Talking Travel Destination Worldview Peter Flaherty Jordan Read to the Dead

From the Red to the Dead,
by Peter Flaherty


Travelling the length and breadth of Jordan is an opportunity to contextualize the geography and topography of the Middle East, and to gain a new visual and cultural perspective.

Our trip from the Red to the Dead Sea began in Aqaba, Jordan’s only port and point of access to the Red Sea. Situated directly across from the Israeli resort town of Eilat, and only a few kilometres from the borders with Egypt to the west and Saudi Arabia to the southeast, Aqaba occupies a position that is strategically and historically important to Jordan. It is a city with a long and tumultuous history, located along one of the Middle East’s most important trade routes. It was fought over by the Crusaders and Saladin’s Islamic armies, and then fell into a period of decline during the period of Ottoman rule. But during World War I, Aqaba entered the mainstream of history once again, when Arab nationalist rebels, under the inspired leadership of the renowned British soldier/adventurer T.E. Lawrence, or “Lawrence of Arabia,” drove the occupying Ottoman Turkish forces from the town. This enabled the British to use Aqaba as a supply centre for their military operations throughout the Middle East, and led to the end of Ottoman rule over the region.

The Arab Revolt, one of the proudest moments in Jordan’s modern history, is commemorated in the town by a huge flag that dominates the horizon and is clearly visible from ships cruising the adjoining Gulf of Aqaba. The flag of the Arab Revolt bears a strong resemblance to Jordan’s modern-day flag, but the positioning of the three main colours of the horizontal bands (green, white, and black) is different. In Aqaba Castle, a fortress dating from the time of the Mamluks, the siege and subsequent defeat of the occupying Ottoman troops is commemorated with a series of historical markers and plaques.

Besides its significance for Jordan’s struggle for independence, Aqaba is today best known as a resort, attracting visitors from all over the Middle East and beyond, because of its temperate winter climate and a host of water-related activities. Snorkeling and diving are both very popular, and the beaches adjoining the town’s main hotels, such as the Mövenpick, where our group stayed, are among the most appealing in the region. We took an afternoon cruise on a glass-bottom boat that sailed leisurely along the peaceful blue waters of the Gulf of Aqaba as we enjoyed a delicious barbecue lunch and did some snorkeling in the reef below. The gulf is a treasure trove for a number of species of tropical fish and rare coral, and because the water is so clear it is possible to spot a great many of them at any time, including goatfish, clown fish, parrot fish, jellyfish, and moray eels.

A perfect spot to spend the evening in Aqaba is the outdoor restaurant of the Royal Jordan Yacht Club, overlooking the marina. We were treated to a delicious seafood meal there, and enjoyed the sight of the lights twinkling over the gulf along the shore. Once again, as we looked at the lights of the Israeli city of Eilat glowing in the distance, we had to stop and think about the relatively short distances between and geographical proximity of these nations. It was a peaceful sight. After dinner, however, we spotted a remarkably ugly chicken fish swimming in the harbour!

Our journey to the Dead Sea the next day followed the path of the Dead Sea Highway, which forms Jordan’s border with Israel along the Wadi Arabah, the river connecting the Red and the Dead Sea. Along the way, we skirted the long, narrow border between Jordan and the southern Negev Desert region of Israel. At many points, it was possible to see a number of well-cultivated agricultural settlements on the Israeli side. Just before the southern tip of the Dead Sea, we passed some ancient sites that resonate with Biblical history, including Lot’s Cave, where Lot and his daughters took refuge after the destruction of the wicked nearby cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Perched on a steep cliff above the highway is a tall stone pillar. Legend has it that this actually the pillar of salt that Lot’s wife was supposed to have been transformed into after disobeying God’s injunction not to look back at the cities He destroyed in his wrath over their evil ways.

The Dead Sea was rapidly coming into view, and we marvelled at its crystal blue waters, completely devoid of any plant or animal life. The temperature was steadily rising in this very humid part of Jordan, the lowest point on the surface of the earth. On approaching the northern tip of the Dead Sea we encountered a number of major holiday resorts, including the Marriott Hotel, which was to be our base for exploring the region. This part of Jordan is in the middle of a tourist boom, and we saw evidence of the construction of a number of new, upscale hotels and spas. Visitors flock here on weekends from Amman, and the region lures tourists from far and wide, attracted by the supposedly healing waters and mud treatments of the Dead Sea, and the luxurious spas.

Another important site in this part of Jordan is of course Bethany beyond the Jordan, where it is believed John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ. Only reopened to tourists after the Israel-Jordan peace agreement in 1994, this site is part of a major effort by the Jordan Tourist Board to attract religious visitors from the United States and elsewhere. We entered Bethany walking along a dusty tamarisk-lined path, and saw the ruins of the ancient church where pilgrims worshipped in the centuries after the time of Christ. Pope John Paul II celebrated an open-air mass here during his visit to the Holy Land in 2000, and the site has begun to attract more visitors since then.

The day we visited Bethany, there were no North Americans to be seen besides our small group. However, there were some Lebanese Christian pilgrims, who were immersing themselves in the muddy waters of the Jordan River and collecting holy water in glass bottles. Bethany is literally on the Jordan-Israel border, and it was easy to see the Israeli military checkpoints and observations towers across the narrow stretch of the river itself. A huge baptismal font has been erected in the outdoor visitor centre, permitting tourists to anoint themselves with the river’s holy water in purified form. But I could not resist the temptation to at least duck my feet into this legendary river. I had been dealing with a nagging headache before doing this, probably brought on by a combination of the heat and fatigue from the long bus trip there. Surprisingly enough, after my own “baptism” in the River Jordan, my headache completely disappeared!

Our group spent a relaxing time at the Marriott Resort, enjoying its many swimming pools and spa facilities. I immersed myself in the salty waters of the Dead Sea one afternoon, but did not stay long in it. It is actually impossible to swim in the Dead Sea, since the high saline content of the water gives it a remarkable buoyancy, and all one can really do is float on one’s back. I did not indulge in the typical photo of reading a newspaper while floating in the Dead Sea, but I did coat myself in a layer of black mud from a pail conveniently located at the showers adjoining the beach. The water was extremely salty and somewhat oily, but it was an experience I definitely could not pass up.

The spa at the Marriott is truly a state-of-the-art facility, with two indoor swimming pools, one salt and the other fresh water, a fully-equipped gym, excellent massages, and a number of other treatments, including body rubs, salt scrubs, mud facials, dry flotations, and hydro baths. For our final dinner, we were the guests of the nearby Mövenpick Hotel, where we enjoyed a memorable and delicious meal alfresco, entertained by a group of Filipino singers and a Russian belly dancer. The evening before we had been hosted by the general manager of the Marriott, who wanted to showcase his Italian-Swiss chef’s imaginative culinary creations. As the lights of Jerusalem twinkled in the distance, I knew that although my visit to Jordan was coming to an end, this trip would definitely not be my last.

It's an art form, a unique cultural expression, graceful, erotic (in the most comprehensive sense of the word), and fun to watch — especially while dining outdoors at the glorious Movenpick Dead Sea Resort. Watch a video of belly dancing at the Dead Sea. CLICK HERE.