Sacred and Stunning

Jordan is a desert oasis for biblical and historic sites

By: By Mark Edward Harris

The Middle East does not suffer from a lack of media exposure. We are inundated with images and news about that region’s dangers on a daily basis. However, this stereotypical view is not only inaccurate, but does a disservice to both the countries and the people of the region that enjoy relative peace, prosperity and incredible opportunities for tourism.

Eager to change Western minds about its region, the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB) hosted a three-day Travel Mart at the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center in February. There, above the cliffs of the Dead Sea, JTB directors, airline representatives, tour operators, hotel GMs and industry experts highlighted Jordan’s numerous sacred sites, which are, for lack of a better expression, on a biblical, if not historic, scale. Jordan, they stressed, possesses the infrastructure and sites to warrant the country as a destination in and of itself, not just an extension to a vacation in neighboring Egypt or Israel.

Near the convention center, just east of the Jordan River, for example, is Bethany Beyond the Jordan where John is said to have baptized Jesus. The site has emerged as a major new destination for religious pilgrims and tourists alike. Jordan is spending more than $7 million to build an on-site visitors’ center, a traditional marketplace and a memorial to John the Baptist.

A seven-day post convention press trip put theory into practice. From Bethany Beyond the Jordan, our group ascended Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have seen the Promised Land. From this plateau we were treated to a breathtaking view across the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea to the rooftops of Jerusalem and Bethlehem under a dramatic sky.

After a great lunch at the restaurant Haret Jdoudna in Madaba — a town known for its mosaics — and a stop at the Crusader castle at Kerak, we arrived in Petra for a nighttime exploration of one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Every once in a while you come face to face with a travel icon — both natural and manmade — which elicits a feeling of overwhelming awe. This must be the case with most visitors when they first see Petra’s Treasury. This ancient structure was carved into a rock cliff more than 2,000 years ago by the Nabateans. Spectacular by day, it’s even more magical after a candlelit, serpentine walk through a huge gorge. No serious traveler, historian or Indiana Jones fan (Indy finally found the Holy Grail at Petra in the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) should miss an opportunity to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Petra we traveled to Wadi Rum, where real-life and film legend T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia) spent the latter years of World War I during the Arab Revolt. This barren, magnificent landscape includes the rock formation known as the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the inspired title of Lawrence’s classic book about his experiences in the Middle East. We had an authentic Bedouin barbecue and spent the night in Bedouin tents. The experience is meant to be rustic, and it is. No fine china and soft beds here, but few come away from the experience regretting their stay.

At the southern end of Jordan is Aqaba, a port city on the Red Sea known as a year-round resort with some of the best coral reefs in the world. What I found equally fascinating is the geographical proximity of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan. All have borders within a few miles of each other here.

After a night in the desert and a day spent cruising the Red Sea, I was looking forward to the creature comforts of a modern hotel. The Grand Hyatt Amman in Jordan’s capital certainly was up to the challenge. Amman has numerous sites of interest, including the King Abdullah Mosque, a bustling traditional marketplace, the Citadel and the Jordan Archeology Museum, which houses some of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

A great day trip from Amman is to the city of Jerash, with its well-preserved Roman ruins. A reenactment of Roman legion military formations, gladiator fights and chariot racing is put on in the newly restored hippodrome, the Circus Gerasa. The Roman Army and Chariot Experience helps visitors visualize the town’s ancient past.

Even in an all-too-often turbulent region, Jordan is a sea of calm, especially since signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. The Jordanian government and its travel industry’s efforts to entice individual travelers, as well as encourage tour operators to create stand-alone Jordan itineraries, shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Jordan Tourism Board