05 March 2004
West of troubled Iraq and east of weary Palestine, south of scary Syria and north of suffocating Saudi Arabia is the happy little Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. A western consumer of popular media might conclude that the Middle East is one homogenous sea of danger and disappointment, stretching from Marrakesh to Medina. To do that would be to overlook a tiny, peaceful gem in the middle of it all.
Indeed, Jordan suffers from the clowns to the left of me, jokers to my right syndrome more so than perhaps any other country in the world. With Israeli helicopter gunships lighting up neighborhoods in the West Bank and Gaza, and with suicide bombers making a mess of the New Iraq, the pleasant kingdom stretching about 250 miles from Aqaba to Umm Qays is often lumped in with its less-than-perfect neighbors and dismissed by the cautious traveler.
This is a mistake. Jordan is the perfect tourist country. It is enjoys pleasant weather all year round, suffering neither from the heat that oppresses Iraq or the humidity that chokes the Gulf states. The warm, dry climate and sunlit blue skies are quite refreshing and uplifting to the spirit.
Eastern Jordan is mostly empty desert, so when one thinks of this country, it is best to consider the populated narrow mountainous corridor stretching south to north, from the Red Sea to the Sea of Galilee. Starting down at the Red Sea there is Aqaba, where dramatic jagged red and orange mountains meet a deep blue ocean teaming with colorful marine life. The waters are a diver’s paradise and the lazy sway of the palm trees lining the pedestrian malls make it easy to understand why Aqaba is a favorite weekend retreat for the vigorous young King Abdullah II and his stunning Queen Rania.
Just northeast of Aqaba is Wadi Rum, towering battleships of stone captained by the gods are permanently anchored in an enormous sea of red desert. It is a place where the big sky reinvigorates and expands the imagination and the absolute silence dissolves all connections to the day-to-day.
Moving up the Desert Highway we encounter Petra, the fantastic Rose City built by the ancient (and to most Westerners unheard of) Nabateans into the faces of sheer cliffs. The walk down the narrow gorge leading to the famed Treasury building pumps giddy adrenaline though one’s system; the mind wrapped in anticipation of seeing the rocky pink columns for the first time.
Further north is the mountaintop castle of Karak, captured by Saladin during his rebuke of the Third Crusade. Beyond that is the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. The salinity of the Dead Sea is so extreme, that one can actually sit up in its warm, therapeutic waters. Thick, black, mineral-rich mud squishes between the toes as one wades in.
It is the Jordan River that feeds the Dead Sea, and at one of its gentle bends, one can find the place where Jesus was submerged by John the Baptist. Overlooking this spot, and indeed the entire Jordan Valley, near the ancient Christian town of Madaba, is Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the promised land and breathed his last.
Then there is Amman, the capital; a clean, safe city packed with fantastic restaurants, five-star hotels, fabulous nightclubs, and attractive, stylish citizens. A half hour up from there is another fantastic city, albeit an ancient and deserted one. Jerash, with its two large amphitheaters and colonnaded streets provides a modern visitor with a glimpse of the glory of the Roman empire.
And at the very top of the country is Umm Qays, with its view of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. Umm Qays is another “Jesus Slept Here” place, where, according to Matthew 8:28, the Son of God drove out the demons that were possessing two men and sent said demons into a herd of unlucky pigs.
This is Jordan. Over the course of this series of articles, I will be exploring each of the component parts that make up this magical desert kingdom by the sea.