Jordan A to Z: P is for … Petra!

Words cannot adequately describe Petra, the ancient capital of the Nabateans.  If you are unfamiliar with the Nabateans, they were an Arab tribe descended from Ishmael’s eldest son Nebaioth.  They lived in the area that would be considered modern day southern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia.  They were merchants and artisans whose society flourished for hundreds of years using Petra as their capital and trading hub.  Eventually the Romans came on the scene, and also the z, and the Muslims.  All left their imprint on Petra before it was lost to the sands of time following a series of devastating earthquakes.

Petra was rediscovered in modern times in 1812 by Swiss Johaan Burckhardt who, after years of training, masqueraded as an Arab merchant on his way to sacrifice at Aaron’s tomb.  Along the way he discovered the ancient city of Petra.

Today Petra is Jordan’s most popular tourist destination and it is easy to see why.  It is truly breath-taking.

I should stop writing and just let the pictures do the talking.  I visited Petra 6 times this past year (with out-of-town guests) and each time I notice something new.  Here are some pics I like.  Hope you like them too.

(If a picture is worth a 1000 words – here’s to my longest blog post ever)

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Jordan A to Z: N is for … Nana (or more accurately نعناع )

Nothing beats the smell of fresh picked Nana.  It is so delightfully refreshing and Jordanians use it in a handful of wonderful ways.  What pray tell is Nana?  First of all it is really نعناع  which when transliterated correctly looks like “na3naa3.”  For those readers not used to seeing words spelled with numbers, 3 is commonly used in the transliteration of Arabic to represent the Arabic letter 3ayn, which we do not have a formal equivalent of in the English language.  the ‘3’ is pronounced almost like the ‘a’ in ‘father’ but the sound comes from deeper in your throat with a fair amount of voicing.  And it’s a consonant rather than a vowel.  The sound is difficult for English speakers … so many default to some version of an ‘a’ sound, especially in words like Nana.

Oh, right nana! What is it?  Nothing less than the wonderfully delicious and ultimately refreshing … mint!

Anyone who has grown mint knows that it is off and running like a weed.  This is a great thing if you have uses for it … and the Jordanians have many.  Besides the ubiquitous garnish on hummus, baba gannouj and other spreads, salads and dips, mint has three uses in Jordan that I am particularly fond of.

Nana Number One – Mint Tea

شاي بنعناع

Probably more popular than water, you are never more than 50 yards away from a mint tea seller in Amman.  Whether it is from a cafe, a restaurant, a falafil cart, or simply a guy walking around with a teapot, a stack of plastic cups and a wad of mint stuffed in his belt … you can always find somewhere to get your fix.  I must confess that in my university study days I may have gotten addicted to having a hit of mint tea before facing class each day.  It’s hard to say what is most enticing . . . the caffeine, the copious amounts of sugar, or the nice fresh minty flavor.

Tea for two, Jordanian style

Nana Number Two – Mint Lemonade

ليمون بنعناع

Limon bi Nana or Mint Lemonade - a must try while in Jordan!

Ok, seriously, it may not be too much to say that you have not truly lived until you have tasted a Jordanian Mint Lemonade, or as it is called here ‘Limon bi Nana.’  It is so unique and refreshing!  Each place that serves it up has a slightly different recipe and spin.  Some add ice to make more of a slushy, others serve it as a juice.  Some places have more mint, others more sugar.  But in the end they are all roughly the same.  A very tart lemonade made with fresh squeezed lemons blended together with tons of mint and varying amounts of sugar.  I would say that most places go light on the sugar (which seems counter-cultural here in Jordan).  The result is the perfect summer drink!

Nana Number Three – Mint Flavored Hookah

A typical hookah or arghile pipe

Hookah is very popular in Jordan as it is all over the Middle East.  The name for it here is ‘arghile’ (pronounced ar-gee-la) or ‘sheesha’ (pronounced like it looks).  I think the term hookah is of Indian or perhaps Persian origin and is only just catching on here.  Usually when they refer to arghile in English, Arabs will call it ‘hubbly-bubbly’ which I had never heard until arriving in Jordan, so I wonder if it is a Britishism.

For those unfamiliar with the hookah – it is a water pipe that has been used for centuries by the Arabs for smoking tobacco.  In the US, the drug culture of the 1960s and 70s has forever tainted the image of a hookah as primarily being used to smoke illicit drugs.  Such is not the case here in the Middle East.  It’s just tobacco!  The term ‘sheesha’ doesn’t help as many American English speakers will automatically associate it with marijuana … but that is certainly not the case!

Arghila tobacco is unique in that it is very moist.  It is blended with molasses and different kinds of flavorings.  Jordanians prefer fruity flavors, so options tend to be: apple, double apple, cherry, melon, fruit cocktail, grape, etc.  Another popular vein is mint flavors.  There is just plain mint, but they also mix it with other flavors particularly lemon or grape.

Mint-flavored arghile tobacco

So it is entirely possible on a Thursday night outing in Amman to sit at a cafe enjoying a nice cool mint lemonade with a hookah filled with mint tobacco and chase it all down with some mint tea.  Perhaps a bit much all in one sitting … but all three are delicious reminders of life here in Jordan.

Jordan A to Z: M is for … Mansaf or Msakhan!

MMMmmmmmm . . . It is only fitting that ‘M’ is for two of the most delicious meals offered in Jordan!  While it is true that there are many delicious Arabic dishes that start with the letter M (check out Jim’s delicious post on Maqluube), these two are often at the top of the list as favorites.

Mansaf, the Jordanian national dish

A platter of mansaf.

Anyone who has traveled to Jordan, or even has read about traveling to Jordan has probably heard of Mansaf.  A guidbeook section on Jordanian cuisine cannot be complete without mentioning this tasty meal.  Even government websites extol the virtues of Mansaf.  So (for the uninformed), what is Mansaf? It is lamb  cooked till falling off the bone perfection, served over a bed of rice, topped with warm jameed (yoghurt sauce), sprinkled with pine nuts and/or almonds, and often accompanied by large pieces of shraak (Bedouin style flat bread).

An individual portion of mansaf.

At a restaurant, or I suppose in someone’s house, you might be served an individual serving on an individual plate.  However, mansaf is traditionally served on a huge round serving dish, and is consumed as a communal meal straight from the platter.  Traditionally, the platter is set on the floor and 10 or so people would sit around it and eat everything with their hands.  This takes some getting used to for the uninitiated or cutlery-dependent, but really is not so bad once you get the hang of it.  (The trick is rolling the rice into a ball around a core piece of chicken.  Also, remember this has to be done only with the right hand as the left is considered unclean.)

Of course some Jordanians will offer you a plate and spoon or fork if you are visiting. But not all.  And if you are able to try your best at eating with your hands without batting an eye … your status definitely goes up in the sight of your host.  Once when I visited a bedouin village, I ate mansaf with my hands without hesitation.    Later when I was walking around meeting people in the village my host told everyone, “he eats like us …. with his hands!”

Eating mansaf Bedouin-style!

You say Musakhan, I say Msakhan

A typical platter of Msakhan.

Another delicious dish starts with ‘m’ but after that there everyone seems to disagree how to spell the word in English.  There are a handful of variants … but they all spell one thing in my  book … delicious!  Now I must say from the outset that msakhan, although very popular in Jordan, is actually of Palestinian origin.  But seeing as how 40-60% of the population are Palestinian or of Palestinian background, msakhan  remains a crowd pleaser here in Jordan.

A smaller plate of Msakhan to be shared with 2-3 people.

And really, what’s not to like?  Msakhan consists of carmelized onions, warm bread, and chicken cooked to perfection.  First a ton of onions are cooked in olive oil with a citrusy but purple spice known as sumac.  Then a layer of flatbread is arranged on a platter.  Some of the onion mixture is ladled over the bread, then the chicken is placed down, and often more onion mix and more bread.  The whole thing is cooked in an oven and the result is … soooo very good!

The chicken and the bread are often both crispy on the outside and moist and delicious on the inside.  The onion mixture bakes onto the bread creating a on-of -a-kind crust that is really hard to stop eating.  As with Mansaf pine nuts or almonds are usually sprinkled over the finished product.  It too is often served on a large communal platter and of the two dishes is by far the easier to eat sans utensils.

An award-winning platter of Msakhan in Palestine in 2010.

In Conclusion

Both meals are quite heavy and not for the faint of heart.  You will probably not be doing your cholesterol any favors, especially with msakhan.  But if you have an opportunity to experience either one … you must! Beyond tasting great,  both of these dishes hold a special place in Jordanian and Palestinian culture. One is a source of national pride and hearkens back to the country’s Bedouin roots.  The other is like Middle Eastern soul food that reminds many of grandma’s kitchen and table.

So the real question is … which do you prefer?  Answer the poll below and let us know!

Jordan A to Z: J is for … (the) Jordan River!

Satellite image showing the Sea of Galilee in the North (top) connected to the Dead Sea in the south by the Jordan River Valley.

The eponymous Jordan River serves as the western border of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.   The name has possibly descended from an ancient Aramaic word yerdon, meaning “slope,” which is also reminiscent of the Hebrew word yardon, meaning “descend.”  The Arabic urdun is probably related to one or both of these words as all three languages are linguistic cousins and share ancient roots.  Both monikers would be apt for this river that falls from the flanks of Mount Hermon (summit: 2,814 m) to the Dead Sea (400 m below Sea Level), making the Jordan River the lowest flowing river on Earth.  This geographic morsel joined with the fact that the Jordan River Valley is the northern point of origin of the Great Rift valley would make this humble river a significant topographical feature that cannot be ignored, even if it’s historic reputation did not proceed it.

Modern-day explorers are often surprised when they finally make it to the shores of the once mighty Jordan.  This river that religious texts tell us once required a miracle in order cross could now be waded in parts if it were not a highly monitored international border.  Just before it finally drops into the Dead Sea the Jordan seems more of a narrow, muddy, slowly meandering creek (or “crick” as we would say back home) and not a thing of miracles.  The reason for this is simple … it is the major source of fresh water in a very arid region and has been used extensively for agriculture and other purposes by the nations it runs through and between.

The Jordan River's southern end as it is today.

It is estimated that only 10% of the water that starts at the headwaters of the Jordan finally make it to the Dead Sea. Much of this water is pumped out by the nation of Israel, but Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan are said to utilize it as well.  As you can imagine accurate figures about this sort of thing are hard to come by and are jaded by politics.  Nonetheless it seems quite obvious that Israel takes the lion’s share of the water resources from this international boundary water.  Environmentalists warn that the ecological impact of water mismanagement in the Jordan Valley may be irreversible.

Despite these dire warnings, there is one bright spot on the banks of the Jordan – even if it is not an ecological one.  Shortly after the Jordanian and Israeli governments signed a peace treaty in 1994, the Jordanians began demilitarizing a valley that was full of land mines.  This lead to a Catholic monk and archeologist, Father Piccirillo exploring the area to find the Biblical “Bethany beyond-the-Jordan” where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.  He made incredible archeological discoveries and under the auspices of HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed the foundations of many ancient churches were uncovered.  Many scholars now agree that this is the most likely site for the baptism of Jesus.

Tourists and Pilgrims can visit easily visit the site on a day-trip from Amman, even combining such a visit with a dip in the Dead Sea and taking in the view from high atop nearby Mt. Nebo where Moses gazed upon  the land of promise before passing away.  Information about the Bethany beyond-the-Jordan site can be found here.  It is well worth the visit.

Ruins of several churches on the spot where many scholars believe is the authentic location (in Jordan) of the Baptism of Jesus

(As a side note I must say if you are planning a joint visit to both Israel and Jordan … Please save visiting the baptism site for your time in Jordan!  The traditional Israeli site in the north near the Sea of Galilee has no historical significance whatsoever, and the Israeli’s have constructed their own viewing platform across from the Jordanian site.    They call the place Qasr al-Yahud (castle of the Jews).  Negative reactions from the Jordanian government and press to the opening of the Israeli side can be read here.  The fact is that the overwhelming  majority of compelling archeological discoveries are on the Jordanian side.  If you want to experience this bit of history, please spend your money on the side of the river where the event is most likely to have happened.  Thanks!)

​Jordan A to Z: ​B is for …. ​Bedouin Heritage!

Dividing up the modern Middle East

Lines in the sand ... the map of Jordan

At first glance the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan seems to be a young nation.  Like its neighbors in the Middle East it is a relative newcomer on the global scene … gaining independence and “official” recognition as a nation on 25 May 1946.  When you look at a map of Jordan, with its straight lines running at strange angles in the middle of the desert, it is not hard to imagine the global powers-that-be arbitrarily drawing up the map of the Middle East in the time between the first two world wars.  However, what these strangely intersecting borders and the relatively recent “birthdate” of the nation fail to convey is the rich and long history of the peoples of this region.

People have settled this area for centuries before the modern borders were drawn.  Those familiar with the biblical lands of Ammon, Moab, and Edom should be reminded that they were located here.  Jordan contains some ruins of the oldest settlements in the world … Al-Beidha is a neolithic village dating from 7200 BC!  Archeological finds have demonstrated that the region covered by the modern day Kingdom of Jordan has been inhabited since those ancient days.  A Bedouin culture typified by the domestication of herd animals and the nomadic lifestyle that accompanied such activity seems to have risen in the Chalcolithic period (4500-3200 BC) and continues to this day.

It must be noted that the lines drawn in the sand by the power-that be cannot contain the ancient culture of the Bedouin peoples scattered throughout the region!

Bedouin heritage shaping culture in Jordan for millennia

It is impossible to underestimate how strongly Bedouin culture has shaped the culture of the modern day Kingdom of Jordan.  From 4000 years before the birth of Christ until a mere 75 years ago most of the inhabitants of this area were Bedouins in the true sense of the word.  They lived in tents or other temporary structures and much of their life revolved around the care of livestock.  The ebb and flow of life was dictated by the seasons and the needs of the animals that were the wealth and lifeblood of the Bedouin.  Even though 75-80% of the Jordanian population today lives in the urban centers, it was the exact opposite less than a century ago.  It is not uncommon to hear the most cosmopolitan, well-educated city dweller to speak of their grandparents Bedouin lifestyle.  Just like in America … you don’t have to go back too many generations to discover the family farm.

Some highlights of Bedouin culture

The coffee pot is always on near the Bedouin's tent

  • Hospitality: The practice of welcoming the stranger is by far the defining characteristic of Bedouin culture.  Today you will hear the phrase “ahlan wa sahlan” repeated constantly in Jordan (welcome and welcome again in the future).  When entering a Bedouin tent it is customary to remove ones shoes, and in ancient times water was provided for washing feet dirtied by travel.  A good host would always offer coffee immediately. Indeed a pot of coffee is often on, or not far from, the fire all day long.  The Bedouin host will continue to fill your tiny cup until you signify you are finished by shaking it slightly left-to-right between your fingers.  Even though your host will fill your cup all day it is good manners to stop at three.
  • Three days of welcome -Part of the importance of hospitality arose out of the perils of living in such close proximity and communion with the desert.  The desert was a a great equalizer for early man.  One cannot exist for long on one’s own in the desert and must rely on the hospitality of the community and sometimes strangers. In ancient times if someone arrived at a Bedouin’s tent it was customary to welcome them for 3 days, providing them with food, water, shelter, and protection for that time period …. without asking questions!  After three days questions would be asked and decisions made about on-going provision and care.
  • Protection – It is a matter of great personal honor for a Bedouin to protect anyone who is a guest in their dwelling.  They consider it their personal responsibility to do whatever necessary to protect a guest.  Even if someone was fleeing from trouble they could expect to be granted asylum from a Bedouin in his tent for at least 3 days.  It could be after that time that the Bedouin would decide to escort the asylum-seeker out of the area … in which case the Bedouin would often provide safe passage by means of an armed escort and perhaps even some provisions for the onward journey.
  • Honor & Shame -All of this comes out of a high sense of honor and shame within the culture.  Honor and Shame don’t just rest on the individual but it rests on the family, the clan, and the tribe.  Thus your actions as an individual bring honor or shame not only on your own head, but on your family and indeed the extended family.  In the west we view the individual as the most important unit of society … but for the Bedouins it was (and still is) the family and the tribe.  It was nonsensical to think of the individual as being completely self-sufficient in the natural environment of the ancient Middle East.  This belief has persisted till modern times and strengthens the fabric of Jordanian society.

Bedouin life today

This post has already gotten way too long (and is a day late!) so I will just treat this topic briefly.  True Bedouins that live in tents and temporary dwellings are still possible to find in Jordan.  You will begin to see their tents just on the outskirts of any major cities.  You will even see shepherds grazing their sheep on open patches of greenery in the middle metropolitan Amman!  Many modern Bedouins are more semi-nomadic or have settled in small villages.  It wasn’t long ago that in the south of Jordan you could find Bedouins living in places like Petra and Wadi Rum as they had for centuries.  However, as the tourist industry grew, the government sought to present a different image in such historic locations and built towns for some of the southern Bedouins to live in.  Many of these Bedouins make there living now as guides and salesmen in Petra and Wadi Rum

As I mentioned before, many Jordanians have Bedouin roots … so even city-dwellers are not far removed from that history.  The cultural values of preserving honor and avoiding shame are alive and well in Jordanian cities.  As is the value of hospitality!  Come visit Jordan and find out for yourself!

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Jordan A to Z: ​A is for … Amman!

Jordan A to Z:  A is for … Amman!

Panoramic view of Amman from the Citadel hill.

Amman is the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  The kingdom (pop. 6.5 million) is conveniently located between Palestine, Israel,  Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Red and Dead Seas.  2.5 million reside in the city of Amman, which can be located at the following coordinates: 31° 56′ 0″ N, 35° 56′ 0″ E.  I have lived here in Amman for the last 3.5 years and I can honestly say that I love it here.  Everyday I walk out of my house it is like stepping into a cultural and historical learning lab.  As with anyplace in the world Amman has its high points and low points.  In this case both figuratively and literally as it is a city spread out over 19 hillsides.

Greater Amman Municipality Website – Contains a lot of good information, including current events and initiatives around the city

Amman is one of the oldest settled cities in the world.  In Roman times it was known as the city of Philadelphia  (meaning: brotherly love) and was one of the chief cities of the Decapolis.  At that time the area was under Roman rule and there are many ruins from that era that remain in the city today, including a well preserved (and restored) amphitheater that is still in use for concerts and shows.  The area has been under a variety of rulers throughout history: the British, the Ottomans, the Umayyads, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Nabateans and all the way back into the earliest days of recorded history the city was the capital of the ancient Ammonite people.  The influences of all of these times and rulers can be seen throughout the city if one pays attention in the right way.

View of Amman with Roman Amphitheater pre-1950

View of Roman Amphitheater today ... note all of the buildings on what was once a barren hillside.

Today Amman is a bustling metropolis … but most of the development has happened since the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Modern Amman is a study in contrasts.  There are many uber-rich folks and a lot of the very poor as well.  Many label the city as divided between two halves with the balad or Old City (in this case) being the dividing line:

East Amman: poorer, more conservative socially, religiously and perhaps politically.  More traditionally “eastern” in its feel.  You won’t find any big supermarkets, mega malls, major hotels, or fast food chains on this side of town.  People shop at their local neighborhood butcher, fruit stand, and bakery.  The pace of life is more relaxed and the neighborhoods tend to be more crowded and honestly a little run-down.  Arabic is the default language.  You will find very few non-Arab  foreigners living here, although we did for 2.5 years and it was great for learning language and culture.

East Amman

West Amman: wealthier, and more liberal (at least by local standards).  It is more “western” in its feel.  You will find almost any western thing you are looking for on this side of town … McDonald’s, Starbucks, Chili’s, Safeway (supermarket), the Marriott  … fast food, big supermarkets, malls, major hotels, etc.  Of course Arabic is the official language, but many people on this side of town speak English and will actually prefer to communicate with non-Arabs in this manner.  Popular neighborhoods include: Jabal Amman, Abdoun, Swufiyeh, Um Udhayna, Khalda, and Jubeiha … just to name a few.

Western style coffee shop at a mall in West Amman

I also like to identify Central Amman: for me this is comprised of the three hill-top neighborhoods of Jabal Amman, Jabal al-Webdeh, and Jabal Hussein, located in the middle of town … just west of the balad and running north.  These three neighborhoods are a bit older and more residential.  They seem to be a happy medium between east and west to me.  Mostly smaller shops with some modern conveniences, but with wider and cleaner streets and only minutes away from everything available in west Amman while still retaining some local culture and flavor.

Jabal Hussein, Jabal Amman and points West from the Citadel hill

So much for short posts!  That’s it for A is for … Amman!  Enjoy the gallery below and look tomorrow for Jordan A to Z: B is for ….. ?

Also if you have a moment check out these 5 random links from the A to Z challenge (I cannot vouch for their content … I am simply providing random links from the participant list at the A to Z website).

The Jersey Shore Mom     Doris and Dave’s Excellent Adventure     Tasha Seegmiller     Libby Heily     Life’s Autumns

Some Random Pics of Amman

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Springtime in Jordan

Springtime is gorgeous in Jordan.  By and large the rains have stopped, the temperature is moderate, the hills and valleys are alive with color, and droves of city-folk flock to the countryside for picnics (or riHleh or mushwar as they are called here).

But, as they say a picture is worth 1,000 words . . . so here goes . . .

(This is a test of the new wordpress slideshow feature – hopefully it works.)

Of course this is less about testing the slideshow and more about showing people a bit of Jordan.  I realized awhile back that we are the only ex-pats in our circle of friends that haven’t had visitors from back home since arriving here in Jordan.  Most have averaged 3 or 4 in the last couple of years.

So here is a little bit of what you’re missing, and a not so subtle hint for you to start planning for next year’s Spring Break here in Jordan.  Of course, we would be happy to receive you and show you around this country we love at any time of the year.  Mushwar weather permitting of course! (There are around 20 pics in the slideshow and they cycle through in a minute or so)

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