Jordan in a different light

Away from the theatrics of Petra, discover another side to Jordan — from the solace of the Dana Biosphere Reserve and the desert landscape of Wadi Rum, to the buzz of the capital, Amman.

By Seamus McDermott
Published 19 Aug 2011, 13:30 BST, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 16:43 BST

As a city dweller, it's often easy to forget what total darkness is like. Even with the lights off and curtains drawn, it's virtually impossible to escape the dull orange glow of fluorescent streetlights. Far from the blight of light pollution, from our vantage in the back of the pickup, however, we should be able to see the heavens in all their glory, but the thick clouds overhead seem to have conspired against us.

As we drive over the rough track, the headlights cast pools of light randomly across the desert landscape, highlighting rocky piles of ancient ruins, acacia trees and red, sandy rock faces. There's a feeling of travelling through the middle of nowhere — although, I later discover, the whole area is scattered with Bedouin families.

We're on our way to the Feynan Ecolodge in Jordan's Dana Biosphere Reserve — the country's largest natural reserve. Since it was set up in 2005, the eco-lodge has won a clutch of awards and even been hailed one of the world's best. Only accessible by 4WD or on foot, it's lit entirely by candles. As we pull up outside the compound, dim flickering light throws dramatic shadows over the Yemeni-inspired adobe architecture.

Our host, Nabil Tarazi, welcomes us into a lounge furnished with large, comfy sofas where we're served cups of traditional sweet mint tea. Gesturing around him, Nabil explains how the lodge is powered entirely by solar panels and that all the candles lighting the complex, including those in the massive chandelier above us, are handmade on site.

Feynan is one of several impressive tourism initiatives set up by Jordan's Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). In common with its forward-thinking eco-tourism projects, the lodge generates revenue not only for conservation projects but to help support economically vulnerable communities. As well as the 22 local people Feynan employs on site, it supports 70 families living nearby by purchasing their homemade bread and handicrafts such as leather goods and pottery. Local villagers with 4WDs are also hired to transport visitors to and from the lodge.

The RSCN believes small-scale, managed tourism is the best way to protect fragile eco-systems such as Wadi Feynan — an area within the reserve — by offering a sustainable alternative to potentially damaging large-scale commercial exploitation. The reserve is particularly vulnerable due to its wealth of copper deposits, which have been mined here for over 5,000 years — attracting various civilisations from Bronze Age settlements through to periods of Roman and Byzantine rule.

The lodge organises tours of Wadi Feynan's archaeological treasures, including ancient mine shafts and the well-preserved Roman aqueduct and Byzantine church. With our Bedouin guides illuminating the history of the wadi (valley), anonymous-looking rock piles turn out to be important archaeological sites, while jagged outcrops reveal ancient excavations. Equally memorable are the hikes off-trail into the wilderness. Home to a system of wadis and a range of mountains, it's a great place to explore on a mountain bike.

That evening, Nabil is keen for us to meet a Bedouin family living nearby in a traditional tent. Setting off on foot, it's not long before we hear the faint sound of a bell tolling in the dark. Following Nabil towards its source, the ringing gets louder until we're outside a tent. Inside, the family are seated around an open fire, watching as Abu, the father, grinds freshly roasted coffee beans with a brass pestle and mortar. Every few strokes, he cracks the pestle against the side of the ornate bowl with a metallic ringing. This sound, Abu's eldest son, Ali, tells us is an invitation for passers-by to stop by and catch up on the latest gossip over a 'cuppa'.

The coffee is brewed with cardamom pods in a pot on the open fire, before being served in small cups. Its rich, aromatic taste is addictive and it's not long before I'm holding out my cup for a fourth serving. Nabil leans towards me and, in a mock whisper, explains it's rude to ask for a fourth serving. "Four for the sword — it means you want a fight," adds Ali, prompting wild laughter from the rest of his family.

Like many others in the area, the family herds goats for a living. Ali, however, has recently graduated from university and now works as a guide at the lodge. Although he plans to move into a house in a nearby village after marrying his fiancée, Ali is full of praise for the lodge, telling me that it's helping to sustain the local community by supporting traditions and providing employment with thriving eco-tourism and handicraft enterprises.

Feynan Ecolodge is just one of several tourism projects in Jordan designed to help poorer communities. The Ajloun Forest Reserve, about 50 miles north of the capital, is home to an additional tourism cooperative, and one of the country's first. The Al Ayoun Society was set up by three neighbouring villages to encourage visitors to explore the Al Ayoun Trail, where the rocky desert gives way to fertile valleys and lush forests, and to visit their communities. The Society has even met with approval from the Jordanian royal family.

In Orjan — one of the three villages — Eisa Dweekat, the head of the Society, welcomes us into his home for lunch. Sitting cross-legged on large cushions, we're presented with an impressive spread of roast chicken and rice, stuffed cucumbers, salads, broths and dips, all mopped up with taboon — a traditional flatbread.

Eisa then escorts us through the surrounding hills via the Al Ayoun Trail. Although most people think of Jordan as being a dry, desert country, the north-west is remarkably green and much of the Ajloun landscape feels distinctly Mediterranean. The valleys are steeped in history, having been inhabited since Neolithic times, and as we hike along the rough, stony path, Eisa points out the ruins of sacrificial altars and ancient tombs. Caves dot the inclines, some of which would have been inhabited, while others would have been used for burials.

Although olive trees are still harvested, the most gnarled of which date back to Roman times, to provide employment for the villagers, Eisa tells us that many people in Orjan struggle to make a decent living. In an attempt to rectify this and deter any potentially damaging commercial ventures from gaining a foothold in Ajloun, the RSCN has trained some of the local women to produce high-value olive soap from the surplus crop. This additional income bolsters the families' earnings. Eisa explains that, in partnership with a soap designer from Amman, the Society is in the process of expanding the business.

It's not long before we start to run out of steam on our hill climb, but with the shouts of children echoing up from the village below, our guide urges us on. At the top, the rolling landscape opens out before us, rewarding us with a tremendous view. Thick-trunk olive trees with stunted, spindly branches basking in the golden sunlight, blanketing the valley in its green colour.

Wadi Rum

About 200 miles to the south of Amman, we encounter one of the Jordan's biggest eco-tourism success stories, the nature reserve of Wadi Rum. As we drive from the visitor centre into the heart of this semi-desert region, towering mountains of sandstone and basalt rear up. Formed by erosion millions of years, their craggy, sheer rock faces feel like hulking giants competing for dominance over the sandy plains. It's this dramatic landscape that has made Wadi Rum one of the country's biggest tourist destinations.

The area was established as a nature reserve by the RSCN in 1998, although it's now looked after by the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority. ASEZA employs a large team of locals to manage the area — a task that has become more onerous as Wadi Rum's popularity has grown. Littering, for instance, has been a big problem, and the authority has had to introduce a network of driving routes for 4WDs in a bid to limit further damage to habitats and their wildlife. Other successful schemes include the division of the reserve into 'Wilderness' and 'Tourism' zones to protect ecologically sensitive areas, and the introduction of rangers to help stamp out illegal hunting.

Our accommodation for the night is the Captain's Eco Desert Camp, a small and isolated semicircle of tents enclosed by one of the majestic sandstone mountains the area is famed for. But before settling into the camp for the night, there's just enough time for a sunset 4WD tour of Wadi Rum.

The area is scattered with ancient drawings inscribed in rock faces — testament to its long history as a trading route. Our guide explains the inscriptions were used by locals to inform potential trading partners when they'd be returning through the area with goods to sell. Out here in the wilderness, it's easy to imagine ancient caravans of camels snaking through the desert dunes. Later on, our guide shows us where TE Lawrence and Prince Faisal set up camp during the 1916-18 Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

Our final stop is a sunset viewing point, where we watch as the slowly changing light paints the landscape with colour. The mountains and sheer rock faces shift from sandy yellow ochre to a dramatic orange, before the sun finally disappears, leaving dark silhouettes standing tall against a yellow-tinged sky.

Back at the Captain's Eco Desert Camp, not long after nightfall, one of our Bedouin hosts grabs a spade and ushers us over to a large mound not far from the centre of the camp. Our dinner for the evening will be a traditional Bedouin meal called zarb, he explains. We gather around to watch as he starts to shovel away the sand. Soon a blanket emerges and, underneath, a large, flat, cast-iron lid, which is removed to reveal a cylindrical, underground oven.

The smell of roasting lamb fills the air, and we watch in amazement as a three-layered rack is removed from the hole in the ground. On top are onions and other vegetables; below it, tender, slow-roasted lamb, with a huge pot of cardamom-infused rice on the bottom that's soaked up all the juices from the meat. It's a true feast, and we eat greedily with our fingers as the gas lamps and the campfire throw long, flickering shadows across the ground.

Dinner over, the lights go out in the camp, and with a cup of sweet mint tea in hand, we lie back on large cushions to enjoy the celestial light show. The lack of light pollution that intensifies the darkness at the Dana Biosphere Reserve is the making of the night sky at Wadi Rum — a blanket of stars, with the occasional meteorite trail providing added theatrics.

Hustle and bustle

Arriving in the hustle and bustle of Jordan's capital, Amman, I'm struck by the stark contrast with the wild empty spaces of Dana and Wadi Rum. Dating back to 7,000 BC, the city is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, although the modern metropolis only really developed when the Emir of Transjordan (later, the King of Jordan) chose it as his capital in 1921.

Nowhere is the city's long history more evident than on Citadel Hill. Bronze Age tombs have been discovered here, while the Roman Temple of Hercules and the early-Islamic Umayyad Palace contrast with views of modern downtown Amman and its uniformly white houses, constructed from local stone.

It's to the downtown area, a five-minute walk from the citadel, that we head to for a real taste of Amman. The streets near the King Hussein Mosque are home to lively souks, selling everything from clothes and household items to meat and spices, and it is here our guide brings us to experience a real flavour of the city.

Walking down the narrow alleyways, the fruit stalls provide a riot of colour, and pungent aromas rise up from sacks of herbs and dried flowers displayed by the spice merchants. The market traders sing their best prices and special offers in Arabic rhymes.

The area is full of juice stalls. After sampling a few, cool fig juice proves to be the perfect antidote to a hot day, even if it's verging on sickly sweet. A short walk from the food markets is Reem Shawarma. This unassuming street food vendor is located on the Second Circle — one of eight roundabouts on the seven hills that modern Amman is built around. It may not look like much, but the crowd gathered at the door and the queue of parked cars betray its popularity with locals and tourists alike.

The man behind the counter slices meat from an upright skewer of grilling marinated lamb and skilfully wraps it with salad and a yoghurt sauce in flat taboon bread. The result is something similar to a doner kebab but a million times more appetising than the late-night alcohol sponges sold on high streets across Britain.

Thirst quenched and hunger sated, we head to Habibah Sweets, which our guide assures me is one of the best Arabic sweet shops in town. Having tried the local syrupy, pistachio-filled baklava, I assume my sweet tooth would prepare me for kunafah — a dessert so popular with the city's Palestinian population that many of them are queuing out the door to buy it. I'm wrong. Spread with nabulsi cheese, oozing syrup and butter and topped with noodle-like kadaif pastry, the salty-sweet creation is a veritable heart-attack-on-a-plate.

Amman has a burgeoning cafe culture; the downtown area, once shunned by younger generations in favour of the hip residential districts to the west, has seen a revival in recent years. The nightlife here is focused on the recently refurbished Rainbow Street, where families gather in public squares and young people consume heroic amounts of tea and coffee in modern cafes.

We decide to head here for our last night in the country, and it's not hard to see the attraction. Sitting in front of the cafe smoking hubbly bubbly, drinking a refreshing mint and lemon juice, the peace and solace of the desert seems a long way away, but looking up at the sky I can still clearly see the stars, somehow in harmony with this city's vibrant night life.




Getting there

Royal Jordanian, BMI and EasyJet fly direct from London to Amman.
Average flight time: 5h10m.

Getting Around

Car rental is available, while buses connect Amman with most cities.

When to Go

Spring (March to May) and autumn (September to October) are the best times to visit, with pleasant average temperatures and low rainfall. Summer can be oppressively hot in the north, while snow is not unheard of in Amman during winter.

Need to Know

Visas: UK passport holders can obtain a visa on arrival at Queen Alia International Airport. A single entry tourist visa is JD20 (£17.80), and must be paid for in local currency.

Currency: Jordanian Dinar (JD).

£1 = JD1.12.

International Dial Code: 00 962.

Time Difference: GMT +2.

Places Mentioned

Feynan Ecolodge from JD62 (£55) a night for a single room including breakfast. Tours should be arranged in advance.

Wadi Rum. From 2JD (£1.80) per person.

Captain's Eco Desert Camp from JD35 (£31) a night for a single room.

Habibah Sweets, Amman.

Reem Shawarma, Second Circle, Amman.

More Info

How to do it

Cox & Kings offers the eight-day Jordan: Ancient & Wild tour, taking in Amman, the Dana Biosphere Reserve and the Feynan Ecolodge from £1,745 including flights and some meals. Optional extras include a day trip to the Al Ayoun Trai, plus in Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea.

Published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of © National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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