Seeing the world, one country at the time

Jordan in a Nutshell

Jordan is the country of elegant queens and fair and just kings. It is one of the most progressive, moderate and western-friendly Middle Eastern nations. Yet I had my misgivings when we decided to travel there at the end of our world trip. I knew little about the place, except that it bordered Israel and has one of the great architectural wonders of the world in the ancient city of Petra. Petra was made famous by Indiana Jones. It was on our wish list. Lars had waited more than a decade to visit, since he missed a field trip there while serving as a UN peacekeeping officer in Lebanon – the only one among his fellow officers who did not make it there. I had wanted to see Petra’s main sight, the Treasury Building, since I first saw it in pictures. I fell in love with its aura of mystery, history and natural beauty. I imagined myself as an adventurer, stumbling upon the ancient carved fašade as I rounded a curve in the canyon that leads up to it. I had no idea that Petra would be so much more impressive than the photos show, nor did I know how impressed I would be by the little bit of Jordan I saw.

Jordan is an easy trip from Israel’s southern border at Eilat. You can do it in a day, though we had originally planned to go for a week and see more of the country. However, we were so tired of traveling and worn out from sightseeing that we decided to rush the experience. Visiting Jordan became a side trip from Israel and felt like a check on the list of “to do’s”. We had no more wanderlust to speak of and just planning this quick sojourn felt daunting. We were so blasÚ that we didn’t plan at all and relied on our friends to help us find information. No Israelis we knew had been there so there was no first-hand experience to learn from. The Zukbars let use their car to drive to the border, park and cross there, which made life a lot easier.

Once we got south to Eilat, we spent a night camping in the Negev and got up early to cross the border. But in our failure to plan, we didn’t have money and had to drive to Eilat and sit in the bank for half an hour just to change some dollars. When we finally arrived at the border, a group had just gotten the last parking space and we sat there, dejected, until a suspicious border guard came over to ask us our business. He told us where to park and we debated whether we’d have time to see Petra in one day or not. We were told we could, but took some things just in case we’d have to stay overnight. We crossed and were once again reminded of how rich Israel is compared to its neighboring countries. Yet Jordan was much cleaner than Egypt had been and the people were friendly! I mean REALLY friendly - every one of them. We were amazed. When we got out to the taxi stand, we again debated whether to pay the exorbitant amount for a round-trip ride or whether to go to the closest town and take a bus. Since we had no time to spare, we went for the round-trip and also decided that we would make it a day tour instead of staying overnight. I would later regret that choice, but by then it was too late.

We had a speedy drive, changing cars and drivers twice as we crossed the high plateaus that overlook the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. The cars were quite comfortable and the drivers very friendly and talkative. But most incredible of all were the roads. They were perfectly smooth and slid under our tires as we flew over them at 130kmh through hill and dale. They were much better than any in Washington DC and many cities in Europe. I was amazed. The same held true in the small villages that we passed on a shortcut we took. So it wasn’t only the main highway and tourist road that was well built. There were lampposts and unbelievably, the villages were spotless. There was no garbage anywhere. It was a far cry from the Palestinian settlements across the border.

In two hours we had arrived at the city of Petra, built up around the tourism that feeds it. We were dropped off at the visitor’s center and told where we’d meet at five pm, in time to return and cross the border to Israel before it closed at seven. Entering Jordan had been easy. Entering Israel probably wouldn’t be. We paid the entrance and decided to take a horse carriage down into the canyon to save us an hour’s walk, though I would have preferred the walk. We waited for our carriage in a cool underground cave as it was scorchingly hot outside. The carriage took us down into the canyon past ancient sandstone carvings and buildings that belonged to the Nabathean people who inhabited the area in past centuries.

At the end of the tight ravine we traveled, with its perpendicular walls rising high beside us, we could glimpse the pink entrance to the Treasury Building. It was spectacular. We spent several minutes just looking up at it in wonder before going inside. From the main square outside the building there were a couple paths to follow to other tombs and buildings. We chose the main road through the Siq, or bazaar, as we were tight on time. We passed by several tombs that were cut into rocks high above us, or were peeking out from the sand that had covered them for centuries. There were tourists walking everywhere or riding camels or donkeys.

Petra had been built and inhabited by Nabatheans, then Romans, and later Christians. It is full of palaces and courtyards, a Roman amphitheater seating 4000, two churches and the Siq, known as the Street of Facades because it is full of tombs with carved facades. After walking for an hour, we were told a building even more spectacular than the Treasury awaited us at the end of a lesser-known path. Unfortunately, the hike would have taken us over an hour and we were short on time, so we turned back to finish the usual loop. We first went to see a church with impressive mosaics, then the Royal road, where a palace and royal tombs overlook the city. We climbed up and explored every door we found. They were endless. You can still feel like an explorer in Petra, though mostly what you find now are empty rooms reeking of donkey pee because the donkeys are housed there. When we had to leave we went to look for our carriage which didn’t appear. We spent some minutes photographing and staring at the Treasury Building towering over us before we finally found our driver and were taken back up to the visitor’s center where we met our taxi driver and began our rush delivery to the border before closing time.

The taxi stopped halfway and we switched cars with another traveler just arriving to Jordan and on his way to Petra. We drove at lightning speed, but hardly noticed, with those smooth roads and little traffic. The taxi driver seemed happy and jovial and I commented on this and my impression of the Jordanians, presuming that it has to do with King Abdullah. He laughed and said yes, that they have a great king. He thanked me and seemed happy to hear my opinion. Amazing what good leadership and good infrastructure can mean to a country and its people. We were so impressed with Jordan that we want to go back and spend that week we missed out on. And next time we’ll try to see more of it.