Jour­ney to Jor­dan

A visit to this Mid­dle Eastern na­tion en­com­passes an­cient his­tory, mod­ern ur­ban­ity, and the spec­tac­u­lar land­scapes in-be­tween

The Walrus - - A SPECIAL VISIT JORDAN SUPPLEMENT - BY I LONA B IRO

As the early morn­ing light sifted down­ward through the nar­row canyon walls, there was lit­tle sound other than a flut­ter­ing of bird wings. I was mak­ing my ap­proach into Pe­tra through the an­cient, ser­pen­tine pas­sage­way called the Siq, as most visi­tors do. It was early enough in the day that I felt com­pletely alone in this mag­i­cal place, able to pause, breathe, and de­lay the dra­matic ar­rival as much as I liked. But noth­ing could have pre­pared me for the breath­tak­ing sight of the Trea­sury com­ing into view. There was noth­ing to do but stare at this jewel-like won­der, carved so long ago and hid­den for so many cen­turies. Time truly stood still. By the sec­ond cen­tury BC, Pe­tra — which is also known as “the Rose City” due to the colour of the stone it was carved from — was the thriv­ing cap­i­tal of the Na­bataean king­dom. Its ex­trav­a­gant ar­chi­tec­ture bears wit­ness to its for­mer wealth. Pe­tra was the hub of im­por­tant trade routes that con­nected Da­m­as­cus with Bagh­dad and be­yond, with long car­a­vans laden with spices, silks, and other valu­ables pass­ing through. It was a cross­roads, a meet­ing place of many cul­tures, much like Jor­dan is to­day. Which is why there’s no bet­ter place to ex­plore the past and present of the Mid­dle East, in a coun­try renowned for its hos­pi­tal­ity and warm, wel­com­ing peo­ple. Some­times for­got­ten in the rush to see Pe­tra is that Jor­dan en­com­passes more than twenty-five ma­jor his­toric sites that bridge the cen­turies and the civ­i­liza­tions that have set­tled in this land. A few of the many highlights in­clude Mount Nebo, where tra­di­tion holds that Moses caught sight of the Holy Land; the mag­nif­i­cent colon­nades, spa­cious plazas, and im­pres­sive hip­po­drome of the Ro­man city of Jerash; the enig­matic desert cas­tles built by the Um­mayad dy­nasty in the sev­enth cen­tury; and the an­cient trad­ing hub of Mad­aba, with its sixth-cen­tury Byzan­tine churches, whose works of

art in­clude the old­est mo­saic map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Many of these sites can be seen on day trips out of Am­man, the cap­i­tal city of Jor­dan. Am­man, a bustling city of four mil­lion that was known to the an­cient Greeks as Philadel­phia and in the Bi­ble as Ra­bath Am­mon, is where a jour­ney to the coun­try typ­i­cally be­gins. Scat­tered across its seven hills are ves­tiges of past civ­i­liza­tions. Ja­bal Al Qal’a (Ci­tadel Hill) is at its cen­tre. Am­man’s most im­pres­sive mon­u­ment is the domed Umayyad palace com­plex, which dates back to the first half of the eighth cen­tury. Nearby are the glo­ri­ous ru­ins of the Ro­man Tem­ple of Her­cules, its mas­sive col­umns jut­ting sky­ward next to a very In­sta­grammable gi­ant stone fist thought to be part of a long de­mol­ished Her­culean statue. In the city cen­tre is the Ro­man Am­phithe­atre, where up to 6,000 peo­ple gather reg­u­larly for per­for­mances by local mu­si­cians and in­ter­na­tional stars. Less well known than Jor­dan’s abun­dant his­toric sites is its wealth of nat­u­ral ad­ven­tures: div­ing the coral reefs in the Red Sea re­sort of Aqaba; hik­ing sec­tions of the 650-kilo­me­tre Jor­dan Trail; moun­taineer­ing and canyon­ing in the wadis (canyons and ravines) that make up Jor­dan’s Rift Val­ley; rid­ing camels (or atvs) over the red sands of Wadi Rum; and float­ing in the min­er­al­rich Dead Sea. Na­ture lovers and ad­ven­ture seek­ers can spot birds and other wildlife in the Dana Bio­sphere Re­serve, or ex­plore the river-filled canyons of the Mu­jib Bio­sphere Re­serve, where hik­ers end their day by cool­ing off in a nat­u­ral water park. Night­time brings an en­tirely dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. An overnight stay in a Be­douin camp in Wadi Rum is un­for­get­table, with lanterns il­lu­mi­nat­ing the cliffs high above. Each evening, a tra­di­tional zarb din­ner of chicken, lamb, and veg­eta­bles is cer­e­mo­ni­ously un­earthed from an un­der­ground oven for a fes­tive feast set to live mu­sic and danc­ing. The songs con­tinue around the camp­fire, cre­at­ing a time­less at­mos­phere and the per­fect spot to en­joy some of the best stargaz­ing on the planet. Pe­tra be­comes haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful after dark, par­tic­u­larly so dur­ing Pe­tra by Night, an ex­plo­ration of the city by can­dle­light. The evening I par­tic­i­pated, I re­traced my steps along the Siq and ar­rived at the Trea­sury to see it trans­formed, il­lu­mi­nated with thou­sands of flick­er­ing lights. It was a mag­i­cal sight, where past, present, and fu­ture seemed to merge in the mo­ment. Upon our de­par­ture, the wist­ful mu­sic faded and the si­lence re­turned, ex­cept for the sound of our foot­falls.

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