Driving around Jordan is a challenge, especially when the only maps you have are small-scale ones in a guidebook and road signs tend to be misleading or non-existent. Signposts regularly directed me off a perfectly good paved road and onto increasingly smaller, badly maintained roads; then the signposts would just disappear, making finding any destination a game of chance.
This, and a misplaced spirit of enquiry, is what led me to Al Ma’tan and As Salla: abandoned and largely ruined villages constructed of mud and stone dating back to the Ottoman period. It was pure luck that I found my way to these atmospheric places.
On a whim I diverted off the main road at the sight of a brown road sign. Brown indicates a site of interest, although the Jordanian tourist board play fast and loose with their definition of ‘interest’ and in some cases ‘site’. Almost immediately I was confronted with a three-road junction without any signposts. I considered enquiring of a donkey grazing in a field, before plunging down one of my three options.
The fates were with me because after 10km I came across another brown signpost and a little further on I arrived in the village of Al Ma’tan. Former residents of the village have gone to the effort of constructing a visitor centre on the edge of the abandoned village. There was no one there when I arrived and it looked like that was pretty normal.
Instead I was greeted by two very excited children, a 7-year-old girl and her younger brother, who gave me the lowdown on the village. Well, they asked me my name in English and had a massive giggling fit when I asked them their names and ages. I suspect foreign visitors are a rare sight. They pointed me in the right direction and then disappeared back from wherever they came.
Perched on on a mountainside, the village is a quite extraordinary place to wander around. I found myself exploring half ruined houses, stables, warehouses and the narrow lanes of the village. It’s hard to imagine, but this was once a thriving community surviving off agriculture before a severe drought destroyed its economy and the inhabitants left.
The government has now given assistance to the community and an ecolodge has been constructed to bring some tourist money into the area. I was beginning to wonder who might stay here when I discovered that the village is on a long distance hiking trail . The Abraham Path starts in Turkey and passes through Syria before reaching Jordan. Sadly I doubt many people find their way to Al Ma’tan on foot or otherwise.
Leaving the village behind, I drove over to the nearby abandoned village of As Sala, where efforts to convert some of the former houses into tourist accommodations is in progress. Again the visitor centre was as abandoned as the ancient village, but the view from the car park offered sweeping vistas over the surrounding hills and valley below.
There was a brown sign at As Sala as well, it even said there was a castle. I couldn’t find a castle and, since there wasn’t anyone to ask in this abandoned village, I abandoned my search and decided to head back to the land of the living.