Just before dawn, the dark streets of Amman feel more cool than dusty, like the way clay feels cold in your hands. The windows of my hotel room are cranked open to the sky.
Soon a sound begins moving low on the wind—the Adhan, or call to prayer—hauntingly beautiful male voices holding, warbling, weeping a long note. Then other voices join, echoing from other mosques. How peaceful a place that evokes dreaming, yet values dialog with the infinite even more than sleep. Enfolded in the prayers of men, I start to wonder if maybe, in spite of my cynical self, I have come to Jordan to look for God.
Most Midwestern ladies from my Lutheran church childhood longed to see the “Holy Land” some day, which to them meant trudging up a hill in Jerusalem with a black leather King James Bible tucked under their arms. They may not have known that many of the stories of the Bible took place in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Turkey or that places sacred to the history of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even the Baha’i faith are still within reach and well worth a visit. Jordan is probably the best place to start.
If you tell the average American that you are going to Jordan, he’ll likely stare blankly, ask why, and then stutter… “Are you sure it’s safe?”
But tell a real traveler, and he’ll say, “I’m jealous.” It seems the only people who want to go to Jordan are those who have been there before or who have travel in their blood.
True travelers have heard of the wonders of the ancient red sandstone-carved temples of Petra. They have read stories about the cobalt waters of the Red Sea at Aqaba. They know how the hot-footed sun burns its soles in the desert sands of Lawrence of Arabia’s Wadi Rum. They’ve slathered on the healing coal-colored mud of the Dead Sea and floated in its waters. Such vagabond souls understand that there is a fine line between beauty and uncomeliness—like a slim vein of pure silver or gold that runs through a dirty rugged rock, or the way mud makes a cleansing balm for skin. They also know that Jordan is the most neutral, safe country in this region and that the people there are warm and genuine in their welcome.
Like many treasures in life, at first glance Jordan isn’t all that. You have to look more closely.
First of all, they have nothing anybody wants to fight over—almost no oil, no water, no über-important natural resources, which is why they’ve been able to keep their fingers out of the warring pies all around them and why it’s a safe place to dip your toes into the Middle East.
Much of Jordan is dry land and looks like New Mexico or Arizona. And though it has its share of lush green landscapes, in places the landscape looks like a large ash-grey gravel pit with big, hot, dry rock- candy mountains.
If you were to fly into Amman, hang around for a day or two, and be on your way, you might not get Jordan. But I do. One must become still and look closely to see the things that are truly worthwhile—things that will amaze you and steep like tea leaves in your soul. Maybe that’s the first lesson of Jordan I learn as I go in search of something, God maybe. There is beauty in everything—that is, if you pay attention. And maybe, just maybe if you are open to it, there is something sacred.
I am reminded of a question after a lecture given by Paul Rusesabagina, the man whose brave story was depicted in Hotel Rwanda. When asked if, after all he saw during the genocide, he still believed people are basically good at heart, he hesitated and then said, “People’s hearts are like stones. Hard stones. But if you look very closely, in each stone there is a part that is softer than the rest of it. I have learned to look for that part of the stone.”
Back in my hotel in Amman, I’m finally fully awake. I make a cup of sorry Nescafe with the plug-in instant tea kettle on the desk of my hotel room, and I spy a round sticker on the desk that always bemuses me. It is common thing in hotels in the Muslim world—it is a little sticker with an arrow pointing to Mecca so the faithful/devoted will know which way to bow and pray. I smile to think, “Ah, would that it were that easy to find God.” Maybe it is.
I gaze out the window. On a hill called Jabal al-Qala’a in the distance, there is a citadel with a white limestone dome. There, just northwest of the Temple of Hercules, is the Jordan Archeological Museum, which houses, among other things little pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I sip my coffee and find comfort in knowing they are there—that sometimes words last.
One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Amman has been the cultural, economic, modern, and ancient capital of Jordan. An excavation in the 1990s uncovered homes and towers built in the Stone Age, some 7000 years ago. The Old Testament makes many references to the Ammonites and their capital city of Rabbath-Ammon. For a time the city was even renamed Philadelphia after the Ptolemaic ruler Philadelphus in the third century BCE. In 30 BCE, the Roman King Herod took over Philadelphia. During that time, the city got a facelift and was re-planned and reconstructed with Roman colonnades, baths, an amphitheater and stately buildings. Today, Amman is a modern city full of historic treasures.
One of the nearby allied cities is Jerash, about 30 miles north of Amman, which is home to glorious ancient ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Gerasa, (sometimes called “Antioch on the Golden River” or the “Pompeii of the Middle East”). These fabulous ruins have been unearthed and restored on a green grassy hill overlooking work-a-day neighborhoods where citizens’ homes stand on the ancient foundations of their ancestors. Archeologists estimate that the area was inhabited as far back as 3,200 BCE. The Roman conquest in 63 BCE made Jerash part of the Roman province of Syria.
At the ruins in Jerash, in an ancient circus/hippodrome, visitors can see an historically accurate reenactment of a chariot race, as well as the beautiful Hadrian’s Arch, theaters, baths, temples, and remains of a city wall. Yellow wildflowers by the thousands dot the fields around columns lining ancient stone streets. I see a great many lovely places like this near Amman, but I am in search of other sacred sites, and so I head south.
Theologian Paul Tillich writes of the distinction between what German theologian Martin Kähler called the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith—and while I grew up hearing stories concerning the historicity of Christ, I’ve been much more interested in exploring something more ethereal, elusive—like faith, or that which Tillich would call “my ultimate concern.” Here along the back roads of Jordan, as I wander through places steeped in stories of Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition, I wonder if I will also find lessons.
Along the southeastern coast of the Dead Sea, today known as Southern Ghor, is a place known in the Bible as the Valley of Salt. There sits Deir Ain Abata, which archeologists say may be the ancient cave of Lot, where he took refuge when the bacchanal cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. I stop to look at a towering rock formation that is said to be Lot’s wife, turned to a pillar of salt. Near here sprawl wide plains where Abraham and Lot divided their herds in the Old Testament stories and later where King David slew 18,000 Edomites. Somewhere in the vicinty, though scholars have different theories about where, may have been the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Holy Land indeed. Lesson two: In order to move forward, don’t look back.
During our travels, we drive through lands where Moses is said to have wandered during part of the 40 years the Israelites spent lost the desert. Here, the story makes sense. I can see how one could get lost here for that long. The landscape all looks the same, which is to say awful—exposed to harsh heat and stony soil and stupid hardscrabble everything. How cruel and unforgiving the ugly terrain. How high the desert mountains. Even now, Bedouins tents and sheep dot the stony hillsides while men and boys follow their smelly herds down unsteady steep paths.
The bus snakes down crooked roads through steep hills into a deep valley. I feel carsick—as though I am falling into a sharp granite crevasse with mean edges. Where could this possibly end? How can I find my way out? I feel like the grumbly ungrateful Israelites following Moses around, saying. “Maybe slavery in Egypt wasn’t so bad! Shouldn’t we turn around and go back?”
Ah, Lesson Three emerges: To reach beauty, joy, one must journey deeper, through all the scary ugly parts.
For then, as if coming upon a land of milk and honey—or, rather like kids finding themselves inside the gates of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (my sudden slack-jaw wonder is that overwhelming)—we come to the bottom of the earth and find an actual oasis of ferns, trees, flowers, fragrant breezes, and glistening white waterfalls falling from high steep cliffs into steaming hot springs.
Dazed, confused and, of course, delighted, my group checks into the ultra luxe Evanson Ma’In Hot Springs & Six Senses Spa Resort, lying 866 feet (264 meters) below sea level—a place on Conde Nast’s Top 100 hotels list. But we don’t have time to “ooh and ahh” over the accommodations (which are squeal-worthy, believe me) for we are busy scrambling down to the edge of the water in our bathing suits.
The water is almost boiling hot, nearly scalding our skin as we race across the shallow rock-bed river to a place where cold water falls from cliffs several stories high and comingles with the hot springs below. Later, when I explore the property, I visit the spa built into the side of a hill. There, the only sauna is a natural cave with candlelight and steam rising from the springs, and the pool is filled by an ever flowing waterfall from above. Here I meet Rogerio Almeida, a Brazilian travel writer, floating in the pool and in no hurry to make the dinner that we’re obliged to attend in ten minutes. Rogerio, who may as well have “Carpe Diem” tattooed to his forehead for the way he lives, tells me that accidently boarded the wrong plane to Amman and ended up in Bangkok yesterday. I like this guy.
The next day, we travel to Mount Nebo, where Moses first beheld the “Promised Land” to the west. (And I’m thinking, had Moses seen Ma’In instead, how much less trouble there’d be in the world today).
During the trip, we also visit the plateau and city of Madaba, known for its ancient mosaics dating between the 1st-and 8th-century AD—the most famous of those being the one in the early Byzantine church of Saint George, which depicts in minute detail an ancient map of the biblical lands inlaid in the floor. Yet another lesson, Number Four: Beauty can come in tiny, dirty little pieces that you have to assemble and then get down on your knees to see. But, what a wonder when you behold the bigger picture at last.
TULIPS AT THE TOP
We see and do a great many other things in the beautiful Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, including spending a night in a Bedouin tent under the stars at the great desert to the south called Wadi Rum. There are camels and tents and more stars than Abraham’s descendants, and much music, laughter, dancing and delight. Another night, we spend at the sparsely elegant Feynan Ecolodge a hundred miles from nowhere, a truly “green” hotel, lit only by candlelight with a rooftop patio where we count falling stars. After dinner, we visit the neighbors—Bedouins who sit cross-legged on beautiful carpets in a tent and who kindly smile at our attempts to ask about their lives. Little girls run and cover their pretty smiles with veils and touch my yellow hair as we walk to the top of a sandy rock mountain and build a small fire of sticks for hot tea as we wait for the sun to set.
But of course, the highlight of any trip to Jordan is Petra.
An ancient archaeological city established sometime around the 6th-century BCE by the Nabataean tribes, Petra features red rock-cut buildings jutting several stories high—with huge temples, arenas, amphitheatres, and holy spots. It is the most-visited tourist attraction in the Middle East, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, and is now considered one of the modern day Seven Wonders of the World—a merit well deserved. Like visiting a state park, you pay a fee and then hike (or take a donkey cart) through tall narrow slot canyons. Suddenly, through a tall shadowed slit in the rocks, you follow a slim passageway until you behold the sun on the rose-red windblown face of the Treasury, one of the most famous edifices of Petra. There is also an enormous ancient ruin called the Monastery, but getting to it involves a long, hot, hard hike up some 900 steps (including boulders and skinny scary ledges). The most amazing things there were not the gigantic ruins at the top but rather the wild tulips that grow in the sandy red rock soil. Another truth springs from the ground, Lesson Five: Take the hard way. There are tulips at the top.
An astonishing fact about Petra is that, for a long time, we actually lost it—the city remained unknown to the Western world until 1812 when a Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, heard stories of it from local tribesmen and asked them to help lead him there. Burckhardt was stunned by its beauty, calling it a “rose-red city half as old as time.” Truth Number Six: Just because we haven’t found it doesn’t mean that something wonderful isn’t out there for us. Look for that which is lovely. Listen. Ask directions. Seek the hidden. Marvels may seem to take centuries to find, but magnificent things are possible. And when you find them, don’t forget. Don’t lose them all over again.
On the way back to the Dead Sea, after our magical time in the desert, we stop to see Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where Jesus is believed to have been baptized. There are no T-shirt shops nearby or people hawking holy water or Chiclets—no commercial trappings. Just reeds and weeds and a slim murky green river—not deep and wide like the song says—just an ordinary creek where I dip my empty plastic bottle into the spring and carry brown water back to the bus. My Seventh Lesson: God is in the ordinary, the natural, the filthy dirty. Maybe even in me.
The rest of the trip is spent snorkeling in the blue waters of Aqaba from a wooden ship surrounded by beautiful white clouds of elegant stinging jellyfish and lounging around drop-Dead Sea gorgeous resorts at the lowest point on earth. There the lights of Jerusalem flicker in the distance across the sea like a city of tiny lighthouses. In the salt sea, covered in black mud, I stand up stick-straight while floating. Then I shower and swim with my new friend Rogerio in the pools of the Kempinksi Ishtar as the sun sets across the water over the other Holy Land.
On the last night, we dine under willowy Bedouin windblown tents at the Mövenpick Resort and Spa and dance to Arabic music, drums banging, bringing on the dawn.
As I walk back to my hotel room just before sunrise, no call to prayer hangs on the wind here. Still, I pull open the bedside drawer to put away a book and notice a round sticker with an arrow pointing to Mecca hidden inside the drawer.
Just then, I think of something J.D. Salinger wrote: “Jesus knew—knew—that we’re carrying the Kingdom of Heaven around with us, inside, where we’re all too goddamn stupid and sentimental and unimaginative to look. You have to be a son of God to know that kind of stuff.”
I close the drawer on the sticker. I don’t need it.
This time I know just where to look.
For more information about visiting the stunning Kingdom of Jordan, go to these helpful Web sites
• Jordan: www.visitjordan.com
• The Petra National Trust: www.petranationaltrust.org
• Volunteer (“voluntourism”) opportunities in Amman: www.ahsrehab.org
• Evanson Ma’In Hot Springs & Six Senses Spa Resort: www.sixsenses.com/Evason-Ma-In
• Feynan Eco Lodge: www.feynan.com
• Bedouin Desert Camp at Wadi Rum: www.captains-jo.com
• Accommodations at Aqaba: www.moevenpick-hotels.com
• Sailing cruises at Aqaba: www.sindbadjo.com
• Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea: www.moevenpick-hotels.com
• Holiday Inn Resort Dead Sea: www.ichotelsgroup.com
• Marriott Jordan Valley Dead Sea Resort & Spa: www.marriott.com
• Kempinski Ishtar Dead Sea: www.kempinski.com/en/deadsea
Janis Turk is a travel writer who lives in Sequin, Texas. She also has an apartment in New Orleans, one of her favorite places. Visit www.janisturk.com for more information.