Jordan is Lawrence of Arabia country – and a million miles from the bling and consumerism of most of the Gulf states. If you’re looking for the real Arabia (the one the Brits fell in love with in the nineteenth century), then look no further. In Wadi Rum – Lawrence aptly described it as “vast, echoing and God-like” – you can ride a camel through the dunes, sleep in a desert camp (proper beds provided), have an unequalled view of the stars (no light pollution) and feast on traditional Bedouin cuisine.
So, this is a romantic destination in the true sense – and few people visit this country and fail to fall in love with it. This is in part due to its magnificent sites. As well as Wadi Rum, there is Petra, the “rose red city, half as old as time”, built or rather carved out of solid rock more than 2000 years ago by the Nabatean people. Hold your breath for that first view of the “Treasury” as you walk down the Siq, the narrow passageway between towering red cliffs. Another walk takes you on the original paved road to Damascus from the Roman city of Jerash, just north of the capital Amman, following in the footsteps of St Paul.
There are biblical references everywhere – the planet’s oldest map is a mosaic on the floor of an ancient church in Madaba, placing Jerusalem firmly at the centre of the world. Moses came this way after his escape from Egypt. The three kings passed through Petra on their way to bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. And at night, the lights of Jerusalem twinkle on the other side of the Dead Sea.
Perhaps the most extraordinary biblical site, though, is the Baptism Site, the place where John the Baptist baptised Christ. Surrounded by the very earliest churches, the site is a very short walk away from the River Jordan (which has changed its course slightly in the last 2000 years). Surrounded by desert and caves (the Dead Sea scrolls were found close by), it has been recognised and visited now by three popes. At night, the lights of Jerusalem twinkle on the other side of the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea itself is remarkable not just for its buoyancy but for its minerals that are beneficial for anyone with skin, joint or breathing problems. Many people with psoriasis or arthritis come here for a regular cure – often when conventional treatments have failed. It’s even a pretty good place for beauty treatments. (Well, Cleopatra set up the first cosmetic factories here.)
Jordan has a great tradition of hospitality – levels of service are very high and it’s much more tolerant than most of its neighbours. So expect a relaxed atmosphere and less strictness about dress than you might think. On beaches and in resorts, bikinis are common though you should cover up when you’re shopping or in a restaurant. Jordanians really welcome their visitors and they are aware that their Middle East location may cause misgivings in some travellers. As a result, security levels are high. Expect a longer check-in/safety check at the airport and in hotels, too. There are also random (friendly!) road checks and as a result you do feel very safe.
The food, incidentally, is delicious – think Mediterranean diet meets the spice route, so lots of lamb, chicken and fish with salads full of fragrant mint, parsley and coriander. Dips are eaten with flat bread: hummus, tahini and the aubergine-based baba ganoush being favourites. This last one is sometimes known as “the sultan faints with pleasure” and, having tried it, I don’t blame him. Much the same could be said of visiting Jordan really.