By Antonio Malara
Amman was the first stop of an unforgettable journey that led me to discover the most beautiful places in Jordan. It was April 2014 and the trip was also a compromise for me given the "particular" company I was supposed to join. The tour was organized by a young priest named Don Valerio and his collaborators. He had been in Jordan as a missionary from a very young age and knew the area well, thanks to his experience, with this trip even his parishioners could learn from his knowledge. I was "invited" to join the group for Jordan through my sister who attended the parish of the priest. Knowing my atheism, my sister warned me: “this is not a journey like the others, it is a pilgrimage and many times there will be pauses for meditation and others dedicated to prayer”. I did the math and considered that I could "endure" those rules, this trip was an opportunity not to be missed. I wanted to visit Jordan for two main reasons; one was to see the desert, a dream I had since childhood, the other was to visit "Petra", a wonder made popular by the Indiana Jones movie, a site that greatly stimulated my curiosity. Although I had studied the main places that I would have gone to see, I must say that the reality seen there was much more beautiful, engaging and full of surprises.
The itinerary itself was also particular, rather than arriving directly in Jordan, our flight would have landed in Tel Aviv, then from there we would have moved by bus to Amman. In addition to this, the first step was to arrive by bus from my city, Reggio Calabria to Catania. On the morning of departure, after the introductions, we immediately set off on the road. Personally I thought that this type of people who followed Don Valerio were more "fanatics" slowly getting to know them throughout the trip I changed my mind, completely dismantling my prejudices. In the couple of hours of travel to Catania airport, I immediately understood the personality of Don Valerio; an intelligent man, of great culture, capable of making people laugh but always with the situation under control. In other words; a true leader, that man had earned my respect and esteem only after an hour of acquaintance.
I had never been on a pilgrimage, but while we were doing the check-in in at Catania airport, I was pleased to notice that the spirit of the group was serene and carefree like the one of those who go on vacation, not the serious one of those who are about to go in communion with God. Little by little I had to tell the people I was in contact with that I didn’t believe in God, but I didn’t want to disrespect their belief and above all I didn’t want to pass as a "fanatic". Our flight left around lunchtime, I don't remember what it was like but I remember Don Valerio's recommendations regarding the Ben Guiron airport in Tel Aviv, an elegant way to tell us not to be stupid. We landed in the early afternoon and after the checks we went to our bus, the path to the Israel-Jordan border was waiting for us. Both the airport and the area immediately outside were very modern, well-kept and wide streets, people driving new cars, it looked like an American city. I was pleasantly surprised to see that modernity together with those of the group who like me had never been in those areas. Don Valerio immediately warned us: “Look, Jordan is not the same, even if nearby it is profoundly different”. Upon returning from that trip I would have understood that diversity conceived as a lack of technology and modernity was actually an added value.
Towards evening we arrived at the border, and after taking our luggage from the bus we lost some time for checks and paperwork. When we finished the procedures, our Jordanian guide arrived. Transferred everything on the new bus we left in the direction of Amman. I don't remember exactly how long it took, but when we arrived in what was “the Jordan Valley”, what Don Valerio said immediately manifested itself. A long road cut in two what looked like a village to me. On both sides there were "shops" of all kinds but what was striking was their condition. At first sight everything seemed degraded, without hygiene, personally it seemed to me a scenario from Italian neorealist movies. I remember above all a hairdressing shop, a very small place, with only the essentials: a chair, a mirror and the hairdresser with scissors. Seen with other eyes that place was quite the opposite, seen with other eyes, the Jordan Valley was a place where time had stopped! I realized this just long enough to arrive at the hotel, suddenly I was homesick for a place I only saw in passing. That scenario also reminded me of my childhood, as a child the reality of my city was very similar, there had been an evolution under my eyes in the last twenty-five years and I had not realized it. Seeing people driving them without a seat belt and riding old-fashioned mopeds without using helmets made me taste freedom again. We were now modern, we had locked ourselves up in the cage of useless rules!
The evening at the hotel passed quietly, the next day we left for explorations, the appointments were many and they would have been until the end but it would have been worth it.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan
The destination of our first day in Amman was Bethany Beyond the Jordan (Al-Maghtas), the baptismal place of Jesus Christ. Leaving Amman by bus to reach the site outside the city, I noticed that “the city of seven hills” was definitely another thing compared to the countries in the Jordan Valley. Amman had modern roads and bridges, in the distance you could see skyscrapers already built and tall ones under construction. Immediately outside the city, the landscape became desert with yellow hills. The road to Bethany beyond the Jordan was on the Dead Sea road which is the lowest place on earth. Also on this road we stopped in a pitch where a large sign indicated that at that point we were exactly at the same level of the sea, from then on we began to descend.
The site of Bethany beyond the Jordan was a plain in the middle of nowhere, again the yellow color and the desert scenery were a constant. A small recently built structure made it clear that this was the entrance to the site. Don Valerio explained to us that the site had recently become safe but that in the past you had to be escorted to visit it and in any case only a few people were allowed. In other words, we could consider ourselves lucky. Immediately after entering the scenery began to change, the thick vegetation of a dry nature gave more a feeling of swamp, I remember that at a certain point I took a path like that which took me to the river which was much lower and dark in color. Then back with the group we headed to the place of baptism. The main part of the site was quite large and made up of excavations where wooden structures had been built around it, nearby on the walls there were photos and explanations of a historical nature. Don Valerio said to us that there are various studies on whether that is the exact place of baptism or not, but thanks to his charisma everything took on a different value. His explanations led to "communion" meditating and trying to connect with the spirit by exploiting a sacred place. To do this he used "silence". He put us all seated a bit apart from the main part and managed to create a surreal situation. I must say that his was a totally different philosophy from the "sermons" that priests normally give. His was pure reality that sought the spirit, something that cannot be seen but is there. That was the second thing that made me raise my respect for that man even more. It must be said that although I am an atheist, I wanted to make that visit because I have always admired the figure of Jesus Christ.
After reading the Gospels and not being influenced by priests or nuns in the catechism, I gave my personal interpretation to the life of Jesus. Basically for me, he was a revolutionary, one who preached a different philosophy than the canons of the time. A messenger aware that opening people's minds would lead to disorder ("I came to bring the sword not peace"). The more we advance technologically, the more I consider Jesus the son of God where the latter may be a more advanced civilization than ours rather than an abstract entity. How do we know that Jesus did not heal the blind simply with highly evolved eye drops?
The path to the Jordan River was indirectly marked as it was devoid of vegetation. This led me to venture alone by detaching the group. On the way to the river I came across thick vegetation where the trees were all felled in "Tunguska" style, it seemed very strange to me and unable to understand what phenomenon had bent them in that way. Before arriving on the bank of the Jordan we passed in front of the Orthodox Church of San Giovanni Battista, literally a “cathedral in the desert” with three beautiful golden domes. Right in front of it was the wooden staircase that led to the river. Just behind the Jordan River a small wooden "refuge" was built. A simple roof, benches and then the access to the river that divided Jordan from Israel. Opposite, the Israeli side was quite different in grandeur and pomp. Large walls and stone staircase, all newly built with very high palm trees to embellish the whole. On that side, there were many more people, many tourists who, thanks to special "cages", could enter the river and immerse themselves. The place was very significant, two countries and two different religions, represented there by a site that was humbler on the side of Jordan and more gorgeous on the side of Israel. All symbolically "united" by a very small river, I say united because in that case it was not possible to draw the border line that is normally done on the mainland. That strip of water gave me that impression of freedom, that free zone where a person did not pass from one country to another but where he could magically fly to a new dimension.
Under the wooden shed near the river, Don Valerio celebrated a mass that I followed in the background while I watched the people who plunged their heads under the waters of the Jordan River.
Again by bus we headed towards Mount Nebo, even in this case the landscape until our arrival was dominated by desert hills. Arriving at the parking lot, we went through a gate and headed towards the Moses Memorial via a new road built in stone. In this place was the Church of the Memorial of Moses, the whole area was newly built with various sculptures and memorials scattered around. This place is very important for Christianity, in fact according to the holy scriptures it was here that Moses had the vision of the promised land and it is here that he was buried. The burial place has never been precisely indicated so there is no tomb of Moses but in this case the whole place is dedicated to him. The most beautiful part of the site was certainly the viewpoint from where you could see the whole Holy Land. The landscape was the usual desert and yellow in color but in addition to seeing it from a dominant position there was something magical that was born when you looked at it. At one point there was a billboard indicating with arrows where to look to find cities like Jerusalem, Jericho or the Dead Sea. I don't know if I was influenced by Don Valerio's stories about the place but really looking at the panorama you could experience history. After all, these were the places we studied at school and beyond the belief in God that you might or might not have, the stories of those places have always been fascinating. That morning it was very hot and slowly I began to have flu symptoms characterized by a severe pain in the throat. At that moment Don Valerio was preparing a mass to be celebrated right at that point. Given my condition and the suffocating heat I was forced to leave the group and take shelter under a distant tree. I was unable to attend Don Valerio's mass and further lessons regarding the iconic place. We stopped for lunch there, where there was a beautiful restaurant with large windows overlooking the magical place, unfortunately I could no longer swallow and with the help of my sister we contacted our doctor who immediately prescribed me a strong antibiotic treatment. Unfortunately due to my condition I could not fully enjoy Mount Nebo, but soon after while we were on the bus headed to Madaba, the medicines had started to take effect, so I could swallow without pain.
The bus left us in the center of the city and walking on foot we found the main road immediately after having turned an intersection. This street was full of Arabic-style shops. Lots of colorful carpets hanging outside the shops, large scarves and metal ornaments were everywhere. Even though I had seen that kind of temporary market-style set-up in my city many times before, this one in the middle of that kind of buildings had a different impact. We weren't there to see that but that road was just the passage to get to the Greek Orthodox Church of San Giorgio. The church was built in yellow stone with a central bell tower, it wasn't gorgeous but I liked it for its bright yellow. Inside there were many paintings with sacred images but the most important thing to see were the mosaics. The most famous was the Byzantine mosaic "Map of the Holy Land" which depicted a map where there was the road to reach Jerusalem. Even though the map wasn't complete because parts were missing, it was still impressed by its size which occupied a large part of the floor. In addition to this large mosaic, there were others that depicted sacred images. Being hung on the walls, you could look closely and appreciate the art of mosaic in its maniacal perfection of joints. Leaving the church we went to the Archaeological Park which was a few blocks away. The park was not very large, the main structure had many mosaics which were essentially floors. The site was visited via a walkway that ran from above the rooms where the mosaics were. This was the best way to admire them, in fact they were so big that they couldn't have been seen walking on them. In this way they were preserved and could be better appreciated. Outside the structure there was a large stone road that fascinated me a lot. I think it was from Roman times and was totally deserted except for our presence. It was in perfect condition and walking on it gave me the idea of being in ancient times, obviously you had to focus only on it and exclude some of the surrounding structures.
We left Madaba and returned to Amman which was dinner time but our guide, rather than taking us to the hotel, took us to a site that was worth seeing; the Qasr al-Abd. These were the ruins of a Hellenistic palace dating back to 200 BC. The building was completely in stone, rectangular in shape and although it no longer had a roof, still made a great impression as it was very large. The place was a bit on the outskirts and isolated and had no guardians, around there were many children who tried to socialize with tourists and maybe have some “western” gifts in exchange. The fact that it was unsupervised gave the possibility to explore it in a wild way, personally I climbed large stones to take more original photos. I must say that although I believe the site deserves to be better preserved, I enjoyed it more for the exact opposite. First of all, the structure was beautiful both to photograph because it gave the possibility of multiple perspectives and for its antiquity which also in this case made me travel in time. The presence of the children who gave me attentions combined with the fact that I could turn, climb the rocks, jump from one point to another without anyone reproaching me gave me an indescribable sense of freedom. I remember that turning in what once must have been rooms, I found myself in front of a beautiful little girl, with a copper-colored face, brown hair and two eyes never seen before. I started photographing her a bit to get my version of Steve McCurry's little girl. Unfortunately I attracted too much attention and in a very short time the others began to do the same, distracting and creating a sense of bewilderment in the kid. I don't remember how long we stayed there, but among the tall columns, blocks of stone and sand I had a childish fun, taking photos climbing here and there and giving local coins to the children around me. Our guide explained to us that the peculiarity of that fortress was the type of stone with which it was built, in fact, being of a type that was not present in those lands, no one understands how and from where they brought it there.
On the morning of the second day, we went to visit the Amman Citadel, which is the most important historical site in the city. Located on top of one of the seven hills, it houses ruins belonging to different civilizations, such as Roman, Byzantines and Umayyads. The view from the citadel was breathtaking, overlooking part of Amman, with its very narrow urban planning and houses glued to each other. Other than that, the thing that drove me crazy was the fact that the site was wild. I mean that a historic site with ruins itself is something dirty, plus this was completely unprotected in the overhanging parts overlooking the city. While it wasn't the best security, it gave me an incredible feeling of freedom. Here too, as for Qasr al-Abd, the fact of being able to climb large boulders, take pictures and truly be “on top of the world” without artificial protection, satisfied me in an incredible way. From this point of view, Jordan took me back to my childhood, when the south of Italy where I live was wild and without rules. Over time I have seen everything transform, with a series of small rules one after the other that have led everyone to be automatons, at the same time the quality of life has not improved compared to before. Today adults are treated like children, especially in historic places such as the Amman Citadel. They tell you which route to take, where to put your feet, they compromise entire views with the excuse of security by placing horrible protections. Fortunately in Amman it was not like that, after all the difference between us adults and children is precisely this, we have a sense of danger.
The beginning of our journey started from the visit of the "Temple of Hercules", and right from there you could see the Roman Theater of Amman downstream of the city, even from a distance it was very large, unfortunately we didn’t visit it because it was not included in the plan. The ruins were mostly made up of columns, there was not even anything left that could resemble a temple. However, two columns still standing were worth more than a temple itself. In fact, walking along the site I found myself in front of two very high columns with a crossbar above them. The majesty of those columns was perceived only when you were very close as the open space didn’t make you perceive the perspective or depth well. Getting close to these very high monoliths, staying under them and feeling like an ant was a great experience. To understand the proportions, I had my sister take pictures while I was under the columns and I made sure that they fit into the frame. Looking at the photo it’s almost impossible to understand that I am the one under the columns. Here too, the added value is the lack of protections, the gigantic crossbar resting on the columns I don't think was 100% safe and not even the columns themselves, which were multi-sectioned. Today they would surely have been fenced off without having the opportunity to see them up close (I don't know if this has been done in the meantime), limiting the range of action and the thrill that the visitor has by being under two giants that big.
The other very beautiful thing to see while walking around the site was the "Palace of the Umayyads", this was the only piece to be almost completely standing. The palace was quite large and dominated by a blue dome which has undergone a restoration process. This was immediately noticeable upon entering the large door, in fact looking up you could see the large dome which in the internal part had been entirely rebuilt in wood. All the rest of the Citadel was very similar, parts of columns here and there and low walls that delineated what were once streets amidst buildings. Inside the site there was also the “Archaeological Museum of Jordan” which, however, we did not visit. That day included two other very important visits, the Machaerus and the city of Karak, after we left the Citadel we headed towards these two destinations that I will tell in the next post.
Pictures: Antonio Malara
Camera: Nikon D800