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Traveling farmer ventures to Jordan

My route to the Middle East took me from the farm to Amman via Chicago.  

The nonstop flight on Royal Jordanian Airlines from Chicago to Amman, Jordan lasted almost 12 hours.  

On the video display at my seat was a channel that regularly displayed the direction of Mecca relative to the current location of the aircraft.  Since I had not seen such a display on board any aircraft I had flown in the past, I asked the flight attendant what it was for.  She stated it was so those passengers on the aircraft of Muslim faith always knew the direction of Mecca since Muslims are required to face Mecca during prayer.

The time difference between Virginia and Jordan is plus eight hours. Though I had departed the farm on Monday morning I did not arrive at the airport in Amman until Tuesday evening, local Jordanian time. For those of you who haven’t enjoyed the pleasure of flying on a packed airplane for 12 hours, there is only one thing worse. That’s flying on a packed airplane for 13 hours .... which is what I did on my return flight.

I have been to the Middle East numerous times and traveled to Amman before.  Arrival in Middle Eastern countries is something difficult to explain. Usually as you step out of the airport the high temperatures and low humidity hit you like the air from a blast furnace. 

The smells are totally different than those most Americans would consider as common. To many that difference is even considered unpleasant. If it’s windy, there’s blowing sand and dust, which irritates your nose and throat. 

You instantly notice the advertising and road signs in Arabic script and the sounds of people speaking in unfamiliar languages. It truly can be described as “foreign.”

Drivers are atrocious, and it’s amazing how a two lane road can at any given moment have four cars abreast. Pedestrians become targets for those drivers who believe the more powerful their vehicle the less often they must yield to anyone. But it must work for them as I didn’t see any car wrecks the entire trip. 

Next you notice the buildings which have styles reminiscent of movies like, “Lawrence of Arabia.”

But most of all you immediately notice men and women dressed in their traditional clothing interspersed with people in western style apparel. Men wearing head scarves and what appear to be dresses while women with their heads covered or wearing burkas, which hide their entire bodies from view. All you see as the women all dressed in black approach are eyes peering through a small slit in the black mask that covers their head and entire face.

On the ride from the airport into the city there were animals grazing everywhere along the roadway. As there were no fences, they sometimes were actually in the roadway.  The desert extended in all directions but as we got closer to town there were more houses and less open land. 

As the taxi approached my hotel I could see it was heavily guarded. The front of the building was separated from the street by a high wall. There were military vehicles with mounted machine guns in several locations. I had to walk through a metal detector, and my bags were x-rayed before I could enter the hotel. 

I was told that because the hotel was frequented by dignitaries and foreigners, security was taken very seriously. Later during my stay when I left the hotel grounds for a walk to the local souk (a traditional shopping area), I was alone, and there was no security force. I never felt unsafe, and all the people in the area were very friendly.

All of the above would be a first impression for visitors who had never been to the Middle East before. As “foreign” as it all may seem, it is a beautiful and diverse part of the world.  Once over the shock of that first impression, you need to take a moment to step back, dig in and see what wonderful surprises the country and the region have to offer.

Jordan, officially known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, is ruled by a constitutional monarchy. Unlike Great Britain where the queen is mostly a figure head, His Majesty King Abdullah fully runs the country.  He actively manages the day to day functions of the Jordanian government. As the oldest of his father’s sons, he was born with the right to rule, and the citizens of Jordan have no say on who their ruler will be. 

Jordan has a population of 6.5 million with 2.5 million people living in the capital, Amman. Jordan is about the size of the state of Maine and is bordered by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Israel.  

Though the official language is Arabic, English is also taught in schools thus most people have a basic knowledge of English. The monetary unit is the Jordanian Dinar. One Dinar costs $1.41 US. 

Jordan maintains positive relations with the United States, so visitors to Jordan from the USA can purchase a visa (visitors permit) upon arrival at the airport. The cost of the visa was 20 Dinar.

Jordan produces fruits and vegetables for self-consumption and export. The Jordan River valley is also known as “the fertile crescent” or the breadbasket of the Middle East. Agriculture is a major industry and can be seen everywhere there is access to water.  Much of the soil, though very rocky, appears very fertile.  Of course camels, goats and sheep are quite common and can be seen grazing most everywhere. 

When traveling outside Amman all the local grocery stores had chickens live in cages.  Apparently if a housewife wanted chicken for dinner, she would go to the store, purchase one live and process it at home. Food doesn’t get much fresher than that. 

After chicken the most prevalent meat is goat or sheep. Camels are sometimes eaten, but their milk is valued by older adult males who believe it has “Viagra” like qualities. Unlike what I had been told in the past, camels’ humps are “not” filled with water but are actually a place they store fat for food and energy.

The predominant religion in Jordan and throughout the Middle East is Muslim, and mosques with their adjacent minarets can be seen across the country. A minaret is a tall cylindrical tower (picture a rocket ship) that has giant speakers near its top pointing in every direction. 

Four times a day “call to prayer,” is blasted from these speakers.  It’s an eerie sound that echoes throughout the city. It’s difficult to describe, but once you have heard, especially at sunrise, you will never forget it. Each time it is played Muslims are expected to face east (Mecca) and pray to Allah.

Jordan, as compared to many countries in the region, is very westernized.  Women are not required by law to cover their heads as in some neighboring countries. Women can legally possess a driver’s license, although female drivers are not seen that often. 

Though personal contact between men and women in public is not against the law, it is uncommon to see. Alcoholic beverages are available but mainly for tourist consumption. Smoking is a common habit in public, restaurants and most everywhere else. I’m told a carton of cigarettes can be purchased for the equivalent of about $6 US. 

Jordan, unlike many Middle Eastern countries, has no oil reserves, and gas was more per gallon than in Virginia. Of course for those of us who enjoy beginning our day with a ham or sausage biscuit, well we are out of luck. The Muslim faith does not approve of the consumption of pork.

Though my stay in Amman was not very long, I was able to squeeze in a short road-trip. I hired a car and driver who spoke English, and we set out to see the surrounding area. 

From Amman we headed south along the 5,000 year old Kings Highway.  Originally this route was one of the most memorable journeys in the Holy Land, and I would soon visit several important ancient sites.  We descended into the Jordan valley and before long reached sea level. Plainly marked by road signs, sea level was significant because as the road continued downward, it would eventually lead to the Dead Sea which is 1,200 feet below sea level and the lowest point on earth.

The first site I visited was Wad Kharrar which archeologists have long been believed to be the biblical Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where John the Baptist lived, and Jesus was baptized. The Baptism Site on the Jordan side of the Jordan River is one of the most important recent discoveries in biblical archaeology. Excavations began here in 1996, following Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel in 1994, (it took two years to clear out all the land mines which had been planted in the area before excavation could begin).

The Jordan River is the natural boundary between Jordan and Israel.  The border on both sides of the river is heavily guarded, and to access the river we had to pass through military checkpoints and were unable to wander about on our own. 

Over the last several thousand years the river has changed significantly from what it is believed to have been during the time of Jesus. It is much smaller today, and what is believed to be the original baptismal site is no longer connected to the existing river flow.  In early times at the ancient site there was a stone church with mosaic floors and a pathway to the river. Some of the stonework and portions of the mosaics are on display as the historic site has been partially restored so visitors can visualize how it was believed to have originally looked.

Not far from the ancient site is the present day Jordan River and baptismal site. With the reduction in water flow, the river today actually looks more like what we would call a large creek. The river was less than 20 feet across and only several feet deep. 

As our tour group walked down to bathe in the river Israelis across from us on the west bank of the Jordan River were doing the same thing. As an armed Jordanian soldier walked up to check on our safety, Israeli tourists on the other side of the river looked a little nervous. To the Jordanians credit, they have attempted to retain the sanctity of the entire area and have made property available to build churches of many Christian faiths.

After leaving the baptismal site I next visited Madaba, “The City of Mosaics.” Madaba is a typical East Bank town which differs in one major aspect from all the rest, underneath almost every house lies a fine Byzantine mosaic. Many of these mosaics have been excavated and are on display in the town’s museum, however it is estimated that many more lie hidden waiting to be discovered.

Madaba’s chief attraction located in the contemporary Greek Orthodox church of St. George is a wonderfully vivid, 6th-century Byzantine mosaic map showing the entire region from Jordan and Palestine in the north, to Egypt in the south. This map includes a fascinating plan of Jerusalem and is considered to be extremely accurate even by today’s standards.  

Other mosaic masterpieces found in the church and the local museum depict a profusion of flowers and plants, birds and fish, animals and exotic beasts, as well as scenes from mythology and everyday pursuits of hunting, fishing and farming. Literally hundreds of other mosaics from the 5th through the 7th centuries are scattered throughout Madaba’s churches and homes.

Not far from Madaba (about six miles) was Mount Nebo, a 3,300 feet high mountain, which was one of the highest points in the local area.  According to ancient tradition, this is the mountain from which Moses first saw the Promised Land before he died.

Because of its connection to Moses, Mt. Nebo has long been an important place of Christian pilgrimage. Excavations led by the Franciscans, who own the site, have uncovered significant remains of the early church and its magnificent Byzantine mosaics. A simple modern shelter dedicated to Moses has been built over them.

The site was abandoned by 1564 and remained mostly neglected for several centuries. Finally, in 1993, the site was purchased by the Franciscans, who excavated and restored the area. On March 19, 2000, Pope John Paul II visited the site during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and planted an olive tree.

Today, Mount Nebo is an active Franciscan monastery as well as the headquarters of the Franciscan Archaeological Institute and a popular stop for pilgrims and tourists alike.

Certainly the most unusual stop of the day was the Dead Sea. Deep in the Jordan Valley and about 30 miles southeast of Amman, the Dead Sea is one of the most spectacular natural and spiritual landscapes in the world. It is the lowest body of water on earth, the lowest point on earth and the world’s richest source of natural salts.

As its name evokes, the Dead Sea is devoid of life due to an extremely high content of salts and minerals which gives its waters the renowned curative powers, therapeutic qualities and its buoyancy, recognized since the days of Herod the Great, more than 2,000 years ago.

Scientifically speaking, its water contains more than 35 different types of minerals that are essential for the health and care of the body and skin including magnesium, calcium, potassium, bromine, sulfur and iodine. They are well known for relieving pains and sufferings caused by arthritis, rheumatism, psoriasis, eczema, headache and foot-ache, while nourishing and softening the skin. They also provide the raw materials for the renowned Jordanian Dead Sea bath salts and cosmetic products marketed worldwide.

Because the salt content in the Dead Sea is four times that of most of the world’s oceans, you can float in the water without even trying. This excessive buoyancy makes swimming here a truly unique experience and one not to be missed. The Dead Sea is the only place in the world where you can recline on top of the water (without any additional flotation) and smoke a cigar. I even have the photos to prove it.

After a long day of sightseeing, it was time to return to Amman to try some of the local cuisine. A friend from the U.S. Embassy took me to the Tanoreen Restaurant known as the best 5-star Lebanese restaurant in Amman, where even the King and his family have been known to dine. 

Roast goat was a house specialty, so that was what I chose. We began with taboulleh (a salad with bulgur, tomato, onion, parsley and mint) along with hummus (cooked smashed chick peas with garlic olive oil and lemon juice) and plenty of flat bread. The meat was served on skewers with vegetables, some fresh and some pickled. Dessert was an exceptionally tasty treat made from broiled goat cheese topped with phyllo and covered with honey. The meal was followed by strong Arabic coffee or tea and a communal smoking of the hubbly-bubbly or what we know as a water pipe. An apple wood along with tobacco is used in the pipe bowl. I did not find it especially appealing.

With my business complete, it was time to head home to the farm. The trip had been successful especially considering the great day of sightseeing. It was a long flight back to the U.S. but on the bright side I was able to use some of that time to draft this article.  

If your travels take you to Jordan or elsewhere in the Middle East I suggest you keep an open mind. 

Don’t let your first impression keep you from exploring this unique part of the world where natural beauty and ancient history is truly abundant.