By Elizabeth Willoughby
Most visitors come to Jordan to see Petra's Treasury - the famous facade carved out of the cliffs - and rightly so. The stone city came into being as an ancient trade center for precious materials when caravans trekking from China could count on it for water and safety before moving their goods on to Rome. Entering Petra through the narrow fissure was just as gripping then as it is now.
As visitors walk the three-quarter-mile-long Siq, sunlight plays colorfully against the red sandstone cliffs. Nabataean statues, images and even a camel caravan are depicted in the walls above a Roman-built water channel until Al-Khazneh, the Treasury, and its imposing grandeur come into view. Beyond that await the Royal Tombs, a Roman theater, the street of colonnades and for those with sturdy knees — or a donkey - more than 800 steps up to Ad Deir, the Monastery.
The other sites on a typical visit to Jordan are also on the list for good reason. For instance, there's Madaba's detailed sixth-century mosaic map of the Holy Land on the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. There's Mount Nebo, where Moses viewed the Promised Land and where he is thought to be buried, and "Bethany beyond the Jordan" (river), where Jesus was baptized. Enter Jerash, the largest Roman city outside of Italy, through the triple-arched gateway built for Hadrian's arrival in A.D. 129, then peruse the columns and plazas and enjoy the acoustics of a Scottish bagpipe performance by Arabian players in the Roman theater. Camp in Wadi Rum for a Bedouin-ish experience. Float in the Dead Sea's restorative waters so dense with salt that it is impossible to live in and very difficult to drown in, or head south to a Red Sea luxury-resort experience in the port city of Aqaba.
Easy to get to, Aqaba is a 65-mile drive east from Amman. These wetlands used to cover 4,900 square miles, attracting elephants, cheetahs, lions and hippos, but that was 270,000 years ago. Umayyad, Chechen, Druze and Bedouin people settled here for the fresh water, fish and buffalo as well as the trade routes from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria.
In the 1960s, the practice of pumping Azraq's water to nearby cities began. Compounded by a diminished rainfall and then hundreds of private wells, the wetlands dried up in the early '90s. In 2011, however, fresh water was being pumped back into the area and returning the wetlands and some wildlife to this miniature version of its former self. People come to watch migrating birds from Europe and eastern Asia and to stroll the wooden boardwalk that ambles around tall grasses, through clusters of overgrown bushes and above the vegetated ponds; for natural shade and a cool breeze; for ducks and water buffalo, green frogs and red dragonflies — in the desert.
Just three miles away is the Qasr al-Azraq fort, "built by the Romans, rebuilt by Arabs under Izz Ed Din Aybak during the Crusades and used by Lawrence" says the plaque. Here lie the extensive ruins of the fort from where T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — and Sharif Hussein bin Ali were based for several months during the Arab Revolt against the Turks.
I entered through a great basalt door into the two-story fort and climbed about the ruins: the stable, a well, a mosque, men's quarters and Lawrence's, and the courtyard where they spent cold evenings around a great fire. A local guide overflowed with details about the history of which he was clearly proud before he left me to explore on my own.
On the way back to Amman I made a stop at an eighth-century Umayyad UNESCO site, the Qusayr Amra caravanserai, one of Jordan's many desert castles. What's left is undramatic from the outside except for the saqiya, a mechanical device powered by a donkey walking in circles that raises water from a well. Inside, the bathhouse frescoes are even more fun and risque, depicting fruit, wine and naked women, hunts, zodiacs and kings. They're currently under restoration, but it's still possible to visit.
To gain a better understanding of what life is like for Jordanians of today, I headed to Umm Qais in northern Jordan. There my guide, Ahmad, took me into the home of Alia the basket weaver, who showed me how to weave banana leaves into a coaster. Then I visited Yousef the beekeeper, who proudly showed me his 60 hives. Next we went into an orchard where families were picnicking under trees after picking olives, then on to Na, Elah's house, where she lives with her brother, sister and nieces. In her kitchen we stuffed aubergines to make makdous, and on the sitting room floor we kneaded dough before baking bread for tea.
Then Ahmad took me to Gadara, one of the Decapolis cities established by the Romans to protect the far regions of the empire. He showed me around ancient ruins overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights.
Back in Amman, in the wee hours of the morning, the tinny, musical call to prayer streamed out from a loudspeaker atop a minaret, the muezzin pausing every so often while his echo swirled invisibly among the rooftops. It was the first of five daily calls that are part of practicing Islam, but it's the only one I ever get to hear well since the rest were mostly drowned out by the noises of daily life in Jordan.
WHEN YOU GO
Elizabeth Willoughby is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.