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Flash floods in historic Petra? Snow in the Jordanian hills? They would be about as common as a heatwave in Narvik, yet these were just some of our fascinating and unexpected experiences in Jordan. In fact, just about every outdated, pre-conceived clich» about this fascinating country was proved wrong, and I came away from Jordan delighted with what I had seen.
Ruled by a monarch the world admires and who is enormously popular with his people, I was to find the country as a whole quite fascinating, and the people I would encounter, charming, helpful and courteous. The exception to this was to be our driver, nicknamed "Smiley" by us. We all felt that if he had actually smiled just once his face would have developed a permanent crack. But more about this later. Let's start with our departure from Jerusalem.
Leaving the modern Sheraton Hotel, we soon passed new suburbs built of the beautiful "Jerusalem stone," a very positive legacy from the days of Turkish rule when the Ottomans decreed that all buildings in that city, holy to three religions, were to be constructed from this material.
The housing thinned on the Jordan side of the city, giving way to a dry, rocky and windswept countryside that had an eerie beauty of its own. We occasionally passed Bedouin camps of tents, refuse, goats and camels that all looked every bit as temporary as they actually were. The goats and camels would soon eat all the sparse vegetation, and the whole camp would move on in search of new feed, leaving behind nothing but the refuse and plastic bags which, inflated by the wind, would roll, spinifex-like, across the parched desert, eerily looking as if they had a life and personality of their own.
Only the Jordan River which we reached not long after leaving Jerusalem's outskirts, had a band of green running down it's valley all the way to the Dead Sea. The rest of the dry, light beige panorama surrounding us was strangely beautiful in a moonscape kind of way.
The minibus slowed as we approached the Allenby Bridge over the Jordan River. We had just driven through the part of Israel that has been making headlines for some years and now we were approaching the Jordanian border. Formalities were simple and without fuss or tension on either side, and this might be a good time to talk about tensions and crises in this part of the world.
Both the Israeli and the Arab side in the Middle East conflict have their share of idiots, and hot-heads are also certainly not exclusive to one side or another either! And the Israelis and Arabs have another factor in common. Put twelve people of one or the other group in one room, and you're sure to get fifteen different opinions on everything -- minimum!
But in my observation of many visits to the area over twenty five years, the two groups both have silent majorities which just want to get on with their lives and are more than happy to peacefully co-exist.
This was proven to me during one period of political crisis when I was met at Tel Aviv Airport by my son who happened to be there at the time also. He looked somber and worried. A friend of his wife had been seriously injured in a car accident and needed massive blood transfusions. My son knew that I had been a regular blood donor in Australia. Would I be prepared to help? Needless to say the answer was in the affirmative.
We raced straight to the large, modern Hadassa Hospital in Jerusalem where the wounded girl lay in a coma, and there I was immediately ushered into the donor room. During the blood-taking and the subsequent rest period I struck up a conversation with two very pleasant young men who were in the adjacent booths giving blood also. After telling me that they were in the building trade and would love to travel overseas if ever they got enough money together, they mentioned that this was their very first time as blood donors. And while they had been really scared of the experience, they had decided to go through with it anyway.
Just then, the announcement of prayer time broadcast from loud speakers of a nearby Mosque's minaret reached our ears. The two young men got up, reached for their duffel-bags, unrolled their prayer mats in the direction of Mecca, and started to pray. They were Moslems, but quite happy to donate blood at the Israeli hospital, which in turn, also treated Moslems and Jews without any priority for either.
This sort of co-existence and positive gesture, at the time when headline-making conflicts just an hour's drive away were making TV headlines around the globe, impressed me mightily. And that brings me to another interesting aspect that you will not read about in many newspapers.
The largest Press Corps in the world is permanently stationed in Washington D.C. Guess where the second largest is located? It's in Jerusalem! And all these reporters need to file stories every day. The more sensationalist, the merrier. If they don't, their editors might send them to Tanzania, Afghanistan, Moscow or Myanmar.
Most journalists feel that those places, in the words of the great world figure Marx (Groucho, not Karl) "should best include them out." So they keep filing stories on Israel's troubles, and if they are a little short on scruples and need to film a scene of an angry crowd, a few US dollars in the right hands will soon produce one.
The hardliners on both sides also know how to work the system and play the Press like a violin. A hint of a protest-to-be in a certain place with a small rent-a-crowd will soon bring curious onlookers out of every nearby caf», shop and house.
Then another call to the police will ensure that the footage to be beamed out to the world the following day will please the editor, and those dreaded Press air-tickets will remain un-issued. Have you ever wondered why the "rent-a-crowd" posters shown in protest scenes on CNN are always in English? Just think about the implications. Neither side use English as their major language. Could it be that the crowd-organizers had been pre-advised that they could beam their views to the world?
That's not to say that all is sweetness and light in the Middle East. Far from it. The hot-heads on both sides see to that. But these days, when TV news ratings are often judged by entertainment-value standards, the co-existence and co-operation of reasonable people who have a spirit of goodwill are often forgotten.
Normally I travel with my photographer-wife Cherie. But on this occasion she was on another assignment in Cyprus, and I and two other travel writers, one a charming young woman from San Francisco and another, a writer from Santa Barbara, were invited to Jordan by that country's Tourist Ministry. It was a trip I'll remember for the rest of my life.
So, back to Jordan. Having crossed at the Allenby Bridge, a Jordanian 4-wheel drive awaited us. It was driven by "Smiley," a somewhat sinister-looking and dour man of around 40 who claimed to speak little English, but was a virtuoso on the accelerator.
As we drove through more moonscape scenery, we were often detracted by the speed at which we traveled. Having experienced hundreds of airplane takeoffs, I was expecting one in our 4-WD at any moment. But "Smiley" managed to travel at just below the speed where tires fail to grip the road, and we certainly made good time into Amman.
This city was about as far from my preconceived ideas as anything could be. Having seen photos of Amman in the 30's and 40's, I had not expected much more than an overgrown, somewhat non-descript town surrounded by suburbs of shacks and tents. Instead I found Amman to be a beautifully clean, modern and progressive city with fine hotels, modern shops and suburbs of attractive houses built from local sandstone, and of a standard that would do many Western cities' suburbs proud.
None of the buildings were tacky, but very many were spectacularly luxurious. TV antennas were in the shape of mini Eiffel Towers, and local building regulations saw to it that the natural material of the area was used for the walls. Gardens were manicured and the whole effect was one of great style. Later we visited a Safeway supermarket and found it to be as good -- and as well-stocked -- as any in the West.
Amman is home to 1.5 million out of Jordan's 4.5 million population. Its road system is excellent and the people we met could not have been nicer or more helpful. We had been booked into the Regency Palace Hotel, one of the 5-star hotels like the Marriott, Sheraton, Forte and others that are either newly-built or under construction. Manager Said Sawalha and his brother Firas, the owners of the hotel, were there to greet us personally and were subsequently most helpful with assistance and local information.
Even though it was a public holiday, they had arranged for us to visit the Eagle Distillery, which was an eye-opener. We were met by Mudieb Haddad, a handsome 6' 6" Jordanian who had just returned from finishing Business School in the U.S. His family owns the Distillery which makes every imaginable kind of spirit and liqueur, and also Arak, the Middle Eastern version of Pernod, Oozo or Aquavit, the aniseed-flavored drink which can be enjoyed (as in France) with water, or "on the rocks."
I expressed surprise that a distillery would be operating in a Moslem country, but it was explained that Jordan, like Egypt, Turkey and many Asian Moslem countries does not have a strict ban on alcohol, leaving this as a matter of choice to its citizens and visitors. The Haddad family is one of the most prominent and progressive in the country and its companies also produce wine, perfumes, soaps, detergents and the full range of Mennen cosmetics and other products under license to the U.S. It exports many of its products to Turkey, Israel, other Middle Eastern countries and even America.
Dinner at our hotel was a very pleasant affair. Jordanian food is very similar to that of Lebanon, and the dishes we tried were absolutely delicious. Amman's top hotels also have great cabaret-style floor shows, with belly-dancers, hubbly-bubbly pipes (don't get excited -- they do NOT smoke dope), waiters who will make Turkish or Arabic coffee in front of you in the traditional manner (Turkish is the finely ground thick, and usually sweet coffee, and Arabic coffee is very light-colored, not strong, and made with cardamom as well as coffee beans).
The next day we were greeted by Fathi Sabatin, a charming and knowledgeable tourist guide. It was time to head for Petra, the mystical, fascinating and truly awesome "hidden city" built by the Nabataeans some two thousand years ago.
Cunningly positioned among a warren of hard-to-access ravines, Petra, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, might easily have been declared the eighth wonder of the world. The Nabataeans were an industrious Arab people whose country straddled the major trade route between Europe, Africa and India. From this hidden city, which could shelter caravans laden with silks, spices, ivory and other exotic products, they ruled the area. Their buildings were cut into natural rock-faces and then often decorated with Greco-Roman-style entrances also carved into the rock-face.
Petra had become a Middle Eastern landmark, renowned for its fine culture, its unique architecture, its remarkable water channels, dams and ingenious engineers and builders. Then the trade routes changed, the Romans annexed the Nabataean kingdom, and gradually Petra, now no longer strategic, went into decline and was eventually abandoned. After 300 years of oblivion, Petra was re-discovered in l812 by Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss traveler. Subsequent excavations saw the ancient city re-emerge. Today Petra, along with Jerash, the ancient Roman city of Antioch and Mount Nebo, where Moses supposedly received the Ten Commandments, are the country's three biggest tourist attractions.
"Smiley" had brought us, including guide Fathi to Petra at his usual break-neck speed, but not fast enough to stop us from enjoying the starkly beautiful scenery on the way. We had stopped at the town of Petra and inspected the new Movenpik Hotel, built in traditional Jordanian style, decorated with local antiques, and as impressive as any hotel we had seen in the Middle East. We had planned to dine there that evening -- but that was not to be.
We entered the National Park as the sky was darkening, glad of our jackets as the temperature was dropping fast. The only vehicles allowed to pass through the ruins in the whole of the National Park are horse-drawn carts, but we elected to walk, entering a long and narrow ravine just wide enough to take one horse-cart and leave room enough for it to squeeze past one pedestrian.
The ravine, which started out deceptively wide, narrowed shortly thereafter and we continued the trek, occasionally being passed by one or two tourists in a horse-cart. After what seemed to be an eternity, we rounded a corner and there, in front of us and in what appeared to be a natural "plaza," was the "Treasury." It was a sight that would make anyone seeing it for the first time gasp.
The entrance resembles a three-floor-high Greek Temple, and it is undoubtedly the most impressive "building" in this ancient city. Its name is derived from the fact that for centuries roaming Bedouins were unaware that this was in fact a Royal Tomb, and thought that the mock urns carved into the stone contained treasures. Unable to climb up and find out about this, the Bedouins took pot-shots at the facade to try and topple the rock-urns to claim their imagined treasures.
We inspected the inner tomb-hall, and as we came out, there was a clap of thunder. Then the skies opened up. In this place, which rarely even sees a light shower, huge raindrops bucketed down. The few horse-drawn carts in this ravine had beaten a quick retreat at the first sign of rain, and now only one cart remained, it's driver quickly moving it to the highest possible ground, then unhitching the horse and going up the steps to the portico of the Treasury.
The Jordanian Tourist Police who had been quietly sitting at welded wrought-iron tables in the "Plaza" were now busy operating their walkie-talkies under the overhang of a cliff, and as we looked up at the cliff-face we could see sheets of water starting to run down the stone sides, and rivulets of water starting to form tiny waterfalls in many places.
Within minutes the rivulets had turned into large beige waterfalls, the color being added by the sand being washed down from the flat area more than a hundred feet above us. The rain continued pelting down and the ravine through which we had walked had become a raging river, flowing into an even bigger river that was coming down the main wadi.
Our 4-WD, being a Government vehicle and exempt from normal restrictions, was to have picked us up in the "Plaza" by coming down from the plain above us and using the rock-strewn wadi-bed as a road. Just as we were wondering if that would be possible, the negative answer to that question was clearly illustrated to us. The heavy wrought-iron tables at which the Jordanian Police had been sitting were now being picked up by the raging torrent and went rolling downstream end over end like giant tumbleweeds. Nothing, but nothing would be able to go upstream against such a torrent.
The rain continued to bucket down for a solid half hour, and the "river" was starting to lap the steps of the Treasury. But then the sky grew a little brighter, the torrential rain eased into a mere downpour, and though it was still raining, within another half hour the flooding river was visibly subsiding and the huge waterfalls coming down the Canyon walls seemed substantially reduced in size and velocity.
In the meantime the Jordanian Police had been in constant touch with their counterparts some three miles downstream where a number of cars had tried to ford the previously-dry riverbed and had stalled. Now they were roof-deep in water, and had blocked our 4-WD from getting across. Ours was the only vehicle equipped to make the journey, and while we had been stranded at the Treasury, "Smiley" had managed to clear a way to get past the stalled and drowned cars. Twenty minutes later, driving superbly through headlight high water so discolored by the sand that he could not see the rocks and crevices on the wadi bottom, "Smiley" finally got through. What a welcome sight!
We waded out to the 4-WD and bounced and slithered our way back up the wadi. No-one could have been happier than the four of us when we finally climbed up out of the water and on to bitumen.
We drove through the new Petra township and up into the hills above it. The rain had not stopped, but now it suddenly turned into tiny grains of rice. Sleet! The temperature had plummeted to below freezing, roads were icy, and as we were literally in the center of a large, low cloud, visibility had dropped to about 8 feet. "Smiley" had at last slowed down! Just as well, because while one side of the road looked up at rising hills, the other, in places, was a sheer drop.
I must give "Smiley" his due. He drove exceptionally well. On most of the other part of the trip we had kept telling him to slow down, a problem he easily overcame by making out that he could not understand English. Now he was just creeping along of his own accord. Speeding on ice would have dropped our life expectancy down to between five minutes and zero, and he knew it. Half an hour later we had reached our destination.
The Tourism Authority had booked us into a small hotel that had been built from a reconstructed village of individual houses converted into a hotel. This would have been a great place in summer. But on what was on a freezing cold evening, having to walk from the main building to my too-far room in the rain was less than fun. Once reached, the room, nicely heated and the size of a small 2-room house was an oasis of warmth and made for a most pleasant night.
The next morning I could hardly believe my eyes when I opened the door. The ground was covered by a blanket of white! Snow in Jordan? It seemed as incongruous as the potted palms one sees in the hotel lobbies of some Alaskan hotels.
On the way back to Amman there was one more very special place on my "must see" list -- Jerash -- the legendary Roman town of Antioch which I had read about from my childhood. Here, at last was an opportunity to visit. And so we did on the next day, finding Jerash quite breathtaking in the process.
Archaeologists say that this city has been inhabited since Neolithic times. The city started to become prosperous around the days of Alexander The Great (332 BC), and it was the firm belief of the Romans that any city that was prosperous should be part of their Empire. So in 63 BC the Emperor Pompey conquered the city, changing its ancient name of Garshu to Gerasa. With its Roman connection, excellent agriculture and iron mining at nearby Ajloun, the city became one of the pearls in Rome's provincial crown.
A city like that would need a new image, so Rome sent its best architects and builders to totally revamp Antioch in the First Century AD. It was magnificent -- with its focal point being a large main street being intersected by two side streets. We walked through this beautifully reconstructed Roman site, marveling at the scope and beauty of this city while our guide told us that in its hey-day twenty thousand people lived here, speaking Greek but using Latin for their legal and business dealings.
Over the next 500 years Jerash gradually declined until it was captured by the Persians in 614 AD. The Moslem conquest in 636 and vast earthquakes in 749 finally saw the end of this city's glory. And though it was briefly captured by the Crusaders in the 12th Century, it dropped out of the world's maps until 1806 when it was re-discovered by a German traveler at a time when the whole site had been covered in sand and the city was no more than a small Arab village. Major excavation and restoration work started in l925 and continues to this day.
We saw the monumental South Gate leading to the imposing oval "Plaza," then strolled down the Cardo, the city's main street once lined with shops, temples, baths, mosques and churches. Emperor Hadrian, who had made a point of visiting all corners of the Roman Empire at the time, had the city's triumphal arch built and named in his honor.
We looked at three of the fifteen Byzantine churches that graced the old Antioch, the baths, the South Bridge, the Forum and the North Theater that held up to 1600 spectators at a time. Particularly impressive was the superbly planned sewerage and drainage system that graced this city. How much have we really learnt since those Roman days?
The next day my two American journalist friends headed across the Israeli border, and I saw them off before leaving for Dubai on the excellent Emirates airline. Our few days in Jordan had been totally fascinating and were ones that I will remember with great affection always. On the way to the airport Fathi, our charming guide who had by then become a friend, confided that "Smiley" was not a Jordanian but a Chechnian, and understood English perfectly.
But that's another story.
From Asia and the Middle East we recommend Emirates Airline, the Award-winning carrier that has outstanding service. From USA and Europe, we recommend British Airways via London. Royal Jordanian Airlines is also an excellent carrier with a wide network of destinations.
Best time to go:
If, like us, you are not crazy about searing heat, September through to April would be most comfortable.
Organized tour operators:
If you prefer to travel with an organized tour, we strongly recommend Abercrombie & Kent. We have consistently found this operator to use the best guides, hotels and to have outstanding itineraries. Many tours also offer Jordan as an add-on to tours of the Holy Land.
If you want an outstanding private guide you can contact Fathi Sabatin by fax on 962.6.749 436 or by mail, PO Box 141 420, Amman 11814, Jordan.
Hotels in Amman:
The Regency Palace Hotel, The Marriott and The Forte Hotel are all 5-star and others like Sheraton and Hyatt are on the way.
Hotels in Petra:
We think that The Movenpick is the only absolutely top choice.
For more information on Jordan:
Jordan has an excellent home page at http://www.arabia.com/Jordan
Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.