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Jerash

Jordan – What does this small Middle Eastern Arab country have to offer to travelers?

An unavoidable and frequent question people close to me asked when informed of my travel plans was, Why Jordan? Everybody seemed to think that the country is essentially a desert, dull and so far away! To me, however, Jordan represented an Indiana Jones adventure like in the “The Last Crusade”!

Regardless of the season, Jordan opens up its numerous treasure chests. My must-see list included the Roman city of Jerash, Petra, the historic site, the Dead Sea, the Wadi Rum desert and Agaba, the seaside resort. 

Politically stable 

This small kingdom is surrounded by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Israel. I’ll admit, this proximity places Jordan in a politically sensitive environment that could frighten away many tourists. Nonetheless, Jordan remains to this day a peaceful country, where people seem to truly appreciate its constitutional monarchy, led by King Abdullah.

A blend of civilizations

Jordan became a country in 1946 after the breakup of European colonial empires. Being in the middle of the birthplace of three of the most important religions in the world, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, makes it one of the richest historical and cultural centres of the world.

Traces of Roman, Byzantine, Babylonian and Nabataean civilizations are still apparent with some historic figures, such as Alexander the Great and his army, who invaded the territory and ruled until the arrival of the Romans in the first century of our era. Proof of this Roman conquest can be seen at the archaeological site of Jerash.

From North to South

Complete immersion in traffic congestion and a symphony of honking might welcome you to Amman, a large city that is without much charm. However, as soon as you expand your itinerary, you will discover more relaxed, welcoming and smiling people.

The whole country can be crossed within 4 hours. Nothing is really far! To move around, the best solution is a private taxi with a driver. Those who prefer to rent their own car could do so easily, and the roads are safe and quiet outside of Amman.

With Amman as a starting point, many one-day excursions are possible, notably, to discover desert castles, such as Kerak, the largest, dating to 1142, and Ajlun, built in 1188. A visit to Qasr, owned by Arab caliphs in the 7th and 8th centuries, is also very impressive. The most remarkable are Qasr al-Mushatta, Qasr al-Kharana, Qasr Amra and Qasr el-Azraq, where Lawrence of Arabia lived.

All roads lead to Rome

One of the best-preserved Roman cities in the world is 45 km from Amman: Jerash. Discovered in 1806 by Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, this northern city shelters a formidable Greco-Roman archeological site that used to be named Gérasa. It is a perfect example of Roman urban planning: paved roads with colonnades, immense temples and gorgeous theaters. The ancient walls of the old city delimit the modern city. Compared to many Roman sites that were visited over the past years, Jerash is particularly interesting and admirably well preserved. On this site, the sun is strong, though… be prepared and take necessary precautions during the excursion.

The splendours of Petra

300 km south of Amman sits one of the most impressive sites on the planet: Petra. Between the 1st century BC until the 3rd century of our era, Petra was the most important commercial and caravan crossroad of the Middle East.

The Nabeteen people settled in the red sandstone cliffs of the desert of Petra and named it their capital. Back then, technology was quite rudimentary: picks and scissors levelled the rock to reveal true treasures. They cut out stairways, dug tunnels to bring water and created an elaborate network of dams and irrigation canals to develop agriculture and livestock on the surrounding plateau.

Many thousands of buildings were dug in the stone of the hills: temples, funeral monuments, theaters and houses. A violent earthquake, added to the growing popularity of other commercial routes, contributed to the decline of Petra. It was only rediscovered in 1812 by the Swiss explorer Burckhardt.

Since then, tourists have flowed in to admire the monumental Khazneh, often called “The Treasure.” This building is the most visited one in Jordan and was made popular thanks to the Indiana Jones movie series.

To visit Petra, you will need to walk in the Siq for more than a kilometer and a half. It is a spectacular journey, surrounded by 100-meter high coloured cliffs. Petra is accessible from sunrise to sunset: the site can only be discovered on foot and two days are necessary to really appreciate the experience.

It would be a shame to imitate the groups of tourists who walk the Siq, arrive at the Khazneh, take a photo and go right back to the Siq. Petra is much more than this building, as stunningly beautiful as it is. It is worth climbing the numerous stairways to reach the summit of the monuments. Then, travel down to the other side to meet Bedouins and their goats, who will most likely offer you a bracelet or another “traditional” object for a high price.

Some Bedouins settle down in the caves to sip tea and smoke the chichi and invite you to do the same, at your expense, of course. In olden times, the Bedouins lived in the city. 25 years ago, the king constructed a cold and bleak village for them with the purpose of seeing them adopt a sedentary lifestyle. Bedouins have complete access to Petra and can work there, offering their services as guides or selling souvenirs. Unfortunately, their comments and their insistence towards women travelers can alter the pleasure of the visit. If you politely ignore them, it shouldn’t ruin the magic and the majesty of the site.

The best moment to enjoy Petra and take the best photos is before noon or later in the afternoon, when the rays of sun illuminate and enliven the extraordinary and natural colors of the rock. However, if you really wish to have an exceptional experience, you should see Petra at night under the glow of 1,800 candles, accompanied by singers and traditional string musical instruments: one of the most powerful moments of my trip to Jordan.

The small tourist city of Wadi Musa, at the entrance of Petra, offers different types of lodging. During my stay, I particularly appreciated the warm welcome of Bilal and its employees at Hotel Sunset. The owner even arranged a private excursion with his partner, a Bedouin guide in the Wadi Rum desert. It was a very safe and professional service!

The Dead Sea: two realities

The Dead Sea is not really a sea, but it is really dead! It is, rather, a large, salty lake. It is surrounded by three countries, Israel, Jordan and Cisjordan. The water contains more than 20% salt compared to other seas, where the percentage is around 5%. This explains why it has no animal or plant life. The salt density of the water also allows swimmers to easily float on the surface, although it is very difficult to swim in it. This is what gives it the reputation as a dead sea.

Its mineral salts are a great source of benefits for the skin and body. Don’t be surprised to meet people covered with gray mud with only their eyes and mouths showing. Dare to experience it yourself… and you will end the day with baby skin. In this region, travelers usually stay in resorts or expensive all-inclusive hotels. For my part, I chose to stay with a family in the small village of Mazra`a.

This is where I met an ecological visionary, a young Jordanian in his thirties, William Alajalian. He works at a Dead Sea water desalinization plant and sensitized me to some of the environmental challenges of Jordan: lack of potable water and the dryness of agricultural fields. In 2010, he created the Dead Sea Harmony Center, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to inform the local population, as well as tourists, on the means to reduce water consumption, to recycle and to build in a sustainable way. Travelers are invited to participate in many ecological activities with the local population, such as a visit to a Wadi (a shallow canyon) in order to collect garbage left there by many generations of Jordanians. This was a beautiful way to discover the daily life of the local people.

The beauty of the Wadi Rum desert

Also known as “the Valley of the Moon”, the Wadi Rum desert is a magical and unspoiled site. Rock sculpted by water and the wind, labyrinths of rocks, cliffs and red sand dunes created by nature. Beginning trekkers wishing to explore its dunes and canyons can easily walk this desert.

Thanks to Lawrence of Arabia, we are now aware of this wonder, which is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. One of the particularities of the Wadi Rum is the Rock Bridge. Those rock arches are a natural curiosity, as popular as the Arches National Park, in Utah, USA. The Burdah rock bridge is considered one of the highest natural rock arches in the world (35 m).

To visit Wadi Rum, it is imperative to contact a local travel agency who will provide you with a qualified Bedouin guide. Travelers have the choice between a jeep excursion or a camel ride, with or without a night in a Bedouin camp.

Enjoy a traditional dinner around a campfire with the Bedouins who have been living in the desert for generations, and learn about their culture and traditions. I was intrigued by the number of birds in the sky and the Bedouins explained that at the beginning of spring, the region is an important corridor between Africa and Eastern Europe for migrating birds, mostly prey birds, such as harriers or eagles. I would never have imagined seeing so many birds in such a dry place!

Seaside resort of Agaba: an experience with a bathing suit

Aqaba is built on the border of the Red Sea, facing Israel. This resort offers sun, beaches, relaxation and diving. Fans of scuba diving or snorkelling will be thrilled! Tourists come to relax after an expedition in the Wadi Rum desert or to practice nautical sports.

Aqaba attracts many visitors from Saudi Arabia. It is not recommended to take a dip in the sea wearing your itty bitty bikini while being stared at by Saudi men in their long, immaculate tunics covered with their keffieh (large red and black cotton squares), accompanied by their spouse wearing burka (long black tunic) and niquab (veil that hides everything but the eyes). However, you have the choice to do so, but I would recommend being more discreet and decent. There is always the option to rent a bathing suit designed especially for Muslim woman, the “burkini”! It is a one-piece suit covering arms and legs and made from an elastic fabric quite similar to the one used in ordinary bathing suits.

Jordan is a country worth discovering. The destination has many attractions: varied and magnificent landscapes, fascinating well-preserved vestiges, as well as a cheerful and welcoming population. Meeting the semi-nomadic Bedouin people will also contribute to providing you with a better understanding of the country and its traditions.

An unforgettable memory is the splendour of the Wadi Rum under the stars.

A female presence

Westerners and North Americans could be uneasy when visiting an Arab country for the first time, particularly female travelers. In such countries, women are almost invisible in public places. The majority of hotels, restaurants and other tourist establishments have male employees. There is no need to wear a headscarf; it is, however, advisable to avoid short sleeves or low-necked tops. Long pants are recommended for all members of the family, as they are more respectful of local traditions.

Being welcomed in a Jordanian family in order to understand the way of life for women is relatively easy since Jordanians understand English quite well, even though the language spoken in the country is Arabic.

The climate?

Winter is rather cold with the possibility of snow, even in Petra, with the exception of the surroundings of the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, where winter is rather mild. On the other hand, summer is an oven, with the thermometer reaching heights of 50°C between June and September. Jordan is therefore more comfortable from October to May.

A well-known Bedouin proverb says, “The important thing is not to see other landscapes, but to have other eyes.”

Gabrielle Loyer

www.visitjordan.com/
www.petrasunset.com
http://deadseaharmonycenter.wordpress.com/

Amman

Ajlun Castle

Qasr el-Azraq

The Khazneh in Petra

Petra

Tea ceremony in Petra

Wadi Musa

Sunset Hotel

Bedouin guide in the Wadi Rum

Salt depot near the Death Sea

Rock Bridge in the Wadi Rum

 Camping in the Wadi Rum

Women in burkini

A chic seaside resort

 

 


                                                                                 

 

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