As we cross the Sheikh Hussein border checkpoint between Israel and Jordan, I am once again confronted with the juxtaposition of modern and ancient in this sunny, mysterious corner of the world. But first, some facts:
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a small country with few natural resources, but it has played a pivotal role in the struggle for power in the Middle East. Jordan’s significance results partly from its strategic location at the crossroads of what Christians, Jews and Muslims call the Holy Land. It is a key ally of the US and, together with Egypt, one of only two Arab nations to have made peace with Israel.
The desert kingdom emerged out of the post-First World War division of the Middle East by Britain and France. So, while it is in ancient land, Jordan is a young country.
Some key dates in Jordan’s history:
1946 – The United Nations recognizes Jordan as an independent sovereign kingdom.
1950 – Jordan annexes West Bank.
1951 – King Abdullah assassinated by Palestinian gunman angry at his apparent collusion with Israel in the carve-up of Palestine.
1952 – Hussein proclaimed king after his father, Talal, is declared mentally unfit to rule.
1957 – British troops complete their withdrawal from Jordan.
1967 – Israel takes control of Jerusalem and West Bank during Six-Day War, major influx of refugees into Jordan.
1994 – Jordan signs peace treaty with Israel, ending 46-year official state of war.
1999 – King Hussein dies. His eldest son Crown Prince Abdullah succeeds to the throne.
My first impressions as we drive from the border with Israel to Amman, Jordan is that the temperatures are colder than expected, and there is trash everywhere. In an interview with the Earth Island Journal, Jordanian cardiologist, Ramzi Tabbalat, laments this lack of care for public spaces. He points to the trash in a forest outside Amman – waste from hundreds of weekend picnics. It is strewn everywhere. The entire ground to the right of a glade is literally buried in garbage. “People just leave their stuff on the ground, throw all their garbage into the woods,” Ramzi Tabbalat complains. Why is that — not just here in the woods, but also in Amman, in every neighborhood, on every meadow, in every corner of the country? Tabbalat shrugs his shoulders. “It is a cultural thing,” he explains. “I guarantee you that every square inch of their homes is spick and span, but because this is not their property, they don’t seem to care,” says Tabbalat. “Jordanians are — and I hate to say this — simply lazy.” Rather than obsess over the trash, I vow to put on my blinders in order to enjoy all that is beautiful about Jordan.
And the beauty is easy to see at the Citadel in Amman. Thankfully, the historic sites are maintained at a higher standard than the rest of the country. The Citadel property includes the ruins of the Temple of Hercules and the Umayyad Palace. Excavations have uncovered signs of human occupation from as far back as the Middle Bronze Age (1650-1550 BC). Archaeologists have been working at the site since the 1920s, but a great part of the Citadel remains unexcavated. I don’t think I have ever walked through ruins in any other country where you could easily pick a piece of 3000 year old pottery off the ground as you strolled the grounds.
North of Amman we visit Jerash, often referred to as the Pompeii of the east because of its unique state of preservation. It’s colonnaded streets, and ruins of the temples of Zeus and Artemis, stand out against the backdrop of modern day house covered hills. The oldest parts of the site have been dated to the 3rd century BC.
Of course the star of the show in Jordan is Petra! From the parking area it is a 1.2 kilometer walk through the siq. The siq is the main entrance to the ancient Nabatean city of Petra in southern Jordan. It is a dim, narrow gorge (in some points no more than 10 feet wide) that winds like a snake through the towering rock walls (over 250 feet tall) and ends at Petra’s most elaborate ruin, the Treasury.
The Treasury is actually an ancient mausoleum, built around the first century AD by the Nabateans. Modern movie goers will recognize it from the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There are many ways to make your way from the parking area, through the siq, and around the tombs, caves, and hills of Petra. Based on my experience, the rules in place are designed more to spread tourist dollars among a greater number of the local Bedouins than they are to preserving Petra. You can hire a horse drawn carriage, but not a horse or donkey to carry you through the gorge to the Treasury. You can hire a donkey, but not a carriage, to take you after the Treasury and up to the monastery. At the end of Petra, you can hire a donkey to take you back as far as the Treasury. After the siq, you will be offered a free ride on a horse to take you to the parking area. But….a $5 tip is expected. And then there are the camels who I think can go most places. I am certain I have mixed up all of these rules and if you are up to it, I recommend walking it all. I walked 80% of the roughly 6 miles around the sight, but gave in to a very charming donkey guy for a portion of my return journey….although this choice was more about my fatigue from a worsening chest cold than Abdullah’s charms.
And this reminds me to mention the Jordanian people. They are warm, friendly, happy, and welcoming….even when they have nothing to gain. They love their children and are proud of their families and country. Omar, our guide, was as funny as most comedians, but also possessed a deep and thorough knowledge of ancient and modern Jordanian history. And he took excellent care of us. On our last night, I was too ill to leave my hotel room. Omar arranged for food and beverages to be brought to my room, then called the next morning to be sure I was on the mend. I wasn’t, but that’s another story. Will I make it to the airport and my flight to Cairo? Of course! This purposeful traveler won’t be beaten by chills and fever! Inshallah (God willing).