Jordan as a destination has typically played second fiddle to its larger neighbours and usually ends up an add-on to a longer itinerary in Egypt or Israel.
Last week the Jordan Tourism Board kicked off a mega tourism campaign in an attempt to alter that statistic. Eighty eight international digital influencers from over fifteen countries, along with a few local media persons, were invited to traverse the length and breadth of the Hashemite kingdom with the aim of ‘presenting Jordan to the world’ as a safe destination in its own right. I was honoured to be on that list.
The challenges of hosting the mega campaign in a country half the size of my home state notwithstanding, the organisation was impressive, and the welcome and hospitality impeccable.
Some misses were inevitable in the juggling of itineraries. I was deeply disappointed to have missed Petra by Night (again!), and so was every other media professional in Petra on that date. But the hits made up for the misses. As did the many friendships forged across cultural and linguistic barriers.
Here is a pictorial round up of some of my most memorable moments of the trip:
R and I had skipped the Amman Citadel on our 2010 visit for lack of time (that trip was an add on to our Egypt itinerary incidentally), and so it held the most interest for me and some of my favourite shots of the trip were shot here.
Jabal al-Qal’a, the hill of the citadel, sits bang in the heart of Amman city and is a veritable time machine in which we traversed an incredible 9000 years of human habitation from the stone ages through the Ammonite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Ptolemic, Seleucid, Nabatean, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman kingdoms. That’s a lot of history to take in at one go!
A few remnants of the Temple of Hercules, Al Qasr: the Umayyad Palace, a Roman Theatre and a Byzantine Basilica are all that stand testimony to the tumultuous journey of Amman from Rabath Ammon (capital of the Ammonites) to Philadelphia (after Ptolemic king Philadelphus) and back to Amman. But the atmosphere and the panoramic views of modern Amman make for a most worthwhile visit.
Jerash – from the pre-classical Garshu and Roman Gerasa – on the other hand is one of the most well preserved Roman cities in the world outside of Italy. Once part of the confederation of ten powerful Roman cities (along with Amman) known as the Decapolis, its importance is evident from the remains of its architecture.
The grand oval plaza and the the Cardo Maximus, still bearing marks from ancient chariot wheels, have got to be the most impressive of all plazas and main streets in the region. And its theatre one of the most beautiful.
Petra is undeniably the jewel in Jordan’s crown and high on the travel wish list of most every person I know. It was surprising to discover, therefore, that the country’s largest tourist revenue is earned from the biblical pilgrimage trail through Bethany, Madaba and Mount Nebo en route to Jerusalem, in which Petra is just an add on!
Still, the magic of this Nabatean capital precedes it and that first glimpse of Al Kazneh (the Treasury) through the narrow Siq (gorge) never fails to knock one’s breath out. I doubt there is another monument, anywhere, that has quite such an impact on first sight. That said, there is so much more to Petra than the Kazneh, just as there is so much more to Jordan than Petra.
Madaba with its ancient mosaic floors completed the quartet of archaeological must do’s. We even managed to squeeze in a quick visit to Mount Nebo. Although the Fransiscan monastery on the site believed to be the final resting place of prophet Moses, was closed for renovation. The reproductions in the museum next door hinted at the treasure trove of Byzantine mosaics we were missing.
Almost every one of our meals started out with an array of delicious traditional mezze that included the usual middle Eastern suspects: Hummus, Bab Ganuj, Tabouleh, Moutabal and the lot, accompanied by endless servings of fresh, hot flat bread. This was followed by a huge meat course, and dessert or fruit. We were usually stuffed midway through the mezze, but no amount of protests would allow our hosts to dilute their hospitality! It wouldn’t do at all, you see, for any guest of Jordan to depart even an ounce leaner.
This generous hospitality extended to the man on the street, characterised by the warm ‘Welcome to Jordan!” and the offer of refreshments wherever we went.
An unconventional ‘cuisine class‘ at Petra Kitchen, where chefs Ali and Tariq made us all work hard for our supper, was more fun than I had envisaged. And the result was astonishingly good considering the number of glove tips that needed to be fished out of the chopped ingredient piles! We cooked and ate the best Mansaf (lamb stew with yogurt served over rice) and salads of our trip, and the little cheese and pine nut topped breads were to die for.
Sweet syrupy middle eastern pastries usually concluded the meal. Kunefe was a particular favourite, although none came close to the Kunefe we tasted in Habibah (Amman) on our earlier visit. I had declared early on that I wasn’t leaving Jordan without visiting the Bakdash ice cream outlet – a franchise for the legendary hand pounded Syrian ice cream brand – but between our packed sightseeing schedule and a couple of official dinners, we just couldn’t make time for an ice cream stop.
Aqaba was a welcome break from sightseeing. The Red Sea was too choppy even for some of the experienced swimmers in our group for any serious snorkelling, so we made do with a relaxing cruise and a barbecue lunch with our Georgian counterparts for company. Ending with a blissful soak in a bath tub with a view!
The highlight of the entire trip for me was the ride on the Jordan Hejaz railway originally conceived by the Ottomans to facilitate Haj pilgrimages from the Levant, and later used to transport ammunition and establish Turkish authority over the region. The destruction of the Jordanian sections of the railroad by Arab forces led by T. E. Lawrence was said to have been a turning point in the Arab revolt.
The re- enactment of that 1917 attack felt shockingly real! There’s no saying how any of the 95 odd passengers would have reacted to the sound of gunfire and the sight of armed horsemen swarming towards the train, without some prior warning. The mock attack culminated with the capture of an appropriately beautiful couple, followed by an animated negotiation session for their release over tea in a bedouin tent. I thought I heard someone mutter “Mad Max II!”. But I lapped up every dramatic choreographed moment with relish.
As if that weren’t intense enough, us eleven Indians decided to beat mad dogs and Englishmen hollow by riding camels to our lunch venue at Captain’s camp – some 45 min out – at high noon! I was haunted by visions of my long departed mother in law throwing her hands up in despair at my deeply tanned nose, as saner bloggers who had gone ahead in motor vehicles excitedly clicked our photos. A more comfortable four wheel drive exploration of Wadi Rum immediately followed lunch, affording us a few more hours to enjoy that spectacular desert landscape.
The fitting finale to our smorgasbord of Jordanian experiences, prior to a sunset dip in the Dead Sea, was the spa treatment and an hour long frolic in a series of fabulous indoor pools and jacuzzis at the Crowne Plaza Jordan – Dead Sea Resort & Spa. No matter that my limbs felt like lead after, and I could barely keep my eyes open through dinner or the flight back home early next morning. I would return one more time just for that pool.
And the Bakdash ice cream.
And Petra by Night.
Many thanks to the Jordan Tourism Board for the kind invitation. And to our able guide Waleed Hiasat, whose knowledge and professionalism enhanced my experience manifold.