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(2011 - Fall/Winter Issue)


Emptiness surrounds us as we drive into the vast black basalt landscape of Jordan`s Eastern Desert.   

Somewhere ahead lies the enigmatic Desert Castles we’ve come to explore. Or so we’re told. Along this ribbon of asphalt we see nothing but barren earth evaporating into a gauzy, treeless horizon. Then the stark monotony is broken by a passing road sign several of us read aloud: “Iraq, 240 km.”

A Peaceful Place

“Jordan is an oasis of peace,” guide Saleh Arfou assures in a timely pronouncement—as if to quell any uncertainties about our excursion into this desolate 89,000-square-kilometre panhandle adjoining Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Not that we need convincing about safety. Despite the flourishing Arab Spring in other Muslim nations, our past few days in Jordan have been graciously engaging. Along Amman’s bustling streets, merchants invited us to share qahwa, cardamom-flavoured espresso, simply as gestures of friendliness. At storied Biblical sites such as Mount Nebo and Bethany Beyond the Jordan, we socialized with smiling Jordanians eager to practise their English. Military check-points? Just at the airport. And now, as we arrive at the first Desert Castle in the searing noon heat, our only concern is that our sunblock SPF is up to the task.

Ancient Rest Stops

From afar, the Desert Castles seem like mirages and beckon you to wonder, “Why here?” They’re clearly not conventional castles. The isolated forts, caravan stations and lodges were built by the Umayyad Dynasty in the seventh and eighth centuries as the Islamic civilization began to expand in the remote desert. Here the Muslim elite—caliphs—could rest from travel, have meetings or partake in frowned-upon entertainment far away from prying religious eyes.

We first visit Qasr Kharana, an imposing khaki-coloured fortress appearing as if it germinated from the desert itself. Inside its solid walls, a sunny Roman-inspired courtyard is surrounded by a labyrinth of dark corridors, rooms and towers with vents to help circulate air. We walk the narrow, cool passageways, soaking up centuries of history while imagining the austere life here when caliphs and local Bedouin tribes crossed paths during their risky desert journeys.

Not far away sits the diminutive Qusayr Amra, one of Jordan’s best-preserved desert structures and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a restoration crew works with brushes and lacquers, we see its famed bathhouse and risqué (for the eighth century) colourful frescoes depicting wine, women and wild times. “They may have been religious, but they sometimes didn’t follow their own rules,” Saleh explains with a grin.

As the red orb sun begins to set we make our way west into the lengthening shadows of Qasr Al-Azrak. Almost Gothic in appearance, the large black basalt fortress is thought to have been built by the Romans. Strategic towers with arrow slits leave no question this fort was used for defence. What captures our imagination most is a notable and fairly recent visitor. During the winter of 1917–1918, T. E. Lawrence “of Arabia” chronicled his time here swapping romanticized stories of war, peace and love while enjoying roaring communal fires in the courtyard.

A Cultural Mosaic

The following day we’re back in Jordan’s capital of Amman, a city that readily seduces anyone with cultural curiosities. Row after row of exotic shops and open-air cafés wafting intoxicating aromas align the tangle of congested downtown streets. Amman’s cultural mosaic is a study of past and present—an older generation in their traditional Arabic couture and younger citizens in trendy western attire chatting and texting on smart phones. But we find the ultimate contrast atop Jebel al-Qala’a, the sacred Citadel, where the architectural remnants and artifacts of Romans, the Umayyad and Bronze Age peoples are preserved. About 850 metres above the rooftops, the hilltop perch takes in unsurpassed views of an ancient city forging a modern path.

Magical Evenings

The next several days we travel south along the Dead Sea Highway in a quest to combine nature, history and a little energizing adventure. About 30 kilometres from Madaba, a cut through the parched mountains above the Dead Sea delivers us to a secluded oasis, Evason Ma’In Hot Springs. At 264 metres below sea level, the oxygen-rich air almost makes us giddy, and we luxuriate in the natural springs and a tepid cliffside waterfall that erases every ounce of tension a traveller might incur. When evening descends we dine along an exposed panoramic terrace where our westward gaze takes in the inky Dead Sea and the distant twinkling lights of Jerusalem.

It would be nearly sacrilegious to visit Jordan without experiencing Petra, the incomparable 2,000-year-old city carved from rock by the Nabataeans and now one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. We amble from the adjacent town of Wadi Musa along the ochre-hued Siq, the dramatic slot canyon path leading to the sublime spectacle known as the Treasury. Seeing this epic monument is literally breathtaking, a visage that seems dreamlike. But to fully engage this wonder, we’re told to return for “Petra by Night,” an enchanting experience in which 1,800 candles illuminate Petra’s ghostly pillars, pavilions and forgotten tombs. With hundreds of adoring spectators, we kneel on the sand while Bedouin chants drift in the cool night breeze. It’s a mesmerizing experience, the kind you want to capture in a bottle and take home—if only you could.

Travelling north on the King’s Highway, we venture into the Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan’s largest protected parcel. Its surreal 1,500-metre sandstone cliffs and red rock escarpments give this landscape a Martian-like ambience. From the Feynan Ecolodge, we explore this hidden gem, home to 100 archaeological sites and more than 45 species of mammals. During one evening, we’re invited into a Bedouin tent camp for sweet shaitea and turns with a hookah water pipe. Our host is a family elder, a dignified gentleman in traditional Arab dress named Tahseen. Through our guide, Saleh, we hear tales reminiscent of T.E. Lawrence’s autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. All the while, firelight casts dancing shadows throughout the smoky tent and across Tahseen’s animated face, a face crinkled by decades of desert life. Yet another magical night in Jordan.

Jordan on Steroids

“Are you ready for adventure?” asks Saleh with wide eyes. He’s talking about our guided hiking, swimming and
rappelling trip into the Wadi Mujib Nature Reserve. Originally established for the protection of the Nubian ibex, the reserve spilling into the shores of the Dead Sea has the country’s most rugged mountains and deepest-cut canyons—with steep flowing rivers. In other words, Jordan on steroids.

With helmets, life vests and climbing gear, we first mount a gruelling 800-metre trek to an arid mountaintop before manoeuvring a steep descent into a quixotically lush canyon and pristine river. For several hours we rock-hop upstream, threading our way around date palms and car-sized boulders to a waterfall-fed plunge pool, where we frolic like children in a desert oasis that seems utterly misplaced. But every adventure has its finale, and ours comes when we each rappel on ropes some 21 metres over an abyss into a watery slot canyon that is our portal home.

As we slog the final stretches of the Mujib River, I ponder the crazy contrasts of this compact country—the deserts, the antiquity, cultures old and new, its sacred sites and archaeological wonders. And now a hidden water world that has me quite soaked from head to toe.

Saleh gives me a knowing smile. “I told you Jordan was an oasis.”

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