My recent journey down south to the great governate of Kerak will be documented in a two part series of posts simply due to the overwhelming nature of rediscovering the territory, especially when one’s roots are involved. This first part which I have graciously titled “There and Back Again” simply because I felt like Bilbo Baggins on this particular journey. So this post is about the trip there and, well, back again. There are three main ways to get to Kerak from Amman. You can take the airport road, which continues on as the desert road and that will take you all the way to the Kerak Castle. This road is more or less the quickest as it is mainly desert but the biggest trade off is boredom.
The second and third routes are the ones my father and I chose to journey in a 1998 Mitsubishi Lancer. The second being from the Dead Sea and the third being from the Mujib Mountains, the latter of which was until very recently in modern Jordanian history the traditional road. The latter is also closer and should therefore technically shave off several minutes from one’s journey to and from Kerak. The reason it actually consumes more of one’s time is yet to be revealed at this point in the plot.
Now that we have the characters, the map and the destination in mind, so begins the journey…
Driving alongside the Dead Sea at 9 o’clock on a January morning is quite the scene. The body of water shimmers in pure winter Sunlight like a turquoise ring. And finally, after driving for some time, you come along the Mujib suspension bridge which is the first sign you’re leaving the Sea behind and it’s here you should say your farewells.
The Dead Sea road to Kerak is an uphill struggle for an automatic car and is complete with narrow asphalt and winding roads through a series of hills. Suffice to say, if this is the road you’ve chosen to get to Kerak then you will definitely enjoy your time because it is abundant with nature. From trees to mountains to just eye candy scenery, it is quite a site.
You know you’ve reached Kerak territory when you come upon Ein Sara which will be to your left. Ein Sara can be translated as the Sara Natural Spring or the Eye (ein) of Sara. In any case, it is said that Sara, Abraham pbuh’s wife, would cross over to this spring to drink from it and make use of it. At this point, Ein Sara in Kerak is imperfectly adjacent to the Khaleel (Hebron) in Palestine, where Abraham pbuh is buried. If you should ever happen to take this route to Kerak then I recommend you stop here for a breather or a coffee break as the government has made it in to a kind of friendly resting grounds.
On this particular journey of ours we were forced, due to obligations, time and weather, to skip the city and its castle and head straight to the village. The actual city of Kerak and its castle will have to wait for another time but in any case the castle was closed down due to recent rain and snowfall that flooded its grounds.
The particulars of our trip to the village of Al-Husseinyeh is for part two.
This is the part where we fast forward to day two: departure.
Leaving my father’s village with our relatives waving in the rear view mirror, we decided to drive around a bit and see the surrounding areas as we headed towards the Mujib Mountains, not to be confused with the Misty Mountains, Grey Mountains, Lonely Mountain, Mount Doom or any other Tolkeinesque mountain. First was a quick stop atop an area known as Al-3irag (or Iraq), where you can overlook the village, the Moab Mountains and a small part of the Dead Sea.
Onwards to Al-Mazar…
In Al-Mazar, a small town within Kerak, there is a very large mosque. Since Mu’tah is right next to Al-Mazar it is in this area all together that the Battle of Mu’tah took place. In this mosque Jafar bin abi Taleb, also famously known as Jafar Al-Tayyar (ra), Zeid ibnu Haritha (ra) and Abdullah bin abi Rawaha (ra). All three commanders died in the battle of Mu’tah. For those unfamiliar with it allow me to give you the following overview:
It took place in 629 ce, between 3,000 Muslim forces and 100,000 Roman forces. The numbers of the latter are not exact but suffice to say the Muslims were outnumbered by a landslide. Jafar, Zeid and Abdullah were very famous companions and commanders. Their courage and skills were reknowned even amongst their enemies. The reason they all died in this battle, other than of course the limited numbers, was that Muslim commanders always fought in the heart of the battle rather than commanding in the back. It is said and widely acknowledged in Islamic circles that Jafar Tayyar had his arm chopped off as he held the Islamic banner. Refusing to drop it he held it in his other hand which was also chopped off, along with his legs. Hadith Bukhari says that Jafars body contained over 50 stabs of which none were taken in the back.
After all three commanders were killed and the line of succession was broken, everyone chose Khalid ibn Al-Waleed (ra) to take over. In his account of the battle he broken nine swords; an indication of just how intense it was.
Khalid Ibn Al-Waleed (ra) is widely acknowledge as one of the greatest military commanders in history. During this battle he realised there was no hope in winning without the Muslims being completely slaughtered so he devised a plan to retreat. During the night he ordered huge bonfires to be built while half the army slept and the other half stayed awake making as much noise as possible. New banners were made, the flanks were switched and the cavalry ordered to kick up a cloud of dust and sand; all this to convey to the Byzantines that reinforcements had arrived from Mecca. The Byzantines stood down and Khalid was able to retreat safely.
The tomb of Jafar Tayyar is also a sight to see. The mosque along with the buried companions are a frequent tourist stop for Shitte Muslims from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and other nations with large Shitte populations. Jordanian security is seen outside the mosque usually.
According to Keraki folklore, it is said that if one were to come to this area before dawn, the sound of the battle can be heard. Such tales are often accompanied with ghost sightings as it is said the whole battle is reenacted before Sunrise.
Past Al-Mazar and on through Mu’tah we come upon Madyan.
Madyan is a historical site that is in the process of being “established” as a tourist site. The village takes on several forms in Judeo-Christian and Islamic teachings. All of them acknowledge it but of course like any story between these three religions, disharmony amongst the details are inevitable.
Speaking from an Islamic perspective, Musa (or Moses) pbuh left Egypt to escape being caught for killing an Egyptian (or rather being snitched on). He came upon Madyan where two girls and their sheep were in the midst of a conflict with shepherds who had briefly taken over a well. Musa pbuh led their herd to the water and the father of the girls invited Musa pbuh to his home. The father was Shoaib (or Jethro) pbuh and Moses pbuh married one of his daughters. (chp. 22 verses 22-28)
The rusty yellow sign on the side of the road that points the way to the Madyan well has the verse 22 from chapter 28 written beneath. It can be translated as: “And as he traveled towards Midyan, he said, “May my Lord guide me in the right path.”
(a short clip of the ancient running water in this ancient tiny cave)
Past Madyan and into El-Rabba where ancient Roman ruins still linger. From El-Rabba to surrounding towns and villages such as Shihan: all these contain ancient ruins, some from kingdoms tracing back to the Israelites right up to the Arabs present during the Islamic conquest. My father’s village, Al-Husseinyeh, and Al-Mazar are predominantly Tarawneh while El-Rabba and neighboring towns are predominantly Majali hence I drove carefully here not wanting to hit someone and inadvertently incite a tribal war.
Finally we approach the Mujib Mountains. They stretch from Kerak on one side to the Madaba and Amman governates on the other side. And in between them the valley is home to the Mujib dam and Bedouin territory.
(Panoramic view from atop the Keraki side. The horizon is the Madaba governate)
Driving this route is complicated. You need a very skilled driver who often boasts of such skills (such as myself) and a car with good brakes. You also need patience. Do not take this route if your plan is to make it to the other side as quickly as possible. Go slow. Go very slow. This also gives you the ability to take in the view. It is a long and winding road down slope after slope. Often times you will be travelling on a decline that slopes in a u-turn shape. Fortunately the government has made a very well constructed road in its latest series of upgrades to the area, which also includes a forestation of the mountains. On your way down or up you may come across a small building for the Agricultural Ministry and you can see a series of small trees all planted next to each other on the side of the road as a sampling of the types of trees planted in the area.
At the bottom of the mountain is the valley which is basically the Mujib dam. Holding back a tremendous body of water. As soon as you cross the bridge, the halfway point between both mountains, you’re going to be climbing uphill now. Hence the Mujib road is exactly 50% downhill and 50% uphill. The latter is easier to deal with because you’re forced to naturally not speed.
What made this particular route so joyous for me was my father who in traditional passenger seat fashion told me horror stories of all the people he knew or knew of that met their tragic ends on this very road back in the 50’s and 60’s. These stories are great to hear while one is actually driving. They include a teacher whose shift stick became stuck on an incline and with no hope of shifting into gear he and 5 other passengers rolled backwards into the valley, which by my count looks like a 4 km drop to the bottom.
In any case, once atop the other side you are officially in the Madaba governate, through the Diban area and in to a second valley of Wadi Wala and it’s winding roads. Finally into the city of Madaba and thus straight on home (sweet home) in Amman.
The Mujib route is shorter than both the Dead Sea and Desert routes but it takes longer than both since you’ll be driving cautiously. Another tip: do not take this route in the hours where the Sun will be in your face; this is not a great time to be driving blindly. My suggestion is around the 12pm slot.
Lastly, as I have not been to Madaba for about five or six years now I was astonished at some of the progress. First of all the King’s Academy is quite the scene and second of all the village being built with all those oasis type high class homes is another sight to see but not because of how progressive and unique it looks for the Jordanian landscape but because once upon a time that very landscape contained hundreds if not thousands of ancient olive trees. If you’re wondering what happened to the trees and your an environmentalist or a nature lover, turn away from the screen now, because they burnt them all down in a massacre like orcs in Fangorn Forest.
Part two of this trip is soon to come, so here’s an assortment of ‘this and that’ pictures to distract you in the mean time.
A private elementary school in Mazar, Kerak that is shaped like Petra. Annual tuition is 200JDs