Jordan – A Country steeped in History
Wednesday, May 27th, 2009
In my opinion, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is one of the most underrated tourist destinations in the Middle East. It is a country with an interesting historical connection going back to the Bronze Age and was part of the Roman Empire in 64 B.C. From the 7th century it was controlled by the Arabs, then during the 11th and 12th centuries by the Crusaders and from the 16th century until 1918 it was under Turkish rule. After which the eastern part of the country, by the river Jordan, came under British domination and was renamed Trans-Jordan.
However, it was not until 1946 that Jordan became an independent kingdom. King Hussein came to the throne in 1952 and over the years became a great advocate for peaceful coexistence in this region of the world. After losing his brave battle against cancer he died in 1999 and was succeeded by his son King Abdullah II whose mother was an English lady and the late King’s second wife. (He was married four times). King Abdullah, like his father before him, continues to work effortlessly to bring about a peaceful accord between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Although this is not an oil producing country, industries do include oil refining and the extraction and processing of phosphates in which Jordan is the world’s third largest exporter. Agriculture is concentrated in the lush Jordan valley where citrus fruits, vegetables, olives and cereals are grown. There are also fine herds of cattle and sheep in this wonderfully fertile area. Tourism has also become more and more important as a potential money earner for the State.
The capital Amman is a fascinating city to explore. In Roman times it was known as Philadelphia, long before that well-known city of the same name in the United States of America! With its bustling streets, luxury hotels, magnificent palaces, attractive villas and large commercial area it is everything and more that one would expect from a thriving and buoyant metropolis. Within the city boundaries, there are still some historical sites to be seen with the most important being the huge 2000 years old but beautifully restored Roman amphitheatre. There is seating for 5000 and numerous concerts and cultural shows are presented throughout the year. Adjoining this Roman gem are the costume and folklore museums containing rare and varied collections of traditional Jordanian garments and handicrafts. Also to be seen are the Roman ruins on Citadel Hill and the nearby archaeological museum.
Not too far from Amman there are a number of desert castles which were built during the 7th century. This was a period of great prosperity when the ruling dynasty of Islam (the Omayyads) were the controlling force. The best preserved and most interesting include Qasr al Harana, Qasr Amra, with its rare frescoes showing varied lifelike scenes during the Omayyad period and the Qal’at Al Azraq which enjoys global fame for having been the headquarters of Sheriff Hussein of Mecca and T.E. Lawrence during the Arab uprising against the Ottoman empire. The room directly above the entrance gatehouse inside this black rock fortress is thought to have been used by Colonel Lawrence. It was also from Azraq that he set out with the army of Sheriff Hussein in September 1918 for a final assault on Damascus which marked the defeat of the Turks and the subsequent ending of World War I.
Just an hour’s drive from the capital, between the mountains of Moab and Gilhead, is the lowest point on the surface of the earth. At more than 400 metres below the sea level are the waters of the Dead Sea. This lake is fed by the river Jordan and because it has no outlet it contains an extremely high percentage of salt and supports no life. It has an historical and spiritual legacy of its own and legend has it that under the sea are the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Today people visit for its curative qualities, especially those suffering from rheumatic ailments or skin problems. Because of the high density of salt you cannot sink and you can even float whilst reading your favourite book! There are a few hotels but the potential for tourism within this area is enormous and some of the international hotel chains have already built luxury spa resorts.
Continuing in a southerly direction you reach the well preserved ruins of the Karak fortress which historians generally agree was the capital of the kingdom of Moab and it was certainly a city of strategic importance during the Crusades.
Close by at Mount Nebo is the highest vantage point in the Moabite range and it was here that a small hilltop church was built in the 3rd century A.D. and in the 6th century a large basilica was built on the ruins. Here you will not only be able to enjoy a wonderful view of the surrounding landscape but also admire the finely structured and well preserved mosaics including one fully intact colourful floor.
Not to be missed is a visit to Jerash in northern Jordan to see and admire one of the finest and best preserved Roman outposts in the world. Stroll through the street of columns until you reach the oval plaza, stepping on the still visible tracks created by chariot wheels in ancient times. Stay until the sunset when the whole area is steeped in a golden glow – a truly memorable experience!
No visit to Jordan would be complete without seeing Petra, considered to be the unofficial “8th wonder of the world.” It is hidden deep within the encircling craggy mountains of the rift valley between the Dead Sea and Aqaba. This natural phenomenon is in fact Petra’s main gateway! The rose red ancient metropolis of the Nabataeans, half as old as time and of unbelievable beauty was carved from the living rocks over 2000 years ago and only unfolds after walking or going by donkey through a deep, narrow hidden gorge. The treasures within the city are breathtakingly beautiful and the sudden view of the most spectacular monument – El Khazneh – is a sight to behold. There are also numerous tombs, houses, civic monuments and an amphitheatre cut into and adorning the natural rock formation. The whole area is at its best in early morning and late afternoon when the sun also warms the rocks and Petra becomes a multicoloured paradise. The Nabataeans were responsible for fully developing and organising the city for hundreds of years before it came under Roman domination after which the Egyptians, Syro-Phoenicians and Hellenistics added their influence to this world acclaimed ancient marvel.
A further reminder that this is “Lawrence of Arabia Country” are the natural sculptured hills and mountains of Wadi Rum in which Lawrence ventured forth. “Vast, echoing and God-like” – these are the words he used in describing this most magnificent desert landscape. There are challenging mountain climbs of some 1750 metres high for the serious trekkers, whilst the less adventurous can enjoy an easier route through the colourful hills and canyons. You may even prefer a camel ride or a night under the stars in a Bedouin tent. Although the nomadic Bedouin life of yesteryear is almost a thing of the past, with many having now settled in cities and towns, the low-slung black tents and pack camels have fortunately not vanished completely. Travellers can also still have the pleasure of a shared meal and a drink with these traditional desert nomads – another cherished memory of this diverse country!
Where to stay?
Amman has several world class hotels but I would recommend the luxurious Radisson SAS Hotel in the heart of the diplomatic and business districts. As a well-known international leisure group you can be assured of a warm welcome at any Radisson Hotel and this one is no exception. It is ideally suited for both the leisure and business travellers and is an excellent base to explore the metropolis and the beauty of the surrounding countryside.
For your time in Petra I would like to suggest that you stay in the small village of Taybet, high in the hills only 9 kilometres away from this ancient gem. Here, with breathtaking views has been built the Taybet Zaman Hotel and Resort Village where you will be transported back to late 19th century rural Jordan but with the added advantage of all the luxuries one would expect in a top hotel today. All 103 rooms and the Royal suite are tastefully furnished in 19th century style and are surrounded by picturesque gardens. There is an attractive restaurant, a bar, an open-air swimming pool, a Turkish bath in an original Ottoman design, a soukh were you can buy beautiful pottery and other crafts as well as a museum where the historical past comes to life. This is a truly tranquil retreat after a day’s sightseeing!
How to get to Jordan?
Fly the flag by booking with their National Airline Royal Jordanian. It was established in 1963 at the instigation of the late King Hussein and is now recognised as one of the major carriers in the Middle East enjoying international status flying to and from over 60 destinations including most of the capital cities of Europe and many of the major cities in the Middle East.
Jordan then awaits you with its great natural beauty, its historical and archaeological wealth, its deserts and castles, warm sparkling springs and cool rushing waters. The old and the new side by side. It is a land steeped in history and yet there is still so much remaining to be discovered just where it lies, more often than not hidden beneath the surface. No matter where you travel within Jordan you will always be surrounded by the warmth and hospitality of its people – go and find out for yourself for you will not be disappointed!
By David Garson