The recent marriage of King Hussein and Lisa Halaby, an American, has focused new attention on the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
THE SMALL, slightly plump 40ish man in a Western suit topped by teh traditional red-and-white-checkered Arab headdress had been watching me as I took pictures at the Third Circle, one of the major traffic hubs in Amman, Jordan. He approached me somewhat self-conciously and, with a shy smile, asked in good English whether I was American. His next question: What was life like in America?
While I was puzzling how to respond to this (his earnest manner made it clear that this was a sincere request for information and not merely a conversational gambit, he proceeded to tell me in the friendliest fashion the reason for his question. He was about to go to the United States for the first time to visit a woman living in Texas whom he knew only through an exchange of letters - a pen pal turned into a potential mate. He had his ticket and U.S. visa in hand, but now, on the eve of his departure, he was beset by qualms.
Would she like him? Would she allow him to live with her? If not, would he be able to afford to live on his own? How were prices in the United States? Did Americans like Arabs? Would it be "wonderful" if he wore his complete Arab regalia in New York?
I tried to answer his questions - the last one, at least, was easy! Then Mousa Mobydeen, my new acquaintance, invited me "and my friends" to visit him at his home some 15 miles from Amman (this had to mean a village or small town) and to spend the night if we chose. Although it was necessary to decline the invitation, this incident illustrates the friendliness, hospitality and seeming trust that Jordanians characteristically display toward Americans - and quite possibly toward other foreigners as well. During a recent three-week visit to Jordan, I had numerous encounters with Jordanians eager to converse, if not all on quite such a personal level.
I was in Jordan as a geological consultant to the Natural Resources Authority and thus had apportunities to see a good bit of the country in addition to Amman. For the most part that means desert, but it is a desert that contains some of the most spectacular scenery to be imagined. Jordan is also land of antiquities that range from the awesome facades of Petra, the Nabatean city, sculpted some 2,000 years ago from sheer sandstone cliffs, through a great variety of imposing-to-modest ruins representing numberous cultures from Paleolithic to Islam. The country is said to be a paradise for archeologists, and quite clearly many of the sites have scarcely been explored.
Amman itself is a pleasant city of dominantly rectangular, two- or three-story houses with flat roofs, built of the cream-colored limestone that underlies the region. Some embassies, affluent homes and a number of public buildings have greater architectural flair.
The city, which today has about a half-million residents, is relatively new, little of it more than 100 years old. Large parts of Amman's west side have been built up in the last 10 to 15 years, and since space is plentiful, the city spreads out without a real downtown area. As a consequence, Amman largely lacks the exotic charm of some older Middle Eastern cities such as Istanbul, Cairo or the old part of Jerusalem. There are compensations, to be sure, in the broad boulevards, the generally orderly traffic, the relative ease of finding one's way and a general sense of efficiency and modernity. One also finds, alas, inordinately high prices in hotels, restaurants and shops.
Amman has some 30 listed hotels with a total of about 1,400 rooms and government-established ratings of from five stars to one star. The only five-star hotel in Amman is the 250-room Jordan Intercontinental, a sumptuous establishment with several restaurants and a variety of shops and services: The basic room rate is about $65 per day (based on current exchange rates). (The recently completed Holiday Inn in Aqaba is the country's only other five-star hotel.) Five hotels in Amman rate four stars, and 17 get three stars.There are also seven establishments listed as pensions, with a total of 125 rooms.
During my stay, I sampled two three-star hotels and one pension, and looked into several other hotels. The most aspiring, though inconveniently located, hotel in which I stayed is the relatively new Manar, which runs about $30 per day, including service charge and a somewhat expanded continental breakfast. Dinner at the Manar, which I tried only once, was a totally uninspired Western-style, fixed-menu meal consisting of a meat patty, potatoes and a vegetable, and cost over $7. One can do much better in variety, if not in price, at downtown restaurants. On the positive side, the Manar was agreeably clean, bright and airy, with reliable hot and cold water and well-tended bathroom facilities. The staff is friendly, helpful and reasonably fluent in English.
The somewhat more modest Canary Hotel, which carries the same rating as the Manar but costs only about $16 per day, caters almost exclusively to an Arab clientele (in four days there I saw no other Westerners besides myself). The Canary, too, is clean, well-managed and friendly, although the level of comprehension of English, especially among the kitchen staff, is several notches below that of the Manar, and it takes patience to have one's wishes understood (a good reason for carrying the excellent little Berlitz Arabic language guide or a similar volume).
Restaurants are plentiful in Amman, though relatively few seem to be of high quality. Basic Middle Eastern cuisine - dishes such as kofte (large spiced lamb patties), kibbe (ground lamb with spices), and shish kebab or lamb chops - is available at such restaurants as the New Orient, Omar Khayyam and Queens. A basic meal, without appetizer but served with the local flat bread (called khoboz in Jordan) and a simple salad runs $6 to $8 per person, including tip.
(Note: Tap water is not considered safe to drink in Amman owing to various factors, such as the limestone terrain that reduces natural purification occurring in sandstone; human and animal contamination in areas adjacent to the city; and the widespread practice of storing water in roof tanks. Therefore, boiled water is recommended for drinking, and it appears to be always available.)
But barring some parts of the old town - some interesting Roman ruins related to the ancient city of Philadelphia and a small but excellent archeological museum - Amman is not an important reason for the tourist to visit Jordan. A better reason is Jarash, some 25 kilometers north of Amman in the mountains of Biblical Gilead, which has been called the best and most completely preserved example of a provincial Roman city in the Middle East.
Highlights of Jarash include a superb theater (partly reconstructed), an imposing column-ringed forum, two major colonnaded streets that intersect in the heart of the city and several fine temples, outstanding among which is the temple of Artemis on a hill overlooking the city. Near the Roman city is the present-day large village, also known as Jarash, whose minarets and rectangular white houses present an interesting contrast to the majestic ruins.
For a very different view of Jordan one must travel south, commonly via the "desert highway," to Aqaba. The 200-mile trip, without major stops and detours, can be made in about five hours (in fact, the road to Petra turns off from the desert highway to the west; however, this much-chronicled archeological wonderland will not be described further here). The desert highway is a narrow two-lane asphalt road ranging from fair to excellent, which is mostly traveled by trucks carrying goods between Amman and the port of Aqaba.
The green and fertile rolling hills near Amman (whose climate is much like that of northern California) gradually give way to an increasingly dry and brown desert plain, its monotony broken by herds of sheep or goats, scattered black Bedouin tents, and an occasional rather desolate little town of plain, gray cinder-block houses. A dramatic change in scenery takes place at Ra-s an Naqb, some 50 miles northeast of Aqaba, where the road drops from the rolling limestone plateau over a steep escarpment some 1,000 feet to a moonscrape of sandstone bluffs and pinnacles - a scene right out of Lawrence of Arabia.
Perhaps the scenically most imposing region in all of Jordan is Wadi Rum (Wadi is Arabic for any river valley or canyon) some 30 miles east of Aqaba. The region near Wadi Rum, which can be reached only by driving cross-country on rocky and sandy desert tracks, is a gigantic badlands carved by erosion into massive, pink to brown sandstone. The effect is somewhat comparable to Bryce or Zion National Parks, but the cliffs are more bizarrely shaped, and the terrain is infinitely more desolate.
A lone police outpost, manned by a couple of Bedouin soldiers with camels in colorful regalia, marks the end of the navigable road. Near the outpost, a small Nabatean ruin of fragmentary walls and columns creates a foreground for cliffs rising sheer for some 2,000 feet. Wadi Rum is justly famous and well worth the trip if one can find transportation (a four-wheel-drive vehicle is mandatory). In the United States this would be an instant National Park with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Wadi Rum, by contrast, is a vast loneliness broken only by the occasional visitor - usually one in a quasi-official capacity. However, a "rest house" is now being completed in the area, according to the government.
Aqaba, sprawled on the northeast shore of the Gulf of Aqaba, is a colorful town that has mushroomed in recent years due to the decline of Beirut as a port of entry for Jordanian goods. Visitors, mostly Europeans, are drawn to Aqaba by the balmy climate, the fine beaches with their colorful coral reefs and the relatively reasonable prices (distinctly lower than in Amman). A few resort hotels offer facilities such as waterskiing, but mostly you're on your own here, and campers dot the beaches south of Aqaba. Last year 940,000 tourists visited Jordan, including 41,298 Americans and 67,998 Europeans, according to government figure.
Across the water is Eilat, the Israeli counterpart to Aqaba. Unsurprisingly, however, "one can't get there from here." The Jordan-Israel border, running from the Gulf of Aqaba along the Jordan Rift Valley north to the Dead Sea (Wadi al 'Arabah) is a kind of no-man's land under strict security regulations; a new road along the Jordanian side of the border, completed just last year, is virtually untraveled except for a few military vehicles.
Leo is a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Reston. He lives in Vienna.