The Wonder of Jordan
As I stand on top of The Citadel in the heart of Amman, Jordan, my body sore and tired from the forty-five miles we’ve covered in a six-day span, I have managed to amble to the edge of The Citadel’s sandstone walls for a few final photographs. All around me on that stunning, sunny Friday, a day of rest in Jordan, children are running kites in a chaotic yet playful frenzy, providing a rainbow of color to contrast the deep indigo-blue sky. In the distance, seven or eight flights of pigeons dance to and fro, spreading their wings and taking a break in the breeze from their home on the rooftops of Amman’s vast cityscape. A gust of wind gently sweeps from my right, and I raise my camera to capture a final round of shots, when suddenly, the Call to Prayer initiates echoing from every direction, a song that resonates deep regardless of your affiliation with religion. It reverberates with elegance and grace, a profound melody you don’t just hear with your ears, but feel deep down in your chest. I find myself instantly in a daze of awe, the camera in my hands lowering slowly back to hang around my neck, because all I can do is stare out over Amman as my eyes fill with tears at witnessing something so beautiful, so prodigious, and so very special.
“Magic,” I whisper aloud. And there I stand until the invitation has finished, overpowered by this magnificent place that has forever captured my heart in its extraordinary splendor.
In the months, weeks, and days preceding my adventure throughout the nation of Jordan, I was careful to establish that no residual expectations would follow me there. There were mixed reactions from those around me regarding this trip, reactions that ranged from excitement to hesitation, though looking back now it pains me to say the most asked question I received prior to leaving was: “Is it safe?” Granted, I had never traveled to the Middle East, yet I armed myself with the not-so-naïve understanding that in the territories surrounding Jordan, turmoil had been wreaking havoc for quite some time. Still, I persisted in managing to keep assumptions at bay, and I am very, very grateful that I did.
Primarily a Bedouin land until the decades leading up to World War I, life changed drastically for those who would become Jordanians in the 20th century, beginning with the presence of none other than Lawrence of Arabia himself, T.E. Lawrence. Along with other Allied forces, Lawrence was stationed in the Middle East to undermine the Ottoman Turks and if defeated, reward the Arabian Bedouin tribes with ownership of the Ottoman’s won kingdoms. As time went on, a Saudi king was brought into Jordan to run the country, a line that exists to this day under Abdullah II. And in a strange way, you get a sense that Jordan is a very constructed state, one that is still trying to find its identity amongst its contemporaries, though I do think they are making grand strides in one significant aspect of their cultural character: toleration and acceptance. Regardless of the unrest surrounding them in Iraq, Syria, the West Bank of Israel, and Saudi Arabia, Jordan’s desire to send a message of seeking equality amongst all faiths is both brave and commendable in a time when open-mindedness and liberalism are concepts we all strive to improve upon. There is a clear desire for progress, one that is evident in almost every Jordanian you speak with, which provides me with a sentiment I don’t feel too often these days.
The more I learned about the Jordanian people, the more the environment I was privy to witnessing made sense. The country itself relies heavily on American aid, and I was shocked to discover that Jordan is actually a very expensive place to live, thus creating a very hard line between the poverty-stricken majority and the wealthier minority. There are no natural resources, there is no potable water and definitely no oil, which perhaps provides further clarification as to why Jordan is surrounded by war and yet there is no war on their home soil. Infrastructure is minimal, causing touring to be somewhat difficult and pricey, particularly for a place that is so tourism centric. Population is widespread…scarce is the exact word I scribbled down in my notebook…an outcome no doubt of centuries of nomadic living, and the people themselves are primarily Muslim with a few dashes here and there of Christian Greek Orthodox.
Very few drink. Too many smoke. Goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, feral cats, wild dogs, and camels run array, and so much is lost in translation that you wonder if there is even a foundation of understanding. There isn’t much water, and it is a dry, hot, and barren place where chap stick, sunscreen, and deodorant are all musts.
I have never felt so welcome in a place so foreign to me, a place where a smile, courtesy, and generosity take you further than you could possibly imagine. A place in which you are constantly greeted and embraced, where the food is so good you never want to stop eating, and even the slightest effort at Arabic words makes the locals beam at you in happiness. The energy is reciprocal, and I found the more I displayed my eagerness to learn, my awe at the history and the people, and my general happiness at being there, the more that translated into the Jordanians around me, no matter if we were with the Bedouins in Wadi Rum or walking through the packed, noisy marketplaces in Amman.
On top of this, and perhaps most importantly, the concept of Jordanian time takes a few days to master, and it is a concept we communicated through our travel group in two particular phrases: “Shway, shway”, which loosely translates to slowly, or a little at a time, and “ten more minutes”, something we typically heard which in reality meant at least another thirty to ninety minutes further. However, once you appreciate this, a certain level of comprehension kicks in, and you start to grasp that the people of Jordan have their own way of doing things, most notably in a manner that we Westerners aren’t used to. They aren’t worried about the next step, and they certainly aren’t dwelling on their previous stumbles – they are present, living in the moment and breathing in each second with purpose. Whatever comes in the future will make its way to them eventually, but one thing is for certain. Enjoyment of time, or rather, of life, is precious.
My eight days in Jordan was a blur of wonders, launching with a necessary recovery day floating in the strange, oily waters of the Dead Sea, the salinity levels strong enough to leave your skin tingling for hours in the aftermath. On the same day we toured through Bethany, the place of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River performed by John the Baptist, and what was most notable about this holy site was the distinct observation that the once very deep and wide Jordan River has been reduced to a mere thirty or forty-foot boundary between Israel and Jordan. This, of course, is due to the use by Jordan and Israel for water supply, a source that has brought tension between these two states over the years.
There was the town of Madaba, one of two Christian cities in Jordan, where we visited the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George to admire the 6th century AD Byzantine mosaic of the ancient Middle East, as well as The Shrine of the Beheading of John the Baptist, a rare Roman Catholic church with one hell of an amazing view from the top of the bell tower. This town, founded in the 1880s by the Bedouins with permission from the Ottoman Turks, was one of the first in a series of occasions where the nomadic peoples traded their life of movement for that of permanence. The history of Madaba, regardless of it’s later settlement, is staggering, as is clear from the mosaics littering the churches and the Roman ruins scattered throughout the city. Henry Lamense, Jesuit and historian, put to words a sentiment which I could not, upon walking the streets of Madaba: “…I wonder what motions are aroused by the view of these ruins; what impact did this city have, standing like a lost guard on the fringes of the desert, what impact did it have on the sons of the desert…” (March 1897).
Our road took us through Wadi Mujib, a mesmerizing canyon with cliffs stretching into the distance until they reached the Dead Sea – a tranquil place with a constant breeze and a deep, blue dam filled entirely with rain water, where Bedouin tents line the valley while the bleats of sheep and goats echo as they wander their hillside trails. Through the twists and turns of the road ahead, we descended and climbed on to Karak, a castle built of sandstone to protect the Crusaders agenda in Jerusalem and it ultimately fell to Salah ad-Din and his army following a three-month stand-off. The day ended with finally reaching the Dana Nature Reserve, a place we thoroughly explored the next morning, clambering through the sandstone mounds behind our hilarious and dynamic guide Salem as he discussed everything from the juniper bushes growing in abundance to the old Bedouin kings believed to be buried in the caves around us. It was a somewhat harrowing hike, and there were a handful of occasions when I dually noted that one wrong step and I’d be toast, but each of us made it out of there in one piece and with a great new perspective on our climbing capabilities.
In no time at all came Shobak Castle, another Crusader outpost used to control caravan routes and tax trade; and while it does not exactly have the history or the drama of Karak Castle’s past, the beauty of Shobak is undeniable, with deeply lined mountains of bedrock in the surrounding hills that look more like a painter’s brush strokes than natural formation. Then, we moved onto our drive to the city of Petra, stopping for a necessary round of hookah, coffee, and sunset photography with the knowledge that the next day would be our biggest and our longest trek of the trip…a trek we would do strictly on foot.
Petra…a kingdom of ruins considered to be one of the great wonders of the world, has an immense history I will do my best to break down. Built as early as the 5th century BCE, Petra was carved out of the sandstone mountains by its inhabitants, the Nabataeans, with the intention of being defensible from invading outside enemies. For hundreds of years Petra thrived as an immensely rich and renowned kingdom from Silk Road trade, surviving two attempted takeovers by the Greeks, both of which failed, though the name given to the realm did stick – Petra, it seems, is the Greek word for stone.
The Nabataean reign sadly would not last, and by 106 AD, the Romans made their own attempt at Petra, succeeding in taking the Nabataean kingdom only because they cut off all trade routes and supplies coming into and leaving Petra. By the 5th century AD, the Nabataean religion of idols was slowly replaced by Christianity when Byzantine Monks from Jerusalem moved into the community and stayed until the 7th century. As you can probably imagine, under Roman rule, the kingdom had gradually disintegrated, though other contributing factors included constant attacks from outside militaries, detrimentally damaging earthquakes, and a break-down of their once intricately designed water system. The last of the remaining inhabitants abandoned what was left of Petra following the Muslim conquest of the area in the 7th century. It wouldn’t be until the early 19th century that the ‘discovery’ of Petra by Johann Burckhardt would catalyze a renewed sense of interest, an interest that would develop into the currently booming tourist industry Petra flourishes on today.
The expedition into and around Petra was a unique one. It began in Little Petra, which is roughly a three-hour hike on the rear trails to the Monastery, essentially putting us on the opposite path of most tourists. At the helm of our group was Atah, our Bedouin guide, and his loyal sidekick and donkey, Shakira, who graciously carried two packs of water and succeeded in handling the more treacherous portions of our trek better than any one of us did.
The first hour or so consisted of an outstanding walk between the sandstone mountains, fields of barley stretching as far as the eye could see, used for the Bedouins to feed their livestock, and we laughed as we looked up to see watching us from the top of the cliffs were dozens of goats, the herd apparently waking with the sunrise.
We passed a nine thousand-year-old Neolithic village, filled with some of the earliest architecture in the Middle East and assumed to be the oldest settlement in Jordan. There are large, plastic barrels left out along the gravel road, some filled with water and others empty, meant to be used by travelers and their animals when they need to rehydrate. Wild onions are fully in bloom no matter where you step, roosters are screeching out to welcome the new day, and off in the distance Aaron’s tomb, glimmering bright and white in the rising sun, is visible on top of Jabal Harun. The color of the adjacent cliffs, Atah tells me, are contributed to the iron, magnesium, and copper embedded in the sandstone, and in the days of King Solomon before Jesus Christ, it is believed copper used to be mined from those very mountains.
Once through these fields we ascend what feels like a never-ending carved staircase to the top of the mountain range, one I can imagine has been used by these nomadic people for centuries, if not millennia. At the top, we break for tea and then press on, scaling the peaks before pursuing a sharp descent downward – and it was there we found ourselves face to face with none other than the Monastery of Petra.
The secondary portion of our descent down to the vale of temples and tombs of Petra is a series of more heavily worn steps, crowded by tourists, merchants, peddlers, goats, and donkeys, and it is obvious from the tourists passing us by that their hour climb is both sweaty and exhausting, one I will say I am not sorry to have missed. There are incredible ruins left of the ancient temples, including an ancient mosaic currently in the process of being restored by archaeologists. In the hills, the tombs of the royal family can be seen, and from left to right they are titled the Palace Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb, the Silk Tomb, and the Ern Tomb, assumed in their prime to be encompassed by enormous and picturesque gardens. These structures were carved using nothing but metal chisels and hammers, a task that must have taken years to accomplish.
And the grand finale of Petra? Probably the most popular spectacle, and definitely the most photographed, is the Treasury, built in the 1st century BCE for Nabataean King Aretas III as his tomb. Miraculously, the only restoration ever needed on the Treasury was a once-broken column; however, the most entertaining aspect of the Treasury is how its name originated. Long after the days when the kingdom was ruled by Nabataeans, a rumor circulated that there were hidden gems and priceless pieces of jewelry hidden in the top ern of the building – regrettably, and to the disappointment of those who finally did break the tier of the ern away from the building, it was discovered that this gossip was false, and that in truth the ern was solid stone.
This wouldn’t be our last visit to the Treasury: we returned to Petra by Night that evening, an experience I would highly recommend to visitors, and then again the following morning the minute the gates opened to obtain photographs of the Treasury without the usual plethora of tourists, camels, horses, and just all-around chaos that surrounds it by day. Just when our shoot was about to wrap up, we decided as a group to follow Essa, another Bedouin guide, on another hike up and above the Treasury for snapshots, with the promise of a tourist-free and scenic path to return to the main gate of Petra (typically a forty-five-minute walk from the Treasury). This took our climbing and bouldering skills to an extreme, and I am not exaggerating when I say that there were moments when I worried for the safety and the sanity of our group in completing the trek to the top. Ultimately, however, we did, though not without completely fatiguing whatever energy we had stored up, and when we did at last make it back to our trusty van to venture on to Wadi Rum, we were about an hour behind schedule.
It was absolutely worth it.
Wadi Rum was unlike anything I have ever seen or experienced in all my life. An endless vista of sand and mountains that, millions of years ago, was completely submerged under the ocean, and the excessive amount of iron in the sand and in the mountains provide Wadi Rum’s celebrated red hue. Herds of camels wander the fields of agram, a plant used by the Bedouins to make their own form of natural soap by crushing it and adding water. Our 4 x 4 adventure vehicle proved to be one hell of a fun ride, though by the afternoon and en route to the cave occupied at one time by T.E. Lawrence, the absurdly warm desert day quickly transformed into a windy and cold early evening, causing us to huddle together and bundle up for warmth. Our sunset was foiled by a passing storm, yet to our delight, by the time we made it to our Bedouin camp the night sky had cleared, and the later the hour ticked the more stars started to sparkle. The Bedouins hosting us were absurdly gracious and welcoming, cooking us a meal of lamb and chicken slow roasted underneath the sand for hours, followed by hookah and a lesson on the astrological symbols of the starry night. It was, by and large, my favorite day and night of the trip.
At five AM, we scrambled out of our tents to take a sunrise camel ride out for one last look at the desert, which was an absolute treat, and subsequently came our final destination: Amman. Amman is a city with an immensely rich history, founded around the 8th century BCE, known to many as the city of the seven hills. Rather than dive headfirst into the political past of this ancient civilization, a place heavily influenced by Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Islamic states in the region over the millennia, what struck me about this place were the people. Through every single street, every single alley, and every single shop our little troop explored, we were received as if we were family, studied but not scrutinized, and encouraged to ask questions as well as try new things. From the bustling marketplace to the peace of The Citadel, whether we were stuffing our faces with falafel or trudging up and down the hills in search of new sights, every second of it felt like a dream. I walked those roads of Amman feeling more at home than I have anywhere on earth I have traveled, and more grateful than ever that I chose to go to Jordan in the first place.
So, what was Jordan to me?
Jordan was coffee with cardamom, with milk and a little sugar.
Jordan was the chronicle of its deep history, with ruins that sent goosebumps down my arms at their majesty and a past so rich I find myself amazed I knew so little of it previously.
Jordan was sunrise and sunset photo shoots, even if it meant nearly getting arrested amongst a herd of camels on the side of the highway to get that one, perfect image.
Jordan was our guides…Mr. Khalid, Salem, Essa, Aboudi…their stories, their cordiality and benevolence, and the knowledge of their people they shared so openly with us.
Jordan was the deep red sand in the desert, laughing under the stars all night, and sitting on mountaintops drinking black tea as the sun went down.
Jordan was the mother on the street who invited me into her home with open arms after I took a few pictures of her son, wanting nothing more than to be generous and welcome me to Amman.
Jordan was hummus, gallayeh, pita, and sage, and Mr. Khalid always pushing us to eat more than what we could, no matter how many times we refused.
Jordan was restoring my faith in the goodness of others, and the notion that a genuine smile will almost always be reciprocated in turn.
Jordan was the bus that became our base camp, and Omar, our absurdly capable driver, who grew to love us in spite of our incessant picture taking and stops along the way.
Jordan was befriending people I will never forget, bonding with others who love traveling as much as I do, and feeling deeply connected to the Bedouin communities of Petra and Wadi Rum.
Jordan, in a matter of eight days, was a place I did not want to leave behind, and it is a place that will stay in my heart forever.