AT a coffee house, on a desert road, an ancient trade route where caravans once carried spices and silks from distant lands to Petra, I smoked my first hookah.
Forty three years after quitting smoking, the tobacco had a whiff of forbidden fruit as it glowed in its tiny metal dish on the elegant glass bowl that gives the ‘waterpipe’ an aura of mystique. With characteristic Bedouin hospitality, the host produced a fresh mouthpiece and showed me how to keep the pipe alight. A moment to savour.
Refugees were fleeing across the border from neighbouring Syria that morning so the Arab Spring was the main topic of conversation among Jordanians sipping tiny cups of strong black coffee and refreshing mint tea. Recalling the intonations of Munster Irish, desert tribesmen spoke in soft murmurings, striking figures in traditional headgear, the keffiyeh, a symbol of manhood and protection against the ever shifting sands.
Despite the turmoil of surrounding States, Jordan is an oasis of calm. Along the roadside, in a world of their own, shepherds tend goats, donkeys, camels and flocks of sheep in the intense heat of a parched and endless desert. Because the Arab Spring has caused tourist numbers to plummet by 60%, visitors have never been more welcome in a country famous for its hospitality.
To see the Hashemite Kingdom is to make a journey through time. And nowhere is the feeling of walking through the pages of history more real than the descent into Petra. On the dusty downward path into the valleys below, you walk in the footsteps of the Arab Nabataeans who established their capital at Petra 100 years before Christ. Brilliant architects, engineers and designers, they created a city of over 2,000 tombs and temples in the mountains overlooking the valley of the river Jordan.
From there they controlled the trade routes, levying tolls and protecting caravans laden with Arabian frankincense and myrrh, Indian spices and silks, African ivory and animal hides. The Romans came in 200BC and ruled Jordan for 400 years until they succumbed to eastern Christians of the Byzantine Empire, forebears of the Greek Orthodox community who make up 8% of today’s population.
Not even Harrison Ford’s wild horse-ride through the narrow gorge of rocky sandstone cliffs in Raiders of the Lost Ark could prepare a seasoned traveller for the breathtaking experience of Petra. The best time to get there is just when the rock-face begins to glow in the morning sunlight. Illuminating the “rose-red city half as old as time”, to quote Dean Burgon’s famous line, it dapples the six towering pillars that support an enormous lintel over a vast doorway.
Health and safety regulations must have been in vogue in those days because, according to historians, the entire façade, 30 metres-wide and 43 metres-high, was built from the top down to protect workers building a king’s tomb. Holes for the scaffolding are still visible in the rock. A stunning example of fine architecture and clever engineering, it leaves modern builders in the shade. To the Arabs it is Al-Khazneh; to Westerners the Treasury.
A UNESCO world heritage site, Petra is one of mankind’s great treasures. Even cynical travel writers were agog as the city of tombs and temples unfolded on a canvas of shifting reds, blues, yellows, creams, greys and ochres. Spend a full day there and amble down the ‘Street of Facades’ where the Nabataeans built a magnificent amphitheatre that seats 7,000 people. Stroll through the Siq, the 1,200-metres long gorge beneath 80-metre high cliffs sculpted by flash floods and sand blizzards. Be sure to climb stairways carved out of rock to reach hidden caves high on the cliff-face. And on your way to lunch at the Mazayen Nebo or Basin restaurants, saunter down the city’s colonnaded main street of marble that once boasted a “nymphaeum”, a shrine to mythological spirits, where the citizenry could relax and let their hair down.
The cliffs echo with the braying of donkeys and the clatter of hooves on smooth flagstones where Roman legions marched. Squabbling Bedouins hawk their wares, haggling over the price of “genuine” coins, daggers, pewter lamps and dazzling pashminas. “I dug them up myself with this” a rogue with twinkling eyes assured me, holding up a trowel. Bearing the unmistakable head of Alexander the Great, the coins were surely fake, but who could resist his sales pitch?
In time, Petra was gradually abandoned and lost to the West after the 14th century until ‘rediscovered’ in 1812 by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss adventurer who disguised himself as an Arab. By then, Bedouin families were living in the tombs but have since been relocated to a new town built for them nearby. A hair-raising drive on a dirt road in a half-back truck, a Bedouin taxi, climaxed our unforgettable encounter with Petra.
For an experience of a totally different kind, who not relax in the warm night air on the terraces of the Marriot hotel overlooking the Dead Sea. It’s the lowest point on Earth, a vast health spa where locals and tourists daub their bodies with black mud claimed to have rejuvenating powers. Three times saltier than the Atlantic, you float rather than swim, don’t go in if you’ve just shaved or have an open cut — it’s torture.
The lights of Israel twinkle on the opposite shore, a reminder that while a peace treaty exists between the two countries, Jews can’t be Jordanian citizens. To hear what Moses might say about that, take the short drive to Mount Nebo where, as the Bible records, he saw the Promised Land. Now a monastery, it contains superb Byzantine mosaics excavated by Franciscan archaeologists.
Make sure to see Madaba, a city of carpets and a remarkable church, St George’s, containing the earliest known map of the Holy Land, an extraordinary mosaic of 150 holy sites. Made of 2,000,000 pieces in 560AD, it is one of the world’s hidden treasures.
Challenging but not quite surpassing the amazing Petra experience, the Roman ruins at Jarash are the best preserved outside Italy. Straddling an ancient trade route to Lebanon, they are a salutary reminder of the power and transience of empire. From Hadrian’s impressive Triumphal Arch, the ghosts of Romans accompany the visitor through a spectacular vista. The sheer scale of the Colonnaded street reflects the wealth and importance of Jarash. After passing through the imposing South Gate and by the temple of Zeus, turn left in the vast oval plaza to see a beautiful 1,600-seat theatre where every whisper, and a stirring rendering of Molly Malone, could be heard. In the mind’s eye chariots race, their wheels wearing deep on an 800-metre track of heavy limestone slabs. Cleverly concealing the ancient city’s main drainage system, still working nearly 2,000 years on, it illustrates the pragmatism of Roman design.
Reminding Arabs that Rome held sway, it was a daunting spectacle in its day and still is now. Yet, the trumpets have given way to new sounds: the laughter of Jordanian schoolgirls taking a shortcut home through the ruins; the bleating of goats in Hadrian’s Arch; and the voice of the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer. At the height of the tourism season, crowds flock to see chariot races and battles being re-enacted. But with Americans staying at home, it will not be overcrowded this year.
Jordan survives on tourism. Everyone speaks English and the euro has roughly the same face value as the Jordanian dinar, making life easy for shoppers. Despite the Arab Spring, the Royal family remains popular. King Abdullah 11, whose forebears rebelled in 1916 against the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, mingles with shoppers on the streets of Amman. Called Philadelphia in ancient times, it is a bustling, confident city of leafy suburbs, towering modern edifices and a scattering of Roman ruins. In the heart of Jordan’s most fertile land, it boasts 14 highly rated universities and on week days nearly half the country’s population of six million go to work there.
No Jordanian can ignore the sweeping changes of the Arab Spring. So, when Muslim activists took to the streets after prayers one Friday last year, demanding a greater say in political decisions, the ruler of this small but strategically located kingdom moved to strengthen democracy. Though tourism has collapsed and visitors are thin on the ground, life is normal. Now is the time to visit Jordan — and maybe try the hookah.
Getting there — I travelled courtesy of Insight Vacations whose five day Jordan experience from €899 includes 5-star accommodation, all excursions and entry to sites as well as breakfast, lunch and dinners daily.
We stayed at three 5-star Marriott hotels in Amman, Petra and at the Dead Sea. There is an optional extension at the Jordan Valley Marriott (Dead Sea) from €365 pp for two nights.
What to see
Petra, the jewel in the crown; Jarash, a magnificent Roman city; the Dead Sea, a vast health spa, smear yourself with mud; Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land; Madaba, an amazing 1,500-year-old mosaic of the Holy Land; Amman a bustling, confident, modern city. Long drives between sites but de luxe bus has lots of legroom. Hiring a car, petrol costs 70 cent per litre.
Silk scarves, pashminas, and jewellery sold at street stalls in small souks and by hawkers at every site. Good value and they expect you to haggle.
Arabian and international. Very generous helpings. Try Mansaf, a famous Jordanian dish eaten with the hand. Beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks readily available.