Take everything you think you know about the Middle East and put it to the side. Better yet, shred it, because what you think you know is probably some cartoonish stereotype you saw on cable news.
Ready? Good. Because this is Jordan.
I’ll admit I knew very little about the country before I made my travel plans. I’ve learned a thing or two since then.
Jordan is a small country and a safe country. They have a king, but a despotic dictator he is not. In reality Jordan for all intents and purposes is a modern country with deeply embedded cultural roots.
I hate that I have to say this, but they are not terrorists, which many Jordanians felt they needed to point out owing to Western media coverage of the region. And that should make you feel terrible inside. How would you feel if you felt the need to constantly remind foreigners that you’re not a terrorist? We can do better, folks.
What Jordan really is, is a place of hospitality, adventure, history, and food you would fight a small child for. If you can’t see that by the end of this story, then I’ve failed you. Because anyone with the means to travel needs to get their ass to Jordan.
I traveled to Jordan in May of 2016 with Bestway Tours & Safaris. We started our week-long excursion throughout the country in Amman, the country’s sprawling capital of four million. From here we took a day trip out to the Greco-Roman ruins of Jerash, also known as Antioch on the Golden River. With the Oval Forum and Cardo Maximus road remarkably intact alongside countless other buildings, it was easy to start appreciating how much history really is in Jordan.
Then, it was off to Ajloun Castle where Muslims defended themselves against invading Crusaders of the 12th Century. Considering the Crusaders’ torture-y record, one can understand the need for big, protective stones.
May is when the punishing heat starts to make its annual return to Jordan, so needless to say I built up a bit of an appetite before heading to Jafra for dinner in the heart of Amman’s conglomeration of spaghetti streets. We’ve got arayes, tabbouleh salad, hummus, kibbeh balls, fatoosh, samboosa and even some french fries to make an American feel at home.
Suffice it to say Jafra lived up to the credible hype surrounding Middle Eastern cuisine.
Jordan has ambitions for rail in the country. After all, the Hedjaz Jordan railway was a staple of the Ottoman Empire’s rule in the region up until World War I. But for now, people drive. And if you can drive in Jordan, as my guide Abdel pointed out, you can drive anywhere.
Our first substantial drive took us some 200 kilometers south to the historic town of Dana with stops in Madaba and Mount Nebo along the way — both with connections to Abrahamic religion In Madaba, you have your contingency of Greek Orthodox Christians, who besides making up the majority of the country’s Christian population, are responsible for Jordanian wine. So fear not, you lush. You can still get your buzz on in Jordan.
In Mount Nebo you have the site where Moses — yes, the burning bush-talking, “let my people go,” Red Sea-splitting Moses — is said to have seen the Promised Land. But instead of returning to his wandering roots, he died and is believed to be buried there.
To be fair, he was 120.
Dana is unlike any village I’ve seen before. At around 500 years old, it manages to preserve what Jordanian villages used to look like with scenic views that rival anything else in the world. Speaking of these scenic views, you get them all and then some hiking the Dana Biosphere Reserve with Mahmood.
As a proud member of the historically semi-nomadic Bedouin tribe, Mahmood easily dances over the rocky landscape. He says he walked for three hours each way to get to school as a kid, putting to shame your grandparents’ stories of walking uphill in both directions.
Ah, yes, breaking for tea — a staple of Jordanian hospitality. They say the average human body is 50 to 60 percent water. But by the end of Jordan, I’m fairly certain my fluid balance was mostly reliant on tea.
The importance of tourism was a drumbeat of conversation throughout. Jordan doesn’t have natural resources. “Tourism is our oil,” many say, and is responsible for the employment of hundreds of thousands of Jordanians. At its best, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. 2010 saw 8 million visitors with $4.4 billion in revenues between travelers and medical tourists.
Then, the Arab Spring scared people away from the greater region and tourism in Jordan dropped 70 percent between 2010 and 2015.
But I’m here to tell my fellow North American travelers that they would be incomprehensibly foolish not to have Jordan at the very top of their international wishlist. Yeah, the Eiffel Tower is neat, I suppose, if you’re into phallic-shaped iron.
But it is not Petra.
What compares to the marvel that is Petra? Nothing in my mind — and I’ve had the considerable good fortune to travel a bit.
You might recognize this sandstone carving from the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where our bullwhip-archaeologist knelt humbly among booby traps, took a leap of faith, and choose wisely.
Turns out that was all movie magic. I know, I know. I was just as surprised.
Historically this carving, now known as The Treasury, was a Nabataean tomb from as far back as the 5th Century BC. So, y’know, not young.
Now my impression was that you walk up to this new wonder of the world and go home. Turns out there’s an entire ancient city to explore full of ruins from a whole mess of civilizations that came and went. It’s like hiking in a national park, but with 20-plus centuries of history staring you down. Again, there’s absolutely nothing quite like a day or two hiking 20 to 30 miles in Petra’s Nabataean Kingdom.
It would seem impossible to follow Petra, like Amy Schumer or Chris Rock taking a bow and handing the mic over to another act. At least it seems impossible until you get to Jordan where impressing people is kinda its thing.
Have you seen The Martian? Do these red-hued mountains and seemingly endless desert look familiar? Welcome to Mars on Earth, Wadi Rum — the largest wadi or valley in Jordan.
The Martian isn’t the only film to be shot here. In fact, Wadi Rum has stepped in for Mars or another alien planet several times. It also played itself in the cinematic classic, Lawrence of Arabia.
Like Petra, there’s a lot of history to unpack from prehistoric human culture to the Arab Revolt of the early 20th Century. But after all that hiking, I was tired. So I collapsed into the back of a jeep to take in the sights and sunset.
I mean, look at that. You may have some stereotypes about the Middle East to break through, but that’s your issue. That’s on you. This right here is pure peace.
I’ve never “glamped” before, but Jordan came with a lot of firsts. So I spent my night in Wadi Rum with SunCity Camp. No need to hoist my home on my back, oh no, it’s all right here. Though I do enjoy earning my experience, I will admit that this did not suck.
I’m also not typically one for animal-powered experiences, but I’ll generally try anything once. Plus it’s the Arabian desert! How could I not throw myself onto the back of a camel and continue the cinematic fantasy that’s been playing out in my head since Petra?
Every traveler is different. Some aren’t cut out for the hiking or even wandering about in the desert. Some enjoy the comforts of home or even a bit of extravagance while checking off their bucket list.
Jordan has that with the Ramada Resort along the Dead Sea, that famous salt lake 429 meters below sea level — the planet’s lowest elevation on land.
The salinity alone makes it impossible for life to exist, hence the name. So I did what one does in a place like this. I waded in and allowed myself to float in the dense water’s natural buoyancy with Palestine off in the distance.
I didn’t learn much Arabic before heading to Jordan, but one word stuck with me — “insha’allah.” In English, “God willing” or “if God wills it.”
I first heard it in a recent news story where a flight passenger heard their neighbor say, “insha’allah.” She thought he was talking about martyrs and reported him, leading the innocent passenger to get booted from his flight and questioned by the FBI. Her ignorance found fear in a beautiful word that implies hope.
I couldn’t help but see the obvious parallel between that encounter and how many of my countrymen and women view the Middle East and lump Jordan into baseless, negative characterizations when in reality it’s an indescribably beautiful place. I fall flat as a travel writer in aptly describing Jordan, its culture, its people, and yes, the peaceful, comforting sound of the daily calls to prayer — and I’m about as religious as a rock.
Of course I heard “insha’allah” frequently in Jordan.
“What time will we get there?”
“Insha’allah, in about an hour.”
“How hot will it be?”
“Insha’allah, not too bad.”
But more to the point, “Insha’allah, people will come back.”
At the beginning I said Jordan is a place of hospitality, adventure, history and food you would fight a small child for. I said if you couldn’t see that by the end of this video, then I’ve failed you.
But I don’t want to fail the fine people of Jordan, so you at least better see an inkling of what I see. And insha’allah, you’ll get your ass to Jordan soon.
Disclosure: I traveled with Bestway Tours & Safaris as a guest blogger. Book your own tour of Jordan with Bestway Tours & Safaris using the code JOC16/JB and save $100.
As always, all opinions are my own.