December 29: Tuesday. Damascus . Arrive in Amman. Upon arrival drive to Damascus.
AIA group in bus, Damascus. Ghiath Abdullah welcomes us to Syria.
Courtyard of the Talisman Hotel in Damascus.
Talisman Hotel at night.
Visited the Mar Sarkis monastery, built in the 4th century, on the remains of a pagan temple. It was named after St. Sarkis, a Roman soldier who was executed for his Christian beliefs.
Close by, almost looking like a fortress, is the Convent of Our Lady of Seidnayya. The convent is believed to date back to the 6th century and to be founded by the Byzantine emperor Justinian.
Next stop, after some rigorous step-climbing, was ancient Syrian monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian (Deir Mar Musa el-Habashi).
According to Arabic inscriptions, the present monastery church was built in 1058 AD. Thus far, three layers of frescoes have been revealed. The first layer is from the middle of the eleventh century AD, the second is from the end of the eleventh century, and the third is from the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century.
January 2: Saturday. Palmyra . Stopped at the Palmyra Museum, then lunch across the street. Toured the Temple of Bel, then the ruined city. Dinner and overnight in the Zenobia Cham Hotel.
January 3: Sunday. Deir Ez-Zur. Morning drive through Deir Ez-Zor to reach Dura Europos and Mari. Overnight and fish dinner at the Cham Hotel in Deir Ez-Zor.
January 4: Monday. Raqqa and Aleppo . Toured Deir ez-Zor regional museum, then drove to
Raqqa to visit the local museum and see the ruins of the city walls and palace of Harun al-Rasheed. Lunch in the town near Lake Assad.
January 5: Tuesday. Aleppo. Drove to the 5th century monastery of St. Simeon, then to Ain Dara.
Ate lunch in a small restaurant along the Afrin River near Ain Dara. Dinner at Wanes Restaurant in Aleppo.
Basalt sculpture of a lion at Ain Dara.
January 6: Wednesday. Aleppo . Lunch at Sissi House.
January 7: Thursday. Damascus . Return to Damascus today making some interesting stops en route. The first stop will be at Ebla, one of the most important Bronze Age sites discovered, where material slowly emerging from the site is allowing archaeologists a richer understanding of life during this period.
Continue on to Apamea, nestled on the east side of the Orontes Plain, a spectacular site of beautiful stone set against lush pastures and distant mountains. Visit the Turkish caravanserai which has recently been converted and restored as a museum of mosaics collected from the region of Apamea.
AIA group at Apamea.
Roman tombstone from Apamea showing a horseman.
Roman mosaic from Apamea.
Roman mosaic from Apamea.
One of the largest mosaics depicts Socrates and the Sages and the faces are a superb example of late Roman mosaic work.
Brief visit to Hama watching the enormous wooden water wheels which creak with the flow of the Orontes.
Lunch overlooking the Krak des Chevaliers, a supreme example of Crusader castle building. The castle is sited in the only significant break in the mountain range between Turkey and Lebanon. Anyone who held this gap was virtually assured of authority over inland Syria by controlling the flow of goods and people from the ports to the interior. The Crusaders built and expanded the fort over a period of about 100 years from around 1150. When it was completed it could house a garrison of 4,000 soldiers.
Krak des Chevaliers.
Arrive in Damascus late afternoon and transfer to the Talisman/Four Seasons Hotel. Dinner at the Nan-Nudjz Restaurant near the Roman Arch in Damascus.
January 8: Friday. Amman. En route to Amman today stop at Bosra, the most important site of the Roman period in Syria primarily because of the magnificent and exceptionally intact Roman theater. This classical theater is more authentically preserved than virtually any other theater in the Mediterranean.
It is, without doubt, quite wonderful.
Roman theater at Bosra.
Lunch in Jerash at the Lebanese Restaurant. In its heyday it is estimated that Jerash had a population of around 15,000 people and, although it was not on any of the main trade routes, its citizens prospered from the rich soil which surrounds it.
Excavations have revealed two theaters, an unusual oval-shaped forum, temples, churches, a market place and baths.
Triumphal arch of Hadrian at Jerash.
AIA tour group in the Roman theater at Jerash.
Chariot speeding in the hippodrome at Jerash.
Arrive in Amman late-afternoon and dinner in the the Hyatt Hotel .
This morning began exploring Amman at the American Center of Oriental Research.
Lunch at Tawaheen al-Hawa (Windsmill Restaurant). Afternoon visit the Amman citadel and National Archaeological Museum.
Temple of Hercules on the Amman Citadel.
Neolithic figurine head from Ain Ghazal.
Medieval chain mail.
January 10: Sunday. Amman . Morning visit to the National Gallery - one of the strongest collections of contemporary art in the Middle East.
Lunch overlooking the Dead Sea.
Continue on to what has long been believed to be the biblical Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan site, where John the Baptist lived and Jesus was baptized. The site was long off limits due to its position along a disputed border that was dotted with thousands of land mines. It was only in 1996, following the peace treaty of 1994 and two years of clearing the mines, that archaeologists were able to excavate Wadi Kharrar. The Baptism Site (Arabic: el-Maghtas) on the Jordan side of the Jordan River is one of the most important recent discoveries in biblical archaeology. Using some pre-1948 studies and the early pilgrim accounts as their guide, archaeologists quickly uncovered an astonishing 21 ancient sites. These include five baptismal pools (shallow pools lined with plaster) from the Roman and Byzantine periods; a Byzantine monastery; 11 Byzantine churches (many with mosaics and Greek inscriptions); caves of monks and hermits; and lodgings for pilgrims . Whilst some still believe that Jesus was baptized on the west bank in Israel, the majority opinion firmly rests with this site in Jordan.
Return to Amman and visit the home of Widad Kawar (schedule permitting) who has the largest private collection of traditional costumes, textiles and jewelry from village, Bedouin and city communities in the Arab world. Enjoy viewing her incredible collection.
January 11: Monday. Drive to the red and white sandstone cliffs of Dana along the picturesque King's Highway stopping first at Mt. Nebo, where Moses is said to be buried. On a clear day it is possible to see the Dead Sea and the spires of the churches in Jerusalem. A group of Franciscan monks bought the site in the 1930's and have excavated the ruins of a church and monastery. Although little remains of the buildings that housed them, there are a number of spectacular mosaics. The main mosaic measures three by nine meters and depicts scenes of wine-making as well as hunters and an assortment of animals.
Continue on to Madaba to view the famous 6 th century map of Palestine which is in the form of a mosaic. Although the map is now far from complete, many features can still be made out including the Nile River, the Dead Sea and the map of Jerusalem showing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was made around 560 AD and originally measured a staggering 25 by 5 meters. Over 2 million pieces were used in its creation.
Drive through the spectacular canyon of Wadi-al-Mujib to Kerak which lies on the routes of the ancient caravans that used to travel from Egypt to Syria in the time of the Biblical kings. Explore the fort which has been partially restored and is a jumble of rooms and vaulted passages.
After a picnic lunch head south to the Bronze Age site of Bab adh Dhra. Although not a huge amount remains of the site, the attraction is relating the place to a name. Bab adh Dhra, a large town which flourished around 2600 BC, is considered to be the biblical city of Sodom. Strategically sited overlooking Wadi Kerak, Bab adh Dhra was a walled town which attainted its zenith around 2600 BC. Remains of the massive town wall which was 5-7 meters thick and with a mud brick superstructure on stone foundations, can be seen in the excavation trenches. Across the road from the tell lies an enormous necropolis which houses tombs which have been extensively excavated. The cemetery contains thousands of graves, the earliest dating to the 4 th millennium BC long before Bab Adh Dhra was a fortified town. Shaft tombs with single or multiple chambers belong to this period.
A typical chamber had a heap of bones in the center with a row of skulls to one side and a number of ceramic vessels.
Head up the Wadi Kerak to the Crusader castle of Kerak.
January 12: Tuesday. Petra. Morning visit to Petra, once the capital of the Nabataeans, nomadic Arabs who dominated the Transjordan area in pre-Roman times. Traveling through a narrow siq (gorge) which twists and turns one is suddenly brought into the open with the facade of the Treasury right in front. Constructed of a rose-pink sandstone and standing majestically alone it causes one to stop dead in one's tracks. Carved deeply into the rock, its fine architectural detail has been beautifully preserved. Perhaps more than any other monument at Petra, the Treasury expresses the eclectic nature of Nabataean culture and architecture, the dynamic blend of East and West expedited by Alexander the Great, whose conquests indelibly stamped the face of Greek culture on the ancient Orient. Continue on into a valley where an entire city is carved into rock.
Much of Petra's fascination comes from its setting on the edge of the Wadi Araba. The sheer and rugged sandstone hills form a deep canyon which is easily protected from all directions. The Nabataeans, who built Petra, settled in the area around the 6 th century BC and became rich, first by plundering and then by levying tolls on the trade caravans that passed through. Petra was a sophisticated capital of a flourishing empire, which extended well into Syria. As the Nabataeans expanded their territory, more caravan routes came under their control, and their wealth increased accordingly. With the rise of Palmyra in the north and the opening up of the sea-trade routes, Petra's importance started to decline. By the time of the Muslim invasion in the 7 th century, Petra had passed into obscurity.
Enjoy a wonderful dinner tonight at Petra Kitchen. The group will be taught how to cook traditional food before dinner and then enjoy a chance to taste their cooking! B,L,D.
January 13: Thursday. Dead Sea. Rise early this morning to drive south to Wadi Rum where huge pillars of sandstone rock rise abruptly and majestically from the sandy desert floor, their cliffs, sheer in places or else twisted and weathered into outlandish shapes, towering to heights of over 1,500 meters. Although on the surface Wadi Rum may appear inhospitable and barren, the desert here is a complex eco-system rich in life. Enjoy a one-hour jeep ride into this magnificent landscape made famous by the setting of David Lean's epic film, "Lawrence of Arabia.".
T.E. Lawrence is positively poetical when he turns to the subject of Wadi Rum in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom :
"The crags were capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the hill; rather grey and shallow. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place; this processional way greater than imagination. The Arab armies would have been lost in the length and breadth of it, and within the walls a squadron of airplanes could have wheeled in formation. Our little caravan grew self-conscious, and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills."
The dramatic combination of massive rocks and canyons, sandstone over basalt and granite weathered into weird shapes and colors surrounded by desert sands, rivals Petra in its beauty.
Enjoyed a special early Bedouin lunch before continuing north to the Dead Sea and the recently-opened Kempinski Hotel Ishtar. The rooms her are set amidst gardens dotted with lagoons and waterfalls.
Enjoyed a special farewell dinner at the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar.
January 14: Friday . Return home from Amman Airport.