By the actions of the Imperial Powers, and out of their self interest this unified part of the Persian, Roman, and Ottoman Empires and the promised single Arab State, is now divided into little and not so little states. If only the British and French had Americans had understood the significance of oil, I wonder whether Saudi Arabia would exist today?
The Levant after Sykes-Picot 1916
Leaving Syria to enter Jordan you would expect to be an easy enough affair. It is not, at least for those not used to the extremes of these places.
To get to the border, we have chosen to bypass a town with current insurrection – Deraa, and then to cross the frontier itself with the security of numbers in a local bus. Traversing this border may indeed, not be possible or permitted on foot. So it proves to be.
The border processes are cluttered with glass-fronted counters and decorated uniforms, enforcing unreasonable exit fees…and then again on the Jordanian side, it is less friendly and just as dubious. Is it a governmental choice to make the first impressions – and the last ones so unfortunate?
Then suddenly we are in Jordan. We have had to exchange pounds, dollars and euros to cross an artificial line in the landscape, made tangible with razor wire and concrete. I guess the currencies themselves are equally imaginary and temporary? The various individuals and businesses in the border zone have a captive public, of the uninitiated. The posters of the Assads in various imperious roles, are replaced by the more beneficent but equally patriarchal pictures of the Hussein, and others of the Hashemite dynasty. There are no sunglasses though.
Hashemites – present and future
Neither is the leaving of Syria simple, emotionally. In revolutionary times, we fear for the cohesion of the peoples of Syria and for Christian and other minority communities. The West’s portrayal of the place has seemed naive and its interventions concerning. In Italy we saw Nato planes returning from bombing in Libya, in Turkey US military freighters flying off from their base at Incirlik, with their heavy loads of weapons for Israel. Here, so many of the human stories from our time, are incomplete. All of them, in fact.
More immediately, there is a practical problem – the bus from Damascus will not let us off after the border, and we will have to back-track to the border from Amman. The bus is “deerekt” .
Amman, is confusing without maps or assistance. It is now a very large city, and the JETT bus drops us at their own terminal, where there is no information and no obvious way to the centre, The iPhone cannot help – the 2G Syrian SIM doesn’t do much really, and certainly doesn’t do maps!
An overnight in Amman and then we are backtracking to the route – the Decapolis of Hellenic and Roman times was a grouping of Cities with Damascus, the Northern outlier.
The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the Decapolis thus: –
“The earliest list of the ten cities of the Decapolis is Pliny’s, which mentions Scythopolis, Pella, Hippo, Dion, Gerasa, Philadelphia, Raphana, Canatha, and Damascus. Later, Ptolemyenumerates eighteen cities, thus showing that the term Decapolis was applied to a region. The importance of this league was greatly strengthened by the advantageous positions of the principal towns. Scythopolis, the capital of the Decapolis, lay at the head of the plain of Esdraelon, to the west of the Jordan, guarding the natural portal from the sea to the great interior plateau of Basan and Galaad. The other cities were situated to the east of the Jordan on the great routes along which passed the commerce of the whole country.”
The Persian, Hellenic and Roman roads came this way from the North. The Hajj route to the South has come this way since the 7th Century, with Philadelphia, now Amman, a major halt. On our journey, we have shared the road with Hajj Coaches – hundreds of Turkish and other Hajj Coaches. Once, the faithful would have been on foot, and every other means of transport to the South. In these parts, the idea of being on foot is really and truly forgotten. The idea of walking for enjoyment, or for another purpose is unknown. Being on foot means you don’t have a choice, if something rather different, in our case
Despite the City development and tradition of movement in the ancient world, there is much work to be done to create a good route here. There are a few wonderful options, including the Via Trajana Nova.
We have considered the Abraham Path Initiative’s route – but it is so far “off line” and so manufactured – designed by committee for poverty alleviation rather than Pilgrimage. It is a mistake, made from inexperience. Pilgrimage Routes were created by the necessity of Pilgrimage, and by the feet of those Pilgrims. No one going to Jerusalem will use that route this year, and probably no one will next year, or indeed in the ones after.
Intact Roman surface, Jarash
We head for Jarash, the best preserved ancient metropolis of the Middle East and a key Decapolis City. It has been the scene of Pilgrimage for a very long time.
From there we head back on foot to Amman and thence onwards 30km to Madaba, on the modern road. The modern Arab town lies over bibilical Medeba. The Madaba pavement is a Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land from the rule of Justinian in the 6th Century. (www.upload.wikimedia,org/wikipedia/commons/8/8f/Madaba_Map_reproduction.jpg) Rediscovered during the building of the Church of St. George – it has a large and stylised representation of our goal at its centre – Jerusalem. It is interesting indeed to see this ancient explanatory map of the places of Christian faith, at the end of three months walking where official modern maps were absent, and kept secret by the various regimes. It would have been a welcome explanation to the Pilgrims of an earlier time, as much as it confirms the deep basis of our route to Jerusalem.
Jerusalem from the Madaba Map
From Madaba, it is a couple of days walk to the border of Palestine – and the West Bank. The route descends from highland Madaba, always in sight of Amman’s new towers, past Mount Nebo, and plunges into the Jordan Valley in sight of the dead Sea. We are incongruous, on foot on this desert road, which in due course takes us to the Jordan crossing and then to the second border – the King Hussein Bridge. We are excited and apprehensive at once.
The View of the “Promised Land” from Mount Nebo
Now as hard as the Syrians and Jordanians made their mutual border, the parties to this second border – Jordan and Israel have combined to create a modern nightmare, out of a political impasse. We have to cross the King Hussein Bridge.
We arrive at the Jordanian side of the border, where the usual government extortions are collected as gracelessly and inefficiently as one could contrive it to be. Then, there is the wait for a bus. The JETT bus is compulsory, and curiously expensive. Passports are taken away and only returned on the bus, to ensure the monopoly.
After a short drive to the Palestinian border, we find instead – the Israeli border post. It is staffed by the usual inquisitorial but effective border staff, and guarded by non-uniformed settlers with some very modern weaponry. It is rigorous and reasonably efficient, but the Palestinians are reduced to handling the baggage and inviting me to donate parts of my luggage as a “gift”. Not a great way to advertise the future state.
After clearing the controls, searches and waiting rooms, we are told that “even the Army” can’t walk from that border post. A young and very middle class Israeli settler, with a mighty automatic weapon tells us we will have to take an Arab bus to Jericho. More surprising prices later, and we are on the road to the modern bus station into the West Bank.
At the bus station, there is another – Palestinian – border procedure. The controls at border number three are performed with a slightly surprised welcome. It is relatively efficient, but far less invasive place, with a certain pride. Not many Westerners come through here, and the warmth and welcomes are real. A good impression has, at last been made by a “border crossing” however nominal and symbolic. In the distance, we can just see and feel the future -with real new borders, but without their suspicions and failings.
Palestinian number plates, ready for a new state
It is Eide, and all of our friends and contacts are away, celebrating or out of contact, and eventually we head from the slightly chaotic centre of town to a large and also friendly guest house. Like so many things here, it has been paid for by foreign governments and agencies – but the administration is definitely Arab!
It is the difference and yet proximity of Western Israel and Israelis and the Arab peoples which will colour and inform the rest of our journey to Jerusalem. More of this later.