"Discovering" treasures in Jordan's deserts

by Roger Canfield, Contributing Editor

I must admit, I had low expectations of Jordan’s tourist attractions, not to mention concerns about my safety in that part of the world. But I was dead wrong. I found eye-popping sights and smiling people. Everyone’s mantra was “Enjoy,” and I did!

Getting there is the hardest part

On the first leg of my travels, through three of 10 time zones, I took jetBlue’s (www.jetblue.com) efficient, secure and clean service to New York City. Its cheap seats — tight and tiltless — made my butt blue and my mind numb on this red-eye flight.

My 18-hour layover in NYC required a search for shut-eye amongst the mob at JFK. Hugging luggage and wallet, I found blessed relief on a long concrete bench, there stealing half-hour snatches of delirious one-eyed sleep along with my fellow hostages. (Area hotels are available by the hour.)

It was a long wait until Royal Jordanian (www.rj.com) opened shop some 14 hours later. The R.J. staff conducted a 4-hour — lethargic, laborious and repetitive — security process. We departed an hour late.

R.J.’s in-flight staff was friendly and helpful as we flew nonstop to Amman. The plane’s generously tilting seats permitted some sleep on the 10-hour flight, which compensated for my lack of sleep, the loud children on board and, in my opinion, the bad food.

Starting out

In Amman, after passing through a hot, slow and humid Customs process, we were met with a rush of men fighting to carry our bags for tips ($3). Thankfully, we encountered very little of this desperate rush in the days thereafter.

On most days of our August-September ’06 tour of Jordan, we traveled comfortably in an air-conditioned van with our gracious companion, Gisele Abraho of the Jordan Tourism Board, and our informative guide, Abrahim Abdel-Haq.

Our first stop was Jerash, the most important restored Roman city in the Near East. There are miles of restored ruins in this place, which boasts 6,500 years of unbroken human habitation. Jerash is a city of 1,000 columns, with an expansive Roman forum, the Sanctuary of Artemis and friendly Jordanian security. We walked on 2,000-year-old chariot ruts worn into the stones of the Cardo.

At the hippodrome, we listened to a Brit-accented Jordanian soldier explain the live reenactments of Roman military formations, gladiator fights and chariot races that were taking place only a few feet away. The reenactments are performed for visitors every day (www.jerashchariots.com).

Near Madaba, Mount Nebo (where Moses saw the Promised Land and was buried) offers a view of the Jordan Valley which reaches Bethlehem and Jerusalem but only on a clear day. The basilica there is an ancient and, in my opinion, unimpressive stone structure. Inside, however, are magnificent mosaic floors.

In Madaba, I found the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George to be an unexpected delight, crammed with vibrantly colored, early-Orthodox paintings and sixth-century Byzantine mosaics. The lovingly executed artistry brings to life the faith of early Christians.


At Petra, we checked in at the Mövenpick Resort Petra (Wadi Mousa; phone 962 3 215 7111, www.moevenpickhotels.com), with rooms $100 and up. Located a short walk from the site of Petra, it had an impressive lobby and great food, service and rooms, although my room had a broken air-conditioner.

We spent two days in Petra, the place where heroes and villains pursuing the Holy Grail in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” galloped down narrow, winding canyon walls over a mile to a magnificent rose-red sandstone edifice. It is a real place!

This ancient Nabataean city was largely abandoned by the seventh century and was “rediscovered” by Westerners in 1812.

After a short walk, we crossed a bridge and entered the 15-kilometer Siq, the passageway to the ancient city. Every step thereafter was a new discovery. Along the walls of the Siq, ancient canals once carried water to the city of Petra. The canyon walls narrowed and turned downward, revealing carvings, Roman paving, a dam and, finally, the eye-popping Treasury.

Carved out of the rose-red rock cliffs between 100 B.C. and A.D. 200, the Treasury (Al Khazneh) is one of the world’s wondrous sights. The carvings on the façade reflect Nabataean, Egyptian, Greek and Roman influences. We entered up steps revealing still more carvings.

Looking back from the steps of the Treasury, I could see the narrow slit into the Siq through which we had just passed. Continuing on, we walked into canyon shadows and around corners to discover new carved rose stone wonders, in particular a Nabataean theater and tombs.

Desert hike

Next we took a long mountain hike, the first of many in two days, over the 28 square miles of Petra. I was in flip-flops. Around every rock were new views and Bedouins plying their trades.

Reaching the canyon floor, we saw ancient carved Royal tombs, then we took another long, hard climb to the Ridge Church (Jumay an Hill) and found sixth-century Byzantine mosaics showing Christian motifs and wild animals.

We had cold beer and lunch at Café Petra under the cooling shadows of the high canyon wall. Meanwhile, our travel friends Roy and Pierre paid JD60 ($85) to ride a “one-eyed donkey” to avoid the rigorous trek up and down the Siq and the long hike up the mountains to the Ridge and Petra churches. Roy and Pierre were wise in trauma avoidance but unschooled in the cost of donkey rentals. Roy later said he could have bought the donkey for less.

After lunch, we had a camel race up the canyon and back to the Treasury. A boy, Fearos Kasem, whipped my camel into about third place.

Around Petra

On our second day in Petra I joined the young and intrepid for a 3-hour hike of five miles across a hot and humid desert and up the forever-ascending hills and mountains from Little Petra to an early Nebataene edifice called the Monastery (Ad-Deir) on Ad-Deir Mountain. Thereafter, it was over 900, perhaps 1,200, steps down to flat land.

For me, a 60-something with a rebuilt heart outside of manufacturer’s specifications and cigarette-impaired lungs, it was a long march through the valley of death. I frequently had to stop to catch my breath, wipe sweat, rub legs and look up the next hill and around the next ledge for our final destination “just around the corner.” Yet it never seemed to come into view.

Gratefully, I was accompanied by the lovely Gisele, whose patience, good humor and beauty made life quite worth living — at least for the next small ration of my lung capacity.

Along the way I photographed Bedouins, ancient carvings and stark desert landscapes. Falling behind, I stopped to look inside a carved opening in a canyon rock and discovered three body-sized ancient tombs and a blackened crematorium. This was surely the real place for the dead and the dying.

Off the desert flats and now up into the rock-strewn mountains, I found relief from the sand, although it had indeed been a long, hard climb. At the top was the Monastery (first century B.C.), named for the crosses carved inside. It had simpler, cleaner lines than the Treasury, indicating it was an earlier Nebataene structure. Inside, a Bedouin played a flute.

It was a long way down the 900 steps from the Monastery to the canyon but nothing like the 5-mile desert-mountain climb I had just concluded. Tired, I collapsed and missed the 2-mile walk up and down the Siq at night by candlelight. (Back home, my cardiologist gave me an “all clear”… and a sense of shame over my whining about a long walk.)

One evening in Petra, we were joined by a group of Russian journalists. We all made our own dinner, under a chef’s supervision, at the Petra Kitchen (P.O. Box 40, Petra, Jordan; phone/fax +962 3 215 7900 or e-mail kitchen@petramoon.com). The delicious results were lentil soup, Galaya Bandura, Arabic salad, tabbouleh and mansuf, or lamb boiled in yogurt and seasoned with almonds, pine nuts and ghee poured over rice.

Wendy Botham, an American who arrived in Petra 30 years ago and decided to stay, manages the restaurant. Wendy does not serve fast food, but she had a fast way of getting conversation going between three cultures. Drinking a little wine mixed with chopping vegetables and stirring hot yogurt also warmed our international relations.

Wadi Rum desert camp

I do not like deserts, but I loved Wadi Rum (www.wadirum.jo). “Vast, echoing and God-like,” Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence) said of it. Driving off into the desert in 4-wheel-drive jeeps, we soon spied a mountain skyline, Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”

Wadi Rum has wind-driven sand and water-eroded mountainscapes of bizarre shapes and contrasting colors — impressive even to a Southwesterner.

Spending the night at a Bedouin camp, we saw a gorgeous sunset, followed by the moon and stars. We ate a great dish of lamb, chicken and rice which had been buried and cooked under sand. A very good Bedouin guitar player entertained us.

Leaving in the morning, we got a wonderful send-off from a Jordanian jet fighter of Russian origin thundering down the canyon below the mountaintops.

A bit of relaxation

After Petra and Wadi Rum, Aqaba and the Red Sea provided opportunities to rest. Here Jordan meets Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. We saw unimpressive coral reefs from a glass-bottom boat.

Some snorkeled; I swam in the salty Red Sea. In the distance on the west shore we saw the skyscrapered skyline of Israel and, faintly, an armored vehicle on a shore road. We had lunch on board our boat plus the only reasonably priced beer on the trip (JD1.5, or $2). For more information on area boat tours, contact Sindbad Marine Transportation & Water Sport (fax +962 3 205 0008, www.sindbadjo.com).

Then we had a free day at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. Here you can enjoy a full day of relaxation and spa treatments, treat yourself to a soothing massage or try the renowned healing powers of the minerals from the sea’s muddy floor. I chose some cool beers and conversation with newfound friends.

So Jordan turned out to be one of my favorite travel destinations, but you might have to survive airline hell to get there. The returning Royal Jordanian flight was again horrible in economy class, however my friends in Crown Class (for a $700 upgrade each way) had nothing but praise for the airline.

With discerning Americans figuring out that Jordan is not Iraq, Iran, Syria or Lebanon, there has been a 21% increase in tourism since November 2005. It is certainly an island of secular civility and smiling faces in the somber Middle East. ITN

Roger was a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board of North America (6867 Elm St., Ste. 102, McLean, VA 22101; 877/733-5673, www. seejordan.org or www.visitjordan. com).