Jordan: City Comfort And Desert Marvels

On our first day in Jordan, we drove about an hour outside the capital, Amman,

to the Roman city of Jerash. We wandered through sweeping columned avenues, studied the remains of churches and temples, and clambered up rows of seats in a beautifully proportioned amphitheater. As the light faded, the stony hillside took on a timeless quality. Bedouin women, leading sheep and goats home, looked at us warily, and the muezzin's call to prayer drifted over from a mosque across the valley.

If you have never visited the Arab world, Jordan is a good place to start. The little kingdom, about the size of Maine, is hospitable to foreigners and offers desert scenery and marvelous antiquities. It carries traces of many civilizations, from the biblical Ammonites, who gave Amman its name, to the Byzantines, whose magnificent mosaics adorn the Christian city of Madaba. The best time to go is in the spring. Round-trip coach airfare from New York to Amman runs about $1,600, and U.S. citizens can obtain visas for $44 from any Jordanian embassy or at the Amman airport.

When my wife, teenage daughter, and I went this year, we started in Amman. Most of the city is recently built, and it lacks the funky souks of Cairo and Damascus. But the white stone buildings arrayed over dusky hills have a rugged charm. There is a massive Roman theater in the center of town, and a worthwhile archaeological museum. Amman is also a good place to sample Arab food and to shop (table).

We used the city as a base to venture forth in our rented car, returning to the hotel at dusk. The desert to the east offers sweeping horizons of purple sand strewn with bluish basalt pebbles. It also is studded with ancient forts, built to protect the caravan routes from Arabia and as hunting lodges for forgotten rulers. The British adventurer T.E. Lawrence used the rough-hewn Qasr Azraq, about 60 miles from Amman, as a base for his plottings against the Turks in World War I. Also accessible is Qasr Kharana, a squarish 7th century structure. Qasr Amra, an ancient edifice on the road to Azraq, boasts an early representation of the constellations on a domed ceiling.

On our fourth day, we headed south down the old King's Highway toward Petra, 100 miles away. This is a slower route than the new desert road, but far more exciting. It winds through steep mountain passes, offering heart-stopping views of the dry, rocky cliffs and valleys. Not to be missed is the enormous crusader fort at Karak.

The stronghold of the Nabataeans who inhabited the region during Roman times, Petra is tucked away in an otherworldly range of wind-carved cliffs. You enter through a twisting, narrow canyon called the Siq. The overhanging rocks, with their pink, orange, and red streaks, are spectacular enough. Then you notice stranger shapes--monuments and doorways to tombs. Finally the Siq gives way to a valley with structures up to 150 feet high cut into the stone. You could spend days exploring Petra. The site is vast, and many of the tombs require hikes into the mountains. But the walks are well worth it. On clear days, you can see for miles.

It is also challenging to bargain with the villagers officials have been trying to evict from the site. To my daughter's glee, I was pursued by a woman with tattoos around her eyes peddling some Roman coins. At a home in a nearby village, we purchased, for about $100, a handsome wool rug we chose from several on the floor. The owner said the women in his family had made it.

I speak Arabic, which is useful in getting around. But most Jordanians involved in tourism speak English. A guide, at about $120 a day, is advisable for more remote parts of Petra or going off into the desert. But, armed with common sense and a guide book, you can easily tackle most sites in Jordan on your own.

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