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.
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.