Travel Spotlight

Insider Trip: Jordan

Before I left for our 2011 Indagare Insider trip to Jordan, many people expressed concern that I was traveling to the Middle East given the unrest occurring in Egypt, Syria, Israel, Yemen and Bahrain. Jordan, we had been assured, was calm and safe. As one Jordanian said, “People lump the entire Middle East into one. There is fighting and riots across our borders but there are borders.” Calls for reform in Jordan have come with the Arab Spring, but, as of late spring there has been only one clash between protesters, and recently even the weekly protests have stopped as the adored king has been granted time to work on reforms.

On our week-long exploration of the country, our group of ten women never felt unsafe. In fact, on our first night, we were all stunned by the incredible hospitality that is typical in Jordan. We were invited to a friend’s house in Amman for dinner, and among the guests were ambassadors, senators, CEOs, designers, doctors, architects and heads of non-profits. The glamorous women and men welcomed us with a warmth, charm and genuine engagement that contrasted starkly with the behavior of guests at similar gatherings in our hometowns of London and New York. We discussed politics, fashion, education, female role models and our hopes for our children. At the end of the evening, one of the women traveling with me said, “If I went home now, the trip would have been worth it.”

And it had only just begun. Our visits in Amman included the Citadel, where the small archaeological museum contains the oldest statues known to man; the Jordan River Foundation, an artisanal workshop and boutique supported by Queen Rania; the Shoman Foundation, a modern art gallery with edgy Arab exhibits; and FINCA projects (businesses started by low-income women who have received loans from the charitable microfinance non-profit.) We visited one woman in her home, where she creates decorative objects, and another who opened a mini-mart in a Palestine refugee camp. Both explained how they had come to FINCA, how they had grown their businesses and what they had used their loans for. One business allowed a single mother to work from home while raising her daughter. The other had become an integral part of the neighborhood, which we saw first-hand as children came in after school to buy candy and mothers to buy diapers.

Our last evening in Amman, we were invited to have dinner with Prince Talal and his wife Princess Ghida, who live on the Royal compound not far from King Abdullah (Talal’s cousin) and Queen Rania. Once a retreat for King Hussein and Queen Noor, their house, Darat al Khair (House of Blessing), has views of Salt and Jerash. Prince Talal and Princess Ghida have renovated it to create one of the most warm and stylish houses I have ever seen. (Think the best of Tuscany meets Malibu chic with Middle Eastern flair.) Over a delicious meal, we discussed an enormous range of topics but again discovered how much our generation has in common, despite our geographical differences. Before we left, Talal described the sites we would be seeing and offered tips for our journey. (For example: walk away from the camp in Wadi Rum to see the starlit sky in true blackness.)

Only 50 kilometers from Amman, Jerash offered us our greatest surprise of the trip. The site is one of the best-preserved Roman cities in the world. Many consider it as impressive as Ephesus or Pompeii, yet most on our trip had never heard of it before. Founded in 300 to 100 BC (some say by Alexander the Great and others, Ptolemy II), Jerash lay buried for centuries and excavations are ongoing, but what has been uncovered gives a clear sense of a mighty ancient city. We explored its hippodrome, built to hold up to 15,000 spectators; its grand theater with seats for 3,000; and climbed the staircase to the Sanctuary of Zeus, where we could see traces of altars. We walked on the Cardo Maximus, Jerash’s main thoroughfare, which is still lined with massive Ionic columns, and whose centuries-old stone slabs bear the ruts of wagon wheels from the Roman Empire. At its edges in the grass, waiting for archaeologists to reassemble them, lay pieces of fallen columns and ornately carved pediments. And amongst these ruins blossomed the occasional spray of lilac hollyhocks and clusters of red poppies.

From Jerash, we headed to the Dead Sea, where we bobbed in the mineral-rich water with Israel in the distance. A few us opted to have black, sulphorous mud applied right on the shoreline; others chose a mud treatment in the spa. Since our hotel, the Kempinski, boasts the largest spa in the Middle East (an Anantara outpost from Thailand), we all indulged in massages and scrubs before dining out on one of the hotel terraces from which we could see the lights of Jerusalem.

The next morning, we headed up to Mount Nebo, one of the holiest sites in the Middle East. In the Bible, Moses climbed Mount Nebo and viewed the Holy Lands for the first time and God said, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” Moses then died there. We ate lunch in nearby Madaba in a former home that has been turned into a charming restaurant with some of the best Jordanian food in the country. Then, we saw oldest known map of the Holy Land (in the mosaic floor of Madaba’s church) before stopping at a mosaic workshop.

We spent the night in Wadi Musa, just outside the gates of Petra. I had been to Petra before, and I rank it up there with the Pyramids, Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu as one of the most memorable monuments in the world. But since my visit twelve years ago, even more of the Lost City has been uncovered. As we walked down the mile-long gorge, or siq, that leads to the city, which was founded in the 3rd century BC and served as a trading center and home to 30,000 Nabateans, we marveled at altars and life-size statues carved into the rose-colored boulders that have been recently discovered. Our guide explained that at times the passage can be so crammed with tour groups that you see only a sea of heads before you, but we had an empty path of sand just as early travelers would have. The site covers 200 square kilometers yet only fifteen percent of it has been excavated. We spent a few hours exploring the famous Treasury (the building that appeared in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), the Royal Tombs and a newly excavated “temple” that was probably a parliament building. Some hiked up to the Monastery after lunch, others climbed into the Royal Tombs. All of us felt dumbstruck by the beauty of the place, which is imbued with mystery, in part because the buildings that have been carved into this majestic landscape seem to emerge softly out of the rock face, like apparitions.

From Petra we drove a few hours south to Wadi Rum, the famous desert where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed and which T.E. Lawrence described as “vast, echoing and godlike.” The desert valley stretches twenty miles long and five miles wide and is filled with sandstone mountains sinuously shaped by centuries of wind. Our first view was at sunset. We drove jeeps across the red sand, passing camels and Bedouins, and from atop a mountain ledge watched the landscape glow a hundred oranges in the shifting light. (Another tip: Wadi Rum must be seen at sunset and sunup to appreciate its true beauty.) When we arrived at our camp, it was dark and candles in the sand lit a pathway to the dining tent and lounge area, where dozens of carpets, lanterns and cushions created an exotic outdoor sitting room. Our sleeping tents were arranged in two rows, and within each “room,” we found double beds, made up with fresh linens and blankets. The bedside tables were lit by candles and bore baskets of fruit. Another basket contained thick terry towels and toiletries that we could use at the copper basins outside the tents. (Pitchers of hot water would be brought in the morning.) A short walk away were an old-fashioned standing mirror and the toilets (Port-a-Potties), which had sinks. So though we had no electricity, the only standard luxury that we had to do without was a hot shower. We feasted on Middle Eastern delicacies, mezzes, small dishes of hummus, babaghanoush, tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, fried halloumi cheese, and grilled meats and reveled in the privilege of being in such amazing and remote surroundings enjoying great food, wine and company. After dinner, we sat by the fire under the stars. The DJs who had traveled down from Amman filled the air with music, and we had our hands or feet painted with henna. We agreed that it was one of the most memorable nights of our lives, and that we had to return with our families to share the experience.

In fact, that was the leitmotif of our week, which ended after one more night in the seaside resort of Aqaba. Though we had seen a lot of Jordan, we all felt we had to return. We had to share the glories of the country and the incredible warmth of the people with our friends and families. The mix of history, natural beauty and, yes, relevance to current world affairs make Jordan a country that must be visited. And now, when few tourists are there and when there is so much to understand about the Middle East and its importance on the world stage, is a fantastic time to go.

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