Thursday, December 21, 2006

Number 110

From Wadi Rum I dropped down to Aqaba, Jordan's one and only port, on the Red Sea. As their only access point to the seas Aqaba is incredibly important to Jordan's economy, so much so that in 1965 Jordan swapped a whopping 6000 square km of desert for just 12km of coastline (doubling the length they already had) with the Saudis so that they could built a decent container port. Though, along with the port area they gained some spectacular coral reefs that can be easily explored with only a mask and snorkel, or at least could if the northerly winds coming in from the desert didn't make swimming unbearably cold. So, with nothing to really do in Aqaba (it is a horribly soulless tourist trap) and it not being possible to continue further south I headed back towards Amman (I also desperately needed to change my trousers!).

I didn't, however, go straight back, and stopped off along the way, first at Petra. Why return to a place that I had already been? Well, first of all there are some beautiful treks that can be done outside of the main Petra area where you can walk through beautiful tomb-filled canyons completely alone, without another tourist in sight and no Bedouin offering donkey rides; and secondly I wanted to sneek into Petra without buying a ticket just to see whether it is possible, to do my little bit to fight oppressive exploitation of tourists. (Travellers of the world unite!) Anyway, for those of you on tight budgets who wish to see the fabulous ruins it is very easy to walk in from the desert (but don't say I told you). From Petra it was further north along the King's Highway, a route used since biblical times to connect Damascus to the Red Sea which, in places, contains remains of the old Roman road (Nova Via Traiana) and its milestones if you look hard enough, to the town of Kerak and its Crusader castle. Nice place to stop for an afternoon.

The next day I made my way to the remains of Kastron Mefa'a (known locally as Umm Ar-Rassas). Not a name that is known to many people (even in Jordan), but I have given myself a little mission whilst on this trip to try and visit as many UNESCO world heritage sites as possible. And so I had to pay a visit to Umm Ar-Rassas as well (seeing as it was on the way as well). The only problem is that, although it was on my route, the old saying that the shortest route is not always the quickest proved to be very true here. The King's Highway is bisected by the giant Wadi Mujib gorge (think Grand Canyon but only slightly smaller) which means that all public transport goes either via the Dead Sea to the west or the desert to the east. I persisted nevertheless (because I'm a stubborn bastard) and 50km (as the crow flies) and 4 hours later I was there ... and decidedly underwhelmed. The site is just a huge pile of rubble stretching out for about one square kilometre. As I scrambled around the site I was wandering why on earth this is part of my heritage. Then I saw a largeish tin shed off to the side and decided to investigate (as it was mildly more interesting than the rubble). Outside was a sign reading "Church of St Stephanos 785AD". If it was a church it didn't look too impressive. Upon entering you walk along metal gangways and as my eyes accustomed to the darker interior I noticed the reason for the raised walkways: below me was a giant and immaculate mosaic, larger and in better condition than anything I have ever seen. And all of this beside a forgotten, windswept village in the middle of nowhere. When I found the guard (who was sleeping in a little hut, huddled under a blanket from the cold) to ask about onward transport he seemed surprised to see me and said that I was the first visitor in three days and that I would have to leave the way I came (i.e. hitching). In the end Umm Ar-Rassas proved to be a memorable stopover, despite dodgy first impressions, for the remoteness, the challenge of getting there (a record of 8 different vehicles in a day) and the phenomenal mosaics. Plus it became UNESCO site 110, although I'm still a little way off my target of one every week. ;-)

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