Jordan: Jewel In The Desert

You enter by way of a narrow road called the siq, lined on both sides by sheer cliffs.

It's especially dramatic by moonlight. After a half hour's walk, you come out into a canyon whose walls are carved with monumental gateways and facades. This is the ruined city of Petra in southern Jordan.

Many world travelers rank Petra at the top of their list of ancient sites. The attraction isn't so much the individual buildings as the city's vast, five-square-mile expanse. The dry red hills, brushed with silver-leaved oleander bushes, are otherworldly. There are few freestanding ruins, but the Nabataeans, who lived here from the 6th century B.C. to the 1st century A.D., left their imposing temples and tombs cut into the rock.

With peace established between Israel and Jordan, tourism to the Hashemite Kingdom is on the rise. Petra, which adventurous travelers often had to themselves in the past, will be a prime destination. Already, 10 hotels are under construction to complement the 10 or so facilities now in operation. Concerned about damage to the area, the government recently announced that it would only permit 3,500 visitors per day.

CLEAN STREETS. Tourists in Jordan will find plenty to do besides exploring Petra. Only 30 miles from Amman, the capital, is the huge Roman city of Jerash. There, you can clamber over the ruins of several temples and walk along the spectacular colonnade. Jerash's magnificent restored amphitheater is now used for a festival under the patronage of Queen Noor, King Hussein's American-born wife.

At Ajloun--also not far from Amman--is a massive, 12th century fortress built by one of Saladin's nephews to fight off the Crusaders. It looms above the dry hills. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the West Bank. Also not far from Amman is Madaba, which has well-known early Christian mosaics.

Jordan's capital itself is easily the most pleasant and negotiable of Arab cities. Its steep, clean streets and polite residents are a welcome contrast to the squalor and hassle of Cairo. The Jordan Intercontinental hotel is the hangout of Western reporters and local cafe intellectuals. On summer nights, it's fun to watch the spectacular Arab wedding parties around the pool.

Amman lacks the medieval atmosphere of nearby Damascus or even Jerusalem, but it does have a central souk, where you can buy anything from bedouin headscarves, known as kefiehs, to gold and Arab spices.

You can get around Amman in taxis, which are inexpensive. For excursions outside the city, hire a car and driver or rent a car from one of the major agencies. Head for the loop of ancient desert castles dating from the Omayyad period and earlier. The best-preserved of these, Qasr Amr, has interesting frescoes. At Qasr Azraq, the celebrated T.E. Lawrence had his headquarters. In the northern part of the country, along the Yarmuk River, it is still possible to get a glimpse of the remains of railroad bridges that Lawrence's band blew up.

Desert scenes from the film Lawrence of Arabia were shot in a valley in the South called Wadi Rum. A spectacular region with cliffs jutting from the desert floor, it is now a popular destination for tourists. For as little as $18 a day, you can go out in the desert on camel trips. Also worth visiting is the Red Sea port of Aqaba, which offers excellent scuba diving nearby.

For those who like austere vistas, Jordan is a stunningly beautiful country. This is especially true in the spring, when the deserts and rocky hillsides burst into a spectacular display of red poppies, black irises, and other blooms.

DON'T DELAY. It's not difficult to get to Jordan. The national carrier, Royal Jordanian Airlines, flies from the U.S. KLM, Air France, British Airways, and Alitalia all fly from Europe. You can come from Israel by bus, changing at the border. The fastest route from Jerusalem to Amman is the Allenby Bridge crossing, near Jericho. Allow about three hours for the trip. Recently, the Israelis and Jordanians have opened two more border crossings, one near Eilat and Aqaba, and another near the Sea of Galilee.

In Jordan, the national airline and International Traders, the local American Express representative, offer package tours. Go before the sites are overrun.

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