Someone said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet but such is the power of negative connotations that I’m not so sure any more. Take the idea of a restful and hugely enjoyable holiday in the heart of the Middle East, in a country surrounded by nasty neighbours and temporary home to nearly two million refugees from Syria and Iraq. A dodgy proposition, perhaps?
Far more appealing is an Arabian-Nights adventure not in the Eurocentrically labelled Middle East but in Asie Occidentale (Western Asia), enjoying a superb spa, a fabulous ghost city from antiquity, discovering coffee culture and cosmetics in a Bedouin community, marvellous mezes, a truly benchmark ecolodge and, always and everywhere, the Levantine tradition of welcoming strangers as guests. This is Jordan and it’s full of surprises. A book of beautiful hand-painted photographs was my initial motivation and visiting the country turned the photographs of exotic lands into the stuff of a manageable adventure.
The first surprise was beautifying the body at the Dead Sea, the lowest place on planet Earth, by covering the skin with the sea’s mineral-rich black mud – replete in magnesium, potassium, calcium and iron – and basking therapeutically in the sun. First, though, it was necessary to check out whether it really is possible to float unaided in the Dead Sea. I’d seen the photos of people reading a book while lying on their backs in the water so I carried aloft a newspaper and waded in.
Sure enough, lying back and floating unassisted I unfolded the Jordan Times and read the headlines – it was when I tried to upright myself that the high salt-content of the water resisted my increasingly urgent efforts and I flailed about like an idiot until the shore was reached. The newsprint drifted away while I relaxed as the gloopy mud was caked onto my body.
After waiting half an hour, followed by a quick shower on the beach, I was ready for a body scrub using Dead Sea salt soaked in hydrating oil. This was at the Resense spa at the Babylon-themed Kempinski Hotel Ishtar and so good an experience that I returned next day for some passive yoga in the form of a gentle Arabian massage. The bodily tranquillity it brought was still felt that evening as I gazed across the Dead Sea from the hotel’s infinity pool. Being 429 metres below sea level, land on the other side rose up like high mountains; atop them the lights of Jerusalem twinkled.
Leaving the Dead Sea plain brings a slow climb through a sun-blasted, desolate landscape of rocks and canyons until a turning off-road headed into an isolated valley in Wadi Araba. The occasional goatherd and shepherd interrupted the desert scenery before the ochre-coloured walls of Feynan Ecolodge came gently into view. Gently seems the right word for a small hotel (26 rooms) that visually and every other way blends charmingly into its context. The rural Bedouin who inhabit the valley live without electricity and the ecolodge manages with solar power lighting in bathrooms and kitchen but is otherwise lit only by candles.
Staffed completely by Bedouins, from reception to the preparation of vegetarian food, the water is heated by solar panels and there’s not a plastic bottle in sight – mineral water comes in clay jars made by a local’s women’s cooperative. Activities are also conducted by the local Bedouins, from learning goat-hair tent weaving, to coffee and bread making or using kohl (eyeliner).
Treks into the countryside, solo or with a guide, are exhilarating – it is not difficult to spot the iridescent Palestinian sunbird –and returning to the candle-lit lodge for dinner under the stars after a sunset hike produces pure Lawrence of Arabia vibes for jaded urbanites. With 50 per cent of revenue staying in the community, this is the Real Deal when it comes to ecotourism – a must-visit hotel for anyone keen to be green – while its shabby-chic style will gratify connoisseurs of interior design.
From Feynan Lodge it is a short drive to the fabled lost city of Petra but better still is the trek there from the ecolodge, using donkeys and a Bedouin guide. It takes three days but there is no more romantic way of reaching ancient Petra, hand-carved out of the pink sandstone mountains and suitably labelled the rose-red city. The capital of the Nabataeans was at its height two millennia ago, when caravan routes from the Levant and Arabia converged here, but it remained unknown to the West until a Swiss explorer publicised its existence in 1812 after having been guided there disguised as a Muslim scholar.
In what is certainly the most dramatic approach to any ancient site anywhere, Petra’s entrance is via a narrow gorge with rocks towering 120 metres over you on both sides; in the morning light the marbled colouring of the limestone is astonishing enough but it cannot prepare you for the sudden appearance of the pillared Treasury carved into the rock.
If it looks like a scene from an Indiana Jones film that’s because it was used in one as the secret temple where the hero finds the Holy Grail in the Canyon of the Crescent Moon. The film is now dated but nothing is passé about Petra and being there for real is more glamorous and exciting than any offering from Hollywood’s dream machine.
Petra is a huge site – once home to 30,000 people – and inevitably attracts purveyors of junk knickknacks so it’s wonderful to find quality silver jewellery as well as predictable gewgaws on sale here. Opposite a teashop, look for a solitary stall displaying posters for Married to a Bedouin, Marguerite van Geldermalsen’s remarkable story of how a New Zealand-born nurse came to be married to Mohammad Abdallah Othman, a Bedouin souvenir-seller in Petra. Their son now manages a small display of pendants, earrings, cufflinks, brooches and bracelets, incorporating Petra designs handcrafted by local women, and it’s all very lovely.
For a wider choice of Jordan’s best handicrafts – hand-embroidered textiles, metalwork and blown glass – you need to browse specialist shops in Amman. Luckily, my travel guide has them all plotted on their maps of the capital. One item of apparel that is easily purchased is the red and white keffiyeh, ideal for protection from the heat of the day.
For a small country, Jordan’s surprise is having far too much to see in one trip.
There are biblical places of huge importance, like the baptism site of Jesus on the River Jordan, splendid castles from the Crusader era and the magnificent Roman city of Jerash in the north of the country. In a week’s travelling these could all be fitted in alongside Amman and Petra but that still leaves the beach resort of Aqaba and the wild desert scenery of Wadi Rum in the far south. A return visit is necessary, if only to enjoy the best mutabbal and mouhammara plus the choicest fattoush, falafel and figs you will ever find in Asie Occidentale.
by Sean Sheenan
Books in your Baggage
In The Footsteps of Abraham: The Holy Land in Hand-Painted Photographs by Richard Hardiman and Helen Speelman (Overlook Duckworth)
The Rough Guide to Jordan by Matthew Teller (Rough Guides)
Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen (Virago