Squeezed between seven Middle East countries and slightly smaller than Indiana, it is not unusual to see a camel strolling down a street next to a modern hotel or seeing an ultra-modern mosque like Abu Darwish Mosque that resembles a Maya pyramid in a 7,000-year-old city like Amman. But mostly Jordan is bustling urban areas, ancient ruins or sand, lots of sand.
Since its inception, “in” super powers conquered and ruled Amman. The city, like Rome, was built on seven hills. The Citadel (Jabal al-Qal’a) sits on one of them and boasts a killer panorama of ruins, the ancient amphitheatre and modern Amman. Just to glimpse the Temple of Hercules makes it worth the visit. It effortlessly leads the eye skyward, blotting out everything else. So much to see and so little time, but you don’t want to miss the covered niches and wall carvings of The Audience Hall of Al-Qasr Palace or the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Archeological Museum.
Two-thousand years ago, Jerash, just north of Amman, dominated the trade routes. Though only 20% of it has been excavated, one can easily imagine caravans passing through the Arch of Triumph and pausing at the Hippodrome to watch a chariot race. For a price, the horse-drawn carts still compete for tourists.
Merchandise-laden caravans would make their way through the South Gate and to the Forum, a colonnaded oval plaza. Haunting sounds of bagpipes emulate from the nearby South Theatre that still accommodates 3,000. Would you believe that the original Roman numeral seat numbers are still used for reserved seating?
Cardo Maximus - flanked by columns, niches for nightlights and even manhole covers for a drainage system - stretches about a half-mile from the Forum. It intersects with crossroads that led to Jerusalem, Iraq, Damascus or Amman. Our guide, Yosef, inserts his keys into one of the column cracks. His swaying keys prove that the ancient columns had the flexibility to withstand earthquakes. The Nymphaeum, the outdoor virgin bath, faces the road. Traders must have gotten an eyeful here.
But Jordan is not just about ruins. The food is great. You know you are getting authentic cuisine at Amman’s Tawaheen al-Hawa (Windmills) because three times more Jordanians than tourists eat there. Sample tasty morsels like hummus, baba ghanoush (Jordanian style is just smashed eggplant), mouttabal (more like our baba ghanoush), puffy tortilla-like bread, the traditional entrée, mansaf - a mixture of lamb, yogurt and rice - and Limonana, a Jordanian drink with lime and mint. It’s hard not to pig out.
After stuffing yourself to the gills and seeing the sights of Amman, head north to see some Christian sites. John baptized Jesus at Bethany. “Everything here is holy - holy water, holy land,” says guide, Noor Abaddi.
The baptism site, once the Jordan River, is now rocks covered with a wooden lean-to. Devout Christians still make pilgrimages here to be baptized The Greek Orthodox Church in Madaba boasts a 6th-century mosaic depicting the world as people knew it then. Who would believe that 6th-century Christians were into mosaic map making? They still do mosaics. The Mosaic Arts and Craft Shop sells them along with souvenirs, rugs, Dead Sea cosmetics and bottled sand art - Jordan’s most popular souvenir.
Moses was buried close to Madaba at Mount Nebo. It is a peaceful place where you can get your first glimpse of the Dead Sea. This miraculous body of water, 1,312 feet below sea level, has such a high concentration of salt, it’s impossible to drown. Note: don’t shave before entering the water. You will literally get salt in your wound.
Since the sea and its mud have great healing powers, spa resorts line its shores. The Mövenpick (www.movenpick.com), which resembles a desert fortress in a lush oasis, is probably the best. Its restaurant, The Grill, serves pricey but delicious steaks. Mövenpick’s waterfront is dotted with mud-filled vats. Guests look like New Guinean mudmen after they cover themselves with the gook.
The Dead Sea and the rest of Jordan’s sites pale in comparison to Petra. For thousands of years, visitors have come to the site and gawked. Agatha Christie lived here for two years while she was writing Appointment with Death and it’s where Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade scenes were filmed.
The Cave Bar, a former first century Nabatean tomb and now a 21st-century hot spot, sits near the entrance of the 3/4-mile, narrow, deep and twisting Outer Siq (slot canyon). As the winds howl, you are enveloped in rainbow-colored walls where fig trees grow out of sandstone, chariot ruts still indent the path and obelisks and tombs are carved from rock. The passage narrows and you catch a glimpse of what looks like a rose-colored two-story building. Over 130 feet high and 92 feet wide, the majestic Treasury erupts from the rock. (FYI: it wasn’t really a treasury, but probably a library.) For a price, the tacky camel jockeys will circle around the front with you atop their beast.
To the right and behind the Treasury, square and obelisk tombs are everywhere. Walk a bit farther and a column-bordered road appears. Bedouins lived here until recently and still hawk their wares along the road. The amphitheatre is on the left.
More massive than the Treasury but similar looking, The Dier (monastery), 1,968 feet high and 170 feet wide, seems to burst from the mountain. Its beauty is only matched by the sweeping panoramas it offers. Theory is that it was used for religious ceremonies. Be forewarned: The trek to it is a winding, uphill, 2 1/2 -mile schlep.
Next to Petra, the rest of Jordan is just sand, ruins hamlets, mountains and old fortresses-but all are worth seeing.
IF YOU GO
Jordan Tourist Board: www.visitjordan.comThe U.S. State Department has issued travel warnings due to terrorism threats.