The huge eastern deserts of Jordan are mostly stony plains of limestone or basalt, but much of the southern desert is sand, presaging the dunes and vast emptinesses of the Arabian interior. In the far south, squeezed onto Jordan’s only stretch of coastline, Aqaba forms a pleasant urban counterpoint to the breathtaking marine flora and fauna which thrive in the warm Red Sea waters just offshore. The real highlights, though, lie inland. You shouldn’t leave Jordan without spending time in the extraordinary desert moonscape of Wadi Rum, haunt of Lawrence of Arabia and starting point for camel treks into the red sands, while the award-winning ecolodge at Feynan makes a fabulous hideaway for walks, cultural encounters and off-the-beaten-track exploration in the little-visited Wadi Araba desert.
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Two of the three north–south highways connecting Amman with Aqaba are desert roads, and only really of interest as access routes to and from southern Jordan. The easternmost of the three, the so-called Desert Highway, follows the line of the old Hejaz Railway and serves as a demarcation boundary between well-watered hills to the west and the open desert. The westernmost of the three is the Wadi Araba road, which hugs the line of the Israeli border south of the Dead Sea.
As Jordan develops into a niche ecotourism destination of world renown, so one small project is rapidly gaining a reputation as the country’s – if not the Middle East’s – leading example of how sustainable development can run hand-in-hand with low-impact nature tourism. Feynan, an isolated rural community in Wadi Araba at the lower western end of the Dana Biosphere Reserve,now hosts the Feynan Ecolodge, a Jordanian-owned, Jordanian-run 26-room desert hotel which has won global acclaim for both the quality of its environmentally friendly tourism product and the way in which it has established a sustainable socio-economic partnership with local people.
Situated miles from any road, the ecolodge is not somewhere you stumble across. Book to stay here, though, and you gain access to a world that is effectively otherwise closed to outsiders: ordinary life for rural bedouin across Jordan, largely unchanged (for now) by tourism – older generations maintaining their traditional tent-based lifestyle, younger generations making new lives in the village.
Don’t come expecting Dubai-style desert luxury – it’s a long, bumpy drive to get here, across stony slopes that remain furnace-hot from May to September, and the lodge itself is charming but simple. Do come, though, expecting an atmosphere of calm, a stunning natural landscape opened up with walks and mountain-biking, an exceptionally long history evoked at remote archeological sites, and the rarest kind of genial, unfussy service from staff who have lived in the area all their lives. Austere but richly rewarding, Feynan shouldn’t be missed.
Brief history of Feynan
Marking a topographical meeting point between the mountains and the desert, where valleys coming down from the east bring constantly flowing water to an open alluvial plain fanning westwards, Feynan has seen human settlement for millennia. Neolithic villages on the slopes suggest people cultivated figs, pistachios and wild barley, hunted gazelle and perhaps herded goats and cattle here as early as 12,000 years ago. The 2011 discovery of an amphitheatre-like structure has led archeologists to theorise that the earliest buildings were not houses, as previously thought, but community centres for processing foodstuffs. The economic shift which caused hunter-gatherers to domesticate crops and animals is well understood; what Feynan suggests is that a social shift may have occurred before that, from nomadic independence to shared labour.
Feynan is also extremely rich in minerals, particularly copper. As early as 6500 years ago, simple wind-fired kilns were being used to extract copper for ornaments and tools. Mining and smelting techniques progressed through the Bronze and Iron Ages, reaching a peak under the Romans, when Feynan – effectively a giant penal colony – hosted the largest copper mines in the Roman Empire. The third and fourth centuries AD saw numberless prisoners – many of them Christians – sent to Feynan to be literally worked to death, bound in chains and forced to labour night and day. The prisoners were overseen by imperial administrators based in a town overlooking the confluence of Wadi Dana and Wadi Ghwayr, now ruined and known as Khirbet Feynan (khirbet means ruins). Wealth-generation continued into the Byzantine era, when Feynan was the seat of a bishopric.
From copper to leather
Feynan’s economy, founded on copper, long ago shifted to farming – specifically goat-herding. To the local Azazmeh bedouin, goats provide milk, cheese, yoghurt, jameed (a type of preserved dried yoghurt), hair for tent-weaving, rarely meat and above all cash from selling the male kids. Today the Azazmeh are participating in an RSCN scheme that is altering the rural economy to place greater emphasis on environmental protection. For years, goats have been overgrazing the land and decimating local flora, but rather than banning them within the Dana reserve area – which would merely foment ill-will and shift the problem elsewhere – the RSCN are investing in them, fattening the goats in large pens outside the reserve and training local women to produce new craft items out of goat leather; both projects mean that the goats sell for higher prices at market and that their owners can additionally raise the value of each animal by selling the hide. You can ask to visit the leather workshops at Feynan to see more. Crafts made from Feynan goat leather are used in the lodge and sold at RSCN nature shops around Jordan.
British archeologists have been digging at several sites in Feynan since the 1990s. In 2005 the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) brought in Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash to design a tourist lodge to replace the archeologists’ campsite. His style marries local materials with traditional arid-zone building techniques – thick walls, recessed windows, ribs to cast shadow on exterior walls, shaded interior courtyard, and so on – in the Feynan Ecolodge, a unique building that is functional, sympathetic and attractive.
The lodge is still owned by the RSCN but since 2009 it has been run by Amman-based firm EcoHotels, whose director, Nabil Tarazi, takes a refreshingly hands-on approach: you’ll often find him at Feynan, listening to the local community’s concerns and ideas, negotiating between tribal elders, refining how the lodge operates. Staff at the lodge, and the associated income-generating crafts projects making candles and goat-leather, are drawn from the Azazmeh bedouin tribe, who live in the area around Feynan. The drivers who shuttle guests to the lodge from a Reception Centre in the nearby village, where the asphalt road ends, are all from the neighbouring Rashaydeh bedouin – and every penny of the transport fee goes to them. Benefits are being spread around. The lodge is creating extra income for around eighty local families – perhaps five hundred people or more.
What to expect
The lodge’s green credentials are impeccable. It is not connected to the grid, and generates all its own electricity through solar panels – but only the reception office, bathrooms and kitchen have power; the rest of the building is lit by candles (which are made locally by hand). Water comes from local springs, and is heated by the sun for showers and kitchen use. Over the few chilly weeks of winter, the lodge fireplaces burn not wood but jift, a by-product of olive-oil production made from compacted olive stones and dry residue. The lodge composts and recycles, serving only vegetarian food made from locally sourced products: bread is baked fresh each day by a woman from the local bedouin community.
And the place has atmosphere. Sit out on the terrace, lounge on the sofas, try a spot of star-gazing on the roof, walk in the hills – it’s bewitchingly calm and contemplative. Set down below stony crags under a scorching sun, the lodge feels remote, but crucially not cut off from its surroundings. This is no luxury tourist hideyhole planted down amid rural poverty. Quite the opposite: thanks, above all, to the endlessly cheerful and accommodating local staff, staying here you feel a part of things – protected in a stark natural wilderness yet also with privileged access to the culture of people for whom it is home. Feynan has been named one of the world’s best ecolodges for a reason.
Short walks from Feynan
The choice of walks from Feynan is dizzying. If you want a private guide, rates start at JD81 for a half-day excursion, but the lodge’s guides – all local bedouin – also lead two guided group hikes each day, open to all. One is a half-day walk (up to 4hr; JD13/person), the other a full day (up to 8hr; JD18.50/person). Routes are decided the day before, but could include the informative Copper Mines trail (4hr), explaining the significance of Feynan for ancient copper-smelting, visiting Roman mine-shafts and slag heaps, or sampler trails into Wadi Ghwayr – past Roman ruins into a perpetually flowing stream-bed – or Wadi Dana, for birdwatching and spectacular views (both 4hr). There’s also a self-guided option for a walk to nearby archeological sites (2–4hr), including a Roman aqueduct, Byzantine church and Neolithic village.
Every day, a guided sunset walk (free) leads from the lodge on a short stroll up to a nearby hilltop, for freshly brewed bedouin tea and stunning views westwards as the sun sets over the vast Wadi Araba deserts.
Long walks from Feynan
Longer guided day-hikes venture deeper into the mountains. One varied trail combines the lower reaches of both Wadi Dana and Wadi Ghwayr (closed for a month in autumn for the ibex breeding season). There’s a challenging circular route to Um Alamad, to visit Roman ruins and abandoned mine-shafts – but the two best routes are both one-way treks, requiring either vehicle transfers back to Feynan or onward travel.
The walk from Feynan all the way up Wadi Dana (14km), rising from 325m to Dana village at 1200m, passes from stony desert to Mediterranean scrub forest, taking in a multitude of flora and – occasionally – fauna. You can take the steep walk up and then either stay in Dana or book ahead for a transfer back to Feynan (3hr; JD50/car). Alternatively, do it the easy way: be driven up and then do the full-day walk back down to Feynan. Either way, you can take a guide (JD18.50/person) or go it alone.
Perhaps even better is the full-day adventure in Wadi Ghwayr (16km; closed in winter), negotiating a path through a gorge narrowing into a slot canyon, past palms and giant boulders. The hard way is uphill from Feynan, ending on the plateau at the highland village of Mansoura for the vehicle transfer back (2hr; JD50/car), though there are accommodation options near Mansoura at Shobak – or you can go in reverse, being driven to Mansoura for the hike down to Feynan. In either direction this route requires a guide (JD18.50/person).
Feynan is also developing mountain-bike trails, both on- and off-road around the lodge, nearby archeological ruins and the neighbouring villages. They supply bikes and all the gear. Self-guided routes are charged at JD17.50 (half-day) or JD29 (full day), guided trails (minimum 4 adults) at JD29/46.
Out here in the desert, where there is no light pollution, stars fill the sky every night. After dinner each evening, staff set up Feynan’s seriously high-powered telescope on the roof for a spot of star-gazing – amateur for sure, but guides have been trained by astronomers and are able to point out constellations and astronomical features with considerable knowledge. Join in if you like (it’s free), or just lie back on a mattress to take in the galactic splendour.
Under development – and perhaps up and running when you visit – is a programme of cultural encounters with local bedouin families, where you’ll be welcomed into a family tent to be served coffee around the fire, with a Feynan guide on hand to explain the intricacies and significance of the traditional coffee ceremony, and the deep cultural significance of coffee itself to the bedouin. There may also be the chance to participate in making arbood, a doughy, crusty bread baked in the embers of the fire, shugga weaving with goat hair to produce tent panels, or kohl, a form of natural eyeliner. Another idea could be spending a day with a shepherd, shadowing one of the local kids as they move up the mountainsides with their flocks searching for grazing. Ask about these when you book.