Jordan - land of the sacred and the secular
Exterior of St John The Baptist Church, by the river Jordan. Pic:- Kernan Andrews
By Kernan Andrews
At the crossroads of empires and trade routes and at the epicentre of three of the world’s major religions, Jordan is a country steeped in the richest of history, but with its face also turned towards the future.
I travelled to The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, to give it its full title, in August and for a first trip to the Middle East there can be no better choice.
The kingdom enjoys political stability which many of its neighbours do not; the ruling monarch King Abullah II is promoting economic and social progress; it has universal suffrage for all over 20; and women are better integrated into positions of power in government and business than anywhere else in the region.
In short, if you have preconceptions about going to a Middle Eastern state, best leave them in the departure lounge of whatever airport you’re going from.
I went with Tucan Travel, a company I have often used before, and would highly recommend to anyone thinking of going to Jordan. Tucan has an option for a week long tour of the kingdom and while that may seem short you pack an extraordinary amount in a short time and come out at the end well satisfied.
Jordan is part of the Holy Land (Jordan, Syria, Israel/Palestine) and even if you have a Richard Dawkins like attitude to religion, any trip which does not take in the breathtaking Greek Orthodox churches and archaeological sites will be much the poorer for it.
The main sites of historical religious interest are located around the Dead Sea and River Jordan. Our first stop was in the town of Madaba. Its Greek Orthodox church features a mosaic floor depicting a sixth century map of Jerusalem and the Middle East - the oldest of its kind in the world. Also breathtaking are the extraordinary 18/19th century mosaics which hang on the church walls - the beautiful portrait of the Madonna and Child especially is worth some viewing time.
It was 51 degrees heat the day we were travelling - the hottest of the week - so before you leave Madaba stop into the shop across from the church and buy a keffiyeh (the white and red headscarves distinctive to the region) to cover your head, not for religious reasons, but to protect yourself from sunstroke.
It’s practical and Jordanians do not see it as any ‘affront’ to their culture. Indeed they will be happy to show you how to wear the keffiyeh properly and passers by will give you light hearted encouragement if you are trying to tie it around your head yourself.
From there it was on to Mount Nebo to climb the hill from which Moses saw the Promised Land. From it’s summit you can see the Dead Sea and Israel/Palestine and on a clear day Jerusalem.
Next was the River Jordan to see the baptism site of Jesus. Again this is worth seeing even if you are not religious. The heat, the aridness of the region, and its desolate beauty make real the stories of Jesus and John The Baptist fasting in the wilderness and give a human dimension and experience to what both men endured in the desert.
The nearby church, with its golden dome gleaming in the baking sun, is also a must see, as inside its walls, pillars, and ceiling are decorated in their entirety with magnificent murals of scenes from the Bible.
After that it was off to the Dead Sea for some relaxation. This is the lowest point on earth and the water here is c37 per cent salt which means you can only float. It is an amazing feeling to be in water this buoyant, but try floating on your front for a strange feeling of both lightness and pressure. Also wear flip-flops when walking down to the water. The caked, hard, sand will boil the bare feet off you!
After this action packed day, it was back to our hotel in the capital of Amman. It is a massive sprawling city, built on numerous hills, with long roads winding and dipping along its routes. It’s a good place to start off from and has some sites of architectural interest from Roman times.
The city is home to the King Abullah Mosque, a giant place of worship, with pale blue tiles and massive minarets. Five times a day the muezzin will recite the call to prayer throughout the city - this includes night-time and just before sunrise.
When you are not used to it, it can jolt you out of your sleep, but this is all part of the experience of being in a foreign country and quite quickly we got used to it and found it more fascinating than irritating.
A walk through whatever area of Amman you are in is worthwhile to see how locals live life. Everywhere are pictures of King Abullah (and sometimes of his father the late King Hussein). All public places have to display a photo of the king, but the fact you can see three or four in any building testifies to his popularity (also the women on our tour were quite happy to see plenty of photos of him!).
Jordanians are extremely friendly and while they will encourage you into their shops with greetings of ‘Welcome, welcome’, they are genuinely interested in hearing where you come from and keen to have conversation with you. Jordan is also a very safe country to travel in and you will not feel too uncomfortable strolling the streets.
Near where we were staying was a huge open air market which was great fun to walk through. Every kind of garment was on sale from all manner of T-shirts to a bewildering array of shoes, to women’s fashions.
Just across from there we discovered an English style pub with tinted windows. Alcohol consumption is not encouraged but Christians enjoy drinking a type of ouzu and some Muslims take the odd glass of wine. As long as people are discreet nobody seems to mind and there are off-licences aimed mainly at the tourists.
The little pub was a nice way to wind down as a trip to Jordan is a full on adventure and this was only beginning. The next day it was onto the mighty city of Petra and the deserts of Wadi Rum.
Next week -
in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia