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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!)