[Written June 2007]
The river called Jordan is a holy river extolled in songs that roll richly from open church windows across the country.
The iPod of your mind can probably right now play back some deep-voiced musings about crossing that river. The river is woven into our life’s tapestry, but oddly the country it runs through hovers indistinctly in our consciousness.
“Where did you get back from this time,” I am asked.
“Jordan”, I say.
“Oh.” And then: “Is that a country?”
Actually Jordan is quite a new country in an old, old land. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was created in 1946. The British had helped expel the Ottoman Empire from the Arab lands during World War I. The Ottoman Empire was the latest of many strangers who had tramped in authoritarian mode across what was generally known as Transjordania.
Foremost among those Brits who helped oust the Turks was a man called T.E. Lawrence. This Welsh-born warrior was, so to speak, to return nearly four decades later (and nearly a foot taller) to a very scenic scene of the Arab revolt which he had abetted. This time Peter O’Toole was the man sometimes called Ross and sometimes Shaw and most familiarly “Lawrence of Arabia.” The movie made in the splendid surreality of mammoth rock formations looming over expanses of ruddy sand in the valley called Wadi Rum is worth a review to see some of what the Indiana-sized country of Jordan has to offer a sight-seer.
And as long as I’ve mentioned Indiana add the name “Jones.” A viewing of the first in that series of Harrison Ford movies, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, will reveal scenes from another of Jordan’s glorious sights, Petra. The incredible building facades carved into rosy limestone cliffs is a major contender for a place on the updated list of the Seven Wonders of the World. Magical. Mystical. Mythical.
To Biblical scholars, followers of Roman legions or diggers into antiquity many Jordanian place names leap to recognition. The Dead Sea not the least of them. And Jordan is no stranger to a follower of breaking news. Consider the simple sign we encounter shortly outside the capital city of Amman: “Iraqi border” with a simple arrow. The area’s tight geography leaps into focus.
From another site — holy, historical and scenic: the summit of Mount Nebo from which Moses was shown the Promised Land, a viewer with binoculars can, given a clear day, make out the houses in East Jerusalem. (Israel stretches the length of Jordan’s western border.) In the mist to the north lies Lebanon, Syria is a neighbor with Damascus a common name on highway signs pointing north. At the southern tip of the country Jordan possesses a small stretch of Red Sea shore and the port of Aqaba. Saudi Arabia abuts Jordan there and all but wraps its eastern edge. And across the way westward is Egypt. Talk about being in the midst of things.
For centuries, some lost in misted time, history has tracked across this land leaving petroglyphs, colonnades, amphitheaters and the ordered stones of various civilizations. Jordan holds ruins and artifacts beyond the stone age and up through Biblical times, Grecian, Roman, Byzantium and on to the 21st Century. In this land Lot’s wife looked back on Sodom, John the Baptist baptized Jesus, and Moses is said to have been buried by God. Jordan is as holy as holy gets in this cradle of the world’s three leading monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
All that is a treasure trove for the traveler. And Jordan, after its share of the region’s penchant for armed contention, has settled into a studied peacefulness. Jordan expelled extremist Palestinians in the ‘70s, in 1994 signed a peace agreement with Israel and works at being the stable, moderate one in the neighborhood. And moderating as well. Its existence may depend on holding to that theme.
Without the oil of some of its neighbors (potash is a leading export) Jordan must mine its other assets. It has beautiful sights, it is interesting and its people are bright, courteous and welcoming. And, as a legacy from its association with Britain, Jordan’s second language is English. All highway signs are in English as well as the graceful calligraphic flow of Arabic. Some billboards are English only.
Assertively encouraging tourism from farther afield (now 60% of its tourists are regional) is an obvious path to a healthy future for Jordan. New as a country in the sense of being a colored swatch on the map it is old in its collective wisdom and its facility for survival. It has a romantic cultural icon in the desert-loving Bedouins, traditionally nomadic yet adaptable to modern fixity. Camel, donkey or Jeep; desert tent or village walls. The Bedouin spirit is Jordan’s spirit, even to the Armani-clad and Harvard-educated sophisticates in Amman. The Bedouin to a Jordanian is rather like the gaucho to an Argentinean.
We have known and admired the late King Hussein, who had an American wife. And now his son, King Abdullah II (whose mother was English) was educated in England with a prep school interlude in New England is similarly moderate (and moderating) in temperament. Jordan’s well-being, not pan-Arab politics, has been their prime concern. Better health, expanding literacy and an improving economy have been their goals.
Jordan’s economy, ironically, has been boosted considerably by the influx of Iraqis fleeing a lengthening war. These are not “refugees” I am told (though some living crowded together in modest dwellings might think otherwise.) Many of the arriving Iraqis are rich with money to invest and talents to apply. The wealth they bring is priming the pump. Thus the building boom and the sharp rise in real estate prices.
Some of the wealth arriving from Iraq (I hear from sources other than Jordanian) might have originated as American funds intended to outfit a new Iraqi army. Certainly millions of dollars have disappeared and some non-refugee Iraqis are investing millions in new hotels and apartment houses in Amman and in Jordanian resort areas.
Another thing I am told: “There are no Palestinians in Jordan.” This from our group’s knowledgeable guide. I have heard the high numbers of Palestinians who spread throughout the Mideast in the upheaval that created Israel nearly 60 years ago. Jordan was flooded with Palestinians. My mouth pops open. He continues: “There are many Jordanians of Palestinian descent, but no Palestinians in Jordan.”
And similarly, I think, there will one day be no Iraqis in Jordan but many new well-heeled Jordanians. And many contributing to the growing tourism industry with the wealth they brought with them, whatever its origin.
Because of the extensive attention turned to expanding tourism now is a good time to visit Jordan, particularly if you like to see the stages of development before everything is hotel-school polished and slick. Aqaba for instance now has a certain awkward interest as a country’s only outlet to the world by water. The Red Sea, amazingly clear and calm, is a snorkeling and scuba diving haven with rich coral reefs. But the shoreline is short (and that was acquired from Saudi Arabia in exchange for a large chunk of inland desert.)
In the works for Aqaba is the creation of a huge lagoon that will sort of bring the sea inland and provide more direct access to that water for many more hotel guests. And more hotels. Thus “waterfront property” takes on a new meaning. The lagoon plan is Dubai-like in its enterprise. Which may or may not be a good thing.
Something that is a good thing is the reclamation of old buildings, even entire derelict villages, for new uses. A huge old stables with vaulted ceilings in now a restaurant. (Zuwadeh in Fuheis near Amman) And a Bedouin village is a distinctive hotel with the hillside flow of stone pathways and the existing spaces are allowed to dictate the uniqueness of the rooms. Modernity and comfort merges with the old rather than being imposed on it. The result is a charming reclaiming of heritage. (The Taybet Zaman near Petra.)
Go now, too, for the Dead Sea which is booming with new luxury accommodations. And due to boom even more. The Kempinski Hotel Ishtar on the shore of the Dead Sea finished its phase two this spring. It offers, among posh but approachable accommodations, the Royal Villa. Private beach, private cook. And butler and chauffeur, I think. My mind was reeling. Tab: a mere $16,000 a night. Several suites though.
The hotel’s spa, scheduled for unveiling in the fall of 2007, will lay claim to being the largest in the Mideast. (Do I detect more Dubai syndrome here?) But, Kempinski-like, it is gloriously well done. Then again the Jordan Valley Marriott Resort and Spa, just two doors north, where our group is ensconced ranks pretty high on the posh scale, too.
The picture my mind carried of the Dead Sea, probably formed while sitting on a tiny pastel chair in Sunday school, was a leaden body of water in a vast flat sand pile, dreary and deserted. Au contraire. The Eastern shore steps down to the sea and before the waters reach the purpled mountains on the far Israeli side they have changed color at least five times. Counting is hard because of the sparkling. The Dead Sea is alive and well.
Salt crystals encrust rocks along the edges as if the sea were an extensive Margarita. Bathers take on a cartoonish character floating as high as corks with most of their bodies revealed. It is fun for all except those who recently shaved, whether faces or legs. Salt stings. And this sea is the saltiest body of water known — 8 1/2 times saltier than the ocean.
The water is more than salty; it’s a soup of assorted minerals from calcium to zinc and claims for the health benefits of slathering oneself in Dead Sea mud are taken seriously. (It’s called “balneoltherapy” to be pedantic about it.) The water and the mud account for an active spa industry. You can even take packaged Dead Sea mud home with you if you care to explain your purchase to TSA agents when you change planes at JFK.
Beyond its record salinity another record claim for the Dead Sea is its minus elevation — 1378 feet below sea level, the lowest point on earth. So low, indeed, in relationship to the land between it and the Red Sea (to which it was once connected) no replenishing water has arrived in eons. Thus as geological ages passed the Dead Sea was left low and drying and doomed to eventually disappear. (Sorry, Royal Villa.)
However mankind to the rescue. If plans proceed with a “Red to Dead” pipeline project the Dead Sea level will be stabilized with Red Sea transfusions brought overland. (With the Dead Sea so low why not just activate a siphon and stand back.) Anyway, the spas edging the crusty shores can breathe easy.
Wherever the Romans roamed they left their ordered colonnades and steep amphitheaters. And Romans did roam. Jordan, thanks perhaps to its less beaten paths, has perhaps the best preserved collection of Roman ruins in the world. Less than an hour from Amman is Jerash, a settlement probably old before the Romans arrived, but they created a city here and much of it remains. A strolling visitor can sense the dimensions and flow of city life. The ceremonial gates, the temples, the theaters, the baths.
Restoration work continues with time-toppled columns set upright again. Indeed, all over Jordon crews from universities and churches come to dig and discover and reclaim structures, columns, mosaics. All helping Jordan find and preserve evidence of its varied history at the crossroads.
My two favorite sites in Jordan are equally beautiful and splendid and as different as cheese and chalk. One is a natural phenomenon demonstrating nature’s nonchalant magnificence and casual unconquerability. It is the ultimate desertscape with of wind-carved sandstone hills jutting from flowing sands. This is Wadi Rum.
The other is Petra where man has imposed his vision of order on unruly nature, trying to square off what is rounded and impose an intricate beauty in the man-carved ruddy sandstone. The image of massive buildings on the soft-faced cliffs is astonishing. If you like to witness the hand of man in your wonders Petra is for you.
Wadi Rum is all nature. It’s like a trade show for anyone thinking of starting a planet. Here are rock formations, wind and weather shaped, some stark and sharp some rounded and slumped like a ruined cake. Color variations from sand-colored to rose-red, with purplish and green tones. Dots and stripes. The tastes of any planet-builder can be met.
The Wadi Rum is at once inviting and forbidding; empty and teeming with tiny lives that leave marks in the sand. It is a stage scrim, imaginatively painted, to backdrop what life you choose to dream.
Tours can take you deep into its mysteries on horses, camels or open vehicles. Hiking and rock climbing are popular. Or you can dip lightly with a long scenic “Jeep” ride (actually a Toyota) over rough and rutted or sand-swimming tracks for an overnight stay in a blanket-walled tent. A meal cooked buried in sand and delightful Bedouin dances in the candlelight. The short ride out the next morning tips you off that illusion matters more than fact; civilization lay just a curve around the mountain.
Now Petra. As we approached through a narrow winding slit in cliff walls called the Siq (attention Scrabble players) I discovered the battery to displace my dying one had been left bedside at the hotel. A good thing really because the eye alone is still the best collector of such astounding visual information that the ancient cliff city holds. (City maybe. Some scholars say it was a lived-in metropolis: some say it was all temple and burial sites.) In any event Petra is dense with wonder from the so-called Treasury visible first in a jagged slice through the fissure in the cliff face and then in its much photographed totality.
Petra is the most visited site in Jordan because day trippers can visit over the border from Israel. However you go whenever is more important: morning. You must see the sun first touch the top of the shadow-gray building and then turn it to rosy-red as it slides down the precisely carved be-columned façade. The slow revelation ends with life on the ground. Donkey carts bringing in more tourists. Kneeling camels (one smugly drinking a Coke out of the can! And winning tips for its owner). And camera-toters who didn’t forget their batteries diligently registering the unregisterable.
Actually just this sight — the Treasury — is adequate soul-nourishment for many and some visitors do turn and leave. The walking can be arduous following the widening rising path beyond the Treasury. The 650 or so steps to the highest point, the Monastery, are most certainly for the strong of quads only. Or the daring who choose a clambering donkey as transport.
So like the Wadi Rum Petra is fascinating for the brief visitor or the life student. They can be flaked like pastry and enjoyed for as long as you wish.
Indeed all of Jordan is like that. Whatever time you have to spend is well spent.
(written in 2007 for AutoWeek)
(words and photographs by Denise McCluggage)
It’s a portrait in oil—motor oil—of a royal family, the rolling history of a new kingdom in an old land. I speak of The Royal Automobile Museum in Jordan’s capital of Amman. Opened in May 2003, the museum of some 70 cars is worth a few hours of a visitor’s time just as remarkable Jordan is worth a traveler’s attention.
The late King Hussein, who died at 63 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999, was a true car buff. From the time he learned to drive at 15 it was clear he had a taste for speed as well as a knack for it. Over time he raced in Europe, introduced motorsport from rallying to karting to his homeland, set long standing records in hill climbs and had a grand time with some fine cars and motorcycles. He often made quiet trips to the US, usually the Palm Springs area, for some car play with his friends the late Bill Spear and Jim Kimberly.
Most of the royal mounts and their stories (in English as well as Arabic) are collected in the museum along with the ceremonial cars of a modern monarchy. All are well displayed, many ala the Petersen Museum, in context say before a lighted palace.
Here are the American, British and German cars that carried the royal family to weddings, state functions and significant openings. Like the Mercedes-Benz 600 that went to the inaugural of Jordan television in 1968.The first official car here: a 1946 Humber Snipe, used by Abdullah I, the late King Hussein’s grandfather.
Here’s a 1952 Lincoln Capri Convertible which carried the boy king (just 17) to his official installation. There’s a 1961 Lincoln Continental with suicide rear doors and a self-swallowing top. And a 1961 Mercedes 300d Cabriolet (the Adenauer) and even a 1977 Ford LTD with police package (roof lights and all) in which King Hussein liked to make incognito drive-himself forays about his capital.
Open cars give way to closed ones. A 1973 armored Lincoln Town Car was a gift from President Richard Nixon, perhaps in response to Pat Nixon having been driven about in a convertible ’68 Rolls Silver Shadow. The Nixon gift later carried passengers ranging from President Ford to Yasser Arafat.
Some of the personal cars: 1952 Aston Martin DB2; ’55 Mercedes Gullwing (in which he won hill climbs); 1971 Excalibur (Corvette engine); 1966 Amphicar; 1976 Lamborghini Espada; 1982 Opel Manta (in which he won two rally championships); Ferrari F40 and F50; Porsche 959 Twin Turbo (a favorite), and a 1992 Escort RS Rally, his last competition car.
This is a memorable automotive history.
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