Seeing is Believing: 11 Views of Jordan

Ancient ruins of The Treasury, archaeological site in Arabah-Petra, Jordan Photo by stevenallan/istockphoto.com
By Anuja Madar

"Life is beautiful when you understand it," I was told during an impromptu Arabic lesson under a blanket of stars in Wadi Rum. At the time, I was focused more on getting the pronunciation right ("El donya helwa, bs nefhamha"), but after returning from a week in Jordan, I realized that this applied to what's currently happening in the region. In a time of revolutions, violence, and instability in the Middle East, one local likened the country's position as watching a game of ping-pong, anxiously looking back and forth to its neighbors to see what will happen. The rest of the world, however, has looked on and decided (in some cases, rightly so) that the region's not safe. But when it comes to Jordan, where protests were taking place the day before I arrived, I found a beautiful and diverse tourist-friendly destination with kind-hearted people and a calm that was far from the picture painted back home.

Photo Caption: Ancient ruins of The Treasury archaeological site in Arabah-Petra, Jordan
The ancient city of Jerash, north of Amman, has continuously been the stomping ground of different civilizations. Photo by Anuja Madar
The ancient city of Jerash, north of Amman, has continuously been the stomping ground of different civilizations, their ghosts seen in the 12 churches (three date to the 6th century AD), two major Roman temples, and numerous artifacts housed in the small museum. Excavations began at the 11.5 sq. mile-site in the 1950s, and it's in surprisingly good shape (much of it was reconstructed before the requirements for UNESCO were known). On a spring day the stone is offset by carpets of bright-green grass and flowers, and goats climb the hillsides.

Jerash is one of 10 Decapolis cities in the region, and you can get a glimpse of how the estimated 35,000 residents lived, from the performance amphitheater and places of worship to the water system and detailed friezes and mosaics. Kids -- and adults -- will like RACE, the Roman Army and Chariot Experience, where retired Jordanian soldiers perform as prisoners, charioteers, and soldiers in the Roman Army. You'll see sword fights and chariot races; vote on whether a prisoner should live or die; and learn about the life of a Roman soldier (they fought for only 8 minutes before falling back and being replaced by a fresh fighter, and signed up for 25 years of service with the promise of land at the end of their duty).

Photo Caption: The ancient city of Jerash, north of Amman, has continuously been the stomping ground of different civilizations.
An early Bronze Age-Citadel, on a hill in the middle of the city, offers a fantastic 360-degree view of Amman, Jordan Photo by Anuja Madar
Like most big cities, it's hard to get a grasp of Amman's layout, but the Early Bronze Age Citadel, on a hill in the middle of the city, offers a fantastic 360-degree view of the city, including the hills of the east side; one of the royal palaces; Jebel Amman; downtown; an ancient Roman theater; the city's largest flag; and a wall built during Biblical times.

You'll also be able to see why Amman is known as the white city; the hills are covered with white buildings. While the site is not as sprawling as Jerash, the remains here include houses, the Heracles temples, one of Amman's two churches (from the 5th century AD), and the country's fourth Ummayad Palace, a dome-covered structure that included a mosque, houses, workers' quarters, and a water system. A small museum starts with the Stone Age and houses tools, weapons, jewelry, statues, coins, tombs, and more.

Photo Caption: An early Bronze Age Citadel, on a hill in the middle of the city, offers a fantastic 360-degree view of Amman, Jordan
Mosaic floor at the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George in Madaba, Jordan. Photo by Anuja Madar
You'll often hear from locals that Jordan is "like a mosaic; there are lots of colors that work together to create something beautiful." In Madaba, 19 miles from Amman, that something beautiful is the (once) colorfully tiled map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land on the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. While much of the map is missing (about 25% remains), you can still make out animals, human figures, and town names (be sure to reference the large map model in the visitor center).

The church, built in 1896, sits atop the remains of a Byzantine church from the 6th century, and is still active today. More than 40 churches were found in Madaba, and its population today is 60% Christian. Nearby, the Church of the Virgin and the Apostles, built in 727 during Islamic times, is home to other impressive mosaics and the only circular nave in the Middle East. It, too, was built atop another church, evidenced by the layering of the mosaic work.

Photo Caption: Mosaic floor at the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George in Madaba, Jordan.
The ruins of Petra in Jordan. Photo by Anuja Madar
If you've never seen photos of Petra (or the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), you'd be forgiven for arriving and wondering what all the fuss is about. After shuffling along a dirt walkway as horse-drawn carriages and men on horseback race past, you arrive at the Siq, a narrow gorge -- and a fittingly dramatic entrance for what's in store. The towering rocks are layered in various colors (yellow, white, black) and look, as my fantastic guide, Mahmoud Twaissi (mat65petra@yahoo.com) said, like "melting chocolate."

Though Petra was inhabited prior to the arrival of the Nabateans more than 2,000 years ago, the nomadic Arabs are behind the sophisticated water system and the breathtakingly beautiful buildings, carved into the mountains.

Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek/Roman, and Islamic influences are all found here, a result of Petra's role as capital and the center of the caravan route. (Remnants of what was once a camel image is carved into one of the Siq's walls.) "When you trade with your neighbors," Twaissi says, "you absorb some of their culture." He called it "early global interactivity." After walking about 1.5 miles (starting at the visitor center), your guide will tell you to pause and slowly move forward: this is your first glimpse of the famous Khazna, or treasury.

The 1st century BC facade is the best-preserved in Petra, and today it's a stopping point for tourists and camels, both of which pause for photos that capture the carvings of Isis and Amazon women, and the first floor's six columns. Between 30,000 to 35,000 people lived in Petra, so the Khazna is just the beginning of a city that unfolds to include a 3,000-seat theater, The Royal Tombs, and The Monastery.

If you're looking to stay close to the action, the location of the Mövenpick Resort Petra (www.moevenpick-petra.com) couldn't be any better: it sits right at the entrance of the famous site. That said, after a long day of exploring, you'll need a place to refuel and rest your head. Rooms offer pool, street, atrium, or mountain views (no. 425 also has a bit more space), and because Petra is on every tour group's itinerary, it's important to book ahead. In the summer, the roof garden comes alive with barbecue dinners, sheesha, and entertainment.

Photo Caption: The ruins of Petra in Jordan.
Hikers near Feynan Eco Lodge in Jordan. Photo by Anuja Madar
Going off the grid is something we all dream of, but the temptation of text messages, e-mails, and television are too much to resist. But at Feynan Eco Lodge (www.feynan.com;), the country's only "true" ecolodge, set in the Dana Biosphere Reserve, you're forced to -- and you love it. Getting here is an adventure in itself, bouncing along desert roads and maneuvering over boulders in the backseat of a beat-up pickup truck, past strings of camels sauntering parallel to the community's water line and kids lined up outside the school, waving as you pass by. Aim to arrive in time to catch the sunset, and wait for daylight to fade and candles to bring the lodge to life once again (only the bathroom, kitchen, and office have light bulbs).

The focus at the lodge is on community, whether that's visiting the home of Ali, one of the lodge's all-local employees, to see what a Bedouin household is like, or indulging in an extra piece of bread, made by a local woman. In the coming months, Feynan will also provide opportunities for guests to learn skills from Bedouins, such as making goat-hair tents and musical instruments. The lodge is literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains, but the opportunities it's created currently help support 75 surrounding families (about 400 people), from the men who use their trucks to transport guests from the visitor center to the five women and one man who work in the candle and leather workshops.

Energy is solar; waste is recycled; food is local, vegetarian, and composted; and water is from a natural spring and kept in locally made jars. Rooms are simple, with beds carved from stone and covered with mosquito nets, and each has its own bathroom and distinct view of the surrounding Wadi Feynan. The best view, however, is at night on the roof, where the beauty of being truly off the grid shines bright in a blanket of stars.

Photo Caption: Hikers near Feynan Eco Lodge in Jordan.
Camping in Jordan's Wadi Rum desert. Photo by Anuja Madar
After spending a night in Wadi Rum, it's easy to understand why the desert is romanticized. Masses of hulking rock change color as the sun moves across a vast sky; Bedouins in long flowing robes float across the sand, their faces protected by skillfully wrapped scarves; camels saunter along the horizon; and black beetles skitter across camel footprints, turning an iridescent green as the blazing sun shines down on their tiny bodies.

After seeing all of this, it's easy to picture yourself as T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, who spent time here during the Arab Revolt, and whose book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, lent its name to one of desert's most famous mountains. Explore the desert via jeep, camel, or foot, and be sure to spend at least a night in a desert camp (www.captains-jo.com), where you'll sleep in a tent (or, better yet, outside under the stars), dine on a traditional meal of zarb (chicken, lamb, and vegetables cooked underground), listen to live music, and get to know some of the Bedouins who call this magical place home.

Photo Caption: Camping in Jordan's Wadi Rum desert.
The Evason Ma'in Hot Springs in Jordan's Rift Valley Photo by Anuja Madar
Your first glimpse of Evason Ma'in Hot Springs (www.sixsenses.com/Evason-Ma-In) seems like a mirage. After driving along winding, mountain roads through Jordan's Rift Valley, you see it at the bottom of the valley, 866 feet below sea level, a paradise with lush greenery and hot springs with gushing waterfalls. Surrounded by all that nature, it's not surprising that the focus here is on what's around.

The resort operates according towhat it terms SLOW LIFE -- Sustainable Local Organic Wholesome Learning Inspiring Life Experiences -- which is evident in everything from the all-wood construction and the cabbage and tomato gardens to the homemade purified water and spa treatments that employ homegrown ingredients. There's a homey feel here, accented by arches and Moroccan lanterns, and found in ceiling-hung swings; a library teeming with oversized chairs, books, and games; and the Brown Bar, where an outdoor seat is an open invitation from a housecat to join the meal.

Rooms are spacious and have a lodge-like feel, with exposed wood-beam ceilings and at least one large balcony overlooking the mountains or the falls. The "Ma'in" focus, though, is the spa, modeled after the Amra castle in Jordan's desert and built with domes and local stone. The menu is divided between SLOW and signature treatments, and is complemented with time well-spent in the private thermal pool, which has a natural steam cave. (There are three thermal pools at the spa, three at the hotel, and a hotel waterfall). Skip the van ride down to the spa (and back to the resort if you can) so you can check out the outdoor movie theater and cabbage patch.

Photo Caption: The Evason Ma'in Hot Springs in Jordan's Rift Valley
Aqaba, which fronts the Red Sea, is just an hour's drive from Wadi Rum and offers a small seaside town experience. Photo by Anuja Madar
In a desert land, you wouldn't expect to find two of the world's most famous bodies of water. But in Jordan, you can snorkel in the Red Sea, and at one point spin around to see Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan; and float in the salt-enriched Dead Sea, whose waters are known for their healing properties and (less so) the fact that you walk out feeling like you've been coated in salad dressing. Both are ideal pre- or post-desert stops.

Aqaba, which fronts the Red Sea, is just an hour's drive from Wadi Rum and offers a small seaside town experience, with lots of opportunities for shopping and strolling (look for Al Khateeb Bazaar, where Mohammed, a friendly, trained physical therapist, has a small store overflowing with antiques).

Photo Caption: Aqaba, which fronts the Red Sea, is just an hour's drive from Wadi Rum and offers a small seaside town experience.
A water-view room at the Kempinski Aqaba Hotel. Photo by Kempinski Aqaba
As a hotel, there are certain lists you want to make, and Condé Nast Traveler's Hot List is one of them. In 2010, the Kempinski Aqaba (www.kempinski.com/en/aqaba) made the cut, and it's easy to see why. Kempinski's Swiss sensibilities are evident throughout the property, from blonde-wood floors to all-white decor, as are subtle hints to the hotel's beach location (fish and shell motifs on the bedding).

Every room comes with a balcony that overlooks the sea, tons of closet space, a bathroom set-up that leaves little to the imagination (it's separated from the bedroom by a glass wall, but there's a shade for privacy -- if you want), and a complimentary mini bar with 22 different beverage options (tip: call housekeeping, not room service, to get this refilled to avoid extra charges). But, the focus here is still the sea and the view. You'll find thin panoramic windows in the hallways, and every public space, from the gym to the signature Fish Inn restaurant, takes advantage of the hotel's location. A spa, with treatments reflective of the four seasons, opened in April.

Photo Caption: A water-view room at the Kempinski Aqaba Hotel.
View of the Dead Sea at sunset from the pool deck of Mövenpick Dead Sea Photo by Mövenpick Dead Sea
The Mövenpick Dead Sea (www.moevenpick-deadsea.com) is exactly what you expect a beach resort to be -- and that's not a bad thing. It's easy to get lost (the map helps, though), but part of losing your way is discovering what else this place has to offer. On your journey to the Dead Sea and its salt-enriched waters, you'll pass through what seems like a village but what are really the rooms, making your way past Valley Café (where you should definitely go for an evening sheesha), The Grill restaurant, the award-winning Zara Spa, and two pools (there are nine in total, though some have restricted access).

Rooms have a beach-house feel with colorfully tiled bathrooms and balconies or terraces with sea-, mountain-, or garden views. If a quick float in the water isn't enough healing for you, then the spa has a full menu of treatments that utilize salt and mud from sea, plus a range of take-home Dead Sea products from Trinity, Rivage, and more.

Photo Caption: View of the Dead Sea at sunset from the pool deck of Mövenpick Dead Sea
The Four Seasons Hotel Amman claims the Kingdom's biggest selection of cognacs and single malts Photo by Peter Vitale, courtesy of the Four Seasons
The Four Seasons Hotel Amman (www.fourseasons.com/amman) claims the Kingdom's biggest selection of cognacs and single malts, which tells you that things here, both in Amman and at the Four Seasons, are a little different than you might expect. The hotel was just finishing a major renovation at press time, and the result is a modern, fresh space with subtle touches of luxury, including a beautiful lobby floral display that changes weekly and works from Middle Eastern artists both in rooms and public areas (all of which are also on sale).

Rooms are spacious (at 484 sq. ft., they're the biggest in Amman), and all have city views, though the higher you go, both in floors and price, the better the panorama; it's not a bad deal. You'll find numerous distractions, both in-room and out, such as giant flatscreen TVs, iPod docks, and large soaking tubs in rooms, and a bright spa and fitness center, two pools (indoor and out), three restaurants, and two bars in the hotel.

Photo Caption: The Four Seasons Hotel Amman claims the Kingdom's biggest selection of cognacs and single malts
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