For a country sandwiched between some of the world’s most volatile political environments, Jordan is a comparatively tranquil oasis of calm, with surprisingly western ideals. While Syria tears itself apart in the north, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rumbles on to the west, Jordan is one of western governments’ strongest allies in the Middle East.
Jordan continues to be an attractive tourist destination for many western travellers, particularly those seeking an insight into a rich and diverse region alongside some desirable home comforts. Though a Sunni-Islamic country, Jordan’s attitude toward certain vices, such as alcohol, is a far cry from countries like neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
The country has invested heavily in tourism, with luxury hotels, spas, and resorts being built to meet an increase in demand. They have also recently rebuilt Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport to cater for nine million passengers each year, while the southern coastal city of Aqaba has been designated a special economic zone to attract businesses from around the world.
However, a consequence of the political instability of the region, most notably the situation to the north of Jordan in Syria, is a sharp decline in tourism. While official figures may highlight resilience to the political concerns of Jordan’s neighbours, anecdotal evidence points at far fewer tourists than usual visiting the country.
Jordan’s capital lies to the north-west of the country, a hilly enclave that houses almost three million people. The largest city in the country, it is notable for being one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, and is the base of Jordan’s government and major industries. Due to considerable immigration, from both Syria and Libya, Amman is expected to have a population of as much as 6.5 million by 2025. Amman’s status as the leading Arab city for economic growth (outside of the Gulf) is expected to see a surge of investment in the capital from major corporations in the coming years.
In light of the political crisis in Libya during the last two years, many hotels in Amman have been swamped with Libyan citizens for months on end as they sought medical help. The Libyan government promised to pay for the accommodation costs, as well as the hospital bills, yet many hotels were forced to close after failing to receive any money. This setback for the industry is worrying, especially as traditional tourists, seeing the high-profile instability across the border in Syria, are increasingly wary of visiting.
Although many of Jordan’s big cultural destinations are outside the capital, numerous stunning examples of the region’s rich history can be found across Amman. The al-Balad (or downtown) part of the city, which sprawls out from where the old souk was, is where many of the main attractions lie. These include the Citadel Hill, known as Jabal al-Qal’a, which houses the Temple of Hercules that the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius built in the second century AD. There is also the Roman forum and nearby amphitheatre, which can seat 6,000 spectators and is still used for cultural events to this day.
The city’s cuisine is notable, with dishes imported from many of Jordan’s neighbouring countries. Fresh vegetables from Lebanon and the Mediterranean are popular, as are spicy kebabs from Iraq and Egypt. The national dish Mansay – lamb cooked in a fermented dried yoghurt sauce and served with almonds on a bed of yellow rice – is particularly popular in many restaurants in Amman. Although the capital sports many high-rise buildings and large corporations, the recent global economic downturn has caused many large-scale construction projects to be halted through lack of funding.
Floating in the Dead Sea
A mere 40-minute drive south from Amman is the Dead Sea, where many tourists congregate to float in the salt lake that sits between Jordan and Israel. Over the years, luxury hotels have cropped up along the shoreline, including well-known names like Marriott and Mövenpick, each competing to offer a range of spa and dining facilities. Another of the area’s distinctive attractions is the supposed health benefits derived from swimming in the salt and mineral-rich water, with claims that it helps conditions such as psoriasis, cystic fibrosis, rhinosinusitis and osteoarthritis. Visitors can also experience the mud treatments that many beauty-conscious tourists seem to think will transform their looks.
The country’s largest nature reserve, the Dana Biosphere Reserve, was founded in 1989 and stretches across 308sq km of south-central Jordan. The area has a diverse geology, from its rocky mountains to the sandy desert of Wadi Araba.
Further south from Petra is the intoxicating Wadi Rum, or Valley of the Moon
Although there are some hotels littered along the outskirts of the reserve, a particularly popular and alternative form of accommodation is the Wadi Feynan Ecolodge. Found at the end of a long, rugged track, it is at the heart of the reserve and offers visitors a candlelit contrast to the usual hotel experience. Powered by solar panels, the 26-room lodge acts as a perfect base for treks through the mountainous reserve, as well as offering a secluded location from which to enjoy the wildlife, views and traditional Bedouin food.
Founded in 2005 by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, the lodge is focused on promoting conservation with socio-economic development. It employs local Bedouin, and has built a school for their children. Nearby is another beautiful nature reserve, 90km south of Jordan. Hidden just off the side of the King’s Highway, the Wadi Mujib reserve is the lowest lying in the entire world, and boasts a gorge that offers an unlikely water source in such a dry and hot country.
Probably the most stunning historical site in the entire country, Petra was only discovered in 1812 by western explorers, having lain hidden and in decline for centuries. Founded by the Nabataean civilisation and occupied as their capital city as early as 312 BC, Petra was a key strategic trade route for the region. Hidden by vast rocks, it was a formidable fortress that filtered trade between Gaza in the west, Aqaba in the South, and Damascus to the north, all the way to the Persian Gulf.
The architecture of the city developed from a collection of relatively primitive caves in the mountain face, to lavish and detailed tombs, with elaborate facades inspired by Roman temples and classical Greek architecture. By 106 AD, the city had become part of the Roman Empire, leading to a large expansion of the city as a trading outpost. This included the Petra Roman Road and huge Roman temple, unfortunately decimated by an earthquake in 363 AD. As the Romans refocused their trade on sea-based routes, Petra fell into decline for many centuries. Only really inhabited by nomadic Bedouin, the site lay relatively dormant until Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt discovered it years later.
In order to enter Petra, visitors must traverse a narrow canyon for a tense 20 minutes before a crack in the mountain reveals the first signs of the city’s breathtaking Nabataean architecture, that of the red-sandstoned Al Khazneh treasury. Describing his discovery of the site, Burckhardt said: “At the distance of a two long day’s journey north-east from Akaba, is a rivulet and valley in the Djebel Shera, on the east side of the Araba, called Wady Mousa. This place is very interesting for its antiquities and the remains of an ancient city, which I conjecture to be Petra, the capital of Arabia Petraea, a place which, as far as I know, no European traveller has ever visited. In the red sandstone of which the valley is composed, are upwards of 250 sepulchres entirely cut out of the rock, the greater part of them with Grecian ornaments.
“There is a mausoleum in the shape of a temple, of colossal dimensions, likewise cut out of the rock, with all its apartments, its vestibule, peristyle etc. It is a most beautiful specimen of Grecian architecture, and in perfect preservation. There are other mausoleums with obelisks, apparently in the Egyptian style, a whole amphitheatre cut out of the rock with the remains of a palace and of several temples. Upon the summit of the mountain which closes the narrow valley on its western side, is the tomb of Haroun [Aaron]. It is held in great veneration by the Arabs.”
Petra is now regarded as a World Heritage Site, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and as one of Smithsonian Magazine’s ‘28 places to see before you die’. In recent years it has also become a popular destination for filmmakers, notably used in big-budget Hollywood films Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Transformers, bringing it to the attention of a younger, western generation.
Further south from Petra is the spectacular Wadi Rum, or Valley of the Moon. This sandstone and granite formation of valleys and desert is home to ancient Nabataean archaeological sites, as well as the base from which famed British Army Officer TE Lawrence centred his operations during the Arab Revolt of 1917. Lawrence spent a great deal of time in Wadi Rum, living with Bedouin tribes and becoming increasingly attached to the culture and way of life. Visitors can see the vast landscape, which hosted a number of battles he commanded, as well as the cave and small house where he lived and planned his operations.
Settled as far back as 8,000 BC, Wadi Rum is now home to the Zalabia Bedouin tribe. Visitors from across the world come to climb and trek through the arid landscape, spending the night in traditional Bedouin camps under the spectacularly clear night skies.
Conditions in Wadi Rum can be extreme – recent flash floods scattered the desert with hints of greenery – but the usual temperatures soar above 40 degrees centigrade during the summer months, plunging to a near-freezing climate at night. Travellers are advised to visit during spring or autumn, when temperatures are less extreme, although the danger of heavy sandstorms is a problem all year round.
The destination remains popular with visitors wanting to experience traditional Bedouin culture, but it appears unlikely that the traditions can be sustained for much longer. As the government has permanently housed the previously ever-moving Bedouin, many of the younger generations growing up now in and around Wadi Rum no longer have, or are interested in, the traditional skills their ancestors were known for.
Ways of the west
Jordan is rich with locations for adventure-seeking travellers, but it’s also a perfect destination for a traditional beach holiday. Just to the west of Wadi Rum is the coastal city of Aqaba. This special economic zone has grown to attract many businesses, but is primarily known for its beaches and diving resorts.
Covered with luxury hotels, European restaurants and nightlife, Aqaba offers many of the draws of traditional western sea-front cities. While it may attract many tourists, the city planners have over-estimated the demand for properties. The shoreline is scattered with half-built luxury homes, some sitting unfinished for as many as five years thanks to a lack of funding and interest from investors. A country with this range of destinations and activities is unique in the Middle East. Yet the country is steeped in religion too, housing some of the most iconic religious sites in the world — important to both Christianity and Islam.
While the region as a whole is embroiled in political disputes, Jordan is one of the West’s strongest, and oldest, allies. It is a fascinating revelation for those curious about a part of the world continuously in the news for adverse reasons.