Mount Nebo

Amman On A Mission

7th September 2012

Chris Ambrose takes in the wonders of Jordan

I sipped hot mint tea, looked at my surroundings and thought about the contrasts of the past few days. Once again I was surrounded by Arabic men playing cards, drinking tea and smoking shisha, but this time I wasn’t caught up in a smoky haze with frustrated shouts and table-slams reverberating off dirty, white tiled walls, as I had been on my first chilly night in Amman. Here in Aqaba, in the south of the country, the temperature was still up in the mid-20s despite it being past 8pm, and instead of being in an oppressive coffee shop, I was in a courtyard behind a network of tiny shop-lined alleyways. Much calmer. The beeping of horns on the hectic city streets had been replaced by the soft rustle of vegetation as cats climbed nimbly through the branches of the trees above; the distorted rumble of the chanting crowd at a televised football match had been swapped for the gentle sizzling of meat on a nearby food stall.

With Syria to the north, Iraq to the east, Egypt to the south-west and Israel and the West Bank to the west, it’s easy to dismiss – or even simply miss – Jordan in a region of dispute and political strife. But as a country Jordan largely avoids the instability and the problems of its neighbours, and instead offers a fantastic variety of sights and landscape to entice a more adventurous traveller.

Amman, the capital, a daunting mass of sandy-beige coloured buildings rolling out across a series of hills, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world From deep within it’s hard to gain a sense of direction, and you are far better off losing yourself amongst the narrow streets… taking in the strong aromas of the food being cooked up in open-fronted restaurants, or browsing the ornate materials and hand-made crafts on the many market stalls that spill out on to the pavements.

After a morning of pleasantly clueless exploration I managed to navigate away from what can be the overpowering atmosphere of Amman’s daily city life, and find my way up one of the hills to the calmer surrounds of the Citadel. For 2 dinars (approximately £2), you can stroll freely around the ruins of this fortification with its impressive views across the city, down to Amman’s other main attraction: the amphitheatre. I was approached by a police officer – but my initial concern that I may have somehow breached some local custom couldn’t have been further from the truth… he just wanted a chat about what I thought of Jordan, and to tell me that he was there if I needed anything. It was the first of many demonstrations of how friendly the Jordanians can be.

Later in the evening I ventured out to sample some of the local food on offer; after negotiating the frantic commercial activity spread out along the buzzing stall-laden streets, ducked one of the busy alleyway restaurants, where I was served a delicious spread of chicken and rice (a Jordanian classic), along with pickles, flatbread and humus. Despite the intense heat of the under-ventilated surroundings and the stark lighting, I felt that I had begun to touch on the heart of the city.

While the capital has its appeal, though, you have to venture further afield to see some of the country’s main visitor draws. I joined a bus heading south, stopping off at some of the area’s more popular sights along the way. First was a fleeting visit to Madaba, where we stepped into St George’s – an unassuming Greek orthodox church – to view a mosaic map of the Palestine region, said to be the oldest in known existence. From here we made a brief stop at Mount Nebo to drink in the tranquillity and the views out across the barren landscape from the point where Moses is said to have seen the Promised Land. But it was what our next stop promised, however, that got us all piling back on board for the winding journey through the rocky surrounds and down onto the Dead Sea Highway… to the Dead Sea itself.

This thin stretch of water along the Jordan-West Bank border boasts a tongue-curling 38% salt content that leaves your feet uncontrollably bobbing above the surface as you drift. Its dramatic billing as ‘the lowest point on earth’, twinned with the calm, almost viscous salt water and the distant mountains of the West Bank – barely in sight through the haze – deliver an unusual aura to the place. The rather misleadingly named ‘Amman Beach’ offers day visitors the opportunity to experience the water’s buoyant qualities, accessed from a not-especially-enticing area of shingle, while also providing changing areas and refreshments, as well as a far more alluring (if freezing cold) salt-free swimming pool, all for 16 dinars.

Further down the Dead Sea Highway, having been flanked by the water to one side and the mountains to the other, we began to head east as we made our way up through the rocky landscape, winding along the road and past spectacular viewpoints until we arrived in Wadi Musa at sunset. The clear skies and undulating terrain made for a dramatic end to an action-packed day that had shown so much of what Jordan offers. Arguably, though, the main attraction was still to come.

Early the next day I made my way down through the town and valley to a gate where I had to part with 50 dinar. I then continued along a pathway as the rocks closed in until I was in the narrow gorge that formed the siq (the shaft) that guides you dramatically into Petra. As a natural suspense-builder, it’s an unrivalled way of entering an ancient landmark that immediately justifies its status as a World Heritage Site and as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. After 800 metres, the iconic, towering facia of the Treasury – made famous by Indiana Jones, of course – is visible through the rocky tunnel. This ornate carving in the rock marks the beginning of the vast expanse of tombs set in the neighbouring mountainsides. You can spend hours (or even days if you want to benefit from the ticket-entry economies of scale) wandering around the numerous pathways and routes in Petra, or even go ‘off-piste’ and scramble over rocks to make your own route, avoiding the countless craft stalls and the locals trying their hardest to persuade you into a camel or donkey ride.

At the far end of Petra, and through a further narrow gorge with a steep climb there is the monastery, where you can marvel at yet another example of Petra’s impressive architectural feats, as well as the surrounding landscape from the mountain top setting. It is perhaps in these far-reaching areas of Petra that its true wonder is revealed: the calmness, isolation and relatively untarnished presentation that makes it so appealing to quite literally lose yourself in.

To complete my whirlwind trip to this alluring middle-eastern country, I boarded a local ‘mini-bus’ from Wadi Musa to Aqaba the following day; after encountering first hand the ‘won’t leave until full’ departure policy, I eventually arrived on the Red Sea coast, where I took the chance of a relaxing last evening of Middle-Eastern treats: hot mint tea, appetising street snacks and friendly conversion with the locals.

A brief stay; a fantastic country. Go now while it is unchanged. Jordan will only increase in popularity as more people discover its wonders.

Find Your Local