The King’s Highway: Jordan’s ancient artery of civilisation

South of Madaba, the previous street took me to the place the place John the Baptist misplaced his head. Once I acquired out of the automobile, past the village of Mukawir — historical Machaerus — the wind was kicking up clouds of stinging mud.

On all sides, the world tumbled away into deep canyons. Far under have been a scattering of Bedouin encampments. I climbed a winding path to the ruins of Herod’s palace, identified domestically because the Fort of the Gallows. From the highest, I might see the Promised Land, and the domes of Jerusalem glinting in distant solar.

There are most likely a number of classes on this place, however I suppose the primary one is: don’t poke your nostril into different individuals’s relationships. Herod Antipas had married his brother’s spouse. John denounced the union. Herod arrested him and incarcerated him in a dungeon beneath this palace. After which issues acquired worse.

I picked my well beyond shafts that led to underground dungeons the place John the Baptist would have been held. Desert winds moaned between damaged pillars. Clouds have been blowing up out of the Jordan Valley and columns of rain marched across the horizons. I imagined John’s final day might have been like this — troubled, unsettled, ominous. I considered him down within the dungeon, listening to the preparations for the night’s banquet, the dance musicians tuning their devices.

In the midst of the ruins is the room the place it occurred, the ground the place Salome danced. The remnants of lovely mosaics have been a faint reminiscence of the luxuries of this palace, of that banquet night, decadent, drunken, somewhat loopy. Salome had agreed to bounce for the king, her stepfather, however provided that he granted her a want. Custom hints on the Dance of the Seven Veils, a form of lap dance of the traditional world. Afterwards, standing in the midst of this flooring, Salome made the brazen and stunning demand for the Baptist’s head, due to the way in which he had condemned her mom’s marriage.

A watchtower on the Roman fort of Qasr Bshir © Stanley Stewart

The story has fired western imaginations, rippling throughout Europe from this distant place. Flaubert primarily based a novella on the scene. Oscar Wilde wrote a play. Richard Strauss composed an opera. Caravaggio, Titian, Cranach and greater than a dozen different well-known painters portrayed the dance, the sensuous younger girl in diaphanous robes, the grisly head on its platter.

I cherished the locations this previous street took me: the ruins of this eerie palace, a Roman watchtower, a fortress the place a marriage social gathering was besieged, a village of shepherds, a misplaced metropolis, a God-like desert. The street is named the King’s Freeway and it runs down the backbone of Jordan — although nobody, curiously, can keep in mind who the King was.

One of many world’s oldest, most persistent, most chequered, most romantic of roads, the King’s Freeway is as legendary and evocative because the Silk Street. Operating south from Asia Minor by means of Aleppo and Damascus, alongside the east aspect of the river Jordan, by means of Amman and Madaba and Karak to the legendary metropolis of Petra and past to the Crimson Sea, it has been an artery of commerce and conquest, of civilisation and faith since prehistoric occasions. It options within the Bible, in biographies of Richard the Lionheart and in King Hussein’s admirable efforts to inexperienced Jordan.

‘Salome with the Head of John the Baptist’ (c1609) by Caravaggio © Alamy

John the Baptist will not be the one ghost on this previous street. There’s a cavalcade of them — Hadrian, Trajan and Septimus Severus, the Queen of Sheba, the Prophet Mohammed and Saladin, the Three Smart Males, Byzantine mosaicists and the emissaries of Suleiman the Magnificent. The King’s Freeway has carried camel caravans and Roman legions, Crusader armies and Bedouin tribesmen, Muslim pilgrims and Nabataean kings. Alongside this street frankincense went to Syria, slaves to Constantinople and Nabataean souls to the Underworld. From the King’s Freeway, Moses first glimpsed the Promised Land, whereas Lawrence of Arabia adopted the street in the direction of Aqaba and fame.

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I used to be travelling south from Madaba with a driver and information over the course of per week, staying at a unique small, domestically run lodge every night time. I used to be ready for the burden of historical past alongside the way in which however much less so for the way spectacular the geography can be. Africa’s Nice Rift Valley pushes north right here into the Center East, splitting the panorama dramatically alongside the course of the river Jordan and the Useless Sea. The King’s Freeway runs atop the plateau to the east.

The rift and its tributary canyons — some, comparable to Wadi Mujib, rival the Grand Canyon — are a Gothic panorama of melodrama and convoluted extra, of escarpments and precipices, caverns and gorges, dizzy heights and darkish tectonics. Spherical a curve within the previous freeway, the earth instantly opened at our ft and I discovered myself gazing down right into a canyon the place eagles have been circling on thermals far under. The historical past of this street is at all times in peril of being dwarfed by its geographies.

An olive tree near the village of Dana © Stanley Stewart

The day had cleared as I continued south from Mukawir. Solar splashed throughout landscapes that have been pleasingly biblical — olive groves and historical villages, and shepherds tending their flocks. At Um ar-Rasas, I wandered among the many ruins of eighth-century church buildings. Winds from the Useless Sea whisked sands throughout the church flooring, overlaying and revealing them in flip. Spherical my ft, delicate flooring mosaics appeared like vintage mirages — pomegranate timber and sheep, fishermen and seashells, after which progressively a chart of historical cities — Nablus, Gaza, Jerusalem.

Close by was a stylite pillar atop which a monk had as soon as lived in isolation. Impressed by Simeon, who spent 37 years on a pillar close to Aleppo within the fifth century, stylites have been a weird ascetic phenomenon of early medieval Christianity. Monks, eager on self-mortification, lived for years on prime of pillars to be nearer to God. Often, clerics of various theological persuasions — the early church was famously schismatic — have been perched close to each other and thus might spend a long time fortunately arguing the finer factors of theology from their respective pillars.

Map of Jordan

East of the street, past the fields and villages, I discovered a lone Roman fort. Clambering over fallen masonry, I hoisted myself into the watchtower the place centurions had as soon as peered throughout the desert, an enormous dry sea tipping away towards distant horizons. For the Romans, the jap frontier was as horrifying as Caledonia. To their rear lay civilisation; on the market was barbarism, an outer darkness. The dimensions of the Roman enterprise is astonishing: Hadrian’s Wall, the empire’s northern boundary, was 4,000km away.

Again on the previous street, previous rolling wheat fields, I got here to Karak, probably the greatest preserved Crusader castles within the Center East, constructed by the splendidly named Paganus the Butler within the twelfth century. Sitting astride a sheer-sided rock spur, with the bustling city clustered across the backside, it’s a chiaroscuro labyrinth of vaulted halls and underground chambers burrowing into the hill on seven ranges. Voices and footsteps drifted alongside darkish passageways. The beam of torches flickered between shafts of sunshine as I stepped from the kitchens with their enormous grinding stone to the eating corridor, the place figures in chainmail as soon as took their locations at lengthy refectory tables.

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In November 1183, this room had resounded to a marriage feast. Princess Isabella was marrying Humphrey of Toron, one of many innumerable Crusader barons who occupied the Center East on the time. It was most likely not the only option for a marriage venue. Whereas toasts have been being drunk, a big Muslim military, below the management of the charismatic Saladin, was shelling the fortress with catapults and filling within the moat in preparation for a full frontal assault. Chivalry, nonetheless, was nonetheless not useless. The bride’s mom kindly despatched plates of meals out to the attackers whereas Saladin ordered the shelling away from the tower the place the newly-weds would spend their first night time.

Hitching a experience with a Bedouin information close to Dana © Stanley Stewart

At Dana, an Ottoman village, I arrived at a humbler and less complicated world, away from the good monuments and actions of historical past. Homes of honey-coloured stone clung to the sting of the Nice Rift Valley, which fell away by means of woodlands of oak and juniper to the plains bordering the Useless Sea. On this momentous street, as empires got here and went, as prophets have been beheaded and promised lands glimpsed, I favored the sensation that not a lot had occurred in Dana.

Within the night I walked the rim of the valley. The sounds that drifted up, elongated by the acoustics of the hills, have been those who had had been right here since earlier than the time of John the Baptist — the tinkling of goat bells, voices calling to at least one one other, canines barking, a donkey braying. A bearded shepherd appeared along with his flock, coming spherical a bend within the path. He was carrying a protracted criminal and a cute, doe-eyed lamb throughout his shoulders. We stopped to talk with the late shadows gathering. A bulbul was singing. The shepherd lifted his finger, and we fell silent as we listened. “Hulwa,” he mentioned, that means “candy”. We smiled, pleased with this straightforward pleasure. Then he mentioned: “Come for dinner. We’re going to eat this pretty lamb.”

The subsequent morning, shadowing the King’s Freeway, I walked throughout the desert to Petra, the good Nabataean capital. It appeared one of the simplest ways to reach, on foot, like a pilgrim. It was the King’s Freeway that created Petra, that made the Nabataeans rich. They started as highwaymen, raiding laden caravans, till they realised they might make more cash as rulers.

Half legend, half desert romance, Petra appears like a misplaced metropolis, an Atlantis of the desert spectacularly come to gentle. Carved into sandstone cliffs, its classical facades of temples, treasuries and tombs are tucked away in slim valleys of the Shara mountains, as if the Nabataeans, for all their eventual success, by no means actually outgrew the brigands’ want for a hideaway.

The town’s chief method, its entranceway, is the well-known siq, a rock fracture forming a slim twisting alley, greater than a kilometre lengthy and lowered in locations to a few metres between 150-metre cliffs. It’s no marvel that the town was misplaced to the skin world for 500 years, its temples occupied by Bedouin shepherds, till a European traveller stumbled upon it within the early nineteenth century.

The hike, of some 16km, took me throughout dramatic landscapes that had the form of rock cheekbones that the digicam loves. Cliff faces have been streaked with veins of mineral color — crimson iron, inexperienced copper, purple amethyst, brown magnesium, the black shiny surfaces generally known as desert varnish. At my ft, ammonite sea fossils appeared within the sandstone, a reminiscence of a misplaced waterworld. On the excessive trails, the place my voice echoed from canyons, birds unfold their wings and stepped into corridors of clear desert air, as I gazed away to blue mountain ranges folding into the gap. When Petra got here into view, after the disorientating impact of this colossal empty panorama, it appeared, because it ought to, like a discovery.

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South of Petra, the King’s Freeway skirts the Wadi Rum, one of many nice deserts of the Center East. Rising sheer from the crimson sand sea are mountains, like islands, their flanks eroded by wind and rain into unusual formations, serrated, honeycombed, contorted. TE Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, described Wadi Rum as “huge, echoing and god-like”.

Rocky mountains rise above the desert at Wadi Rum © Alamy

Wadi Rum was a terrific stage for Lawrence, who wrote of his involvement right here within the Arab Revolt. Speaking to a pal later, he apprehensive that he might need let his creativeness run away with him in Seven Pillars of Knowledge, and that he can be discovered. Ever since he was a toddler, he mentioned quite plaintively, he had simply wished to be a hero. The unreal empty areas of Wadi Rum allowed him his fantasy. However the native tribesmen have been by no means fooled. At a tea stall beneath a towering cliff, they remembered him as a bumbling fellow who, within the warmth of battle, shot his personal camel by mistake.

At Aqaba, the previous street got here to an abrupt finish on the shores of the Crimson Sea. I had lunch on a terrace the place commerce winds blew throughout the harbour, and I believed concerning the Queen of Sheba. She would have landed right here, banners flying and gilded litter awaiting, on her option to go to King Solomon. “Roads are a document of those that have gone earlier than,” wrote Rebecca Solnit, the American creator. The document of this previous street bulges with characters. I cherished the locations it took me, and the individuals it launched.


Stanley Stewart was a visitor of Unique Journey ( An eight-night journey just like the one described would price from £2,850 per individual, together with return flights from London, a automobile, driver and guided visits alongside the way in which

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