JORDAN: A STUDY IN CONTRASTS

By SUSAN McKEE

Terrorist attacks. Suicide bombers. Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli tanks. The news reports were full of reasons not to travel to the Middle East last year as the hopes for a peaceful settlement of the centuries-old conflict faded once again. But, I decided to travel to Jordan anyway. If not now, when?

Spring was in full bloom in Jordan when I landed in early April. Landscapes that would later turn brown under the relentless summer sun were lush and green from recent rains. Flowers covered the hillsides, and water rushed through the valleys.

Amman, the capital, had been scrubbed clean in anticipation of the summit. Flags from the attending nations lined the main roads, and flower beds at intersections had been freshly planted. The thoroughly modern city of about one million was resplendent in the sunshine.

The area has been settled as long as human memory can recall. Its location made it historic crossroads, a land traversed for millennia by traders from Africa, Asia and Europe. Its place names are familiar from Bible stories: Mount Nebo, where Moses glimpsed the Promised Land; Sodom and Gomorrah; the Dead Sea, Bethany. Even the King’s Highway, the route I’d drive to explore much of the country, is described in the Book of Genesis.

In downtown Amman is a visible reminder of the region’s Roman past. An enormous amphitheatre, carved out of the hillside in the second century of the Common Era, looms over the bustling city center.

Jordan itself is a recent creation, forged in the fires of World War II and reshaped after an ill-fated attack on Israel. Although the Hashemite Kingdom still shares a long and oft-contested border with the Jewish state, it has recently settled into a comfortable if not neighborly co-existence. It’s possible to travel between the two with minimal paperwork, and the frontier itself is marked but lightly defended.

Except for horrific news reports thoughtfully e-mailed by friends back home, there was nothing on my 2-1/2 week trip through Jordan to remind me of the often-bloody conflict taking place next door. All the Jordanians I talked to, Muslim or Christian, native or immigrant, have decided to ignore what’s happening to the West, and fervently hope the conflict stays there.

Because of the summit preparations in Amman resulting in rerouted traffic and other security hassles I decided to rent a car and head into the countryside. Driving in Jordan is easy. Road signs are in English as well as in Arabic, there are gas stations everywhere, and I had two identical maps. I’d use the one in English to plan my route, but if I needed directions along the way, I’d point to the place name on its Arabic-language twin if my informant didn’t speak English (most Jordanians do).

Americans are a rarity north of Amman, yet the best Roman ruins are in that direction. My first stop was Jerash, a town begun in 70 C.E. now in the midst of extensive excavation and reconstruction. Entrance to the ancient site is through the massive triple-gated Hadrian’s Arch. Beyond it are all the expected features of a prosperous imperial outpost: the hippodrome (horse track), an oval plaza with 56 Ionic columns still standing leading to the main street or cardo maximus, temples to Zeus and Artemis, two amphitheaters and an elaborate nymphaeum or fountain. Later settlers on the same site added Byzantine churches and a mosque.

Two more excavated Roman towns beckon travelers further north, toward the Jordan River valley. Pella, a Greek town appropriated by the Romans, is dotted with archaeological expeditions from several countries. Near the border with Israel and the Golan Heights (Syrian territory occupied by Israel) is Umm Qais, with its clear view of the Sea of Galilee.

In the middle of all this ancient Roman splendor is the very modern city of Irbid, Jordan’s second largest. It’s a university town with an astonishing number of internet cafés. Checking my e-mail wasn’t a problem: I had 233 places from which to choose! On the campus of Yarmouk University (named for a nearby river) is the Museum of Jordanian Heritage. Its English-language signage and carefully edited collection makes learning about the region a snap and, admission is free.

Urban landscapes aren’t the only attractions in Jordan. Heading south, I bypassed Amman to follow a legendary scenic route along the Wadi Shu’aib. Lush foliage lines the walls of this stream valley, carpeted in spring with wildflowers. Further south, the steep slopes of the much larger Wadi Mujib, which formed the border between the Biblical Amorrites and the Moabites, were dry above the spring torrents.

Castle ruins still dominate hilltops in much of Jordan. Two good places to visit are Ajlun, built by the Ayyubid Arabs in 1185, and Kerak, a Crusader fortress built in the first half of the 12th Century.

The northwestern shore of the Dead Sea is being developed as a spa area. Three hotels sit alongside each other, each providing luxurious amenities and a superb view. Bathing in this water is not a typical day at the beach you can’t sink in the 30% saline solution. And, the sandy shore is an illusion. The sea bed itself is black mud, said to be replete with curative properties and a large dose of cosmetic magic. Visitors cover themselves with the mud, let it dry, then rinse it off and repeat the whole process.

Just inland at Hammamat Ma’in is another kind of spa, one that dates at least from Roman times. Here the goal is bathing in the thermal springs cascading from the mountainside. The fresh water is naturally heated, with some springs as hot as 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The top tourist attraction in Jordan is the ancient town of Petra, located about half way between Amman and the Gulf of Aqaba. Remember the location of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade? That enormous building carved from orangey-red sandstone is here, along with hundreds of its cousins. Prehistoric settlers no doubt lived in the natural caves dotting the rugged landscape. Later inhabitants learned that the sandstone was easy to carve, and added elaborate façades to enlarged caverns in the rock behind.

I’d arrived in Petra intending to spend three days, and ended up staying for five. Much of the time was spent exploring the fabled ancient ruins from the valley floor to the High Place of Sacrifice, an altar with an endless vista. I also took a day trip to nearby Wadi Rum. Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in its stark desert landscape, and I almost expected Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif to come racing into view on horseback as I wandered the sand dunes and rock formations.

My last stop in Jordan before returning to Amman was Aqaba another place made famous by that classic 1960s desert movie. But, instead of a sleepy backwater I found a modern metropolis one that resembles San Diego with its busy port, palm-lined waterfront and bustling tourist trade. It was with great reluctance that I pointed my car north along the Wadi Araba and headed back to Amman for a final weekend in Jordan. There, I took the time to go shopping and found beautiful Damascene silk to bring home.

My advice? Get to Jordan before hordes of American tourists discover what a wonderful place it is to visit.

IF YOU GO

I planned my trip with the help of The Rough Guide to Jordan by Matthew Teller. I made hotel reservations only for the first night and made the rest of my decisions day-by-day, based on traffic, weather and whim.

Once you arrive, buy a copy of Art and History of Jordan (English edition) it’s available at virtually every tourist location. It gives a comprehensive and beautifully illustrated look at places to see from one of the kingdom to the other.

Renting a car gives you the most flexibility much of Jordan is off the beaten path, but it also is possible to arrange for transportation by taxicab to most destinations (it’s a small country). Allowing for the occasional goat on the road, it’s no more difficult to drive here than in, say, Italy.

Amman, the capital, has all the usual brand names including Radisson, Marriott and Hyatt. My favorite, however, is the Hisham Hotel in the heart of the embassy quarter. It’s family-owned with a loyal clientele drawn by its location, good food and country inn ambiance. For reservations, call 962 6 464 2720, fax 962 6 464 7540 or e-mail (as I did) hishamhotel@nets.com.jo.

Outside Amman, I relied on my guidebook and handouts from the tourist office for leads. A government rating of three stars or higher guarantees that the hotel has on-site filtered water (which is safe to drink from the tap). Favorites include Mercure Ma’in Spa Hotel (962 5 3245 500), Dana Guest House (962 6 03 368497) and Petra Forum Guest House (962 3 215 6266, petrafh@nets.com.jo).

It’s hard to recommend restaurants because there are so many great choices. My advice is to ask the desk clerk at your hotel. Don’t miss the freshly squeezed orange juice and lemonade, pita right out of the bread oven in any of the thousands of bakeries, all kinds of grilled meats (especially lamb) and the multitudes of salads also served as appetizers and even for breakfast.

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