Hiking through ancient history
Along the Jordan Trail
It’s springtime in Jordan and the north of the country is covered in green. The Jordan River valley and the hills around us are dotted with fruit trees, pines, palm groves, oak trees, meadows, wheat fields, and colourful flowers. Everything shines under the powerful Mediterranean-like sun. But wait a second… Wasn’t Jordan a desert country?
“I was the first guide in northern Jordan,” Ahmed Alomari, a hiking guide with decades of accumulated experience under his soles, tells us. “From the very beginning, I was involved in the creation of the Jordan Trail,” he says proudly as we pack our backpacks. We are in Umm Qais, a city of Greco-Roman origin in the far north of the country, famous for its well-preserved ruins. From here starts the first section of the Jordan Trail, the famous 675-kilometre-long hiking itinerary that runs the country’s length from north to south. A sign marks the start of the trail. We have boots and trekking poles. Hats and sunscreen. Water and snacks in our backpacks. Ready to rock.
“Do you know who the best trail breakers are?” Ahmed asks us. “Donkeys,” he replies. “This is the trail that went from the village to the spring, and donkeys used to walk it every day.” Indeed, the trail follows the course of a stream punctuated with small pools of water, a sign of the recent rains in the area. All around us, spring has exploded in plants, shrubs, and flowers of all kinds. The incessant buzzing of insects accompanies us. Finally, Ahmed stops us in the shade of a tree. “It’s a Ziziphus spina-christi. The tree from which the crown of thorns of Jesus was made.” A quick internet search tells me it is considered one of the trees of paradise. Right now, its shade strikes me as the perfect definition of Eden.
The second stretch of the trail surprises us with a rural Mediterranean landscape worthy of Tuscany: rolling farmland, rows of olive trees, and gentle hills with farmhouses here and there. The bells of a herd of goats break the silence. Guided by a shepherd on the back of his mule, the goats shear the surrounding orchard of grasses and shrubs.
“My grandfather told me that a hundred years ago, melons used to grow down there,” Mohamed tells me, pointing to a depression in the valley with abundant water where a large herd of goats’ drinks. Mohamed was born and raised in the village. He could guide us with his eyes closed. Although he is sparing with words, he is generous with smiles.
“This is the trail that went from the village to the spring, and donkeys used to walk it every day”
A powerful bray echoes off the canyon walls. Nearby, shepherds rest in the shade of the only tree on the hillside. They welcome us with a smile. “As-salamu alaykum.” Mohamed fetches dry firewood and lights a small fire. It is time for tea.
“It’s only been a few days since we accompanied members of the Jordanian royal family here,” he tells us. “Many travellers from Persian Gulf countries also come here to admire the green landscapes that don’t exist in their countries.” A breeze creates a hypnotic ripple in the wheat fields around us. I try to take in the beauty of the moment. “Most travellers observe the landscapes. Many others ask me about the next restaurant.”
AT ELA’S HOUSE
Umm Qais is on the forefront of community-based tourism development in Jordan. To check it out, we booked at Beit Na’Ela, a local eating house that accumulates excellent reviews on the web. A group of women has teamed up to offer traditional Jordanian cooking courses and provide meals to travellers. Sitting on the carpets in their lounge, we devoured Makdous (baked eggplant accompanied by bread and yoghurt), Mahashi (vine leaves stuffed with rice and chicken), Cha’cheel (lentil dumplings with onions and eggs), and Kibbeh (minced meat and spice croquettes).
“Some groups manage to eat it all, but it’s not usual…,” Ela, the proud owner of the business where she has cooked for people from all over the planet, tells us. “But sometimes locals come to eat, too.” And no wonder: Local raw materials and homemade preparation. Simply delicious!
We devour Makdous, baked eggplant, Mahashi, vine leaves stuffed with rice and chicken, Cha’cheel, lentil dumplings with onions and eggs, and Kibbeh, minced meat and spice croquettes
A LIFE AMONG RUINS
“I was born and raised here,” Ahmed Alomari tells us, pointing to some ruins inside the Um Qais archaeological complex. We are on the outskirts of the historic city of Gadara, witness to 2,400 years of history and the region’s cultural centre in Hellenistic and Roman times. Here, in Umm Qais, Roman sites of great value: paved streets, fountains, tunnels, a large theatre, and numerous columns that stand tall against the passage of time. And houses. Because, what today is a tourist attraction used to be inhabited by locals, not so long ago.
“I used to play hide-and-seek within these walls and stones,” Ahmed tells us. His father built the house in 1945 next to the Roman amphitheatre, in a place already inhabited by more families. “These stones that surround us are full of life for me: I remember the animals, the olive trees, the oven where my mother used to cook, the smell of tea…” he says, visibly moved.
Ahmed grew up living with the tourists who visited the ruins and sometimes entered his house asking for water. This is how his dreams of one day becoming a tour guide were forged. A goal he fulfilled by learning languages and history, the self-taught-way. Today he combines his knowledge of the various civilizations that passed through Gadara with anecdotes of his own family life growing up among the ruins of those same civilizations. “These forum columns were the goals where we played soccer,” he tells us with a smile.
Ahmed remembers the exact day of the eviction: June 7, 1987. He took his bicycle and spent two days sleeping in the tent to resist until his family managed to throw him out. “I cried two days in a row,” he tells us.
We walk into the sunset along the cobblestone street of the agora. Groups of children chase each other and play ball. Young men on horseback offer rides to families of tourists visiting the area.
A sign marks the panoramic point where the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights, and the gorge of the Yarmuk River meet. As he watches the sun set over the horizon Syria, Israel, and his beloved Jordan, Ahmed contemplates his life among the ruins: “people always ask where you live, but not which city lives in you.”
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THE RHYTHM OF LIFE
A massive herd of sheep ploughs the hills surrounding the imposing Roman ruins, situated in a green landscape, which surprises the traveller coming from the desert south. We are in ancient Pella, in current times, better known as Tabaqat Fahl. Beneath our feet are layers of history buried under rolling meadows swaying in the wind of the Jordan Valley. Arabic music plays in the background in the cars of several families picnicking under the shade of enormous willow trees.
The Romans settled here because of the abundance of water, but before them, the Greeks did, and before them: our hunter-gatherer ancestors from the bronze and iron ages. The relentless sun makes me seek shelter under the upright columns, defying gravity. So many others have succumbed to the passage of time. The ruins, with their evocative power of other times, make me think about the value of time that escapes.
The Romans settled here because of the abundance of water, but before them, the Greeks did, and before them, hunter gatherers from the bronze age
For centuries Pella was a crossroad. A commercial crossroad between different routes north, south, and towards the Mediterranean. Residents offered lodging and food to the caravans of traders. This is still the case today. Perched high on one of the hills overlooking the site, proudly on the hillside overlooking the Roman ruins, stands the House of the Artist. From the outside, apart from its privileged location, it doesn’t look like anything special. But as soon as you enter, you are immediately aware that you have arrived at a unique place: a real house museum that invites inspiration.
The house is not lacking in comfort. Three floors, two bedrooms, dining rooms, and two beautiful terraces are arranged to enjoy the sunset. Spacious beds with colonial-style mosquito nets and furniture of traditional and modern design coexist in aesthetic harmony. And secrets in every corner and drawer, including all the facilities to develop your art: notebooks, canvases, brushes, watercolours. A place that invites you to leave your mark. How long has it been since you last expressed the art within you?
“I was the first to explore these trails,” Eisa Dweekat, a hiking guide with two decades of experience, tells us. So we’ve arranged to hike one of the most famous sections of the Jordan Trail with him, which runs through the famous Barqash Forest. “I’m one of the founders, and I’ve hiked it three times now,” he says.
We met at the top of the Zoubia Valley, which gives its name to the nearest village and is one of the highest points in the country. At 940 metres above sea level, it is a popular area for families and couples who want to enjoy a picnic under the shade of the many oak trees. Children run around happily, and we get the smoky smells of grilled meat.
“This section runs through a Natural Park and is one of the two forested sections of the Jordan Trail,” Eisa tells us as we start walking. “It has green trees all year round, so it’s one of the stages that can even be hiked in summer.” As we walk in the shade of tunnels of leaves and branches formed by the numerous oak trees, I have no trouble imagining the reason. “Besides, it is suitable for people of all levels of fitness, even families with children,” Eisa tells us.
Our steps lead us to the ruins of the ancient Roman spring of Zoubia. The setting is beautiful: a green canvas sprinkled with yellow, red, white, and purple flowers compete for the spotlight in the spring. “Water used to flow here all year round,” Eisa tells us. “I even remember catching fish when I was little.”
“Water used to flow all year round, I remember catching fish when I was little”
We walk to a natural lookout over the valley that links two nature reserves. We pass campers on their Jordan Trail, locals smoking shisha, and a few small pools of water. Eisa picks up dry branches along the rock-strewn path. The sun slowly drops, the laughter and cries of village children echo down the valley, and packs of jackals communicate from valley to valley. Some howls sound close.
Eisa takes some dried thyme out of his backpack and adds it to the water in the teapot. The smell of tea fills the air as we wait for the sun to set on the horizon. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a spring as beautiful as this one in northern Jordan. Well, maybe when I was young, but for other reasons.
explore Jordan’s undiscovered lush Northern hills
The Jordan Trail is a long-distance hiking trail in Jordan connecting the length of Jordan from Umm Qais in the north to Aqaba in the south. Offering 40 days of hiking over more than 675 kilometers of trail, and traveling through 75 villages and towns on its way.