Faces of Jordan

Politically, the region that is called the Levant is now divided into five pieces–Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. But there are ways to divide the area into historically/culturally meaningful chunks beyond national boundaries. One is to consider Jewish Israel as a separate entity onto itself, while considering the predominantly Arab regions of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan together. Another is to consider the region as made up of three major religious communities: Arab Muslims, Arab Christians and Israeli Jews. A third is to consider Syria and Lebanon together, as they share a great deal in common and were the countries of the early twentieth century French Mandate, and Israel, Palestine and Jordan together, as being part of the British colonial world. No doubt there are many other ways to think about this complex region.

I believe, however, that the best way of thinking about the Levant is coastal and non-coastal. Over much of history, whether a given region was within striking distance of an active port meant a great deal (most of the world’s population still lives near a coast or navigable river), and this was no less the case in the Levant. Coastal Levant, meaning Lebanon, Syria as far east as the great cities of Aleppo and Damascus and Israel/Palestine, had constant communication with the Mediterranean world, for better or for worse. Over thousands of years these areas saw countless empires, people and ideas come and go. The desert interior, meaning most of Jordan and the Syrian desert, were one step removed from the great movements on the coast, a relative wilderness. Coastal Levant is a world of ancient walled cities, such as Acre, Byblos and Tartus, and the more inland Damascus and Aleppo. While there are cities of historical importance in the non-coastal Levant as well, including Palmyra and Petra, they are more the exceptions than the rule, and faded with the growth of maritime trade–even today, the non-coastal Levant is populated in significant part by nomadic Bedouin, herding sheep (see post of 4.15).

That it is largely desert/non-coastal gives Jordan a unique character among the countries of the Levant. Jordan has a desert/bedouin identity, a very much “Arab” identity not made murky by the history of the coastal Levant (see post of 4.25). Rather than being associated with great Mediterranean empires, contact with the West and the luxuries of Silk Road trade, Jordan far more sees itself as a creature of the desert, a country that looks eastward to Arabia rather than westward. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is almost always portrayed in a western suit or military uniform. King Abdullah of Jordan is seen in posters just as often in Arab jelabiyyah and keffiyeh. Jordanian currency? “Dinars” (as in other Arab countries) rather than the “pounds” used in Syria and Lebanon. The Jordanian monarchy traces its roots to Mohammed and the WWI Arab Revolt, and to the familial and loyalty bonds of the Arab bedouin. In Jordan, bedouin culture is to some extent placed on a pedestal as national heritage, while one Syrian man from coastal Lattakia told us (contrary to fact) that Syria had “only a few bedouin families” (perhaps somehow embarrassed of their existence and preferring to think of Syria as a country of ancient and sophisticated cities and not desert nomads). Another Syrian man questioned Syrians’ “Arabness” altogether, saying that despite the name of the country–Syrian Arab Republic–Syrians weren’t Arab at all but a mixture of many races (see post of 4.25).

Modern Jordan is in part a creation of the British, and Jordanian King Abdullah’s mother is British–there is no doubt that it is today one of the most “western-friendly” of the Arab countries. But it is with this frame of mind, that Jordan is just as much a country of the Arabian desert as it is a country of the Levant, that I wished to preface some portraits from Jordan.

Bedouin boy, Wadi Rum

Among the most interesting bedouin populations of Jordan that travelers are likely to run into are the Bdul of Petra. The Bdul are the most recent “residents” of Petra, having moved into the rock-cut tombs and facades in the last few hundred years. Historically, the Bdul have been the most down-trodden of the Bedouin groups of Jordan, among the poorest and most looked down on. Most recently, in an effort to further the preservation of the World Heritage Site, the Jordanian government has evacuated the Bdul from the Petra ruins, placing them into a town settlement nearby and reportedly offering modern conveniences, health care and education. But many continue to live in rock-cut caves just outside of the central ruins and others commute in to conduct business with the tourists. In a “power sharing” agreement set up by the government, businesses and horses/carriages “up to” the Treasury (just short of Petra “city center”) are operated by “outside” Jordanians (and Egyptians) authorized by the government, while those “past” the Treasury are run by the Bdul. (See post of 10.9 on Petra.) The Bdul who work in Petra are among tourists’ greatest resources, offering friendly chatter in multiple languages, directions and tea almost everywhere you turn, either gratuitously or in exchange for a quick look at their merchandise. Careful though, or you’ll end up being dragged into a confusing sort of air arm wrestling, as happened with us on more than a few occasions.

Elderly Bdul woman and daughter, both souvenir vendors (and damned compelling ones), Petra

Bdul boy in front of the Treasury, Petra

Amman (then known as Philadelphia) was one of a string of Roman cities located in now western Jordan, but presents relatively little in terms of Roman ruins, far less than the ruins of Jerash to the north or cities in now Syria. That said, Amman is today a fairly dynamic capital, with ample investment coming in from both the West and the Gulf, and a steady flow of expats and tourists.

Some residents of Amman

Modern Amman was actually founded by Circassians, Muslims from the Caucasus who moved into the Ottoman Empire who now constitute a significant ethnic minority in Jordan. The “suburb” of Wadi as-Seer near Amman remains a center of Circassian Jordan.

Circassian brother and sister in headscarf and karate gi.

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