Updated: Mar 11, 2019
The Arab world that I experienced was a world defined by a devout faith in God and a kinship with fellow man. All of the Jordanians I met were warm and welcoming and made feel immediately at home. If you’ve truly experienced Jordan, you won’t leave the same person you were when you arrived.
The primary points of interest of my trip were Wadi Rum, Petra and the Dana Wildlife Refuge. There were brief visits as well to the Dead Sea, Mt Nebo and Macaba.
Throughout my many travels in Jordan, my driver Hassan was my trusted companion. Hassan and I spent a great deal of time together in his car and much of what I learned about Islam and Jordan as whole I learned from him.
Hassan was tireless in his efforts to ensure that my experience in Jordan was nothing short of amazing. Even attending to little things like showing up with the best Arabian coffee in the morning and stopping for the world’s best falafel sandwich on the way to Madaba.
A few days into the trip it only seemed natural that we started to refer to each other as “my brother”.
Our first stop was Wadi Rum. This was the primary battleground where Lawrence of Arabia fought the Turks. Lawrence is still a major figure in Jordan and there are many children named after him in the area.
In more recent times Hollywood makes extensive use of Wadi Rum as location shoots for movies like “The Martian” for its alien landscapes. This picture is taken at the actual set for many of the shots for that movie:
Lawrence of Arabia authored a book entitled “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” where he documented his adventures in fighting with the Arabs in their revolt against the Ottoman Turks in 1916-18.
Behind me are the alleged (many guidebooks claim these are elsewhere) pillars that inspired the title for the book.
I made sure to take home a piece of the landscape comprising the legendary Seven Pillars of Wisdom rock formation. It’s my belief that there’s no such thing as having too much wisdom....
There are some pretty incredible land formations and limitless hiking. I could have spent weeks wandering the hillsides the rock formations:
My driver Hassan arranged for a local guide. Saad was a bedouin whose grandfather fought in the desert with Lawrence of Arabia. He knew Wadi Rum intimately and kept us entertained with local folklore. He also had an incongruous comic sensibility and was constantly surprising me with his off-beat sense of humor.
Saad cooked us an incredible lunch of grilled chicken in the middle of the desert. During lunch we sat around the fire and talked. Saad had two wives (up to five are permitted in the Muslim faith) and we laughed and joked about the challenges/benefits of polygamy.
Wadi Rum is a vastly beautiful place with limitless scenery that changes constantly as the sun crosses the sky...
Leaving Wadi Rum after just one day was not ideal as I would have liked to spend more time in order to get into the rhythm of the place. Many tourists spend several nights in Bedouin tents and sleep under the stars. Next time...
Next stop Petra. Built by the Nabateans two centuries ago, it defies description. One of the truly great civilizations is distinguished by their ability to carve buildings right out of mountains.
There are ruins everywhere as you start down the path to the center of Petra. The most traditional path is through the "souk", or canyons. It's incredibly breathtaking. Apparently it can also be deadly if you are caught during a flash flood.
As we enter there is a hushed silence. If people are talking they are almost whispering as we all sense we are entering a sacred space.
The building below is known as The Monastery and like all of the buildings in Petra it is chiseled right out of the mountain:
Look closely at this building because it is unlike any other building you've seen. It's not a building at all actually. It's a relief sculpture, carved right out of the mountain. It is absolutely spectacular, awe-inspiring and simply breathtaking to behold. How it was possible to create something so precise, so beautiful at such an immense scale is beyond my comprehension. The kicker is that Petra is a large metropolis with many many buildings and reliefs carved into the hillsides.
Like other places in Jordan, you get the sense that this space has been inhabited for nearly as long as humans roamed the earth. Early on, we were cave dwellers. Now the caves are used for something entirely unanticipated by those early humans.
Petra is a huge place. I had 2 days and it wasn’t nearly enough time to see everything. Not only that but it is estimated that 85 % of Petra is not yet excavated.
Another great thing about visiting Petra is the freedom to wander among the ruins and go inside the various structures.
The colors of the interiors of the buildings at Petra can be truly unexpected.
I was also able to have some wonderful conversations with the local vendors.
This girl was very interested in learning as much as she could about Chicago…after a long talk (and a much needed rest) it was no surprise that I ended up buying those items she is holding as gifts.
The Nabateans were incredible engineers and their crowning achievement was the way in which they were able to capture and control water. Throughout the surrounding mountains there are chiseled gutters for directing water into networks of cisterns for storage. There are entire mountain ranges with gullets carved in the sides leading to networks of cisterns.
There's even what is believed to be a lion fountain carved into the mountain. There are channels carved into the face of the mountain just above the relief depicted below that would direct the water to splash over the carving. Looks a bit like an elephant to me but what do I know?
You can learn more about Nabataens here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabataeans
Mt. Nebo, Madaba and the Dead Sea
Our road-trip through Jordan had many interesting twists and turns and we had many adventures both small and large. En route to Mt. Nebo we stopped at an old castle that is rarely visited. As I wandered through the ruins I found myself alone in a room that looked right out of the set of an Indiana Jones film:
Afterwards we came across "Worlds Smallest Hostel" - and we stopped for Turkish Coffee. And yes, that VW Bug is an actual hostel that can be rented by the night.
There were also more traditional stopovers at Mount Nebo and Madaba (the city of mosaics). Madaba lays claim to the world’s oldest map of Palestine. It’s on the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church in the center of town and it’s really impressive. A fragment of the map is pictured below on the left. We also stopped at a workshop where the art of mosaic is being kept alive, pictured right, below:
Mount Nebo is where Moses first glimpsed the promised land in the distance although he never made it there himself.
This picture on the left is taken from the site of the church on the site now run by Franciscan monks... Moses being one of the things that Christians and Jews can agree on.
Later that same day I arrived at the Dead Sea to my hotel in the later that same afternoon just barely in time for a sunset swim:
The Dead Sea is as other-worldly as everyone describes it. If you’ve never been in that water it’s the same as strapping on a giant floatation device on your legs and torso. You simply could not go under water no matter how hard you try. The Dead Sea has something like 300 times the saline as ocean water. It's crazy. It also sucks the water right out of your body...I've never been so thirsty in my life after returning to my room..
The next day, I was then on off to Wadi Dana Reserve, the crown jewel of Jordan’s nature preserves, the highlight of my trip and possibly my life.
Wadi Dana and the Feynan Ecolodge
The Wadi Dana guesthouse sits at the apex of the Wadi Dana reserve. There are stunning views everywhere...even from the incredible picture-window-wall in the shower of my room:
Wadi Dana is a place with infinite history. It was absolutely the most impactful experience I had while traveling.
There are caves and ruins of varying ages everywhere. And yet 400 million years ago, all this was under water. We saw this fossil (It’s about 6 inches wide) at roughly 4000 feet of elevation.
All these ruins give you the sense that this valley has been inhabited since humanoids first came out of Africa. There are caves everywhere and rock blocks scattered about.
You really get a feel for the many countless settlements in this area from prehistoric cave dwellers to the present. There was incredible energy everywhere from all of the prior civilizations that had passed through and left their mark.
The hike to the bottom of the Wadi Dana valley is about 15 kilometers (10 miles) long descending 1500 meters (4000 feet). We completed the hike at a relaxed pace in about 5 hours.
My local guide lived in the area all his life and still spends nights in the surrounding caves. He was very knowledgeable about all the plants in the area and was picking herbs identifying them to me along the way and pointing out various trees like the Acacia emerging from rocks on the side of the hill or the amazing geology everywhere:
He also pointed out the various natural springs along the way and he described the healing powers of all of the herbs found there. I still have a sprig of fresh artemisia ( for sore throats and respiratory problems) he picked for me in my jacket.
At the bottom of the Dana valley at the end of my 10 mile hike was the Feynan Ecolodge, an incredibly welcoming place staffed by local bedouins. It's an amazing place best reached on foot. There's a punishing gravel road that leads there through 30 minutes of brutal ups and downs.
There is no electricity in the rooms and solar panels power the reception area and kitchen. At night it is magical - candles light the corridors and rooms and you really get a sense of being disconnected from the world. This was my room in the daylight.
That evening we joined a local Bedouin family for tea and conversation at sunset in a truly spectacular setting.
We had a wide ranging conversation about Bedouin customs and traditions while the beauty of the surrounding countryside held us in its grip.
We talked a lot about happiness and what was needed to attain happiness. I remarked that all the Bedouins that I met seemed very happy in spite of what would be considered a very meager existence by western standards. “If a Bedouin has food for the day, his health and a safe place to sleep he is happy” was the response.
My last day in Jordan was my peak experience. I had the opportunity to spend the day with a local goat herder named Suleiman (who I also found out later was the local Imam).
We spent the day in the mountains tending to the goats. There’s a wonderful rhythm between the goats and the herder as they wander about the hills.
Sometimes the goats are nearby and sometimes they are very far away. The herder makes all sorts of calls which sound like some strange language to keep the goats under his sway.
It was easy for me to fall behind because I was in such awe of the mountains. But anytime I did Suleiman’s dog made sure that I kept pace.
It was a surprisingly social walk in that we were constantly encountering other herders and engaging in conversation. Well actually they were doing most of the talking among themselves and I mostly listened...
Midway we stopped for lunch. Suleiman had come prepared with flour to make fresh bread which we prepared by a fire he made on top of a mountain. I was completely unprepared for this ritual as it unfolded and was transfixed by the process.
The dough was placed in the hot embers of the fire and covered where it baked until ready.
As we sat and sipped tea while waiting for the bake we sipped tea infused with freshly picked sage.
It was an incredible sensation experience as the flavor completely overtook my senses.
Our lunch consisted of fresh bread, locally grown tomatoes, sardines and tea. I’d never had anything so satisfying.
After lunch Suleiman washed his hands and feet as it was time for prayers. Muslims pray 5 times a day. He invited me to join him and we scaled this peak that reached into the heavens.
It was an incredibly sacred moment in a very sacred place that I will never forget.
I think about my experience often. The Bedouin way of life has left an indelible impression on me and has changed me forever.