I couldn’t figure out anything to do in Amman – none of the attractions really appealed so I had booked myself into Private Half Day Tour to Jerash (now £75.13, £96.15 back in June 2015). I figured I could go out and see Amman in the afternoon. Jerash is touted as the Pompeii of the Levant and it’s about the same size: very roughly a rectangle of about a mile long and half that wide. The difference is that Pompeii has at least some tree cover – Jerash is very exposed. Depending on traffic it takes about an hour to get there.
The tour price includes hotel pickup, so I was waiting in the foyer of the hotel, watching the guards manning the X-ray machines and trying to guess which ones were armed. Turns out all of them were, an automatic pistol usually tucked into the back of their jeans if they weren’t carrying something bigger. I’m in a bit of a quandary – should I wait inside (cool, safe) or wait outside (in case the driver won’t come inside)? It’s a false dilemma as nobody would expect a guest to wait outside in Jordan. In Iceland I had missed a tour bus because the driver had expected people to come out to them instead of walking the ten yards into the lobby. No armed guards, X-ray machines or 40 degree heat in Iceland…
I’m beginning to get a little anxious as time approaches the end of the pickup window, and then a nondescript guy comes through security and makes a bee-line for me. I am in total tourist mode in a lobby full of locals in one of three costumes (hotel staff, security and fully robed Arab), so no prizes for picking me out! We head out to his car and navigate the Amman traffic. This early in the day it’s not too bad and I’m surprised to learn that I’m the only one on the tour. With a wry grin the driver tells me that not too many tourists want to go out in the July heat.
We make good time and I ask how close to the Syrian border we are. Jerash is about 40km from Syria he says. Wow that’s close I say: has there been any signs of the civil war? He pauses to think and allows that occasionally you can hear shelling and see smoke on the horizon, that sort of thing. I think he’s worried that I will decimate Jerash’s tourism by telling the folks back home that Jordan was a war zone. I press the point: is Jordan worried about the civil war? Is it possible that it will spill over into Jordan?
I’m not sure how much of a geo-political discussion I’m expecting but I get tourist platitudes. Jordan’s military guard the borders and so there’s no way that we’d be in any danger, he says. I silently applaud his dogged adherence to acceptable calming statements and let my gaze drift to the scenes out the window. The desert is heating up and in the small settlements along the road life goes on as it has for years. I really can’t see how anyone can eke out an existence in such a barren place.
Before too long we pull into the area park of Jerash and my driver walks me through the ticket booth. He’ll walk me to the cafe and then hand me off to my guide. He’ll then meet me back here at the carpark.
Note to self: Never yell “You’re in my shot” to men with assault rifles. The air conditioned cafe in the visitor’s centre is the perfect spot to pick up water before heading out into the heat. It’s about 11am and the sun is really getting going. My guide talks me through the main section of the town – the North/South road of about a mile which takes about an hour and then leaves me to “explore the rest of the city in my own time”. I suspect he just wants to get out of the heat. Admittedly it is oppressive, but I’m ignoring the discomfort knowing I’m going to be in the air-conditioned car soon enough.
Jerash is preparing for its city celebrations, which will take place in the cool of the evening. The presence of the preparations makes it difficult to replicate some of the iconic photos’s I have seen of Jerash, but apart from that there’s nothing negative about the city. The comparisons with Pompeii are apt, Jerash is more ruined than Pompeii is, so there is less to see, but size wise they’re similar, so there’s the impression that you’re getting your money’s worth.
I eventually head back to the cafe and say good bye to my guide. He appears genuinely surprised that I poke my head in to say good bye and waves goodbye. I head down to the carpark, past the hippodrome where they still have horse races apparently, to find my driver chatting with some of the locals in the shade. I let him know I’m there and sit down and wait. And wait. And wait. Eventually I go back over and ask if we’ll be hitting the road anytime soon. He seems annoyed that I am interrupting his conversation, and grumbling, we make our way back to the car.
We get back to Amman in mid afternoon, but the sun has sapped my energy so much that all I can think of to do upon returning to the hotel is to get room service, shower off the dust of Jerash and have a lie down.