The King’s Highway: Jordan’s ancient artery of civilisation

South of Madaba, the old road took me to the place where John the Baptist lost his head. When I got out of the car, beyond the village of Mukawir — ancient Machaerus — the wind was kicking up clouds of stinging dust.

On all sides, the world tumbled away into deep canyons. Far below were a scattering of Bedouin encampments. I climbed a winding path to the ruins of Herod’s palace, known locally as the Castle of the Gallows. From the top, I could see the Promised Land, and the domes of Jerusalem glinting in distant sun.

There are probably several lessons in this place, but I guess the main one is: don’t poke your nose into other people’s relationships. Herod Antipas had married his brother’s wife. John denounced the union. Herod arrested him and incarcerated him in a dungeon beneath this palace. And then things got worse.

I picked my way past shafts that led to underground dungeons where John the Baptist would have been held. Desert winds moaned between broken pillars. Clouds were blowing up out of the Jordan Valley and columns of rain marched around the horizons. I imagined John’s last day may have been like this — troubled, unsettled, ominous. I thought of him down in the dungeon, listening to the preparations for the evening’s banquet, the dance musicians tuning their instruments.

In the middle of the ruins is the room where it happened, the floor where Salome danced. The remnants of beautiful mosaics were a faint memory of the luxuries of this palace, of that banquet evening, decadent, drunken, a little crazy. Salome had agreed to dance for the king, her stepfather, but only if he granted her a wish. Tradition hints at the Dance of the Seven Veils, a kind of lap dance of the ancient world. Afterwards, standing in the middle of this floor, Salome made the brazen and shocking demand for the Baptist’s head, because of the way he had condemned her mother’s marriage.

The ruins of an ancient watchtower
A watchtower at the Roman fort of Qasr Bshir © Stanley Stewart

The story has fired western imaginations, rippling across Europe from this remote place. Flaubert based a novella on the scene. Oscar Wilde wrote a play. Richard Strauss composed an opera. Caravaggio, Titian, Cranach and more than a dozen other famous painters portrayed the dance, the sensuous young woman in diaphanous gowns, the grisly head on its platter.

I loved the places this old road took me: the ruins of this eerie palace, a Roman watchtower, a castle where a wedding party was besieged, a village of shepherds, a lost city, a God-like desert. The road is called the King’s Highway and it runs down the spine of Jordan — though no one, curiously, can remember who the King was.

One of the world’s oldest, most persistent, most chequered, most romantic of roads, the King’s Highway is as legendary and evocative as the Silk Road. Running south from Asia Minor through Aleppo and Damascus, along the east side of the river Jordan, through Amman and Madaba and Karak to the legendary city of Petra and beyond to the Red Sea, it has been an artery of commerce and conquest, of civilisation and religion since prehistoric times. It features in the Bible, in biographies of Richard the Lionheart and in King Hussein’s admirable efforts to green Jordan.

A painting of a woman holding a platter on which is a disembodied head of a man. Another man looks over her left shoulder
‘Salome with the Head of John the Baptist’ (c1609) by Caravaggio © Alamy

John the Baptist is not the only ghost on this old road. There is a cavalcade of them — Hadrian, Trajan and Septimus Severus, the Queen of Sheba, the Prophet Mohammed and Saladin, the Three Wise Men, Byzantine mosaicists and the emissaries of Suleiman the Magnificent. The King’s Highway has carried camel caravans and Roman legions, Crusader armies and Bedouin tribesmen, Muslim pilgrims and Nabataean kings. Along this road frankincense went to Syria, slaves to Constantinople and Nabataean souls to the Underworld. From the King’s Highway, Moses first glimpsed the Promised Land, while Lawrence of Arabia followed the road towards Aqaba and fame.

I was travelling south from Madaba with a driver and guide over the course of a week, staying at a different small, locally run hotel each night. I was prepared for the weight of history along the way but less so for how spectacular the geography would be. Africa’s Great Rift Valley pushes north here into the Middle East, splitting the landscape dramatically along the course of the river Jordan and the Dead Sea. The King’s Highway runs atop the plateau to the east.

The rift and its tributary canyons — some, such as Wadi Mujib, rival the Grand Canyon — are a Gothic landscape of melodrama and convoluted excess, of escarpments and precipices, caverns and gorges, dizzy heights and dark tectonics. Round a curve in the old highway, the earth suddenly opened at our feet and I found myself gazing down into a canyon where eagles were circling on thermals far below. The history of this road is always in danger of being dwarfed by its geographies.

An olive tree close to the village of Dana © Stanley Stewart

The day had cleared as I continued south from Mukawir. Sun splashed across landscapes that were pleasingly biblical — olive groves and ancient villages, and shepherds tending their flocks. At Um ar-Rasas, I wandered among the ruins of eighth-century churches. Winds from the Dead Sea whisked sands across the church floors, covering and revealing them in turn. Round my feet, delicate floor mosaics appeared like antique mirages — pomegranate trees and sheep, fishermen and seashells, and then gradually a chart of ancient cities — Nablus, Gaza, Jerusalem.

Nearby was a stylite pillar atop which a monk had once lived in isolation. Inspired by Simeon, who spent 37 years on a pillar near Aleppo in the fifth century, stylites were a bizarre ascetic phenomenon of early medieval Christianity. Monks, keen on self-mortification, lived for years on top of pillars to be closer to God. Occasionally, clerics of different theological persuasions — the early church was famously schismatic — were perched near one another and thus could spend decades happily arguing the finer points of theology from their respective pillars.

Map of Jordan

East of the road, beyond the fields and villages, I found a lone Roman fort. Clambering over fallen masonry, I hoisted myself into the watchtower where centurions had once peered across the desert, a vast dry sea tipping away toward distant horizons. For the Romans, the eastern frontier was as horrifying as Caledonia. To their rear lay civilisation; out there was barbarism, an outer darkness. The scale of the Roman enterprise is astonishing: Hadrian’s Wall, the empire’s northern boundary, was 4,000km away.

Back on the old road, past rolling wheat fields, I came to Karak, one of the best preserved Crusader castles in the Middle East, built by the wonderfully named Paganus the Butler in the 12th century. Sitting astride a sheer-sided rock spur, with the bustling town clustered around the bottom, it is a chiaroscuro labyrinth of vaulted halls and underground chambers burrowing into the hill on seven levels. Voices and footsteps drifted along dark passageways. The beam of torches flickered between shafts of light as I stepped from the kitchens with their huge grinding stone to the dining hall, where figures in chainmail once took their places at long refectory tables.

In November 1183, this room had resounded to a wedding feast. Princess Isabella was marrying Humphrey of Toron, one of the innumerable Crusader barons who occupied the Middle East at the time. It was probably not the best choice for a wedding venue. While toasts were being drunk, a large Muslim army, under the leadership of the charismatic Saladin, was shelling the castle with catapults and filling in the moat in preparation for a full frontal attack. Chivalry, however, was still not dead. The bride’s mother kindly sent plates of food out to the attackers while Saladin ordered the shelling away from the tower where the newly-weds would spend their first night.

Hitching a ride with a Bedouin guide near Dana © Stanley Stewart

At Dana, an Ottoman village, I arrived at a humbler and simpler world, away from the great monuments and movements of history. Houses of honey-coloured stone clung to the edge of the Great Rift Valley, which fell away through woodlands of oak and juniper to the plains bordering the Dead Sea. On this momentous road, as empires came and went, as prophets were beheaded and promised lands glimpsed, I liked the feeling that not much had happened in Dana.

In the evening I walked the rim of the valley. The sounds that drifted up, elongated by the acoustics of the hills, were those that had had been here since before the time of John the Baptist — the tinkling of goat bells, voices calling to one another, dogs barking, a donkey braying. A bearded shepherd appeared with his flock, coming round a bend in the trail. He was carrying a long crook and a cute, doe-eyed lamb across his shoulders. We stopped to chat with the late shadows gathering. A bulbul was singing. The shepherd lifted his finger, and we fell silent as we listened. “Hulwa,” he said, meaning “sweet”. We smiled, happy with this simple pleasure. Then he said: “Come for dinner. We are going to eat this lovely lamb.”

The next morning, shadowing the King’s Highway, I walked across the desert to Petra, the great Nabataean capital. It seemed the best way to arrive, on foot, like a pilgrim. It was the King’s Highway that created Petra, that made the Nabataeans wealthy. They began as highwaymen, raiding laden caravans, until they realised they could make more money as rulers.

Part legend, part desert romance, Petra feels like a lost city, an Atlantis of the desert spectacularly come to light. Carved into sandstone cliffs, its classical facades of temples, treasuries and tombs are tucked away in narrow valleys of the Shara mountains, as if the Nabataeans, for all their eventual success, never really outgrew the brigands’ need for a hideaway.

The city’s chief approach, its entranceway, is the famous siq, a rock fracture forming a narrow twisting alley, more than a kilometre long and reduced in places to a couple of metres between 150-metre cliffs. It is no wonder that the city was lost to the outside world for 500 years, its temples occupied by Bedouin shepherds, until a European traveller stumbled upon it in the early 19th century.

A rock fracture forming a narrow alley
The siq: the narrow alley, more than a kilometre long, that forms the entrance to Petra
A man sits atop a camel that’s standing up
A camel driver at Petra  © Stanley Stewart

Sand columns at an ancient structure
Ancient columns . . . 
The facade of an ancient sand structure, as seen through a rock fracture
 . . . and the Treasury, or Al-Khazneh, thought to be 2,000 years old © Stanley Stewart

The hike, of some 16km, took me across dramatic landscapes that had the kind of rock cheekbones that the camera loves. Cliff faces were streaked with veins of mineral colour — red iron, green copper, purple amethyst, brown magnesium, the black glossy surfaces known as desert varnish. At my feet, ammonite sea fossils appeared in the sandstone, a memory of a lost waterworld. On the high trails, where my voice echoed from canyons, birds spread their wings and stepped into corridors of clear desert air, as I gazed away to blue mountain ranges folding into the distance. When Petra came into view, after the disorientating effect of this colossal empty landscape, it seemed, as it should, like a discovery.

South of Petra, the King’s Highway skirts the Wadi Rum, one of the great deserts of the Middle East. Rising sheer from the red sand sea are mountains, like islands, their flanks eroded by wind and rain into strange formations, serrated, honeycombed, contorted. TE Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, described Wadi Rum as “vast, echoing and god-like”.

Rocky mountains rise above the desert at Wadi Rum © Alamy

Wadi Rum was a great stage for Lawrence, who wrote of his involvement here in the Arab Revolt. Talking to a friend later, he worried that he might have let his imagination run away with him in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and that he would be found out. Ever since he was a child, he said rather plaintively, he had just wanted to be a hero. The unreal empty spaces of Wadi Rum allowed him his fantasy. But the local tribesmen were never fooled. At a tea stall beneath a towering cliff, they remembered him as a bumbling fellow who, in the heat of battle, shot his own camel by mistake.

At Aqaba, the old road came to an abrupt end on the shores of the Red Sea. I had lunch on a terrace where trade winds blew across the harbour, and I thought about the Queen of Sheba. She would have landed here, banners flying and gilded litter awaiting, on her way to visit King Solomon. “Roads are a record of those who have gone before,” wrote Rebecca Solnit, the American author. The record of this old road bulges with characters. I loved the places it took me, and the people it introduced.


Stanley Stewart was a guest of Original Travel (originaltravel.co.uk). An eight-night trip like the one described would cost from £2,850 per person, including return flights from London, a car, driver and guided visits along the way

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