Jordan history tour: The road to ruins

As international borders go, the one in the north-west corner of Jordan – where Jordan meets Israel meets Syria – is surely the most perplexing. From our hilltop perch amid the ruins of the ancient city of Gadara, we see Israel's Sea of Galilee to our left, the disputed Golan Heights (occupied by Israel since 1967, but still claimed by Syria) to our right, and a snow-capped Mount Hermon marking the border with Lebanon, in the distance.

For those with religious inclinations, the region is part of the Holy Land – where Jesus performed miracles, walked on water, fed a cast of thousands – to geologists, it's part of the Jordan Rift Valley caused by the separation of the African and Arabian Plates, to others it is simply home.

"This is a popular spot for Palestinian-Jordanians to come to look across to their homeland," says our young Jordanian guide Ahmad Hussein, his arm sweeping across the hazy, olive-studded valley. "Most arrived in Jordan as refugees from the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars."

Ahmad, who invites us to call him Arkie, is our guide for the next week as we travel through Jordan with Bunnik Tours on the first sector of a 25-day Egypt and Jordan in depth tour. Born in the capital, Amman, he picked up the nickname while studying archaeology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. A wise and sensitive host, who finishes every phrase with "habibi", meaning "my friend", Arkie is the perfect fit for our group of 16 Australians, all keen to learn more about Jordan than a flying visit would allow.

"If you don't understand the refugee mix you will never understand Jordan," he says. We learn that Jordan is home to 2 million Palestinian refugees (most have been granted full citizenship) and about 500,000 Iraqis. Syrian refugees are another matter, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees quoting 657,000 registered refugees, while Arkie says there could be as many as 4 million. "Almost everyone is from some place else," Arkie says. "We've been welcoming people for centuries."

This open attitude comes to define my stay. Although Jordan has its share of bullyboy neighbours (Iraq, Syria), this little country has managed to maintain stability in a region more noted for strife. "We don't have oil, but we have peace," Arkie says.

We had driven north from Amman earlier that morning, the boxy, biscuit-coloured city giving way to a drained and desiccated landscape. It's all I can do not to rub my eyes and blink like a befuddled cartoon character – one minute we're passing a Palestinian refugee camp, the next we're giving way to a herd of hairy goats, next we're knee deep in Roman ruins.

The ancient Decapolis city of Gadara (near modern Umm Qais) is an architectural palimpsest – its layers of Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman history never completely erased, but still visible through each subsequent overlay. Under a blue sky we marvel at the black basalt columns, hauled from the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, now standing like burnt tree trunks. Water fountains tell of opulent times, so too temples and tombs, terraces and theatres, all sprawled about like a toddler's abandoned toy box.

We stroll the wide Cardo Maximus, the economic hub of Roman life, olive trees and weeds where shops once stood. All the while Arkie regales us with stories about the poets and playwrights who were drawn to this hilltop location. Rebuilt by Roman general Pompey in 63BC on a Ptolemaic base, the city became known as a "city of philosophers".

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As Rome declined, so too Gadara, a demise helped by conflicts with early Islamists, a series of earthquakes and finally, by resourceful 19th-century Ottoman renovators who recycled the prefab stones to build a new village for themselves. "They reused the stones from the north theatre to build their cottages," Arkie says. "Everything has its time, habibi. Everything."

We have the place to ourselves – I can see the effect on my fellow travellers, lost in their own reveries – one following in the footsteps of her mother's journal; another young woman sharing the experience with her father.

From Umm Qais we drive south towards the second Decapolis city of Jerash, twirling through the brittle landscape, passing almond groves and stopping for a lunch of smoky meatballs, eggplant dip and flat breads at a local restaurant.

If Gadara was famed for its stunning location, Jerash (previously Gerasa) was all about grandeur. Once home to 20,000 people, it boasted a monumental hippodrome used for chariot races, an oval-shaped forum and enough fountains, temples, theatres and arches to deem it one of the best preserved Roman provincial cities in the world.

I soon tire of facts and figures, so I leave the group and wander on my own, playing my old travel trick of "walk until you find something interesting". Except it found me, in the shape of a goat herder whose name I regret never learning.

The encounter unfolds as I attempt a short cut up the steep side of the main thoroughfare to better photograph a herd of goats. Let's just say in the contest of girl versus goat, I come off second best, landing face first in the flowers with my boot snagged between two rocks.

"It is my destiny to meet you," says the goat herder, with one hand on his heart, the other reaching out to help me. The view from the top is worth the humiliation – a carpet of yellow flowers knotted with floppy-eared goats slips towards the curved spine of honey-coloured columns.

For the next hour we stroll and chat, the herder explaining that he brings the goats down each afternoon for fresh pickings after he has finished his regular job as a school teacher. "Everyone in Jordan needs two jobs," he says.

Again, we have the place almost to ourselves, so unlike the crush of the Forum in Rome, or other ancient sites such as Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu, all straining under the weight of too many tourists.

It is late afternoon when we regroup, the few tourists replaced by families coming to picnic and enjoy the end of the working week. It seems everyone I pass sings out "Hello", followed by "You are welcome here".

Arkie explains that not only are we off the tourist trail here in the north, but that tourism numbers are down, by as much as 70 per cent in parts, particularly since the 2010 Arab Spring and Syrian crisis. "But this year numbers are starting to improve," Arkie says. "Tell your friends to come and visit us, we need them."

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/jordan

visitjordan.com

FLY

Emirates Airlines flies to Dubai daily from Melbourne and Sydney, with onward connections to Amman in Jordan. See emirates.com

TOUR

Bunnik Tours' 25-day Egypt and Jordan in depth tour includes nine nights in Jordan visiting Amman, Jerash and Umm Qais, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum, Aqaba and Petra from $9595 a person, including international airfares. Phone 1800 286 645. See bunniktours.com

Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Bunnik Tours.

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