The Arab World had always fascinated me - reading the Arabian Nights as a child, studying world history as a student and peeping into a world of exotic fantasy in my later life as a traveller. I would often look out for familiar characters coming alive in the souks, in the narrow alleys and in the vast desert sands, mounted on lone camels.
I set out to Jordan, the Hashemite Kingdom that once captivated ancient travellers. I reached Amman on a chilly morning, minus my baggage (as we all know, the pleasure of International Travel comes with its own baggage!!).
Eager to see the much talked about Holy Land, I hopped into a car with my guide Salah, travelled 30 kms along the Kings’ Highway to reach Madaba, the ‘City of Mosaics’.
Best known for its spectacular Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics, Madaba is home to the famous 6th century Mosaic Map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
With two million pieces of vividly-coloured local stone, it depicts hills and valleys, villages and towns as far as the Nile Delta. Also within the area is Mount Nebo, one of the most revered holy sites of Jordan and the place where Moses was buried.
Draped in a fancy shrug, I shivered in the cold wind (my heavier woollens were in the missing suitcase) and gazed at the ‘Promised Land’ Moses sighted eons ago.
Later, we visited the Church of the Virgin and Archeological Museum that houses a treasure trove of mosaic masterpieces. Salah told me that hundreds of such mosaics from the 5th and 7th centuries are scattered throughout Madaba’s churches and homes.
I signed my name on a huge ongoing mosaic artwork and clicked a picture of the same (for Facebook, of course!!).
In Madaba, our lunch at ‘Haret Jdoudna’, a 20th century Turkish house with romantic courtyards converted into a charming restaurant, gave me the first glimpse into Jordan culture. Women clad in stylish headscarves and their peals of laughter filling the place with a positive energy proved the good amount of freedom Jordanian women enjoy.
Suave and ultra chic Queen Rania of Jordan, the most admired and loved royalty today, reaches millions through the social media, penetrating into their hearts with her down to earth simplicity, compassion and a genuine wish to reach people.
Once back in Amman, I had the good fortune to meet her at the Royal Automobile Museum. By then, my suitcase arrived and I wore a saree (just to be Indian) which caught the attention of Her Majesty.
In her address, she stressed the importance of human interaction during travel, calling travellers ‘the best ambassadors for tolerance’. She said that they can help change the global perception of Arabs and Muslims, particularly during current times, and tell the world that Jordan is a safe, warm, and welcoming country. Thus reassured, I continued my journey in Jordan.
I found Amman, the capital of Jordan, to be a fascinating city of contrasts - a unique blend of the old and new, ideally situated on a hilly area between the desert and the fertile Jordan Valley. Wandering among the Roman ruins in the ancient city of Jerash, I learnt that its unbroken chain of human occupation dates back to more than 6,500 years.
With wind in my hair, I roamed freely in Wadi Rum, a stupendous, timeless place, virtually untouched by humanity. The huge monolithic rocks carved by the weather and winds rise up from the desert floor to great heights. I enjoyed the warm hospitality of the semi-nomadic Bedouin people. Should I confess that I relished the best meal of my life, cooked in the ‘zarb’ style? More about it sometime later!
Petra, included in the ‘Wonders of the World’ (new list), is Jordan’s most valuable treasure. It is a vast, unique city, carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled there more than 2,000 years ago, turning it into an important junction for the silk, spice and other trade routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome.
The warm, soothing, super salty water of the Dead Sea, about ten times saltier than sea water, and rich in minerals, soothed my tired nerves as I floated on the incredibly buoyant waters. No wonder, they have attracted visitors since ancient times, including King Herod the Great and the beautiful Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra. Dead Sea’s rich, black, stimulating mud rejuvenated my whole being. I came back feeling like Cleopatra, if not looking like her!!
(The author is a documentary filmmaker and travel writer; blogs at ww.vijayaprataptravelandbeyond.com)