandstone”, hard and pale gray, transported by ancient rivers, 520 to 490 million years ago, forming this thick sand-bed under the water of a shallow sea that covered all of Jordan. Carved out of this layer are the monuments of the Djin Blocks, Snakes Tomb and Obelisk Tomb. At the entrance of the Siq starts the older layer “Umm Ishrin sandstone”. The rest of the monuments of Petra, including Ad Deir were carved out of this layer. Some 20 million years older than the layer above, it is easily recognized by its beautiful patterns that look like abstract paintings. Rising humidity exposes the most stunning patterns: stripes, in dramatic brown, red, orange, mauve and gray all grouped and braded in bands, a rhythmic deposition of sand, formed by a river system 540 million years ago.