Land of promise

With astonishing natural beauty and a growing economy, Jordan is a haven for tourists and migrants alike.
Land of promise
By Chryssa Kanellakis-Reimer
Fri 21 Nov 2008 04:00 AM

Blessed with astonishing natural beauty and a growing economy, Jordan is a haven for tourists and migrants alike.

One of the impressive aspects of Jordan - and there are many - is the sheer diversity of visitors it attracts. History, religion, adventure, relaxation, business and politics are all reasons for a wide array of foreigners passing through this small but incredibly distinct land.

Religious tourism abounds in Biblical locations such as Mount Nebo (where Moses is said to have seen the Promised Land) and Bethany-Beyond-The-Jordan, where Jesus was baptised by John, thus laying the foundations of the early Christian faith.

The ancient city of Petra, sculpted from rock walls, is a prime example of the greatness that arises from cultural confluence.

The Dead Sea - the largest natural spa known to man - is visited by people of all faiths and those who seek pleasures of a more physical nature. Covering oneself in Dead Sea mud works wonders for all types of skin, whether it is to cure dermatological problems, or to acquire baby-softness. Meanwhile, reading a newspaper while floating in the world's saltiest lake is a treat not to be missed.

However if you're after an action-packed adventure holiday, then Wadi Rum offers a wealth of outdoors activities: rock-climbing, camel trekking and Bedouin-style camping. Meanwhile, Aqaba, with its warm waters and rich marine life is a hot-spot for scuba diving and snorkelling - even giving Egypt's Sharm-El-Sheikh a good run for its money.

And although relatively small, the Gulf of Aqaba is frequented by an interesting mix of people - Saudis from across the border come here to escape their harsh summers, but also for the more liberal climate (teenage girls dressed in a full-body-and-head swimsuit can be seen enjoying a jet-ski ride); Eastern European and Russian tour groups come here to escape their harsh winters; and Jordanians from the North come here for weekends and holidays.

The diversity of visitors to Jordan is, of course, nothing new. Its strategic geographical position, sitting at the fringes of so many great empires, ensured that the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders and Ottomans all passed through.

By fighting wars, building cities, trading goods, paying taxes and generally interacting with native inhabitants such as the Nabateans and the Bedouins, all of these peoples have left behind rich cultural influences.

It is well-known that it is such an interaction of diverse cultures and civilizations, rather than any rigorous ‘cultural purity', that gives rise to truly impressive feats of human creativity and ingenuity.

Petra, the ancient city sculpted entirely from towering rock walls, with its imposing building facades and advanced social organisation, is a prime example of the greatness that arises from cultural confluence. So much so, that it has been elected one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Along with the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum in Rome and the Taj Mahal in India, Petra is among the seven most impressive man-made constructions that still stand today - unlike the original Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, of which only the Pyramid of Giza in Egypt still remain.

But unlike many of the other new wonders of the world, Petra was never associated with any military power, and it was never at the centre of an ‘empire', in the common sense of the term.

The Nabateans, a nomadic tribe from Western Arabia who settled in the area around the sixth century BC, and whose name is inextricably linked to the marvels of Petra, built their fortunes through more diplomatic and subtle means.

While their initial wealth was derived by plundering the trade caravans that crossed through the area under their control, they soon moved on to levying tolls and drawing up trade agreements - their commercial acumen together with their strategic geographical location resulted in them becoming sole handlers not only of the region's famous frankincense and myrrh, but also of the spices shipped to Arabia by boat from West Africa and India.

It was under King Aretas IV (8 BC to AD 40), that the Nabbatean capital of Petra saw its hayday, when grand buildings in a blend of Egyptian, Greek, Roman and local styles were built.

The Treasury, for instance, Petra's most well-known and awe-inspiring building, has a Hellenistic façade, with its classical Greek columns, but with individual details that hint at diverse influences, and remain the subject of archaeological debate: the central figure above the entrance is thought to be an amalgamation of the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Nabatean goddess Al-‘Uzza, although some think it might actually be Tyche, the Roman goddess of fortune (who is, herself, originally Greek).

To this day, the Jordanians maintain close ties with peoples of different cultures, and are arguably the most cosmopolitan of all Arabs. The Hashemite royal family of Jordan is a case in point: while it claims unbroken descent from the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) through its male lineage, it is also renowned for its female members who were not born into Islam, but rather converted in order to marry into the royal family.The late King Hussein married not one, but two Westerners: his second wife, the mother of the present king, was English, and his fourth wife, Lisa Halaby, Arab-American.

The present King, Abdullah bin Al-Hussein, who has his mother's blue eyes and fair skin, is married to a Kuwaiti-born Jordanian of Palestinian origin who was educated at the American University of Cairo.

As well as being cosmopolitan, the royal women of Jordan have also come to symbolise beauty, elegance and glamour - all of which are highly prized here, and closely linked to foreigners' perception of the Jordanians.

Critics might say there is too much concern with image, at the expense of more significant or urgent matters. And yet, there are signs that Jordanians' aesthetic sensibilities are developing in exciting and dynamic ways.

As a new generation of well-travelled, foreign-educated Jordanians are growing up, there is less concern with blindly following the latest trends and striving to keep up appearances; in their mid-20s to mid-30s, these young people work hard, play hard, and yes, like to dress well.

One such example is that of Fadi Kawar, the son of one of the richest families in the land, who, as well as being Deputy Liner Manager at Manara Shipping, has carved out a reputation for throwing some pretty cool parties.

So much so that he was contacted by Fashion TV's president Michael Adams, who wanted something a bit different - they had had events in Eilat before, and were now in search of a place that was a bit more exclusive, and a local partner that could bring in the right kind of crowd.

The port of Aqaba and i-vents, the banner under which Fadi Kawar holds his parties, seemed to fit the bill perfectly. "I-vents is all about combining exclusivity with creativity: I put a lot of thought into the aesthetics of my events: the décor, the lighting, the sound system and, of course, the music - so it is only right that we should have the right kind of crowd.

"If you want to buy a ticket, and you haven't been invited, then you must know someone who has; one degree of separation, and that is it. And, of course, we have to be careful with the male to female ratio, too - if it isn't 50:50, then the whole event is a disaster," he says.

So yes, there is some form of discrimination - but it is based on aesthetics and lifestyle, rather than race, ethnicity or religion. Jordanian society, more generally, is wide open to religious and ethnic diversity.

An estimated 60 percent of the country's population is made up of Palestinians who fled, mostly from the West Bank, during the wars of 1948 and 1967 and after the Gulf War of 1990-1991.

While maintaining hope that they will one day return to an independent Palestine, they have also become an integral part of Jordanian economic, social and cultural life, often occupying high positions in government and business.

Similarily, Jordan has welcomed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who have fled Iraq for fear of religious or political persecution, or simply in order to build a new life.

Whilst many of the Iraqis in Jordan have been registered as United Nations refugees, there are also those who are too rich, and too well-connected to see the need for protection by the UN.

This latest wave of immigration has provided a much needed boost to the Jordanian economy, which has suffered due to the decline in tourism after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Jordan has been able to assimilate successive generations of neighbouring peoples, offering them a safe haven - and newcomers, far from being second class citizens, are welcomed into an environment where they can thrive, and the country as a whole is able to benefit from their presence.

There are, of course, those who say that Jordan has gone too far, that it is has developed ties with nations that are traditionally seen as enemies of the Arabs, especially the US - it allowed US warships to dock in its port, and is one of the few countries in the world that has a free-trade agreement with the US.

Some might say that Jordan is forced to adopt a more conciliatory stance as it has neither the petrodollars of its Gulf neighbours, nor the human capital and highly skilled workforce of Lebanon.

But there are also those who see conciliation rather than conflict as the way forward, not only for the country, but for the region as a whole - and that Jordan has a key role to play in the international arena.

With peace in the Middle East being at the top of the global political agenda, the role of the mediator will be crucial.

A small but notable indication of this is the fact that the Four Seasons Hotel in Amman, the prime venue for top-level political meetings in the region, has hosted more heads of state than any other Four Seasons in the world.

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