We couldn’t complain that on our last day in Jordan we experienced a sand and rain storm. In these strange and ancient lands, stony plains spread out east of Amman, yet by the Dead Sea, at Wadi Rum and Petra there were rocky mountains and hills, all of sandstone maybe, but of different shapes and sizes. Yet there was also a lot of flat and infertile land. Now. What was is like in Biblical, Greek and Roman times? Not so arid, I suspect, and with a higher rainfall.
We headed off across the flatlands to desert hunting lodges built during the brief Omayyad Empire (c 650 to 706) that was carved out of the former Byzantine Empire. It was born when Constantine decided that it would be easier to govern the vast Roman Empire from two capitals: Rome for the Eastern Empire and Constantinople for the East. When Constantinople eventually fell to the expanding Muslim empire, its version of Roman domed and columnar architecture lived on, the great Hagia Sophia being, perhaps, the greatest example. The classical language of architecture from the Greeks through the Romans with additions and subtractions, lived on here before us in these miniature desert castles or hunting lodges. Where were the forests and the animals? I imagined the small hunting retreats 1300 years ago in leafy woods close to these small but exquisite buildings with suites of rooms, frescos of arbours with a cheeky monkey or two and birds, with people playing instruments and on one wall in a larger room, an intricate bunting scene which gave an idea of the landscape as it once was in 700 AD We visited two of these abandoned pleasure domes. Leaving the last one, we battled back to the coach against a low sweeping wind laden with sand across a wide and empty area to the coach. There I felt for the
beige pouch that hung round my next with money and passport zipped inside it. It had gone! I panicked. Four of us, Ibrahim, John, a kindly but irritating man who was always jostling one to get a better angle for a photograph and me, spread out and, buffeted by the wind, walked back to the hunting lodge we had just left. I despaired. The pouch was the same colour as the ground we were treading. Five minutes later a shout and the photos man held it up! I cannot describe how relieved I felt.
No matter that the wind had lessened, it was still raining when we arrived at the once great late Roman city of Jerash. It was just wet, not sandy. Jerash rivalled Baalbek ibn Lebanon which we had visited a few years ago. It was almost ‘Roman baroque’, at its peak in the second century AD, and spread over a vast area. Inside the huge area of ruins were two ruined Byzantine churches built from the stones and with mosaic floors; beyond on a hill the other side off the river lay the undistinguished modern town. We entered through a triumphal arch and continued along the road that followed one side of a large oval stadium, almost the same size as the Circus Maximus in Rome. Jerash, given its scale, must have had a large population of citizens and slaves. We stopped in a huge round piazza, the sort of space that exclaims its grandeur, and then turned to enter a theatre, much restored and still in use where three musicians, wearing tartan stoles over their cream desert robes, were playing Scottish reels. Strange. They smiled; we contributed and asked why reels, but they didn’t understand.
Beyond we climbed to the temples beyond the churches. Temples to Hercules, Diana; columns, altars and parts of statues and remains of elaborate late Roman friezes. In the distance was another, smaller triumphal arch, a stadium and a second theatre as well as domed baths – everything you would expect in a once-magnificent Roman city prospering on the trade routes from Africa and Egypt to Mesopotamia and the far East – India and China. Fallen grandeur indeed.
There was a sort of similar grandeur in the hotels where we had been staying, but the last one, in Amman, was perhaps the most luxurious off all. I’m not a spa person and am mildly irritated at any attempt to cosset, but on a rainy day when I nearly lost my passport and money, it felt safe and comforting.
The departure was uneventful; Ibrahim invited us all to return, and London was sunny. Our adventure was over.