This is the place where God first spoke to man! Steeped in incredible history entwining many religions, the Jordan Valley, from the sea to the remote desert canyons, immense and still, is a trip of a lifetime. BY RITU AGARWAL
After 40 years of leading the headstrong Israelites in the desert, Moses stood on the windswept summit of Mount Nebo and viewed the Promised Land of Canaan--after having been told by God you shall not cross over there.
I could feel goose bumps down my neck as I stand against a gentle wind and attempted to see the very panorama Moses must have viewed: The Dead Sea, the Jordan River Valley, Jericho, Bethlehem and the distant hills of Jerusalem. On a clear day, even today we can see the same, I am told by my wonderful guide Hani Hyasat.
Hani proves a man of immense resources as we travel to Jordan from Amman to the Dead Sea over a week. A journey that will probably stay with me more than any I have done in my years as a travel magazine editor... He sang with us Bollywood songs--humein tumse pyar kitna... and gave us precious nuggets of information.
History is so completely entwined with the Bible in a country that is during the present day an Islamic Kingdom. An oasis of peace, located in the most controversial part of the world, on the East bank of the Jordan River extending into the historic region of Palestine, bordered by Saudi Arabia to the South and East, Iraq to the North-East, Syria to the North, and Palestine, the Dead Sea and Israel to the West! Food, so amazing that I could eat it for all the meals everyday. And a countryside so stunning in its starkness, it leaves you reeling.
A direct Royal Jordanian flight gets us from Delhi to the capital of Jordan, Amman, in six hours. I honestly do not know what I was expecting as we were met by the effervescent Hani and bundled into the waiting van which sped off straight to the site of some ancient ruins... But the town that unfolded around me as we approached left me a bit stumped.
Square sandstone and limestone buildings tumble in off-white cascades down hills giving a surreal effect to the surroundings. Amman is built on seven hills, or jabals, each of which is like a neighbourhood. Municipal law requires that the buildings must be faced with locally quarried stones, and this gives the city a rare and amazing character. The modern day town has, of course, spilt on to many more hills in an enchanting mixture of ancient and modern. Mosque minarets rub shoulders with swanky malls and honking horns make mellifluous melody with prayer calls, kebab stalls and new age cafes stand in happy harmony, chaotic traditional souks sell denim abayas for the trendy, yet traditional, Arabic woman and, perched on top of a hill, stand majestic remains of a Roman civilization in this small country in Middle E ast.
After a morning at the Roman ruins in Amman, and nearby at Jerash, we check into the Landmark Hotel and in manic hungry fashion dive straight into a fabulous buffet. Food in Jordan is an absolute high-point. From mezze to mansaf (a traditional festive rice dish) it is fabulously fresh and surprisingly light: the meats are grilled and falling off the bone, and there are plenty of wonderful salads and options in the vegetarian: tabouleh, rocket salad, fattoush... and oh, those delicious dips labneh (a creamy yoghurt) the smooth hummus, the moutabel (roasted, pureed eggplant with garlic)... Hani informs us Jordanians worship bread, and they will never throw it in the garbage or waste it. Baskets of bread always come to the table--crumbly, freshly baked and wonderfully textured... to be dipped in that exquisite virgin olive oil. And how can I forget the cheese! Halloumi: semi-soft white cheese, not as salty, crumbly and dry as feta cheese, but close.
In the evening we head to downtown Amman, made up of a myriad of souk markets, mosques, perfume shops, dry fruit vendors and abaya stores... this is a true blue Aladdin area and we come away having shopped for a variety of things--from hookah to jootis.
It is en route to Petra the next day, when I find myself atop Mount Nebo, at 820 metres looking down on the nearby Dead Sea (which is about 400 metres below sea level). Early Christians from Jerusalem made it a place of pilgrimage. In the 3rd or 4th century monks from Egypt built a small church on one of its peaks, Siyagha (meaning monastery), to commemorate the end of Moses life.
On the platform at the summit is a modern sculpture by an Italian artist representing Moses staff and Jesus words in John 3: As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. I feel myself hurtling down the ages into pre-Biblical times and, as we head out towards Petra, an occasional Bedouin walking a donkey with his wife in an abaya, only adds to the surreal feeling.
We check into the Movenpick Resort at Petra and dash off madly to catch the Petra by Night tour. It is a pitch dark night as we enter the Siq, a narrow gorge, over a kilometer long, which is flanked on either side by soaring 80m high cliffs, that leads to the unique city, carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled here more than 2,000 years ago.
The path has been lit by lanterns. I feel like I am a part of some occult group as we all hold hands and blindly make our way into the unknown, guided by dim, flickering lights! Suddenly the imposing treasury is upon us. The facade standing some 40 m tall, cut directly from the rock of the mountainside glowing in the warm light of a thousand candles. Everyone is made to sit on the floor in a semi-circle around the treasury and treated to some Bedouin babble and music, and hot honey-lemon tea.
I must say I much prefer Petra by day. No amount of reading up and pictures can prepare you for the real thing, including the walk through the gorge where the colours and formations of the rocks are simply dazzling. And then, as you catch your first glimpse of the imposing Al-Khazneh (the treasury) carved into the giant red mountains with sunlight setting it on fire... This is just the beginning. You walk ahead and what opens up is one of the worlds richest and largest archaeological sites set in a dominating red sandstone landscape. The rock-cut capital city of the Nabataeans became, during Hellenistic and Roman times, a major caravan centre on the trade route for incense of Arabia, silks of China and spices of India, as it lay on the crossroads between Arabia, Egypt and Syria-Phoenicia. As we meander in and out of the many structures, including an amphitheatre, we can almost imagine it being up, alive and buzzing with life at one point in history!
En route to our transfer to Aqaba, a lovely little seaport by the Red Sea, we go via the Wadi Rum. Home to the Bedouin people who still maintain their semi-nomadic lifestyle, this stupendous, timeless, silent landscape is a maze of monolithic rocks rising from the desert floor to heights of 1,750m! Described by T.E. Lawrence as vast, echoing and God-like... I am totally overwhelmed as I stand surrounded by them even, as a sand storm starts to swirl around us.
Given a chance I would have given Aqaba a skip and stayed in a Bedouin tent, under the stars, with sand beneath my feet surrounded by mystical rocks whose destiny has been carved through the ages by sweeping winds.
As we drive from Aqaba to the Dead Sea, the topography changes many hues. Driving along the Jordan Rift Valley proves a terrific experience just for the sheer magic of the landscape. The shores of the Dead Sea are 1,300 feet below sea level, making it earths lowest surface. Hani tells us, You cannot get sunburnt here as the belief is that the ozone is thicker over the Dead Sea... but I am to learn later, back to Delhi with a burnt nose, that this is not necessarily true!
The water here is super salty, roughly 8.6 times saltier than the ocean. Fish are unable to survive in this environment (hence the name) but, the same high density of salt ensures human bodies can float. We are awfully excited. So we quickly check into the Crowne Plaza Hotel, change into swim gear and dash down to the beach as they shut it soon after sunset.
The water is super slick with minerals and very oily to the touch. Even a drop of the extremely saline water in your eyes can make you feel like you are going blind, so one has to very carefully float on ones back to experience the incredible buoyancy of these waters.
There are bucketsful of mud from the sea lying around. It is supposed to be blessed with excellent therapeutic qualities thanks to the minerals. We cake ourselves up, looking like deep blue aliens, let it dry into a body wrap before showering under the open air water jets.
At night we decide to take a walk. This is a very, very quiet area. It cannot be called a township. Just rows of spa hotels that attract medical and wellness travellers, lining up the sea shore, and nothing else. As I dodge my own shadow on the still, silent pavement I am reeling a bit from the sensory overwhelm of the week gone by. I do not know what I had expected from this tiny Middle Eastern country. But what it did serve was a stunning mix. I think I can see myself going back for seconds soon.
The Kingdom of Jordan does not promote a state religion.
The Dead Sea is flanked by mountains to the East and the rolling hills of Jerusalem to the West, giving it an almost other-worldly beauty. Although sparsely populated and serenely quiet now, the area is believed to have been home to five Biblical cities: Sodom, Gomorrah, Adman, Zebouin and Zoar.
On the East bank of the River Jordan about 8km north of the Dead Sea shore, is located, what is considered the Baptism Site of Jesus by John the Baptist.
It is the Holy Land where God gave his Ten Commandments to Moses, where Job suffered and was rewarded for his faith, where Jacob wrestled with the angel of God, and where Jesus was baptized by John.
Jordans significance results partly from its strategic location at the crossroads of what Christians, Jews and Muslims call the Holy Land. It is a key ally of the US and, together with Egypt, one of only two Arab nations to have made peace with Israel.
and also try...
1Stay in a Bedouin tent overnight at Wadi Rum. Imagine the nomads from long ago setting up their temporary camp for a season as they made their way through the Arabian Desert!
2Eat the national dish of Jordanian mansaf at the Al Qantarah restaurant, located a few minutes away from the Petra site. You can learn to cook here as you eat. Mansaf is served on special occasions such as weddings or to honour a guest. It is made of lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt and served with rice or bulgur .
3Take a break from history and head to Aqaba, Jordans splendid Red Sea resort--this is a fun place. Experience some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world and some great seafood and nightlife.
At a Glance
Royal Jordanian Airlines has 5 flights weekly between New Delhi and Amman. Departs at 5.30 am and arrives 9.15 am. Round fare is approx Rs. 46,000. Visa on Arrival for Indians in Jordan.
Landmark Amman Hotel: www.landmarkamman.com/en/index.php
Movenpick Resort Petra: www.moevenpick-hotels.com/en/middle-east/jordan/petra/resort-petra/overview/
Radisson Blue Talay Bay Resort, Aqaba: www.radissonblu.com/resort-aqaba
Crowne Plaza Jordan--Dead Sea Resort and Spa: www.ihg.com/crowneplaza/hotels/us/en/swemieh/nscjo/hoteldetail
Local embroidery, which is often seen on abayas, is stunning. But you can buy handbags and a wide range of other products featuring this beautiful work.
GOOD TO KNOW
The highly popular Petra by Night tours start at 8.30 pm and finish at 10.00 pm every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. Tickets can be purchased from the Petra Site Office located close to the entrance to the site. Do try and fit this into your itinerary because its really worth it.
Always remember to ask permission before you start taking photographs of the local Bedouin people.
SUFRA RESTURANT at Rainbow Street in Amman. Jordanian dishes inspired from the Bedouin kitchen. Mutabbal, eggplant with tahini sauce, mansaf, freekeh with chicken, fatit jaj; for dessert try the Arabic Ice-cream with cotton candy. Take a puff or two of the Argheleh (shisha) served on the terraces.Reproduced From India Today Travel Plus. Copyright 2014. LMIL. All rights reserved.
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