Since thousands of years they all came though these regions, of which a part is today the relatively new construct of Jordan. It were Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greek, Nanataenians, Romans, Christian crusaders. Some came in peace, some for war. All of them left their traces and influences. It is a region, in which the Bible reads like a tour guide - specially the old testament. Even Chinese porcelain was found in Aqaba, dating back centuries. Today you don't find it as a surprise that trading ties are close between Jordan and China. Cement, phosphate, potassium, salt from the Dead Sea and other minerals, are traded against rice and infrastructure projects. For example the lighting system of the new stadium in Amman is contracted by a company from Shenzhen. Jordan has been drawn up on a map by the late British Empire, like many other Nations. Specially under the reign of King Hussein, also called the Lion of Jordan, the country remained exceptionally peaceful for this region. A nearly miraculous act of balancing powers. King Hussein is very much admired for his ability to maintain mostly peace and the loyalty to his people. His last wife Queen Noor, which became her name after her conversion to Islam, had an important role to explain the Jordanian position to the first Golf War to American audiences. The current King Abdullah II and his wife Queen Rania have very big shoes to fill and are sometimes seen as installed figures by the United States. Since the American lead invasion into Iraq, Jordan is swamped with refugees, lost an important trading partner and access to cheap oil. In a time in which many Middle East and Magreb governments have been either overthrown or are under pressure, Jordan seems to remain stable. King Abdullah II promotes reforms and Queen Rania changed her PR strategy by avoiding gala balls and is now only seen visiting charitable organizations, hospitals and educational institutions. Still, compared with the charismatic and legendary King Hussein, the recent efforts of the two head figures of the current regime seem a bit helpless. But how good can you be, when you are publically compared to a nearly mythical souvereign like King Hussein?
An old former soldier with a several times broken nose, who must have been in his 70s, told me over a cup of tea: "Don't believe what you see. He has good intentions and tries his best. But he is a King of Jordan, who speaks better English than Arabian. How can he explain to Arabs, that he understands their needs and problems? Specially in times in which being the bridge to America is not seen as good. He might be a traitor to Jordanian interests. Inflation is high in Jordan. People measure him against King Hussein. Dictatorships are only as good as their dictators."
In Jordan the past is always present. Even though its capital Amman is a city, mostly built in the 21st century, it still breathes a lot of traditional oriental air. I stayed in Amman during Eid festival, which marks the end of Ramadan and enjoyed the liveliness of families getting together and going out in best clothes to best restaurants in town. The scenery changes abruptly, when you leave the city of Amman into the Wadi As-Seer and follow further to Iraq Al-Amir, which is the home of the Jordan national flower, the black Iris. There are also nice remains of ancient fortified homes and caves, which are interesting to see. For example Quasr al-Abad (Palace of the Prince) is one of the rare remains of pre-Roman architecture. North you quickly get into the impressing site of Jerash.
It is great fun to negociate with Arabians. Everbody is somehow a salesman. There is rarely a saleswomen, by the way. I learned that North European men "don't wrap their women decently and care excessively about their opinions". Women here often agree to being wrapped very decently, and their opinion about it has been explained to me by their husbands: "They like it better that way". I believe that, first because it is very sunny and dusty outside, and secondly it does not cause this confusion which we have often in Northen Europe. God is great, isn't he?
Like in all Arab countries the sales process of any product is done in no hurry and includes a thorough discussion on the product's value and the relation to its price. I always tried to combine this with some business lectures, which is a "deformation professionelle". For example the negotiation for a Bedouin headscarf, a Keffiyeh, I included the learning objectives 1) understanding the price as a function of supply and demand and 2) competition and Adam Smith's invisible hand.
A Bedouin salesman started with a friendly smile and said: "Only 8 JD". Completly uninterested looking at my watch, I responded: "You know, my friend, the price is a result of supply and demand. You have supply and I need nothing. So you have to give it to me for free". He thought a bit and then bursted out: "For free, that's not fair". So I told him, looking serious and deep: "You are right, my friend, that's not fair. If you give me something for free which I don't need, I have expenses for transportation, storage and maintenance. So, if I take it from you, you pay me 5 JD for my service. OK?". He thought a bit and then sounded angry: "No". So I had to ease the situation slightly: "No? That's the wrong answer. Like this you can't sell it. I am just trying to help you my friend. Find a better answer. Think a bit and try again". He thought, looking up to the sky for a moment, and said quietly: "But you need it". I was very happy he got it so fast: "Very good! How much do I need it and why?". Now he felt that he was on the right way and smiled: "You need it a lot. The sun is very strong today". I still had to cover Adam Smith: "Very good! But I can buy this from somebody else cheaper". He looked disappointed and said: "But you are my friend". I had to help him back on the strait path: "Hey, don't go for moral arguments. This is not the ethics class. Try again. I know you can do better than that". He thought a bit and understood: "Mine is better quality and when you are not happy with it, you come again and I give you your money back". We were nearly there: "Great, so 2 JD and I will take care of it?". Finally the deal was sealed with a happy handshake and under laughter: "3 JD? ... Ok!". From this day on, with my new scarf and my old sunglasses, I looked so much like an Bedouin, that people were making space for me when I crossed crowded places and drivers greeted me with their horn like an old friend.
Driving South, up to Madaba, the you find an industrial desert, in the true sense of the meaning, with a mix of factories from canned food over chicken factories to silicon. It might have to be like this in a country which develops manufacturing industries in a quest how to progress. However, there is more than enough space already here, to get off the road and get some feeling for your car and test the limits of your low ratio gearbox and your ground clearance. You will need it later. Further, on the way South you may pass the Dead Sea, and many architectural relicts including the the impressive crusader castles of Al-Karak and Ash-Shwabak, which is already close to Wadi Musa and the ancient stone city of Petra.
I entered Petra, like everybody who pays for the ticket, through the Siq, which is a steep gorge eroded in the sandstone. Sometimes it is only a few meters wide. When I came to the end of it the view opened to the large sandstone structure called the treasury, I really did not believe my eyes. It is a huge cave, with a sand stone building front hammered into the rock. Further right following the now wider gorge, I entered the main basin in which Petra lies and in the moment I passed the Theatre and had a fuller view. At this moment it was clear that this is the most amazing architecture, I have ever seen - and might ever see in my life. No doubt this is one of the seven wonders of the world. Temples, tombs, even a byzantine church, gateways. But Petra is as much about these grand monuments, as about the own discovery of caves and tombs reaching far into the desert mountain. When I went up to the monastery and passed a sign "View from here to the end of the world", I looked into the Araba desert and it was clear that I did well trying out the limits of the car first before going any further into such terrain.
Soon I passed another sign, explaining the dangers of what is upfront, and telling me only to cross this point with at least one companion. My companion this time was a Toyota Land Cruiser, which I regard beside the Land Rover Defender and the G-Class Mercedes, as the only suitable transportation for these conditions. Soon I turned out to be wrong and the leaf spring of the Land Cruiser broke, an incident which is best described in my mother language with the German word "Scheisse". Wilfried Thesinger was right, that only camels are companions in the desert. When your camel dies, you die. When your car dies, you might die. But I did not, because the car was still drivable. From there I had to switch to Toyota Hilux, which is not my first choice for further pursuit into a place which was the film set for the movie "The red planet" in which it served as the surface of Mars: Wadi Rum and the Southern Desert. The journey started with a flat tire - "Scheisse" again.
Wadi Rum is a stunning desert landscape, with rocks, mountains and changing colors of sand. This is where Prince Feisal decided, with the advise of T.E. Lawrence to send a small number of men to Aqaba which was held by the Turks. Uniting other tribes on the way, this was the beginning of the Arab Revolt in WW1, ultimately taking Aqaba and driving out the Turks, but not giving freedom to the Arabs. It must have been an enormous expedition to cross the desert on camels, which is sand, sand and stony plains underneath and a hammering merciless sun from the top. It needs not just some skills handling a 4x4 vehicle today to cross it, but also a bit of tricky driving around checkpoints as the crossing needs special permits, which I failed to obtain.
Aqaba, has been an important port since ancient times. It was a castle and a garrison. Then it was used by the British to supply their military activities in the North of it. In modern times, it might be called a "hub". There is not much to see in Aqaba itself, but the beauty of it lies in front of the city: the Red Sea. My first impression coming out of the desert was that the Red Sea is the bluest sea I have ever seen. Of course, this gave me the question why it is called Red Sea. Making sure, that I do not see it just differently, I asked other people and they confirmed that it is blue. So my next question was: "How come you call something Red Sea for thousands of years and I figure it out in 5 minutes, that it is blue?". This did not just cause bursting laughter among the Arabs around me, but also brought me a very nice dinner invitation, because they found me very entertaining (an adjective by which I am usually not described in other parts of the world). Also in other incidents I found that German and Arab humor matches very well. The Arabs I met in Jordan were the most friendly people I have seen since traveling through Sri Lanka earlier this year. Of course, it did not take long to find out that the Red Sea appears red under certain conditions in which a red alge grows. But I could not eye witness it myself.
The most beautiful part of the Red Sea is under the surface. As soon as you put your head under water, there are fish of all colors and all sizes in a beautiful coral landscape. Sunk trade ships and military clashes left wrecks of vessels and tanks, which are slowly taken back by nature. So much to see, that 10 liters at 200 bars disappear like nothing. But also just snorkeling will keep you for hours in the water. Some corals though are destroyed by divers and boats, which is sad to see. The campaign of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung together with the city of Aqaba can not be seen enough: "Take nothing but photos. Leave nothing but bubbles". I just hope no ship ever sinks here with a harmful load. This would be a loss for the planet and for mankind.