by Louisa Glass
“You are welcome” is a phrase I heard countless times across Jordan. Chances are I would have ceased to hear such a ubiquitous utterance in a more jaded tourist destination. In Jordan, however, I believe I heard and felt it each time. Three little words opened the way for real connection between two worlds lately and historically so disconnected.
Despite tensions in the neighborhood, Jordan is on track to meet its National Tourism Strategy goal to double the 2003 tourism economy by 2010. The number of visitors from the U.S. has nearly tripled since 2004, when the NTS was unveiled by Jordan’s King Abdullah II. In the last several years, the country has increasingly become a destination in its own right, worthy of at least a week’s visit.
I traveled with a group of 30 to Jordan in November 2007 for a 10-day tour of the country with Ya’lla Tours USA. We traveled by comfortable motor coach with our lovely and patient guide Ahmad Al-Khalidi leading every step of the way. Besides getting us from place to place and teaching us about his country, I believe he connected on a personal level with each member of the group. But even independent travelers should find Jordan quite easy to navigate. Roads are good, English is spoken widely, and locals are eager to help.
We stayed in 5-star Movenpick hotels in Amman, Aqaba and the Dead Sea. In Wadi Musa, the town adjacent to Petra, we stayed at the Taybet Zaman, a Bedouin village concept property in a stunning setting overlooking a rugged desert valley. As a large group, we did most of our dining at hotel and tourist buffets. The fare is typical Middle Eastern with local variations, and I had only one or two meals that were less than excellent.
A Rose-Red City Carved in Stone
Petra alone is worth crossing the Atlantic. Unknown to the Western world until 1812, this sprawling archeological site has been famously referred to as “a rose-red city half as old as time.” The capital city of the ancient Nabataean empire from the fourth century B.C.E. until the Roman occupation of 106 C.E. — after which it continued to thrive as an important provincial capital — it was voted one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World” in 2007 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From a parking lot, visitors to Petra can travel either on foot, on horseback or by horse and buggy to the siq, the narrow passage between rocky cliffs leading to the ancient city. Once in the siq, most people walk. Just under a mile in length, it is so narrow in places that two people abreast with arms outstretched could nearly touch both walls. Its undulating, nearly sheer walls of striated red-orange sandstone rise 300 to 600 feet on either side. When Petra’s signature monument, the Treasury, finally appears through the crack in the mountain, one cannot help but gasp in wonderment. Years of anticipation did little to prepare me for the sudden sight of this massive building-like façade.
Beyond the Treasury, Petra unfolds down a narrow canyon. Most of the remains are carved into the sandstone walls. Many visitors spend a half day walking the valley floor, viewing rock-cut tombs and temples. I saw a lot in a day, but next time I will set aside at least two days to climb some of the paths up the canyon walls and explore the crevasses leading off the main route.
Among a number of biblical sites in Jordan, two of the most significant mark major transitions in their respective traditions. About 30 minutes south of Amman and 10 minutes west of the town of Madaba (home to the world’s largest collection of ancient mosaics) is Mt. Nebo, situated along the historic Kings Highway. We drove up the brown mountain to a lower parking lot and then walked approximately two miles on a shady, paved path to the summit. Small vehicles can drive all the way to the top. Mt. Nebo is the site, tradition holds, where Moses died after viewing the Promised Land below. After 40 years in wandering pursuit of that place, the reward was ultimately denied him. It has always seemed to me a cruel turn of events for Moses, yet dense with meaning. While I am not a religious person in any conventional sense, on the mountaintop, under a crystalline midday sky, I felt that density. Mt. Nebo is also worth a stop simply for the broad views across the Jordan Valley to the hills of Jerusalem. And a church on the mountain built by Franciscan monks houses some impressive mosaics salvaged from previous churches on this site.
From the mountaintop to the valley floor, less than an hour’s drive, we traveled a millennium, from the beginning of one cultural era to the beginning of another. (As a student of the roots of Western culture, this makes me giddy!) Just north of the Dead Sea lies Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site recognized by both Christian tradition and a great deal of archaeological evidence as the place where Jesus was baptized. Excavations have uncovered over 20 sites from the Roman and Byzantine periods, including churches and baptismal pools. The site has been sensitively developed with visitor numbers limited and tourist facilities set well away from the sacred area. We walked a sandy path through tamarisk woodlands to the Jordan River, winding slow and muddy through dense wetland flora, barely ten feet across to Israel. It’s a deeply serene place with subtle power that sneaks up on me still.
Along the northern shore of Jordan’s Dead Sea, a string of resort hotels lazes in the oxygen-rich air. At 1,312 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth. The sea is placid, warm and silky to the touch, and, with 10 times the salinity of average sea water, extremely buoyant. The therapeutic benefits of this area are legendary. All the hotels have full-service spas. Spa services were not included in the tour, but some of my travel-mates and I opted for do-it-yourself treatments, painting ourselves in mud from the large pots on the beach and rinsing off in the sea. Overall, the Dead Sea is a mellow, feel-good spot, and its close proximity to a number of historic and religious sites makes it a practical base. Short trips from the Dead Sea include Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Mt. Nebo, the mosaic-rich town of Madaba, the crusader castles Kerak and Shobak, Hammamat Ma’in hot springs, Herod’s fortress at Mukawir, and the Mujib Nature Reserve (“Jordan’s Grand Canyon”).
Wilderness — Epic-Style
If you have seen the film Lawrence of Arabia you have some idea of the wonder of Wadi Rum. But until you’re standing in it, you can have no idea of its magnificence. Across a vast area in southern Jordan, great sandstone mountains thrust abruptly from the desert floor. Driving deep into the wadi was like being swallowed up; and within the immensity came a surprising sense of intimacy and shelter. Part of me wanted to shout out “echo” and spin around with arms wide. Instead, I spoke in hushed tones, treading softly. From the slick new visitor center you can take a few hours’ ride with a local driver. Hikers, climbers and stargazers can easily spend days there trekking about and camping Bedouin-style.
In my view, the sites mentioned above are the in the “must-see” category. With more time, there’s much more to recommend — from the Roman site Jerash, replete with marble streets and Corinthian columns, to the Wadi Mujib, a spectacular gorge with many days’ worth of hiking and climbing, which I am looking forward to doing on my next trip.
I have a strong sense that Jordan is a destination for our time. It stands firmly in its heritage while extending a hand to the world beyond. This stability and openness make Jordan an ideal bridge between the American and Middle Eastern worlds. Jordan not only welcomes us, they invite us heartily. As the numbers of visitors attest, American travelers are responding with equal enthusiasm.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION on tours to Jordan, contact Ya’lla Tours USA at 800-644-1595, or visit www.yallatours.com.
JORDAN — Travel Tips
• Getting There
By air, Royal Jordanian (RJ) operates nonstop flights between New York and Amman three to four times each week, depending on the season.
Over land, there are three border crossings between Israel and Jordan: King Hussein/Allenby Bridge, near the Dead Sea; Sheikh Hussein, in the north; and Araba, near Aqaba. Travelers can also cross into Jordan from Syria at either Dera/Ramtha or Nasib/Jaber. The Hijaz Railway travels between Damascus and Amman twice a week.
By sea, cruise ships and ferries arrive at Jordan’s only seaport, Aqaba on the Red Sea.
• When to go
Spring and fall are ideal times to travel to Jordan with temperatures averaging 60 to 80 during the day and small chan-ces of rain, mainly in the north. In November, I would start most days with a light wrap and peel down to short sleeves by afternoon.
American travelers to Jordan require a visa which can be obtained upon entry for about $15 (except at King Hussein/Allenby Bridge border with Israel). Many packaged tours include the visa.
Jordan is a politically stable country with a relatively high literacy rate and standard of living. It is a constitutional monarchy with a legislative branch elected by the people. Throughout the long reign of King Hussein and continuing with his son Abdullah II, moderation and diplomacy have garnered respect at home and around the world. This is a place that breeds hope, not violence. No one should hesitate to visit Jordan for security reasons. That said, no place in the world is immune to danger, and precautionary security measures are in place around some hotels and tourist sites, especially in Amman.