Sandwiched between troubled or quarrelsome neighbors such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Israel and Palestine, Jordan has a tourism PR problem. And, frankly, I felt a little nervous about visiting, and my mom was nervous for me. When I told a strapping young guy on the first leg of my long flight that I was Jordan-bound, he said, “You’re braver than me.”
But honestly? These days Jordan seems to be safer than the U.S. During my eight days there, I didn’t feel in physical danger for a second.
Before my trip, I was so busy working on my modest wardrobe and learning Arabic phrases online that I failed to do much research. But here are the bare bones facts: Jordan is a little smaller than Portugal and has a population of 6.5 million. It became an independent sovereign nation in 1946. A key U.S. ally, it’s one of the few Middle Eastern countries at peace with Israel. And a good thing, too, as they two countries share a long border. Jordanians I talked to are proud of their country, and of the way the Muslim majority lives in harmony with the Christian minority. Jordan is jam-packed with Biblical sites, UNESCO World Heritage sites, important archeological digs, ruins, and landscapes that are breathtaking in a dozen different ways. In short, this is a country full of hospitable people and interesting things to see and do.
Ever since flipping through National Geographic as a child and seeing photos of the Rose Red City of Petra, I wanted to visit. And I’m not alone — just about everybody who visits Jordan comes to see Petra.
The famous archaeological site dates to about 300 B.C. and was the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom. The Nabateans carved buildings into red stone cliffs and devised a brilliant and efficient water conduit system. Many notable cultures and personages visited Petra over the years, from Pliny the Elder to Lawrence of Arabia to Indiana Jones to the ‘80s goth band Sisters of Mercy, who filmed a video there. The site is only partially excavated, so more incredible buildings may still be unearthed. Our guide, Ramzi Nawafleh, estimates that only 30 to 40 percent of the ancient city has been excavated.
My group of eleven explored the UNESCO site for an entire day, and still didn’t see it all. At 60 square kilometers (about 37 miles) – including mountains, canyons and riverbeds – Petra is bigger than I expected. Visitors can walk, ride on a donkey or camel, or explore from inside a carriage.
We entered through the narrow canyon called the Siq, which ends in the big reveal: Petra’s famous Treasury, a 40-meter tall
building with cupola and pillars carved right into a cliff. It’s astounding in its height, color, detail and beauty, especially when you think how long ago it was built and what primitive tools they used. My favorite building was the Monastery, which is less crowded because one must hike up about 90
0 stairs to reach it. A lovely Turkish coffee stand re-caffeinated me while I admired the view. This was also where I had my best Sinai agama sighting – that is, a local lizard that turns blue when trying to attract a mate. Alas, the lizard wasn’t too impressed with me so showed only the slightest bit of blue, but I still followed it around taking photos.
After leaving Petra for a dinner break, we returned for the Petra at Night program. Rows and rows of luminarios are lit in front of the Treasury. Visitors sit on the ground and drink tea while listening to a flute player and singer. At a couple of points in the evening, the front of the Treasury lights up so people can take photos. The other nighttime thing to do at Petra is to visit the Cave Bar, which is a bar inside one of Petra’s ancient caves, just as it sounds.
Other Archeological Sites
While more than 460,000 people visited Petra in 2016, Jordan’s other excellent archeological sites get less love. Most noticeably, Little Petra, just six miles from the main site. The Nabateans used this suburb for business meetings and religious ceremonies. As the name suggests, it’s Petra on a smaller scale. When my group visited on a weekday morning, there were maybe 10 other people there.
Jerash, north of Amman, is another partially excavated archeological site, notable for its Roman ruins. We entered through Hadrian’s Arch, built in AD 129 to welcome the Emperor Hadrian. Many of the buildings have fallen, but thousands of columns are still intact. It’s the kind of place where you can’t stop taking pictures. I probably wound up with 100 shots of columns. Back in Roman days, up to 15,000 spectators watched chariots race in the hippodrome. This tradition was revived for tourists, but was discontinued around 2010 after a downturn in visitors.
The other notable ruins we visited was even further north, by the Syrian border. Our guide, Ahmad Al Omari, gave us a bittersweet tour of the old city of Gadara. When it became a UNESCO site in 1985, his family was one of many that lived there. They all had to evacuate. This made for a very personal tour, as he mixed third century BC history – this time the Nabateans were the bad guys, with the Greeks of Gadara fending them off – with pointing out his cousin’s former house. Gadara was especially noted for its philosophers, poets and writers. These are attractive ruins, with big rectangles of black volcanic stone alternating with white limestone. It was also a great people-watching place. We visited on a Friday, which is the day when whole families go out to stroll through the ruins and watch the sunset.
These days, Jordanians mostly live in towns and cities. But Bedouin roots are strong, and some of these honest-to-goodness nomadic people still follow the old desert-dwelling way of life. We were fortunate to visit a Bedouin family in a mountainous area south of the Dead Sea. This rugged country required four-wheel drive vehicles and looked pretty hard to inhabit.
Our local Bedouin guide, Suleiman Hasaseen, also served as translator as we sat on cushions in a tent made partially from animal feed sacks. The patriarch roasted green coffee beans over an open fire, then served the finished product in tiny cups. Roasting beans requires the proper wood and the right water. Suleiman recommends white desert broom.
Suleiman delivered a crash course on the role of coffee in Bedouin life. Unlike everyday tea, coffee is for special occasions, such as guests visiting, weddings, engagements and births. “Coffee makes your life more strong and social,” Suleiman tells us. Before schools were widespread, education happened during coffee making time, when all the men would gather and tell stories.
Traditionally, the host drinks the first cup, to prove it’s not poisoned. Guests sit with their legs crossed. “Coffee should scare your mustache,” Suleiman says, meaning it should be scalding hot. Guests receive tiny amounts, which they drink in one to three gulps. It’s polite to drink up to three of these coffee shots, but not more.
If a guest puts his coffee down on the ground without drinking, that means there’s a serious matter to discuss. He can’t drink the coffee until the matter is settled. Once you agree, Suleiman says, you can have coffee or tea or food. But if you don’t agree, guests can’t even ask their host for water. You better bring your own, Suleiman suggests.
It’s a harsh life, without much variety. The Bedouins eat bread, tea, goat milk and yogurt. Meat is for special occasions. “People in Bedouin don’t eat much at all,” Suleiman says. Nor is there a lot of entertainment. One mother here can have ten children, Suleiman tells me. “There’s nothing to do at night; they just make children.”
If you’ve ever seen Lawrence of Arabia, you probably remember the epic camel ride through the Wadi Rum Desert. Well, now I can say I rode a camel through that same desert. Albeit, a small part of it.
We stayed a night at the Rahayeb Desert Camp out in Wadi Rum. Upon waking up at five for the sunrise camel ride, many of us learned a lesson from Desert Conservation 101: the generator shuts down at night. Fortunately I’d laid my clothes out the night before, so managed to dress myself in my pitch dark tent cabin.
We stumbled through the soft desert sand, searching for our guides. I was surprised that it was so hard to find a dozen camels. But as the sky began to lighten, we spotted the dark humped shapes. Riding a camel isn’t difficult, at least for a short distance. The tricky thing is keeping your seat as the camel stands or, better yet, sits back down at the end of your ride. But as we headed out into the desert, it was one of those pinch-me-am-I-dreaming kind of moments. Were we really being led into the Wadi Rum Desert at six in the morning by our Bedouin guides in red checkered headscarves, including a cigarette-smoking 10- year-old? Yes, we were. And it was magical.
Jordan is more than 90 percent Muslim. But we also visited some significant Christian sites. Madaba, southwest of Amman in central Jordan, is a strongly Christian city famous for its mosaics. We stopped at Saint George Church, built in the 6th century AD, to see its famous mosaic map, which is part of the floor. Between Muslim vandalism and the 746 earthquake, it’s not exactly in mint condition. But it was still an incredible old map. Mosaic portraits of saints fill the church.
Nearby Mount Nebo is another Christian pilgrimage site. It was from here that Moses overlooked his people entering the Promised Land. At 2,680 feet high, on a clear day the view is incredible. Kind of a bittersweet place, as the story goes that Moses disobeyed God and thus was banned from the Promised Land himself. The whereabouts of Moses’ grave is a mystery. Some suspect it’s on Mount Nebo.
We also visited Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site where Jesus was baptized. Steps lead down into the river, so we got to step our feet into the same river as Jesus. The Jordan side was pretty quiet, but the Israeli side was hopping, and strangely close – I could have made it across in 10 crawl strokes. A string of little buoys marked the border. We only stayed an hour walking around the site, but some pilgrims visit for an entire week. The area has churches, a monastery, baptismal pools and hermit cells to explore, and even the cave where John the Baptist lived.
Beaches: Red versus Dead
Aside from the Jordan River, Jordan has two significant bodies of water: the Dead Sea and the Red Sea. Jordan only has 16 miles of Red Sea coastline, but they make the most of it, drawing beachgoers from around the country and beyond. The port city of Aqaba boasts beaches, yachting, shopping, restaurants and a few nightclubs. We stayed in the uber-glam, Russian-owned Kempinski Hotel, with a huge pool area and private beach. I snorkeled around the reefs off Aquaba and saw trumpet fish, an eel, and a bunch of blue and yellow fish. Much of the coral appeared to be dead.
The Dead Sea is a whole different scene. It’s too salty for anything to survive, and woe to those who accidentally get splashed in the eye! Ouch. We stayed at the Jordan Valley Marriott for a night and enjoyed a salty float off the private beach. It’s a fun atmosphere, with people alternately bathing and slathering themselves with the mineral-rich Dead Sea mud, purported to ease everything from acne to arthritis. It’s hard to get all the mud out of your bathing suit, so this is a good place to bring one you’re ready to discard. I ditched mine, which was never colorfast and left a hot pink trail of destruction.
If You Go
Despite my slight misgivings, Jordan turned out to be a fabulous place to travel. Having a guide was extremely useful, as I only managed to learn a few Arabic phrases before I left. People in all the large hotels speak English. But except for the most intrepid travelers, it might be hard to get from Point A to Point B unguided.—Story and photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor
Royal Jordanian Airlines has direct flights to Amman out of major North American cities, including New York, Chicago and Montreal. For lots of travel info, check out Visit Jordan’s website. www.visitjordan.com/