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Land of ancient ruins

Jordan is a rare oasis of peace in the Middle East, providing stunning diversity of vistas with a complex historical tradition

Land of ancient ruins

Jordanian schoolchildren have a unique advantage of using world heritage sites as playgrounds during Easter break in April. Imagine… a 6,000-seat Roman Amphitheatre, dating from around 170 AD when Amman was called Philadelphia bustling with dozens of schoolgirls today, frolicking about as they would in a neighbourhood park. Ancient sound engineering enabling their playful squeals, their shuffling feet at centre stage echo all the way up 100 or so steep steps – as if a scene from a vital and full modern drama played out amid Hellenistic remains, only without the spectators to cheer them on.

The scene is similar at the Temple of Hercules atop Amman’s highest hill, Jebel Al Qala’a, where excited schoolgirls gather around us to shake our hands with a polite marhaba before their teachers take them away to show the tall columns of the crumbling temple of a Roman hero and god, and his stone-carved hand from 162 AD. Some distance ahead, among ruins of the Umayyad Palace from 720 AD, a group of young female graduates of Engineering, English Literature and Architecture, in graduation gowns and hats over headscarves, thick-mascaraed eyes, pose to record their achievement in pictures before a young male photographer. We congratulate them in English and gesture with our hands. They respond with their radiant smiles and try to converse with us in Arabic. The language barrier reduces our communication to only nods and waves.

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But if not for these schoolchildren running day trips to ancient places or young students using the ruins as backdrop for graduation pictures, there would be limited footprints in the dusty trails leading up to some of the most extraordinary sites of Jordan. This is not to say they’re empty or silent: an easy stream of tourists keeps them alive and appreciated. Long queues for entrance tickets, like, say, in Italy, are gladly missing – which only adds to Jordan’s appeal.

Perhaps the intense experience of visiting Jordan is tied up to near perfect April weather, toasty but not scorching. During our weeklong stay, temperature ranged between 15 and 25 degrees Celsius, which made our day trips to ancient sites in Amman and away pleasant.

Jordan’s beautiful capital with its beige-white stone buildings spread across seven hills is modern and calm. There’s a lazy, laid-back feel to the city. It’s cosmopolitan but not vibrant. Almost without exception, people are gentle. Men and women smoke like chimneys. The air in restaurants is always heady, filled with clouds of sweet-scented smoke of hubbly bubbly. Women do not endure the same restrictions as their counterparts in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. On the streets they dress in modest clothing and headscarves. In high-class hotel lobbies and bustling restaurants, they are ravishing. High healed, slender, made-up immaculately from top to toe, brown eyes and full botoxed lips. Their appearance is so extraordinary that just by looking at them one feels worthless.

Because of a large immigrant population, Jordan’s cuisine is a delicious mix of Bedouin specialties and local takes on the Levant’s most iconic dishes. Mansaf is a favourite in Jordan, but not one of mine. Served in a large platter meant for communal eating, mansaf is tender meat over rice, garnished with toasted nuts, eaten with pita bread and bowls of yogurt sauce. If I were to revisit Jordan, I would select any other item from a variety of meat and veggie delicacies usually on offer at eateries – and easily skip mansaf. Fatteh, a combination of chicken or chickpeas and yogurt served over tiny bits of pita bread became an essential dish for dinner every evening. But the intriguing fusion of beef kebabs and wild cherries, Feshna Kebabs at the upscale Levant restaurant is by far my favourite.

Our rickety Land Cruiser rattles along the desert like a spaceship as we leave life behind and travel into the wilderness. The haunting stillness of the desert casts a spell on us.

Jordan offers a great mix of history. Dating all the way back to the Bronze Age, Nabataeans, Romans, Byzantine, Umayyads, Transjordanians and up to modern Hashimite Kingdom; attempting to grasp its expansive past in one trip is challenging. No exaggeration, every standing edifice in Jordan marks a deep well of human history. From the beautiful tombs and facades of Petra one of the seven wonders of the world, to Jerash one of the world’s most underestimated Roman sites, and then on to Madaba to see the stunning floor mosaic from the Byzantine times depicting the oldest map of Palestine.

If it is not the towering columns and crumbling temples from the past, it’s the desolate desert valleys that tell the holy tales of Moses and his promised land at Mount Nebo, or the baptismal site of Jesus in the Dead Sea region.

The entire experience is stupefying.

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And if you’re still not exhausted, don’t miss the drive down 423 feet below sea level to float in the Dead Sea and to the fabled Wadi Rum.

Ah! Wadi Rum or the Valley of Moon. Home to stunning red sand and dramatic rock formations. The live huge set for David Lean’s cinematic epic Lawrence of Arabia. Nothing had prepared me for how spectacular this desert is.

Where bored camels led by their Bedouin masters take tourists across the sand dunes for a traditional ride, our rickety rented Land Cruiser, rattles along the desert like a spaceship as we leave life behind and travel into the wilderness. The haunting stillness of the desert casts a spell on us, perhaps as it did on T. E. Lawrence, the legendary British Army Officer who passed through here to help the Arabs in their revolt against the Ottoman Empire during WW I. He described it as “vast, echoing and God-like”, and it is no less.

We exit the desert after spending a few hours in Wadi Rum feeling rather guilty and ashamed for not knowing much about the Bedouins who have lived here for thousands of years, for cruising through the desert like onlookers, not really knowing them. We leave the Wadi hoping only to return to it one day soon.

Today, Jordan is one of the safest tourist destinations in the Middle Eastern region. It has long been a refuge for displaced neighbours. With a population of 10.1 million, 70 per cent are Jordanians, the rest being Syrians, Egyptians, Palestinians and Iraqis, and together they make up modern Jordan. In casual conversations with people, it’s easy to tell the sense of insecurity and remorse among them in the wake of the immigration crisis.

We met Leena at the resthouse restaurant that is perched atop a small hill amid the ruined columns of historic Umm Qais, with stunning views over the Sea of Galilee, the rolling hills of the disputed Golan Heights and the peaks of Lebanon. Sitting there in her distressed camo print skinny jeans and a T-shirt, sipping the local Amstel beer, she tells she was born a Muslim in Jerusalem and baptised in a catholic church. “In those days your faith didn’t matter. We lived comfortably with each other.” Even though she has family still living there, she doesn’t like to visit them. “It is Israeli authorities that stamp my documents. It doesn’t feel like my home.” Leena displays despair, not optimism at the thought of returning home one day.

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As we prepare to depart Amman, the news of a suspected chemical attack on Douma, in the Eastern Ghouta region, begins to trickle in. I can’t help feel worried for the people who work in the tourism industry (that accounts to 10 per cent of the country’s GDP). Since 2011, the tourism industry has fallen no less than 66 per cent. I wonder if it’ll be further hit by the present escalations of tension in the region. For the moment, Adieu Jordan!

Alefia T. Hussain

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