Rain in the desert, Roman ruins, rock-cut cities, Bedouin tourist guides: Romain Maitra sees Jordan as “a drama in time”.
Who would have thought that a West Asian desert could be cold and rainy on a summer day? But my guide Ali Abu Dayeh assures me that this is a momentary caprice of the weather; and 48 km later, as I stand before the Arch of Hadrian in ancient Jerash in Jordan, the bright sun has emerged.
Encircled by wooded hills and meadows, what some call the best-preserved Roman city outside Italy appears as if caught in a time capsule. I decide to see Jerash’s Roman ruins, which include colonnaded streets, arches, temples and an oval-shaped public square. I tiptoe up to the highest tier of the granite steps of the south amphitheatre, to watch other tourists strutting on the grand stage far below.
If you are looking for easy amusement in Jordan, you are swimming in the wrong soup. There are sites associated with Judeo-Christian tradition. On the highway to Madaba, Ali halts at Mount Nebo, known as the burial place of Moses. From the summit there is a sweeping view of the River Jordan valley, the Dead Sea and distant Jericho and Jerusalem. The still is broken by a sharp tremolo of giggling, from a group of schoolgirls on an educational tour.
Strangely, there is little security at Jordan’s historic sites. Their vulnerability is epitomised by an unguarded young olive tree at the doorway of a Byzantine chapel. It was planted as a symbol of peace by Pope John Paul II on his visit in March 2000.
In Madaba I see, for the first time on this tour, a throng of visitors. They are at the Greek Orthodox Church of St George, which has splendid Byzantine iconic images and a vivid 6th-century Byzantine mosaic map on the floor, showing Jerusalem and other holy cities.
Though its colours have faded, this 25x5 metre map shows landmarks around Jerusalem and all the way to the Nile delta. Ignoring the shops selling mosaic handicrafts nearby, Ali takes me along the main road to a mosaic-making and training centre run by physically challenged locals. Men and women, some on wheelchairs, are diligently cutting stone chips and fixing them on pre-drawn images on boards. What a wonderful way to carry the traditions of the mosaics of Madaba forward into the present!
From Madaba, we drive down to the Dead Sea, one of the lowest points on the Earth’s surface. The Dead Sea’s 33.7 per cent salinity makes it inhospitable to life. I go barefoot to the shore in search of a beach, but find instead sharp stones and rocks.
As I wade in, I topple on the sharp-edged stones, fall into the salty water, and stand up with bleeding feet smarting, and my eyes likewise. But a Samaritan comes rushing up and pours fresh water from a bottle onto my wounds. I have since repented of failing to see his face, as my eyes were sealed shut with pain.
Dusk is falling as I reach Wadi Musa, and Petra. Ali has arranged a ticket for Petra By Night, my introduction to this one of the world’s “seven wonders”. Along with many other tourists, most of them Caucasian, I walk for over a kilometre along a path dimly lit by paper-hooded candles.
The path ends at a spacious plaza where the tourists gather for a musical evening. The murmur of the assembled throng is pierced by a “Shhh!” from what looks like a spooky apparition.
Three Bedouins loom forth. One speaks in English on Petra and Bedouin tradition, frequently interrupted by the ringing of his phone. The second sings in a plangent voice. The third bows crooning melodies on his rababa, a stringed fiddle.
Petra is doubtless Jordan’s most unique treasure and greatest tourist attraction. The Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled here 2,000 years ago, carved this city out of the rose-coloured rock, and turned it into a junction on the silk, spice and other long-distance trade routes.
The following morning I take the same route of the Siq, the narrow gorge. There are carriages, but I decide to walk. The Siq is resplendent in the sun, its cliffs enlivened by rock formations. The path terminates at that same plaza of the night before, but in the daylight there is a splendid view of the carved façade of Al-Khazneh, the Treasury.
As I trudge along, exhausted and wonderstruck, the magical valley unfolds to reveal obelisks, temples to pre-Islamic gods, rock-carved tombs of royals, colonnaded streets and sacrificial altars.
The Nabataeans were not only great architects but also designers of a remarkable water management system. These desert farmers turned this arid land into an artificial oasis. Their modern descendents, however, are Bedouins, well-adapted to modern tourism and equipped with phrases in many tongues. Some sell trinkets and Bedouin jewellery from stalls, others rent horses and camels to tourists.
If Petra is man’s cultural intervention into nature’s rocks, Wadi Rum’s towering mesas and sloping sand valleys are nature’s own expressions shaped by the elements. After watching a quiet sunset there I am happy to be in the company of Bedouin musicians in traditional robes with white-and-red kufiyyas (scarves) at “CAPTAIN’S” desert camp nearby. They play the oud, a lute-like string instrument, and percussion, and their mobile phone numbers are inscribed in super-sized figures on their instruments. This is how the Bedouins have adapted to tourism: with convivial manners, gadgets, polyglotism and self-publicisation.
Jordan is more than a place; it is a drama in time where continuity and change walk hand in hand.
Romain Maitra is an art critic, independent curator and travel writer who lives in Kolkata