A Jordan Crossing
It’s midnight at the oasis, a primitive Bedouin desert camp. Six other American journalists and I gather around a campfire to discuss the day while drinking Zhoula, a strong tasty herbal tea. Our hosts and guides smoke sheesha, a curious-looking water pipe also called hubbly bubbly or hookah. I puff this apple rind concoction, careful not to inhale.
Earlier this late September day, we rode in jeeps over the vast sienna sands of Wadi Rum where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. I strode alone for 30 minutes smelling the aromatic vegetation while absorbing the sounds of nesting swallows and the rugged beauty of massive striated rocks.
Before enjoying our delicious chicken, lamb, and vegetable dinner, we climbed sandstone cliffs to glimpse the entrancing sunset. Bedouin boys rode by on camels creating dancing shadows on the crags.
Draped with blankets for privacy, our simple tents contain a candle, cot, and mat covering a sandy floor. Before retiring, I recline on an outside sofa to view the Milky Way and wish on a shooting star. I immediately loved this nomad’s land, rustic, serene and seemingly infinite.
Barely the size of Indiana with nearly six million primarily Sunnai Muslim inhabitants, Jordan is my most enriching journey yet. Jordanians describe their peaceful Hashemite kingdom as “between Iraq and a hard place.”
“Where are you from?’ People from Kuwait, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern nations inquire throughout my travels. I cringe internally while replying, “America.” To my amazement, their immediate response is “Welcome!”
Notwithstanding that the US dollar is also welcomed, I felt genuine warmth from Jordanians. They are the friendliest people I have ever met – and that is saying a lot. I could not stop smiling.
The late, beloved King Hussein strove to balance western interests and Arab nationalism. His son, King Abdullah II, carries on his father’s dedication to peace in this constitutional monarchy.
Throughout my visit, safety was never an issue. Metal detectors in major hotels and restaurants helped ensure our protection. International tourists roamed carefree at every venue. “There is a sense of self-defiance and more awareness of geography and politics amongst United States tourists,” says Munir Y Nassar, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities. “They know who their friends and are the last ones to cancel a trip.”
“Do not just focus on places and scenery,” he advises me. “Try to share the entire experience about the people you meet and how they treat you.”
People I met on the street as well as tourism industry staff treated me pleasantly and with respect. Although English is widely spoken, local residents expressed delight that I spoke a little Arabic.
A Biblical VisitA major focus of our journey was visiting some of the 157 Christian Biblical sites. At Mount Nebo, we gazed in awe at the arid wilderness sprinkled with ancient olive trees where Moses saw the Promised Land and is said to be buried. In the distance the Dead Sea sparkles. The rooftops of Jerusalem and Bethlehem blend with the desert terrain. Sixty years of excavation at this site unearthed a basilica church with one of the world’s most remarkable mosaic floors. Near the entrance is a statue created by monks which translates, “All under one God.”
We obtained permits at the guarded “Bethany Beyond the Jordan.” This site on the border with Israel was forbidden to tourists until the 1994 Israel-Jordan treaty. Now, Jordan is spending over $7 million for a memorial to John the Baptist, a traditional marketplace, and a visitor center. This sanctified destination welcomes religious pilgrims and international tourists.
We strolled along a boardwalk, shaded sporadically with cedars, to the River Jordan. Hardly a pebble’s toss across the narrow waterway is Israel. Our guide and archaeologist, an Armenian Christian, led us by hallowed ground. A priest beckoned to visitors to step inside a Greek Orthodox Church, framed with lovely stained glass.
I felt humble drawing water from the Jordan (Arabic for “twisted”) River, for which the nation is named. A few yards away in a lowly sun-baked spot, John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus. Near Aqaba, now a resort overlooking the Red Sea, God first manifested to humans.
Young men pulled me on the deck to dance aboard the Sindbad vessel for there was much to celebrate. Shrouded in cedars, Israel and Egypt shone along the distant shore.
Jerash, the “Crossroads of Civilization,” is remarkable for its unbroken chain of human occupation. Ruins from Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Omayyad cultures and Neolithic times remain surprisingly intact amidst the hills of Gilead. Strolling along the columned cardo, I imagined the thunder of Roman chariots. Reenacted gladiator fights occur in an onsite arena.
At Zoar overlooking the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, is a curious-looking phenomenon. Biblical scholars opine that a huge jagged salt pillar is the remains of Lot’s wife. I scooped grit for friends from the briny Dead Sea, earth’s lowest place at 1,335 feet below sea level on the water’s surface. Swimmers floated by on this unsinkable waterway. The Movenpick Hotel’s spa offers salt sea scrubs and a variety of massages and therapies. Guests also apply mud rich in minerals from urns on the beach.
We stopped briefly at Dana Nature Preserve, one of six wildlife sanctuaries in Jordan. There we paused at an overlook to view sprawling rock outcroppings and xeric vegetation, uniquely adapted to the desert environment. The United States has worked with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature to restore Jordan’s wetlands and improve its nature incentives. Local craftsmen and woman at Dana and other locales sell indigenous artwork to support this endeavor and themselves.
Ancient Petra, founded and once ruled by Nabateans, is magnificent. These engineering nomads constructed the entire settlement of rose-colored stone. The arid atmosphere has helped preserve the columned structures for centuries. Aaron’s tomb and a high place of sacrifice are tucked away in this historical locale.
Hiking through the narrow canyon by day and by candle-lit night was surreal. It was easy to imagine Indiana Jones storming through the gorge on “The Last Crusade” to the Treasury, Petra’s best known building.
We rode donkeys, camels, and horses for a varied perspective of the astounding rock formations and encompassing cliffs. Some of us daring types hiked over 800 steps to an abandoned monastery. From the highest vistas, we surveyed this lost city and explored the amazingly colorful caves.
Regardless of one’s faith, belief, or disbelief, Jordan is a place of warmth, miracles, and solace. I never felt more spiritual, complete, and connected to my good earth and its people.
For more information visit SeeJordan.org, and GlobusFaith.com
Emily M. Grey, a native of Onancock, Virginia, is an award-winning photojournalist, educator, and attorney. She also volunteers for various conservation and historical entities and lectures on wildlife gardening and her remote journeys. Grey strives be a friendly ambassador to wildlife and to people. Visit EmilyGreyPhotography.com to see more of her photos.
Photos courtesy of Emily Grey