The sun sets over the Dead Sea, casting a salty glow on the distant hills of Israel that loom over the expanse of water that’s heavy on sodium but light on life. Mud-covered bodies float into the diffused yellow light and cameras snap to capture silhouetted figures, toes poking out and arms outstretched.
It’s usually the other way round — tourists enjoying the more developed beaches and spas on the Israeli side of the water — but in recent years, Jordan has started to develop its own shores to attract visitors. The surrounding land is peppered with billboards from property giants like Emaar staking their claim in the area. Pithy taglines like “turn sand into gold” sum up the determination the Jordanians have to make their country a top destination — and not just for Petra, the ancient city in the south of the country that has been voted a new wonder of the world.
On the Jordanian shores, you’ll already find the Jordan Valley Marriott Resort and Spa, Kempinski Hotel Ishtar, and the Movenpick Resort and Spa. This five-star oasis feels a little like a film set; the sprawling room complexes, hewn from local rock, are set under backlit arches and in landscaped gardens that belie the surrounding desert’s barrenness. Infinity pools segue into the distant Dead Sea, and the feeling of space is profound. The beach at the Dead Sea has been carved out of the sandy mountains and you’ll find urns of the mineral-rich mud ready for you to smear on to your skin.
If you don’t fancy the DIY approach, then Movenpick’s spa offers a range of treatments, from mud wraps — it’s purified, so it doesn’t sting or smell as bad — to salt scrubs. Bruno Huber, the Swiss general manager, is filled with enthusiasm. He has a healthy glow he attributes to living in a part of the world that sits below sea level, meaning the sun’s harmful rays are filtered out (you won’t get a sunburn, apparently) and there’s 6% more oxygen in the air. What’s more, Huber is not grappling with busloads of tourists descending on the resort.
“Jordan is more of a boutique destination,” he says. “We’re happy to keep it this way — it’s a special country.”
It’s a deeply historic one too. A half-hour’s drive from the spa, past Bedouin tents and herds of goats picking their way over the barren landscape and newly tarred road, is Mount Nebo. This is where Moses was allegedly given a view of the Promised Land and was later buried. Even without any religious allegiance, the sense of atmosphere is unmistakable. You gaze out over that valley of the shadow of death to the Jordan River Valley, Jerusalem and Jericho, and feel the man’s frustration that he still had so far to go.
Nearby Madaba is also worth a visit. The town is dubbed “the city of mosaics” and it’s here the first-ever map of the Middle East was found in the form of a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic discovered when a Greek Orthodox church was being constructed.
Pop in for some lunch at the Dana Restaurant to enjoy a typical Bedouin dish of lamb and shraak (crÃªpe-thin bread), along with some creamy hummus, piquant tabbouleh and mild-mannered baba ghanoush.
The Bedouin are a nomadic race and if you’re interested in these people who pitch their large tents on the wind-whipped landscape, goats braying near the ubiquitous Toyota trucks that provide transportation and water to their peripatetic owners, then you should head south to Petra. It’s about a three-hour drive from the Dead Sea and hasn’t been deemed a new wonder of the world for nothing.
The only way to enter the ancient city is through the narrow gorge called the Siq. All of a sudden the rose-coloured Treasury looms into view, carved out of the side of a sandstone mountain. The Nabateans settled here more than 2Â 000 years ago, fashioning impressive facades out of the hills and turning their capital into a crucial junction for the silk and spice trade routes of the ancient world. It’s another living and breathing film set, and little wonder Stephen Spielberg used it for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The Bedouin here traditionally lived in caves but were moved out about 30 years ago to Umm Sayhun, a village on the outskirts of the ancient city. This move was protect Petra — now a Unesco world heritage site — and to provide the Bedouin with modern amenities.
Leading his donkey over worn sandstone steps and around tourists hiking up to the Monastery — another breathtaking Nabatean feat of design and majesty — Eid says he feels “50-50” about having to leave Petra all those years ago. “We have electricity and water now, but we still like to sleep in the caves,” he explains.
From the Bedouins we meet while sitting in a cave overlooking the Monastery, it’s evident that they feel this is their home — not the breezeblock apartments that have the internet but no history. Eagle adjusts his headscarf and says he slept in the Monastery the previous night, on the cold rock floor that smells faintly of urine and burned coal. There’s pride in his kohl-smeared eyes as he surveys his behemoth. It’s only the Bedouin who lived in Petra that can work in the city, taking tourists up the mountains on their donkeys, through the Siq on horseback and selling trinkets, which Eagle says is some consolation.
This peaceful nature seems to permeate most Jordanians, and the country’s politically neutral stance and emphasis on education is perhaps the catalyst. It was in 1921 that Jordan was established as a state, and there was more than 91% illiteracy and only three schools. Now, illiteracy stands at less than 2% and there are 24 universities, not to mention a good standard of schools.
Since 2000, there have been military checkpoints on the road, establishing a presence to deter extremist behaviour. And despite Jordan bordering volatile countries and being the destination for thousands of displaced Iraqis and Palestinians, the atmosphere seems calm.
In Amman, the capital, different cultures collide and it’s the division between rich and poor that is more noticeable than anything else. Beneath the Roman Citadel sit shacks built into the side of the edifice, blending into the sprawling sandy mass of block-like houses that cover the seven hills on which the city is built. Head west to the Abdoun suburb and you’re in another universe that’s a bit like Johannesburg’s Morningside; walled properties all built in their own style and most with an armed security guard at the gate.
There’s a drive-through Starbucks too, testament to the country’s Western inclinations. Not all women are veiled and some are dressed in jeans — the shops in the main souk at King Talal street sell a mixture of revealing dresses, flashy jewellery and traditional garb. It’s a meeting of worlds that is ripe for exploration.
For information on Jordan, things to see and do and a full list of tour operators, contact the Jordan Tourism Board at www.visitjordan.com