Awestruck, I gaze at Hadrian’s Arch, the entrance to the Roman ruins of Jerash in Jordan. The beautifully preserved triple-bay monument from 130 AD ranks among the Roman Empire’s largest arches. But although this site is a monumental achievement, it does not support the widespread belief among North Americans that Jordan is named after Michael Jordan.
Sadly, many of us know far more about American sports and pop culture than the Middle East. But if I can convince just one reader that Jordan is not named after the Chicago Bulls basketball superstar, or indeed any other American celebrity, my 10-hour Royal Jordanian flight from Montreal to the capital city of Amman will have been worthwhile.
Conquered by Pompey in 63 BC, Jerash became one of the great Decapolis League cities with its colonnaded streets and temples — and it’s just 48 kilometres north of Amman. My tour group marvels at the restored 265-metre-long Hippodrome, still home to Ben Hur-style chariot races. The sweeping Oval Plaza, surrounded by Ionic columns, and the 3,000-capacity South Theater, where two musicians in red keffiyeh headdresses unexpectedly play bagpipes and drums, are other architectural must-sees.
“I don’t think we saw anything in Turkey that was this big,” a passing tourist raves.
Even though the 1995-96 Bulls also left the NBA in ruins with a 72-10 record, it’s a slam-dunk reality that His Airness had nothing to do with the millennia-spanning glories of Jordan in the Ammonite, Greek, Roman, Byzantine or Muslim eras.
As I sip an elegant Turkish coffee in the Fairmont Amman’s lobby, I concede that MJ might appreciate the comforts of this brand-new luxury hotel with its crystal chandelier-adorned library, seven in-house restaurants, and penthouse suite with a private cinema.
The next day, I find myself exploring local culture in the northern town of Umm Qais, which overlooks the Golan Heights and the Jordan River. In this case, culture means bee hives. “I love bees and beekeeping because they’re so important to our environment,” says Yousef, a 20-year beekeeper whose hives yield more than 1,200 pounds of honey in a good year. Wearing a white beekeeping suit, I love that I’m more concerned about getting stung than, say, about being within eyeshot of the Syrian border. From personal security to driving to treatment of female visitors, Jordan, dubbed the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” feels remarkably safe.
It’s safe to say Jordan is not named after Jordan Knight. Still, I think of the New Kids on the Block lead singer when we visit a local Muslim woman’s immaculate kitchen to help her make makdous. Although we get “Step By Step” instructions, I’m inept at stuffing oil-cured eggplants with dried tomatoes. Despite “Hanging Tough,” I conclude I lack “The Right Stuff.”
We take a 2.5-hour bus ride to Mount Nebo, where, according to the Bible, Moses first saw the Promised Land. The Scriptural account about this 1,000-metre peak rules out speculation that Jordan is named after Jordan Belfort.
That fraudulent, hedonistic stockbroker, immortalized in Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Wolf of Wall Street, would be more into breaking the Ten Commandments than walking up the pine tree-lined walkway and viewing a spectacular sixth-century floor mosaic that depicts hunting, farming and riding scenes inside the North Baptism at the Memorial of Moses. Belfort also doesn’t seem like John Paul II’s kind of guy: a modern monument marks the late Pope’s 2000 visit.
A dramatic drive alongside the Dead Sea brings us to the Feynan Ecolodge, where I nix the idea that $110-million Detroit Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmermann lent his name to this kingdom of 10 million.
Powered by solar energy and featuring mud-rendered architecture, the remote, award-winning lodge greets me with a candle-lit room and a lip-smacking vegetarian buffet with hummus, beet salad and soups. Here in the diverse Dana Biosphere Reserve, guests shun baseball in favour of star-gazing, eco-hiking and learning how to make coffee over a fire in a Bedouin tent.
MLB players just don’t get the importance of using high-quality Yemeni coffee beans, adding cardamom to your brew, or accepting the tiny, steaming cup with your right hand. “When you serve coffee, it has to scare your mustache,” quips a young Bedouin. Quotes like that make Starbucks seem lame.
At Petra, the lost city that is the country’s most storied attraction, I spurn the notion that Jordan is named after American fantasy author Robert Jordan. His Wheel of Time series may have sold more than 80 million copies, but this 57-square-kilometre site, which appears in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with some 600,000 visitors this year.
Anticipation builds as we head down the Siq, the long, natural passage to the intricate, pillared facade of the Treasury. The tall sandstone cliffs feature weird natural shapes resembling camels, mushrooms, and skulls. Our veteran guide Mahmoud dishes up intriguing tidbits about how the Nabatean traders built rock tombs, dug sophisticated water channels, and revered gods of many nations 2,000 years ago.
Petra’s Monastery is less famous than the Treasury, but it’s well worth climbing 850 stone steps to view this monument originally dedicated to the first-century Nabatean king Obodas I. You can ride a donkey up, but I opt for the full thigh-burning effect, racing to make the ascent in just 15 minutes. Warm contentment fills me as I admire the mountain-carved, 50-square-metre edifice in the afternoon sun.
Two hours away in Wadi Rum, the fabled desert setting for movies from Lawrence of Arabia to The Martian, I get chills as I wobble on a cantankerous, muzzle-wearing camel toward a surreal rock where Matt Damon once stood. The Western women in our caravan sport enticing Bedouin eyeliner, evidently dreaming Matt will still be there. The ride is tough on the thighs and hips, but absolutely worth it.
Inquiring North American minds may wonder: “Is Jordan named after Jordan Mechner, the legendary Prince of Persia video game designer?” Far from it! I don’t encounter any Prince of Persia-style sandstorms, but do shake plenty of Wadi Rum’s eerie red sand out of my shoes. Sunscreen and hydration loom large in this environment.
And when we switch from camels to Toyota jeeps, I yell with glee during an electrifying drop over a sand dune as we race to catch the swift-moving sunset. After that final photo op, I put down my camera to appreciate the vast, still wildness of the place, the silence broken only by the trill of Arabic pop from the jeep.
That evening, before retiring to my luxury Sun City Camp tent with its walk-in shower, I feast on a traditional Zarb dinner, with chicken, lamb and vegetables roasted beneath the sand for two hours. The male staff dances nearby to pulsating Egyptian tunes, their gyrations suggesting the Twist was invented, not by Chubby Checker, but Chubby Cheops. Absent from the playlist is “This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan.
A more reverent tone prevails the next day at “Bethany Beyond the Jordan,” the reputed site of Jesus’ baptism on the Jordan River. (That river is what Jordan is named after — not, for instance, devout Texas Catholic golfer Jordan Spieth. The name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “descend” or “flow down.”) Just below the golden domes of a 1997-erected Russian Orthodox church, visitors step off a wooden platform into the cool water — albeit not at the rate of the elaborate “baptism factory” on the Israeli side of the river.
Concluding my 10-day Jordan tour at the luxurious Kempinski Hotel Ishtar, I smear Dead Sea mud on myself for therapeutic purposes, float triumphantly in the buoyant Dead Sea, and swig a Carakale blonde ale from the kingdom’s first microbrewery at dinner. I’m secure in the knowledge that Jordan is not named after Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Friday Night Lights), but equally secure that the buff 30-year-old actor would enjoy getting massaged and relaxing in hydrotherapy pools at the Middle East’s largest spa.
My main concern now is that someone will read this entire story and still think the national airline is called Nike Air Jordan.
Lucas Aykroyd was a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board, which did not review or approve this article. Royal Jordanian offers regular non-stop flights from Montreal to Amman, starting from $800. To plan your trip, go to myjordanjourney.com or visitjordan.com.