Field notes from Jordan

As told by Owen

For the past several weeks, I’ve kept a Wikipedia page open on my browser. Jordan. It is an expressionless white scroll, inflected with blue – underscored. Sometimes, I’ll read one or two sentences or enlarge a photograph. A stele recording the glory of Mesha, king of Moab. The forum of Jerash. The church of Aqaba.

As a distraction from packing (cables, storage, cameras – clothes are an afterthought), I go in search of a book. Debate Gertrude Bell’s letters from Syria and Iraq (she passed through Jordan on several occasions). Too diaristic (funny, that). Opt instead for T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which feels both fitting and woefully inadequate. Lawrence was a strange and difficult man, and his reflections on the liberation wars of the Arab world have always felt tinged with a very dumb-struck variety of ‘orientalism’. He wasn’t the first or last man to lose himself in the desert. Four hundred years of the Nabataean Kingdom (rolled over by Trajan in 106 AD). I pack it anyway – 736 pages. Feels like a weight. Long flight which I’ll sleep through anyway.

Jerash Jordan

Day 1 – arrival in Amman

Heathrow is a vast cavern into which people are poured. I recall that quote from Marc Auge, how in an airport “everyone is a stranger to everyone else”. I find pre-flight behaviour has its own rules and dictates – a strange mixture of angst and relaxation. The British ‘norm’ is drinking a single pint in a bar that’s dressed up to look like a pub. I oblige (it’s 1.57pm), keeping a cautious eye on the departures board. Leaf through Lawrence, marking whatever passages feel most ‘relevant’ (I like to make heavy underlinings), or else keep note of the specific pages on the inside cover. Things that jump out to me. How the Bedouin have been “flung out of the farthest crazy oasis into the untrodden wilderness”. How they live a life of “personal liberty”. Perhaps this is what drew Lawrence to the sands of the interior, from the tightly-laced propriety of English boarding school life. And the military.

My flight won’t arrive in Amman until 11.15pm. Whatever I’ll first see of the city – and of Jordan – will be suspended in the glue of night. I imagine long, straight roads that plunge into the capital – imported cars, distant towers. I’ve always felt very at home, after dark, in new cities. You see the country caught off guard, casual, more relaxed.

Arrival means drawing up outside the welcomingly ostentatious arms of the Ritz Carlton. It is a quite bullish assembly of buildings that looks somewhere between Manhattan Palladianism and the best of soviet Moscow. I won’t be here for long (a shame).

Jerash Jordan ruins
Jordan valley

Day 2 – into the heart of the Holy Land

Breakfast is taken leisurely and bathed in light. Grilled vegetables. Warm bread. Menemen that flakes softly from the fork. I meet Jihad – our guide and driver – among the towering palms of the hotel’s gateway, and we begin a looping hour’s drive into the hillsides surrounding this bustling city. Flip the radio to Iraqi pop music. By the roadside, men wave silver platters every half a mile (or less). ‘What are they doing?’, I ask. ‘Selling coffee – a national pastime’.

Our destination – for now – is the city of Jerash. Specifically, the vast, hulking ruins of the settlement of Jerash that has remained largely complete and robust over years of wars and political upheavals and dynastic changes. “They call it the Pompeii of the middle east”, explains Jihad. Corinthian columns march into the distance, while theaters and race tracks are almost entirely undisturbed. It was already a ruin when Zahir ad-Din Toghtekin garrisoned it in 1120. Then the crusaders arrived, before abandoning it completely. We take a long, leisurely walk down the city’s central shopping avenue, and speak about Jordan’s salience in the trade of the region – a fulcrum between the Mediterranean and the east. The call to prayer – the muezzin – crackles over a distant loud speaker, and Jihad explains that, in Jordan, the call to prayer – across the country – is broadcast by radio from a single location in Amman; meaning that Jordanians are joined in prayer always at precisely the same time.

From Jerash, we make our way south – back through the hazy heat of Amman. Quick stop for shawarma in a deceptively nondescript eatery. It’s easily the best I’ve had – flaky and rich. Our next destination is Madaba, a town located some 30 minutes from the capital. There’s a large Orthodox Christian community here, and we make a quick stop at the church of Saint George, our purpose being to light a candle and to study a vast mosaic spread across its floor. This mosaic is – properly – a map, one of the earliest complete examples of such in the Middle East. Some sites have been discovered using this map as a reference point. But not all of its locations have yet been unearthed.

We are in the Holy Land. Jerusalem and Jericho are within reach. To get a better perspective on this ancient place, we drive into the mountains beyond Madaba – to the summit of Mt Nebo. This, famously, is the place where Moses completed the Exodus from Egypt, and the site is a place of pilgrimage on whose summit is a church and a towering memorial stelae. We crouch down by Pope John Paul II’s olive tree, and brace ourselves in the howling wind as we pick out the many visible sites below. Hebron, the Jordan Valley, Jericho.

Now begins the next and final leg of our day, a down-hill drive toward the ‘rose red’ city of Petra. Goods trucks and lorries purr their way along the asphalt highway, carrying goods to and from Aqaba – Jordan’s only seaport. We arrive by 7pm, the darkness enveloping the town that abuts the sandstone formations in which ancient Petra was built. We will step inside its walls tomorrow. For now, I order a beer at the hotel bar and watch Spain beat Germany. It’s a heated crowd.

Mt Nebo Jordan
Petra Jordan

Day three – Petra, the rose red city

From my balcony last night, I noticed how the lights of the modern city end abruptly. There is neon and colour, and then a massif of blackness. Now that the sun has (barely) risen, I can see the dark, plummy colours and sandstone pillars of the mouth of Petra. We’ve woken early to avoid the crowds that will inevitably throng here later in the day, and make a chilly, early walk through the ‘gates’ and along a pebble-strewn, looping pathway that falls toward the proper mouth of the city. Along the route, tombs and mausoleums have been carved into the rock – many of them older than the Nabatean city of Petra itself.

If you’ve seen India Jones, you’ll have some awareness that Petra’s famed Treasury is reached through a winding sandstone gorge. ‘This was a river, but the Nabateans diverted its course and turned the canyon into their entrance’. It’s a long, billowing walk – the walls of the canyon beginning to pinken from the rising sun. Starlings swoop and sing from the cliff walls, and we pass only a few early travellers. What’s most amazing about this descent is the channels that have been dug into the cavern walls. ‘These were for carrying water and storm runoff’, explains Jihad. Despite its organic folds and flows, it’s easy to forget that this place is a product of ancient engineering. Ritualistic carvings – blessings – have been carved here and there into the walls. A man paces the avenue with a bucket and broom, keeping the entire procession eminently clean.

Our arrival at the Treasury itself is eye-popping. You turn a corner and there, suddenly, is a slit of its rose-pink facade – both familiar and strange. We wander through in silence, joined only by a few dogs and camels, and the Bedouin who work and trade in the city. We spend an hour here, chatting and people watching as a few travellers trickle into its shadow. I order a cardamom-laced coffee from a small shop and scramble for a better look up the cliffside, reaching an elevated platform that (courtesy of slipping a 10 dinar note into a local man’s hand) I am assisted in reaching. The view here is spectacular, and I take a moment to drink coffee and crouch on the worn red carpets that have been scattered here. A few Bedouin chat and smoke and play music on a sputtering radio. The air begins to warm, and my fingers thaw.

But Petra is much more than the Treasury. This is only the mouth of the city, and the actual settlement itself yawns open beyond this place. Jihad encourages me to brace myself and make the entire route from entrance to the very peaks of the cliffs that surround it – to the ‘more impressive’ “Monastery” that sits at the city’s highest point. We drift and meander up and down – stopping to gaze at the ‘avenue of facades’, strolling through clusters of Bedouin tents whose owners are selling food and gifts. I sit for a while with Omar, who plays the oud and pours me a cup of sage tea. Later, I met a man whose family used to live within the very cavern where he now sells fresh pomegranate juice – squeezed with the aid of a baroque-looking press.

The ascent to the monastery itself requires some nerve – involving 850 steps. We ride for some of the way by mule, and hop and leap the steep remainder. Along the way we look back over our shoulders at the hazy, butter-yellow walls and red massifs of the city proper. I stop to gulp water and chit chat with other climbers – two German teachers, enquiring (pop-eyed) about how much further there is to go. The walk is worth it, of course. The ‘monastery’ being bigger and wider and more beautiful than even the Treasury, and I gain an elevated sight of it by ascending to the so-called ‘view’. From here I have a wheeling, 360 perspective of the entire valley – wind turbines rolling in the far distance, Jordanian flags fluttering above me. This is where I slump down and buy a can of ice tea from the vendor who works up here – an essential enterprise. He plays a few bars of oud and we have a conversation between my broken Arabic and his (better) English.

By 3pm, we’ve returned back to the modern town. Hungry, we take a huge meal in a tucked-away restaurant. Most gloriously, a dish of seared lamb’s back fat. It melts in the mouth – a proper Jordanian delicacy. Salt, a little bread, hot juice. This is all to fuel up for my second entrance into Petra, later that evening. I take a swim in the hotel pool, drink a beer, and – as the sun sets – head back into the city.

My purpose is to enjoy ‘Petra by night’, a regularly occurring event where the guardians of the site fill the pathway to the Treasury with candles and delight audiences with traditional Bedouin music and Nabatean song. We’re served sage tea and sit – hushed – as music fills the vast echoing space of the Treasury, candlelight flickering from its stately face and walls. It’s a quite transfixing experience, and we head back fully exhausted – and enervated.

Man Petra Jordan
Petra Jordan

Day four – the sands of Wadi Rum

I wake to rain – the city washed in a kind of bruised yellow light. It’s quite beautiful. Jihad is happy. “It’s good for Wadi Rum – it means the dust will be dampened down and the views will be better”. We set off relatively early, stopping at a Yemeni bakery to buy quite a few boxes of manakish. Waiting for them to bake, I chat to Jihad sitting on plastic chairs beneath an awning. The rain falls.

The drive will take a little while, with our aim being to reach Wadi Rum by the early afternoon. First you swoop up the hillsides and gain a towering glance down into the Petra valley. We stop for coffee at a gift-shop-come-cafe and take in the moist air. “Prickly pairs”, observes Jihad, pointing at the fat lime-green foliage that grows along the road. “We use it for salads”.

The drive takes us across rocky, Martian terrain – cruising beneath vast, hulking wind farms. Jihad explains the economy of Jordan as I probe him with an endless list of questions. There’s a uranium mine, phosphate mines, and wind. After driving for forty five minutes, we stop on a gravely patch of soil and are met with a soul-shaking view of Wadi Rum – glittering and massive beneath us. Now begins our descent, proper.

Lorries prowl around the edges of the wadi. The pillars that constitute this vast desert are red and wreathed in purple-blue smoke. Eventually, we make a left turn and hurtle into its heart. Stopping to take a few photos of an old steam engine that has been left to itself on a railway track (the only one in Jordan), we park up – eventually – transferring to a sleek Toyota pickup. “The Bedouin love their pickups”, observes Jihad. Everyone drives the same make and model – the perfect vehicle to tackle the sandy, rocky landscapes of this beautiful landscape.

Now begins the tour. Sitting in the back of the pickup, we bounce and careen through massive canyons and over buoyant dunes – passing camel trains and horsemen. We stop for tea at a small Bedouin camp. Their tents are of black goat hide, dyed with white lines. “This makes it easier to see them on moonless nights”, explains Jihad. There’s a carving of T.E. Lawrence on a dusty red rock, his cheeks a little plump – a kind of memorial to his role in the Arab Revolution of 1917. We discuss his somewhat ambivalent legacy, before driving deeper into the Wadi for a spectacular view and lunch. Our driver makes an effortlessly quick fire on the rocks – brews a pot of sugar-laced tea. A handful of travelers – Polish – join us for a moment, before going on their way. It’s a rare sign of life in this quite breathless landscape.

Our eventual destination – after two hours of gleeful driving – is our camp, Sahara. But first, we link up with Muhammad and a pair of camels. We’ll use these to make the final leg to the camp itself. They’re mildly feisty but in an otherwise pleasant mood, and convey us in a kind of stately plod toward the beige-white tents of our camp which appear on the near horizon – sheltered beneath a complex of round-shouldered rocks. As we approach, the proprietors meet us on the sand – bearing cold towels and cups of cardamom coffee, this time a pale green rather than jet black. The camp is a profoundly beautiful place – with only three tents for visitors. I’m the only guest, and spend the next few hours – undisturbed – reading and eating cashews and drinking hibiscus juice while taking in the beauty of the vista that unfurls before the camp. My room is palatial, with a hot running shower and memory-foam bed into which I sink for a few welcome moments.

The main event is dinner. This is served in a black Bedouin tent – a vast, heaving spread of fattoush and flatbread and hummus, a bottle of red Jordanian wine to keep me company. The main course is prepared the traditional way, buried in the sand. Lamb, chicken, and rice, saturated with the fat and oil of the meat that drops down onto it. For dessert, we’re served kunefe and then head outside to settle around the fire – spending the night trying to identify the constellations that wheel placidally above us.

Wadi Rum
Jeep Wadi Rum

Day five – the Dead Sea

Breakfast is early, at 7am, but I wake just before sunrise to watch the valley fill with a dusky purple light. Cold, almost freezing – with barely a sound in the entire Wadi. I walk in a dazed loop and return to a light breakfast (light in Bedouin terms) of soured cream with honey, warm flatbread, menemen, milk-soaked oats with pistachio, olives, coffee. I shoot some film here, chat to Jihad in the early light. A few stars still muscle through the sky.

We set off, climbing into the pickup and powering across the frozen desert. Some miles away they’re shooting the second part of Dune. The light is both hard and diffuse, and we pass a few camel trains as they make their way into the deeper desert.

The next leg of our journey is a long one – all the way from the wadi to the Dead Sea. For four hours we plough the straight Desert Highway, Jihad’s playlist – in an act of strange grace – lines up Hotel California, before switching back to Turkish love songs and Iraqi drums. We spend some time talking about coffee, and I note how many coffee shacks – lit up with strings of neon light – dot the highway. We make a quick pit stop by a scatter of stores to buy a Farwa, the traditional coat of the Bedouin. I’d worn one the night before to stave off the evening’s chill, and immediately set my sights on buying my own. Jihad helped with the negotiation, and he came to realize that these were made by a man from Jihad’s father’s village near Hebron.

The drive to the Dead Sea loops around the west of Amman before dropping – from 1,500 ft above sea level to 300 ft below it, the lowest point on earth. The light grows increasingly hazy and diffuse, and – as we enter the Jordan valley – the land turns richly green. “This is the breadbasket of Jordan” explains Jihad. We pass fields of barley, bananas, olives, grapes, oranges.

My final spot is the Kempinski hotel, on the salty shores of the Dead Sea. This is where I’ll take the necessary dip in its waters, caking myself in rich black mud. It’s a bizarre and somewhat funny experience, the water feeling like oil on my hands. After bathing and swimming, I call my mother and watch the orange blur of the sun settle into the lake – the shores beyond giving way to Jerusalem. I eat in the hotel’s vast buffet, and spend some time watching the football in a specially convened world cup-themed bar across from the lobby. To say that the Jordanians are taking the competition seriously is an understatement. On more than a few occasions during our highway drive, we stopped for coffee and huddled around the inevitable TV to watch whatever game was showing.

Dead Sea Jordan
Petra Jordan

Final thoughts

It has – by this point – been a long and eye-opening five days. I have climbed to the memorial of Moses and sipped tea in the tents of the Bedouin. I’ve read Lawrence and Chekhov and watched football matches in roadside carpet shops. In my bag is a Bedouin robe, a red-white keffiyeh (a gift from Jihad), and a hand-made oil lamp. There’s also a bunch of fruit (the Jordanians love to supply you with fruit). I will leave in the early hours, at 4.30am – my transfer to the airport drifting through an immense blanket of fog that has settled on the country. By the time we ascend to cruising altitude, the entire Holy Land is spread – gloriously – beneath me. I feel like I can see forever.

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