Jordan may be small, but the country’s surreal landscapes and rich history make for an epic holiday. By Meraj Shah
‘Beware the ides of March’.
In The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare famously wrote about a real-life soothsayer who tried to warn the Roman emperor of imminent danger. On March 15, 44 BC, on the steps of a Roman amphitheatre, a group of mutinous senators assassinated Julius Caesar. Nearly 2,000 years later, almost to the day, as I marvelled at the grandeur of Gerasa, an ancient Roman city in Jordan, that old prophecy came back to haunt the world in a far more virulent manner. I had been in Jordan for a week when the novel coronavirus’s shadow began looming over countries in the Gulf and Africa. I’d been guilty of ignoring travel advisories when I’d landed in Amman a few days back. A 10-year-old’s imagination had been fired up by David Lean’s epic, Lawrence of Arabia, and I’d wanted to visit Jordan ever since.
In Amman, skyscrapers share the skyline with ancient Roman citadels. The capital city of Jordan exemplifies the country’s fascinating blend of the modern and the historic. It is the latter that interests me; for a taste of that, as well as a slice of local life, all roads lead to Downtown. Chalky, box-like homes blanket the hillside in the city’s older, more traditional eastern quarter. Fridays are weekly holidays in Jordan, and Downtown is swelling and ebbing when I visit. Milling families shopping at souks together, street-food vendors busily handing out shawarmas, and buskers perched on street corners singing lilting Arabic melodies that rise above the hubbub. Things to buy here, if you are so inclined, are spices: there’s sumac, which you’ll find sprinkled on hummus; and za’atar, which is a blend of sumac, thyme, roasted sesame seeds, marjoram, and oregano that makes simple pita bread taste like a delicacy. In Jordan, the ubiquitous shawarma is nothing like anything I’ve ever had. This Middle-Eastern street staple has been honed to an art form here.
Jordanians are friendly and curious; one group takes pity on me waiting in a serpentine line to get a plate of knafeh—Jordan’s favourite dessert—and I’m duly moved up to the counter. After a quick introduction, I’m invited to a concert at Rainbow Street, which is a popular hangout spot among locals and tourists alike. There’s going to be live music, and apparently, the coffee is to die for. I’m reluctant because the next day I plan to head to the Dead Sea at the crack of dawn, but when you’ve got just one night in Amman then it seems silly to be smart about it.
The story goes: Cleopatra got her lover, Roman emperor Mark Anthony, to invade the region just so she could have her dose of the Dead Sea’s famous black mud. The lowest terrestrial point on Earth has continued to be one of the world’s favourite getaways for rejuvenation and beauty therapy. Still jet-lagged from my 20-hour journey from India to Jordan, I’m only too happy to fall into this hypersaline lake’s buoyant embrace. My reverie is broken by a concerned beach marshal who suggests I stop splashing about. “The salty water can blind you if it enters your eyes,” he says admonishingly. It might be a dream cocktail for spa enthusiasts, but apparently, the water can even choke a person who happens to swallow a fair bit. You’d better be dead serious in the Dead Sea.
A ‘rose-red city half as old as time,’ wrote John Burgon, a 19th-century poet fantasising about the ancient city of Petra in modern-day Jordan. Unbelievably, Burgon never visited Petra, but the 2,000-year-old settlement in the desert occupied his imagination, as it has for writers, adventurers, and explorers through the ages. Entry to the ancient city of Petra is via Wadi Musa, a spectacular valley with sheer barren mountains within which lies a town by the same name that literally translates to the ‘Valley of Moses’. As soon as I hit the walkway to Petra, a number of caves and tombs come into view. These were built by the Nabateans, an Arabian nomadic community from the Negev Desert. The Nabateans lived between the fourth century BC and 106 AD and became wealthy through frankincense trading.
The natural gorge that winds through a fissure in the sandstone mountains at Petra pretty much nails a visual dramatisation of the phrase, The Holy Grail. Called the Siq, this gorge was shown, literally, as the holy grail in the Harrison Ford classic, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The Siq has water channels, stone carvings, camel caravans, and betyls (god blocks) set in niches. But these elaborate carvings are merely a prelude to one’s arrival into the heart of Petra, where the Treasury (or Khazneh), a monumental tomb, waits to impress even the most jaded visitors. Now, a chalice with the promise of eternal life is hard to beat, but visitors walking through the Siq are greeted with a dramatic reveal of Petra’s most magnificent edifice. Carved into the rock-face in the first century BC, the Treasury is superlatively monumental. From the Treasury, the ‘street of facades’ leads to a large open area. On one corner lies the Great Theatre, which has obvious Roman influences in its architecture, and on the other side lies the impressive urn tomb. The Monastery, one of the largest structures in Petra, was actually a large dining hall. Petra was a Hellenistic city with over 800 structures that housed over 20,000 inhabitants. Forget about seeing it all in a day, it would be near impossible to do so in a week. Petra is expensive, and the difference between a day pass and anything longer is nominal. Opt for the latter.
Jordan’s religious and cultural pluralism is reflective of its long historical significance in different faiths. The life and times of one figure, in particular, stand out. Moses, or Musa ibn Imran, spans the faiths of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and is believed to have died and been buried at Mount Nebo. According to the Bible, Jesus of Nazareth was baptised by John the Baptist in River Jordan. The baptism site is considered one of the most important sites in Christianity. Given that fact, it’s no small surprise that Madaba, a small town an hour’s drive from Amman, is in fact considered Jordan’s most important Christian site. I’m on my way to Mount Nebo via Madaba when the heavens open up. Jordan’s weather takes a leaf from the dramatic landscape. It turns chilly and hot within the same day, and golden sunshine gets washed out by pouring rain in a matter of minutes, or kilometres if you’re on the road.
Madaba’s relevance lies inside the Byzantine-era church of St George, specifically on its floor: a map made from mosaic tiles that were discovered in the late 19th century. The map lists out 157 major Biblical sites including areas north of River Jordan and the Dead Sea. Two-thirds of this sixth-century mosaic was destroyed by an earthquake in 746 AD, but the ancient cities of Jericho, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem can be clearly seen.
The gods smile by the time I make my way to Mount Nebo. The heavens clear up, and I’m a witness to what looks like a mythological scene. According to varied religious texts, Moses and his followers reached Mount Nebo where they had their first glimpse of the promised land. The Jordan Valley stretches out in front of me with a hint of the Dead Sea revealing itself to the west, Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank in the distance. As we drive north, the topography changes and we make our way into the desert that makes up almost two-thirds of Jordan. The North Arab Desert stretches into Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, but is at its most spectacular in Wadi Rum that literally translates to ‘Valley of the Moon’. Wadi Rum lies in the far south of Jordan, and east of the Rift Valley. It’s a protected region stretching across an area almost as large as New York City. What differentiates Wadi Rum are its spectacular sandstone arches, towering cliffs, and natural gorges: all coming together to create a spectacular landscape. It was here that T E Lawrence—a young English military intelligence officer—convinced a ragtag army of Bedouins to traverse the valley and attack the Ottoman stronghold of Aqaba in the early 20th century. Wadi Rum had never been crossed by camels before, not even by the Bedouins. The rest, as they say, is history.
The ‘desert safari’ is standard tourist fare in Wadi Rum today, and is well worth the time—I spend almost an entire day being ferried about in an SUV to different corners. The petroglyphs carved in prehistoric times are especially spectacular, with the arid weather having preserved every line etched on the rocks. For me, a side trip to etching of Lawrence’s face carved into a rock face by the Arabs, to formalise his inclusion into their ranks, is accommodated on special request. “Not too many people remember that film,” muses my guide. But everyone remembers Matt Damon’s The Martian, and you’ll find a queue of selfie-seekers waiting to park themselves on a rock that Damon’s character sat on while pondering his fate after being marooned. Great as that film is, it can’t hold a candle to Lawrence’s real-world exploits. As astonishing as Wadi Rum is, that feat of human endeavour is what this desert will always be remembered for.
The Martian has contributed to a slew of otherworldly campsites that now dot this landscape. I’m staying at one, and it does look like a colony on another planet. Repasts, though, are traditional Bedouin affairs. For dinner, the chef prepares a Zarb, a subterranean barbeque that’s been simmering for over three hours. Back in the day, the nomadic Bedouins needed to cook with minimum equipment and burying meats in an oven with hot coals was the norm.
The valley is also a fantastic setting for stargazing. The expansive night sky mirrors the sweeping firmament of Wadi Rum that has remained largely unchanged through the millennia. To Jordan’s credit, there are no massive concrete resorts, no touristy shops selling trinkets here. Wadi Rum is still much bigger than the men who inhabit it. The next day begins with a long drive to the city that Lawrence attacked. Jordan’s favourite holiday destination, Aqaba is all about sun-kissed loveliness, and you can see Israel and Egypt clearly, lying across the water on the other side of the Gulf of Aqaba. Aqaba’s striking cocktail of Middle-Eastern culture and laid-back beach holiday vibe is refreshing. The beaches are lined with resorts, and day-visitors can pay a daily fee to use the facilities. Home to some of the most pristine coral reefs in the world, the Red Sea is a Valhalla for diving and snorkelling. If you’re looking for the holiday vibe, head straight to Aqaba, which also has the country’s only other international airport. I drop off the rental car and take a flight back to Amman.
Just about an hour’s drive out of Amman lies the city of Jerash, which takes its name from the ruins of an ancient city that lies within it: Gerasa. For centuries, Gerasa thrived by leveraging its location on the King’s Highway—an ancient trading route in the Levant. One of the easternmost outposts of the Roman Empire, Jerash was the most impressive of the Decapolis, the 10 semi-autonomous city-states under the Empire. Historical accounts describe it as a monumental city. Not hard to imagine given how astonishing it still is. Two massive temples, one dedicated to Zeus and the other to Artemis, occupy the vantage points looking down at an oval plaza that leads to a colonnade, amphitheatres, and residences.
The Temple of Artemis was one of the few structures to survive the earthquake that destroyed the city in AD 749. It was converted into a fortress by soldiers from Damascus in 1120 AD. The very next year, Baldwin II, the King of Jerusalem, conquered and destroyed the temple. The ruins have survived natural catastrophes, wars, fires, and destruction wrought by men. Unlike all the great empires and kings who created, ruled over, and tried to destroy Gerasa, the city has endured, cocking a snook at human frailty.
It’s a sobering thought, especially in the context of the global catastrophe that has engulfed the world this year. It was on the steps of a Roman amphitheatre in Gerasa that I got a call from the Indian embassy. I was to be repatriated to India the very next day unless I wanted to risk getting marooned in Jordan. On the return flight, I thought about what we’re doing to the planet and how much that’s responsible for the pandemic. Today, it’s clear to everyone that the damage our race has inflicted on the environment will reverse itself in our absence. All we’ll leave are cities like Gerasa—striking reminders of humanity’s astonishing capabilities and monumental follies.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
There are no direct flights to Jordan from India, but there’s no paucity of airlines, from Air Arabia to Emirates and Qatar Airways, to consider when planning your trip. Possible stopovers include Abu Dhabi, Doha, Bahrain, and Sharjah. In Jordan, hiring a car is the best way to get around as long as you’re comfortable driving on the right side of the road.
Tourism is the biggest single contributor to Jordan’s economy, and the country is packed with hotels, B&Bs, and resorts. The Amman Marriott Hotel (from INR 8,930), where I stayed, is exactly as comfortable and generic as you would expect it to be. Hayat Zaman Hotel & Resort near Petra is a wonderful recreation of a mediaeval settlement. Aqaba’s coastline is awash with sprawling resorts boasting private beaches like Mövenpick Resort & Spa Tala Bay Aqaba (from INR 11,300), while the Dead Sea has some of the world’s most highly rated wellness resorts–Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea (from INR 13,497) is situated on the edge of the salt lake, houses the biggest luxury spa in the region that employs Dead Sea minerals in its treatments. Wadi Rum’s experience isn’t complete unless you stay at a Martian-style campsite. For instance, Wadi Rum UFO (from INR 14,430) lives up to its name with pods that look extraterrestrial.
Jordan has officially opened up for visitors on September 8. Entry requirements vary from country to country; check visitjordan.gov.jo for the latest updates. The country’s popularity as a global destination has also spawned a number of scams to swindle tourists. At gas stations, make sure that the gas doesn’t stop being dispensed while the meter keeps running. Most souvenir shops are overpriced, and bargaining is considered acceptable. There have also been a number of cases of handsome Bedouins charming women and looting them. Best to keep your heart and wallet locked away.