Jordan surprised us from the moment we got off the airplane in Amman. Of course, after only spending a couple of days in the capital city, we were ready to hit the road. We’d planned a road trip, because Jordan is a rather small country, and we were pretty sure we could hit many of the sights and remarkable things to do on this one trip. As we began our trip, we had a few goals in mind, and one of them was Um er-Rasas, one of the best Roman ruins sites in Asia.
Driving in Jordan
It was winter, we were in Jordan in December, but unlike Germany we didn’t have to contend with snow or freezing rain. The weather was cool, and the road conditions were dry.
Driving through the countryside is, for the most part, relaxed and easygoing. Of course, we were sharing the road with all manners of other traveling modes from pedestrians to camels, donkey carts to buses. I think if it moved we saw it on those roads. However, everyone was politely sharing the right of way and there was none of the tension and stress that can often come about from following a very slow moving vehicle for miles.
I think part of this peacefulness came from our pace, we weren’t ever in a hurry to get anywhere as the country is small enough to cover the required distances easily during daylight hours. Aside from that, there really wasn’t much traffic so it was easy enough to overtake when needed. That’s not to say there were no problems, however.
Checkpoints and Challenges
The first, and perhaps most alarming thing we came across, and kept seeing almost every day of driving, was uniformed men on the side of the road waving the cars down. We quickly learned, after the first time we stopped for a particularly stern looking young man, that these guys weren’t manning traffic control stops but merely off duty soldiers or police trying to hitch a ride into the nearby town.
The other big problem we had was lack of a good road atlas. For whatever reason, military or not, the GPS, google maps, even the one printed road map we had been able to find in gas station, were all woefully inadequate not showing the majority of the roads. Road signs were usually reliable and usually included western alphabet translations especially on the major roads that were drawn on the maps.
Aquaba to Um er-Rasas
One morning we drove north out of Aqaba heading toward Madaba with little more planned for the day then driving along the Dead Sea. We had a plan to visit the UNESCO World Heritage sites near Madaba, Al-Maghtas and Um er-Rasas, on day trips out of the city. About two hundred and fifty kilometers out of Aqaba we saw a turn off with a road sign for Al Zumella, a town on the other side of the mountains on the Kings Highway.
We noticed two things when we looked at the map to check our position. First, this turn off wasn’t on the map even though it appeared to be a decent enough tarmac roadway. Second, Um er-Rasas was on the map between our current location and Al Zumella. Could this road actually cross the high mountain pass between the Dead Sea and the Kings Highway and take us right by Um er-Rasas?
Well, we had most of the day ahead of us; so, feeling adventurous, we left the highway and turned onto the smaller road meandering up towards the mountains. We climbed up into those colorful mountains, past a military camp (no photos please), through sparse grassy fields into, along, and then out of a wadi, and as we drove the road got smaller and smaller. Soon it was clear that this was not a well used road.
The tarmac began breaking up into longer and longer patches of potholes and gravel, and soon gave way to dirt. At one point, near the pass, we had to drive around a small barrier that seemed to indicate that local traffic could pass; well, we followed two other cars around the barrier so we figured it was OK.
At the the top of the pass we were treated with an amazing view of the mountains all around, the Dead Sea to the west and the Transjordan plateau to the east. We could see the road winding down in its narrow track out of the mountains toward a village so, after snapping a few photos, we were back on the route.
We were never really too worried, the worst case would be we would need to turn around and head back to the main road and keep driving to Madaba. Best case, we would end up at Um er-Rasas and explore the site before continuing on to our hotel for the night in Madaba. Of course, in hind sight there are plenty of worst case scenarios that would have truly been horrible but everything worked out and we were pulling into the small parking lot at Um er-Rasas shortly after noon.
Um er-Rasas – From Roman Outpost to Religious Sanctuary
Um er-Rasas is best known for its well preserved 4th through 6th century Byzantine mosaics. However, looking out from the recently built visitor center we were amazed at the size of the site. There were stone ruins in every direction just waiting to be explored and excavated as most of the site is still being surveyed and slowly uncovered.
After a much needed trip to the clean bathrooms we were heading out with a newly made friend who was just so impressed that we were driving ourselves around Jordan. He wanted to personally take us around to the best spots on the site.
We wandered around the piles of stones from long ago fallen buildings. Most of the site is untouched and the ancient buildings have collapsed repeatedly after several earthquakes have struck the region. I always wonder what happens to a town so drastic that it ends up going from a thriving settlement or successful trade post to bustling town and then nothing…just ruins, all the people gone and oftentimes leaving centuries of treasures and artifacts behind.
I know we have modern day equivalents, ghost towns, and areas deserted after natural, or man-made, disasters. Still, it always piques my imagination.
After a good half hour of tromping around the half-buried arches and precarious stones we made our way to the first of the mosaics. Saint Stephens church was one of the most important religious establishments in the area and as such was richly decorated.
Today, you can still view the incredible mosaic in situ, protected from the elements by an old, rickety building. It does the job, barely, but the guide was telling us about plans to update the site and cover more of the mosaics. Hopefully that’s not too far in the future.
This particular mosaic has beautifully depicted towns, villages and other religious sites in the local area. In a way, it is almost like an ancient form of Instagram. The artists recreate the well known facades from these other areas for the visiting admirers.
The mosaics are beautiful and represent a time in history when the region was undergoing some major religious upheavals. It’s amazing that they are so well preserved and we’re just thankful that the site is open and protected on the UNESCO World Heritage list. I’ve definitely added it to my list for a return visit sometime in the next ten years or so to see what other treasures have been uncovered!