By the time we levelled out for the 12-hour odyssey from Chicago to Amman on Royal Jordanian Airlines, I stopped regretting that I forgot to pack a Bible. I was off to join a luxury tour of what is officially known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – five-star hotels by night, guided exploration by day – and I had somehow thought that the Holy Book might offer a worthwhile historical primer for this pivotal corner of the Holy Land, where Christ was baptized and Moses entombed. How naive. I deduced that merely by reading chapter one of the guidebook I did remember to bring, one that thumbnails Jordan’s unabridged history, so dense it makes the Bible seem uncomplicated. Permit me to summarize the civilizations that patrolled its deserts (and pre-deserts) millennia before I would: Canaanites, Edomites, Moabites, Sumerians. Let’s see, the Akkadian, Assyrian, Judean, Babylonian and Persian empires all had a go. So did the Pharaonic Egyptians, the Maccabees and the Nabateans. Greece, Rome, Byzantium. The Ottoman Turks.
Barely had Islam gained ascendancy when the Crusaders roared through, bequeathing a thriving Christian minority in a nation now renowned as one of the Arab world’s most tolerant. And modern, and hospitable, I was rapidly learning. The ultra-efficient Royal Jordanian flight attendants (who also fly non-stop from Montreal to Amman twice a week) conjured a mood of the golden age of air travel, clad in throwback navy blue skirt sets and pillbox hats while wheeling an open bar through the boisterous cabin. Even drinking is tolerated in Jordan.
Along with my seatmate, a Jordanian magistrate returning from visiting his brother in Kalamazoo, and whose impeccable English held a trace of an Oxford accent (reminders that Britain and America have held sway here too), we clinked our Johnny Walkers in a toast to my very first visit to the Middle East.
Happily, one thing was already clear. With all it had been through, Jordan was unlikely to have any problem handling a mini-busload of Canucks wearing Tilley hats.
The sun had plopped into the haze over Israel when I rolled up to the exquisite Swiss-run Mövenpick Resort and Spa Dead Sea. After clearing the metal detector (a persistent though surprisingly painless feature of Middle East travel), I was greeted in the lobby – think Alhambra Palace meets Banff Springs Hotel – by a host in ceremonial Bedouin garb, flamboyantly pouring me a tangy glass of minted lemon juice from a silver jug.
I soon joined my host for the week ahead, Andrew Hopkyns, in the dining room. Hopkyns is a wanderer by trade as Alberta Motor Association’s former director of business development, the savvy brand of traveller who, I was to discover, somehow manages to have a cellphone that works no matter which country he’s in. I also noticed that, for a guy who has circled the globe professionally for the past 28 years, the ruddy-cheeked Edmontonian makes a splendid advertisement for travel as a fountain of youth.
It was Andrew’s third visit to Jordan, this time on what he personally designed as a “best of the best” itinerary for this, the inauguration of a new offering from AMA Travel called the Voyageur Series. “We set out,” he explained, “to create escorted trips where small groups [of no more than 24] people get a chance to do those once-in-a-lifetime epics that you probably won’t undertake on your own, like cruising Antarctica, or seeing Europe by motorcycle.
“We’ve sure got a fun group this time,” Hopkyns enthused as the waiter uncorked a surprisingly drinkable Lebanese red. “Just don’t think any less of them if they’re already in bed.” Apparently after several mellow days touring around the modern capital, Amman, in the fertile northern region, including chariot rides through remarkably intact Roman ruins at Jerash, the agenda had gotten slightly more strenuous. “Well, we spent all yesterday here in the spa, so today we got our exercise hiking up Wadi Mujib, this incredible slot canyon that goes from the Dead Sea up to the highlands and, rare for southern Jordan, actually has water flowing in it. It was very, um, robust.”
Just then two of those canyoneers walked by and I was introduced to Al and Colleen Mondor, recent retirees from Edmonton. “Quite the adventure,” offered Colleen, brandishing scrapes on both knee and elbow. I sensed what a bonding experience it had been when she smiled at Hopkyns and made air quotes when she added, “Yes, the hike was rated ‘intermediate difficulty.’”
After dinner I slipped into my own bed early, and jet lag awoke me at dawn. Just as well, since this was my only chance to take in the famous waters of the Dead Sea before we pulled out. I followed a cobbled downhill path through our private oasis, past the spa and the infinity pools, and at last to the rocky shore. At that hour the only person there was an enormous Frenchman, whose entire body was caked with pitch-black mud, performing an odd ritual somewhere between calisthenics and interpretive dance.
Gingerly, I crept down a staircase to the lowest place on Earth’s surface, 422 metres below sea level, then further to immerse myself in one of its most famous bathing experiences. At 22 degrees the water seemed warm, for April, and eerily viscous, being 8.6 times as salty as the ocean. Due to its legendary buoyancy it was hard to tread water without my legs flying up to the surface. All I could do was bob around, belly-up, in the now-clichéd “hey, watch me read a newspaper” photo opportunity, and ponder a degree of desertification that makes Arizona look like Vancouver Island. Beyond a few neighbouring hotels, not a twig could be seen in the rocky hills. Nor, on the Dead Sea itself, was there so much as a bird or a gnat or a fleck of algae. No boats either. Surely this must be, I reasoned, the broadest expanse of lifelessness anywhere on earth. As the dawn mists cleared, I could make out the equally desolate hills of Israel’s West Bank some 20 kilometres distant. I felt a deliciously otherworldly mood coming on.
I will say this about Sodom: these days you sure wouldn’t mistake it for a party town. As our bus chugged up a scorched valley east of the Dead Sea, our guide, Moayyad Al-Otaibi – Mo, to his new Canadian buddies – pointed out some otherwise indistinguishable mounds amid the bleakness. “Some archaeologists believe that this was the location of Sodom,” he said. Now there is just one Bedouin tent, its black goat-hair walls speaking more of desert survival than recreational wickedness. Besides, who’d take a chance? A few kilometres back, Mo had showed us a spire-like rock formation said to be Lot’s wife, who, fleeing evil Sodom, defied God by looking back and was turned into a pillar of salt. Obviously Jordan is a tough country.
Mind you, this was certainly the easy way to see it. Our modern mini-bus featured air conditioning and a window seat for all 10 of us, who along with Al and Colleen included a pair of doctors from Edmonton, John and Anne, Lloyd from Calgary and our token Torontonians, Jim and Philip. They were all fine companions, not to mention highly experienced travellers who, like me, normally handle their own touring affairs. But we all agreed that having exactly zero details to worry about is something we could get used to.
Our morning objective was Kerak Castle, on a mountaintop that has been strategically occupied since at least the Iron Age. Its heyday came as a stronghold for the Crusaders around 1040, a hybrid of Arabic and European architecture that has been restored considerably since being destroyed by an Egyptian invasion in 1840. As we prowled its arched passageways, it was mind-boggling to imagine how Christian knights could have been compelled to journey from as far away as France and England merely to make war in a harsh and unwelcoming land.
From one tall parapet, Mo pointed down to a road that wound through modern Kerak and then southward along Jordan’s mountainous spine. “In the Bible it’s known as the King’s Highway, and it’s the world’s oldest in continuous use – over 5,000 years,” he said. “It was an important part of the Silk Road, the network of caravan and sea routes connecting China to a crossroads at Palmyra, Syria and then on to the Mediterranean and Europe.”
After lunch we were on it, rumbling across the south Jordan highlands. Much of the rocky land, to my surprise, was planted in barley, and already near ripe. On one rolling stretch beneath modern steel power lines, it looked bizarrely like farmland in southeastern Alberta, as long as you ignored the sight of the occasional traditionally clad herdsman leading a camel and talking on a cellphone.
We were bound for Petra, to spend a couple of days at the crown jewel of Jordan’s rich supply of antiquities. The BBC once placed Petra high on a list of “Top 50 places you need to see before you die,” but I would say Top 10 is more like it. Formerly a thriving desert city hidden in ancient sandstone canyons, it was inhabited by Bedouins when Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt revealed it to the Western world in 1812. Modern movie-goers, of course, were introduced to its rock-cut architecture by the 1989 Steven Spielberg film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Thousands of visitors a day flock here, mostly in temperate spring and fall. (Broiling summer is when student archaeology teams continue the endless work of excavation.) At around $75 for a one-day ticket, it is one of the world’s most expensive park entries. As was our custom, however, with Mo at the fore, we breezed through the turmoil of buses at the gates and straight to a corral area where we mounted horses for the approach. Then for the last 1.5 km we travelled on foot through the Siq, an impossibly narrow slash in the rock, from which we got our first glimpse of the wondrous 43-metre-high facade of the Treasury.
“The people who built Petra starting in around 300 BC were the Nabateans,” Mo explained, “and they were not from this area. They came from the south, where they had long controlled the caravan routes of the Silk Road.” Petra was a safe harbour, easily defensible in a broken landscape of cracks and crevices. All it needed was water, and Mo pointed out channels etched in canyon walls that once held clay pipes, turning a desert into an orchard. In a way, Petra is like an ancient version of another Arabic merchant capital, Dubai. It was just as rich for its time, too. Mo pointed out thin pottery shards all over the site; archaeologists have found evidence that cups were used only once, and then discarded.
“The Nabateans did not live in these caves, though, and this was not a treasury,” Mo continued. “Some Bedouins called it that because when they rediscovered this area, they believed that the urn on top of the central column contained treasure, but it didn’t. No, these were tombs. The people lived in houses, but we believe they were all destroyed in a massive earthquake in 363 AD.” Around the corner from the Treasury, the canyon opened up and we got our first look at the vast scale of the funereal caves. Not tens, but hundreds were visible, far up the mountainsides.
Incredibly, Mo said, “There are actually thousands in this 55-square-km area. And they’re still finding new ones.”
We spent the entire day exploring only a portion of its staggering historical complexity. One of the larg