Complete set of photos for Jerash and Ajlun

The most well-trodden path from Amman is to go south towards Petra or maybe a day trip to the eastern desert.  We decided to go north to Jerash and Umm Qais with their impressive Roman ruins.  If the road signs are anything to go by the spelling of most places in Jordan is up for grabs in English.  A little imagination is required at times to interpret different spellings of the place you’re heading towards.  Rick took the first session of driving heading out of Amman which is not for the faint hearted.  While there aren’t as many cars as Mexico City the Jordanian drivers use many of the same tactics.  Lane markings are used as a guide more than a strict policy.  It’s pretty common to see a car straddle a lane marking as though having it directly under the car means it’s lined up just about perfectly.  Lane changes are done with a relaxed lean rather than any planning.  The most difficult aspect of driving and navigating in Jordan is that many of the roads in the city are divided by concrete barriers, much like a freeway.  This can lead to many frustrating moments when your destination is just off to the left, but you can’t turn until the road lets you.  There are many official u-turn spots for this purpose but these can pop up swiftly and when least expected your perfectly functional lane turns into a left turn only.

Road signage is usually in Arabic and English, which is great, but often the signs pointing out tourist attractions or major destinations stop telling you where to go before you have arrived, leaving you with gut instinct to fall back on which isn’t always enough in labyrinthine cities.  But all that is to come.  We guessed right heading out of Amman and found ourselves on the highway to Jerash about an hour north.  In fact, driving up to Jerash it rarely feels like Amman has actually ended.  There are road-side stalls selling fruit everywhere and the housing becomes less dense, but you are never left in the wilderness.  The landscape is dry, rocky, hilly desert dotted with some trees and bushes.

We got to our hotel without delay and checked in to a huge place in an olive grove high on the hills 15 minutes drive from Jerash.  We appeared to be the only guests knocking around in the place.  This is not usually a good sign but apart from being slightly shabby this was a great place to stay (the staff were fantastic).  We put the lack of tourists in general down the unrest in the middle east and that we were heading into winter which is not everyone’s idea of a good time to travel.  It was bitterly cold in the wind when the sun was not around but on a nice sunny day (which is mostly what we had) the temperature was great.

Jerash is deservedly famous for its Roman ruins.  While not as well known as Petra the ruins in Jerash are incredible.  They stretch for the length of the modern town, half of which people still live in and half of which is given to the ruins which are slowly being restored.  This is no jumble of rocks though, the ruins include Hadrian’s Arch, not one but two theatres, a nymphaeum, temple and numerous churches. The scale of the work undertaken is incredible, especially when you think how far they are from Rome. By all accounts this was a much less grandiose town until Emperor Hadrian decided to pay a visit.  He must have given plenty of notice because most of these huge buildings were constructed specifically to celebrate his visit.  Hopefully he was impressed and didn’t just say “Not another bloody arch!”.

Historic sites in Jordan have a very odd ticketing system.  You buy your ticket from one place then walk a short distance and hand your ticket over to another person who rips it in half for you.  This would be fine if the ticket offices weren’t so bloody hard to find.  In Jerash the ticket office is about a kilometre from the visitors entrance and ticket checker.  We turned up at the ticket checker on our first afternoon to be told that he couldn’t sell us a ticket and we would have to go all the way back past the hippodrome to buy them.  We decided to just get our tickets early the next morning instead.  We got to the ticket office and bought four tickets.  Unbeknownst to us they only sold us two tickets so when we walked all the way to the ticket checker he broke the bad news to us, someone would have to buy some more tickets.  Luckily for wealthy and lazy westerners like us there was a young boy standing around waiting for just such an eventuality and he promised to take our money and run back down to buy us some more tickets.  Trusting souls that we are we parted with our cash and watched him run off down the dirt road at a fast clip.  You will remember that I said Jordanians are an honest bunch and true to form the young boy came walking back up the road a few minutes later, breaking into a run when he saw that we were watching him.  We tipped him a couple of dinar and got on with our exploration.

We spent all day walking around, mainly open-mouthed in wonder at what we were seeing.  One of the best parts of ruins in Jordan is that once you buy the ticket you are left free to clamber all over the ruins and at this time of year there weren’t many other people around.  As an engineer Rick went weak-kneed over the way they put the arches together.  The theatres are especially cool.  Open-aired with a stage at one side and walls all around they are just as effective today.  The Romans used an acoustic technique of carving circular notches in the wall below the first row of seats. When you stand in the middle of the theatre and speak you can hear these notches bounce the sound around like an amplifier.

We also saw a gladiator show and chariot race in Jerash at the Hippodrome, an open-air stadium of antiquity not dissimilar to a modern racetrack.  The gladiator show sounds corny but it was good fun.  The actors are meant to be ex-military and they do bring some sort of order to the representation of Roman soldiers and gladiators.  The commentary is tongue-in-cheek and didn’t take itself too seriously.  Jackie’s favourite part was when one of the well-muscled bare-chested gladiators made his pecs beat like a heart in her direction.  The highlight for me was the chariot race where two guys being pulled by two horses each burned around the dirt track on machines that barely looked like they could stay upright.

As if that wasn’t enough for one day we scheduled in Ajlun castle which is on the way to the town of Irbid further north.  Ajlun castle is Islamic and was built to defend against the crusaders.  I’m fairly hazy on this period of history but from what I’ve pieced together from the information boards there were eight crusades from around 1100-1400.  Their aim was to win back Jerusalem from the Muslims.  Armies from various western European countries were assembled with the blessing of the Pope and went off to do what armies are designed to do.  They were defeated eventually but not before they built a lot of castles and had a fair few built to fight them.

So Ajlun castle is one of those built by the Islamic forces to fight marauding Christians.  It has been carefully placed on a steep hill with a view of all the other steep hills in the area.  The further north you travel in Jordan the more forests appear.  The country is 80% desert but up here the land has olive and cypress trees everywhere.  The castle is very well maintained and has stupendous views from the top.

The roads had been well-signposted and we were on our way to Irbid through stunning scenery, big rocky hills and gullies that make you appreciate the epic nature of the bible.  Christianity might have turned out differently if it fermented in somewhere like Ohio.

Irbid has nothing to recommend it.  Even the guide admits as much.  We were really only staying there as a stopping of point to the ruins at Umm Qais further north.  Luckily the hotel we were staying in wasn’t far off the main highway into town because we had no detailed map and Irbid is a complete maze.  Despite having a rough map in the guide which showed that we needed to drive past the Uni then turn left it was still incredibly difficult to zero in on the hotel.  Numerous circling and u-turns later we ended up seeing a sign for the hotel, and after one last loop actually managed to stop outside it. Lonely Planet describes this hotel as deservedly four-star but I don’t know any four-star places that would make a bed using wet sheets.  This is what Rick and Jackie discovered in their room along with a dank musty smell.  The manager ungraciously agreed to change the sheets and we headed out to the bright lights of Irbid.

I’m not being sarcastic about the bright lights.  Irbid really is the strip mall of Jordan.  It is the second biggest city and has replaced charm with billboards and fast food chains unsurprisingly located in a strip opposite the University.  We had a brief wander and then silently willed Rick to choose the pizza place as that’s really what we felt like.  It was Rick’s choice because it was his birthday.  Sarah organised a cake with a birthday greeting for Rick written on it (and for some reason gave the baker her email address.  He later wrote professing a life changing experience from Sarah’s touch, which I can sympathise with, but she has let him down gently).  For a present Rick got a keffiyeh which I haven’t seen him wear yet yet, maybe waiting until we arrive in Israel.  The pizza was tasty and delayed the moment we went back to our shabby rooms and inserted ear plugs in preparation for sleep.

Complete set of photos for Jerash and Ajlun

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