Jordan: The Switzerland of the Middle East – Jordan, Middle East
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has no oil and is officially a “water poor” nation. But it has one incredibly valuable resource in the troubled Middle East – peace. It is not an easy item to export, but people flock there when they need it. And the small kingdom offers a neutral table when it is time to sit down and negotiate for that peace.
During the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict, Lebanese fled the artillery shells and bombs to make use of Jordan’s plethora of five-star resorts and hotels until it was safe to go home. Iraqi business people who can no longer function in their own war-torn country, are immigrating to Jordan in droves. They have created a massive building boom. Palatial homes and modern apartment blocks are springing up everywhere.
Read these indie travel tips for Amman, Jordan.
Jordan has long been a crossroad for three of the world’s major religions, providing the way to Mecca and Jerusalem. It prides itself on its religious tolerance. It made its peace with Israel in 1994, despite losing the West Bank in 1967. It has sometimes had its neighbors’ troubles spill over its borders.
In 2005 an Iraqi Al Quaeda group of four terrorists bombed three hotels, leading to tighter security at hotel entrances ever since. But, for the most part, other countries prize the “Switzerland of the Middle East”. For all the turmoil in other areas, Jordan enjoys a crime rate well below that of Sweden.
When I traveled there I was struck by the misconceptions the West has of the Middle East. Americans especially, tend to think of it as a monolith – the same primitive place inhabited by fanatic Muslims who hate America and hide their women under burkas. Nothing is further from the truth, and nowhere more so than Jordan. As soon as I said I was American, I was greeted with big smiles. People were not only friendly, but well-informed about our country and its current events, and they were eager to meet Americans.
The capital, Amman, was clean, full of tree-lined boulevards. It glittered in the sun because it is built almost entirely of white limestone. They need to issue sunglasses at the airport for arriving visitors. Many women chose to wear headscarves, usually stylish ones in colors to match their business suits. Many did not. I saw only two people with face scarves, they were visiting Saudis.
One night I visited a Bedouin family in their tent outside Petra. Bedouins are supposed to be the most conservative people when it comes to their women. In this family of four children in their teens and early 20s, it was immediately apparent that the mother, Naman, was the one with intelligence and ambition. The father, as well as the children, admired and deferred to her.
As the kids brewed and served tea and the taxi driver who brought me acted as interpreter, Naman and I looked at each other and grinned. One strong matriarch recognized another, language and culture notwithstanding. We talked about raising children. She sent hers to a nearby village to school. She proudly showed off her handiwork – she had spun, wove and sewed together the goat hair tent that was the family’s shelter.
Jordan has another resource – its rich history. It is attempting to boost its tourism, especially to the West. It has a lot to offer. History comes in layers: pre-historic, Old and New Testament, Roman, the mysterious ancient Nabaateans who built Petra, and the medieval crusaders. One day I was on the road where Moses led his people, then stood on the mountain where he and Joshua looked over at the “land of milk and honey” as they planned to invade it.
Another day I stood on the banks of the Jordan River where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. I looked over another river where Jacob had his vision of angels climbing a ladder and where Elijah was born. I spent two days exploring the "lost city" of Petra. An amazing natural gorge called The Siq stretches for a mile creating the world’s most dramatic city gate. I rode a horse-drawn buggy between its echoing, eerie rock walls. A Roman city, Jerash, better preserved than the Forum in Rome, hosts an annual music festival.
In the Hippodrome I watched a re-enactment show as a "Roman legion" demonstrated ancient maneuvers and held a chariot race. Modern Romans have taken notice and invited the group to perform for them.
Jordan is also making the most of its natural resources. It has taken strong measures to protect its coral reefs in the Red Sea at Aqaba that enjoys a place in the world’s top ten list of diving spots. It has created natural preserves where wildlife, such as the Oryx, are protected. The Wadi Rum where the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” was filmed in the 1960s has become a rock climbing Mecca for Europeans. Like a Yosemite Valley of the Arabian Desert, the looming rock formations attract visitors who don’t climb, but come to gape in awe.
Bedouins have opened numerous tourist camps and provide camels, Land Rovers and guides. The Dead Sea at 1335 feet below sea level is another tourist draw. Known for its healing qualities since ancient days, the shores now offer luxury spas. The Swiss have built the Møvenpick Resort like a fantasy from Arabian Nights. Artificial streams meander through perfumed gardens and feed the swimming pools. Arches and fountains decorate the labyrinth that links the sandstone buildings. Visitors coat themselves with the healing black mud or float unsinkable in the buoyant sea, safe from sunburn under the thick atmosphere between them and Sol.
I was there on the first day of Ramadan and had another misconception shattered. I thought of the Muslim fast as a grueling ordeal like Christian Lent, but worse. I learned, instead, that when the sun goes down, it is party time. The Ramadan post-sunset meals are called Iftars. At my first Iftar, the resort had set up colorful tents, sofas and cushions. Lavish desserts only made at Ramadan were served while musicians played and shee-shas, waterpipes, were passed around. It was a festive, peaceful time.
I talked to some people on a Bible tour. They had chosen to stay in Jordan and make day trips to Jerusalem and Jericho on the West Bank. That way they got Israeli efficiency combined with wonderful Arab hospitality. I was content to stay in Jordan – so much to see and do. I felt welcomed. I felt safe. Ah, if only peace could be bottled and shipped to be savored when opened like a fine wine. Jordan would be richer than any country drowning in oil.