ON THE SURFACE, Jordan, surrounded by zones of danger and threat, seems to be a sea of even -tempered tranquility. It’s the Switzerland of the Middle East, which squeezes it this way and that. As we (there were a scant four persons) sat on the deck of a small tourist vessel in Aqaba, calmly gliding into the sunset, we could see Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and, with a dollop of imagination, Saudi Arabia. Three hundred miles to our north, on the country’s northernmost border, you could stumble into Syria.
Zones of danger, all.
That’s Egypt we’re looking at
No wonder, along the endless stretches of near empty highways, police and army outposts punctuate the beat of produce-heavy trucks. Theirs is a reassuring presence.
And not unexpectedly, three million of Jordan’s ten million inhabitants are refugees. About a million are Syrian and Just under two million of them are Palestinian, hoping any day to return to a land, their land, free from the boot of Israel on their necks.
Sometimes the mountains in Jordan seem a painted backdrop
The land is stunningly beautiful. It changes colour, from the pale rust-streaked ochres of the dry South, where the silent deserts drift into infinity, to the more verdant, fecund greens of the North fed by the River Jordan. And both extremes share the drama of their mountains: vertical cliffs that seem, only yesterday, to have punched their way up out of the soil.
The ever-changing colours of the magical mountains
They’re show-offy these naked cliffs. No demure covering of trees or lamb-nibbled grassland for them. Not them: they flaunt their waves of embedded minerals, the ores and phosphates that daub them with painterly exuberance. Some are polished smooth with soft undulating curves, as if to invite caresses. They look otherworldly. But perhaps that’s because I’ve seen them in The Martian and Star Wars. The faces of many display distinct cuneiform shapes; their personal biographies etched by nature. Geology as writing instructor.
These are the faces of an ancient land.
This is the land of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here walked Moses in his search of a promised land. And John the Baptist, in search of a promised saviour. And Elijah, in his chariot ascending to heaven.
Of course these humble events (duh…the birth of Christianity!) representing no grand conquest, have left no marks. There’s a spot at Mount Nebo, where Moses supposedly saw the Promised Land and there’s still the rough stone floor of a church built where Christ was supposedly baptised. Imagination, or faith, is required. Both places are graced with understatedly attractive memorial places of worship. All this Christian eschatology in a Muslim land!
The area where the famous baptism took place
No such physical reticence was shown by the all-conquering Romans. The presence of Zeus (and his daughter Artemis) in this ancient land is strong, especially in the incredibly well preserved city of Jerash (or Antioch). The highly prosperous city was destroyed by an earthquake two thousand years ago and rediscovered, almost untouched at the end of the nineteenth century. In its awesome colonnaded avenues and reverential temples, the might of Rome still forces visitors’ eyes downward to the elaborate, well preserved mosaics with their lovingly patterned flora and fauna and upwards to the flora of the commanding corinthians.
Hadrian’s gate at Jerash
Before the Romans, you’ll find the Greeks. And before the Greeks, the Nabataeans. And all those old Biblical names of the Ammonites and the Edomites and the Moabites (who did battle with the Biblical King David and later King Solomon). The early religions that celebrated Dushara turned into the worship of Zeus that, with Constantine, evolved into early Christianity. Though the sword of Mohammed brought Allah, here Islam coexists peacefully – it seems – with Christianity.
They are not enemies. The enemies lie to the West: Israel (not Judaism) and to the East: the Saudi Wahabi zealots.
A submerged tank. (A good place for them all)
Here history is far from academic. the past is the present. It’s not a little unsettling to be presented with an ontology of events that denies the mythos of King David’s all-conquering Israelites. That, we were told, is our Western version. Even pride in Nabatean hydraulic engineering skills – And remember this was two thousand three hundred years ago – is still strong. To us, Petra is a place of breathtaking beauty. To the Jordanian (a country of barely one hundred years) it’s their living legacy; a physical embodiment of identity.
Petra is breath taking. And worthy of its accolade as one of the Modern Seven Wonders of the world. You approach it via the Siq, a long winding passageway that snakes through a narrow high-cliffed chasm, created, it would appear as if sundered by an angry god. Its colours – reds and golds and slashes of black on exposed white seams – vary continuously with the ever changing light. The Siq itself is worth the journey
The canyon leading to the Valley of the tombs
It is when, wearied with the long walk, you suddenly glimpse the first, partially obscured sight of the vast, imposing, multi-tiered Treasury building, deftly built into the rock, that all weariness evaporates. “Look on my works ye mighty and despair” Indeed. This is a sight to lift any spirit. And here begins your experience of this extraordinary place. There are, on either side of the wide flat ‘avenue’ that separates the towering cliffs of this ancient necropolis, hundreds of tombs, some simple, others more elaborate, gouged into the rock face; caves where some Bedouin still live; the vast hemisphere of a stone stadium built for seven thousand; and stairways carved into the hill (for maintenance of the channels and sluices that guide the flow of water to underground cisterns).
Te iconic image of The Treasury (so called because of Pharaonic treasures hidden there)
The hills house the living and the dead
Here the living and the dead co-existed. No place of the dead feels so filled with the spirit of life.
Here the Nabateans lived and died and withstood armies…until Rome (whose strong imperial presence is an acknowledge part of history – and great for Tourism – but not a part of identity…it seems to me, the casual observer)
The past is the present.
Balfour’s broken promises of 1918 (when King Faisal’s promised reward for ousting the Ottomans – with the help of Lawrence of Arabia – was banishment) still rankle. The multiple crusader forts remain reminders of brutal conquest and brutish iconoclasm. And just to the West across the River Jordan (diverted after the Six Days War to Israeli ruled Jericho) lies the ongoing anger of Israel’s colonisation of Palestine (The collective memory forgets the inconvenient fact that the Jordanians had themselves occupied and colonised Palestine)… and of the West’s continued intransigence and of Trump’s inflammatory ignorance.
The dangers are without, not within. Here there is great tribal pride…and harmony. The present and revered Royal family are Hashemites. The terms trips off the tongue in a way “Windsor’s” never can. For this is a society seemingly proud to be monarchical. We saw (and broke bread with) the Bedouin. They remain nomadic, herding sheep and goat and living in tents and, with their camels, shifting their locations seasonally to beat the weather. Just as they’ve done since the beginning of time. And even those who have settled into brick homes still have carpeted tents outside for guests and entertainment.
Bedouin with his camel
Our guide was from the Farmer, northern tribe. Some of the women wear veils, many don’t. The masking hijab is nowhere to be seen.
“I am large. I contain multitudes”
Of course, in Jordan you’ll find the beaches and the beach chairs and the infinity pools and spas and tanned bodies and snorkelling and a splendid Yellow Submarine and what have you. And we sure enjoyed all of those decadent pleasures.
But if that’s all you’re after, go to Barbados. Jordan offers you a reorientation of the Middle East where you begin to appreciate just how closely clustered these countries are; where the present still burns with the insults of the past and where the future reality of the Middle East remains a cuneiform as yet unwritten