Leap of Faith: Stirring Encounters in the Parched Desert of Jordan

Finding salvation in a region riddled with conflict.
Petra by Night, Jordan
Al-Khazna is lit by candles for Petra by Night. The hour-long show uses music and storytelling to introduce travellers to the ancient sandstone city. Photo: JPRichard/Shutterstock

Petra shimmers like an apparition. Before me, and the hundred others sitting cross-legged on mats on this cold Jordanian night, the ancient city glows by the light of a thousand candles. The Al-Khazna, the most iconic of its structures, towers over us, and above its sandstone columns rugged cliffs loom, casting brooding shadows that flicker with every whisper of the desert wind. Sitting here, beneath this atlas of stars with the sand in our hair and the murmurs of the wadi in our ears, the stories of djinns seem more credible than the rationale of men.

Petra has many stories. The sandstone city, over 2,000 years old, abounds with myths of queens, crusaders, and blood-thirsty deities, of bounty hunters convinced that its tombs still hold ingots of gold. The UNESCO World Heritage Site lends itself to such mystique. The only way to reach it is to walk through a narrow, two-kilometre-long chasm in the rock called Al-Siq. Sandstone walls rise up to 80 metres on each side of the passage, and sometimes, the rocky path is just three metres wide. To get to Al-Khazna for the Petra by Night show, our group of travel writers and foreign correspondents had to weave through the winding ravine lit only by candles and moonlight. Chatter was high at the start of the walk, but as the night seeped under our skin, a hush descended. Then we turned a corner at the last canyon and set eyes on Al-Khazna, gleaming like gold.

Petra’s charisma only magnifies in the light of day. The following morning, we explore its excavated sites with our guide Saalah, craning our necks to soak in the scale and artistry of its structures, tall as modern buildings and carved entirely by hand. There are ruins everywhere, and yet Petra remains largely a mystery to archaeologists. We know it was built by the Nabateans, an ancient Arab civilisation of nomads-turned-traders, but little else is known. Some say it was a necropolis lovingly crafted to ensure the departed were treated fairly in the afterlife. Others say it was a caravan city, famed for its textiles, spices, and frankincense, now sold at dusty stalls near its visitor’s centre. And until 1985, its caves were home to Bedouin nomads native to this region, who have since been rehabilitated in houses outside.

Petra is only one of five UNESCO Sites in Jordan. The stamp-sized country—less than half the area of Gujarat—has a lot going for it. There are Biblical sites, Jewish monuments, waters rich in coral, and desert landscapes that have moved poets and kings and yet we encounter few travellers.

Tourism in Jordan has declined tremendously in the last year, a consequence of sharing borders with countries simmering with political unease. To the north lie Syria and Iraq, household names across the world for all the wrong reasons. In the east is oil-rich Saudi Arabia and in the west, across the Dead Sea lie the State of Palestine and Israel, with whom Jordan has a tenuous relationship despite a peace treaty signed in 1994. As the crimson stain of ISIS spreads and news of the refugee crisis floods television channels and Facebook feeds, travellers to Jordan’s peaceful olive groves have dwindled to a trickle.

King Hussain Mosque, Amman, Jordan

In the heart of Amman lies the King Hussein Mosque, named after the former king of Jordan. The country is now ruled by Abdullah II, his son, whose portrait hangs in most stores and hotels. Photo: Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

On the streets of Amman, Jordan’s capital, however, life goes on as normal. In malls, young women in hijabs and cut-off denim shorts laugh over chocolate-chip gelato, gesturing with French-manicured nails crafted to cut glass. Shopkeepers entice walkers into stores brimming with silky scarves, trinkets, and the promise of a deal of a lifetime. In parks, families break bread stuffed with meat and tuck into lunchboxes of salad, garnished with sumac and zaatar. Their generosity is disarming—every time I ask for directions, something is tucked into my palm: a handful of olives, a beaded necklace, a piece of kheema-naan.

I feel this same openness in Al-Maghtas too. Bethany, as Al-Maghtas is colloquially called, is a Biblical site of monumental importance to Christians, consecrated as the place where Jesus of Nazareth was baptised by St. John. Archaeologists have excavated the remains of more than 20 Christian sites here, including chapels, a prayer hall, and baptismal pools, that have been inscribed a UNESCO World Heritage Site as recently as July 2015. But there are new monuments too, Salaah tells us, pointing to a Greek Orthodox Church with golden domes that dazzle in the sun. Our guide, like the majority of Jordanians, is a practicing Sunni Muslim, but the pride he feels for Jordan’s Biblical heritage is palpable.

Mosaics in Madaba, Jordan

The town of Madaba is known for its mosaics, which are elegant, detailed, and painstakingly made from pieces of granite and sandstone. Photo: Alessandra Sarti/Imagebroker/Dinodia

The church has striking frescoes and cool stone floors but the real draw of Al-Maghtas—the Arabic word for “immersion” referring to the baptism of Christ—is the riverbank where people from near and far come to take a dip in the chai-coloured waters of the River Jordan. Once over 60 metres wide, the river at this location is but a snaking strip about two metres across. It is also the border between Jordan and Israel, and a thick, knotted rope runs along the centre, neatly—and futilely—dividing the water into two equal halves. On either bank poker-faced armed guards watch tourists laugh, cry, and sing. It’s a bit like the Ganga snaan in Varanasi, but less colourful.

On our side, Jordanian families gingerly dip their fingers in the water, touching it to their lips and to the foreheads of their squirming children. Empty bottles are filled with holy water, for those who could not make it. Across the river, on the Israeli bank, affairs seem more solemn. I see a group of men and women dressed in thin, white muslin robes like hospital gowns. An elderly priest and a young boy with a guitar accompany them, whispering hymns of encouragement to the silver-haired pilgrims slowly making their way to the water. Some laugh nervously, clutching at each other for support, others mutter soundlessly to themselves, and I notice a couple dancing in the water, arms outstretched, faces turned skyward, as if they have glimpsed the heavens.

River Jordan

Pilgrims immerse themselves in the River Jordan, where it is said that Jesus of Nazareth was baptized. Photo: Neha Sumitran

One woman in particular catches my eye. She is old enough to be my grandmother, and has the same look of fierce
concentration I’ve seen on my ammama’s face when we visit the temple near her home in Kerala. This lady, cheeks sallow, hair cropped, and eyes clamped shut, is frantically immersing herself in the water. Again and again and again. She has one hand on a metal banister, and the other on her heart with her fist clenched so tight, I can feel her nails digging into her palms. Nobody around seems to notice her—there are others wailing loudly—but I can’t tear my gaze from her frail, wrinkled body, sheathed only in wet muslin. Her catharsis is riveting. Watching her, at once fierce and vulnerable, I wonder about the nature of faith; a force so powerful, it can move mountains or attempt to erase entire civilizations, as is happening in Syria next door.


Dead Sea, Jordan

About 20 minutes away from River Jordan, tourists slather themselves with the mineral-rich muck from the Dead Sea, before soaking in its healing, saline waters. Photo: David Silverman/Staff/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The day before we visited Al-Maghtas, we partook in a ritual cleansing of a different kind. As our minivan ate up the miles on the smooth highway from Amman to the Dead Sea, we soaked in views of the flat, vast desert, punctuated by green, life-affirming olive groves. Along the road, shaggy trees bent by the wilful desert wind seemed to bow in welcome, complementing the signboards ushering us into the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and reminding us that we were fast approaching the lowest point on Earth. Like most travellers to the Dead Sea, our agenda for the day was to float in the mineral-rich water body, known for its healing properties. No swimming, no snorkelling, no diving. Just floating. At first I thought it sounded rather absurd, but later, as I lay on the ripple-free waters of the enormous, saline cradle, I began to understand its appeal. Above me, a soufflé of clouds drifted lazily across the sky. If I craned my neck far enough, I could see the brown, flat-topped mountains of Israel on the other bank. I was weightless. The water’s buoyancy allowed me to float without moving a finger. All the Dead Sea demanded was that I stay very, very still. Sudden movement meant splashes, and nobody wants the water of one of the saltiest lakes in the world in their eyes.

The Dead Sea lives up to its name in many ways: It’s too salty for most marine life, deathly calm since there are no currents, and as Salaah informs us, it is also dying. “Shrinking by over a metre each year,” he said. The more Earth’s temperature rises, the quicker it will evaporate. By 2050, he wagers, this lake so vast it has been knighted a sea, may be no more than a puddle.

Aqaba, Jordan

In the seaside city of Aqaba, travellers and locals soak in cool breezes and views of the Red Sea. Photo: Blaine Harrington/Age Fotostock/Dinodia

Maqlooba, Jordan

Jordanian meals begin with a spread of salads and dips, followed by a main course like maqlooba, similar to a biryani and served upside-down. Photo: Neha Sumitran


For a country that’s largely desert, a surprising number of Jordan’s draws have to do with water. In Aqaba, a stylish city on Jordan’s coast, we spend a windy morning swimming and sailing in the Red Sea while snacking on plates of grilled fish, hummus, and salad. Another evening, we visit the Mai’n hot springs, nestled in the craggy mountains near the Dead Sea, where I discover another facet of Jordan’s natural heritage. The springs are set amidst an oasis of fig and olive trees and fed by a roaring, steaming waterfall where I spend a blissful half hour soaking. Letting the water pummel my neck and back feels invigorating, but it’s the setting that really moves me. Sitting here, beneath a sky studded with solitaire stars, by mountains, tall and hulking, I feel I have found my cathedral.


My time in Mai’n is followed by an unanticipated turn of events. The foreign correspondents in our group tell me that they are visiting a Syrian refugee camp on the outskirts of Amman and ask if I’d like to accompany them. Over long drives and evening drinks, I have listened to them discuss the rise of ISIS, the global refugee crises, and the ties that bind Syria, Iraq, and the U.S. The journalist in me jumps at the chance to visit the camp, but I’m undeniably nervous. A few hours later, we are driving through the barbed-wire gates of Zaatari Camp, home to approximately 80,000 Syrian refugees, and among the largest cities in the country. Jordan, I learn, has taken in more refugees than all of Europe put together, and Zaatari is only one of its camps. Inside, the dusty roads are lined with neat rows of clinical white homes, fashioned from pre-fabricated shipping containers with small windows and dissonantly colourful graffiti of smiling stick figures and sunflowers. There are large water tanks, empty, dusty basketball courts, makeshift schools, and children scampering about happily, waving furiously as we go by. Towards the centre of Zaatari is a market with stores selling snacks, dolls, sneakers, and cardboard sheets of shiny hairclips. There are more people here, smoking cigarettes, buying fruit, drinking coffee from flimsy paper cups. At the end of the street, a modest shop with a hand-drawn signboard advertises wedding dresses. Outside, twirling on a hanger in the breeze, is a full-length fuchsia dress fringed with frills.

I had always thought of a refugee camp as a temporary halt, but in Zaatari, I spoke to families that had lived here for years. I spoke to couples that had met, married, and had children within its fences. I played with their chubby babies in their backyards, by their chicken coops and cycles. But of everything I saw that day, it’s the image of the dress, undoubtedly a garment of celebration, unabashedly shiny with optimism, that lingers in my mind.

Bedouin guards, Jordan

Two members of the Jordanian desert police share a light moment in front of Al-Khazna in Petra. These guards are of Bedouin origin and sport the community’s traditional keffiyeh in red and white checks. Photo: Neha Sumitran

I see Jordan with new eyes upon my return to the city. While haggling for fridge magnets at a street stall in Amman the next day, I notice a cloth handbag with “I (heart) Refugees” imprinted on it. By the hotel swimming pool, I chat with a Palestinian doctor celebrating her daughter’s birthday. Within minutes of meeting me, she scribbles her phone number down on a paper napkin, and tells me to call her if I have some free time. “We’ll get drinks,” Dr. Sue says. “I haven’t had a girl’s night out in a while.” At a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, one of the waiters tells me he is expecting his friends from Syria any day now. The more people I meet and talk to, the more I realise that this warmth and eagerness to share—if only a piece of bread—is an intangible part of Jordanian heritage.

Walking through Petra’s canyons earlier in the week, I remember Saalah telling us the various theories about Al-Khazna. Some believe it was once a treasury, others say it is a tomb built for a Nabatean king. Still more suggest that the handsome structure, like the monasteries nestled in Petra’s crevices, were meant for travellers, to let them know that their arduous journey was over, that they could fill their casks with water and their bellies with food. It is a sentiment that has endured in the people of Jordan.

One of our last stops is at Wadi Rum, a seemingly infinite desert landscape just 40 kilometres east of Aqaba, with
petroglyphs indicating 12,000 years of human occupation. On a jeep safari around its dunes and terracotta-red mountains, we examine a rock face with ancient doodles featuring a line of camels. “Directions for travellers,” our guide said, “The camels face in the direction of the nearest settlement.” A staggering fact, when I stop to consider it. Here I am, looking at drawings made thousands of years ago on a rock face that took millions of years to shape. It makes my life feel like a grain of sand. Later, over platters of grilled meat at a Bedouin-style camp, we meet Mohammed Ali, a blind musician who helps put my visit to Zaatari in perspective. A member of the Bedouin tribe native to these parts, Ali plays soulfully on his rebab, a traditional string instrument made with camel hair, drawing us in like a storyteller.

Wadi Rum, Jordan

The dunes of Wadi Rum have appeared in numerous films, including Lawrence of Arabia, The Martian, Transformers, and Krrish 3. But the desert landscape also has immense heritage value. Photo: Abhishek Hajela

Between Bedouin folk songs and riffs on Mohammed Rafi tunes, he tells us he was schooled in Jerusalem, studied philosophy in Damascus, learned music in Lebanon, and now lives in Amman. But every now and then he makes a trip to Wadi Rum with his son, to sit under the night sky, feel the cool sand between his fingers, and reconnect with the land and heritage of his people. “To feel,” Ali says, “is more important than to see.” In his raspy voice I sense the same spine-tingling intensity of Petra by Night.

Faith runs deep in Jordan. It is in the mosques of Amman, the sandstone sculptures of Petra’s temples, and in the hearts of pilgrims immersing themselves in the River Jordan. A place of salvation in a region riddled with conflict. Jordan’s abundant heritage is protected now—but much outside its borders is threatened, or destroyed like the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra in Syria, bombed to rubble less than a year ago. Why play in a deadbeat camp in the middle of nowhere, someone asks Ali between songs. “Because,” he replies softly, without missing a beat. “It is my soul, my joy, my message of peace. Perhaps I will succeed and perhaps I will fail, but I must try.”


The Guide

Wadi Rum has many desert camps run by the Bedouin people, nomadic groups that traditionally roamed the deserts of the Middle East. Photo: Yadid Levy/Alamy/Indiapicture

Wadi Rum has many desert camps run by the Bedouin people, nomadic groups that traditionally roamed the deserts of the Middle East. Photo: Yadid Levy/Alamy/Indiapicture

Orientation and Getting There

Officially called the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, this small Middle Eastern country in Asia is bordered by Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the State of Palestine, and the Red Sea. Its capital is the cosmopolitan city of Amman. There are no direct flights from India to Jordan. All routes require at least one layover in a Middle East gateway city.


Indian travellers require a visa to visit Jordan. A month-long, single-entry visa to Jordan costs JOD40/₹3,700 and requires proof of hotel bookings and return tickets. However, visa fees are waived if travellers book their trip using a Jordanian tour operator—or if they purchase the Jordan Pass and stay for at least three consecutive nights. The Jordan pass is available online at www.jordanpass.jo and costs between JOD70 and JOD80 (₹6,600-7,500). Having the pass grants entry to 40 sightseeing attractions in Jordan, including Petra and Wadi Rum.


Tourist season in Jordan is from March to May, when days are warm (around 25°C), and the evenings are around 13°C, cool enough to require a light sweater and hat. The weather gets progressively warmer from June when summer sets in, and stays that way until August. Summer day temperatures in places like Petra and Wadi Rum can be upwards of 40°C but off-season deals are plenty. Winter creeps in after September, bringing cold weather, sometimes even snow. Day temperatures in the plains range between 15-4°C, but night temperatures are colder still in the desert.

Top Picks

Church art, Jordan

In its churches, travellers can examine life-sized works hundreds of years old, that depict the life of Christ. Photo: Yadid Levy/Age Fotostock/Dinodia

History’s Mysteries Set aside at least one entire day—longer if you’re a heritage nut—to explore the magnificent sandstone city of Petra. Check into a hotel near the visitor’s centre, and start as early as 6 a.m. to avoid crowds. It’s best to do Petra by Night preceding the day exploration of the site.

Sands of Time The dunes of Wadi Rum are spectacular by day, but the desert takes on an ethereal quality after dark. Spend a night at one of the many camps in the region to soak in its splendour. Accommodations and food are basic but the views are stupendous. Wadi Rum is great for hiking too.

Into the Blue The waters of the Red Sea, off the coast of Aqaba, are a treat for divers and snorkelers. Dive centres—there are about a dozen—are clustered around the South Beach area, close to Aqaba Marine Park, a protected ocean area.

Salt of the Earth While soaking in the Dead Sea is worth a morning, there’s not much else to do in the area, so best to limit your stay here to a night. Word of advice: Do not shave for at least a few days before swimming here; the salt makes even the smallest abrasions smart unbearably.

Tuck in Jordanian meals are bountiful affairs, where tables are laden with salads, dips like labneh and baba ganoush, grilled meats, and naan-like breads. Meat eaters shouldn’t miss mansaaf: a dish of rice, cooked in stock and served with a delicate yoghurt-based meat curry.

Souvenirs Jordan is known for its intricate mosaics—of saints, wildlife, and motifs like the Tree of Life—made from matchstick-sized pieces of sandstone and granite. They’re beautiful, handmade, and quite expensive (upwards of ₹5,000 for a notebook-sized mosaic). Dates, pistachios, cheese, silver jewellery, and embroidered jackets also make great gifts.

Appeared in the August 2016 issue as “Leap of Faith”.

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    Neha Sumitran is Nat Geo Traveller India's perpetually hungry Web Editor. She loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.

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