Jordan: Situated on the Eastern Limits of the Levant, Jordan Is a Fledgling Country in an Ancient Land. Its Modern Borders Encompass Biblical Kingdoms, Roman Provinces and Great Hill Cities Dating Back to Civilisation's Early Days-All Set in Some of the Most Spectacular Scenery in the Middle East. Jo Bourne Profiles This Archaeological Wonderland

Article excerpt

Jordan at a glance

A snapshot of modern Jordan, its people and its geography

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, created in 1946, has a complex modern history. On the eve of the First World War, the land from Turkey in the north to Yemen in the south and across the eastern Mediterranean to Iraq had been under Ottoman role for 400 years. With the outbreak of war, the Ottoman Empire sided with the Axis powers, declaring jihad on the Allies. The British countered by offering support to the Arabs in their fight for independence from the Turks, and the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 ended in victory.

But the British had agreements with France and Russia to partition the land according to their own needs, despite promises made to the Arab leaders. In addition, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour had agreed in 1917 to the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine.

In 1920, elected Arab delegates declared Arab leader Sharif Hussein's son Faysal King of the Levant, and his brother Abdullah King of Iraq. But British and French reaction was swift and harsh. Within just six weeks they had established a 'mandate' (administrative control) over the Middle East and drawn new borders, granting Palestine and Iraq to the British and Syria and Lebanon to the French, with Transjordan in the middle.

Arab discontent ran high and, in November 1920, Abdullah left for Damascus to declare war on the French. In March 1921, he arrived in Amman, where rebellion was quelled by British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, who negotiated Abdullah's abdication from the Iraqi throne in favour of his brother Faysal. Abdullah subsequently took the temporary title of emir, or prince, of Transjordan.

In May 1923, Abdullah was formally recognised under the Anglo-Jordanian Treaty as head of the Emirate of Transjordan. He established Amman as his capital and, with judicious use of British funds and support, ruled as emir until 1946, when Transjordan was granted independence and he was awarded the title of king by the Treaty of London. The treaty also accorded Transjordan the name Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, after the king--head of the Hashemite dynasty.

In 1951, Abdullah I was assassinated in Jerusalem by a Palestinian gunman and was succeeded by his grandson, King Hussein, A popular and accomplished statesman, Hussein ruled for 46 years and was, on his death, the longest-serving executive head of state in the world. Jordan flourished under his rule. Outmoded forms of agriculture were abandoned in favour of more forward-thinking and progressive industries. The country now specialises in communications, 11 and a broad spectrum of services, including tourism.

Today, Jordan is ruled by King Hussein's son Abdullah II. Born in 1962, he attended Deerfield Academy, Sandhurst and Oxford. Abdullah continues his father's work in developing Jordan, focusing heavily on economic reform. Like Hussein, he's a popular figurehead for the Jordanian people, who--with their typical disarming sincerity--are justly proud of their king and country.

Water in Jordan

Jordan's most pressing environmental problem is its water shortage. Per capita, it has one of the lowest usage levels in the Arab world: in 1996, levels were estimated at 175 cubic metres for all uses (1,000 cubic metres is considered water poor; the world average is 7,700; and in the USA the figure is 110,000). With the Jordan River now dammed in several places by Israel, much of the water now used is fossil water from the south. Both political and technological solutions will be required if the current overexploitation continues, and the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty includes measures for the construction of dam on the Yarmouk River at Adassiya. In September 2002, the two countries agreed on a plan to pipe water from the Red Sea to the shrinking Dead Sea. The US$800 million project is the nations' largest joint venture, but has yet to be implemented.

sand, sea and dry river courses

Jordan's three main topographic regions--desert, rocky highlands and rift valley--offer a striking and varied landscape

The Great Rift Valley is a true geological marvel--a mighty fault system that cleaves the Earth for 4,830 kilometres, from northern Syria to central Mozambique. This fissure defines the west of the Kingdom of Jordan, running the entire length of the country from Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee) to the Gulf of Aqaba, on its way, descending to the rocky shore of the Dead Sea, at 409 metres below sea level the world's lowest point on land.

The origins of this dramatic landscape--known within the country as the Jordan Rift Valley--date back 20-30 million years, when most of the southern Levant formed part of the ocean bed. The collision of the Arabian and African plates forced this ocean floor upwards, shearing the land in a transform (or strike-slip) fault. As a consequence, the rocks on the felt-hand side no longer mirror the neighbouring geology on the tight, having slipped 100 kilometres to the south.

The tectonic activity, visible in the hot springs that flow along the rift, makes its presence felt periodically in the form of earthquakes. Over the past 2,500 years, these quakes have caused the destruction of great centres of civilisation, including--it's thought--the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in 2100 BC and Petra in AD 363 and 551. The most recent--a magnitude of 7.1 on the Richter scale--occurred in 1995 in the Gulf of Aqaba, extending to Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, with aftershocks that lasted a year.

Such quakes have also been known to cause tsunamis in the Dead Sea, the remnant of an inland sea known as Lake Lisan that once extended the length of the Jordan Rift, Valley. Now just 17.5 by 76 kilometres in size, the sea took its present form towards the end of the last ice age and is now both a major tourist attraction and vital resource.

Fed from the north by the Jordan River, it has no outflow. Intense evaporation maintains both its high mineral content and its depth; in summer, temperatures of 40[degrees]C can reduce the latter by 25 millimetres in 24 hours. Eight times as sally as sea water, the sea harbours no life save one species of alga--the green dunaliella--and several bacteria species.

This unique resource has been exploited for millennia. Aristotle wrote of its salinity in his Meteorology in 350 BC: "There is a lake in Palestine, such that if you bind a man or beast and throw it in, it floats and does not sink." Bitumen was gathered from the sea's surface in antiquity (the Romans referred to it as Lacus Asphaltitus), and today potash is extracted through evaporation and used as fertiliser. There is also an industry based on the health benefits of the water, mud and climate.

Throughout the country, Jordan's geology is its dominant feature. Across the land, arid steppes metamorphose into extraordinary rock masses and duned deserts. Travelling east from the Dead Sea, roads wind up through limestone and sandstone crags intercut with a series of waddies (wadi is Arabic for 'watercourse valley'). One such, Wadi Al Mujib on the edge of the Dead Sea, was designated a nature reserve in 1987. Spanning an area of 220 square kilometres, it varies in height from 409 metres below to 900 metres above sea level. Its boulder-strewn uplands and narrow river gorges are striking even when visibility is smudged by sandstorms.

But it's the sandstone, contiguous with the rift margins, that provides the high drama. At Petra in the south, the world-famous 2,000-year-old Nabataean tombs lie in a spectacularly banded sandstone gorge eroded over millennia by flash flooding.

Just 100 kilometres south, Wadi Rum's rectilinear mountains rise from the desert sands in another fantastic landscape. In this region, made famous by TE Lawrence, Bedouin tribes share the desert with rare flora and fauna, including ibex and the Arabian sand cat.

Wadi Rum forms part of the North Arab Desert, which extends to the north and cast into Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria. Comprising three quarters of the landmass, this arid land is charactirised by volcanic basalt in the north that creates a bizarre black desert in which the traveller will occasionally come across eighth-century Umayyad castles.

These northern areas offer a stark contrast to Jordan's southern tip, which grazes the Red Sea over 26 kilometres--the country's only coast. At Aqaba, light penetrates file clear waters to a depth of 70 metres, creating perfect conditions for 140-plus species of coral and drawing divers from far and wide.

In high summer, when temperatures are well above 30[degrees]C, much of the land seems arid, with Irish greenery and flowers blooming only on watered margins. But in spring and autumn the rains bring forth an abundance of brilliantly coloured blossoms that carpet the land, adding to the magnificence of this extraordinary country.

a tale of two cities

Amman is a seductive mix of ancient and modern, a 21st-century city with a past as old as civilisation

Very few cities have a pedigree as ancient and complex as that of Amman, yet this Middle Eastern metropolis is a relatively young capital. It wasn't until 1921 that Amman--once the biblical Rabbath Ammon and later the Greco-Roman Philadelphia--was designated capital of Transjordan. Its population has since grown from 2,400 to more than two billion.

The 21st-century city occupies a plateau 850 metres above sea level that has been home to settlers for almost 9,000 years. Also known as the White City, its modern buildings are--by municipal law--mostly faced with white Jordanian limestone. This uniformity gives the city an unearthly feel, especially when sandstorms blur the silhouettes of the high-rise hotels in the west, turning their pristine white lines an other-worldly yellow ochre.

Originally spanning seven hills, or jebels, modern Amman has now spread to encompass a further 12. One major route traverses Amman west of the central Downtown area, with numbered Roundabouts--called circles--at intersection defining the surrounding district (though most have been replaced by traffic lights). The steep streets of the hill districts render a two-dimensional map redundant and streets are rarely used, even by the city's inhabitants, so visitor are advised to rely on instinct and directions from locals.

Few modern guidebooks praise Amman for its beauty, referring readers instead to neighbouring Salt, with its 19th-century Ottoman architecture. Certainly Salt is an attractive town, but then so is Amman, although its beauty lies not in the usual idea of what a Middle Eastern city should be, but in the contrast of the ancient and modern sprawled across its vertiginous hills, which afford some spectacular views.

One of the best places from which to appreciate this is the Amman Nature Center at the First Circle. From the center's cafe you can gaze across at Jebel al-Qal'a--Citadel Hill--and the silhouettes of the vast Umayyad palace (dating from the eighth century) and the colonnaded Temple of Hercules (from Roman time), which dominate the surrounding buildings. The palace complex, which is open daily until sunset, covers the hill's northern sector and incorporates remnants of earlier Roman structures. These include a domed audience hall, baths, residential quarters once occupied by Amman's governor and a Roman street.

The nearby temple, whose columns were re-erected in 1993, is thought to have been dedicated to Hercules. Excavations have found evidence at the site of the remains of the Ammonite temple of Milkon, destroyed by King David in the first millennium BC.

The Nature Center itself was opened in 2003 for the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, and is the work of Ammar Khammash, one of Jordan's leading architects, In the midst of old, elegant houses, Khammash--an artist, poet, archaeologist and writer--has created a masterpiece of stone, concrete, wood and glass that sits with fluid style on the steep hillside. Khammash's designs incorporate data from a wide range of fields including archaeology, geology, anthropology, geography and ecology, A growing tree is one of the many features incorporated into the center--embodying his belief in what he calls 'landscape literacy'.

Modern architecture is common in many parts of Amman--a tour around the wealthy Abdoun area reveals an array of properties that could feature in an architectural magazine, gut in the old city it's the ancient monuments that draw the tourists: the Odeon (a 500-seat theatre), the Roman theatre (which can accommodate 6,000), the colonnaded street and the Nymphaeum (the main fountain). Today, these edifices jostle with gaudy modern shops--perfumeries, coffee shops, patisseries, grocery shops with bags of herbs and spices on the pavements--while, all around, the streets swarm with traffic.

This is where you glimpse the real Amman, a city of the third millennium founded not on monumental magnificence but on the very real requirements of its populace. And visitors will find that in its latest incarnation, it is every bit as compelling as its antecedents.

A treasury of archaeology

Jordan has some of the Middle East's greatest archaeological riches, from early human statues to the ant ancient architecture of Petra

When, in 1845, the Oxford Biblical scholar John William Burgon wrote the lines "a rose red city, half as old as time" in his poem about Petra, he thought his words represented a statement of fact, A vehement anti-Darwinist, Burgon believed--as did many academics of his time--that the world began in 4004 BC and that the ancient city of Petra was indeed almost half as old as the Earth itself.

While Burgon never wavered from his conviction, litany of his contemporaries would, it subsequently years, concede defeat in the face of irrefutable geological and archaeological evidence that the world--and the history of man--was much, much older. Little mere than 100 years later, it was an archaeological discovery in the Jordan Valley itself--at Ubeidiya, near Lake Tiberias in modern Israel--along with those in Africa, that finally proved beyond question the antiquity of man. Excavations between 1960 and 1974 uncovered stone tools dating back 1.4 million years, illustrating the spread of Homo erectus from Africa to the rest of the world.

The ancient land of Palestine, upon which the modern borders of Jordan have been imposed, has been overwritten by millennia of human activity. Lying between Egypt in the south and Syria and Mesopotamia in the north, it served as a corridor between civilisation's great cradles of Africa and Eurasia. Subjected to centuries of invasion, Jordan's settlers left behind many marvels, among them whole cities, great theatres, temples and tombs.

Driving south from Amman en route to the Dead Sea, you can see dolmens--table-like stone tombs built of three large slabs--in the low hills, evidence of ancient burial activity dating back to the Chalcolithic or Copper Age (4300-3300 BC). This period is noted for its extraordinary artefacts, among them a fresco excavated from the site of Teleilat el-Ghassul near the Dead Sea's northern tip. The red, white and black wall painting depicts an eight-pointed star, 1.84 metres in diameter, surrounded by mythological creatures--the only painting of its kind in the world.

Pre-dating the fresco by 3,000 years are the extraordinary finds from Ain Ghazal on the ouskirts of Amman, which were discovered in the 1980s during a rescue excavation prior to road construction In addition to freestanding buildings and human burials were six human skulls covered in plaster and a series of plaster statues now ill the archaeological museum in Amman.

Such finds are evidence of Jordan's role in the early development of civilisation. Land, water and communication routes were necessary for the first cities to take root, but this combination is in short supply in this arid land, so suitable areas were used many times over. As mud-brick houses decayed, collapsed and were built over, they formed tell, or hill, sites--great layer cakes of the human past, containing as many as 20 level of ruined cities, which provide archaeologists with a unique glimpse of early cultures.

From the early 20th century, the discovery of ancient sites drew biblical scholars in droves, fuelling a frenzy of archaeological research. The most recent biblical find is Lot's Cave and Monastery, northeast of Sail at the southern tip of the Dead Sea, which boasts a Byzantine church with mosaic flooring and a cave purported to be Lot's place of retreat after the destruction of Sodom. The complex, which was built in the fifth to eighth centuries AD, appears in the Madaba mosaic--a sixth-century Byzantine map of the Holy Land that can be seen at St George's Church, Madaba, 40 kilometres south of Amman. Specially tailored tours to the holy sites are plentiful, taking in destinations such as Bethany-beyond-Jordan, where Christ is thought to have been baptised by John the Baptist, and Mount Nebo, reputed to be where God showed Moses the Promised Land.

But it's Petra, lying at the heart of the biblical kingdom of Edom (meaning red), that is Jordan's most compelling destination. Having been the exclusive preserve of Bedouin tribes lot 800 years, it was 'rediscovered' in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.

Here, Petra's Nabataean founders made their fortune from the trade of incense, balsam and bitumen and by taxing the caravans that passed the strategically situated gorge. Their legacy can be seen in the impressive tombs carved from the yellow, pink and ochre sandstone.

The monuments are interspersed and often cut through with Roman and Byzantine remains; a Roman colonnaded Street runs for 250 metres through the heart of the complex. Nearby, the sandy valley floor is littered with pot shards--testament to centuries of activity in the area. Archaeologists concede they've barely scratched the surface; much of Petra remains beneath the valley sands.

The impressive remains of the Roman Decapolis--a confederation or administrative grouping of ten cities mentioned in the New Testament--are scattered throughout Jordan. Just 48 kilometres north of Amman, Jerash is one of the largest and best preserved Roman sites outside Italy, and second only 10 Petra as Jordan's most-visited tourist destination. Bridges, a triumphal arch, a hippodrome, plaza, temples and baths are among the many extant monuments, all strongly Greek in style due to their construction by the remnants of the Hellenistic legions of Alexander in the second century BC. Nowhere, except perhaps Pompeii, can one step so easily back in time to the Roman era. And, like Pompeii, it was a natural cataclysm--in the form of an earthquake in 747 AD--that caused Jerash's downfall.

Amman, another of the Decapolis cities, has its share of Roman traces. In the Downtown area these include a jewel of a theatre cut into the hillside, a Nymphaeum (the main fountain, due for restoration) and a recently renovated Odeon, which bear witness to a past era--just one of a multitude in a city, are indeed a county, that has seen almost 90 centuries of civilisation.

Visiting Jordan

Jordan is a land to delight the senses, with a wealth of things to do and see

How to get there

Most visitors arrive at Queen Alia International Airport, which is located 32 kilometres south of Amman--generally a half-hour journey by bus or taxi. You can also enter Jordan by land from Syria and Israel. Entry by sea is via a car-ferry service from Nuweiba in Egypt to Aqaba.

When to go

Spring (March-May) and autumn (September-November) are the best times to visit. Temperatures during high summer can be scorching, while winters can be cold and rainy; this shouldn't rule out travelling--just check the climate for your destination. In Wadi Rum, for example, winter temperatures can be ideal for walking tours.

What you need

All visitors need a passport valid for six months and a visa. Visas can be obtained at the airport on arrival, or from the consulate in your home country; if arriving by sea or land, check about visa availability before arrival. A single-entry visa costs JD10 (10[pounds sterling]) valid for two weeks from entry, but can be easily extended for up to three months at any police station. There is also an exit tax of JD5 by air and JD7 by land. If you plan to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority during your trip it's better to obtain a multiple-entry visa before departure.

For more information, visit the 'Country advice and tips' section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website (www.fco.gov.uk)

What to read

* History and archaeology

Archaeology and the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 BC by Amihai Mazar The Antiquities of Jordan by G Lankester-Harding Monuments of Jordan: an Historical Guide by Rami G Khouri

* Nature and trekking

The Birds of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan by Ian J Andrews Field Guide to Wild Flowers of Jordan and Neighbouring Countries by Dawud MH Al-Eisawi Amphibians and Reptiles of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan by Ahmad M Disi Jordan: Walks, Treks, Climbs and Canyons by Di Taylor and Tony Howard Trekking told Canyoning in the Jordanian Dead Sea Rift by Itai Haviv

* Culture

Bedouin: Nomads of the Desert by Alan Keohane Recipes and Remembrances from an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen: a Culinary Journey through Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan by Sonia Uvezian Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence

What to eat

Jordan's food is a delight. Shops in Amman abound with Arabic sweets or halawiyyat--fresh, honey-drizzled, nut-filled pastries and cakes, and biscuits in 1,001 varieties. Breakfast highlights include flat breads, za'tar (a thyme and sesame dip), yoghurt and hummus. Main meals comprise mostly chicken or lamb; traditional Bedouin fare is mensaf--lamb or mutton on sticky rice with a yoghurt-based sauce. Local seasonal fruit accompanies many meals.

Tea (shy), black, hot and incredibly sweet, is served everywhere and coffee--known as Turkish coffee--is black, sweet, thick, flavoured with cardamom and utterly delicious.

Visitors should hear in mind that for Ramadan--the holy month of fasting--Moslems may not smoke, eat or drink anything (including water) during the day. Food and soft drinks are served in hotels--and alcohol after dark--but, to avoid causing offence during this time, don't cat, drink or smoke in public.

Holidays and festivals

The timing of Ramadan and many public holidays vary according to the Islamic lunar calendar, so check dates with the Jordan Tourism Board before departure Friday is the weekly holiday, as is Saturday for many banks and government offices.

A major festival highlight is the Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts, which runs for 17 days in July and August and features local and international dance, concerts, theatre and craft in the floodlit Roman ruin.

visit www.jerashfestival.com.jo for details

Useful resources

Jordan Tourism Board: 020 7371 6496 (enquiries); 08707 706 933 (brochure enquiries); www.see-jordan.com Jordanian Embassy UK: 020 7937 3685; www.jordanembassyuk.gov.jo Royal Jordanian UK: 020 7878 6300; www.rja.com.jo The royal family: www.kingabdullah.jo; www.kinghussein.gov.jo The country and people of Jordan: www.hejleh.com/countries/jordan.html Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities: www.mota.gov.jo Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature: www.rscn.org.jo

Climate

Part of the eastern Mediterranean weather System. Summer temperatures can reach 40[degrees] in the Dead Sea and desert areas. Winters are cool to cold, with rain and chilly winds; temperatures can drop to -8[degrees]C Petra, and snowfalls--even in the desert--are common. Annual rainfall ranges from 50mm In the desert regions to 650mm in the northern highlands. More than 90 per cent of Jordan gets less thin 20Omm of rain a year.

                 Amman              Aquaba            Dead Sea
                 (800m)             (sea level)       (-409m)

January          3-12[degrees]C     9-12[degrees]C    11-21[degrees]C
                 (64mm)             (5mm)             (13mm)

April            9-23[degrees]C     17-31[degrees]C   19-31[degrees]C
                 (15mm)             (4mm)             (7mm)

July             18-32[degrees]C    25-39[degrees]C   27-40[degrees]C
                 (0mm)              (0mm)             (0mm)

October          14-27[degrees]C    20-33[degrees]C   22-33[degrees]C
                 (7mm)              (1mm)             (1mm)

                 Irbid              Petra             Rum
                 (600m)             (1,100m)          (950m)

January          5-13[degrees]C     4-12[degrees]C    4-15[degrees]C
                 (111mm)            (43mm)            (19mm)

April            10-22[degrees]C    11-22[degrees]C   12-25[degrees]C
                 (51mm)             (14mm)            (7mm)

July             19-31[degrees]C    18-36[degrees]C   19-36[degrees]C
                 (0mm)              (0mm)             (0mm)

October          15-27[degrees]C    14-24[degrees]C   4-15[degrees]C
                 (14mm)             (2mm)             (2mm)

        Ancient History of the Jordan region

c8500-4300 BC    Neolithic period: hunter-gatherer
                 Natufians are succeeded by the first
                 Agricultural communities

 4300-3300 BC    Chalcolithic or Copper Age: human
                 settlements based on subsistence
                 economy; copper mining and
                 production of fine artefacts

 3300-2000 BC    Early Bronze Age: the first cities;
                 early biblical references traced
                 archaeologically to this time

 2000-1550 BC    Middle Bronze Age: Amorites and
                 Canaanites arrive. The first forts and
                 fortified cities are built

 1550-1200 BC    Late Bronze Age: c1280 BC Moses
                 leads Israelites out of Egypt to east
                 bank of Jordan; c1225 BC Palestine
                 divided among Israel's 12 tribes

  1200-586 BC    Iron Age: development of
                 alphabetic writing in the region.
                 Israelites, Edomites, Moabites,
                 Amonites and Arameans colonise

   960-922 BC    Reign of Solomon

       722 BC    Assyrians destroy Israel

       612 BC    Babylonians capture Nineveh,
                 Assyrians capital

   597-587 BC    Jerusalem, Palestine and Jordan fall to
                 Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar

      c300 BC    Nabataeans establish kingdom in
                 Petra and dominate the region for
                 almost 400 years

       333 BC    Alexander the Great conquers Syria,
                 Palestine and Egypt

       323 BC    Death of Alexander. Generals take
                 control: Ptolemy I takes Egypt, Jordan
                 and part of Syria and Seleucid rules
                 Babylonia. Amman renamed
                 Philadelphia

       198 BC    Seleucid army defeats Ptolemy V and
                 siezes western Jordan

        64 BC    Nabataean kingdom attacked by
                 Roman General Pompey; attacks
                 continue until four BC

       106 AD    Roman dominance. Roman cities
                 of Jordan, Syria and Israel became
                 known as the Decapolis, possibly
                 linked for trade purposes

       260 AD    Sassanians from Persia invade eastern
                 Jordan; the rest under Byzantine rule.
                 Christianity becomes official religion

       632 AD    Prophet Mohammed's death

       636 AD    Christians defeated at Battle of
                 Yarmouk. Islam becomes established
                 religion; Arabic the principal language

The flag

The black band represents the Abbassid Caliphate of Islam, the white the Umayyad Caliphate of Islam and the green the Fatimid Caliphate of Islam. The triangle represent the 1916 Arab Revolt, and the seven-pointed star the seven verses of the opening sure, or chapter, of the Qur'an

Geography

Total area 89,342 sq. km; 99.6% land

Terrain Three main topographical regions: the Great Rift Valley to the west; highland running north-south; desert plateau in the east

Lowest point Dead Sea - 409m below sea level

Highest point Jebel Rum - 1,734m

Longest river Jordan river - 104km from Lake Tiberias to Dead Sea, twisting more Than 320km along its length

Largest lake Dead Sea - 1,020 sq. km (highly variable)

Land use arable 2.9%; permanent crops 1.5%; other 95.6% (1998)

Natural resources phosphates, potash, Shale oil

The economy

Currency Jordanian dinar

Exchange rate 1[pounds sterling]=JD1.16

Major industries phosphate mining; pharmaceutical; petroleum refining; cement; potash; tourism

GDP US$22.8 billion (2002)

GDP by sector agriculture 4%; industry 26%; services 70% (2001)

Population below poverty line 30% (2001)

Inflation rate 3.3% (2002)

More key facts

Official name Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

Local form Al Mamlakah al Urduniyah al Hashmiyyah

Short form Jordan

Local short form Al Urdun

Borders 1,635km; border countries: Iraq 181km; Israel 238km; Saudi Arabia 744km; Syria 375km; West Bank 97km; coastline: 26km

Population 5,307,470 (July 2002)

Population density 58 people per Sq. km (2001)

Population growth rate 2.89% (2002 est.)

Life expectancy at birth Female: 80.3 years; Male: 75.3 years (2002 est.)

Capital city Amman (population two million)

People Arab 98%; Circassian 1%; Armenian 1%

Language Arabic, English

Religions Sunni Muslim 92%; Christian 6% (majority Greek Orthodox); other 2% (2001)

Independence 25 May 1946

Government Constitutional monarchy

Head of State King Abdullah bin al-Hussein (Hussein II)

Prime Minister Ali Abu al-Raghelo

Time GM plus two hours

Electricity 220V, 50 Hz

Weights and measures Metric

The Dead Sea's demise

Over the past 40 yeast, the surface area of the Dead Sea has diminished by a quarter, resulting in a 14 metre drop in level and a huge increase in salinity. Freshwater diversion from the Jordan River, dams And potash extraction in the south are responsible, contributing to what conservation groups, including Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), now believe could be an ecological disaster.

The Dead Sea area comprises much of archaeological and cultural importance and has a unique ecosystem; on the Jordanian side new plant species are still being discovered. However, the area is threatened on all sides as Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians race to develop the shore, planning hotels, roads and further mineral- and water-extraction extraction projects. One project in particular--a joint venture between Jordan and Israel to build a 118-kilometre pipeline from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea for hydro-electricity and to replenish levels--has met with opposition from environmentalists, who fear the area's ecological balance is at stake. But if no measures ere taken, by 2020 the shoreline is expected to drop by more than 20 metres.

Meanwhile, FoEME is calling for a limit to tourism development and promoting registration of the Dead Sea basin with UNESCO, as either n Biosphere Reserve or a World Heritage site.

The Hejaz Railway

Jordan has just one railway--a narrow-gauge line that runs a twice-weekly, nine-hour diesel passenger service from Amman to Damascus, Syria--a distance of 677 kilometres. The line was once much longer, and played a significant role in the fortunes of Amman--and of Jordan itself.

Construction began in 1900 under the aegis of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid and was planned to link Damascus with the holy city of Medina in what is now Saudi Arabia. The line followed a pilgrimage route first used in the 16th century and was intended to develop trade and to carry Syrian pilgrims, cutting the length of the perilous and tiring journey--often made on foot--from two months to four days.

The 1,610-kilometre line took eight years to build and reached Amman in 1902. It helped transform the small agricultural settlement into a thriving modern community and was doubtless an influential factor in its choice as capital.

The new railway boasted luxury Pullman carriages and a mosque carriage with a two-metre minaret. It ran three times a week, transporting thousands of pilgrims. But its glory days were short-lived--a target of TE Lawrence and the Arab forces during the Arab Revolt, its trains were repeatedly bombed. When the conflicts was over, repairs were made, but only as far as Ma'an. Profitability declined, as did the state of the railway itself.

A 1982 feasibility study found that it would take US$5billion (3billion[pounds sterling]) to restore the entire line and plans were abandoned. But a twist of fate--in the form of a 1992 advertisement for Extra Strong Mints--once again brought the railway to The world's attention, and today special Tourist charters (which include specially staged 'Bedouin attacks') bring better profits than the passenger service itself.

Jordan and the RGS-IBG

In 1996, the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) began a joint UK-Jordanian research programme to investigate the sustainable management of the arid Badia region in Jordan's northeast Although some Badia pastoralists retain their traditional lifestyle of full mobility, most are only partially mobile for parts of the year or have adopted a fully settled way of life. When it comes to transport, vehicles have replaced camels in most cases, but a growing number of sheep and goats overgraze the natural vegetation and 8re dependent on imported grain-based concentrates for survival during much of the year.

Studies have investigated people and livestock systems, biodiversity and the natural environment, climate and groundwater, domestic life, the sheep industry, health and education.

* For more information visit www.rgs.org

Famous Five

Jordan is a small country and even on a short trip it's possible to see many of its most spectacular sites. Here's our 'must see' top five:

1 Wadi Rum

No amount of viewing David Lean's 1962 masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia will prepare you for the wonder that is Wadi Rum. Naturally sculpted rocks bearing traces of ancient petroglyphs rise up to 1,000 metres from the red sands. The whole landscape shifts colour (and, apparently, shape) with the changing light. An overnight stay at a Bedouin camp is described as sleeping in a 'thousand-star hotel'.

2 Petra

The first glimpse of the Treasury through the Siq (another cinematic monuments, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) is an unforgettable experience, and it's worth visiting Jordan for that alone. Widely acknowledged as one of the wonders of the ancient world, Petra is a World heritage site and easily merits several days of exploration.

3 Jerash

One of the best-preserved provincial cities of the Roman Empire, Jerash (above) provides a rare glimpse of the Roman world as it really was. And in a new initiative, the recently restored hippodrome now hosts 'Roman army' and chariot performances--the only place in the world where you can see authentic races in an authentic setting. Visit www.jerashchariots.com.

4 Mount Nebo

East of the northern tip of the Dead Sea is the burial place of Moses. From the excavated church (replete with mosaics) built by Byzantine Christians you can gaze across the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

5 Dana Nature Reserve

This vast chasm, decorated with bizarre rock formation, is home to 703 species of plant, 38 species of mammal, 42 species of reptile and more than 215 bird species. Run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, it's an enchanting place of immeasurable importance.

Jo Bourne

Journalist and ex-Geographical deputy editor Jo Bourne traveled to Jordan for the first of our 21st-century profiles on page 76, to bring us a multifaceted view of a country with an incredible heritage. Kent-born Jo, who admits to having once made a crop circle, spent seven years in the French Alps before returning to London to work as a journalist and study archaeology. "The British landscape and its past is something of an obsession of mine, "says Jo," so I found Jordan, one of the first places to develop civilisation, particularly fascinating."

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.