Jordan’s Gems

One of the friendliest and most progressive countries in the Middle East, Jordan offers a mix of the historic and the adventurous. Its changing landscape appeals to many niche markets.

By: Judy Koutsky

Jordan is a place capable of fulfilling the dreams and desires of many diverse travelers.

For the anthropologist or “Indiana Jones” junkie there’s Petra, the ancient city carved into the side of a mountain. It is one of the top tourist sights in the Middle East. For sports enthusiasts there’s the Red Sea, with some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling in the world. Wadi Rum offers rock climbing and hiking against a backdrop of magnificent colors. For the religious or historical aficionado there’s Mt. Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land, and Bethany-by-Jordan, where it’s said Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Jordan also opens doors for the culture buffs. The locals are friendly and open, food is a melange of various Middle Eastern cuisines and the markets are dazzling displays of exotic wares, where people converse over shisha pipes (water pipes with flavored tobacco).

Jordan, like many countries around the world, has suffered greatly since Sept. 11. It received another blow with the war in Iraq. The phrase I heard most often while traveling through the country was “please tell Americans it is safe here, we welcome them back.”

And I did feel safe during my weeklong stay. Since Jordan is one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East, female travelers do not feel ostracized in their Western attire. While many Jordanian women wear headscarves, others do not. And while some women are covered head to toe, most wear Western clothes. The number-one industry in Jordan is tourism, so Jordanians are used to the influx of Western travelers and treat them with respect despite their obvious cultural differences.

In short, travelers feel welcome. The Jordanians are warm and hospitable hosts who are proud of their country’s ancient sites like Petra, which is undeniably the biggest draw.

Petra is where the Nabeteans settled in 6th century B.C. and, at the height of civilization, where 40,000 people resided. But by the 7th century A.D., Petra had passed into obscurity until it was discovered in 1812 by a Swiss explorer. Since then, it has become one of the top attractions in the Middle East.

Travelers should take advantage of Petra by Night, a tour which is only offered on Mondays and Thursdays. After the sun sets, 2,500 candles are lit (it takes 15 people one hour to do this) along the path to Petra’s treasury. Outside the city, visitors are given the history of Petra and then taken on a 40-minute, silent journey into Petra’s interior.

As we walked single file through the narrow canyons, the shadows from the candles danced on the rose-colored rocks and evoked images from the past of an active, vital city.

At the entrance to the treasury, the most photographed image in Petra, a Bedouin played the flute among a sea of candles. Surrounded by the great walls of Petra, enveloped by the sound of the music and the flickering flames, and looking up at a sky shining with stars, I knew this was the high point of my trip.

Most travelers visit Petra by night and then spend the next two days visiting by day. A 45-minute, uphill hike to the monastery is a small price to pay for the breathtaking views of the surrounding lands.

More awaits travelers at the Red Sea and the Dead Sea.

Famous for its snorkeling and scuba diving, the Red Sea is extremely popular with active travelers. I also recommend taking a sunset cruise, where passengers are able to see Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Israel from the boat as the sun slowly sets.

At the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, visitors are treated to the saltiest water on the planet; in fact, the sea got its moniker because nothing can survive in its waters. There’s so much salt in the water it’s also impossible to drown. The salt makes people so buoyant that, in the water, my feet flew out from under me and landed on the surface.

It is also said that salt is good for your skin, but it’s the Dead Sea mud that is highly coveted by spa-goers around the world. It’s here in abundance, and it’s free. Tourists venture to the water’s edge and smear the mud on their bodies; then once it’s dry, they dive into the sea. The mud’s therapeutic elements, combined with the healing powers of the Dead Sea salt, leave the skin soft and smooth.


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