When the guides in Jordan say, “Petra is our oil,” they’re not only underlining the importance of tourism to their country, they’re undermining their tourism, because there’s more to Jordan than Petra.
In 2012, Jordan will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Petra. Hopefully, crowds will visit to experience one of the real wonders left to us by antiquity, but it’s never easy for a country, no matter how peaceful it is, to attract visitors if its neighbors are perpetually involved in fractious politics and war.
Those neighbors (Iraq, Israel and Syria) tend to stay in the spotlight, making Jordan both a beneficiary and a victim of the proximity. When peace prevails in the Middle East, that proximity allows Jordan to combine its attractions with those of Israel and Egypt. It will be a great day when more Americans can combine Syria’s wonderful attractions as well.
The Jordan Tourism Board (JTB) has consistently worked to turn the country into a stand-alone, comprehensive destination. But for the time being, it sells primarily in combination with Egypt and Israel.
Back in 1997, the JTB focused on gradually stretching a typical stay. (Americans stayed an average of 2.1 days.) Today the average American stays 8.2 days. The JTB expanded upon Petra-only visits by emphasizing such religious sites as Bethany Beyond the Jordan (where Jesus was baptized) and Mount Nebo (whence Moses saw the Promised Land). It highlighted history with tours to the Roman city of Jerash, the crusader castle of Karak and Amman’s Citadel. It developed a fine inventory of spa hotels on the Dead Sea and on the sunny beaches of Aqaba. Today it’s stretching stays even more through soft adventure and ecotourism in Jordan’s six nature preserves.
The Petra Experience
Even with all the above, as well as the 25,000 registered archeological sites and 120 religious sites, Petra remains the linchpin of Jordan’s tourism. Petra lies four hours south of Amman via the historic, 5,000-year-old King’s Highway. It’s called the King’s Highway because it crossed three hostile kingdoms (the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites) that stood between Moses and the Promised Land. Petra is at the southern terminus of the highway; Amman is at the northern tip.
The Petra experience is something like a combination of the Grand Canyon and Ephesus. You enter by way of a long walk through the Siq Gorge, a mysterious, narrow, winding path, sided by towering limestone rocks. Hollywood couldn’t have done a better job of creating the perfect setting for building tension toward a climax. The gorge heightens the feeling of mystery. Visitors take a 40-minute walk until they come to the end of the Siq, where the two cliffs part like curtains on the magnificent red-rock façade of Al-Khazneh Farun, or the Treasury of the Pharaoh, often referred to simply as the Treasury. In fact, it was never a treasury, it was a tomb, but over the millennia, a local myth had it that Petra was where the Pharaohs hid their money. This spectacular monument is carved completely out of rock and is believed to be the tomb of King Harith IV, who reigned circa 85 B.C.
Petra thrived from the fourth century B.C. until the second century A.D., when it was the stronghold and capital of the Nabataeans, who carved hundreds of buildings out of the steep surrounding sandstone cliffs. In addition to the Treasury, there are many tombs, an 8,000-seat Roman-style amphitheater, temples, a church with some fine mosaic floors and the Al-Deir, a well-preserved monastery that stands at the top of an 850-stair path. Archeologists estimate that only 2 percent of the site has been excavated, and though most visitors spend four or five hours exploring the area, you could easily spend days on trails that go far beyond the opening.
As you head south out of Amman on the King’s Highway, it’s hard not to be consumed by the quest of Moses as he led his people across a tough landscape of mountain and desert, but there’s an even larger exodus that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Jordan Valley is the northern edge of the Great Rift Valley, a 3,700-mile expanse running from Syria to Mozambique that paleontologists believe to be the original home of humankind.
At Madaba, most tours call at the Church of St. George to view its sixth-century mosaic map of the Holy Land. The geographer-artists who made this map were as much concerned with the sacred as the secular. Jerusalem was given a size disproportionate to its actual physical dimensions in 560, when the map was created. About six miles from Madaba, Mount Nebo marks where Moses saw the Promised Land, land on which he never would set foot. He died on Mount Nebo and is believed to be buried there. It was this very spot that Martin Luther King Jr. referred to in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Farther down, the Crusader castle at Karak was the fortress of King Baldwin IV and the infamous Raynald of Chatillon. These characters were represented in the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven. It’s an impressive castle that in its prime held about 3,000 inhabitants. Visitors can explore the kitchens and dining areas, the jails and the battlements, which offer a fine view of the valley. The warrior king Saladin donated the catapult balls near the entrance when he visited the castle in 1188.
Bethany, which Pope John Paul II named the official baptismal spot of Jesus when he visited in 2000, lies about 40 miles west of Amman. Bethany is said to have been the home of John the Baptist and is referred to in the New Testament as “Bethany, beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” Not far from Bethany is the Dead Sea, where hotels offer spa experiences based on Dead Sea mud and water. Lying some 250 miles below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth.
Jordan’s most popular beach resort, Aqaba, lies about 200 miles south of Amman, at the southern tip of the country, where it touches the Red Sea. With a constant temperature of about 70 degrees, Aqaba is the country’s year-round beach destination. It is most famous historically as the city that Lawrence of Arabia captured from the Turks in World War I. In recent years the city has added golf, water parks, dive shops and resorts to make it the chief sun-and-fun destination in the country. Aqaba is also home to some impressive archeological finds, including what some scientists believe to be the oldest dated church in the world.
A few years ago, the Jordanians looked to the Wadi Rum Desert as a place to highlight soft adventure and to incorporate the rich traditions of the nomadic Bedouins into their tourism brand. Camping, trekking and balloon rides in the Wadi Rum helped the country extend the average visitor’s stay, and add dimension and nuance to the product. In 2006 it encouraged the local Bedouin community to provide “authentic” tourism services and products, including local handicrafts made from the region’s natural materials. Jordanian tourism officials improved campsites, and offered training to Bedouin guides and other service providers.
That was only the beginning. Ecotourism is now a major element in Jordan’s tourism product. JTB officials also believe that they can grow the family market, which would most effectively communicate how safe and secure the country is.
The Feynan Ecolodge (www.feynan.com) in the Wadi Araba offers a glimpse at where Jordan’s ecotourism industry is headed. The 26-room, self-sustaining lodge is operated by Bedouins living on the edge of the Great Rift Valley in an area dotted with Roman and Byzantine ruins, as well as Neolithic sites that are up to 12,000 years old. Candles light the lodge at night, with electricity used only at the front desk. In the evenings, guests gather on the roof to stargaze. Trails meander through the desert into canyons and past a series of archeological sites and past encampments of Bedouins, with their black tents, their goats and their camels.
The missing link for Jordan remains Amman. At this point it’s still treated as a departure point for tourism, even though visitors are taken to the nearby second-century Roman archeological jewel of Jerash, which features Byzantine and Islamic buildings, as well as the small National Archaeological Museum. Though it’s not quite Pompeii or Ephesus, Jerash houses some of the best, most beautiful and interesting Roman ruins. Its temples, arches, amphitheaters, colonnaded streets and vast oval forum are beautifully preserved.
But Amman is more than a museum. Some 40 percent of Jordan’s 6 million people make the city as their home. Ask Jordanians and expatriates alike about modern life in the city, and they enthusiastically reel off a list of favorite cafés, nightclubs and restaurants. As the capital of such a peaceful, open country as Jordan, Amman has become a magnet for progressives throughout the Middle East. And like almost all of the major cities in the region, it’s a place where a modern Arab youth culture is defining a new set of ambitions that are more global in perspective than those of older generations.
For more information, visit www.visitjordan.com.--James Ruggia