(Originally published in Travel + Leisure in August, 2018)
My father and I dangled our bare feet over the edge of a cliff, a column of light broke through the clouds and swept across the dunes of Wadi Rum. In his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the British officer and archaeologist T. E. Lawrence, who often camped here during the Arab revolt of 1916, described the place as “vast and echoing and godlike.” We’d been discussing how much this 300-square-mile wadi, or valley, in southern Jordan reminded us of the canyons of the American West as mythologized by Edward Curtis, one of our favorite photographers. But we fell silent when the sun lit up the red earth. So did a dozen other travelers scattered atop the mount. My father, a longtime travel photographer and the man responsible for these images, reached for his camera. We all took in the view until a pickup truck appeared, kicking up clouds of sand, to ferry us back to our tented camps for sunset.
To travel in the Kingdom of Jordan is to be constantly reminded of the ancient world. Four days earlier, as we explored the capital city of Amman, our guide had taken us up Mount Al-Qalah, one of the seven limestone hills that make up the old city. We stopped for an aerial view of a Roman amphitheater, built in the second century, that is now surrounded by low apartment buildings. The steep rows still seat spectators for cultural events. A plaza at the base of the amphitheater hummed with gentle activity, as locals enjoyed the cool evening. Floodlights cast shadows against the Roman walls as the call to prayer echoed.
Jordan, it must be said, is in a difficult neighborhood. Hundreds of thousands (some say millions) of Syrian and Iraqi refugees have crossed the country’s northern and eastern borders during the past 15 years. (Earlier this year, the kingdom even rescued Lula, a starving bear, from a bombed-out zoo in Mosul, Iraq, resettling her in a wildlife refuge in Amman.) Across the river Jordan, in the West Bank, Palestinians still live under Israeli occupation. To the southwest, across the Red Sea, Egypt struggles to contain an Islamist insurgency on the Sinai Peninsula. Saudi Arabia, to the southeast, offers stability— though the ambitions of the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, could change that.
A bastion of peace in a volatile part of the world, Jordan has long relied on tourism, which until the Arab Spring accounted for 20 percent of the country’s GDP. But foreign travel has slowed since then, straining both the economy and the national psyche. One might argue that there has never been a better time to visit Jordan, since sites like Petra are less trafficked than they have been in years. (The ancient Nabataean city saw 400,000 visitors in 2016, half of what it got a decade earlier.) My father and I avoid crowds when traveling, which is part of what drew us to visit Jordan with Wild Frontiers, a London-based tour operator that organizes tailor-made, off-the-beaten-path itineraries. We also wanted to go because every traveler who chooses Jordan right now is casting a vote of support for the country’s stability, and in turn, the stability of our world.
On our second morning, Ahmed, our guide, and Wasfi, our driver, met us in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Amman. We all loaded into a silver Kia and sped north along the eastern wall of the Zarqa Valley, then west across the Zarqa River. Our destination: the Greco-Roman city of Jerash. As we approached a shuttered amusement park, Ahmed said, “Here we are!”
My father and I laughed. Then, moments later, a sandstone gateway appeared, and we realized he wasn’t kidding. Shaded by a red juniper, its central arch buttressed by two smaller archways, the south gate stood tall, as it did centuries ago for travelers who followed the King’s Highway from the Egyptian city of Memphis to Jerash and, farther north, into Damascus and Resafa, in modern-day Syria. Alexander the Great first established Jerash as one of the great cities of the Decapolis, a network of 10 settlements he built throughout the Levant. In the ensuing centuries, it was occupied by Byzantines, Crusaders, Mamluks, and Ottomans, but it was the Romans who made it into the regal metropolis whose ruins we had come to see.
A broad road led us to the forum, an expansive oval commons surrounded by an Ionic colonnade. The only other person there was a merchant dozing at his souvenir stand. We trod carefully on the Roman road extending north from the forum; deep grooves from centuries of traffic made footing treacherous. Carvings of acanthus leaves crowned the high Corinthian columns that lined our route. Starlings darted in and out of nests wedged in the cracks between segments. We lingered at the nymphaeum, an ornate fountain that once dispensed water from seven spigots. Earthquakes have rerouted its water source, but other Roman-era basins around Jerash fill up each winter.
Next, we rode south on the King’s Highway, which has been adapted to modern needs. Though slower than the parallel Desert Highway, it is far more scenic. The tight folds of the Ammani hills gave way to undulating valleys dotted with olive trees and groves of prickly pears. On our long push southward, we stopped at Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have died, and Karak, a cliff-side Crusader fortress, both of which left me again in awe of Jordan’s history. We also saw girls in white hijabs walking home from school and the blank faces of local politicians staring from faded campaign posters.
By the time we approached the mountain village of Dana, darkness had fallen, interrupted only by the flickering lights of Israel in the distance. Closer to us lay a black gulf I knew to be the Dana Biosphere Reserve, set aside in 1989 by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. The late King Hussein, considered the father of modern Jordan, founded the RSCN in 1966 to stem the extermination of the Arabian oryx, an elusive, steppe-dwelling antelope that had been hunted nearly to extinction by oilmen and Arab princes. Reintroduced to the wild in 1980, the animal now safely roams reserves in other parts of the country, including Wadi Rum and Shaumari. Though there are no Arabian oryx at Dana, there are numerous other creatures, and the reserve is Jordan’s largest, covering 198 square miles on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, the tectonic trench extending from Lebanon to Mozambique.
I woke up the next morning to my father’s voice. “Come see this,” he called from the balcony. Pillowy masses of fog filled the walls of a sweeping canyon. I now saw that our room at the RSCN-run Dana Guesthouse was cantilevered over the edge of the miles-wide basin, which on its west side funneled into a gorge.
Eleven hiking trails snake through Dana. Malik, our encyclopedic local guide, led us through the center of the valley along the most popular route. Not long into our descent, Malik grabbed my arm and pointed. My eyes made out a twitch of motion on the northern canyon wall. “Nubian ibex,” he whispered. “There, another! And another!” Rapt, we tracked a half-dozen of these nimble mountain goats as they skirted the face. They stayed in a tight unit to guard against the threat of eagles, whose preferred hunting method is to drag young ibex from the cliffs, then let gravity finish the job. Malik explained that ibex venture from the highlands only in search of water. “It hasn’t rained for months,” he explained. Their bad luck, it seemed, was our good fortune.
As we descended, scree gave way to soft sand that showed the tracks of a sand fox. Malik pointed to a trio of griffon vultures, a species of old-world scavengers, who were using their nine-foot wingspans to surf the ridgeline thermals high above us. In the course of four hours and 4,000 feet we had passed through each of Jordan’s four bioclimatic zones: Mediterranean (windswept and dotted with juniper), Irano-Turanian (marked by sculptural rock formations), Saharo-Arabian (parched, pure, cinematic), and Sudanian (shaded by acacia and stands of bamboo brought by migrating birds). With the sun still high, we crossed Wadi Dana’s final escarpment, where a band of Bedouin was camped in black goatskin tents.
A few young tribesmen emerged to observe us walking to the lowlands of Feynan. The Bedouin (from the Arabic badawi, meaning “desert dweller”) once wandered between North Africa and Iraq, guiding argosies of camels and taxing foreign caravans. As with other indigenous populations from the Americas to Australia, colonial statecraft had a withering effect on their traditional way of life in the 19th and 20th centuries, pushing many into cities. Today, however, the Bedouin enjoy significant autonomy, both legal and cultural.
The Middle East is known for the ritual welcoming of guests, but the Bedouin have turned it into an art. The next place we stayed, the Bedouin-run Feynan Eco Lodge, which sits between Dana’s highlands and the desert of Wadi Araba, exemplifies their knack for hospitality. After passing through the worn wooden doors of a large adobe structure and into a tree-shaded courtyard, we were met by the lodge’s young manager, Hussein al-Amareen, who handed us icy glasses of fresh mint lemonade. He then showed us to our room, which had colorful glass embedded in the stucco walls.
That afternoon, three of the hotel’s Bedouin employees led us and a pair of intrepid young English women up a gentle rise west of the lodge. There they built a small fire and brewed sage tea. “It hasn’t rained here in many months,” said Suleiman, who spoke the strongest English. It’s not the economic pressure of drought that most disturbs the community, he explained, but the sense of cosmic misalignment it represents. Without rain, they had no way to practice their ancient pastoral ways. Replace “rain” with “travelers,” and our conversation reflected many I’d had, with street merchants and local guides, across the country in the past few days. The sustainability of Jordan’s traditions relies, in no small part, on the health of the tourism business.
The mood grew lighter as the sun dropped behind the clouds, the mountains glowing saffron and scarlet. We returned to a lodge lit by hundreds of flickering candles, all made on site. In the dining room, we heaped our plates high with stuffed eggplant, hummus, and fresh pita, then ate on the patio under the stars with our new English friends. Later, my father retired to our room, glad to leave me in such unexpected, pleasant company. The three of us relaxed on well-worn sofas around a fire in the lodge’s common room with our guides, sharing travel stories and asking questions about Bedouin life.
Like many who come to Jordan, my father and I were anxious to see the ancient city of Petra, about a two-hour drive south of Feynan. Few, however, enter this network of sandstone cave dwellings and classical façades as we did. Following a Bedouin guide and his mule, we ascended a stone path along a harrowing valley, circumventing the crowded route through the gorge to approach Petra from the northwest: a reverse commute, as my father described it. I was absorbed by the rock formations, sculpted by the winds over millennia to resemble delicate turtle shells, or the baleen of a whale. “The greatest artists pale in comparison,” my father said.
Around noon we reached a plateau edged by long-abandoned cave dwellings. Turning a corner revealed the sandstone façade of Ad Deir, Petra’s Monastery, standing 160 feet above a sandy plaza. Less ornate than the iconic Treasury, the Monastery is also quieter and more meditative. That’s partly because it’s shielded from tourists and Bedouin hawkers by a steep one-hour hike, preceded by a half-hour approach through the gorge from the nearby city of Wadi Musa. Ancient Nabataeans incised the structure deep into the mountain sometime in the first century B.C. as Petra was growing into a thriving city of 20,000. Later expanded by Byzantine settlers, the Monastery consists of two stories; the top is a broken pediment surrounding a grand tholos upon which a large urn sits. Some locals believe the urn contains a pharaoh’s hoard of gold.
I ordered a Turkish coffee with cardamom from the restaurant and settled onto one of the padded benches facing the Monastery. Two Bedouin sat in the mountain’s shadow brewing tea, shielding the flames of their fire from the occasional gust with their thick goat-hair robes. The wind whistled through the pocked canyons as a column of goats marched across the empty plaza, kicking up dust.
The following day, we cruised along a highway parallel to the Hejaz Railroad, the artery that once linked Damascus to Medina. When Lawrence and his troops severed it in World War I, the Ottoman Empire bled to death. In the village of Wadi Rum, the gateway to the entire Wadi Rum area, we said farewell to Wasfi, our driver, and swapped our trusty Kia for a four-wheel-drive pickup (with a Bedouin navigator) capable of handling the sand tracks that extend beyond the road’s end. The broad, rusty plains set between towering granite and sandstone massifs could have been in Utah’s Moab Desert (so named for the ancient Kingdom of Moab, whose borders fall within modern-day Jordan) were it not for the wild camels grazing on brittle stands of the white saxaul tree. We paused by a cliff with other travelers, remarking on the beauty of it all.
As we crested a dune, we saw six white canvas tents tucked in the ridge’s lee. At the compound’s entrance were three men wearing red kaffiyehs and navy parkas with the camp’s name, Discovery Bedu, stitched on the chest: Muhammad (the camp’s diligent manager) and two porters. One conveyed our bags to the tent. The other offered a tray of warm towels, cups of mint tea, and dates. Shielded from the wind on two sides, Discovery Bedu was otherwise open, an opera box over a plain whose sands faded from deep red to white.
As the sun went down, the temperature dropped precipitously. We left the warmth of our guest tent to enjoy a communal dinner. The chef had prepared a main course of chicken, lamb, and vegetables, heated in a barrel under the sand by fragrant, smoldering olive-wood coals. We ate like emirs alongside the only other guests, a couple from Boston.
Some time into the meal, we realized it was Thanksgiving. As if we didn’t have enough to be grateful for already, we emerged from the main tent to find that the clouds had parted, exposing an infinite network of constellations. After sharing
this extraordinary evening, we four Americans so far from home wished one another a good night, and returned to our tents. After my father showed me the day’s photographs, I picked up Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom to read once more about his adventures in Wadi Rum and to contemplate how they had foreshadowed my own.
The following day, as we drove north to Amman, I thought of my new Bedouin friends at Feynan. In the days since we had left those parched lowlands, rain had fallen, a signal of hope for their community.