Standing atop a slope of black rubble, the folds of a red-and-white-checked kaffiyeh shading his chestnut eyes from the high Jordanian sun, eco-guide Mohammad Daifallah surveys his world.
“That’s where I was born,” he says, pointing to a clearing in the valley, where a jumble of brown goat-hair tents shiver in the dry breeze. “Just to the left, that’s where I took my wedding. And this,” he smiles, holding out his arms, “is where I work.” Below us, the serpentine canyons of the Dana Biosphere Reserve glow orange in the noonday heat.
The Middle East may not seem the likeliest place for a trailblazing eco-tourism project. Between the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio to the west, Iraq to the east and Syria unraveling amid a rebellion to the north, the neighborhood is better known for ugly politics than for beautiful nature. But Mohammad is a foot soldier in a very different kind of revolution. For in the midst of this troubled neighborhood, Jordan has been gradually going green.
I’ve come to southern Jordan to learn about the work of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), a nongovernmental organization patronized by Jordan’s royal family, which aspires to balance the need to safeguard the country’s unique environments with the needs of the people who call them home, a mission encapsulated by the simple slogan: “Helping nature . . . helping people.” Across a network of seven nature reserves, its work has centered on the concept of “zoning,” cordoning off areas to let them recover from the ravages of hunting and overgrazing, while compensating the agrarian economy by introducing alternative livelihoods. By promoting eco-tourism, the scheme has provided much-needed job opportunities and a market for local products, bringing economic stability to some of Jordan’s poorest rural communities.
The Dana Biosphere Reserve was the pilot territory for the program when it began in 1994 and remains its shining beacon. Spread over 116 square miles of steep-sided gorges, about 120 miles south of the Jordanian capital of Amman, this is Jordan’s largest and most diverse protected region: an Aladdin’s canyon of more than 600 plant species, some found nowhere else, and pastel cliffs stalked by sand cats, Nubian ibex and rare Syrian wolves.
Nowhere is this biodiversity more evident than along the Wadi Dana Trail, where my visit begins. Starting at the cliff-top perch of Dana village, the reserve’s normal entry point, the track snakes 4,000 feet downhill into the reserve’s central valley, through four distinct ecosystems: first winding past junipers and lonely cypress trees; next delving into a gallery of surreal bubble-rock formations; then dropping onto the bone-dry watercourse, its banks thick with bamboo, oleander and resplendent palms, toward the point where the orange-stained scarps bleed into the north Arabian Desert.
It’s four hours before I spot the first sign of humanity — a ragtag Bedouin encampment crouched in a gulley — and 10 minutes more before I’m seated on cushions, sipping iced lemonade with chopped mint. The transition from flyblown trail to reception-area sofa comes courtesy of the Feynan Ecolodge, curiously at home in its mountain amphitheater, like a remote desert fortress thrown together in a sandstorm.
Opened in 2005, this award-winning hotel is the emblem of Jordan’s conservation crusade and the heart of sustainable tourism in Dana. Its green credentials are obvious even before I walk through the ornate wooden door, from sun-deflecting slabs set in exterior walls to rooftop solar panels, designed to power bathroom lights and hot water.
But for all the emphasis on function, Feynan still manages to exude opulence. My room is understated but comfortable, with a domed ceiling and a king-size bed cradled by stucco the color of baked earth. Come dusk, the building reveals its true magic, as candles light the bedrooms, the communal courtyards and the coiling stairways, and the complex takes on the atmosphere of a medieval caravanserai.
In keeping with RSCN philosophy, those courtyard candles were crafted locally by Bedouin women, while the orange polo-shirted attendants who light them were all born within a few miles of the building. The lodge employs about 32 locals directly and provides indirect income for dozens more, such as the 4x4 drivers who provide a shuttle service for guests to and from the King’s Highway, the road that bisects Jordan from north to south, or Um Khalid, a young mother of four who makes the lodge’s flat breads in her nearby tent. The evening meal, served on an outdoor terrace beneath a glittering desert sky, is a delicious vegetarian banquet of lentil soup, raisin coleslaw, tahini and stuffed eggplant, all the ingredients sourced from nearby villages.
“The innovation in Feynan’s eco-tourism model is that it generates profit while also improving the surrounding area,” says Nabil Tarazi, managing director of EcoHotels, the company that took over running the lodge from the RSCN in 2009. “By exclusively hiring locals we’re providing an alternative to herding and a route out of the poverty trap. So we really are part of the community, and the community sees the lodge as its own.”
Not a bad deal for the guests either, I think to myself as I watch lodge manager Hussein Al-Amareen glide between the tables in a shimmering black caftan, offering such insights into local life as: “My uncle has four wives and 25 children; in Bedouin culture we like to make an army!” The Bedouin, after all, know a thing or two about hospitality.
From the lodge, opportunities for further exploration abound. Some people make use of the lodge’s mountain bikes, but most explore by foot along a network of trails that penetrate every corner of the reserve, offering everything from short hikes along the valley floor to a five-day journey south across the Sharah Mountains that ends at the magnificent sandstone facades of Petra, the Nabatean ruins that remain Jordan’s biggest tourist magnet.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in endlessly ancient Jordan, history colors my walks in Dana, too. Five thousand years ago, the people of the area became one of the first societies to excavate and smelt copper for use in ornaments and simple tools. Later, under the stewardship of the Romans, the region’s mines supplied copper to most of the known world. Remarkably, there are no barriers restricting access to this al fresco museum of 98 archeological sites, no one touting tourist trinkets and no litter blowing in the wind.
Up in the Ottoman-era labyrinth of Dana village, the RSCN is shepherding a groundbreaking restoration project with U.S. Agency for International Development funds. The developers who have despoiled the Dead Sea coast with large, unsympathetic resorts are being kept at bay, in favor of boutique hotels that complement the region’s rich heritage.
Though not as spectacular or wellpreserved as some other Jordanian ruins — Dana’s main site, the Byzantine citadel of Khirbet Feynan, was reduced to rubble by an earthquake in the 8th century — Dana’s ruins lay claim to being as valuable, for some of them are infinitely older. On a stony hillside overlooking the desert plains, I spend hours picking through the animal bones and limestone crockery of a Stone Age settlement believed to date back 11,000 years.
It’s little wonder that the locals should feel a potent sense of ownership. Yet all the people I talk to seem to have embraced the influx of low-level tourism. The old indigenous life perseveres, but interactions between tourists and locals seem unjaded. My trip is punctuated by invitations to share a cup of Arabic coffee — a spicy brew infused with cardamom — and handshakes with grizzled farmers driving their herds in search of meager pasture.
According to Tarazi, this honest cultural exchange has become one of Dana’s main drawing cards. “What started as a project aimed at benefiting the local community has traveled full circle,” he says. “Now, the opportunity to interact with local people is one of the main reasons for Feynan’s success.” From the outset, conserving Dana has meant conserving this timeless human presence.
Mohammad epitomizes the way this coming together of old and new has served to enrich the tourist experience here. Born in a cave not far from where the lodge now stands, he lived his childhood on the knife-edge of subsistence. From age 6 he worked as a goatherd, camping out at night among the rocky pinnacles with only his flute for comfort.
After he finished school, the opportunity to go to university lured him away from Dana — just one migrant in a wider diaspora, as the countryside’s young people, disillusioned by the traditional life, headed for the cities — until the prospect of a job with the ecolodge enticed him back. Today, that job, well-paying by Jordanian standards, means a better life for his young family and a small home in a village on the reserve’s western periphery.
And the job comes easy. Mohammad is a natural guide, as deeply reverent of the old ways as he is proud of his work. “Some visitors have said that this is the best trip of their lives,” he claims, later sending me the TripAdvisor testimonials of former Feynan guests to prove it. “This makes me very happy.”
Together, in pleasant springtime temperatures, we meander along the tracks that radiate from the lodge. Barely a minute goes by without Mohammad stopping to point out things that my less keen eyes might have missed, such as the pattern of a plant fossil high on a wind-polished wall, or a brief cameo from the reserve’s shy wildlife: a blue lizard darting across the pebbles or a griffon vulture wheeling against the lapis sky.
Of the reserve’s stellar cast of mammals — several of which are endangered — we find little, save for the gaggles of domesticated camels that we see often, their forelegs fettered to stop them from striding off into the shimmering desert.
Over at the pioneering copper mines, we spend a whole morning peering into the crab-holes that perforate the bedrock, attempting to imagine the files of blinking men emerging from below, laden with ore chipped from the seams that begin 100 feet down and run for 300 feet underground. In between sites, we walk along gulches scattered with shards of green malachite, where Mohammad demonstrates the knowledge that develops where harsh conditions demand ingenuity: that the white-flowered artemisia can be used as an antiseptic and that marjoram, when crushed, behaves like soap.
But our most memorable foray takes us into the famously beautiful slot canyon of Wadi Ghwayr. The scenery gets better the deeper we go. The walls gradually narrow, until we are burrowing into a gullet of granular rock that rises in raspberry-ripple dips and bulges, blocking out the sun. An hour in, rivulets of water appear at our feet, running in braided channels before disappearing back underground — a sign that up on the Shobak plateau, the rains are beginning.
“Where you find the water you can make the life,” Mohammad counsels happily, hopping from boulder to sandbank before pushing on up the gorge. Five hundred generations have done just that in Dana. And as Jordan sets the standard for eco-tourism in the Middle East, it seems likely that people will be living here for generations to come.
Wismayer is a freelance writer based in London. His Web site is www.henrywismayer.com.