by Chris Leadbeater, The Telegraph, May 25, 2018
A crucial corner of the Middle East, awash with biblical heritage, ancient sites, broad swathes of desert and – in Petra – one of the most iconic landmarks on the planet, Jordan could scarcely be called an unknown quantity. But it also has its unheralded areas and its little mysteries. To mark its independence day, and ahead of Prince William's visit in June, the following shards of information may shed light on some of them.
1. Its shape is something of a fudge
Today (May 25) is Jordan’s Independence Day, and dates back to 1946, when the modern version of the country emerged from British protection. Specifically, it emerged as the “Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan” (the Trans- prefix would be dropped in 1949) – a sovereign reboot of the Emirate of Transjordan, which had appeared on the globe, under London’s control, in 1921.
This, in turn, was one of the results of the partitioning of the Middle East by Britain and France in the wake of the First World War – a European carve-up of what, for over four centuries, had been a key portion of the Ottoman Empire. This explains why some of Jordan’s borders – such as its arrow-straight northerly frontier with Syria – look like they have been drawn onto the map with pen and ruler. They have.
2. It has lots of neighbours
Jordan’s status as a central part of the Middle Eastern jigsaw is underscored by the number of countries with which it shares borders. As well as its line in the sand with Syria, it rubs shoulders and elbows against Iraq (to the east), Saudi Arabia (to the south), and Israel and the Palestinian Territories (to the west). Also, if you stand on its Red Sea coast, you can see Egypt’s Sinai peninsula on the far side of the Gulf of Aqaba (although travelling from this particular A to B is a tricky process that involves crossing two border zones, and the Israeli resort city of Eilat. This can take a lot of time and a lot of queuing).
3. It has a miniscule amount of coastline
Talking of the Red Sea, Jordan is the country which claims the second smallest slice of this coastal pie. Let’s consider these numbers. Eritrea has 1,388 miles of shoreline on said sizeable body of water. Saudi Arabia has 1,118 miles. Then come Egypt (932 miles), Sudan (530 miles), Yemen (435 miles) and Djibouti (43 miles). Jordan? It has just 26 miles – and almost half of these required negotiation.
In 1965, the country signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia which saw it gain an extra 11 miles of Red Sea shore in exchange for a chunk of desert territory further inland. This allowed it to expand its port facilities on the water, and led to a growth-spurt for the city of Aqaba. Israel, incidentally, has the smallest strip of Red Sea seashore, four miles, which is basically just Eilat. Dinky.
4. Yet it’s still brilliant for a beach break
Aqaba is the Red Sea destination you probably haven’t considered. But as question marks continue to hang over Egypt’s coastal resorts – Sharm El Sheikh in particular – this little urban nugget at Jordan’s southern tip is a plausible alternative. It has a pleasant ambience in its bars and cafes, hits the temperature sweet-spot of the upper Twenties Celsius during October, and has hotels like the Movenpick Resort and Spa Tala Bay, where you can sun-worship on the beach or soothe your soul on the massage table.
Admittedly, you cannot currently fly direct to the city from the UK – you need to hop to the capital Amman with Royal Jordanian, then change planes. But you can book fly-and-flop packages to Aqaba with the likes of Scott Dunn and Cox & Kings, so all is not lost.
5. The capital is really, really old
It may be one of the oldest cities on the planet, in fact. Archaeological evidence suggests that what is now Amman witnessed human settlement as early as the 13th century BC. It was also established on the surface of our world so long ago that it features in the Bible (as Rabath Ammon).
It sings of a relatively more recent era on its central hill Jabal Al Q’ala, where a Greco-Roman Temple of Hercules stands proud next to an Umayyad palace from the eighth century AD. It sums up this fine tale at the excellent (if rather unimaginatively named) Jordan Museum, which shelters the Ayn Ghazal Statues – rudimentary plaster figures which are thought to date back to 7500 BC.
6. Amman lies somewhere over the rainbow
Or, to be more precise, a rainbow is a key element of its appeal. The curiously titled Al-Rainbow Street cuts across the main hill (Amman is very much a city of peaks and valleys), Jabal Amman, and throngs with bars, restaurants and eateries. These include Sufra, which is slotted into an Ottoman-era townhouse, and comes with a leafy terrace which acts as a more than pleasant visual compliment to its portions of mansaf (the Jordanian national dish; lamb with rice, almonds and pine seeds).
7. Jerash was in the Top Ten
This Roman wonder sits 30 miles north of Amman. In its heyday (the first century AD), it was as significant as what is now the capital. It was part of the “Decapolis”, the 10 most important cities in the Roman Middle East – a band of brothers which also included Amman (then known as “Philadelphia”) and (the Syrian capital) Damascus.
It has shrunk into an enclave of ruined arches, scattered columns and tumbled temples in the intervening two millennia, but it remains a place of enormous beauty, not least when the sun is setting across its amphitheatre. It is also – at a time when Baalbek in Lebanon is troublesome to reach, and Palmyra (Syria) and Leptis Magna (Libya) are most certainly off limits – one of the few Roman citadels in the Middle East which is easily accessible.
8. Indiana Jones visited, albeit briefly
It is arguably the most memorable scene in the Indiana Jones movies – the moment at the climax of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade when the titular hero lays eyes on Al-Khazneh, the rock-carved Treasury building in the “lost” Nabatean city of Petra (which is masquerading on screen as the resting place of the Holy Grail).
However, this was the sole fragment of the cinematic series that was committed to camera in Jordan (much of the rest of The Last Crusade was conjured amid the American dust of Arches National Park in Utah, and the Andalusian drama of the Desierto de Tabernas, in southern Spain).
9. You can walk all the way from north to south
Should you have the energy, you can cover the entire country on foot – via the Jordan Trail. Inaugurated last year, this hiking heaven meanders 402 miles between Um Qais in the far north (almost on the Israeli border), and Aqaba. With an estimated 40 days required to follow it from one end to another, it is not a challenge that recreational walkers will attempt in one go, but its eight sections still make for remarkable mini-adventures – southern portions tick off Petra and the desert landscape of Wadi Rum. And there are discoveries too – those who start in Um Qais can take in the Greco-Roman ruins of Gadara, while the Crusader-built Kerak Castle waits further along.
10. It is safer than you think
While the Middle East remains a place of much documented tensions, and few places can be considered completely safe in this troubled era, Jordan is a pocket of relative calm in a maelstrom of a region. You can find the latest Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice on its suitability for holidays on the FCO website (“around 65,000 British nationals visited Jordan in 2016. Most visits are trouble free” is roughly the gist of it), while you can garner a wealth of information via the tourist board, at visitjordan.com.