A crumbling public fountain is easy to miss in Amman. This is the Nymphaeum though, built in the 2nd century CE and ignored in favour of a Roman Theater from the same period nearby. The past is accepted casually here, allowing residents to lean against their historic Citadel, oblivious to towers and statuary built by ancient Greeks and Romans who called this city Philadelphia.
“Welcome to Jordan,” says everyone I meet, from hotel receptionists to shopkeepers and random men on the street. The women say little, even though this is supposedly the Arab world’s most liberal city. There are liquor stores, for instance, even if women never step into them. There are malls and nightclubs, shisha lounges and shopping districts. There is also a friendliness that is noticeably absent elsewhere in the Middle East, presumably because of so many refugees from troubled countries.
The taxes are high because Jordan has no oil of its own. Locals say life is hard, but appreciate being protected from restrictions that make it harder in stricter regimes. Churches stand opposite mosques, sharing space without rancor. Olive groves line the highways, and every other turn uncovers views that have not changed since characters from the Bible walked these streets.
The oldest bar in the world doesn’t serve the best cocktails. That is what tourists say about the Cave Bar at the entrance to Petra. I can’t validate their ratings because I walk in minutes before closing time, and choose not to spend on an overpriced beer. The bar is housed in a rock-cut tomb over 2,000 years old but looks as if it were designed by one of those people who make pubs in all major cities look the same.
Then again, a bar is of no importance when one is visiting a genuine wonder of the world. Petra is much larger than I expect, stretching across 45 kilometres, its undulating landscape revealing abandoned monasteries, desolate tombs, Byzantine churches, and a 450-year-old pistachio tree that visitors sip water under. An unforgiving sun underlines the enormity of what was built here thousands of years ago.
Of the nomadic Nabataeans who established this as their capital in the 4th century BC, their descendants stay on. One offers his services as a tour guide, and we hike up a rocky trail with no visible markings towards what is called the High Place of Sacrifice. “I have seen nothing like this,” I tell him when Al-Khazneh — the now ubiquitous sandstone face of a temple known as the Treasury — shimmers into view. “It is home,” he replies. “We have always been here.”
At Al-Maghtas, a World Heritage site considered to be the original location of the baptism of Jesus Christ, believers and onlookers gather to stare at a pool of muddy water. The rains will transform it into a greener spot but, for now, the water remains stagnant. Beside it is a covered area where those about to be baptised by John the Baptist were asked to disrobe. A few feet away lies the River Jordan, its sides overwhelmed by reeds, connected to the pool by a stream. It flows much as it always has, pausing only to accommodate the faithful who immerse themselves fully clothed into its cold waters.
There is a baptism in progress by the riverbank. A priest takes hold of the baby, its proud family looking on as he pours holy water. There are prayers, followed by applause, as the baby cries. This was a heavily mined area in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of 1967. The mines are no longer a threat, but razor wire glints in the distance at the border of Israel, a reminder that the holiest sites are also the most disputed.
On my way out, I stop by the pool again to picture Christ taking a dip. ‘Heritage belongs to humanity. Take good care of it,’ reads a sign propped up nearby, quoting His Majesty, King Hussein Bin Talal. For a message so simple, it is surprisingly moving.
To find oneself in the Valley of the Moon after dusk is disconcerting. The silence is overwhelming, as is the complete absence of light. Only the skies are alive with a million pinpricks. Behind me stand a few huts, none air-conditioned, in the shadow of a massive mountain. It is a campsite at Wadi Rum, the largest in Jordan, where tourists pay for the privilege of living like Bedouins for a night.
I have been warned not to stray too far from the site because getting lost in the vast empty space is simple after sunset. A musician strums his Oud outside while dinner is served, the chef pulling up a meal of chicken and vegetables that have been cooking in a sand-covered pit for hours. Everyone retires early. There is nothing to keep them up because smartphones aren’t that smart without access to data.
The next morning, an all-terrain vehicle drives me through mountains that have been home to humans since prehistoric times. There are signs in the form of paintings and graffiti cut into the rock. The guide lists famous movies that have been filmed here — Lawrence of Arabia, Prometheus, The Martian. In the distance, I spot a caravan, with six camels moving patiently in single file, ridden by men covered in hoods to keep the sand out. They know where they are going, like their ancestors before them.
The Dead Sea is surprisingly alive. I expect a calm, placid body of water, so its powerful tidal forces shock me. Stepping into it isn’t easy either. I am given rubber footwear to stumble across the sharp, rocky shore, and a roped-off area prevents one from being swept away. For a few seconds though, I float effortlessly, exactly the way I thought I would in the world’s deepest hypersaline lake. And then, a wave catches me off-guard and my eyes start to burn, forcing me to rush out and stand under an open shower.
This area marked a health resort for Herod the Great, making it one of the world’s first. That tradition continues, with shops everywhere stocking beauty and health products supposedly made from the local mud. Around me, men and women lather themselves with gooey clay before slipping gingerly into the water. On the other side lie Israel and the West Bank, stretching away into the distance.
By dusk, I find myself alone by this ancient body of landlocked water first mentioned at the time of Abraham. I think of the legendary Scrolls discovered nearby, and its fabled kingdoms of Sodom and Gomorrah consumed by fire and brimstone. The waters push and pull, revealing nothing.
— First published in GQ India, December 2019