Jordan is a virtual treasure trove of historical sites. Today we visited the city of Ajloun, north of Amman. The region is famed for its olive trees, called Roman olives because many of the trees were planted by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago. Awesome.

On a hill high above Ajloun is the castle of Izz ad-Din Usama, a nephew of Saladin the Great, who defeated the European Crusaders in the twelfth century. The fortress dominated a wide stretch of the north Jordan Valley, and much of it remains intact and has been painstakingly restored by the Jordanian government.

It’s a complete medieval Islamic castle, with false balconies for dropping boiling oil on the heads of your enemies and “arrow windows” for firing at the Crusaders below. The castle protected the communication routes between south Jordan and Syria. It was built on top of an even older Byzantine church, which dates to the sixth century. Parts of the floor reveal mosaic tiles from that era. It towers over the surrounding countryside, but used to be much taller even than it is today. On a clear night, you can see the lights of Jerusalem from the top towers.

The castle houses a small museum, with artifacts dating from the Iron age through the Byzantine era.

In the city of Ajloun, we visited the home of one of our tour guides, a delightful young woman named Amahl. Amahl is half-German, half-Jordanian, but she lives in the U.S. now and works for the Jordanian Board of Tourism. Her father and aunt greeted us and served tea, fruits, and sweets. They are Greek Orthodox Christians and their hospitality was a sight to behold

Amahl’s family owns the entire hill on which their house stands. Everyone on the hill is a relative. They have vineyards and orchards and olive trees. It’s a beautiful place, with narrow, winding streets climbing steep hills and valleys.

Next we drove to the ancient city of Jerash, where we bought good Jordanian coffee so thick and strong you could use it for wallpaper paste. We sipped the hot, delicious brew while we wandered the largest city built by the Romans outside of Rome itself.

Built on the site of an even older Greek city, Jerash was one of the ten cities in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon that made up the Decapolis under Roman rule. The walled city is huge, encompassing temples to Zeus and Artemus, an oval plaza, ancient fountains, a hippodrome for horse and chariot races, a huge amphitheater, and long, strait stone roads lined with Ionic and Corinthian columns. One can still see the tread marks left in the roads by chariots from the first and second centuries.

In the Byzantine period, the temples were made into Christian churches, with fine frescoes and tile work. Above one is an inscription in Arabic that reads (very roughly translated): “Here you used to enter with your nose closed; now you enter with your ears open.” Closed noses refers, of course, to the stench of sacrificed animals one had to endure upon entering the temple during Roman times. Open ears … well, you get the reference.

The Emperor Hadrian paid a personal visit to Jerash in 129 AD. At the south entrance to the city stands the great Hadrian’s Arch, built to celebrate his arrival.

While we walked the ancient streets of the city, the mosques in the surrounding neighborhoods began broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer. I stood stock-still and simply let the experience wash over me, moved nearly to tears. It’s humbling to be in a place where people stop five times a day, each and every day, to remember God with prayers.

Our dinner this evening was at the exquisite Kan Zeman Restaurant. The names means “once upon a time,” and the place lives up to the name. It’s an ancient caravan stop, lovingly renovated into a complex of artisan workshops, craft and antique stores, and an extremely good, traditional Jordanian buffet. The restaurant itself is housed in what once was the stables of the caravan stop, with high stone ceilings and smooth stone floors. The food was amazing, the hospitality more so.

I found myself transfixed time and again today by the beauty of this ancient place and the mystery, the holiness of it all. I am very grateful to be here.

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