Jordan has been the site of intense archaeological scrutiny for decades, but you don’t have to be Indiana Jones to take an interest – anyone can gain pleasure in rummaging around Jordan's many ancient sites. If just looking isn't enough, however, and you can't resist the temptation to get physical with the past, then here are a few ideas on how to join an amateur dig, with some of the key archaeological sites to focus on.
Digging Up the Past
Take any path off the beaten track in central Jordan and you will be sure to stumble on something ancient – a fallen column with poppies dancing on the capital, coloured tesserae from a broken mosaic, a coin of indiscriminate currency. Look more carefully, and you’ll probably see the remains of a fence enclosing a patch of land fast returning to wilderness – evidence, if any were needed, that human habitation extends back to the very earliest periods of human history.
Two Centuries of Archaeology in Jordan
In many respects, the modern study of Western archaeology was founded in what we now call Jordan, arising out of a fascination with tracing the traditions of the Bible to the unearthed ruins of the Holy Land – on both sides of the Jordan River – and setting them in a historical context.
For decades, this was an occupation that attracted largely foreign interest as the people of the region were more focused on the demands of the present than on digging up remnants of the past.
Today this is no longer the case, as Jordanians have the time and the means to take a greater interest in their heritage, and education helps new generations to come to a better appreciation of the country’s position within the cradle of civilisation. Each year more funding is put aside for archaeological exploration, with the result that some of the greatest finds, involving teams from universities in Jordan and abroad, have been made within the last 30 years, culminating in 2008 with the world’s oldest church – a befitting discovery for a discipline that arose largely out of Christian curiosity.
Volunteering on a Dig
Archaeological fieldwork is a painstaking process but the rewards are great, particularly if you uncover something special like a coral bead worn by an ancient, a piece of copper cast 6000 years ago or a shard of pottery with the design intact. It’s not so much the finding of an object as the sense of connection with a bygone age that makes archaeology so compelling.
In Jordan, there are numerous sites across the country, from ancient Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) sites to more contemporary excavations in and around the Crusader castles. Archaeologists, not known for consensus on many things, have at least agreed that there remains huge potential for major finds despite the intensive work in the field for the past three decades.
If you fancy being part of an archaeological team and you have the patience and discipline to spend long hours in a dusty hole tickling dirt off a lump of masonry, it’s not too difficult to become a volunteer on one of these digs. Here are some guidelines:
- There are usually only a limited number of volunteer positions available on each site, so find out who is conducting which digs and apply early.
- Make contact with the project leader and be sure to emphasise any special skills (like photography or drafting) you may have.
- Mention any travels in the region or Arabic-speaking skills.
- Emphasise your experience on group projects (archaeology is all about teamwork, despite the way it’s presented in films).
- Ask how much your volunteer placement will cost. This fee helps cover the costs of adding your name to the team.
- Allow plenty of time. To gain access to sites, project leaders must obtain permits and security clearance, which can take up to six months to complete.
- Don’t be put off if you don’t succeed with your first application; it takes persistence to find a placement – a quality you’ll need when you’re on your first field trip!
Fieldwork Opportunities in Jordan
American Center for Oriental Research (www.acorjordan.org) Prepares an extensive annual listing of fieldwork opportunities in Jordan and the Middle East.
American Schools of Oriental Research (www.asor.org) This organisation supports the study of the culture and history of the Near East.
Archaeological Institute of America (www.archaeological.org) The largest and oldest archaeology organisation in the USA is a valuable resource for information.
Biblical Archaeological Society (www.biblicalarchaeology.org) Produces the magazine Biblical Archaeological Review, runs archaeological tours and lists volunteer openings.
Council for British Research in the Levant (www.cbrl.org.uk) British Academy–sponsored institute with research centres in Amman and Jerusalem.
University of Jordan (www.ju.edu.jo) The archaeology department at this Amman-based university is a good contact point.
University of Sydney (www.sydney.edu.au/arts/archaeology) This prestigious Australian university runs a highly reputable field project at Pella.
Swiss explorer Jean Louis Burckhardt, aged 27, ‘rediscovers’ Petra for the West, stimulating a fascination with ancient history in the region that endures for the next two centuries.
The precious Mesha Stele, one of the earliest examples of Hebrew script, is discovered by a missionary at Dhiban – and promptly shattered by bickering neighbours.
Jordan and the Levant are explored by British, American, French and German surveyors, including a young archaeology student from Oxford by the name of TE Lawrence (of Arabia).
Following the British mandate of Jordan, modest excavation projects aimed at consolidating the main standing monuments begin throughout Jordan.
Remarkable mosaics, regarded today as some of the finest in the Levant, are unearthed in Madaba.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are discovered by a Bedouin shepherd in Qumran at a time when parts of the western shore of the Dead Sea belong to Jordan.
The Arab–Israeli wars and the aftermath of WWII lead to a rare lean period in archaeological study in Jordan.
Excavations near Amman unearth the oldest statues in the world, the 8500-year-old, life-size Ain Ghazal figures, now in the Jordan Museum.
Projects around Jordan unearth the remains of the Temple of Hercules at the Citadel in Amman, a Greek manuscript library at Petra and ancient temple complexes in the Jordan Valley.
Early mining sites west of Karak and the reputed baptism site of Jesus Christ at Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan are just two of many discoveries marking the end of the century.
The world’s oldest church, which is believed to have once sheltered 70 disciples of Jesus Christ, is uncovered under St Georgeous Church in Rihab, near Amman.
An enormous Nabataean platform measuring 56x49m and thought to be of ceremonial purpose is identified by satellite under the Petra sands.
Feature: Archaeology Museums in Jordan
If you want to see the finds from some of the key archaeological digs in Jordan, head for the following museums.
Jordan Museum Amman – Ain Ghazal fertility sculptures and examples of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Salt Archaeological Museum Salt – good coverage of domestic history.
Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology Irbid – includes numismatic displays.
Petra Visitor Centre Wadi Musa – some of the finds from Petra are temporarily housed in this excellent exhibition awaiting completion of a new Petra museum in 2018.
Sidebar: Digs on the Web
- Madaba Plains Project (www.madabaplains.org/hisban) Excavation at Tell Hesban.
- Popular Archaeology (www.popular-archaeology.com) Excavation around the world, including Jordan.
Biblical Sites of Jordan
Whatever one's beliefs, visiting sites of biblical significance can still be a moving experience – for many people this is ‘hallowed, holy ground’. From Abraham and Moses to John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, the founding fathers of the three great monotheistic traditions are intimately tied to the Jordanian landscape. Little wonder then that Jordan has been a destination of religious pilgrimage for centuries. The following are some of the most significant sites associated with the Good Book.
Locating Bible References
For hundreds of years pilgrims, historians and the culturally curious have been travelling to Jordan in search of the sites of biblical importance. The eastern banks of the Jordan River alone are home to no fewer than 100 such sites. The most famous are listed here, together with the biblical reference.
'Ain Musa or Ayoun Musa
Biblical reference Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. (Numbers 20:11)
Biblical reference …while the water flowing down to the Sea of Arabah was completely cut off… (Joshua 3:16)
Historical record The Sea of Arabah (Dead Sea), also known as the Salt Sea, is mentioned several times in the Bible.
Biblical reference Remove Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar, for Aaron will be gathered to his people: he will die there. Moses did as the Lord commanded: they went up to Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. (Numbers 10:26–27)
Historical record Mt Hor is believed to be Jebel Haroun in the Ancient City at Petra. It is also revered by Muslims as a holy place.
Jebel Umm Al Biyara
Biblical reference He [the Judean King, Amaziah] was the one who defeated ten thousand Edomites in the Valley of the Salt and captured Sela in battle… (2 Kings 14:7)
Historical record The village on top of Umm Al Biyara mountain in Petra is believed to be the ancient settlement of Sela.
Biblical reference Now Lot went up out of Zo’ar, and dwelt in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zo’ar; so he dwelt in a cave with his two daughters. (Genesis 19:30)
Historical record The cave where Lot and his daughters lived for years after Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt is thought to be just off the Dead Sea Highway, not far from Safi.
Biblical reference The King was sad, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he gave orders that her request be granted, and had John beheaded in the prison. (Matthew 14:9–12)
Historical record John the Baptist had claimed that Herod Antipas’ marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias, was unlawful. So, at the request of Salome, Herodias’ daughter, John was supposedly killed at what's now called Castle of Herod the Great.
Biblical reference Go up into…Mount Nebo in Moab, across from Jericho, and view Canaan, the land I am giving the Israelites as their own possession. There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die. (Deuteronomy 32:49-50)
Historical record Mt Nebo is revered as a holy place because it is where Moses is reported to have died, although his tomb has never been found.
Tell Al Kharrar
Biblical reference Then Jesus came from the Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. (Matthew 3:13)
Historical record Tell Al Kharrar is regarded as Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan where Jesus was reputedly baptised by John the Baptist.
Biblical reference When he [Jesus] arrived at the other side in the region of Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. (Matthew 8:28–34)
Historical record Umm Qais is known as Gadara in the Bible, as well as in other ancient scriptures.
Sidebar: Bible Places
For an illustrated and comprehensive listing of locations, Bible Places (www.bibleplaces.com) offers links to a pictorial library covering many biblical sites in Jordan.
Sidebar: Biblical Digs on the Web
- American Schools of Oriental Research (www.asor.org) Covers the sites of the Hebrew scriptures.
- Franciscan Archaeological lnstitute (www.christusrex.org/www1/ofm/fai/FAImain.html) Covers biblical digs in Jordan.
People & Society
Many visitors enter Jordan with the sole priority of ticking off the antiquities. Some go in search of past heroes; others are led to Jordan in the spirit of pilgrimage and acquaintance with the 'soul posts' of their faith. Whatever their motivations to root out the past, however, invariably people return home impressed by the Jordan of today, of the way it has opened its doors to those in need and embraced a modern outlook towards the world at large.
Jordan’s Bedouin Roots
Tradition of Hospitality
Ahlan wa sahlan! It’s one of the most common greetings in Arabic and one that defines the way Jordanians relate to the people around them, especially guests. The root words mean ‘people’ or ‘family’ (ahl) and ‘ease’ (sahl), so translated loosely the expression means ‘be as one of the family and at your ease’. It’s a gracious thought, and one that ends up in English simply as ‘welcome’ or (more commonly to tourists) ‘welcome to Jordan’.
Bedouin traditions of hospitality and kindness are deeply ingrained in the Jordanian psyche. Rooted in the harsh realities of life in the desert, these traditions have been virtually codified into all social behaviour. Century-old notions of hospitality combine with a wonderful sense of humour to make Jordanians easy to connect with.
Love of the Desert
More than 98% of Jordanians are Arab, descended from various tribes that migrated to the area from all directions of the Middle East over the centuries. Most tribes trace their lineage to the Bedouin, the original desert dwellers of Arabia, perceived by many as the representatives and guardians of the very essence of what it means to be Arab. Bedouins form the majority of the indigenous population, although today no more than 40,000 Bedouin can be considered truly nomadic. Living a traditional life of livestock rearing, the nomadic Bedouin who travel from oasis to oasis in quest of water are concentrated mainly in the Badia – the great desert plains of eastern Jordan.
Despite the settlement of some Bedouin (recent examples include the Bdoul, who once roamed the hillsides of Petra but who now live for the most part in the modern settlement of Umm Sayoun), many Jordanians retain a deep sentimental attachment to the desert. This isn’t always obvious given the littering and general despoliation of public access areas, such as at Wadi Rum, but it is evident in the way Jordanians claim kinship with the principal tenets of desert-dwelling – hospitality, loyalty, dignity, pride and courtesy.
Modern Caretakers of the Desert
Whether Zawaedha, Zalabia or Bdoul, whether from Wadi Rum, Wadi Musa or the great Badia beyond, the Bedouin are universally proud of ‘their Jordan’ and welcome guests who visit them in their ancient tribal lands. It’s not surprising, then, that many of the country’s Bedouin now make a living from tourism, and many feel it is their modern mission to reveal the wonders of their country to new generations of visitors. In some senses, the Bedouin have been doing the same, albeit for slightly different purposes, for centuries, offering bread and salt to those in need on the understanding that the same courtesy will be offered to them in return. The currency today is usually money, but the principle of easing the passage of strangers through traditional tribal territories remains unchanged. Unchanged, too, is the principle of ‘word of mouth’ in advertising friendly encampments, though today the internet has replaced the camel caravan as the modus operandi.
Not everything about the modern experience of the Bedouin has stayed the same, however. It is easy to romanticise the traditional approach – managing goats and sheep and looking for water – as simple and free, but the reality of life in the desert is uncompromisingly hard, entailing goat-hair beds and scorpions, insufferable heat and freezing nights, not enough to eat and being forever thirsty. Add to that the modern complexities of life (compulsory education, impinging urbanisation, and the tough and fickle demands of working with tourists) and it’s easy to see that there’s nothing simple or free in a modern Bedouin life.
It’s little surprise then that while many regret the passing of the golden age of nomadic life, the majority of Jordan’s indigenous population look towards settlement and the convenience that it brings. Today, therefore, as a visitor to Jordan, you are just as likely to run into the Bedouin on a mobile phone at the bus station or in public-assisted housing at the edge of Petra. They are wistful for the stories of their grandparents, but they are not nostalgic about the hardships. TV, internet and 4WD transport have changed their lives forever, but as they are not regretful of this, then neither should a visitor be!
There are many ways in which Jordan’s Bedouin roots have influenced the national psyche. For the visitor, perhaps the most easily identifiable aspects of this inheritance is the value placed on good manners. Etiquette in Jordan has been refined over centuries of tribal interaction and is an important expression of national identity. Social mores cover all aspects of life from the length and depth of an introductory ‘hello’ to how many cups of coffee to be offered and accepted, and who offers what to whom – and in what order – at supper.
For a visitor, learning the subtleties of ‘custom and manner’ is challenging, but making the effort to fit in is invariably appreciated, particularly if visiting Jordanians at home.
Respect for the Royals
Another noticeable trait of the Bedouin inheritance is an ingrained tribal respect for local elders, or sheikhs. This character trait is extended to the ultimate leaders of the country. Claiming unbroken descent from Prophet Muhammad, Jordan’s Hashemite royal family is a nationally beloved and regionally respected institution. All monarchies have their critics from time to time, not least for seeming arcane in their function, but Jordan’s modern royal family has helped to redefine the royal image through benign and diplomatic governance (especially with regard to Middle East peace issues), as well as through a history of charitable works. It was evident that after the Arab Spring of 2011, despite protests against the government, there was limited enthusiasm for a republic. Jordanians look to their royalty for leadership and an example of how to live a modern life in the context of their largely Islamic and Arab heritage.
In a region where men are more commonly the public face of royal initiatives, Jordan has been unusual for the high profile of its royal women. Visit many of the small women’s cooperatives like Bani Hamida in Mukawir, and you are likely to find some mention of either Queen Noor or Queen Rania in the patronage or even funding of the project.
Importance of Family
Family ties are all-important to both modern and traditional Jordanians, and paying respect to parents is where the sense of obeisance to elders is engendered. Socialising generally entails some kind of get-together with the extended family, with lines drawn loosely between the genders. This is reflected in terms of physical divisions within the house, where separate seating areas are reserved for men and women.
Meals are traditionally eaten on the floor, with everyone gathered around several trays of food shared by all. Old-school families are often quite hierarchical at meal times. The grandparents and male head of the house may eat in one circle, the latter’s wife and the older children and other women in the family in another, and the small children in yet another. New-school families are too busy with gadgetry to be rigid about protocol.
The internet has brought about profound change and, in common with people the world over, youngsters in particular are obsessed with their phones. This hasn't dented the appetite for a family picnic or stroll around the streets, but it is signalling an individualisation within society that wasn't apparent in Jordan a decade ago. Elders look on in some dismay as the pastimes they inherited from previous generations – drinking tea, playing cards, smoking a nargileh (water pipe), watching European football on the TV, embroidering a marriage costume or preparing an elaborate family meal – begin to seem less and less relevant to the globally defined youth.
Marriage is one area of Jordanian life that doesn't seem to have been much impacted by the pressures of modernity. Reflecting the sense of family allegiance, marriages are still mostly arranged for the benefit of the families involved, with matches commonly made between cousins. It is fair to say, however, that parents do not often enforce a wedding against their daughter’s wish. In 2001 the legal age of marriage was lifted from 15 years old for women and 16 for men to 18 for both, although Islamic judges are still permitted to sanction underage marriages.
The marriage ceremony takes place either at the mosque, church or home of the bride or groom. After the marriage ceremony, the men of the family drive around the streets in a long convoy, sounding their horns, blasting out music and partying until sunrise.
Polygamy (by men) is rare, but it is legal. Men who marry more than once (Islam allows four wives if each wife is assured equal treatment) are obliged to inform both their first and their new wives. Amendments to the law in 2002 made it possible for women to file for divorce if they repay the dowry given by their husband. That said, the social stigma regarding divorce remains strong.
The Concept of Honour
In Jordan, a woman’s ‘honour’ is still valued in traditional society, and sex before marriage or adultery is often dealt with harshly by other members of the woman’s family. In rare cases it can lead to fatalities, with women in the family often complicit in the murder.
Jordan’s legal code exempts a husband or close male relative for killing a wife caught in an act of adultery and offers leniency for murders committed in a ‘fit of rage’. Most perpetrators are given short prison sentences, sending the message that the state in part condones these actions.
Internationally renowned journalist Rana Husseini is one among several high-profile Jordanians who are committed not just to bringing so-called ‘honour killings’ to the Jordanian public’s attention but also to spreading intolerance towards the practice. Even King Abdullah has tried to impose tougher sanctions against honour killings, but little progress has thus far been made. Effecting radical change of deep-rooted cultural values is not something that can be accomplished overnight and only a change of attitude, rather than a change of law, is likely to be effective in driving the practice out.
A New Role for Women
Traditional concepts of honour (ird) run deep but sit uneasily with the freedoms many affluent Jordanian women have come to expect, largely thanks to universal access to one of the region’s best education systems. Women are entitled to vote (Jordanian women got the vote in 1967 but didn’t have a chance to use it for the first time until 1989) and a minimum of six women MPs is guaranteed by royal decree.
In 1991 only 14% of the labour force was made up of women; according to UN data, this figure rose to around one quarter in 2014, mainly in health and education but alarmingly slipped back to 14% in 2017 (reflecting a similar trend across the globe). In 2016 Jordan ranked a dispiriting 142nd out of 144 countries in terms of women in the workforce, and today only half of all women graduating from college gain employment. While some pioneering women have cut new ground in male-dominated industries, sports and cultural spheres, there remain few women in some key areas, such as media or the law profession (in 2015, for example, only 18% of judges were women). The low female employment data has triggered a debate as to why women feature so insignificantly in the workforce, but it appears that this discussion has resulted in few tangible solutions to date.
At the beginning of the 21st century, women from more traditional communities in Jordan began to gain some financial independence and have a greater say in society. This was partially through the success of a number of Jordanian organisations that encouraged small-scale craft production and local tourism projects, many of which were sponsored by royalty. Sadly, many of these worthy initiatives have discontinued or proved too expensive to run. Some of the women who embraced their new entrepreneurial role blame regional political instability for the reversal of their fortunes and look forward to a revival in the kind of alternative tourism that flourished before the Arab Spring.
Over the past decade, there has been an increasing polarisation in Jordanian society between town and country. In Amman, modern Western-leaning middle- and upper-class youths enjoy the fruits of a good education, shop in malls, drink lattes in mixed-sex Starbucks and obsess over the latest fashions or dreams of democracy. In rural areas, meanwhile, unemployment is high and many populations struggle with making ends meet.
For this reason, economic migration is common in Jordan and many working-class families have at least one male who is temporarily working away from home, whether in Amman, the Gulf States or further abroad. The remittances sent home by these absent workers are increasingly important to family budgets, with each economically active person supporting, on average, four other people. The absence of a senior male role model, however, is changing the pattern of Jordanian family lives, and tensions inevitably rise between the expectations of those who are nostalgic for the traditions of home and those of the families left behind who are forced to steer their own course into a rapidly modernising environment.
Feature: A Dishonourable Hoax
In 2004 a book entitled Forbidden Love, written by Norma Khouri, arrived on the bookshelves. Within weeks the author (to the delight of her publisher, Random House) found she had a bestseller on her hands. Better and bigger than that, she had overnight become the convenient voice the West wanted to hear: an Arab woman speaking out against the supposed ‘tyranny of Islam’. Soon she was fêted on chat shows and courted by newspaper journalists, and her tale assumed the quality of moral crusade taken up with indignation by worthy people around the world.
Her story was a harrowing one that described the death in Jordan of her childhood friend, the legendary Dalia: a killing carried out by the girl’s Islamic knife-wielding father for a harmless flirtation with a Christian soldier. This event, together with the author’s description of it, apparently led to Khouri’s flight to the US from the benighted country of her birth and a fatwa being placed on her head. Comparisons with author Salman Rushdie begin to form…except that Rushdie never claimed his works of fiction were fact.
A 2008 documentary, Forbidden Lies, charts Khouri’s exposure as a con artist and her book as a pack of lies. The very existence of Dalia is called into question and with it a pall of uncertainty covers the issue of ‘honour killings’, which is the book’s central theme.
And this, of course, is the real tragedy behind one of the biggest literary hoaxes of the 21st century. Honour killings – where a woman is killed by members of the family to protect familial honour – do occur in Jordan, albeit in ever-reducing numbers. Sensationalist accounts that capitalise on the practice, however, undermine the work of various interest groups who try to work quietly and discreetly to change attitudes without compromising the sense of national pride.
The documentary Crimes of Honour by Shelley Saywell, filmed in Jordan and the West Bank, gives more information on this sensitive subject.
Feature: Social Graces
Standing wedged between the door and a table and with no room to back out politely, my Jordanian companion looked in horror as a foreign man proffered a large hairy hand in her direction and gushed a greeting. ‘Can you believe it,’ Maryam said, ‘and in Ramadan too!’ I asked why she didn’t simply refuse to shake hands: ‘I didn’t want to embarrass him,' she said. This common scenario highlights both the desirability of learning a few courtesies as a traveller and also of the Jordanian good-natured tolerance of social faux pas.
Here are a few social graces that will help break the ice without breaking a friendship. If all else fails, there’s not much harm that can’t be undone with a smile, a box of baklava and a compliment about the lovable children.
Handshaking This is an important part of the ritual of greeting in Jordan but usually only between members of the same sex. If you witness an accident, for example, the first few moments will probably be taken up with copious handshaking, greeting and asking after each man’s family…before a slanging match erupts about who is to blame.
Public Displays of Affection Don’t think that seeing two men kissing gives you the right to do the same. All signs of affection, except between members of the same sex (and of the strictly platonic kind), is frowned upon in public. Not that you’d guess these days from the relaxed attitudes of trendsetters in the city who openly walk arm in arm with a loved one.
Hands and Arms Blundering with these limbs includes using your left hand to give something, forgetting to touch your heart when refusing something and, on that matter, forgetting to refuse something you intend eventually to accept.
Feet These appendages are both a host’s and a guest’s worst nightmare. For anyone contemplating a visit to a home or a mosque, the advice for feet is to wash them, unsock them and tuck them under when sitting on the floor.
Feature: The Royal Women of Jordan
Two influential women have helped shaped the modern face of Jordan. Both have used their marriage into royalty to make positive social changes and have set up nationally respected charities.
Royal Connection Fourth wife of the former king, King Hussein (now deceased); married in 1978
Former Name Lisa Halaby; adopted the name Queen Noor upon conversion to Islam
Former Occupation Architect and urban planner
From Washington, DC; studied at Princeton
Background Born into a distinguished Arab-American family (her father served under the administration of John F Kennedy and was head of Pan-Am for a while)
Community Service Set up her own charity, the influential Noor Foundation
Public Relations Important role in explaining Jordan’s stand against the 1990 Gulf War to American audiences, and active campaigner for women’s rights, children’s welfare and community improvement
Further Information See Queen Noor’s website (www.nooralhusseinfoundation.org)
Royal Connection Wife of the present king, King Abdullah; married in 1993
Former Name Rania Al Yassin
Former Occupation Business administration
From Kuwait; studied at the American University of Cairo
Background Born into a notable Jordanian family of Palestinian origin
Community Service Set up her own charity, the influential Jordan River Foundation
Public Relations Not afraid of a public profile; can be seen in activities as diverse as campaigning for the rights of women and advocating MOOCs (online education courses) to running the Dead Sea Marathon
Further Information See Queen Rania’s website (www.queenrania.jo)
Feature: Palestinian Refugees
More than two million people in Jordan are registered Palestinian refugees, with around one half of Jordan’s population estimated to be of Palestinian descent. The majority comprise Palestinians who fled, mostly from the West Bank, during the wars of 1948 and 1967, and from Kuwait after the Gulf War in 1990–91. Their numbers increased since 2012 as a result of the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Many Palestinians have exercised the right to Jordanian citizenship, and they now play an integral part in the political, cultural and economic life of Jordan. Others, however, continue to dream of a return to an independent Palestine. Some commentators suggest that this is partly why so many have resisted integration and continue to live in difficult conditions in refugee camps that dot the landscape.
Around 370,000 Palestinian refugees are housed in 10 official camps administered by the UN Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA), which is responsible for health, education and relief programs. The largest camps are centred around the north of Jordan where the original tent shelters have long since been replaced with more permanent structures and often resemble suburbs more than refugee camps. This is in contrast to the Za'atari camp on the Syrian border and Azraq camp to the east of Amman, set up to manage the crisis inflow of displaced refugees from Syria.
The following agencies give reliable statistics on all refugees in Jordan:
Department of Palestinian Affairs (www.unrwa.org)
UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency, www.unhcr.org)
Sidebar: Refugee Influxes
- 1948 Palestinians (founding of Israel)
- 1967 Palestinians (Six Day War)
- 1991 Palestinians (Gulf War)
- 2003 Iraqis (Iraq War)
- Since 2011 Syrians (Syrian Civil War)
The checked keffiyah (headdress) is an important national symbol – red and white for Bedouin; black and white for Palestinians. It’s held in place by the black rope-like agal. There are no official dress restrictions for women and few wear a veil. Almost none wear full-body chador.
The Bedouin are known for their sense of humour, which they list – alongside courage, alertness and religious faith – as one of the four secrets of life, encouraging tolerance and humility.
Sidebar: Crossing Cultures
- Into the Wadi (Michele Drouart; 2000)
- Married to a Bedouin (Marguerite van Geldermalsen; 2006)
Jordan has a regionally renowned education system; literacy levels are around 98% for Jordanian males and some report female literacy as 99%, the highest in the region. About 98% of children attend primary school, and school is compulsory from ages five to 14. More women than men attend university.
Sidebar: Jordan’s Female Firsts
- 1979 Government Minister
- 1995 Mayor (in Ajloun)
- 1996 Judge
- 1997 Taxi driver
- 2010 Attorney general
- 2011 Ambassador to Washington
- 2013 Carpenter
- 2017 Everest climbing team
Sidebar: Women Writers on Jordan
- Nine Parts of Desire (Geraldine Brooks; 1995)
- West of the Jordan (Laila Halaby; 2003)
On average (according to government statistics) 15 to 20 women are murdered each year for having sex out of wedlock, refusing an arranged marriage, leaving their husbands or simply being the victim of rape or sexual assault. Laws connected with rape, marriage and honour killing are at last being revised.
Sidebar: Living Arrangements
While many aspects of Bedouin life have modernised, living arrangements under the beit ash shaar (goat-hair Bedouin tent) remain firmly divided between the private women's harem and the more public men's quarters.
Islam isn't the only religion in Jordan – around 2% of the population is Christian (mostly Greek Orthodox). The mixed inheritance, together with a long tradition of hosting visitors, has led Jordanians to be tolerant towards those of other beliefs and customs. Islam is, however, the predominant religion. For a visitor, understanding the country’s Muslim roots will help make sense of certain customs and manners. In turn, it provides a guide to appropriate conduct and minimises the chance of giving offence.
Faith & Society in Jordan
It’s probably fair to say that there is not the same overt dedication to faith as one sees in neighbouring countries, such as Saudi Arabia. However, this doesn’t mean that Islam is any less central to Jordanian life. Islam governs what people wear, how they plan their lives, how they settle their disputes and how they spend their money. It gives a purpose for being and gives shape to the future. In other words, faith and culture seamlessly combine in Jordan, giving people a shared ethic upon which society is founded.
People of the Book
Founded seven centuries after the birth of Christ, Islam shares a common heritage with the two other great monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Christianity. For Muslims, Islam is the apogee of the monotheistic faiths but they traditionally attribute a place of great respect to Christians and Jews, whom they consider ahl al kitab (People of the Book).
Founding of Islam
Born into a trading family in Mecca (in present-day Saudi Arabia) in AD 570, the Prophet Muhammad began receiving revelations in 610, and after a time began imparting the content of Allah’s message to the inhabitants of Mecca. Muhammad's call to submit to God’s will was not universally well received, making more of an impact among the poor than among the wealthy families of Mecca, who feared his interference in the status quo.
By 622 Muhammad was forced to flee with his followers to Medina, an oasis town to the north of Mecca, where he continued to preach. This migration (the Hejira) marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar: year 1 AH. By 630 his followers returned to take Mecca, winning over many of the local tribes who swore allegiance to the new faith.
After Muhammad's death in 632, Arab tribes conquered the Middle East, Egypt and North Africa, Spain and eventually southern France, taking Islam with them. The Arabic language and Islamic faith remained long after the military conquests faded into history, uniting large parts of Europe, Africa and Asia in a shared cultural and religious ideology.
Sunnis & Shiites
Islam split into different sects soon after its foundation. When the Prophet died in 632, he left no instructions as to who should be his successor, nor the manner in which the future Islamic leaders (known as caliphs) should be chosen.
In the ensuing power struggle, shi’a (partisans) supported the claim of Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, while others supported the claim of the Umayyads. From that point the Muslim community split into two competing factions: the Shiites, who are loyal to the descendants of Muhammad, and the Sunnis, the orthodox bedrock of Islam.
Within Jordan most Muslims are Sunnis, belonging to the Hanafi school of thought. A minority of around 32,000 Druze in northeast Jordan (including the town of Azraq) follow a form of Shiite Islam.
Despite modern connotations with fundamentalism and the violent beginnings of the faith, Islam is an inherently peaceful creed. The word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission’ or ‘self-surrender’. It also means ‘peace’. Taken as a whole, Islam is the attainment of peace – with self, society and the environment – through conscious submission to the will of God. To submit to the will of God does not just entail paying lip service to God through ceremony, but through all daily thoughts and deeds.
The principal teaching of Islam is that there is only one true God, creator of the universe. Muslims believe that the God of Islam is the same God of Christians and Jews, but that he has no son, and he needs no intermediary (such as priests). Muslims believe that the prophets – including Adam, Abraham and Jesus, and ending with the Prophet Muhammad – were sent to reveal God’s word but that none of them were divine.
Historically, this creed obviously had great appeal to the nomadic peoples of the land we now call Jordan as they were given access to a rich spiritual life without having to submit to incomprehensible rituals administered by hierarchical intermediaries. Believers needed only to observe the transportable Five Pillars of Islam in order to fulfil their religious duty. This is true to this day and is perhaps one of the reasons why Islam is one of the world’s fastest-growing religions.
Muslims pray five times a day and follow certain rituals, washing their hands, mouth, ears, arms, feet, head and neck in running water. If no mosque is nearby and there is no water available, scouring with sand suffices; where there is no sand, the motions of washing must still be enacted.
Muslims must face Mecca (all mosques are oriented so that the mihrab, or prayer niche, faces this way – south-southeast in Jordan) and follow a set pattern of gestures and genuflections. Muslims do not require a mosque to pray, and you’ll often see Jordanians praying by the side of the road or at the back of their shop; many keep a small prayer rug handy for such times.
In Jordan, which has a history of welcoming tourists to its world-class sites of largely pagan origin, people may be surprised if you take an interest in Islam, but they will also be delighted. Any sympathetic discussion of faith is treated as an olive branch in a region where religion has all too often led to conflict – as the great Crusader castles at Karak and Shobak and the heavily militarised border with Israel illustrates.
Feature: The Five Pillars of Islam
A good Muslim is expected to carry out the following Five Pillars of Islam.
Hajj The pinnacle of a devout Muslim’s life is the pilgrimage to the holy sites in and around Mecca. Hajj takes place in the last month of the Islamic calendar and Muslims from all over the world travel to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage and subsequent feast of Eid Al Adha. Returning pilgrims earn the right to be addressed as haji.
Salat This is the obligation of prayer, expressed five times a day when the muezzins call upon the faithful to pray before sunrise, at noon, midafternoon, at sunset and before midnight. Communal prayers are only obligatory on Friday, although the strong sense of community makes joining together in a masjid (‘place of prostration’, ie mosque) preferable at other times.
Shahada This is the profession of the faith and the basic tenet of Islam: ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet’ (La il laha illa Allah Muhammad rasul Allah). This is part of the call to prayer, and is uttered at other events, such as births and deaths. People can often be heard muttering the first half of the sentence to themselves for moral support.
Sawm Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, commemorates the revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. As a renewal of faith, Muslims are required to abstain from sex and from letting anything (including cigarettes) pass their lips from dawn to dusk throughout the month.
Zakat Giving alms to the poor is an essential part of Islamic social teaching and, in some parts of the Muslim world, has been developed into various forms of tax as a way of redistributing funds to the needy. The moral obligation towards poorer neighbours continues to be emphasised at a personal and community level, and many Islamic groups run large charitable institutions, including, in Jordan, Amman’s Islamic Hospital.
Feature: The Holy Quran
Muslims believe that the Quran, the holy book of Islam, is the literal word of God, unlike the Bible or Torah, which they believe were inspired by God but were recorded subject to human interpretation. Communicated to the Prophet Muhammad directly in a series of revelations in the early 7th century, the Quran means ‘recitation’ and is not just the principal source of doctrine in Islam, but also a source of spiritual rapture in its own right. It is recited often with emotional elation, as a blessing to the reciter and the hearer. The use of the ‘sacred’ language of Arabic, with its unique rhythms, gives the recitation a sacramental quality that eludes translation, and many Muslims around the world still learn large portions of the Quran in its original form to feel closer to God’s words.
Feature: Historical Origins of Islam
AD 570 Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam, is born in Mecca.
610 Muhammad receives his first revelation, considered by Muslims as God's word and captured in the Quran.
622 Muhammad and his followers flee Mecca for Medina, marking the birth of the first Islamic state.
632 Muhammad dies and the Muslim capital moves to Damascus.
656 Ali bin Abi Taleb becomes caliph; his followers are known as Shiites.
661 Ali is assassinated by troops loyal to Muhammad's distant relative, separating the Muslim community into two factions.
680 Ali's son is murdered at Karbala, widening the gap between the two factions, Shiites and Sunnis.
Sidebar: Thanks Be to God
The words al hamdu lillah (thanks be to God) frequently lace sentences in which good things are related and the words in sha’allah (God willing) mark sentences that anticipate the future. These expressions are not just linguistic decoration; they demonstrate a deep connection between society and faith.
Mecca is Islam’s holiest city. It’s the home of the sacred Kaaba – a cube-shaped building allegedly built by Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismail and housing a black stone of ancient spiritual focus. Muslims are enjoined to this day to face Mecca when praying. Medina is Islam’s second holiest city.
Islam, Judaism and Christianity share many of the same prophets: Abraham (Ibrahim), Jesus (Isa), John the Baptist (Yahya), Job (Ayyub), Joshua (Yosha), Lot (Lut), Moses (Musa) and Noah (Nuh). Muhammad is not considered divine, but rather the last of these prophets.
Sidebar: Websites on Islam
- Al Bab (www.al-bab.com) Comprehensive site with links to information and discussion on Islam.
- Islamicity (www.islamicity.com) Good reference for non-Muslims interested in Islam.
Sidebar: Recommended Reading
- Islam: A Short History (Karen Armstrong, 2000)
- A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (Gordon Newby, 2002)
- A Sociology of Islam: Knowledge, Power, Civility (Armando Salvatore, 2016)
For the visitor who chooses the right outlets, there is a special pleasure in buying something handmade, practical and aesthetically pleasing from Jordan, as the craftsperson very often earns money that directly benefits his or her community. Taking an interest in the crafts of Jordan, then, is not a remote aesthetic exercise. It represents sustainable tourism at its very best. Find out how to make your purchases count towards Jordan's regional cottage industries.
Made in Jordan
Walk the streets of Madaba, with bright coloured kilims flapping in the wind, hike to the soap-making villages of Ajloun or watch elderly Bedouin women threading beads at Petra, and the country’s strong handicraft tradition is immediately apparent. The authorities have been quick to support this aspect of Jordan’s heritage, and although the fortunes of craft cooperatives have suffered more than most in the economic downturn and resultant slump in tourism, they continue to be widespread. These enterprises result in benefits for local communities and ensure that Jordan’s rich legacy of craft endures for future generations.
Jordan has a long-established rug-making industry dating back to the country’s pre-Islamic, Christian communities. Mafrash (rugs) are usually of the flat, woven kind, known as kilims, compared with carpets that have a pile. To this day, especially in Madaba and Mukawir, it’s possible to watch kilims being made that are based on early Byzantine designs. Even if you hadn’t intended to buy one of these woollen rugs, you’ll find it impossible not to get carried away by the enthusiasm of the carpet vendors, who will good-naturedly unfurl all their rugs for you without much prospect of a sale.
Embroidery used to be an important skill among Jordanian women, who would traditionally embroider the clothes they would need as married women in their teenage years. Some still learn the craft as youngsters today, despite embroidery becoming something of a dying art. Embroidery among the elder generation continues to provide an occasion for women to socialise, often with a pot of tea spiced with a pinch of local gossip. Palestinian embroidery is famed throughout the region, and you’ll see the characteristic red embroidery cross-stitch on traditional dresses, known as roza, in shops across Jordan. Purses featuring intricate flower designs in silk thread make delightful (and portable) mementos.
The craft of mosaic-making has a noble and distinguished lineage in Jordan. Mosaics are made from tiny squares of naturally coloured rock called tesserae. The first part of the process is preparing the stone, which is hewn in blocks from the rock face and then cut into thin cuboid rods. These are then snipped by pincers into the tesserae. The smallest tesserae make the most intricate designs but they are much harder to work with and the mosaics take longer to assemble. It’s rather like the knots on a carpet – the more tesserae per centimetre, the finer and more valuable the mosaic. Many workshops in the Madaba area will ship items to a home country for visitors.
Some of the oldest copper mines in the world are traceable in Jordan (especially near Feinan, now in the Dana Biosphere Reserve). Copper is used to make everyday utensils, as well as for heirlooms such as the family serving dish, copper tray or coffee pot. These pieces are mostly replicated for the tourist industry, but you can still find the genuine articles – with a bit of spit and polish, they’ll light up the corner of a room back home. Quality pieces can be found in the antique shops in Amman, many of which are attached to top-end hotels. You won’t find an antique older than about 50 years (and it’s illegal to export anything older than 100 years), but the items are likely to have been much loved by the families who once used them.
A bride traditionally receives a gift of jewellery on her wedding day as her dowry, and this remains her personal property. The most common designs are protective silver amulets, such as the ‘hand of Fatima’ (daughter-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad). These are used as protection from evil spirits known as djinn (‘genie’ in English). Antique items such as silver headdresses decorated with Ottoman coins and ornately decorated Bedouin daggers (straight, rather than the famously curved Yemeni and Omani versions) are becoming harder to find. Many of the most beautiful antique pieces were crafted by Circassian, Armenian and Yemeni silversmiths in the early 20th century. Much modern silver jewellery in Jordan, or the strings of beads made of regional stones, echo traditional designs.
Several NGOs, such as the Noor Al Hussein Foundation and Jordan River Foundation, have spurred a revival of locally produced crafts as part of a national campaign to raise rural living standards, improve the status of rural women, provide income for marginalised families, nurture artists and protect the local environment. Nature shops figure prominently at the Wild Jordan Center in Amman and RSCN visitor centres in Ajloun, Azraq, Mujib, Dana and Wadi Rum.
If you want to spend your money where it counts, you may like to make contact with or buy from the outlets of community-based income-generating programs.
Beit Al Bawadi Quality ceramics bought here support local artisans, whom you can see working in the basement. Designs are both traditional and modern, some decorated with Arabic calligraphy, and pieces cost around JD50 to JD80.
Jordan River Foundation Supporting top-notch worthy causes by selling equally top-notch crafted items, this shop has become an institution in Amman. The showroom supports handloomed rugs from Bani Hamida and exquisite Palestinian-style embroidery. Cushions, camel bags, embroidery, baskets and Dead Sea products make it an excellent place to buy items of stylish decor. Only the highest-quality pieces make it into the showroom (reflected in the prices).
Madaba Tourism Development Association (www.visitmadaba.org) A voluntary community-based organisation, developing tourism products that use local skills and resources.
Made in Jordan This Wadi Musa shop sells quality crafts from local enterprises. Products include olive oil, soap, paper, ceramics, table runners, nature products from Wild Jordan in Amman, jewellery from Wadi Musa, embroidery from Safi, camel hair shawls, and bags from Aqaba as well as Jordan River Foundation goods. The fixed prices reflect the quality and uniqueness of each piece; credit cards are accepted.
Noor Al Hussein Foundation Maintains a showroom in Aqaba as well as links to now-independent projects selling NHF-labelled products in Iraq Al Amir, Salt and Wadi Musa (Nabataean Women’s Cooperative).
Souk Jara A village initiative within the city of Amman, the Jebel Amman Residents Association spearheaded the now-famous Souk Jara street market. Expanded over the years to include food and drink stalls – and some regrettable plastic imports – the market retains its authentic craft roots.
Wild Jordan Center The nature store at the Wild Jordan Center sells products made in Jordan’s nature reserves, including silver jewellery, organic herbs and jams from Dana, and candles made by Bedouin women as part of an income-generating project in Feynan. Decorated ostrich eggs are another speciality. All profits are returned to the craftspeople and to nature-reserve projects.
Shopping for Crafts
If you are after goods of a high quality, it pays to visit specialised craft centres as opposed to one-stop shopping in souvenir shops. Unfortunately, some shop owners have jumped on the cooperative bandwagon and claim to be part of charitable foundations when they are not. Check that a shop’s sign exactly matches the outlet you are looking for!
If you make a purchase at a shop with a Premier Tax Free sign, you pay the full purchase price but the sales tax will be refunded directly. Failing that, if you spend over JD350, keep your receipts, fill out a tax rebate form and leave the country within 90 days, you can get the 16% tax refunded to your credit card at a booth at the airport, just before check-in.
Exporting anything more than 100 years old is illegal, so don’t buy any craft or artefact (including ‘ancient’ coins or oil lamps) described as ‘antique’ – if only because it probably isn’t. If you’re unsure about an item’s provenance, contact the Customs Department (www.customs.gov.jo).
Feature: Making Mosaics
Push the door open on a mosaic workshop and it’s like entering the Hall of the Mountain King. Clouds of dust plume from the masonry saws and the workspace echoes with the screech of metal against rock and the persistent snapping of the workers’ pincers as they cut stone rods into tiny, coloured squares. During our visit, all the workers engaged in this dedicated craft (from the stone-cutters to the assembly teams) were women. One of the ladies dusted her hands against her overcoat and, parking her mobile phone among the tweezers, the paste brush and the glue pot, gave us an ad hoc tour.
Artists, Mayzoon explained, sketch a design freehand or trace the image from books, in the same way as their ancient predecessors would have copied scenes from pattern books. Designs usually feature everyday life, with depictions of plants and animals (look for the chicken – almost every mosaic seems to feature one). Hunting and viniculture, personification of the seasons, and religious or mythological scenes are typical subjects. But it’s the detail that captivates – the bell on a gazelle’s neck, palm trees at an oasis, a wry human smile.
Once the design is in place, the tesserae are then painstakingly arranged – traditionally on a thick coating of wet lime and ash to form permanent flooring. Today they are more likely to be attached to wet plaster and affixed to wooden boards for use as table tops or wall decorations.
The tour concluded and Mayzoon returned to the assembly table. ‘You took our photograph, no?’ one of the ladies said. We were about to apologise when she added, ‘Please, take it again. This time with all of us!’ A shaft of brilliant sunshine cut through the dusty air, lighting up the eight faces gathered in intense concentration around the half-built mosaic. The team worked rhythmically together, tapping and snapping, inching and coaxing the stones into a tree of life. With a little definition in malachite and sandstone, the women could have found their own immortalisation in stone.
Feature: Getting a Good Deal
Jordanians are committed shoppers and they make an art form out it, promenading the main street and popping into a shop to vex the owner without any intention of buying. Buying, meanwhile, is a whole separate entertainment, focused on the business of bartering.
Bartering implies that items do not have a value per se: their value is governed by what you are willing to pay balanced against the sum the vendor is happy to sell for. This subtle exchange, often viewed with suspicion by those from a fixed-price culture, is dependent on many factors, such as how many other sales the vendor has made that day, whether the buyer looks like a person who can afford an extra dinar or two, and even whether the vendor is in a good mood or not. Although bargaining when craft buying is essential, note that some cooperatives charge fixed prices.
As with all social interaction, there’s an unwritten code of conduct that keeps negotiations sweet. Here are a few tips for making it an enjoyable experience.
- View bartering as your chance to decide what you are willing to pay for an item and then use your interpersonal skills to see if you can persuade the vendor to match it.
- Understand that haggling is a sociable activity, often conducted over piping-hot mint tea, so avoid causing offence by refusing hospitality too brusquely.
- Don’t pay the first price quoted: this is often considered arrogant.
- Start below the price you wish to buy at so you have room to compromise – but don’t quote too low or the vendor may be insulted.
- Never lose your temper: if negotiations aren’t going to plan, simply smile and say ma’a salaama (goodbye) – you’ll be surprised how often these words bring the price down.
- Resist comparing prices with other travellers; if they were happy with what they paid, they certainly won’t be if you tell them you bought the same thing for less.
- Above all, remember that a ‘good deal’ in Jordan generally means a good deal more than just the exchange of money. It’s a highlight of travelling in the country.
Sidebar: Good Buys
- Silver jewellery (Wadi Musa, Petra)
- Handmade paper (Iraq Al Amir, Aqaba, Jerash)
- Ceramics (Salt)
- Painted ostrich eggs (Shaumari)
- Weavings (Mukawir)
- Traditional clothing (Madaba)
- Dead Sea soap (Dead Sea spas, Madaba)
- Handmade soap (RSCN shops, Ajloun, Amman)
Sidebar: Folklore Museum
Sidebar: Kilim Cost
The cost of a kilim (anywhere between JD50 and JD500) depends on whether natural vegetable dyes are used, the length, thickness of thread, intricacy of pattern and age of the rug – the older the better.
Sidebar: The Art of Bedouin Jewellery
Heather Colyer Ross looks into popular art forms in The Art of Bedouin Jewellery (1981), a useful asset for those contemplating purchasing some pieces.
Traditional handicrafts in Jordan are not designed to be viewed in a museum, but to be bought and bartered over. Jordan’s position at the crossroads of numerous caravan routes throughout the ages has made craft, the most practical and portable of all the arts, into a currency of practical benefit.
The Natural Environment
In Jordan you can breakfast in the desert, lunch under a pine tree and dine on bananas from the subtropical Jordan Valley. Not many countries exhibit such diversity within such a compact area. For the naturalist, this makes Jordan a dream. Thankfully, the authorities have been quick to recognise the country's wild appeal and have actively encouraged ecotourism. Whether you’re a raptor enthusiast or casual fan of flowers, there's sure to be something to please you in Jordan’s modest acreage.
At 91,860 sq km, Jordan is slightly smaller than Portugal or the US state of Virginia. Distances are short – it’s only 430km from Ramtha, on the Syrian border in the north, to Aqaba in the south. TE Lawrence was pleased that he could cover Azraq to Amman in a hard, three-day camel ride. Today you can travel by car from tip to toe in around six hours. If you want to see anything, though, there’s a lot to be said for the camel.
Geographically, Jordan can be divided into three major regions: the Jordan Valley, the East Bank Plateau and the desert.
Jordan Valley Ecosystem
Jordan edges the Great Rift Valley, stretching from East Africa’s lakes to southern Syria. The rift was created as the Arabian plate pulled away from the African plate, a geological event that gave rise to the Red Sea. Jordan’s Wadi Araba, the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley lie on this fault line. Sitting beside the effervescent springs at Hammamat Ma’in, it becomes obvious that this process of tectonic separation isn’t yet complete.
Trickling through the northern part of the valley is the lowest-lying river on earth, the Jordan River, fed from the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias), the Yarmouk River and hillside streams. This permanent fresh water has given rise to a humid, subtropical valley, highly fertile and intensively farmed.
Walking under the valley’s flame and tamarisk trees you may see sunbirds and kingfishers or an endangered otter heading for the reeds. What you won’t see is the lion, bear, elephant, rhino and herds of wild ass that Palaeolithic remains prove were once resident here.
Not everything in the region has changed, however. The fish in Madaba’s famous mosaic, twisting back from certain death at the mouth of the Jordan River, show that the Dead Sea was as insupportable of life in Byzantine times as it is today. Change is all a matter of time scale, however. Go way back in history, between the two ice ages, and scientists speculate from recently discovered salt crystals under today's body of water that the Dead Sea area suffered an intense drought and perhaps evaporated, as it appears to be doing today.
East Bank Plateau Ecosystem
High above the Jordan Valley – cut by a series of epic gorges carved out in slow motion by the wadis of Zarqa, Mujib and Hasa – is the hilly and temperate East Bank Plateau. It comprises the forested hills of northern Jordan (less than 1% of Jordan is wooded), rich in Aleppo pines, oak and red-barked strawberry trees, and home to ill-tempered wild boar, polecats, stone martens and porcupines.
Wildflowers, including pink hollyhocks, poppies and yellow daisies, bloom in magnificent abundance in spring. This is the time to spot the black iris (actually a deep purple), the national flower of Jordan.
The East Bank Plateau contains the main centres of population (Amman, Irbid, Zarqa and Karak) and has been crossed by caravans for centuries. The plateau landscape of fig and olive groves, occasional vineyards and closely cropped pastureland reflects this human interaction. If you hike near Madaba in the summer, you’ll see Bedouin grazing their stock on the hillside; they descend to lower ground in winter to escape the bitter winds. Since the time of Moses, their husbandry has shaped the land, etching ancient paths around the closely cropped contours.
Pockets of pristine plateau wilderness remain towards the southern end of the plateau around Dana. This rocky wilderness of outstanding biodiversity is the habitat of elusive caracals (Persian lynx), felines with outrageous tufts of hair on the tips of their outsized ears. It is also home to ibex, endangered goats with enormous horns that cling to the craggy folds of limestone.
From a height of 600m to 900m above sea level, the plateau ends near the Red Sea port of Aqaba.
On its eastern flank, the East Bank Plateau glides gradually into the desert. More than 90% of Jordan is desert, but it’s home to only 5% of the population. The forbidding volcanic basalt rock of the northeast gives way to soft-whittled sandstone and granite in the south and the famous escarpments of Wadi Rum. In between, the stony wasteland known as the Badia slides into 1000km of nothingness, interrupted only by the occasional succulent, a wandering camel or camouflaged lizard.
When you travel along empty Route 10, it’s impossible to imagine that anything could survive such desolation. But then, miraculously, you reach Azraq Wetland Reserve, a desert oasis attracting great numbers of migrating birds. Herons and egrets fish patiently among the croaking toads, and predators such as the desert fox, wolf and jackal lurk beyond the fringes of the oasis waiting for a careless desert hare to run out of luck.
Some desert species ran out of luck a long time ago, hunted to extinction before conservation became part of the modern sensibility. In Shaumari Wildlife Reserve (newly reopened after a decade of redevelopment) there’s a chance to see the animals that once roamed these plains before they are reintroduced to the wild.
Established in 1966, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) is an unusual NGO in that it has a national mandate to run biodiversity projects on behalf of the nation. It is now Jordan’s main environmental agency.
The RSCN has been successful in its founding remit: to help save animal and plant species from extinction and to reintroduce several locally extinct species, such as the Arabian oryx. Over the past two decades, however, the RSCN has developed a much wider focus, recognising that tourism has an important role to play. The result has been a modern and highly successful program of ecotourism projects, centred on RSCN reserves.
Jordan’s Nature Reserves
The RSCN (www.rscn.org.jo) maintains nine reserves and helps manage the Wadi Rum protected area. It is also in the process of setting up a reserve at Burqu in eastern Jordan to protect the sand cat among other desert species. These reserves should not be confused with Jordan’s ‘national parks’, which are unstructured, recreational areas, such as Zay National Park, near Salt.
Ajloun Forest Reserve (13 sq km, established 1988) This pretty reserve has easy trails, pistachio and oak forest, spring flowers and cottage industries.
Azraq Wetland Reserve (12 sq km, 1977) In spring and autumn, hundreds of migratory birds can be seen from a bird hide and boardwalk in this refuge amid the damaged and shrunken marshland.
Dana Biosphere Reserve (320 sq km, 1989) A spectacular wilderness area with various trails, Dana encompasses rugged mountains and desert with 600 species of plants, 200 species of bird and over 40 species of mammal.
Dibeen Forest Reserve (8 sq km, 2005) One of the last Aleppo pine forests left in Jordan, Dibeen protects endangered species such as the Persian squirrel.
Fifa Reserve (27 sq km, 2011) Rare subtropical vegetation, home to migratory waterbirds.
Mujib Biosphere Reserve (212 sq km, 1988) Used for the captive breeding of Nubian ibexes, Mujib has an impressive ecotourism program, with canyon walks and waterfall rappelling.
Qatar Nature Reserve An arid terrain on the edge of the Wadi Araba escarpment.
Shaumari Wildlife Reserve (22 sq km, 1975) This small reserve was established to reintroduce the locally extinct Arabian oryx, ostrich, gazelle and onager.
Wadi Rum Protected Area (540 sq km, 1998) This beautiful desert – a Unesco site since 2011 and controlled by the Aqaba government – is the Bedouin heartland, offering camping, camel treks and 4WD excursions.
Yarmouk Nature Reserve (30 sq km, 2011) Undeveloped home to waterbirds, endangered gazelles and otters.
Feature: Jordan’s Biodiversity
Birds Jordan’s location on the edge of the Great Rift Valley makes it an important migration route for birds. More than half a million birds transit between Russia, Central Europe and Africa, breaking their journey in Jordan's dwindling oases and wetlands. The Sinai Rosefinch, Jordan's national bird, can be spotted in and around Petra.
Animals A successful breeding program for the Nubian ibex by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN; www.rscn.org.jo) began in Wadi Mujib Nature Reserve in 1989. Some have been reintroduced into the wild and the herds are increasing. An attempt to release oryx bred at Shaumari Wildlife Reserve into Wadi Rum initially met with less success, with some wandering over the border to Saudi Arabia, but the work to reintroduce Jordan's national animal continues.
Reptiles Jordan's brightly coloured reptiles are shy but considerably less elusive than the foxes and other fur- and feather-clad predators that feed on them. The bright turquoise Sinai agama and the changing coloration of the chameleon are two of many striking inhabitants of Jordan's jebel landscape. Around 35 snake species have been recorded in Jordan, some of which are venomous; they are seldom aggressive unless provoked.
Invertebrates In arid areas of Jordan, scorpions are common but shy nocturnal residents. It's worth knocking out boots in the morning to check for stowaways.
Fish The Gulf of Aqaba, part of the Red Sea, sustains 230 species of coral and 1000 types of fish.
Plants Jordan boasts more than 2500 species of wild plants, including 20 species of orchid. Wildflowers of Jordan & Neighbouring Countries by Dawud MH Al Eisawi has useful photographs that are helpful in identification. A trip to the Royal Botanic Garden outside Amman is a good way to become familiar with native species, including Jordan's famous black iris.
Sidebar: Jebel & Wadi
'Jebel' is the Arabic word for arid mountain. Jebel Umm Adaani (1832m), the highest peak in Jordan, lives up to that description. 'Wadi' is the word for dry watercourse or flood channel. Wadi Mujib belies that description with its permanently flowing water.
Sidebar: Cliffs around the Dead Sea
The Dead Sea might be virtually barren, but the surrounding cliffs are not: small oases of date palm and hanging gardens of fern hide noisy Tristram’s Grackle (a native starling), and the sandstone bluffs shelter the elusive and endangered Nubian ibex.
Sidebar: Public Awareness
The RSCN conducts public awareness programs among Jordanians, especially children; sponsors environmental clubs; trains guides; combats poaching and hunting; and lobbies against mining, helping the uphill struggle to preserve the country’s natural treasures for future generations.
Sidebar: Royal Botanic Garden
Jordan's endemic plant species are represented in the Royal Botanic Garden, a 30-minute drive north of Amman. Featuring Jordan's national flower, the black iris, the gardens are the vision of conservation-minded Princess Basma and an impressive addition to Jordan's ecoprojects.
Sidebar: Nature Guides
- Field Guide to Jordan (Jarir Maani, 2008)
- The Birds of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (Ian J Andrews, 1995)
Green Jordan & Ecotourism
Despite ‘green’ being something of a nascent concept in the Middle East, Jordan has shown both ingenuity and commitment for nearly two decades in embracing an environmentally friendly approach. This approach extends both to an assortment of environmental challenges and to tourism, which is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. Find out how you can minimise the impact of your visit in a country that at times is too popular for its own good.
Swim across one of the infinity pools in Aqaba surrounded by lush gardens and you may not realise that Jordan has a chronic shortage of water. The facts are alarming. Relying mainly on rainwater and subterranean aquifers that are already in many cases overexploited, Jordan has sunk to the fifth-most water-impoverished country in the world. With 90% of Jordan’s rivers already being diverted, a population increasing by more than 2% annually and persistent droughts, this situation is likely to worsen rather than improve. Currently, about 60% more water is used than replenished from natural sources and, by some estimates, the country is due to run out of water within 20 years.
Jordan is not alone in this problem. Water is a hot political issue across the region, contributing to several skirmishes over the years and continuing to spike relations between Jordan and its neighbours. After the 1994 peace treaty, Israel and the Palestinian Territories permitted Jordan to extract 50 million cu metres per year from the Sea of Galilee, but disputes rumble on over whether Jordan is getting its fair share.
Visit a nature reserve in Jordan and you’ll see lots of information about elusive animals that reside there, but the fact remains that a staggering 20 species of mammal have become extinct in Jordan in the past 100 years. Some were hunted and poached (especially after WWII, when weapons flooded the region), spelling the end for Jordan’s lion, cheetah, bear, gazelle and wild ass. The last leopard was killed near Dana in 1986, although there have been unsubstantiated sightings since.
The continuing threats to bird and animal species (24 out of Jordan’s remaining 77 species of mammals are globally threatened) include poor land management, such as deforestation; the pumping of water from vital areas such as the Jordan River, Dead Sea and the Azraq Wetlands; urban sprawl; unremitting use of pesticides, especially near water sources in the Jordan Valley; and air and water pollution.
Overgrazing & Desertification
Survey Moses’ promised land from Mt Nebo and you’ll find little left of promise in the semi-arid landscape – that’s if you can see it through the haze of dust kicked up by livestock. This once fertile land has been devastated by centuries of overgrazing and this, together with erosion and drought, has led to widespread desertification (the seemingly unstoppable spread of the desert to previously fertile, inhabited and environmentally sensitive areas). According to the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), millions of hectares of fertile land have become infertile and uninhabitable. This means there are now fewer pastures for livestock and crops, and reduced land for native animals and plants. Jordan is home to about three million sheep and goats, but there is no longer enough pasture to feed them, resulting in their encroachment on nature reserves and urban fringes.
Overcoming the Challenges
Recognising the threat environmental problems posed to the country, the Jordanian Parliament passed the Protection of the Environment Law in 1995. This included measures banning hunting and restricting grazing.
Environmental strategies have focused on addressing the water issue. Jordan’s farmers (comprising around 5% of the population) use 75% of the water (quite often inefficiently), so modernising farming practices and plugging leaks in city pipelines is a priority. More radical approaches include the extraction of nonrenewable fossil water from aquifers near Wadi Rum and controversial plans, finalised in 2013, to construct a series of desalination plants, hydroelectric power stations and canals linking the Red Sea with the Dead Sea, thereby raising the level of the Dead Sea and creating a fresh water supply. In 2016 companies began to bid for the first US$900-million phase of the project, which involves the moving of 300 million cu metres of water along a conveyance system from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. While the scheme has attracted condemnation from environmental quarters anxious about the unique composition of the Red Sea, there is deeper political concern that if the looming water crisis is not resolved swiftly, the predicted ‘water wars’ will replace oil crises as the major source of conflict in the near future.
Effects of Tourism
Tourism has caused a rapid increase in pollution from cars and industries, and has exacerbated the demand for precious water. In addition, vandalism and unwitting damage to sites such as Jerash and Petra, the effects of flash photography on fragile rock art, and rubbish left at hot springs have made some people wonder whether tourism is worth the trouble.
But it is not all doom and gloom. In a region only recently concerned with conservation, Jordan is ahead of the game with the authorities proving keen to promote sustainable tourism while maintaining the country’s cultural heritage. This is illustrated through the preservation of Islamic values, promotion for arts and craft initiatives, and support for traditional lifestyles (as with the employment of Bedouin drivers in Wadi Rum).
The RSCN has been at the forefront of attempts to promote a more sustainable form of tourism through its various ecotourism projects. Such projects provide a major means of funding environmental programs.
It’s not easy balancing the need for increased tourism against the environmental cost of more visitors. For example, tourism revenue at Wadi Rum is needed for the upkeep of the protected area, but it’s hard to minimise the impact of more feet and wheels upon a fragile desert ecosystem. A balance can be achieved, however, with the cooperation of visitors.
Impact Neutral Checklist
If you’d like to know how to minimise the negative impact of your visit, think about using the following checklist to inform the choices you make on the road.
Save water Every drop helps, given Jordan's chronic water shortage.
Use local guides and services This is an opportunity to learn about a unique way of life and help preserve local traditions.
Buy wisely Profits are returned to local communities from specialist craft centres.
Dress and behave respectfully The liberalisation of customs and manners is seen by many Jordanians as a bad habit caught from the West and an erosion of their cultural and Islamic heritage.
Pay your dues Entrance fees are the lifeline that helps to maintain Jordan’s reserves.
Spend money… This will help make your visit count more positively than surviving on muesli you brought from home.
…but don’t give it away Tips should only be given for services rendered (such as buying a souvenir from kids at Petra) to discourage the counter-productive activity of begging.
Leave as found For as long as outsiders have been searching for, and stumbling over, the ancient monuments of Jordan, they have also been chipping bits off, hauling items home or leaving their contributions engraved on the stones. Please don’t be one of their number.
Bag it and bin it This is the one time when you shouldn’t follow local example; be a trendsetter instead and take your litter home.
Follow the rules As tempting as it may be to reach out for a starfish in the Red Sea, light a fire at an ad hoc campground, take a photo without someone’s permission or skinny dip in a waterhole, these are acts that erode the natural and cultural heritage of the country.
Making Your Stay Count
There are lots of ways in which you can turn your visit from a potential burden into a blessing. By supporting responsible enterprises, you will be contributing positively to local communities. Also don’t forget that you can add value to your purchases by shopping at community-friendly outlets.
Things to Do
Abraham Path Initiative (www.abrahampath.org) Hike along a path from Ajloun to Pella in Jordan and connect to a cultural peace initiative that runs through Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. An excellent website aids planning and shows how to make the most of the journey by connecting with the local communities who stand to benefit from the passing trade of hikers.
Jordan Heritage Revival Company (www.jhrc.jo) Attend one of this company's accurate historical re-enactments, occasionally staged around the country, to keep alive Jordan's treasured continuity with the past. Donations for posing with Roman centurions at Petra go to support local community initiatives.
Jordan Trail (www.jordantrail.org) Follow Jordan's newest trail from north to south, supported by local in-country operators, and contribute therein to much needed local employment.
Sharhabil Bin Hassneh Ecopark (www.jordanecopark.com) Stay at an ecolodge or take the community-based tour along the Jordan River and learn more about cross-border issues, such as water conservation and peace-building – part of a larger ecological initiative to rehabilitate the Jordan Valley promoted by EcoPeace Middle East (www.ecopeaceme.org).
Wild Jordan Book a tour along a trail established by Al Ayoun Society and support village projects near Ajloun. Similar community projects are run in Umm Qais and Dana.
Zikra Initiative (www.zikrainitiative.org) Get involved with a project that connects ‘urbanites’ (Jordanian and international city dwellers) to ‘ruralists’ – a modest participation fee helps fund microloans for village ‘entrepreneurs’.
Places to Stay
RSCN (www.rscn.org.jo) Provides excellent ethical and sustainable accommodation within Jordan’s reserves – reservations are necessary and can be made online.
Bedouin Cooperative Campgrounds Camps such as the Ammarin Bedouin near Little Petra, with an on-site museum showcasing the local tribe, and other camps at Wadi Rum and Diseh help preserve the Bedouin way of life.
Finding Fair Services
Jordan Inbound Tour Operators Association (www.jitoa.org) This voluntary umbrella organisation is a good place to research ‘green’ tour operators.
Feature: RSCN: A Byword for Sustainable Tourism
Teamwork is a good way to describe the RSCN's policy of environmental management. The RSCN directly employs hundreds of Jordanian people and has given employment opportunities to more than 16,000 Jordanians over the years. Its role includes getting corporate business involved to back eco-ventures (such as the chic cafe at the Wild Jordan Center within the RSCN headquarters building in Amman). Crucially, it also involves local communities, such as those of Ajloun or Dana, through income-generating projects that complement rather than threaten traditional lifestyles.
Thanks to the combined interests of all these ‘stakeholders’, the RSCN’s work is high-profile in Jordan, with Jordanian nationals comprising a significant proportion of the tens of thousands of visitors who call in at one of the country’s nature reserves each year.
With great accommodation serving wonderful food in beautiful places; walking, hiking and scrambling trails to suit all legs; and a series of shops that make you wish you’d packed a bigger suitcase, the RSCN’s flagship reserves are a highlight of a ‘sustainable visit’ to Jordan.
Feature: Top 10 Eco-Experiences
- Hike to see soapmakers at work in Ajloun Forest Reserve.
- Savour a wild-berry smoothie in Amman’s Wild Jordan Center.
- Learn about Azraq’s Chechens over a home-cooked feast at Azraq Lodge.
- Buy a hand-loomed rug from the Bani Hamida Centre.
- Wake up to birdsong at beautiful Rummana Campground.
- Enjoy a vegetarian supper in candlelit Feynan Ecolodge.
- Give your sunglasses an embroidered treat from the craft shop at Dana Biosphere Reserve.
- Splash through the permanent pools of Mujib Biosphere Reserve.
- Take a camel trip in the company of a Bedouin guide in Wadi Rum.
- Stay overnight with the Bedouin at the Ammarin Bedouin Camp near Wadi Rum.
Jordan has just 77 cu metres of renewable water per capita per year, compared to the UK’s 2244 or Lebanon's 856. Anything under 500 cu metres is considered to be a scarcity of water.
Sidebar: Water Pipeline
In 2013 King Abdullah II inaugurated a new pipeline to extract 120 million cu metres of water annually from the 30,000-year-old aquifer in Diseh near Wadi Rum. The near-billion-dollar project took four years to complete, and involved drilling 64 wells and building a 325km pipeline from Diseh to Amman.
Sidebar: Nature Reserves
Jordan’s nature reserves represent about 1% of Jordan’s total land area – a small percentage compared with land allocated in Saudi Arabia (9%) and the US (11%). When measured as a ratio of habitable land versus size of population, however, the figure is considerably more generous.
A successful breeding program of the Nubian ibex by the RSCN began in the Mujib Biosphere Reserve in 1989. Some have now been reintroduced into the wild and the herds are increasing well. The killifish, unique to the Azraq Wetlands, has recently been saved from extinction, and numbers are increasing.
Sidebar: Jordan River
Since the 1960s Israel and the Palestinian Territories have drawn one-third of their water from the Jordan River; reduced to a trickle, the river comprises raw sewage and effluent from fish farms.
Sidebar: Green Info on Jordan
- EcoPeace Middle East (www.ecopeaceme.org)
- Ministry of Environment (www.kinghussein.gov.jo/geo_env.html)