An Unknown Country
October 5, 2012
The short 1.5 hour flight from Cairo to Amman belies the gigantic differences between Egypt and Jordan. On the face of it the two countries share many similarities; both are in the Middle East, both border Israel and the Red Sea and both are predominantly populated by Islam. Then the plane landed and I was introduced to a place I admittedly didn’t have much of an impression of.
I was well-versed with the basic facts like size of population (6.5 million, 98% Arab) and land mass (89,342 km sq., slightly smaller than Indiana), or the fact that around 40% of its population is born in the Palestinian territories. Deem as a relatively moderate country by the region’s standard, Jordan has nevertheless been ruled by the Hashemite monarchy since 1921 dating back to the days of Transjordan. Though largely unaffected by the Arab Spring thus far, unprecedented level of discontent has surfaced in the capital city Amman recently.
The reasons behind these demonstrations are two-fold; the country’s poor economy and the lack of political representation. An already unsustainable level of inflation is further heightened by the regime’s recent removal of fuel subsidies. Combined with the existing high level of unemployment and widespread poverty, the public has much to be angered about. To complicate the situation more, Jordan has one of the highest percentage of immigrants as a result from the around 2.7 million Palestinians residing there. This large segment of the population feels unrepresented by the current regime which receives much of its support from the local Bedouin tribes.
Beyond these hard facts, however, Jordan appears curiously bland, which is almost impossible in this highly volatile region. For thousands of years, much has happened around Jordan. But what exactly has taken place within its border?
Take a deeper look and the area that is present-day Jordan should have no shortage of stories to tell. There were Moses and the Israelis passing through its desert on the way to Canaan. And of course Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist at the Jordan River. The footsteps of the Romans, Saladin, Crusaders and Ottomans could all be found somewhere in the sand of Jordan. Some did settle down as evidenced by the Roman-era ruins in Amman and Jerash, but by and large Jordan has for thousands of years been the barren piece of land that happens to be in the middle of everything. Vital as a transport hub. A nurturing base for a budding civilization? Not so much.
As overlooked as Jordan is, perhaps inadvertently it has become the best setting to enhance the mystique of Petra. In this meager piece of land, where only the nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouin was sustainable, there were once a people called Nabataeans who managed to capitalize their challenging surroundings into a major trading hub. For a few hundred years, the Nabataeans prospered by mastering the trading of frankincense and spice across the Arabian Peninsula, but like almost everyone else in its proximity their kingdom was annexed into the Roman Empire in the 2nd century AD.
History has an inexact formula in determining who will be remembered by future generations. Unlike their Jewish counterparts who miraculously are successful in keeping their culture intact despite enduring two millenniums of exile, the Nabataeans swiftly faded into complete obscurity and very little is known about them today. Petra has become their most compelling, and in most cases only, testimony to the world of their ingenuity and resourcefulness, however fleeting was their existence.
Like many others, the King’s Highway served as my introduction to Jordan. Incidentally the largest protest seen in Jordan since the beginning of the Arab Spring was taking place in Amman right as we landed at Queen Alia International Airport. But along the mostly empty road nothing appeared out of the ordinary. The landscape remains just as it has always been since the world’s creation.
Compared to the overbearing chaos that was Cairo’s traffic, the King’s Highway discharged a sense of serenity that belied its position at the heart of the Middle East. As far as the eyes could see were barren hills with scant vegetation. The hilly topography added to the feeling of isolation, which perfectly described us as our small Kia sedan detoured off the main route to search for an obscure site called Umm ar-Rasas.
Very quickly we became lost. Our driver Amer grumbled why I requested to visit a site that didn’t deserve my already limited time in the country. A simple search online would probably deter most people from visiting – nothing but a pile of stones – but Umm ar-Rasas is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004 and I have a noted soft spot for them, albeit somewhat ambivalently.
Often the WHS inscription is a double-edged sword – it draws both crucial investment and an unsustainable amount of visitors. But that seemed not to apply to Umm ar-Rasas. Its parking was empty, and as we walked past the entrance the guards simply waved us inside without any intention to collect admission fee. They were too busy playing cards.
Seeing the value of its strategic location, Umm ar-Rasas was continuously settled by the Roman, Byzantine and the pre-Ottoman Islamic civilizations. What could possibly be a unique mix of architecture has been mercilessly eradicated by the elements over the past millennium. Besides piles of stones that suggested where buildings once stood in a bygone era, the only mildly interesting object remaining was the mosaic floor at the Church of St Stephen.
The mosaic floor, reputably the largest in Jordan, is unusually intact considering its surrounding. It was evidently not a crowd-drawer seeing how we were the only people around. Would it garner more attention if Umm ar-Rasas is closer to the tourist trail like Madaba? Or does this mosaic floor simply measure short to its Madaba counterpart in both aesthetics and scientific significance to not merit the attention?
The Empty Highway
When heard our unenthusiastic review of Umm ar-Rasas, Amer couldn’t help but reveal a polite grin that screamed I told you so. He promised the rest of the King’s Highway would be much more interesting. Next stop – Wadi Mujib, a deep gorge that is, for those who likes trivia, the lowest natural reserve on earth.
We didn’t see much car along the highway. Obviously the Syrian civil war has halted much of the regional trade, especially on land. The impact on tourism remains to be seen. As Amer explained, “Petra, like the Pyramids and Jerusalem, will always remain a top draw. But Jordan used to be mostly a day trip destination to see Petra where visitors based themselves in Israel or Egypt, or a stopover on their way to Syria or Turkey. The civil war in Syria, you see, has blown a hole right in the middle of the Levant. To cope we are trying to establish ourselves to become a stand-alone destination where people will deem our country worthwhile to spend a week here. Jordan has really good trekking in Dana Nature Reserve so we have good diversity beyond the historic sites.”
As we spoke, our car pulled over at a lookout. Immediately below us was Wadi Mujib, a gorge as deep as advertised, though not particularly photogenic. A few shots later we were on the road again.
Along the way we came across many Bedouin tents. The barren land seemed incapable to support any life form. But these skilled herders, living in this land since the Biblical times, were able to lead their animals to scarce amount of vegetation. Our path was crossed at this brief moment; we, stranger to this hostile land, continued on with our journey south to Wadi Musa where a comfortable hotel room would await us, while these Bedouin herders, like their ancestors before them, were resourceful enough to call this challenging ecosystem home.
The King’s Highway is not just about natural scenery or the nomadic Bedouin. We stopped in Karak, a town with a twenty-thousand populace that is famous for its Crusader castle. Though in my opinion its counterpart in Shobak, a further two hour drive south, was much more beautiful. Shobak Castle was founded in 1115 by Baldwin I of Jerusalem during his conquest of Aqaba. The original structure was destroyed when it was captured by Saladin in 1189; the current ruin dates back to the Mameluks who built over the Crusader site in the 14th century.
Many people like fantasize about a bygone era at historic places; I am not the romantic type who could imagine how the castle was like in the crusade’s time. What I had the urge to do instead was to use my camera to the best of my ability to capture the castle’s sense of abandonment under the dawning sun’s orange glow.
The Way Back
October 8, 2012
After two days in Petra and Wadi Rum, it came the day to take our return flight home. Amer happened to be around Wadi Rum so we hired him again for the trip north. Our flight was in the late afternoon, more than enough time for us to fit in a short detour to Masaba and Mt Nebo before hitting the airport.
To shorten the drive this time around we took the Desert Highway, a lonely expressway devoid of any point of interest. We covered the 360 km in around 4 hours and arrived in Madaba at noon.
The sole reason why Madaba is on the tourist trail is its namesake mosaic map, magnificently preserved under the shelter of the Church of Saint George. The map depicts the Middle East circa 6th century AD, with an especially detailed portrayal of Jerusalem at the centre.
Mt Nebo was a fitting end to our first foray to the Middle East. Moses’ resting place is undoubtedly a top draw for Christian and Jewish pilgrims, which was immediately noticeable by the numerous tour buses at the parking lot, the most we had encountered since the Giza Pyramids. It was hard-pressed to have a moment of reflection as tour groups from across the globe eagerly rushed to have their photos taken under the large cross symbolizing Moses’ tomb. The uncoordinated hymn-signing all around also didn’t help.
The circumstances might have changed, but the view remained the same as when Moses stood on the same hilltop. Israel, the piece of land with the all-too-familiar name, was so close I felt like I could literally touch it with my fingertips. Unlike Moses, however, I was not about to depart this earthly realm just yet, and hopefully I would have the chance one day to plant my feet in the Holy Land.