Altar of Sacrifice, Petra, Jordan

Jordan

Ancient cities, sweeping deserts and Red Sea reefs

Western travellers have been exploring the Middle East for well over a century, but Jordan is a relative newcomer to tourism, welcoming only a fraction of the numbers who visit neighbouring Egypt and Israel. Its popular image abroad encompasses not much more than camels and deserts, yet this is a country of mountains, beaches, castles and ancient churches, with an urbane people and a rich culture. It is safe, comfortable and welcoming – and by far the region’s most rewarding destination.

Jordan is about 85 percent desert, but this one plain word covers a multitude of scenes, from the dramatic red sands and towering cliffs of the far south to the vast stony plains of volcanic basalt in the east. The northern hills, rich with olive trees, teeter over the rift of the Jordan Valley, which in turn runs down to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. The centre of the country is carpeted with tranquil fields of wheat, cut through by expansive canyons and bordered by arid, craggy mountains. At Jordan’s southernmost tip, beaches fringe the warm waters of the Red Sea, which harbours some of the most spectacular coral reefs in the world.

Jordan is part of the land bridge linking Europe, Africa and Asia, and has seen countless armies come and go. Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Christian Crusaders and more have left evidence of their conquests, and there are literally thousands of archeological sites from all periods in every corner of the country. In addition, Israel and Palestine, Jordan’s neighbours to the west, have no monopoly on biblical history: it was in Jordan that Lot sought refuge from the fire and brimstone of the Lord; Moses, Aaron and John the Baptist all died in Jordan; and Jesus was almost certainly baptized here. Even the Prophet Muhammad passed through.

And yet the country is far from being stuck in the past. Amman is a thoroughly modern Arab capital, and poverty is the exception rather than the rule. The government, under head of state King Abdullah II, manages to be simultaneously pro-Western, pro-Arab, founded on a bedrock of Muslim authority and committed to peace with Israel. Women are better integrated into positions of power in government and business than almost anywhere else in the Middle East. Jordanians are also exceptionally highly educated: just over 2.5 percent of the total population is enrolled at university, a proportion comparable to the UK. Traditions of hospitality are ingrained, and taking up some of the many invitations you’ll get to tea or a meal will expose you to an outlook among local people that is often as cosmopolitan and world-aware as anything at home. Domestic extremism is virtually non-existent.

Most people take great pride in their ancestry, whether they’re present or former desert-dwellers (bedouin) or from a settled farming tradition (fellahin). Across the desert areas, people still live and work on their tribal lands, whether together in villages or apart in individual family units. Many town-dwellers, including substantial numbers of Ammanis, also claim tribal identity. Belonging to a tribe (an honour conferred by birth) means respecting the authority of a communal leader, or sheikh, and living in a culture of shared history, values and principles that often crosses national boundaries. Notions of honour and mutual defence are strong. Tribes also wield a great deal of institutional power: most members of Jordan’s lower house of parliament are elected for their tribal, rather than political, affiliation. The king, as sheikh of sheikhs, commands heartfelt loyalty among many people and respect among most of the rest.

National identity is a thorny issue in Jordan, which has taken in huge numbers of Palestinian refugees since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. Many people from tribes resident east of the River Jordan before 1948 resent this overbalancing of the country’s demography, as well as the fact that Palestinians, having developed an urbanized, entrepreneurial culture, dominate private-sector business. For their part, Jordanians of Palestinian origin – by some estimates comprising more than sixty percent of the population – often resent the “East Bank” Jordanians’ grip on power in government and the public sector. All are Jordanian citizens, but citizenship tends to mean less to many of Palestinian origin than their national identity, and less to many East Bankers than their tribal affiliation. Recent influxes of refugees from Iraq and Syria, plus large numbers of long-stay guest workers from Egypt, muddy the issue still further. “Where are you from?” – a simple enough question in many countries – is in Jordan the cue for a life story.