The Eye of the Hurricane

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The Treasury, Petra

Syria, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iraq: this is not a list of countries you would choose to be surrounded by if you were setting out to create a nation, but so Jordan finds itself hemmed in on all sides by less-than-stable neighbors. As a country, they have been both incredibly lucky and exceptionally unlucky. Their former king, King Hussein, almost single-handedly steered the country away from the political chaos of its neighbors and helped create a stable, growing economy and a country with a far more progressive set of social standards than its neighbors. His son, King Abdullah II, has continued this style of leadership, and Jordan appears to be one of the few countries where a monarchy seems to be working (though it is technically a constitutional monarchy, the king holds most of the executive and legislative powers).

As for bad luck, Jordan has been dealt a crap hand when it comes to natural resources. They have the second lowest water resources per capita of any country in the world and they have almost no oil reserves. They rely heavily on tourism as part of their economy, but because they’re surrounded by civil wars and international conflict on all sides, the unrest in the region kills their business. Since 2010, tourism in Jordan is down 50-70 percent, even though Jordan itself is as safe and stable as ever.

The population of Jordan is 9.5 million and almost 30 percent of that is made up of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, etc., and Jordan fronts most of the cost of taking in and settling these groups, in addition to managing the logistical headache of dealing with that many refugees. Although its history is closely tied to the Arab world and Islamic culture, Jordan is full of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine ruins, in addition to several places of biblical significance.

Amman

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View of Amman from Citadel Hill

Jordan’s capital is not going to be the highlight of your sightseeing in the country, but it’s not a place without its charms. Even by Middle Eastern standards, Amman is an old city. Settlements and artifacts from the Neolithic period have been found in Amman that date back to 7200 B.C. It was later controlled by the Ammonites, followed by the Greeks who renamed the city Philadelphia.

Next came the Romans, who are responsible for many of the ruins still visible in Amman today. On Citadel Hill overlooking the city sits what is left of the Temple of Hercules, dated to the second century A.D., as well as several Umayyad ruins, who took over in 661 A.D., and a Byzantine church. Below the Citadel, situated on one of Amman’s seven original hills, is a 1,900-year-old Roman amphitheatre that is still in use today.

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What’s left of the Temple of Hercules

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As for the rest of it, this is actually the newer part of the city for commercial and residential purposes—again, developed recently in response to the refugee situation—and they’ve done a great job of integrating the old and the new. Limestone was the building material of choice for Roman builders in the area and many of the modern buildings today—the central courthouse, the arts center, museums—are also built with limestone, so everything fits in well together. 

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View of the city from the Citadel
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Inside the amphitheatre, which seats about 6,000

About an hour outside of Amman is Jerash, the most in-tact Roman city left on earth. Writings from the time indicate that Alexander the Great or his general settled the area in the fourth century B.C., though people lived in the area beginning in the Bronze Age almost 3,000 years earlier. Despite a severe earthquake in the eighth century A.D., many of the original structures are still standing, including the hippodrome, temples to Zeus and Artemis, most of the columns surrounding the forum and the colonnaded street, two theaters, and two public baths. The entire complex is covered in fragments of broken stone and pottery, and much of the area is still unexcavated.

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Arch of Hadrian, built to welcome the Roman Emperor Hadrian on his visit in 129 A.D.
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One side of the forum
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From the forum, looking down the colonnaded street

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One of two remaining theaters in Jerash
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The list of sponsors engraved on the lower sides of the theater. Honestly

Some 25-30 miles from Amman is the Dead Sea, which is truly about as dead as it gets. The water is so salty that nothing can live in it and the entire thing is more than 1,300 feet below sea level, making it the lowest point on earth that’s not underwater. Like half of Jordan, the sea has as much biblical significance as anything, as both Jericho and the alleged site of Sodom and Gomorrah are located along the Dead Sea. There’s nothing really to see here, but you can see from this picture just how salty it is, so much so that it accumulates on the rocks along the shore.

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All the glistening white stuff on the edge of the water is salt

Obviously our sense of history in the U.S. is skewed because we are such a young country, but I never cease to be amazed by how old things in this part of the world are. You see people plopping down on fragments of 2,500-year-old marble columns like it’s nothing, which seems crazy, but they’ve made it this long. For a fully functioning modern city, Amman is pretty good about building around ancient monuments in a responsible way, though it still has a bit zany and chaotic. Like India with a fraction of the people.

Petra

Let’s not put on airs here. Most of us—myself included—know about Petra because of Indiana Jones, as the supposed burial site of the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade. The cover shot at the beginning is not in Jordan, but everything else is.

The Nabataeans, an Arabian tribe from the Arabia-Syria region, built Petra as their capital city perhaps as far back as 312 B.C., though it was expanded for hundreds of years after that. This was an important post along the caravan routes that crossed the Arabian Peninsula and the Nabataeans were the gatekeepers. Effective control of the limited water supply and state-of-the-art water pipe systems made them incredibly effective at living in the desert region and their capital city became essential for traders heading north to Damascus or south to the Red Sea.

Though Petra as a formal city did not exist until the fourth century B.C., settlements have existed in this part of Jordan for thousands of years. Moses’ brother is believed to be buried in a tomb on a mountain overlooking Petra and some scholars argue that Petra, as referred to by its original name, is mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls. As the Roman Empire expanded in the second century A.D., Petra fell under Roman control, but continued to function until the money ran low and trade routes moved from land into the water.

A major earthquake in 363 A.D. destroyed much of the city, and the Byzantines and Crusaders each took turns using the city as a strategic point in the area, but it was looted and largely abandoned over the centuries.

Knowledge of Petra was limited for hundreds of years and locals were fiercely protective of the site. In the early 19th century, a Swiss explorer named Johann Burckhardt (Wikipedia describes him as an “orientalist”) was traveling through the region and heard rumors about Petra. Posing as an Arab merchant hoping to make a sacrifice to Aaron, Moses’ brother (he’s buried nearby too, remember), Burckhardt got the locals to lead him straight to the ancient city and from there, Western knowledge of Petra grew, culminating in its designation as a UNESCO site in 1985.

As for Petra itself, surprisingly little is known about the functionality of most of the structures within the site. The most iconic building in the complex is known as Al-Khazneh, “The Treasury.”

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The entire Petra complex—which at its peak covered a total of 102 miles—is carved into the pink-red sandstone canyon walls that form the rocky valley region, and while not the biggest, the Treasury building is the most ornate, at least of the structures still intact. Many of the buildings utilize classic Greek architecture styles and local, pre-Islamic gods and Greek deities are depicted side-by-side on many facades, the theory being that the Nabataeans represented multiple religions on their buildings as a way to welcome traders from far-flung lands into their city.

Despite the name, archeologists are pretty sure this was not actually a treasury, but a tomb. The name comes from the solid stone urn that sits on top of the center curved colonnade that local Bedouins supposedly shot at in hopes of treasure, perhaps from Egyptian Pharaohs, spilling out. You can still see the bullet marks today and the container is in fact solid rock.

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Close-up of the top facade

Considering that the Treasury is nearly 2,000 years old, the level of intricate detail still visible on the facade is incredible, especially considering how soft sandstone is. This is the most iconic image of Petra and it’s the first big thing you see coming down the mile-long canyon, known as the Siq, into the opening in front of the building. It makes for a pretty dramatic entrance as it peeks out between the walls of the zigzagging canyon as you get closer.

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View of the Siq heading toward the Treasury
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First glimpse

That said, it’s also the most popular spot in the whole complex and the crowds are definitely bigger here, though not bad in comparison to other bucket-list places. The Treasury is amazing regardless, but if you were able to see this alone and step into the canyon in total silence, the effect would be unimaginably cool.

Continuing past the Treasury you come to the main part of Petra where a Roman-built cobbled street links several Nabataean-built tombs, palaces, temples, and an amphitheatre, in addition to dozens of small caves carved into the rocks that were once either houses or storefronts along the main city road. Additionally, Byzantine churches and castles built by the Crusaders are in this area in various states of disrepair. Several of the structures here are free-standing and the area sits in a large open valley between two narrow canyons, so the effect is not as cinematic as standing in front of the Treasury.

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Facade of one of the royal tombs
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Steps leading to the top of the mountain into which the royal tombs are carved. From here you get the view down onto the Treasury.

Across this expanse are the steps to El Deir, “The Monastery,” that isn’t actually a monastery. It’s a bit of a hike from the main section of the city and not Petra’s most iconic element, but it’s the largest and most complete building in the city, as well as one of the older structures. Dated to the first century B.C., the Monastery was more likely a temple, and while not as ornate as the Treasury, the scale of this building is what makes it worth the 800-step climb to the plateau where it sits.

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Steps leading down from the Monastery

This is unofficially the end of most people’s visit to Petra and indeed this covers the highlights, but you’d miss what is perhaps the best part of the city. About a 90-minute hike through the valley you come to Little Petra. I actually started my day here and hiked backwards into the city, ending at the Treasury, but regardless of the time of day, you’re likely to be the only one at Little Petra, tucked in a tiny canyon behind a Bedouin village north of the main archeological site. It is contemporary with the construction of the rest of Petra and though there are only a few structures in the small canyon space, one is a dining room with a preserved 2,000-year-old fresco on the ceiling.

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Little Petra
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Views of the valley on the hike between the Monastery and Little Petra

This doesn’t have the same “wow” factor as the rest of Petra, but I started here and I could have left after Little Petra and felt like the trip was worth it. The experience of seeing something like this in total silence is equally cool to standing in front of the Treasury. The hike to get there is interesting as well, passing through small Bedouin communities who were allowed to stay in the area after it became a UNESCO site. At most, you will see one or two other tourists, but for the most part, you’ll be sharing the open valley with local shepherds and their very eager children, who have learned to expect candy handouts from passing tourists.

UNESCO usually runs a tight ship when it comes to managing monuments, but Petra was a little rough around the edges in terms of everything that isn’t the monument itself. There are countless illegal souvenir vendors inside the site, many of whom have very permanent looking setups so clearly enforcement is lax. Additionally, a lot of these stands are staffed by local children from the village who are usually out selling postcards instead of going to school, which is a whole other issue. There’s trash everywhere and they have donkeys and horse-drawn carriages to take people who can’t make the walk from the parking lot to the Treasury. Aside from the total disregard for the animals’ welfare, it’s something of a safety nightmare when you have carriages barreling down very narrow canyons that have unobservant tourists walking through them and snapping pictures at every turn.

All of this doesn’t account for natural erosion and improper restoration of the area. On the surface, things don’t look too bad at Petra and when you consider how old the buildings are, it’s amazing they are in as good condition as they are. It’s not technically listed on the “in danger” UNESCO list, but the general upkeep of the area didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Which is a shame, because Jordanians are very proud of Petra and rightfully so, and it’s by far the biggest tourist attraction in the country. As it stands, it’s nothing short of incredible, but also kind of a mess.

Wadi Rum

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Otherwise known as the Valley of the Moon, Wadi Rum is a 278-square-mile desert in the southern part of Jordan, made famous largely by T.E. Lawrence (as in Lawrence of Arabia) who hung around the area a lot while leading the Arab Revolt in the early part of the 20th century.

This is definitely not like the desert in Namibia. Rather than sand dunes, dramatic sandstone and granite cliffs divide the inhospitable expanse, which is still home to several Bedouin tribes. More reminiscent of the American southwest than the Sahara.

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It’s hard to believe from these photos, but it was actually almost cold the morning I visited Wadi Rum, which sits at 5,700 feet above sea level; some of the peaks will be snowcapped in a particularly cold winter, which makes you appreciate the versatility and resourcefulness of the people who live here to deal with below freezing temperatures in the winter and 120+ degree weather in the summer, combined with brutal sand storms. Several scenes from The Martian were filmed here and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see the Mars-like aesthetic.

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The tall rock formation on the left is known as the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, named for T.E. Lawrence’s book of the same name, despite the fact that the book title and the desert have nothing to do with one another.

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I’m told this is the exact location of some of the filming for The Martian

If you’re willing to spend the time, there’s actually a lot to do in this area. Local Bedouins have cornered the market on eco-tourism and there’s rock climbing and hiking and dune bashing and camps in the desert and like in Namibia, it’s amazing how much there is do in an area that seems to have so much nothing.

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Petroglyphs in Wadi Rum, aka graffiti from the first millennium B.C.

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Much as I loved it, Jordan is not perfect. The trash problem is pretty out of control, particularly around Petra. The amount of cigarette smoke constantly in the air makes you feel like you’re on an episode of Mad Men and no matter how well you handle a massive influx of refugees, having that many people resettle in your country causes problems. This is not a particularly wealthy country and I don’t think anyone would blame Jordan for throwing up its hands and being like, “You know what, I don’t think we can take anymore of you guys.” But as a part of the Arab world beyond Jordan, they see it as their duty to help other people and they seem happy to do it, even though it means Jordanians have to pay a crazy tax on gas and other things to help offset costs.

A lot of countries claim they are “known” for their hospitality, and I’ve never found that to be particularly true or untrue because for the most part, most people are very welcoming and enthusiastic about sharing their culture. Jordan is the only place I’ve been that can say that and actually have it mean something. Even the somewhat sinister looking police checkpoints along the road are full of smiling officers with automatic rifles strapped to their legs. This is one of the strange things about Jordan. For such a peaceful place, there is a very visible, very militaristic police force. Guys with machine guns on the tops of Humvees driving down the street on a regular basis—that kind of visible. This seems incongruous with their general peace-loving ethos, but I guess if I had Iraq 200 miles to the east and the Syrian border an hour away, I might have a more active police force too.

It would be so easy to be so frustrated about your place in the world if you’re Jordanian. The king and the whole country have worked hard to stabilize the country, and then the unrest in the region completely undermines their economy. They’re hurting badly for tourism dollars and it’s hard to see things calming down enough in the region to reverse this trend. So go to Jordan, you guys!

As annoying as this must be, many Jordanians just seem to take it in stride. Most people seem to have accepted that this is their fate as a country and all they can do is continue to improve their own nation and hope everyone else gets their shit together. They’ve more than done their part by taking in everyone else’s refugees and at the end of the day, I think many Jordanians are just grateful that while they have to put up with the unpleasantness of the region, their “noisy neighbors” as they so diplomatically put it, they get to live in a country that isn’t engulfed in war and that has far more personal freedoms than practically every other country in the Middle East.

Next up is Turkey, beginning in Istanbul and continuing south to the coastal cities along the Mediterranean.

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