It happens all the time in Jordan: You’re cruising on some road, gazing up at the looming hills, when, without warning, the ground on one side falls away. Right then, you realize that you’re actually creeping along an impossibly steep palisade, and that the real view is in the ravine below.
That was the experience of our tour group as our bus pulled up to the ruins of Machaerus. This was the fortress where Herod Antipas imprisoned and executed John the Baptist, and where — if you choose to believe Oscar Wilde — the dancer, Salome, bit the dead prophet’s mouth with her teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. Machaerus rests on a hill shaped like a perfect cone, with a narrow summit and steep sides that fall away more than 1,000 meters into a scrubby valley. From a distance, the general effect is proud, hostile, and a little mournful – first-century BC Judea’s answer to Castle Dracula.
But the Romans dismantled Machaerus after the first Jewish Revolt; siege conditions are no longer in effect. From the King’s Highway, a visitor can gain the top by descending a jagged stone staircase to a packed-earth road that wraps around the hill in a tight spiral, like a reverse water park ride. For anyone free from distractions like ballistae and boiling tar, the slog uphill is quite doable – as our group was making it, we passed a group of middle-aged Indian women dressed in saris who looked refreshed as they ambled down.
Up close, the ruins are striking for their simplicity. Small to begin with, Machaerus looks as though time – and, of course, the Romans – have performed the Dance of the Seven Veils on its behalf, stripping it down, roughly, to veil five or six. Bounded by a few columns are the remains of a water reservoir, and of a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath. These consist of walls. no more than a few feet high, built from stubborn stones and overgrown in many places by weeds. With no officious ropes or chains barring them, visitors can wander about at will, or sit in stillness, listening to the clanking of goats’ bells that floats up from the valley on the breeze.
Machaerus is so typical of Jordan as a whole that it could almost serve as a metaphor for the country. Landlocked, with a relatively small airport, just outside the reach of war and strife, Jordan can seem less than perfectly inviting. Though it does have its tourist traps – Petra being one – these are not merely exceptional, but jarringly out of tune with the house style.
At humble and straightforward sites like Umm Qais, Betharaba, and even the Citadel of Amman, visitors are able to go there and do that without feeling pressured to get the t-shirt. The spot on the bank of the Jabbok, or Zarqa, River where Jacob wrestled with the angel, is so reluctant to announce itself that visitors, searching in vain for a plaque, may have to pinch themselves before realizing that yes, this is it.
But Jordan does wish to announce itself. For this reason, its tourism board bestowed this blessing of a boondoggle on our group of Christian bloggers. For 10 days, we were housed at various five-star hotels, stuffed like veal calves with hummus and lamb and rice and mousse, and delivered from one site to another on an air-conditioned tour bus driven by a man named Bilal, who I suspect has a PhD in defensive driving. Through it all, our tour guide, a man named Ra’ed Haddad, who speaks English like John Wayne though he’s never so much as visited America, contextualized everything so meticulously that all of us came away believing we’d earned at three credits in upper-division history. These are not the acts of a country that intends to remain hidden.
Profiting from someone else’s misfortune is never easy on the conscience, but in a sense, that’s exactly what our group was invited to do. As attractive as the Arab Spring has made Jordan for refugees, it’s had exactly the opposite effect on tourists. In 2011, which saw a popular uprising against Syria’s Assad regime open in Daraa, just over the border from Jordan, Jordan’s revenues from tourism fell by a billion dollars. In a country where the same year’s Gross Domestic Product came to $39 billion, this did not go unnoticed. Jordan’s richness in antiquities can’t translate into pita and olive oil for her people as long as her own schoolchildren are scampering around her ancient ruins alone. They need some daringly dressed foreigners to gape at.
None of the Jordanians who addressed us – not Ra’ed, not Fr. Nabil Haddad or Amman mayor Akel Bitaji – said any of this in exactly these terms. Loath to poor-mouth the first-world press, everyone dwelled on the positive. Similarly, nobody came right out and named Israel as Jordan’s chief regional competitor in the Bible tourism market. When dealing with Americans, even Americans who are relatively immune to Fox News influence, shaking a fist at Moshe Dayan for the capture of East Jerusalem is a chancy proposition at best.
But I find it useful, as I sing, happily, for all the wonderful suppers fed me courtesy of the Hashemite Kingdom, to mention this competition. It calls to mind the slogan an ad copywriter named Paula Green once coined for Avis, then America’s second-biggest car rental agency. It was this: Being Number Two, We Try Harder. If what I saw as I crossed Jordan from the Syrian border to the Dead Sea is any indication, the country’s hospitality professionals try very hard indeed. Better than that, in keeping their attractions quiet and safe and pristine, they try in all the right ways.