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Jordan offers a haven in the Holy Land: Precious Antiquities and Peace

USA Today - April 4, 1997
By Tim Friend

Amman, Jordan -- The western sky at sunset is streaked with fiery red, and the desert landscape conveys a haunting sense of' familiarity. Contemporary houses recalling those of the USA' s southwest dot the barren hillsides along the 40--minute drive from Queen Alia International Airport into the city. But the resemblance quickly ends as Amman looms ahead the minarets of King Abdullah Mosque silhouetted against the darkening sky as the lights of the city' s 1 million residents blaze from the surrounding hills . It was here 3,000 years ago, when Amman was known as Rabboth-Ammon, capital of the old testament Ammonites, that King David, after seducing Bathsheba, sent her husband to be killed in a bloody siege.

Today, Amman is a modern Arabic metropolis and the landing point for more than a million tourists a year. The city is crowned by the ancient citadel, a hill bearing the ruins of the Temple of Hercules. At the foot of the hill is a 5,000-seat Roman theater. Although it's at the heart of the volatile Middle East nestled among Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Jordan is safe to visit and easily accessible, home to some of the most remarkable treasures of the ancient world.

A 30 minute car ride to the north lies Jerash, one of' the world's most spectacular Roman cities. Built in 129 , it contains two theaters, colonnaded streets, a plaza and baths, all remarkably well-preserved.

Less than an hour south of Amman is Mount Nebo, the mountaintop where Moses first viewed the promised land. From its summit , visitors can see across the Jordan Valley to the Dead Sea, Jericho and Jerusalem. Less than 15 minutes from Mount Nebo is Madaba, an ancient city whose Byzantine-era churches have magnificent mosaic floors; a school that teaches the ancient art of mosaic building is open to the public. And at the church of St. George don't miss the earliest surviving map of the ancient holy land. Nearby at Mukawir (called Machaerus in ancient times) likes the fortress built by herd the great where Salome danced and received what she'd demanded, the head of John the Baptist.

Three hours south of Amman lies the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, with hundreds of astounding monuments carved directly from the colorful sandstone canyon walls. All these important sites of antiquity, many steeped in biblical, history, are within reach of Amman by rental. Car or tour bus.

And visitors, whether traveling alone or in groups, will be welcomed by Jordan’s friendly residents. The violence of the Middle East seems a world away. “We don't have what other countries have in terms of fundamentalism,” says Marwan Khouri, director of the Jordan tourist board, headquartered in Amman, “we don't fight each other, and we don't kill each other.”

Jordan has been struck by violence only twice since the Middle East peace process began in 1988. Tragically, a Jordanian soldier gunned down a group of visiting Israeli schoolgirls only last month, but the incident has not affected tourism in Jordan overall, officials say. “The travel season has done really well despite the political situation in the middle east," says Malia Asfour, director of .the Jordanian tourism board of North America, established just two weeks ago to further promote tourism from the USA and Canada. Jordanian hotels are full, “and we have not received any cancellations from the U.S. as a result of the tragedy.”

The current high season runs through May and picks up again in the fall. Khouri expects a 5% increase in visitors over 1996, a result of aggressive marketing of the country in the USA, Europe and Malaysia. Last year, the influx of visitors brought Jordan $1.1 billion, making tourism a major national resource, he says. Jordan is no longer just a stopover for visitors to Israel or Egypt; the country is quickly becoming a destination in itself, where visitors can find more than enough to do for their entire vacations.

Tourism has already increased 25% over 1994, largely because of outsiders interest in Petra. Luxury hotels are being developed rapidly there and in the coastal city of Aqaba by the Red Sea. The privately funded Jordan tourist board expects tourism to reach 1.5 million visitors annually by the year 2000, and it says development will double the number of hotel rooms, from 9,000 to 18,000. Khouri says Jordan’s tourism is aimed at the “upmarket family segment.” Amman has very few seedy bars compared with say, Cairo, and almost every establishment is geared to families.

The country recently signed an "open sky" agreement with the USA, which lets U.S. carriers begin making unrestricted trips to Amman and Aqaba, Asfour says. “To the outside world, the Middle East looks like one big war zone, but we are actively trying to get people to realize that it is quite safe here in Jordan,” Khouri says.

Indeed, the military presence in Amman is minimal compared with that in cities like Cairo or Athens . In the evening, people stroll along the main promenade by the old Roman theater, and cars bustle by, honking and cutting off drivers as in any other city. On the roadsides, coffee vendors with giant, steaming pots tend to passing motorists, and everyone you ask agrees there is nothing to worry about within the tiny country.

Even a tacky sense of commercialism has sprung up in some of the shops. A bottle of authenticated holy water (certificate enclosed), filled from the River Jordan, costs $3. “We never did that before, but there are a few things we've learned from the Israelis,” Khouri says “you can also buy air from the holy land and some people are selling wood splinters from the cross.”

Ancient Petra carves niche in Middle East history

Petra, Jordan -- If you're visiting the country, don’t miss this city, the ancient capital of Nabatea, which flourished 2,000 years ago. The Nabateans turned these desert canyons into an oasis and carved dozens of magnificent monuments directly from the sheer canyon walls at the crossroads of the most important caravan routes. The Nabateans created an empire by exacting tolls on caravans and trading food and water for valuable spices and fabrics.

Declared a United Nations World Heritage site in the 1980’s, Petra is truly Jordan’s jewel of the desert. Plan to stay at least two days. From Amman, Petra is a three-hour drive through a desolate, lunar-like landscape that resembles the remote canyons of Utah. (Most major hotels in the small, neighboring town of Wadi Musa, where visitors to Petra stay, run shuttles.)

You enter Petra itself on foot (or hired horse-drawn carriage), through a narrow, winding gorge called the Bab-es-Siq. Note the carved channels the Nabateans used to transport water to their once-lush city. The best time to start is just after daybreak.

At the end of the siq lies Petra’s most impressive monument, al-Khazneh, or the treasury. Carved from the solid rock wall, the facade is 140 high and 90 feet wide. You may recognize both the gorge and the building from ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'; in a scene near the end of the movie, Harrison Ford is chased through the siq on horseback.

Beyond the siq, along a wide dusty trail, are hundreds more temples, tombs and other structures. No canyon wall appears to have been left uncarved by the Nabateans. Along the right are the remarkable royal tombs, and across the canyon lies an ancient theater that once seated 3,000 people. Just beyond it is the temenos, a paved road that leads to the temple of the winged lion and the remarkable Qasr al-Bint, the only remaining temple in Petra that was not carved from the canyon walls.

Unfortunately, many visitors stop here. But if you have time and stamina, two options are worth pursuing:

* To the left, winding stairs cut into the stone lead to the high place of sacrifice, where Nabatean priests offered animals to the gods. Don't miss sites near the high place: the triclinium (a sacred banquet hall), the roman tomb and the obelisks.

* To the right, another series of rock-hewn steps--more than 800-- lead to the monastery, second in grandeur only to the treasury.

Either choice takes several hours for the trip up the mountain and back; neither is recommended for people with heart or respiratory problems.