ARABIAN SIGHTS

Australian House & Garden
Jordan is a beguiling land steeped in biblical history. Visit and you’ll be rewarded with gracious hospitality and entrancing desert moonscapes, writes Vanessa Walker.

LEFT A back lane in Madaba, which is famous for its mosaics. right Looking through the Siq to the Treasury at Petra. Photography from Getty Images.

LEFT A back lane in Madaba, which is famous for its mosaics. right Looking through the Siq to the Treasury at Petra. Photography from Getty Images.

We are in the women’s quarter of a hand-stitched camel-hair Bedouin tent in Wadi Feynan, a valley about three hours’ drive south of Jordan’s capital, Amman. The sun has set on this unrelentingly rocky landscape, and the traditional sharing of gahwa (coffee), with all of its complex social customs (hint: shake your cup once you’re finished, otherwise the server will keep refilling it), has taken place over two hours in the men’s area. Now, hijab-covered women and our small group of westerners gather together with precious minutes to delve into each other’s lives.

We’re figuring out who is related to whom, and it takes a while to understand that three of the women are the wives of the head of the family. They talk to us about their lives and daily routines, which mainly consist of household chores. When we ask them what they want most in the world, they reply, “Electricity”.

The next day, I rise at 5am in the austere yet beautiful surrounds of Feynan Ecolodge, a five-minute walk from the Bedouin tent and a place where, ironically, electricity is often spurned so that guests can embrace a spartan way of life. I meet Abu Khaleel, the patriarch’s son, and we walk high into the hills while he points out the plants his family uses in their daily life. Across the valley we see a shepherd rallying his goats uphill. Khaleel points out some blue-green stones at our feet, remnants of copper mines where ancient Romans forced enslaved Christians to toil.

Khaleel is a curious mix of traditional and modern. He gets around by donkey, helps his family make money by trading camels and is the recipient of generations worth of medicinal plant knowledge, yet he’s also an avid Facebook fan. Where once the family moved their tent to find fresh land for grazing, he says, now they move to get better mobile reception. And he, too, wants electricity; it will make it so much easier to charge his phone.

To an extent, Khaleel reflects what is special about this desert country: he embraces its traditions, yet they sit lightly on his shoulders. He desires modernity only to the extent that it’s useful. This is a country that has universal education and religious freedom.

The country’s history is enthralling. Amman, with its sprawling dwellings that cling to its seven hills, has evidence of human occupation going back 7000 years in the form of the Citadel. From here it’s possible to look down upon a Roman theatre that’s occasionally still in use. Driving through the country, we see people sitting on the edge of escarpments, sometimes performing their daily prayers or staring out over endless, craggy, sandy valleys.

Every time we stop for lunch we are served the same food in roughly the same order; mint tea, falafel, pita bread, ful medames (stewed beans), fatteh (a layered casserole), hummous and baba ganoush, vine leaves, lamb and chicken. Yet I never tire of it. Instead, I become attuned to the subtle variations between each.

My travels out of Amman take me past olive and apricot groves and roadside fruit vendors to Madaba, a town famous for its 5th century mosaics. On the way I climb Mount Nebo, where according to the Old Testament, Moses and his followers saw the Promised Land. We travel south along the Desert Highway to Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage site and Jordan’s pre-eminent tourist attraction. Here, the ancient Nabataean people carved a city, including temples, obelisks, tombs and homes, into sandstone hills spread over 4km. Masters of water conservation and irrigation, they obviously had a sense of drama as well. To enter this paradise, as frankincense, myrrh, sugar and ivory traders did for centuries, they would have ridden down the Siq, a narrow, 1.2km-long gorge, to emerge at the ornate facade of the Treasury.

Still further south, Wadi Rum is another spectacular stop. It was here that Prince Faisal Bin Hussein andT. E. Lawrence based themselves during the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule in World War I. We ride jeeps roughshod over the desert sand beneath rockscapes that rise up to heights of 1750m, then switch to camels, riding in the heat until we find a modern oasis in the form of an eco hotel.

My last stop is the Dead Sea. On the way there, we see carloads of Jordanians pull over and head into fissures between cliffs to swim in waterholes only they know about. I arrive at one of the sprawling resorts facing the Sea and head to the water. The buoyant, briny water allows you to stand upright without touching the bottom, although for health reasons you can only stay in the water for 10 minutes. And from here, on a clear day, you can look over the sea to the mottled hills of Israel. 


When in Jordan...

AMMAN Head to Alf Layla Wa Layla turkish bath in Al Madina Al Munawarah St, where you’ll be pummelled, exfoliated and massaged, to emerge a more vibrant person. 

FEYNAN ECOLODGE Starkly beautiful, this 26-room environmentally friendly mud-brick lodge is accessed through Wadi Feynan, in the Dana Biosphere nature reserve; www.feynan.com. 

PETRA Attend a Petra By Night event, when the Treasury building is lit by candles and Bedouin musicians play; www.visitjordan.com. We stayed at the Marriott Petra; www.marriott.com. 

DEAD SEA Kempinski Hotel Istar is a stylish and plush place to stay; www.kempinski.com.