Jordan,  Travel

Surprising Jordan

For many years, I resisted travelling to the Middle East: too much sand, too hot, no shopping, not modern, and more recently, not safe. Even after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which famously featured Petra’s splendid Treasury facade, I was still not sufficiently moved to visit, despite having been to Greece, Italy, Egypt, and Turkey, partly out of interest in ancient history (and related ancient myths and tales).

After liberation from corporate life in 2015, I committed to visit new destinations. Inspired by close friends who visited Jordan in 2016, I thought “if not now, then when?” The main concern was safety, because Jordan’s neighbours are Syria, Iraq, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But my friends and many travel articles reassured me, so together with my good friend Eileen, we set off in late February 2017 on our first trip to Jordan.

We gave ourselves two weeks, enough time to properly do our itinerary, which included the must-see places of Petra, the Dead Sea and the Baptism Site. Then, there were other sites: the incredibly well preserved ancient Roman city of Jerash (Jordan’s 2nd tourist site); the vast and awesome Dana Nature Reserve; Mount Nebo, where Moses (or Musa) is said to be buried after leading his people to the edge of the Promised Land; and Wadi Rum, the desert stomping ground of the WW1 British military hero, TE Lawrence, who fought alongside Arab tribes against Turkish rule in 1915. Who remembers the classic movie, Lawrence of Arabia?

Jordan did not disappoint in any respect. What I came away with:

Jordan is safe to visit. It may be surrounded by conflict zones, but Jordan is sort-of the Switzerland of the Middle-East – an Arab League member that has diplomatic relations with Israel. Despite its proximity to Syria and Iraq, and its many refugees, I can categorically state that there wasn’t anything we saw that made us fear for our safety. I’m not a proxy for the national tourism board, but this fascinating country really needs tourists to return. So, take the usual precautions you would travelling to or in any country today, and give Jordan a visit. 

There’s so much more to Petra than the Treasury

We gave Petra the benefit of three days. Until I got there, I did not know just how vast it is, and how much walking and climbing one has to do. To get to the magnificent Treasury, the first main structure, we walked about 900 metres down a gentle incline through a wide valley known as the Bab el-Siq to arrive at the entrance to The Siq, a canyon formed by natural disasters centuries ago. This is the only visitor access to the City of Petra proper. It’s a further one-kilometer downhill trek going in, which means it’s uphill on the return trip! There is the option of horse carriages, but where’s the fun in that? Walking through The Siq is a prelude of what’s to come.

The Nabataeans, who built the settlement between the 3rd Century BC and 1st Century AD, had an appetite for carving structures into the sandstone. Evidence of their architecture surrounds you in The Siq, and it was clear theirs was a very high culture.

After finally confronting the Treasury, we continued “round the corner” to the city centre, where there is an amphitheatre, the royal tombs, and other architectural relics of the Nabataean (and later) civilisations. I could just imagine how lavish these buildings were back in the day. An unexpected bonus was seeing what nature had done to the sandstone over the centuries, creating dramatic palettes of earthy colour.

Petra: don’t miss the Monastery. What I found even more impressive, though, was the Monastery. Its façade is similar to that of the Treasury, but the Monastery is so much taller. Getting there will forever be etched in our memories, muscles and bones, for we had to climb some 850 natural steps to reach it. And that means 850 steps back down! For perspective, there are about 270 steps at Batu Caves in Malaysia. I highly recommend making the effort, but be aware that it’s a 5.5-kilometre hike to the foot of these steps from the entrance to Petra. That said, there are many architectural relics and other sites to see along the way, enough time to mentally prepare for the climb! The reward is worth it – truly breath-taking. There are tea and fresh juice vendors at the site so you can replenish your energy and get ready for the trek down. And there’s WiFi, so you can upload your photos straight to Facebook! I should add that the views on the ascent and descent are spectacular.

Petra: great for getting high. Another must-see in Petra is the High Place of Sacrifice, which is 1,000+ metres up Jebel Attuf mountain. More steps, on a “stairway” narrower than the one to the Monastery, so basically, “don’t look down”! Animals were sacrificed to the Nabataean deities. There is speculation about human sacrifices, but no one’s saying anything.

On the way down, we were lucky when one of the many Bedouin trinket vendors offered to take us back to the main entrance walking the Bedouin path, bypassing The Siq. We’d already made three round-trips through The Siq, so we were thankful for a change of scenery. And did we get one! The walk over hill and dale was magical – the views, rock formations, the fresh air, the absence of donkeys and other humans – and our impromptu guide introduced many herbs and plants they use for healing and cooking plucked straight from the ground. An unforgettable respite from the madding crowd.

Wadi Rum really is otherworldly beautiful

There are deserts, and then there are deserts. The desert of TE Lawrence defies description, but I offer Eileen’s poetic effort: “silky red and white sand bordered by craggy cliffs that boil out of the surface, bearing the scars s of centuries of wind and sand.”  This is the place where you can enjoy as authentic a Bedouin experience as you can get in this day and age.  Wadi Rum has also served as the terrain for Mars and other planets in recent movies, among them Red Planet, Prometheus, The Martian, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

We had a two-hour drive into the desert, which was once an important trade route, evidenced by Nabataean inscriptions on the rocks that were directional signs for camel caravans traversing the vast place. Our drive culminated in watching the sun set over the desert, after which the temperature plunged rapidly.

As for our Bedouin experience, while we avoided the camels, we did stay in a tent and sit outside in the freezing night air looking at a clear and starry sky. Yes, the desert is very cold at night, no matter the season. It felt like 5°C or lower. Our tent had no heating but did have electric blankets, and hot water was available only between 17:00 and 21:00 hours. Our camp was only six months old, mostly powered by solar energy and only open to foreigners.

To get a fuller and richer Wadi Rum experience, at least two days are needed, depending if you opt for the camel, horseback or jeep experience.

The Dana Nature Reserve is a hidden wonder

Jordan’s largest nature reserve covers about 320 square kilometres of mountains and valleys along the Great Rift Valley. It’s been described as a “melting pot of species” from three continents – Africa, Asia and Europe – ensuring rich biodiversity. It’s said to be the only nature reserve in Jordan that includes all four of the country’s bio-geographical zones. We hiked only a fraction of the Reserve, but we could see the difference in the eco-systems on our trails.

We stayed at the 150-year old Dana Village itself, a once-thriving community undergoing revitalisation under the auspices of an NGO, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, with support from the United Nations. The RSCN was established in 1966 to protect and manage Jordan’s natural resources and biodiversity, and aims to make Dana Nature Reserve a model of integrated conservation and socio-economic development. 

Whether you’re a seasoned hiker, environmentalist, nature photographer, or just someone who enjoys the outdoors and fresh air, Dana Nature Reserve has something for you. We met small groups from France, Germany, and Singapore who opted to stay one night at Dana Village, then hike across the valley (at least six hours) and stay at the ecolodge at the other end. We stayed three nights in Dana Village, once again enjoying the comfortable temperatures in the day for hiking, and enduring the very cold temperatures after sunset.

Our accommodation was pretty basic, but hot water was available 24 hours. Heating came in the form of a medium-size gas heater, which was not really effective, but added to the rustic experience!

We hiked the “easy” trails. On hindsight, we should have started earlier, around 8:00 am, because by 10:30 am, the sun was blazing. Nevertheless, the hikes, fresh air and scenery were invigorating. Dana Village lies at an altitude of about 1,000 km, so basically you’re descending on the trail, which means climbing back up after!

The Great Rift Valley is stunning. It stretches as far as the eye can see, shrouded in mist at the other end. Jordan has many nature reserves, each with its own unique nature adventure experience. Just look up

What of the rest of the Levant?

Jordan’s heritage and historical sites, from Petra in the south to Jerash (a full Roman settlement) in the north and everything in between, are mostly still intact, thanks to the many who are working to excavate and preserve as much of the history as they can find. It made me think of neighbours Syria and Iraq, whose historical ruins must now be even more ruined. Sites that pre-date organised religion, yet other sites that are significant to the three monotheistic religions, possibly gone forever.

Jordan is well worth a visit – and Jordanians would welcome you! Amman (ancient name Philadelphia) is the commercial and administrative capital, and has the trappings you’d expect in other cities, as in trendy streets with hipster restaurants, and souqs (markets or bazaars).  The food – falafel, hummus, tabbouleh, babaghanoush, shish, mansaf, sharwerma; Arab bread, Jordanian bread, Lebanese bread, Syrian bread; spiced black tea or coffee with cardamom; fresh olives, pomegranates, persimmons, oranges, dates; seeds and nuts spiced and roasted or smoked; sweet patisseries that make your arteries crack just looking at them. Cheese featured quite a lot in many savoury and sweet dishes, which surprised me.

There is a lot to see and experience in Jordan, if you’re willing to put in some hard yards, I found its ancient history fascinating, its culture intriguing, and its natural resources bountiful and surprising.