Jordan Joy


The dark eyed Arabian man placed a cool blade against my bare neck. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, nor did I cold sweat or really have any fear. As our eyes met his face broke into a broad wide Jordanian smile and his eyes disappeared. I was in a barber’s in Aqaba in Southern Jordan and about to have the closest shave in my life. Although some blood was let, it was only tiny speckles on my oversensitive neck. The only pain I felt was from those tiny cuts as he placed a caustic stick of soda on my neck to stem bloodflow and when he removed a few stubborn dark hairs from my cheeks with a swift sharp plucking motion using a taut and twisted piece of purple thread. It was as they say an experience and everyone who I subsequently met that day was impressed with the smoothness of my face.

There is an all too popular misconception that all of Arabia is at war with Israel, but this is negative propaganda. Granted it does not have the most attractive of border countries, but Jordan is peaceful and gets on with its neighbours on all sides and has safe borders. There is no history of what some call extremist or terrorist activity.

The history of Jordan and Ireland are similar and we are both new countries. Jordan has a long history of occupation and has lost a chunk of disputed land. In 1943, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was formed through the Treaty of London and the territory on the Western side of the River Jordan was lost. Jordan is developing an IT economy based on our own Celtic Tiger because it does not have much mineral wealth (just potash and phosphates used to make fertilizer) and little oil.

In a coincidence of biblical proportions, Jordan has had three kings. The Hashemite royal family is in fact directly descended from the Prophet Mohammad. All three kings have walked the tightrope of peace and have tried to bring the various divergent political entities in the Middle East together to negotiate a settlement to the ongoing conflict. The current King Abdullah II continues that tradition. The Jordanian queens have done untold good to Jordan’s reputation abroad. The beauty and intelligence of Queens Rania (a Kuwaiti) and Nor (an American) have raised the profile of the Royal Family in the public perception throughout the globe.

In North Jordan, Jarash, a pristinely preserved Roman city, is the major attraction. It was one of the ten-city decapolis of Roman powerhouse bases in Arabia and a wander through the columns and the temples helps you imagine what it was like with centurions wandering about.

Amman, the capital of Jordan was also a decapolis city and it had the Greco-Roman name of Philadelphia. It seems to be a sprawling and urban Arab metropolis with no major attractions of note, but it probably deserves more attention that was allocated on this visit.

Petra is arguably the second major tourist attraction in the whole of the Middle East after the pyramids. At the end of a narrow and deep canyon called the Siq, there is a valley where lived the ancient civilization of Nabataeans. These former nomadic merchants took advantage of the geographic location of Petra at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia and it became a hub for the trading routes from the East. They grew wealthy when they exacted tolls from the spice trade caravans that moved from water hole to water hole through the Arabian Desert. The Nabataeans achieved great feats of engineering and the water canals they constructed ensured an adequate water supply for the city. The Treasury and the vast Royal Tombs hewn into the pink rock are the major highlights, but there are many ruins all over the vast valley floor.

The Treasury, where the Queen of Sheba allegedly hid her treasures, features in the final scenes of the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom film. You won’t encounter Harrison Ford fans re-enacting his or his double’s great stunts in the Siq, but you may meet with a Bedouin or his camel that may have been an extra in the film. This was Mr Ford in his finest acting role. Now you see him gracing billboard adverts for some pricey and sartorial elegant suit brands in Jordan Airport. He looks suave, slick and smooth and like he has just paid a visit to my barber friend in Aqaba.

Seeing its value, the Romans annexed and ruled Petra for a time. A massive earthquake in May of AD363 and a decline in trade marked the end of the city’s heyday. It was abandoned and for 500 long years it was a mythical lost city in the desert. It was rediscovered in the early 19th century when a Swiss Explorer convinced some local Bedouins to take him there. Some feel that Petra is the Old Testament city of Edom doomed because its inhabitants refused entry to Moses and the Israelites, but opinion is divided on this curse. It is still prone to flash floods as instant head high waves rush through the narrow Siq, so get the forecast before you head to Petra.

You can’t swim in the Dead Sea but you won’t drown. The salt concentration is so high that everyone floats. This has its disadvantages especially for those with no “body pride”. You can strip off rapidly and run down to the water, but you wont be able to hide your corpus maximus body shape under the surface. What you have to show floats. You can’t lurk in the dank depths nor can you push an extruding middle age spread under water. You float and there is nothing you can do about it. If you try to swim, your body flays wildly and twists about. The best approach is to lie on your back and drift serenely. It is so relaxing. Nothing lives in it and it is shrinking at about one metre a year and by 2050 it may disappear altogether. Ambitious plans are afoot to try and replenish this strange glutinous semi-aqueous expanse of water through construction of a canal to the Red Sea.

The high mineral content of the Dead Sea, the killer for living species, makes it especially therapeutic for unfortunate individuals with arthritis or rheumatism or skin disfigured by psoriasis or eczema. High magnesium salt concentrations replenish skin cell vitality and softness and sure it is a great de-stresser. Cleopatra recognized this and between dips in milk she used to take salt baths. Other fans were Aristotle and King Solomon of the mines. The remedy will take years off you – at least until you put them back on again when you take a short stroll through one of Ireland’s hydrocarbon polluted central cities. So you better purchase some of the mud and take it home with you. Two bits of advice you should heed about swimming in the Dead Sea are to cover your cuts (as the old adage rubbing salt in the wound might hint) and to shower immediately after your dip before your skin turns to leather.

Parts of Jordan haven’t changed in two millennia. Alleged sites of biblical significance are dotted throughout the country from the Garden of Eden to the home and haunts of John the Baptist. At the back of your mind you might doubt some of their authenticity and feel it the associations should be taken with a grain of salt. Yes you guessed it – Lot’s cave is here. The poignance you feel though when you visit some of the more valid of these sights is real. At the top of Mount Nebo, a place of ancient pilgrimage, you can imagine Moses spending his last hours as he surveyed the vast valley way below him. A descent through a tunnel of desert shrubbery to the banks of the river Jordan at the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus cant help touch even those who wouldn’t be the most ardent of Christians. The size of the river is not impressive nor is its clarity because it is muddy, but it has so much political and religious significance. In nearby Maddaba, the Orthodox church of St George is home to an ancient biblical mosaic map of the region.

The Wadi Rum desert area in Southern Jordan is a spectacular alien moonscape. This is Lawrence of Arabia country and the site of many of his skirmishes with the Turks. Adventures in the desert terrain are now more likely to be in the back of a four-wheel drive rather than on the back of a camel. There are ‘authentic’ Bedouin tented villages where you spend a night under the stars and they do tastefully avoid the belly dancing mania you oft see in other places. You are treated to a buffet meal of assorted local delicacies. The food in Jordan is typical Middle Eastern fare from kebabs to spicy lamb or chicken stews. Even vegetarians are well catered for in Jordan with a range of non-meat mezze offerings.

Aqaba is a strange place. It is half a holiday resort and half a major industrial port. It is a major Red Sea Port and huge caravan of roadtrains and oil tankers stutter up the Desert Highway bringing produce and oil to Amman, Syria and the nearest Iraqi towns. Hotel complexes are springing up and they have small attractive beachfronts on the Red Sea. The coral in the Red Sea is among the best in the world and although the Aqaba resort is not as developed as the Egyptian shore or Eilat in Israel the water is clear and you do see fish swimming about.

This is the self same Red Sea that Moses with God’s help parted to escape from the Romans. The sceptic in you might ponder over the fact that the timing of a massive earthquake that occurred in Cyprus within a few hundred years of that time may have triggered a tsunami, a massive tidal wave, in the Red Sea. The backdraft before the wave would have sucked all of the water out and the tide would have gone out past the horizon giving the Israelites the opportunity to lash across the tidal flats. Six hours later a hundred metre high tidal wave would have swept all before it to death and destruction. Not even a mighty Roman galleon would have survived that one.

Getting there: There are no direct flights from Dublin. Royal Jordanian fly from Heathrow to Amman the capital. Unique Destinations can arrange package tours to Jordan (Tel: 016638792, email: info@uniquedestinations.ie). The official language is Arabic but a lot of Jordanians speak very good English.  The currency is the Jordanian Dinar (1 Dinar is about 0.8 Euro). To enter Jordan you will need a visa and you get these at Jordan Airport. Credit cards are accepted in most places. Depending on your bank you can take money out from your account using local ATMs, but it is best not to depend on it. The dress code for tourists is what the locals call “semi-casual” so if you wear shorts in some places it may be frowned upon. It is best to check with a local what to wear so you don’t offend. The local attire for males of the flowing dishdash robe and red and white chequered kefyyah headdress are cooling in the midday sun. The kefyyah used to be worn as a political badge of respectability among left-wingers in my student days, but is seldom seen on Ireland’s streets today. Some women still wear veils, but few wear the dehumanising all body black burkahs.

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