Continuing on our Jordanian adventure down the north west through Pella to Salt, Mount Nebo and Madaba
10.04.2012 - 10.05.2012 30 °C
Hummus is undisputedly the king of foods in Jordan. It comes pretty much with every meal, more often than not generously bathed in an olive oil and accompanied by a pile of pita bread. And so it doesn’t come as a surprise that our morning in Pella started with a generous bowl of home-made hummus. Having said that, hummus was only one of the many enticing dishes served to us for breakfast. Just like the previous nights, we were treated to a selection of home-made Jordanian delicacies, washed down by a freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice, all topped with a cup of decadently smelling cinnamon tea. I could really get used to this.
Our hosts at the Pella Countryside Hotel, Theeb Hussain and his lovely wife, were determined to make sure we begin our day with full stomachs and who were we to argue. After expertly sizing up the mountain of food in front of us as a breakfast for four, we rose to the challenge and threw ourselves into sampling everything on the table. This included a bowl of home-produced extra virgin olive oil, which we were instructed to drink and feel the burning sensation in our throats. Our hosts were delighted about the vigour with which we embraced this task, proudly explaining the various benefits of olive oil and its generous use in just about every Jordanian dish. They were not exaggerating.
Having accepted another cup of tea whilst chatting to our famous photographer / author co-guest Tomáš Míček, we slowly started to accept that it was time to go. Pella was waiting for us and although we didn’t want to leave, there were new adventures to be had. Theeb Hussain, ever so proud of the heritage of his country, armed us with useful information about Pella and the need for walking boots, which we appreciated as soon as we hit the hilly site ten minutes later.
By now almost a familiar experience, we were offered a selection of Roman, Greek and Byzantine coins by a local shepherd as soon as we entered through the main gate of the site. Surprisingly for us through, we were the only two visitors there and it stayed this way for the whole two hours of our visit, if you don’t count the bunch of local youths who used the remains of the old temple as a football ground.
Obviously not even the absence of an entry fee managed to attract tourists, who clearly favour more known sites like Amman, Jerash and Petra. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated case in Jordan and throughout our travels, we were to find many more sites that were under-visited and yet extraordinarily interesting. In Pella, we couldn’t help wondering what kinds of treasures are hidden below the tons of earth, pottery chips and sediments piled up onto the hilly landscape in a place where people lived for the last 9000 years. Needless to say that the bit which was excavated was fascinating and deserved more than two visitors a day. So you my dear prospective travellers, if you happen to be in Jordan, make your visit unforgettable by going off the beaten track to the many deserving sites dotted all over the country.
It was hard to imagine that during its heyday, Pella had more than 25 thousand of inhabitants, compared to the couple of hundred left today. Another interesting fact was that Jesus from Nazareth was supposed to have chosen one of Pella’s caves as his temporary residence, although when we attempted to locate this one, we failed miserably, ending up climbing up a steep mountain face only to find a shallow hollowing instead of a roomy cave and returning the same way again. We should have paid more attention to our host the previous night, when he had offered to show us the cave. Note to self: listen to the locals.
Having browsed around the site for the best part of two hours, the sun started to get unbearably hot and so we decided to board the microwave oven of our car and drive towards Al Salt, the once capital of Transjordan. Along the way, we took care not to cross the boarder to Israel, so as a rule, if vegetable trucks were heading right, we went straight. If the trucks went straight, it was a sign we should turn left. Our strategy worked and after passing a couple of refugee camps, negotiating a number of police checks and giving way to a couple of goat herds, we arrived in Salt.
In contrast to Amman, tourists and travellers are a rare sight in Salt and so heads were turning when we made our way through the local souks and steep alleys of the old town. It was refreshing to see stalls selling bits and pieces for everyday use instead of souvenirs and we used this opportunity to get some herbs as presents for people at home and stock-up on deliciously albeit dusty looking apples.
Just like Amman, Salt is set on a number of steep hills. But unlike Amman, the architecture of the old town houses is actually quite interesting and as our travel guide informed us, dates back to the Osman era. Keen to find out a bit more about this once prominent place, we visited a local Archaeology museum, surprising the lady at the counter. Tourists were clearly not a common site here. As we made our way through the few rooms of the museum, another lady came by to put the lights on as we approached a room and turn them off again as we moved on. We certainly couldn’t complain about a lack of tailor-made service for us.
Far more interesting was the Historical museum housed in a beautiful building with terraces and an interconnected labyrinth of rooms. Our private guide (private by default of us being the only two visitors again) who had studied archaeology in Bulgaria was excellent and managed to answer all our questions, including some fairly tricky ones about the popularity of Salt’s governors. The interior of the museum was at least as interesting as the stories connected to it, with furniture and design features imported from all around the world. No wonder that the king chose to stay here during one of his visits – a fact heavily publicised throughout the house by photos and decorative fabrics.
The Duke and I loved the museum and Salt in general and so before we were ready to leave, we got ourselves a delightfully cheap Turkish coffee, camped out in a busy pedestrian zone and watched the world go by, soaking up the atmosphere and making notes for our blog.
Leaving Salt was not as easy as finding it. The usual mix of missing and confusing signposting managed to trick us into mindless detours once again and so we spent the next hour frequently exclaiming things like ‘I think we already drove this way’, ‘this sign looks familiar’ and ‘are we not in Salt again?’ Eventually we managed to escape, although in the process of road searching we found out that we previously arrived via a different way than we thought we did, and if we wanted to see Mount Nebo next, we actually had to drive back where we came from through the mountainous landscape for quite a stretch. With nowhere we had to be, we set off through the now familiar landscape, until we hit the road up to Mount Nebo.
Unfortunately, thanks to all the detours our arrival came a tiny bit too late and the site was already closed. Still, despite a haze hanging in the air, the views were breathtaking and we promised ourselves to come back the next day, hoping to get a better visibility with views reaching as far as Jerusalem. From the little what we saw, it was easy to imagine Moses standing at the top of the mountain, looking at the valley ahead the beautifully sculpted mountains nearby (at the time covered in green) and seeing the ‘chosen land’. It was actually quite surreal visiting so many real places featuring in various Biblical stories, even for someone of no religious beliefs.
In the absence of Mount Nebo being opened, we headed to the nearby town of Madaba to try our lack at finding a hotel for the night. Already when we entered the town, the difference to all the other places we visited that day was obvious. Streets were heaving with locals and tourists alike, with English hotel signs promising plenty of opportunities to stay for the night. Our first challenge was to find a parking spot though so that we could explore the town on foot. Getting increasingly more comfortable with chatting to Jordanian police, the Duke befriended a local tourist police officer who reassured us that parking in a ‘no parking’ zone is just fine and kindly welcomed us to Jordan, before returning to his game of chess.
We liked Madaba from the moment we got there, and it was only helped by finding a very reasonably priced hotel in a walking distance to the town centre. Not wasting time, we quickly showered, put on some clean clothes and hit the streets in search of postcards and something to eat. Briefly stopping at one of the shops with outdoors postcard display, we were immediately greeted by the owner called Joseph who invited us inside the shop where he had new postcards not spoiled by the sun. We accepted and soon found ourselves chatting to Joseph about us, him, life, Madaba and everything else.
Joseph is a retired banker with an international work experience who decided to enjoy his pension by opening souvenir shop as his pet project. His grandfather was one of the men leading Christian tribes from Al Karak to settle in Madaba, which enabled him to distribute land and secure a nice building plot for his family. As Joseph remarked, many houses in Madaba feature thousand year old mosaics and are generally built by recycling stones from ancient ruins, which was the common practice during the time. Fortunately for us and everyone else, enough mosaics have been excavated and preserved throughout the town to make Madaba a must-see place with incredible historical value. It also seems that being the founders of the Madaba re-settlement by Christians, Joseph’s extended family owned a considerable amount of land and property in Madaba, including the hotel we were staying in.
It was easy to believe that for Joseph, the social aspect of being a shop keeper was much more important than the money-making potential. This was only confirmed by him refusing to take money for the three post cards I selected, and inviting us for a coffee the next day, before we head on to Petra instead. We promised to do that and equipped with some good advice about sites to see such as Umm Al Rassas, left to find somewhere to eat.
Feeling adventures, we climbed up a narrow and fairly dodgy looking staircase into a top floor shisha café overlooking the Greek Orthodox St. George’s Church, which we later found out hosts the oldest depiction of Palestine in form of an old mosaic floor. It was in this very cafe where the Duke lost his shisha virginity and I tried my first chicken Shawarma kebab – sourced by the staff from a takeaway on the ground floor of the building, surrounded by Jordanian youth playing cards. It was interesting seeing how local youngsters spend their evenings, and I dare to say that for them it was equally interesting having a couple of strangers smoking shisha in a place not normally visited by tourists.
Taking our time to relax, we sat and talked for hours before concluding that it was time to go to bed. We didn’t want to be late for Mount Nebo again, did we.