AMMAN, JORDAN: The tires squealed as the driver peeled away from the checkpoint
leading to Amman. What would the capital of Jordan be like I wondered? The driver
shrugged. Whenever I looked out the window, all I could see were families climbing the
hilly roads. The men wore the traditional red and white Jordanian headdresses, while the
women had their heads and faces covered. From a distance they resembled the Sand People
from Star Wars.
gently covered the windshield making the miles of desert terrain pass without incident.
How much longer to Amman? The driver didnt answer. In a way, it didnt matter.
How could I miss the nations capital since 1.5 million people live there? (Jordan is
home to 4.5 million population)
Yet the longer we drove, the more I realized there were no familiar mileage
signs, colorful billboards, or high-rise condominiums that usually usher in a major city
most places in the world. Instead, there were bunches of sun-colored bananas for sale
neatly stacked in geometric shapes alongside the road. Every now and then donkeys, goats
and sheep appeared. One or two pranced ahead of the others, but that seemed to be the
extent of life.
(Photo: Be seeing ewe in Jordan!)
The scenario quickly changed when we pulled up to the five-star Regency
Palace Hotel on Queen Alia Street in Amman. The entrance echoed a European flavor
with marble, antiques, and fine tapestries, while the lobby held a classic charm. Three
royal portraits draped a wall: King Hussein, the reigning monarch, his wife, Queen
and his brother, the Crown Prince Hassan. You could almost hear them say: Ahlan
Wa Sahlan -- Welcome to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
(Photo: Rainy view of Amman from the Regency Palace Hotel)
Although I didnt get to have tea with any dignitaries, I
did get a kingly welcome from Fathi Sabatin, a well-versed Jordanian guide who organized a
memorable itinerary starting with the famous M. Haddad and Sons.
If the name doesnt sound familiar, in Jordan its synonymous with the licensing
of American, British and French companies such as Mennon, Colgate-Palmolive, and
LOreal. Jonathan Haddad, the 24-year-old companys scion, seemed refreshingly
unpretentious even though his office was draped with photos of his family taken with His
(Photo: Jonathan Haddad watched over by King Hussein of Jordan)
Our regal-like tour continued through Amman, a city spread over 19
hills and topped by the ancient Citadel. Bathed in whites and ochres, Amman has a clean,
uniformed tone. This probably began when the city was called Rabbat-Ammon, and then
continued in the Graeco-Roman era as Philadelphia. You wont get far making any
Fields jokes about Philadelphia, for the Jordanians tend to be low key if not downright
staid. You see it in their pallid attire and in their barren desert, but when it comes to
touting their country and ruler, their disposition gets emotionally colorful.
Sabatin suggested a day trip along the
5,000-year-old Kings Highway to Jerash, one of the best preserved Roman provincial
towns in the world. We also took in the Biblical sites of Madaba
- The City of Mosaics - and Mount Nebo, the presumed burial
place of Moses. These quick jaunts brought comforting news. In Jordan, there is no
need to grip your moneybelt. People will not accost you, which is especially reassuring to
(Photo: Mount Nebo monument)
On a hotel and
dining level there are enough luxury establishments to satisfy even the pickiest
vacationer. That includes the local cuisine. Dont leave without tasting the
mezzeh or appetizers, aromatic breads, desserts soaked in honey, and
Jordans traditional dish of lamb, yogurt and rice.
(Photo: A meal fit for the Royal family!)
But theres one reason above others to go to The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan:
History. A well-traveled bridge between sea and desert, East and West, Jordans
layers of antiquity offer a contrast from the fertile Jordan Valley to the remote desert
And yet... nothing stirs the soul quite like the red-rose Nabatanean city of
With its spectacular setting deep inside a narrow desert gorge, Petra
hasnt changed much over the past 2,000 years, when the southern city was a temporary
refuge for nomadic Nabataean Arabs. During that time, it served as a main trade route
between Europe, Africa and India and became widely admired for its refined culture,
massive architecture, and ingenious complex of dams and water channels. However, by the
16th century, Petra was completely lost to the West. It took until 1812 when a Swiss
traveler named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt created his own overture and
resurrected the site.
Today Petra exudes such a glow that
even other Middle Easterners long to visit. Stroll down the Siq - the fissure
between overhanging cliffs - and then marvel at the El Khazneh or The Treasury.
(Photo: Even Indiana Jones visited The Treasury when he was in town)
If youre walking, be prepared to be passed by zealous drivers on
horse-drawn carts. Theres something very Charlton Heston about it, and maybe
thats why any minute you expect to have chariots leave you in the dust.
(Photo: Horse-drawn carts. Not Ben-Hur, but it will still get you there)
While not exactly left in the dust, I was not prepared for the flash flood that caused
momentary fear. As we huddled inside The Treasury, even the merchants had fled leaving
their wares in metal crates. I peeked in and found decorative bottles with desert motifs
in teal, brown, white, and rusty-colored sand.
Go ahead and take one, my guide urged. Just leave what you
like. I reached for five dollars and he waved me off. One dollar is all
right, he said. I rolled up the money and deposited it inside a crevice, and hoped
the right tradesman would profit.
As we looked up, the water came down in such torrents that even the horses
seemed to step backwards. Guides called for help on walkie talkies to prepare for an
emergency evacuation. Thats when we saw someone calmly navigating his 4-wheel
vehicle in our direction. It was my driver. This time he was smiling.