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Meaningful and magnificent

Tourism Cares with Jordan made for a memorable journey
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posted July 17, 2018

“What’s the Jordan brand?”

That’s the question Dr. Abed al Razzaq Arabiyat, managing director of the Jordan Tourism Board, posed to 70 of us in February at the outset of Tourism Cares with Jordan, an event designed to showcase the country and its social enterprises tourism program.

We represented many cogs of the travel industry: tour companies, associations, media, transportation providers and other related businesses. What we had in common was a love for travel and a spirit of goodwill.

Many of us were experienced Tourism Cares volunteers, and JTB and the Jordan Inbound Tour Operators Association joined with Tourism Cares to plan the Feb. 23 to March 3 event.

‘We have it all’
Dr. Arabiyat answered his own question: “Well, we have it all: history, culture, religion, adventure and wellness.”

I wondered: Is “all” enough, branding-wise? It sounded vague—even overpromising. Too close to “something for everyone.”

I knew Jordan had something for outdoor adventure. I had written in this magazine about the Jordan Trail, a spectacular 404-mile trek. And look, I like to hike as much as the next guy, but only if the next guy isn’t planning to walk for 38 days.

I also knew a little about Petra and the centuries of culture in Jordan from listening to Malia Asfour, who manages the JTB North America office and is active in NTA. She’s been telling me for years that I had to see Jordan for myself, and I was eager to do just that, especially on an escorted tour among like-minded people.

On that first morning in Amman, I would need some convincing to agree that Jordan has it all. Using Dr. Arabiyat’s branding advice as themes, I’ll share some of the “all” I found.

Hadrian's Gate
Hadrian's Gate (Photo by Jordan Tourism Board)

Hadrian’s Gate to history
Our first day of touring took us to Jerash, and Jerash took us back 3,200 years.

The city is one of Jordan’s most visited sites and holds a startling array of archaeological treasures, covered for centuries by dirt and debris from earthquakes. The oldest parts of Jerash, excavated as recently as 1976, date to the beginning of the Iron Age, 1200 B.C. In the centuries that followed, Jerash was occupied by Roman, Byzantine and Islamic civilizations.

Hadrian’s Gate, a 36-foot arch completed in A.D. 130, is within a stone’s throw of the Hippodrome, a huge arena built later in the second century. Our stroll through Jerash took us along colonnaded streets, up rocky hills and down ancient steps to view what remains of churches, fountains, temples and theaters.

It was a treat to walk with Dr. Monther Jamhawi, director general of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, and hear him explain how each structure we passed once served the everyday lives of Jerash residents … a million days ago.

Lunch at Bait Khayrat Souf
Lunch at Bait Khayrat Souf (Photo by Jordan Tourism Board)

Platefuls of culture
When I read, prior to our trip, about traditional Jordanian foods, I predicted I would lose weight. Though I was familiar with hummus, I had not had the occasion to sample much baba ghanoush, falafel or mansaf (lamb with rice in yogurt sauce) at home in Midway, Kentucky.

Like most of my predictions, this one was not exactly accurate. Despite extensive walking (though far short of 404 miles), I gained a pound or two on the trip. The food and the fellowship were fantastic.

No Jordanian meal was more impactful than lunch at Bait Khayrat Souf. The business is staffed by local women—gracious and inviting—who now earn incomes for their families. Along with serving delicious local fare to groups passing through Souf in motorcoaches and on bikes, the women sell a variety of jams, herbs, coffee and other products.

Bait Khayrat Souf is part of the Meaningful Travel Map of Jordan, which includes 12 social enterprises that give visitors an authentic experience while channeling earnings to local residents.

Jordan River
Jordan River (Photo by Kami Risk)

In step with my religion
Jordan is primarily a Muslim country, but pilgrims (and backsliders) of many faiths—Christianity, Judaism and Islam—can visit inspiring spiritual sites, many of which are in the Jordan River Valley.

We stayed two nights at the Dead Sea, which is fed by the river. Our time there was magical. Even loaded with falafel and mansaf, I floated atop the sea, its salinity 10 times that of the Atlantic Ocean. I even slathered on some of the therapeutic mud (more for optics than for healing). And a traditional Jordanian banquet under the evening stars made us all feel like royalty.

Early on a Sunday morning, a short ride took us from the Dead Sea Marriott to Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, the place where John the Baptist lived and is believed to have baptized Jesus.

Archaeologists continue to uncover baptismal pools, churches and homes that put Old Testament passages in context, and many of the world’s Christian denominations have built churches at the site to host pilgrims.

Standing on the bank of the Jordan River, I was surprised that it was no wider than the Elkhorn Creek, which runs beside my old Kentucky home. Seeing armed soldiers—Jordanians near us and Israeli soldiers 30 or 40 yards away across the river—reminded me of the region’s strife.

Let me speak to that. Located in the Middle East, Jordan is surrounded by, as the locals say, loud neighbors. But Jordan is a quiet oasis, a stable country. I saw many security measures—metal detectors in hotels and soldiers at highly visited areas, plus we were always escorted by a tourism police officer—and I never felt unsafe.

I felt something else beside the legendary river.

After hearing the guide’s narrative, seeing the excavated sites and grasping the significance of Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, I found myself humming a song from my days in the church choir: I walked today where Jesus walked … in days of long ago.

Petra (Photo by Jordan Tourism Board)

A perfect Petra adventure
Over the millennia, the ancient city of Petra has been occupied by nomadic tribes, Israelites, Edomites, Nabateans, Romans, Crusaders and Arabs. Spending two days amid the façades, monuments and caves carved into colorful sandstone seemed like a grain in an hourglass, but Petra grabs hold of you pretty fast.

The Petra experience begins with your first look at the wondrous stone walls amid the clamor of locals offering to transport you through the Siq canyon. An easy 20-minute walk stokes anticipation for what you know is coming: the Treasury, the façade that is the face of Jordan tourism.

And then you see it. Through a narrow opening of the canyon walls, you spot a sliver of the impossibly intricate and grand monument. It’s breathtaking. Carved some 2,000 years ago, the Treasury, despite its name, is thought to have been used as a temple or tomb.

For my money, though, the Treasury is the second-best marvel of Petra. The Monastery, an even larger monument, offers more, but you have to earn it. The arduous ascent up 990 steps is not for the faint of heart nor the weak of knees. But you can rest along the way and relish the fantastic views of surrounding mountains and valleys. 

You learn a lot about a person when you share a climb like this, and new friendships grew stronger as we hiked (and huffed and puffed) together. And we shared a celebration at the top, where we were rewarded with magnificent vistas and an enormous monument.

Two days weren’t enough, but those 990 steps were plenty.

Red Sea
Red Sea boat tour (Photo by Tracey Kaufman Grossback)

Red Sea wellness
Touring is hard work, you know. After days of hiking through archaeological sites and sandstone marvels, overnighting in Wadi Rum at a Bedouin camp, and rocking a desert ride on camels, we coached south to Aqaba, Jordan’s beach resort on the Red Sea.

Our rooms weren’t ready, but our host hotel, Kempinski, graciously allowed us to shower and change from our desert camping clothes and prepare for an afternoon cruise aboard a gorgeous wood schooner.

The sun was warm, the food was fabulous and the drinks were cool and refreshing. The water temperature, too, was cool, but I didn’t pass up the opportunity to take a dip in the Red Sea, and several of my shipmates swam off with snorkeling gear.

I don’t know if this was what Dr. Arabiyat meant when he spoke of “wellness” as a Jordan tourism brand, but I’ve never felt more relaxed and full of life than I did aboard that ship, surrounded by friends.

Having it all
My Jordan journey was a dream trip. Experiencing this phenomenal country alongside exceptional companions made for a memorable and impactful expedition. The only challenge has been tempering my enthusiasm when I tell back-home folks about it. I don’t want to be that guy, you know. So I don’t gush.

What I do is riff on Dr. Arabiyat’s brand statement. Do you want to see spectacular sights? Jordan has them. Get steeped in history? Yeah, it’s way old. Relax at a seaside resort? Yep—Red and Dead. Step outside your comfort zone? Absolutely, a whole other culture is yours to explore.

Then you add warm, hospitable people and a national project that injects social significance into a travel experience … and you have it all.

Here’s how I finish, just short of gushing: If you’ve always been curious about the magical Middle East, but you’ve been a little afraid to venture there, Jordan is the answer. A meaningful, magnificent answer.