I ordered an omelet and chose sweet sage tea over instant coffee. As he cooked, Auda told me his story. He was 35. His family had come to Petra from Saudi Arabia 150 years ago, and had lived and operated businesses out of this rock-cut cave ever since. “We were here before the government,” he said, meaning any government —despite its archeological treasures, Jordan is a young nation, created as part of the British Mandate of Palestine following World War I and granted full independence in 1946. I commented on the tattoos on Auda’s arms, unusual for an Arab. “Yes, sir,” he replied. “I did them myself, with a nail.”
A Bedouin woman came in and ordered tea. She might have been no more than 40, but she was stooped and had a leathery, wrinkled face, wrapped up in a dark shawl, which made her look as old as the rose-colored hills. She sat down directly beneath the portrait of the king and lit a smoky cheroot. When she saw me, she pointed and cackled gaily. We had met earlier in the morning at the ruins of a temple, where she tried to sell me some “ancient” coins in amazingly fine condition, cheap. While it’s unusual to see unaccompanied women in Jordan outside Amman, it seems that none of the rules apply to the Bedouin.
Casually, Auda asked me if I knew who David Roberts was. He said that his grandfather had been a guide for Roberts when he came to Petra. That was when I surrendered: even in this aromatic cave off the tourist track, Jordan had managed to beguile me.
David Roberts was a Scottish watercolorist, a member of the Royal Academy who traveled throughout the Middle East in the years 1838–1840. His intensely evocative landscapes of the ruins of Egypt and Jordan—then part of the Ottoman Empire—became virtually the pattern book of Orientalist imagery. The pair of crouching camels that I had seen in front of the Treasury when I entered Petra were a direct quotation from a Roberts painting—as was the face that I saw before me: give Auda a mustache and a flowing white robe, and he would look perfectly at home in a Roberts album. Of course, it couldn’t have been Auda’s grandfather, nor likely even his great-grandfather who guided Roberts, and the whole story might have been only a family legend. But that’s irrelevant: romance thrives in a realm beyond facts.
After Petra, the most popular destination for foreign visitors in Jordan is the biblical archaeology trail. A leisurely drive south from Amman along the east coast of the Dead Sea takes in the site of one momentous scriptural event after another. Less than an hour southwest of Amman is Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, known locally as al-Maghtas, the traditional location of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Nearby is Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering; on a clear day, the views from here are still awe-inspiring, extending as far as Bethlehem and the distant spires of Jerusalem. And a few kilometers farther south is Madaba, a center of Jordan’s Christian minority famed for its Byzantine churches and their splendid mosaics. Supreme among them is St. George’s, its floor covered by a detailed map of the region, which marks the major biblical sites of the Middle East with icon-like illustrations and Greek captions.
At the southern end of the Dead Sea, in a place called Deir ’Ain ’Abata, are the remains of an early-Byzantine monastery raised to commemorate the cave where Lot and his daughters sought sanctuary when the Lord rained fire and brimstone down on the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Familiarly known as Lot’s Cave, the site was rediscovered in 1986. A team from the British Museum has excavated the small, charming basilica and the cave itself, whose entrance is framed by a stone gateway carved with esoteric symbols.
If the Dead Sea region bristles with Old Testament references, the sea itself, the lowest point on the surface of the planet, recalls Dante’s Inferno. On a cloudy day, with a high wind washing yellowish skies, the shore has a creepy subterranean feel to it. Bulbous blobs of volcanic rock encrusted with salts tumble across the strand; beyond, the sea’s turgid, gelatinous waters surge in ominous swells. Visitors come here to get the obligatory snapshot of themselves floating on top of the water reading a newspaper, but the Dead Sea is a poor place for swimming. Immersion in water with a salt concentration six times that of the ocean is a bizarre experience—you float on the surface like a cork, making it impossible to get your limbs deep enough into the water to propel yourself through it.
The Dead Sea is a weird, interesting place. I was glad I saw it, but after deciding against a mudpack treatment at one of the many spas on its shore, I ascended into the light and fresh air of the hills of southern Jordan. It was like rising from the infernal depths to paradise. A steep road climbed into a tender, green landscape with ancient stone villages hugging the crests. My destination was the extraordinary Dana Biosphere Reserve, which occupies the northern reach of the Great Rift Valley, the geological formation that begins in East Africa, where scientists tell us human life emerged. Created by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), Dana is the largest and most advanced reserve in a park system that many bigger, richer nations might envy. Dana is one of the most beautiful natural places in Asia, yet it remains strangely (and delightfully) undervisited by tourists.
On the late-winter night I arrived, a brief, blowy blizzard was laying siege to the RSCN’s hilltop guesthouse. As the wind shrieked and howled, rattling the doors and windows like an angry ghost, I and the other guests huddled disconsolately around the fireplace. No one mentioned their plans for the morning. Yet when we met again at breakfast, sunshine shimmered across an exquisite view of the valley, where brilliantly colored rock crags alternated with lush green shrubbery and forest cover, receding into sparkling infinity.