In just under an hour we’ll touchdown in Amman. Why Jordan, bordering Israel to the west on the other side of the Jordan River, and the tragic war zone of Syria to the north? It’s precisely because of this, because of my fascination with the ancient civilisations of this part of the world that flourished along the trade routes between two continents. They led from Africa through Saudi Arabia to link the continents along the shores of the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers – the Tigris and Euphrates. We’d travelled to Egypt, and twice to Turkey, first by public transport and a year later by car some decades ago, in a dramatic journey from Yorkshire over the Channel, through France, Switzerland and Italy; by boat to Greece and past Istanbul to Turkey proper. More recently, hardly a year before the tragic outbreak of war in Syria, we went on a memorable tour of Syria and Lebanon.
Why? Well both John and I had taught courses involving the late 18th-century interest in the ancient civilisations to the east of Rome but once part of the Roman Empire. We had shown how British and French archaeologists, scholars and artists had been inspired by the ruins of late Roman cities like Palmyra and Baalbek, excavated and recorded in lavish publications sought by every individual aspiring to have a great library. There, on a long winter evening, he and his friends would gather around the lavishly illustrated tomes and discuss them. Some, such as Henry Hoare at Stourhead in the West Country of England, would copy buildings as garden ‘follies’, and architects like Robert Adam were inspired by a frieze at Palmyra. I saw these ruined cities mentioned in a tour organised by Voyages Jules Verne and immediately decided we should go. It was pivotal for me and now tragic whenever Damascus and Aleppo are mentioned in the news, especially the systematic bombing of Aleppo, with its great citadel, the pink to white stone buildings and the silver green olive groves on rosy red soil. I was entranced. Our guide Joseph took us to the baptistery, along the forecourt to the narthex and early Christian church of St. Simeon, in ruins but with the superb carving that we had seen at Palmyra. Descendents of the stonemasons working for the Romans would have carved the capitals for St. Simeon’s Church. There, at the edge of the hill where the church stood, our guide pointed to small villages in the valley.
‘There are some of the earliest Christian secular buildings,’ he said, ‘and no one agrees on the reason they were deserted in the 7th or 8th century.’ So we discussed whether the inhabitants fled to the flourishing coastal cities in modern Lebanon, like Byblios (Bible, book, the first libraries?) or whether, with the coming of Islam, a profitable wine export trade to Mesopotamia died out or…or…
Now, just before we land in Jordan, I wonder whether traces of the life we experienced decades ago in Turkey would still exist: the itinerant traders who would home in the ‘oteli’ to hire a bed (we learnt we had to pay for all the beds in a room to have the bedroom with a key to ourselves); the local loyalties to the tribal head – often the iman – that remained after the end of the Ottoman empire after WWI; a feeling of raw authenticity – one was in touch with the essentials for survival: food, shelter and peace.
We shall see.