Of the Red Sea and the desert: Jordan
Sometimes, the name on the map is only a part of the story. In the case of Jordan, it is barely a fragment. This intriguing country has been on the world atlas since 1021, emerging as the Emirate of Transjordan in the wake of the First World War, before achieving full independence from the British ‘supervision’ in 1946. But to view it as a 20th century creation is to ignore the four millennia of civilization that came before. The result is that in the 21st century, this is a country that is as rich in heritage because of all the invasions and has been gloriously productive. The Nabateans cut the city of Petra from the Wadi Araba valley in the south in the 4th century BC. And they came much later, the northerly Ammonites, with their key city Rabbath Ammon, was in existence in 1200 BC, early enough to appear in the Bible. This is the modern Jordanian capital of Amman. Add in the ruined Greco-Roman city of Gerasa, the desert vistas of Wadi Rum, the supremely saline waters of the Dead sea and the inviting red sea port of Aqaba, and you have a holiday with history and relaxation combined.
Jordan is at the crossroads in the Middle East, as every emperor and pharaoh back in the day knew only too well. It is visible centrally from Syria, Iraq and Palestine, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and is split from Egypt by just eight miles along the Gulf of Aqaba. In a time when the entire region is under severe strife, Jordan is a better and safe travel option in the region.
Petra, a manmade wonder!
A 50 JOD day ticket will buy you a way into the A-list attraction, a ‘lost’ citadel whose prime landmark- the carved colonnaded wonder Al-Khazneh (the treasury) has illuminated the face of countless documentaries, films and books. The majesty is undiminished in person. South of Amman and at 180 kms, at a day trip range, one absolutely must go there. Amman is laid out across a series of hills. Slices of the past – Greco-Roman temples- the temple of Hercules and an eighth-century Umayyad castle – await on top of Jabal Al Qal’a, the ancient core of the city. Jabal Amman, the opposite “peak”, is rather more 21st-century, with restaurants and cafés strung along Al-Rainbow Street. Downtown Al-Balad is a haze of souks and shops, while Ras Al-Ayn has the new Jordan Museum. Amman is also the gateway to Gerasa, in the northern part of the country in Jerash. This is the Greco-Roman pocket of the country and the antiquity greets visitors with a second century Hadrian’s arch and it’s colossal oval plaza and the Temple dedicated to the Goddess Artemis. Madaba, southwest of Amman is known for the 6th century mosaic map that adors the floor of the Byzantine St. George’s church and the mount Nebo, from which Moses is believed to have seen the promised land of bounties.
80 kms south of the treasury is the Mediterranean port with a coastally vibe and taking much of the 20 km meager coastline lies the modern town of Aqaba. Aqaba has a place in British folklore thanks to the guerrilla heroics of Thomas Lawrence of the landmark film, Lawrence of Arabia – who, in July 1917, helped wrest the port from Ottoman control as the “Arab Revolt” brought the First World War to the ailing empire’s back door. Famously, Lawrence befuddled his enemies by sweeping into the city from the north, through Wadi Rum. This arid landscape, easily explored en route to Petra, is a chorus line of dramatic sandstone formations, where Jordan’s tallest peak, Jabal Umm ad Dami, rears to 6,083ft (1,854m).
Geographical splendor of the Dead Sea:
Move to the west of the country and the iconic Dead Sea and its many geological wonders await you. Dead Sea spreads its arms as a part of the border with Israel. The lowest point on earth, this lake with 34.2 percent salinity offers health benefits for everything, from psoriasis to arthritis. The water is very dense, and one can float atop this water without sinking, or putting in any effort for swimming.
What to eat
There is a quote in Jordan and the Middle East that say something along the lines of ‘Even when you are full, you can eat 40 more bites of food’. And it is not nearly as shallow as just eating until you are stuffed, but rather, a reflection on the generosity and hospitality and significance of food in the Jordanian culture. Try the amazing and the obvious falafel and shawarma, at Al-Quds or Shawarma Reem, where they use a horizontal spit, located in Amman or at Hashem restaurant downtown. Moutabel at the Hashem is wonderful too. Hummus and the Fattet hummus at the Al Osrah restaurant in Abdoun, the Labneh and Tabouleh at the Shams El Balad café are served with seasonal herbs! The dish of stewed tomatoes with garlic and olive oil, the famous Galayet Bandora is a must try, both with and without meat, and great renditions can be found on every street corner. Kousa Mahshi, or stuffed zucchini with rice and ground meat, onion and seasonings is a mouthwatering delicacy. Sufra restaurant is a good choice for this and the Warak Enab, the stuffed grape leaves. Jordan refuses to be left behind Europe when it comes to baked goods, and the Manakish, the Jordanian pizza with halloumi and eggs, baked in a brick oven and the Kaek bread sandwich with za’atar, cheese and chili sauce are a must try at the, ironically enough, Paris circle, on Niqola Ghanma street, a small hole in the wall family run bakery. End your meal with a Hareeseh, a semolina pudding, or the Kanafeh, noodles in rose scented syrup. For the coffee lover, there is always Turkish coffee, thick and muddy, and spiced with cardamom and the mint tea, the black tea with few fresh mint leaves, a typical after meal drink. In addition to these, you will also love the produce, the fresh olives, lamb, and the spirit of community eating and sharing. Food plays a huge role in family and cultural life in Jordan.
Welcome to Jordan, the land of nomadic Bedouins of the desert, the land where the Red Sea meets the Dead Sea and the land of ancient wonders.
Air Arabia, Gulf Air, Emirates and many other commercial fliers operate flights to and from the Amman, with fares starting at Rs. 28,000 onwards.
Currency: 1 JOD (Jordanian Dinar) = 96.3 INR
Visa: Jordan operates visa on arrival for Indian passport holders. Jordan pass is available to travelers staying at least three nights, and it includes visa, plus entry for 1 or more days to many popular Jordanian sites such as Petra. The pass cost is 70, 75 and 80 JOD for 1, 2 or 3 days respectively in Petra, including entry visa. The ticket to Petra entry is usually 50-90 JOD and the visa is 50-60 JOD, so this works out economical.
There is a departure fee of JOD10, imposed on all land and sea crossings, imposed since March 2015. The departure fee of JOD30 is usually included in your air ticket.
By Boat: Jordan can be entered sea route at the port of Aqaba via the Egyptian port of Nuweiba. Ferry and speedboats operate on this route. The ferry normally takes upto 8 hours and speedboats finish the crossing in about an hour.
Air: The only domestic route is between Amman and Aqaba.
Bus: The Jett bus company has services from Amman to Aqaba, the King Hussein Bridge (into Israel) and Hammamat Ma’in. Private buses operated largely by the Hijazi Company run from Amman to Irbid and Aqaba. Minibus services connect smaller towns on a more irregular basis and leave only when they are full.
Taxi: Two types of taxis run, the service taxi and the regular taxi. The former covers much of the same route, as the buses but are more expensive and a lot faster and convenient. Agree to the price in advance, as there is no meter run taxis. They can sometimes be persuaded to deviate from their main route. Regular, bright yellow taxis, similar to the NYC taxicabs are in good condition and cover the ground within town. A trip of 10 kms is about 2 JOD. They should be metered, however, most drivers outside the town of Amman don’t use meters and therefore, agree on a price before boarding. You might end up paying as much as twice the going rate if you are not vigilant. Night rates are higher than day running rate.
Drive: The roads are in good conditions, but the drivers and vehicles, not so much. They are comparable to traffic in India, and many drive with worn or defective parts. Sometimes, people drive at night without headlights on, but that’s not a struggle for an Indian person. Hire a car if you have an international driver’s license.
When to go:
The summer can be harsh, with temperatures crossing 40 degree Celsius and the winter cold, with snow on the ground, so spring (March-April) and autumn (September-November) are ideal.