“Ahlan Wa Sahlan; you are welcome.” That was the phrase I heard everywhere I went from all the Jordanians I came across. It’s hard not to leave Jordan with a warm feeling. Jordanians are kind, generous and welcoming. Add to that the copious cups of (mint) tea you will drink, the magical world of ancient Petra, the towering sandstone formations amid the red sands of Wadi Rum, the relaxing energies of the Red Sea town of Aqaba and the wonders of floating on the Dead Sea, and you have the recipe for a trip you won’t forget.
The ever pragmatic Jordan is not without its challenges. It faces a chronic shortage of drinking water (it’s the 5th most water-impoverished country in the world), has no oil revenue to speak of, doesn’t have the most peaceful of neighbours and has had to deal with multiple influxes of refugees (Palestine, Syria, Iraq). Despite the strain on its resources and the challenges it faces, its generosity of spirit meant it has opened its arms to neighbours in need.
Check out my post on Petra here.
Red sand. Towering sandstone rock that has been eroded into dreamy formations. Two things that immediately set Wadi Rum apart from all the desert landscapes I’ve seen before.
It has been inhabited since prehistoric times; the ancient Greeks and Romans referred to its olive and pine trees (most have disappeared today). The sandstone cliffs were decorated by tribes from Saudi Arabia and after by the Nabateans, who both coexisted peacefully around 4th century BCE. Fast forward to today, Wadi Rum is the home of the Bedouin and has been for centuries – a nomadic people of legendary bravery. Life to this day is hard here, even for the Bedouin, many of whom have opted for a settled life in the past few decades.
Don’t let its beauty fool you though. Wadi Rum can be violent, moody and a taskmaster for those who ignore its dangers. The most convenient way to explore deep into Wadi Rum is with a 4WD and a Bedouin guide. We found Salman (Wild Wadi Rum) online and think we hit the jackpot.
Lawrence of Arabia
The legacy of this man is almost everywhere in Wadi Rum. From what I understood, it’s mainly to cash in on the foreign fascination, where he is cast in the role of advisor, soldier and champion of the Arab cause (in their struggle to build a nation, ousting the Turks). But that’s not necessarily how he is viewed from an Arab perspective. Coming from a wealthy English family, with a passion for the Middle East, he accompanied armies of the great Arab warrior Emir Faisal (1917). The film portrays his eccentric and brave accomplishments, but in Jordan, he is viewed as much an imperialist as he is a friend of the Arabs.
Day Tour of Wadi Rum
We started off with tea at Salman’s family home in the Rum Village – home to a small community of Bedouin who have chosen to live a more sedentary life. The village, with towering sandstone cliffs in the backdrop, is made up of simple houses, and almost everyone is related to each other. Or at least everyone we met along the way was a cousin of Salman’s 🙂
This spring was our first pitstop for the day – named in honour of Lawrence’s evocative description:
“In front of us a path, pale with use, zigzagged up the cliff plinth… From between the trees, in hidden crannies of the rock, issued strange cries; the echoes, turned into music, of the voices of the Arabs watering camels at the springs which flowed out 300 feet above ground.”
This was also our first introduction to “scrambling” – a cross between hiking and climbing. No requirement for any technical skills but involved some (precarious) pulling up over small rock faces. This spring together with others allowed Rum to become an important watering hole for caravans going between Syria and Arabia.
Al Hasany Dunes
Our second pitstop: the red sands that bank up against Jebel Umm Ulaydiyya. We climbed a long slope of sand to the crest of the dune to soak in views from above.
A narrow fissure that cuts through Jebel Khazali, with ancient inscriptions on the walls. Normally, it would have been easy to explore, but given the rains the day before we arrived, there were pools of freezing cold water that you had to wade through (sometimes knee-deep). It’s hard to describe in words how humbling it feels with the towering walls on either side.
A Special Detour
After coming back from the Khazali Siq, Ahmed (Salman’s brother who had been driving us) had a smile on his face as he greeted us.
“Salman and my family have decided to go into the desert for a family meal today. We are going to go join them!”
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“We will find out soon,” came Ahmed’s reply. “Salman just told me they might be roughly in the vicinity of this one mountain. Let’s see if we can find them. InshaAllah, we will. If not, we will come back.”
“How do you know where the mountain is, Ahmed?” I asked incredulously. Ahmed grinned. Here, deep in Wadi Rum, Ahmed was navigating with no GPS, no Google Maps, no Sat Nav, no paper map. It was all in his head. He knew all the names of the mountains and rock formations. How he could tell one apart from another was beyond me.
With no exact location, it was no surprise we got temporarily lost. But Ahmed, with his superhero-like navigation skills, and an encouraging word from a Bedouin man we encountered on the way who had seen Salman pass by earlier, got us back on track.
“Keep a lookout for 2 white trucks,” Ahmed told us. “That will be them.”
With his bloodhound-like tracking sensibilities, we followed tyre tracks for another short while and found Salman and the family. Their grandmother wanted to come to this specific location because she remembered coming to it decades ago as a child. So the whole family came along to have lunch in the desert. They had also brought a goat to slaughter for the occasion which I thankfully missed, but arrived while Salman was chopping it up into pieces. Its head (with the eyes) were still intact. Spooky. I had never eaten goat before (I only eat chicken and seafood), but given they’d shown us such hospitality and kindness in inviting us for lunch, I couldn’t refuse.
When there are other men outside the family around, the Bedouin separate by gender while eating. So we sat with Salman, Ahmed and their nephews on the sand, had some tea, and then ate the barbecued goat with bread and yoghurt, washed down with some Pepsi (again didn’t have the heart to say I don’t drink Pepsi). After lunch we just sat in this remote location deep in Wadi Rum, without a person in sight. In perfect silence.
Ahmed and Salman retreated for a nap on the sand, while Zain and myself went for a walk and sat on some large rocks in the stillness for a while. A totally different world to London where you’re racing down the tube platform, rushing to a restaurant to meet friends, or speed-walking to work while dodging wide-eyed tourists.
It was soon time to go home. But not before making another pitstop for tea (where we met another of Ahmed’s cousins), and stopping at a makeshift petrol station (where there was yet another of Ahmed’s cousins) and to inflate the tyres of the 4WD (where yet more of Ahmed’s relatives were) 😉
- Entrance fee to Wadi Rum is 5JD ($7) per person
- We took the JETT bus from Aqaba which cost 18JD ($25) per person for a day return – note this is much cheaper than buying two separate single tickets. The bus left Aqaba at 0800am and reached the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre around 0930am. The return bus is supposed to leave at 0630pm, getting into Aqaba at 0800pm, but can often run a bit late.
- The Visitor Centre has a museum, toilets, shops and a place to eat
- The 4WD tour we booked with Salman via email was 70JD ($100) for 5 hours (split between 2 people) with 5JD per person for a light packed lunch. We paid in cash on arrival. Salman picked us up and dropped us off at the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre.
The Dead Sea
Officially a lake and not a sea, having the sensitive border with Israel/Palestine running through its middle, here are 9 things I learnt about the Dead Sea.
1. Average salinity is 34% – 10x more salty than regular sea water. The high salinity is a result of the sea having no outlet, together with water evaporating at high temperatures faster than it is being replenished. Surprisingly, the Dead Sea is not the saltiest water body in the world (it’s superseded by Gaet’ale Pond in Ethiopia, and the Don Juan Pond in Antarctica, according to the Guinness World Records or World Atlas).
2. It is the deepest hyper saline body of water in the world (deepest point is over 300m).
3. Dead Sea mud has healing properties with its high salt and mineral content (magnesium, calcium, potassium, bromine, iodine). It’s said to improve psoriasis, treat arthritis and reduce inflammation. I generously applied it all over my body (perhaps went a bit overboard) but still didn’t see what the fuss was all about.
4. One of the world’s first health resorts: apparently Cleopatra firmly believed that the Dead Sea had mystical healing powers. She would travel from Ancient Egypt for a good soak in the mineral-rich mud.
5. It’s the lowest point on earth, approximately 400m below sea level.
6. High salinity means the sea water is denser than your body, so you float (and taking swimming strokes is pretty difficult). Within seconds you’ll also be acutely aware of the tiniest of cuts you never knew you had. Word of advice: don’t shave beforehand.
7. About 3 million years old, the Dead Sea formed due to movements between the African and Arabian plate (it was connected to the Mediterranean Sea before being cut off).
8. The Dead Sea is quite literally dead. Well, almost. Due to the high salinity and inhospitable environment, nothing lives there except bacteria.
9. Due to geological factors, climate and human/industrial factors (primarily the diversion of water from the inflowing Jordan River) the Dead Sea is sadly shrinking by 0.5m per year (possibly will become the Disappeared Sea centuries from now?)
What’s the Dead Sea mud like?
Watch to find out as Zainal experiences the famed Dead Sea mud with its revered healing properties for the first time.
What better way to round up a day at the Dead Sea than a Middle Eastern dessert buffet?
We were treated to a whole range of Middle Eastern desserts at the Holiday Inn where we had lunch, including:
- Mahalabia – creamy, sweet milk pudding with nuts, sometimes flavoured with rose water
- Ghraybeh – Middle Eastern shortbread cookies
- Basbousa – sweet semolina cake soaked in syrup
- Umm Ali – traditional Middle Eastern bread pudding, with puff pastry, milk, cream, nuts and fruit
We didn’t get to go inside, but apparently water flows year-round and it has breathtaking waterfalls, canyons and incredible rock scapes.
History of Aqaba
Aqaba was described by a Muslim traveller in the 10th century as a meeting place for pilgrims to and from Mecca. It was at the heart of ancient trade routes which transported copper ore from mines in Wadi Araba to faraway destinations. Chinese ceramics and Ethiopian coins showcase the cosmopolitan nature of the port. The city then came to be known as Ayla and the Egyptians, Nabateans and Romans all found their uses for it. In 1068 an earthquake hit and in the 16th century, trade routes shifted to Baghdad resulting in the town dwindling. In the early 20th century, during the Arab revolt, Ottoman forces were pushed out and the British used the town as a supply centre from Egypt to support the assault on Damascus.
Exploring Aqaba on foot on a Friday evening
Aqaba has a relaxed air and a mild climate, characteristic of a Red Sea town. It’s small, walkable, and doesn’t face the problems of heavy traffic or noise that you might face in Amman. Given that the town isn’t overflowing with historical sights, I read it’s best explored on foot. What better way to do this than a walking tour on Friday evening?
Led by the amazing Mohammed, this was one of the most fun walking tours I’ve ever been on. Mohammed and I first corresponded over two months before my trip to Aqaba, and he was so generous that he helped with several other questions I had (like logistics around the JETT bus!)
When we met him, it was like meeting a long-lost friend. Kind, funny, generous, and knowledgeable, Mohammed showed us the streets of Aqaba through his eyes, sampling food along the way.
After passing well-manicured allotments growing different vegetables, the recently renovated Sharif Al Hussein Bin Ali mosque, stopping by the seafront for sunset (which apparently was a very popular Friday activity for the locals), we set off sampling all sorts of food. Given it was a Friday close to the start of Ramadan, the streets of Aqaba were full of life with several people already making their Ramadan purchases (the sweet and nuts shop apparently would get astronomically busy just before the festival of Eid). Couldn’t have asked for a better way to explore Aqaba – by eating our way through 😉
1. Magali: I wouldn’t have guessed chips (fries) constituted a key part of a popular street food dish, but was proven wrong when I tried Magali. Chips, fried aubergine and fresh tomato slices wrapped in pita made for a surprisingly delicious snack.
2. Hibiscus juice (Karkadei) – sweet and refreshing. Subtle hints of Ribena.
3. Baklava – who can resist? Apparently there are few faux-pas that can’t be undone with a smile and a box of baklava.
4. Falafel – in Jordan, the falafel is made of chickpea; and some of the best falafel sandwiches are at Falafel W Bas (0.50JD or $0.70 for one regular sandwich)
5. The King of Alhoh – a must visit. Alhoh is a local dessert roll made with walnuts, cinnamon, coconut and ghee, baked in the oven and topped with a generous dose of condensed milk. And the King of Alhoh is a super friendly guy – he’s the only one who makes it in Aqaba and follows his grandmother’s recipe.
6. Jordanian ‘apero’: olives, pickled goat’s cheese and aubergine (pickling helps store it for longer at room temperature) with a healthy drizzle of olive oil, mopped up with a piece of freshly baked bread from Aqaba’s first bakery (bread is very special to the Jordanians, and features in almost every meal).
7. Jordanian tea and coffee is the foundational part of any social interaction in the country – be it a business transaction, a family gathering, meeting of friends or even bargaining at a shop. Some popular teas include mint tea (shai ma n’aana), Za’atar and sage herbal teas.
Coffee (kahwa) is served in small cups, and usually flavoured with cardamom. Mohammed explained that the host will never fill the coffee cup to the brim – that’s considered a sign of hatred towards the person. Instead, the host will happily refill a guest’s cup. Gently rocking your cup from side to side shows you’ve had enough.
With the King of Alhoh, trying his delicious dessert
Restaurants in Aqaba
- Al Mohandes – an unpretentious canteen-style restaurant, that’s always busy, and does good local food that’s outstanding value for Aqaba. Dinner for two was 5JD ($7) – the cheapest meal we had in Jordan (one tea, one soft drink, chicken shawarma with hummus, pita bread, fuul, falafel and a fried egg).
- Hashem Son’s – a similar canteen-style vibe, with al-fresco seating, equally delicious and good value. I ordered one fatteh (crispy golden brown pieces of pita bread covered in warm chickpea and yoghurt, fried pine nuts and sprinkled with herbs & drizzled with olive oil) – a meal on its own, one mint tea and three pieces of falafel (normal, cheesy, spicy). The bill (dinner for one) was 3.5JD ($5).
- Syrian Palace Restaurant – Syrian-Jordanian cuisine with grilled meat and fish. We tried the traditional Aqaba dish of Sayadieh (spiced fish with rice). Dinner for two was 16JD ($22.5) and included a large bottle of water, one mint tea, 2x Sayadieh, 1x hummus.
- Al Basha Restaurant – a small hole-in-the-wall joint known for its falafel sandwiches, with limited seating. One small falafel sandwich for a post-dinner snack hit the right spot (0.5JD or $0.70).
Day Trip to Berenice Beach Club from Aqaba
To access a well-maintained private beach with a pool, sun beds, showers and changing rooms, a restaurant & bar, snorkelling and other activities, Berenice Beach Club was the perfect answer. A day pass was 13JD ($18), and this included a free shuttle transfer from the centre of Aqaba to Berenice (15 min journey) and back.
I was pleasantly surprised that you could just enter the sea at the end of the jetty and snorkel straightaway with decent coral and fish. The better snorkelling sites (like the Japanese Garden) require a boat trip. There were also numerous activities through the day to inject a bit more fun and laughs – like stretching, bowls and darts. I tried the latter and was laughably bad!
I sadly couldn’t stay for sunset since I had a flight to catch, but this is a great place to catch the ruby red mountains and fiery skies of Aqaba at dusk.
5 things I learnt about Jordan and its Culture
- The late King Hussein (father of the current King Abdullah) become King at 17 when his father was assassinated. By the end of his reign he commanded great respect from not only his people, but from across the surrounding countries as a leader providing stability and moderateness in a region embroiled in war and extremist activity. Apparently he would disguise himself as a taxi driver and ask his passengers what they thought of the King!
- Emphasis on controlling your temper. From what I learnt, etiquette dictates that getting angry in public is considered unacceptable in Jordan (in contrast to a few other countries in the Arab world I have visited ;))
- Sheikhs – Mohammed explained that in Jordan each family has a head called a ‘sheikh’. This person acts on behalf of the family in trying to resolve disputes in various situations. So for example, if there was a fight of some kind and the offender was thrown into jail possibly awaiting a formal hearing, the sheikhs of the two families could bring the two sides together for a discussion. This discussion may involve apologies, expressions of remorse, financial payments among other things. Once a settlement is reached, an agreement is drawn up and signed (family sheikhs are officially recognised by the state). The document is then taken to the police station to release the offending family member from police custody.
- King Hussein’s land swap with Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. Britain arbitrarily drew the Saudi Arabia-Jordan border just a few kilometres from Aqaba after WWI since it wasn’t defined. With the port of Aqaba growing and being space-constrained, the King made a deal with Saudi Arabia. He traded 6000 sq km of desert for another 12km of coastline (which is now the South Beach area). The deal that has paid off in spades, given the importance of tourism to Jordan.
- Jordan’s chronic water shortage: Jordan ranks among the worst 5-10 water impoverished countries in the world. The situation is unfortunately fairly serious and not expected to improve anytime soon. Most of Jordan’s rivers are already being diverted, the country’s population is increasing and droughts are persistent.