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Traveling Through Jordan’s Historic Ruins, Red Dunes, and Dead Sea

Petra by candlelight. Photo: JohnLast1990. License: CCA-SA-4.0-International. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

At dinner my second night in Amman, I found myself tangled in a debate about peace. We were in the home of friends of friends, and the gathering was lively; there was a huge buffet of local and international food. I was traveling with my husband, John, and our son George, who is eight, and we were slightly jetlagged. George had said hello to everyone before getting absorbed in our hostess’s children’s video game collection, undaunted by the Arabic slogans that flashed across the scene; games of skill and destruction are a universal language. Everyone was talking about the durability of Jordanian peace as we snacked on what I would come to know as the inevitable salads: fattoush with its crisp flakes of pita; lemony hummus; and mouttabal, a smoky variant on baba ghanoush. The Jordanians I met that night spoke about peace the way people in other countries speak about war, as an inevitable but bewildering fact of daily life. I was intrigued.

Jordan is only 35,000 square miles, roughly the size of Portugal; its border states are Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia, and an American career diplomat based in the capital city of Amman described it energetically to me that night as the “crossroads of Armageddon.” But the country has no culture of radicalism to match the chaos of those neighbors. Like Israel and the United States, it is a country of immigrants. Locals refer to “Jordanian Jordanians” (mostly of Bedouin roots) who compose roughly a third of the population; Palestinian Jordanians (who entered the country before 1988, mostly during or just after the Israeli conflicts in 1948 or 1967, who have become citizens), who make up another third; and refugees (including non-citizen Palestinians who entered after 1988 and recent immigrants from Syria), who constitute the final third.

I asked everyone I met there about how Jordan has remained so essentially calm in the midst of so much unrest, and each one had a different answer. “People in most of those other societies had nothing to lose if they went into revolution, but the king has ensured that common Jordanians have something to lose, which is a vast disincentive to uprising,” a human-rights activist explained earnestly. A journalist who covers politics for a Jordanian daily said, “It’s because of the king, because he’s both loved and feared and has an iron grip on national security.”

Others attributed the relative stability to the strong culture of a Bedouin population whose ancestral, inter-tribal allegiances can still be called upon to negotiate unrest, and who play a strong role in the military and the police. Yet others hypothesized that the country’s relative poverty — it has no oil reserves — has resulted in a culture of sharing. Some commented on a school system that has given Jordan one of the highest literacy rates in the region.

“We’re a country of immigrants who came here fleeing violence and instability, and the last thing anyone wants to do is to introduce violence and instability here,” one Palestinian Jordanian businessman told me a few days later. But my favorite answer to my question came from an industrialist I met over a plate of mezze who said, simply, “It’s our brand. Peace is our brand.”

There’s no doubt that it serves the world’s strategic interests to have a bastion of nearly Swiss stability in the Middle East, and the same foreign powers that have undermined peace elsewhere in the region have bucked up Jordan. The country has an elected parliament; while the government falls short of a democracy, it definitely offers public participation. The prime minister is appointed by the American-educated Hashemite King Abdullah II, who holds ultimate power and who engages confidently with Western leaders. In a country with no energy resources and the fourth-least water resources in the world, these alliances are critical.

I spent two weeks in Jordan under the aegis of the meticulous British luxury tour organizers Cazenove + Loyd, driving everywhere in a roomy automobile. The New York Times Mideast correspondent, next to whom I sat at that dinner party our first night in Amman, told me that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is referred to by some journalists as the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom because so few earth-shattering headlines arise. But it is not a boring place to visit if you are interested in culture and history rather than in churning sociopolitical upheaval. It is boring in all the right ways for tourism — a fact that, until recently, seems to have been lost on Western visitors to the region. They have traditionally sought out the area’s more well-known wonders — Egypt’s towering pyramids, Beirut’s bars, Israel’s biblically significant sites. But that’s all changing, as more people wise up to the fact that Jordan actually has it all: religious and historical attractions, otherworldly landscapes, and cosmopolitan sophistication.

Roman theater in Amman, Jordan. Photo: Diego Delso, License: CC-BY-SA. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Visitors go to Jordan to explore its history, where Biblical heroes and prophets resided, where ancient trade routes converged, where the Crusades raged. But friends suggested we spend extra time in Amman, and our trip was much enhanced by understanding the contemporary country to some degree. Called the “White City” because it is primarily built from limestone, Amman is not a glamorous capital on the order of Beirut, but it has considerable charm, with bohemian and elegant neighborhoods.

Though the modern borders of Jordan were set out only in the 1920s, the region has been populated since the paleolithic period. The Ammonites, the Greeks, the Romans, the Jews, the Nabateans, the Christians, and the Ottomans all inhabited Jordan, and the built environment bears witness to that history. At the crest of the highest hill in Amman’s city center lie the Citadel, with its temple to Hercules, and the Roman Theater. Like the “shattered visage” of Shelley’s ancient ruler Ozymandias, all that remains of the once-domineering statue of Hercules are three fingers of his left hand — from its size, it is apparent that the demigod’s colossus once stood more than 40 feet high. These well-preserved imperial ruins command a site that also includes a mosque and the remnants of a Byzantine church. There is a lively culture along Rainbow Street, Amman’s Soho, including the trendy Books@Cafe and the nearby fine restaurant Sufra.

There is a small but active contemporary art scene, mostly in Weibdeh; it’s full of artist studios and little coffee shops and galleries. We explored that area with Barbara Rowell — owner of the Jacaranda Gallery and of the art tour agency A Brush With Jordan. We started at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts and continued to the Khalid Shoman Foundation Darat al-Funun and the MMAG Foundation, both located in impeccably restored historic buildings. Some art, reaching for political meanings, commented particularly on the wave of immigration and the country’s relative poverty.

As one does when accommodating an eight-year-old, we visited the Royal Tank Museum and then the Royal Automobile Museum. The tank repository has armored war vehicles of every description: American ones, Israeli ones, Nazi ones, and of course Jordanian ones, grouped historically based on the conflicts in which they featured, all in a new and impressive building. Some of the looming machines are strangely beautiful, but they do attest to the undue attention people have paid to finding better ways to destroy others. The automobile museum boasts a superb collection of shiny cars and motorcycles, most of which belonged to the Hashemite royal family. By special arrangement with Cazenove + Loyd, an attendant drove us back to our hotel in a 1925 Morris Minor convertible. George sat in the front seat with goggles on and was in heaven.

An aerial view of the Zaatari refugee camp. Photo: U.S. Department of State. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


While I was happy for George to have fun in any shape we might find it, I wanted both of us to understand some of the geopolitics of the place. In the last decades, Jordan has taken in 2.9 million refugees and guests. The country’s total population is 9.3 million. The proportion of refugees there is roughly similar to what it would be here if the United States were to admit 60 million refugees. The largest new group in Jordan are Syrians, but there are also Iraqi, Egyptian, Circassian, and Palestinian refugees. Their presence has vastly strained the country’s infrastructure, and the resultant demand for housing has made rental rates soar; the influx has pushed down wages for manual labor in Jordan. But official policies remain relatively open, although the king sealed the Syrian border in 2016. Refugees and immigrants lack a “national number” for identification, and are therefore excluded from such services as free health care. Most of the 1.3 million Syrian newcomers have relocated out of the refugee camps, many moving in with Jordanian relatives, but the camps are still home to more than 140,000 people. The Jordanian government spends about $3 billion a year on Syrian refugees — almost 10 percent of its annual expenditures.

I am skeptical of what has come to be known as “disaster tourism,” but my husband and I felt it would be important to see one of the refugee camps with our son. The side trip proved sobering. We arranged permission to visit Zaatari, but when we arrived were told our permits would not allow us to interact with residents. We spent two hours mired in bureaucracy before George, who had brought toys for the refugee children, burst into tears — at which point, the powers-that-be relented.

Though the camp is a place of poverty, it seemed clean and well-organized; all the older children were off at school. With its guard towers and entrance barriers, it felt like a prison, and yet we saw camp residents leaving in broad daylight across the neighboring fields to look for work. The metal-sided and -roofed caravan housing units we entered were well-kept and well-lit.

Intimate conversation was hampered by our police escort. Although the refugees we met went on in a slightly canned way about the Jordanians’ generosity, they had trouble deflecting the direct questions of a child; when George invariably asked, “Are you sad about being here?” all acknowledged that they were, and some wept. One man with a weathered face and ready tears described how his wife had returned to Syria to see their daughters, then been refused permission to re-enter Jordan. “How can I be happy when my wife is in Syria?” he asked with a look of deep grief. Everyone spoke of going back to their hometowns, even if they lay in ruins. Whole Syrian neighborhoods have relocated and in Zaatari we often found people living next door to the people who had been across the street in Aleppo or Homs.

But life goes on in the camp. Some people had been at Zaatari for nearly six years, during which irrepressible ambitions and needs had broken the compound’s initial uniformity. A main street — mockingly called the Champs Élysées — had defined itself; along it we saw a store full of elaborate wedding dresses, more than one bakery, a few kebab joints, the local version of a convenience store. Many of the residents could get permission to work outside the camp for a week or two at a time to earn money for their families. The northern Jordanians and the southern Syrians have ethnically similar roots and traditions: same customs and rituals, same regional accents and idioms, same perspectives on religion. As with the Palestinians to the west, these Syrians have long intermarried with neighboring Jordanians. So the displaced people felt not so much alienated from their social norms as from their specific geography. Outside the camp, directional signs to Syria — a few miles north — were posted on the highways: such a short way to another world, shattered by war.

Sunset near Chicken Rock, Wadi Rum, Jordan. Photo: Lawrence Murray. Licence: CCA-2.0.

Wadi Rum

Four hours south of Amman, Wadi Rum (literally, “Valley of Sand”) is where Lawrence of Arabia was shot; more recently, The Martian with Matt Damon was filmed against its red dunes. (His futuristic Mars-crawler vehicle, like a giant insect, now welcomes visitors to the Royal Automobile Museum.) Here, great cliffs of red sandstone tower over a bleak terrain of red sand and rock outcroppings, starting with the natural formation called “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” which guard the valley entrance. You are soon covered in fine dust, and as the wind streaks it across your face and hair, you feel as though you are merging into this landscape. The great rock escarpments have been shaped by eons of wind into phantasmagorical shapes. No trees soften the drama, or add a more human scale to the landscape. Riding on a camel or in the open back of a jeep, one traverses miles and miles only to encounter more indeterminate vastness. Even the red feels relentless, as though the other colors had been denied entry here.

Our lodgings in Wadi Rum at the Discovery Bedu Camp were beautifully turned out semi-permanent tents, with showers and swinging daybeds for reading outside, fire lanterns at night, and dinner cooked Bedouin-style by burying coals and a pot full of meat, chicken, vegetables, and freekah (crushed wheat) deep in the sand to roast. There was someone always at your elbow with mint lemonade (something of a national drink in Jordan) and a cool washcloth. The luxury of the camp contrasted dramatically with the existential brutality of the landscape. At night, you can usually see an incomparable carpet of stars in the uninterrupted sky, though the night we reserved for a visit to a tiny, privately owned observatory, clouds obscured the Milky Way.

Hanging rock along the Wadi Numeira Siq Trail. Photo: Hiking in Jordan. License: CCA-SA-3.0. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Onwards a half-day’s drive, we visited the most celebrated of Jordan’s destinations: the ancient rock-hewn city of Petra. What is most striking about Petra is the sheer imagination that built it. The Nabateans were master traders who ruled much of the Levant (as the Middle East was called before the Turkish Ottoman Empire was divided up) from about 400 B.C. until some 500 years later.

Ancient cities tend to be at defensible locations: the crest of a hill, or the confluence of rivers from which enemies can be spotted far away. The Nabateans chose a slit in the earth reachable only by the narrowest of sheer-walled ravines. The main avenues of Petra are sunken in cool shade much of the day. Expert hydrological engineers, the Nabateans carved channels to capture and divert the infrequent rainfall into their urban center.

What survive in Petra are the monumental tombs carved into the rock faces. There is an image on the cover of every guidebook and every article about Jordan, and it is the view through the Siq, a rock slit, to the tomb called the Treasury. The Siq took us on a narrow approach, three-quarters of a mile long and in some places only 10 feet wide. It is so dark and narrow and the walls rise so steeply and claustrophobically, and then suddenly the constraining stone breaks open like a pomegranate to reveal the glorious, symmetrical, refined facade of the Treasury. It is ornamented with decorative elements the Nabateans borrowed from their Greek, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian trading partners — images of Castor and Pollux, for example, just beside an Assyrian stepped crenellation. Though more than 800 rock tombs have so far been uncovered in Petra, this is the incomparable one.

The other great sight in the ancient capital is the Monastery, which is reached by climbing some 900 steps. You can take a donkey, but George was adamant that we should walk. These are irregular steps, mostly rough-hewn into the rock, and they require focus and flexibility. But the people coming down as we were going up kept saying, “It’s worth it,” and in fact it was — big-shouldered and sunlit and commanding. George stood before it triumphant for the obligatory photos.

Petra, it should be noted, is only about one-quarter uncovered; the current “street level” in many places is higher than the floor level of the second stories of ancient edifices. Significant buildings continue to be discovered and painstakingly preserved, such as the Temple of the Winged Lions and a Byzantine church with exquisite mosaic depictions of local fauna. Petra is bigger than you’d think — the main drag is about three miles long, and if you do that and back plus the Monastery and some of the other rock tombs, you can easily clock in ten miles.

Like many ancient sites, Petra is alight with incomprehensibility. There is a great deal we don’t know, and a lot of disinformation afloat from old research that mistook the tombs for the city itself. Where Wadi Rum had dwarfed us, Petra seemed to contain us. Wadi Rum made you feel the smallness of human endeavor; Petra made you feel that humanity is inerasable. The contrast between the two was yet another of the country’s contradictions.

Coast of the Dead Sea, Jordan. Photo: Gusjer. License: CCA-2.0-Generic. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is only about a two-hour drive from Petra, and it is the site of the national riviera: luxury hotels aligned along what might be called the Côte de Sel. The salt content of the water — almost 10 times as much as the oceans — makes you float in a rather disorienting way. The Dead Sea — its surface 1,400 feet below sea level — is shrinking at an alarming rate because of the diversion of water from the Jordan River for agriculture. The Kempinski Ishtar Dead Sea where we stayed is a pleasant, oversized resort of a Miami-meets-Assyria style, where we indulged in spa treatments and swimming. We walked down to the tiny beach and slathered ourselves in black Dead Sea mud, then allowed it to dry for 20 minutes as instructed, for maximum skin-softening effect. When we rinsed it off back in the Dead Sea, we had to be careful of our eyes, because the extremely salty water really stings. Once rinsed a second time under a freshwater outdoor shower, we were amazed how soft our skin felt — almost as amazed as we were by how ridiculous we had looked a few minutes earlier.

Detail of the Dead Sea on the Madaba mosaic map. Photo: Panda17. License: CCA-SA-4.0-International. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Jordan’s religious sites

There are a great number of Christian mosaics in Jordan and we saw a hefty share of them. Jordan is home to many architectural landmarks whose religious affiliations have changed with the centuries, from imperial Roman to Byzantine Christian to Islamic. The nation’s affiliation with Byzantium, first through the Roman emperor Constantine’s eastern capital of Constantinople, and later as part of the Ottoman Empire, is memorialized in some of the world’s most striking mosaics.

It’s astonishing that so many have at least partially survived, given how many human and animal images were obliterated with the ascendancy of Islam and its proscriptions against figurative representation. In many instances, prefiguring modern Jordan’s respect for diversity, artisans of old covered the forbidden floor designs with geometric or calligraphic patterns, some of which are now being lifted to reveal the originals below. We drove half an hour northeast, then paused on our way to Mt. Nebo in Khirbet al-Mukhayyat, where myriad ancient Christian churches were discovered. A Greek Orthodox church atop Mt. Nebo, from which Moses ostensibly saw the Promised Land that he would not be allowed to enter, boasts similarly exquisite mosaics, along with a panoramic view of the Holy Land, the Jordan River valley, and on a clear day, Jerusalem in the far distance. The Basilica of St. George in Madaba, a largely Christian city, contains a prized, 2-million-tile mosaic map of the ancient Holy Land from the Mediterranean city of Tyre (in present Lebanon) south to the Nile delta in Egypt, showing all the pertinent topographical features with surprising accuracy. Once more, we were struck by the layering that is so often manifest in Jordan, where ancient surfaces were remade into Christian ones and then ultimately into Muslim ones.

Umm ar-Rasas, a former Roman military camp that grew into a city with countless churches, is still largely unexcavated almost 15 years after it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has the largest intact mosaic floor in Jordan, with scenes of hunting and fishing as well as depictions of the region’s noteworthy urban centers. The mosaics at the Byzantine church in Petra (built atop Roman and Nabatean ruins) are fresh and expressive, their preservation undertaken in the 1990s with the discovery of the site by the American Center for Oriental Research; in the process of unearthing the site, archaeologists discovered more than 100 carbonized papyrus scrolls detailing dowries, estates, even a list of stolen goods. One felt like a tomb raider looking at them, as though we’d stumbled into someone’s private quarters.

We drove three hours north, close to the Syrian border, to the less mosaic-inflected ruins that can be found at Umm Qais — the ancient city of Gadara — nourished from beneath by a system of tunnels designed to carry water from 100 miles away. The city of Jerash, one of the world’s best-preserved Roman ruins, has been referred to as the Pompeii of the East for the scale of its still-standing colonnades and monumental entrance gates.

Of course, what is now Jordan has known periods of great turbulence, notably during the ill-begotten, brutal cultural wars we call the Crusades. Ajloun Castle, built on the mountaintop site of a former Christian monastery in the north of Jordan, was enlarged and fortified by a general of the great military leader Saladin, as a citadel for defending Islamic lands from the Crusaders. Shobak Castle is a stiff, proud building bearing witness to the grand and unsuccessful campaign to recapture the Holy Land. It is not excavated enough to experience room by room; instead, one ventures around the perimeter walls of this vertiginous Crusader stronghold — and if one is with an eight-year-old, one strikes a sequence of noble poses and pretends to be under siege.

Our last night in Jordan, back in Amman, we were guests at a dinner party at the home of Bassouma Ghawi, a national icon for her exuberantly glamorous style of entertaining. We had mezze upstairs and then went to the basement for dinner — but what a basement! It was cozy but grand, and at one end of it was a buffet table groaning with dishes she had made herself. Several of the guests — including many “mixed” couples of different nationalities and religions — commented on what a great place Jordan is for raising a family; they described it as being like an American suburb: clean, pleasant, with little aggression or danger.

In 1948, Amman was a city of only 140,000; now it has a population of four million. The kingdom has grown through generosity: the relative social benefits conferred by the King Abdullah and the Hashemite royalty, and the international assistance that helps keep Jordan economically stable. It greets its visitors with generosity, too. It’s not a notably luxurious destination on the order of Dubai and lacks that city’s gleaming towers and mega malls, but it has an authenticity, the traces of its thousands of years of habitation, of history rather than of a modern miracle brought out of the sand. In the name of ethnic or religious purity, some societies have erased the contradictions of their history; little of the non-Islamic past remains in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria. Jordan, on the other hand, imparts a sense of continuity: there is no conflict between its ancient character and its modern one.

A plate of Jordanian mezze, Petra, Jordan. Photo: Unai Guerra. License: CCA-SA-2.0-Generic. Source: Wikimedia Commons.