Tuesday, March 21, 2017

10 reasons to visit Jordan this year

When I decided to visit Jordan in January this year I was surprised by how many of my friends and family reacted with "is it safe?" or "aren't you scared?". Truth is I was uncertain, but not scared and absolutely determined.

The war in Syria, the increasing risk in Turkey and the destruction of ancient works of art like the Assyrian statues and the Temple of Bel at Palmyra break my heart at many levels. Art is mankind's highest achievement and I refuse to be intimidated into not experiencing as much of it as I can, especially in the Near East which is the cultural cradle of our species. I have had Jerash in my sights for many years now and when I had the opportunity to go back to Israel and into Gaza this January (my blog post on that trip is here) I decided to put 5 days in Jordan on the front end and see Jerash with my own eyes.

Everything about Jordan was marvelous. Everything. I encourage you to go and see for yourself.

Here's why:

1. It’s safe
I never once felt unsafe in Jordan. From arriving at the very modern Queen Alia airport, to walking through the souk right after a Friday demonstration at the mosque and surrounded by Jordanian men dressed in black - who were buying fruit and vegetables to take home for dinner - to driving the length of the country I felt safe, and welcomed the whole time. As my guide Raud said to me... the CIA listens in on all the cell phones and 90% of what they hear is "don't forget to pick up yoghurt on your way home".

Yes, the hotels take security precautions that are very similar to those in India (looking in the trunk, mirrors under the car) and there is a noticeable police presence, but this is a country where the British still have a strong presence, the army is trained by officers from Sandhurst, and anyone you interact with as a tourist speaks good English. While Jordan did have a terror attack last year at Kerak it is not as dangerous as the United States and you are more likely to die in your bathtub than from a terrorist attack.

2. Petra 
Probably the most famous tourist site in Jordan, Petra, like Wadi Rum, has to be seen to be believed. It was developed by the Nabataeans 2,000 years ago, but then also developed by the Romans and Byzantines. Along with a Roman theatre carved out of red rock, Petra is famous for the huge tomb facades cut out of rock. You may know the Treasury, featured in the Indiana Jones movie, but this is just one of many. The biggest facade, cut into a mountain, is the Monastery which is a 2,000 ft climb above the valley floor and next to it are panoramic views into the Jordanian desert. It's fascinating and stunning at the same time.

You walk into Petra down through the siq, a natural break in the rock with cliffs towering above you on the either side of the narrow passage. Everything can be walked easily, but at the end of a long day it is great fun to ride donkeys up and out of the valley. Mine was called Michael Jackson. I think he was named for tourists like me, but he was an easy ride.

Until recently 3,000 people visited Petra every day. Now it is down to 300 because tourists are afraid, although there is nothing to be afraid of there. So if you go into the park early, as the sun is rising, you can walk down the siq alone and soak in the beauty of the Treasury almost alone (except for a few camels). Magical.

3. The ethereal beauty of Wadi Rum 
Wadi Rum is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. Orange sands, pink and brown and ochre rock formations, continuously changing light and sky, mountains that come close and then move away as the sun sinks and billions of stars. I sat and stared in the light and in the dark for hours, fascinated and moved by the incredible beauty. To get a taste watch Lawrence of Arabia or Theeb, both filmed in the Wadi Rum desert, or even the Martian. But even these beautiful films can't prepare you for the huge, humbling beauty of the desert.

For the adventurous, riding a camel is an experience. Not very comfortable if you are new at it - I need more practice to get confident enough to cross my legs rather than ride astride!

3 dinar per day to rent a snowboard for the sandunes

4. Wandering lamb 
Jordan is not a place to go on a diet. Because the sheep/goat/lamb you are offered has been part of a wandering herd and has not always had a secure food supply its meat is higher in fat and so quite simply delicious. Roast lamb shank with salted yoghurt, lamb skewers, lamb meatballs ... with meze of all types and the best olives in my life. Northern Jordan is rich farming country so they grow all their own vegetables, tons of citrus and so many tomatoes they export them to the region. I have no photos of the lamb... I think I must have been distracted by the delicious smell every time!

My first evening at the Four Seasons, in the Jordanian restaurant, the waiter figured out I was a woman traveling alone. From then on the chef kept sending me his specialities so that I should feel welcome and experience the best of Jordanian cuisine. Enjoying the explosion of flavors along with some great red Jordanian wine I could not have felt more welcomed.

5. The Romans were there 
The Greeks and Romans developed great cities in the Levant to support the trade routes, and Jerash was one of the decapolis - the 10 great cities (or maybe more) that were in a cooperative league. It stood until the great earthquake of 749AD and much of it remained buried until the 19th century, but now it is an extensive excavated site of a wealthy Greco-Roman city. It has magnificent gates, and theaters, and fountains, and Greek temples, and floors from Byzantine churches. It was on a major pilgrim route and so was developed by the Christians long after the western Romans had gone.

I had a guide here, and walked the entire site. He said I was the first client he had that wanted to see everything! He fell asleep in the car later that day, much to the amusement of my driver.

6. Layers of history from the Greeks to Islam
In the center of Amman you can visit the Citadel - the administrative heart of the city - above a huge Roman theatre. Originally developed in 1500 BC it was conquered by the Greeks in 300BC and named Philadelphia, occupied by the Romans, and then became Muslim in 661AD. It's a fascinating site with many layers of different histories, although very run down with not much left standing. But it's interesting to see the successive rulers and to see it was governed by 6 successive dynasties of Muslim rulers. The archeological museum has the oldest known statues of a man and woman thought to have been made about 7000 BC.

7. Moses and his view of Israel 
If you remember your Bible you'll known Moses was shown the Holy Land from Mount Nebo, and then died somewhere in Moab. The site where Moses is believed to have been on Mount Nebo is now a major Christian visitor site. It is set up for thousands of visitors, although there were maybe 10 of us there, and while there is a new church on the site, beautifully integrated above the floor of a Byzantine church, the real draw is the view of Israel and the Dead Sea. The oldest map of the Holy Land is nearby - a large floor mosaic in the church at Madaba.

Jordan and Israel are small, and close, and they have only been separate for less then 100 years. Standing on the mountain top looking across the beautiful landscape I was struck again by how close and intertwined their histories are.

8. Castles for and against the Crusaders
The Crusader era castles in Jordan are just as dramatic and romantic as you can imagine. The largest is at Kerak and was built by the Franks (the Europeans who, lead by the Papacy, tried to take and hold the Holy Land for 300 years) but I could not get to Kerak on this trip and so I went instead to a deeply atmospheric castle built by a nephew of Saladin. It was built on the top of a hill in the 12th century on the site of an earlier Christian monastery and named after one of the monks, Ajlun. It is a magnificent example of classic 12th century castle building, not unlike castles I have visited in England and France. Winding corridors, wind and rain swept battlements with panoramic views into Israel, and a few more people this time, although all Arab. The only place I ever saw other European or American tourists on my whole trip was Petra.

9. Castles for caravans 
Well off the beaten tourist track. I visited the Umayyad desert castles of Qasr Amra and Qasr Kharana about a 1 hour drive into the desert East of Amman. These are not "castles" as we think of them, but caravansary or palaces  - safe places for traders to stay the night on the spice routes. They are isolated, and very lovely, but what is particularly fabulous about Qasr Amra is that what is left standing is the bathhouse and the inside is covered in frescoes. This was built around 710AD, by Islamic caliphates, but the frescoes are not only rich, beautiful and evocative of a time when the area was lush with water, they also have human representation - something which is now forbidden in Islam. The paintings reminded me of both Persian and Christian styles of the times and they are quite simply gorgeous for their time.

10. Warmth of spirit 
Everyone I spoke with was warm, welcoming and glad I was there. From my driver Mohammed - who insisted on stopping at his favorite bakery to share his favorite bread - to my guide Raud who bought me oranges from a farmer on the roadside - I could not have felt more at ease. True I did not speak with any women (it is a male dominated culture) but I was never made to feel less than for being a woman.

The travel concierge team at Indagare.com supported me on this trip. I had a driver between locations and a guide at the major sites - everything was very smooth. Here is my itinerary in case you'd like to plan your own trip:
Day 1: Landed in the evening in Amman, stayed at the Four Seasons (very reasonable these days) 
Day 2: Umayyad castles, citadel of Amman, shopping in the souk and in Amman
Day 3: Jerash, Ajloun Castle 
Day 4: Madaba mosaic, Mount Nebo, on to Petra, stayed at the Hotel Movenpick at the entrance
Day 5: Petra, on to Wadi Rum, stayed at the Discovery Bedu Camp 
Day 6: Wadi Rum, on to Aqaba, walked across the border to Israel

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