Desert Castles, Jerash and the Iraqi Border

Trip Start Jun 25, 2011
Trip End Aug 15, 2012

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Flag of Jordan  , Amman,
Saturday, October 15, 2011

by Karl

We organised a tour through the hotel of the desert castles, Jerash and the ruins of Umm Qais (60 JD). We went with a British couple (Gary and Kirsti) who we meet at the hotel who were in Jordan for a week having a quick holiday.

[Kat: It's so weird – we travelled huge distances to get to the middle east, it’s so exotic, etc. etc. and yet Brits can fly here for $200 round trip on EasyJet! It’s kind of like what Mexico is to Canadians….]

The desert castles- Qasr Kharaneh, Qasr Azraq and Qusayr Amra- are in the eastern desert of Jordan. The term desert castle is a misnomer for both Qasr Kharaneh and Qusayr  Amra, since the former’s function is unclear but believed to be a caravanserai ("hotel" for caravans) as well as an agricultural center from the 8th century AD, and the latter was a royal bath house, part of a much larger estate. Azraq fort is a true castle- founded by the Romans and then rebuilt by the Arabs and then the Ottomans. There was not a lot to look at- lots of dusty rooms and rubble everywhere- but the drive into the desert was a lot of fun. We were about 20 minutes ahead of the tour buses so we did the castles on the run to stay ahead of the crowds.

We stopped to have Bedouin tea at Qusayr Amra at a traditional Bedouin tent next to a traditional Bedouin Toyota truck. Our Bedouin host got us a cup of Bedouin tea and told us of his plans to visit Montreal. The tea came in a tiny cup and had sage in it. It tasted really good- it was a real surprise as was the 1 JD bill!!! For 1 JD it should have been bottomless Bedouin tea. At those prices he would be back in Canada quicker than I would be. Jeez.

While the castles were a lot of fun to look at, Kat got the most excited when she had her picture taken under a road sign that pointed to Iraq. I think she would have been happier if it had bullet holes in it just to freak her poor family out.

[Kat: Yes, I would!  Actually if we could have gotten some soldiers with guns as well…]

Qasr Azraq was originally surrounded by extensive wetlands and as such was an important crossroad both for trade caravans as well as migratory birds. However, these wetlands have fallen foul to the political and social unrest of the region. The mass immigration of Palestinian refugees in the 1940s and 1960s resulted in the water being pumped from the wetland aquifers to provide drinking water to Amman. So much water was pumped from these aquifers that the wetlands dried up (salinized) in1992. The Azraq wetlands are now classified as in a state of ecological collapse; the numbers of migrant birds have been reduced from 347,000 in 1967 to 1200 birds in 2,000. Water now has to pumped into the wetlands just to preserve the remaining 10%, and the Jordanian government is working to restore at least part of these to their original state.

Our next stop was the Roman city of Jerash. Jerash is known for the ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Gerasa. Jerash is considered one of the most important and best preserved Roman cities in the Near East. I went to Jerash back in 1994 and apart from the visitor center being built and more souvenir shops it still looks the same. Not much to say about Jerash- a big ruin, lots of rubble to scramble around in etc. It’s worth a day trip to look at but unless you are really passionate about Roman ruins there is not much to see. I think by this point of the day trip I was getting “history fatigued”.

[Kat:  The one BIG change is the addition of guys dressed in fake Roman uniforms, who put on chariot races for the tourists!  Yuk, not my thing – and really expensive.  Not new is using the public toilets and having someone ask you for money on your way out, and you’re never quite sure if they work there or not…]

We then drove for the next 2 hours to get to Umm Qais. This roman city is about as far north in Jordan as you can go without getting shot at (Kat: Rats!). It has extensive Roman ruins and its position on a high hill near the northwestern corner of the country allows for panoramic views. The Sea of Galilee and Tiberias, Israel, are visible, and just across the valley of the Yarmouk River is the southern end of the Golan Heights, claimed by and recognized as Syria, but under Israeli administration since the Six-Day War in 1967. The high mountains bordering Lebanon are visible in the distance on clear days (I shamelessly copied all this from wikipedia). [Kat:  OMG I was worried Karl had gotten boring on me! Thankfully he’s just cheating on his blog.] 

Umm Qais was memorable because of the fantastic view across the valley to the Sea of Galilee, and because the stones that the Romans used to build the city consisted of a mix of light and dark stones that gave the city a unique appearance. Apparently, one of Jesus miracles occurred here- he exorcised some demons called Legion into a herd of swine who all ran into the Sea of Galiee and drowned. The only reason I even know of that miracle was reading The Exorcist as a teenager (and not sleeping for a week).

At Umm Qais the old Roman roads were still visible and they still had the wheel ruts from the carts that used to go along the roads. I find small details such as wheel ruts more interesting than the big civic buildings as it’s more of a connection to the past; some ordinary farmer coming into town with his produce to sell. Not a Caesar or Vespasian just Joe Average trying to make a living.

[Kat:  So true!  Karl is obsessed with old roads, walkways or stairs, as long as they look a little bit worn or rutted, then he goes on and on about who might have walked or rode or slept there…]

I was a bit “history fatigued” by this point- it had been about 11 hours on the road, I spent most of my time exploring some old bunkers and trenches on the hillside (no idea on age, but kind of recent). The bunkers and trenches had just been abandoned so you had to be careful not to fall into the bunkers as there was a nasty drop down.

[Kat:  I had checked out at the start of Jerash … I have a low “ruin” tolerance, especially for the Roman stuff, or anything remotely Roman looking.]

It was dark by the time we left. I had a tear in my eye- not from the beautiful view or the stunning sunset but from finding out how much a can of beer was here at the restaurant (5 JD (~$7) for a tiny can of beer). If the budget was hurting before it was going to be destroyed now. The drive back was a typical drive through Jordan- crazy speeds, crazier braking and narrow escapes. When we got back to the hotel it had been a 13 hour marathon- talk about get your moneys worth!!! I was so tired I just went to bed- no felafel for me tonight. Nine hours of sleep and then back in the car again to travel down The Kings Highway to Petra….
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