The northern kingdom

Many tourists focus on Petra in Jordan, but the country’s north offers a rich array of historic sites.

A NARGILLAH lounge in Irbid. The university town has many gathering places for young people. Above, the Roman era amphitheatre at Umm Qais. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A NARGILLAH lounge in Irbid. The university town has many gathering places for young people. Above, the Roman era amphitheatre at Umm Qais.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Heading northwest from the city of Irbid, the road narrows as it makes its way through olive orchards and small villages.
According to the map, it is supposed to be only a 28-km. drive to Umm Qais, but it seems longer. Just when we thought the taxi driver, who spoke no English, was lost, an extraordinary vista came into view.
Below to the left was the Jordan Valley.
Somewhere down there was Beit She’an and Israel. On the other side of the road, glimpses through the trees revealed the Golan Heights.
Suddenly the foreign was familiar.
We weren’t lost.
For years Jordan has been synonymous with Petra. Awad Hajjara, a licensed tour guide from Amman, says that this has meant many tourists miss the rich tapestry that the country has to offer. “There wasn’t repeat tourism in the old days. Usually they wanted to see Petra or Jerash [site of an ancient Roman city].”
The problem in recent years has been that the conflicts and turmoil in the Middle East have resulted in a steep decline in tourism to the country.
But as Hajjara notes, and as was clear during our trip there, Jordan is stable and safe. It also takes security seriously.
Petra is a several hours’ drive south of Amman, and many tourists access it via Eilat or through a direct flight.
There is a compelling reason to add northern Jordan to your itinerary.
First of all, it is accessible. An hourand- a-half’s drive from Jerusalem brings you to the Sheikh Hussein crossing, and from there most of northern Jordan is only an hour’s drive away. Those doing a day or two in Petra can also reach Irbid, the heart of the north, in an hour by car from Amman.
In some ways northern Jordan is a mirror image of the other side of the Jordan Valley in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The terrain is similar, the land is dry and dotted with olive trees and shrubs. But the historical differences are more extreme. This area of Jordan included the Decapolis, a group of 10 cities whose culture was primarily Greek and which thrived during the period of Roman rule. In contrast to Judea around Jerusalem, where the Jews fought the Romans, or Samaria, where Samaritan culture predominated, these cities were classically pagan. The ruins at Jerash, Umm Qais and Pella can all be visited in two days. They bear a resemblance to Beit She’an (ancient Scythopolis).
Umm Qais is the most majestic of the sites. Founded after the death of Alexander the Great, it was called Gadara. When you enter the site from the parking lot, there is supposedly a ticket office, but we didn’t notice anyone charging for tickets.
A short walk takes you through the Ottoman-era village, whose stately houses were carved from basalt.
In one of the courtyards of these houses, leading Arab notables met in 1920 to protest the Sykes-Picot agreement that carved up the Middle East between British and French rule. A plaque commemorating the event says that 17 Arab leaders from the area signed a treaty here “assuring their loyalty to King Faisal” and their allegiance to a greater Arab state named after the region’s Arabic name, Bilad al-Sham.
“King Faisal” has been partly scratched off the inscription in English. Many will recall Faisal from Lawrence of Arabia. He went on to be king of Iraq under the British, while his brother Abdullah became king of Jordan. Even today the flag of the Arab Revolt and Arab unity can be seen flying in these parts of Jordan.
There is much pride in the fact that the kingdom today is the last remnant of the dreams of a greater Arab country here.
A separate plaque commemorates a bombing of the site in 1967 by Israel. When you exit the Ottoman houses, it is clear why the site was bombed. The Jordanians built trenches and bunkers around the site because of its strategic significance.
You can see Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and Tiberias in one direction. Now there is peace, and the visitor can wander around the well-preserved amphitheater and see the old Roman columns that line the Decumanus Maximus, the old Roman street. On a small hillock between the amphitheater and the Decumanus, a German expert stonemason is busy training local men to do original stone restoration.
Working with large white stones and chisels and other period tools, the men refashion stone decorations.
A short drive from Umm Qais, winding down the road toward the valley below, brings you to Al-Himma, the Jordanian side of Hamat Gader. This used to be a major tourist destination for local Jordanians, but now it seems like Palm Springs but without the concerts. A sad village is festooned with signs for “pools” and various kinds of lodges people can stay in amid the reeds and springs.
In one courtyard there is a small pool that is warm from the spring, and a dry swimming pool. BBQ pits and ancient columns dug up from the mud line the paths. This could be a cool place for a Mexico-style vacation, with warm beer and fish tacos, but alas it seems there is no beer and not much infrastructure.
Getting around in Jordan probably requires a taxi, which can come to 100 dinars ($140) a day. Hiring a local tour guide might save you on the cost by having an expert with you and a car. Hotels in Irbid are relatively cheap, the Seven Days Hotel near Yarmuk University is well appointed and has a sauna and pool.
It also has a lounge with narghiles (water pipes) and decent local fair.
Jordanian cuisine is fresh and local and worth eating, and the numerous narghile cafes are enjoyable.
Due to the charges at the border, which can run you 100 NIS to leave Israel and 30 dinars to enter Jordan, you should plan for several days in the country. Spend a day-and-a-half in the north; a day spent traveling to Jerash, Amman or Madaba further south is an excellent itinerary.
Splurge a bit and end your stay relaxing by the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side and watching the sunset over the hills of Jerusalem. Whatever you do, give northern Jordan a chance; it has much to offer.