Madaba in Jordan doesn’t make it onto everyone’s itinerary. But with one of the oldest maps in the world and one in production that aims to bring peace to the region, it’s an incredible place to start talking about the truth about travel to Jordan.
“People want to talk to me a lot,” he said, as blue and yellow danced across the coffee from the stained glass windows overhead.
“Because I’m a Christian,” he went on, “and am interested in political science.
“And because I live in Madaba, Jordan – and because that’s in the Middle East.”
Elias joined us as we finished our lunch, bringing a pistachio sprinkled dessert called layali libnan or Lebanese Nights. A woman brought rosewater syrup and cardamom scented coffee and joined her husband; the owners of this restaurant spending time with their guests.
This was the last supper in Jordan, or at least it felt that way (technically, it was the penultimate meal but that lacks a certain poetry, don’t you think?)
Three years had passed since I first set foot in Jordan – and a lot had happened in that time. Most notably, perhaps for me, setting foot was harder than before, thanks to an operation or two that still had me hobbling.
Most notably for the rest of the world, was the prominence and presence of ISIS. There with every headline, on every station, and seeping into every mention from our media on stories about the Middle East.
And Jordan had been affected. Not by ISIS directly, there’s been no violence, no notable unrest, the group’s movements stay miles from Amman behind the borders of Syria and Iraq.
The problem is, or seems to be, that tourists have trouble understanding that there’s more than one country within “the Middle East.”
“The thing is,” Elias continued at Hikayet Sitti, “there isn’t very much to say. We’re Christians, we live here. It’s peaceful, everything’s fine.”
Back in Amman, beneath flowing locks and contagious good humour, Maria tells me much the same thing. Instead of Christianity, she’s talking about travel as a woman.
“Oh come on!” she says, rolling her eyes and brandishing a knife when I ask about safety here (it’s at this stage I ought to point out she’s a chef.)
Maria, who I met last time, moves at about twice my speed and speaks at about thrice my volume despite being half my size. Last time, we sliced and spliced indoors, this time we join a group of around twenty Jordanian women (with a few men late and lurking in the shadows.) Our driver and guide, Basil and Hatem, however, don’t appear to be so shy. They roll up their sleeves and critique my technique for knife meets onion before taking over and doing a better job of it themselves.
This evening, scented by blossom and lemon and lime and backlit by views of the citadel, marked the start of my time in Jordan. There followed spice markets and Roman remains, biblical landmarks, camels in Aqaba, wilderness in the dessert, walking through Petra, driving through Wadi Rum, dining with Bedouin and floating in the Dead Sea. And much, much more besides.
But I’m starting at the end.
I’m starting in Madaba, in part because of my talk with Elias and his wife over fresh bread and hummus (in Jordan, there is plenty of hummus.)
But also because of Madaba itself and the secrets it stores beneath dusty, gilt- edged lamps and candle-lit crypts.
The Byzantine church of St George is a church like no other I’ve seen. There’s light, where others live in shadows, there’s paint in cerulean blue instead of raw, roughened stone. And there’s a mosaic on the floor that depicts the Holy Land
A 6th or 7th century version of the Holy Land, anyway, a place where blood continues to spill over land rights and titles, religions and borders.
But this picture from the past is at once broken and whole. Segments are missing yet the fundamentals remain: artists depicted the way they saw the world in a way that speaks to us 1500 years later.
At nearby Mount Nebo, there’s a different mosaic in production. It depicts The King’s Way, a route that runs from Aqaba and the Red Sea north to Bosra Sham. When complete, it will run for more than 30 metres involving more than 3.5 million pieces and expects to earn the record of being the largest mosaic in the world.
And if you look closely, you’ll find a piece with my name.
The city of Madaba, you see, invites visitors to contribute a signed piece each. Young and old, men and women, creative and inept. There’s no barrier to race or religion here. It’s both a brilliant marketing strategy and a heartwarming gesture.
And the memory chokes me at the airport on the way home, when a TV news station starts reading those headlines.
Madaba simply asks that you pay her a visit. That you sift through her broken pieces, work well with others, and create something beautiful for all the world to see.
It’s a sentiment smothered in schmaltz…until I remember the headlines elsewhere in the region and I long for the idea to spread.
Reality – Jordan is at peace with Israel and thousands cross the border in both directions each day to go to work. There are no travel restrictions in place against Jews.
Reality – women dress more conservatively than in the UK or US, but no more so really than in Italy or Spain. Check out this post for a good guide as to what to wear as a woman while travelling in Jordan.
Reality – Jordan is a peaceful, stable country. There are policies and practices it follows that I, personally, do not agree with but I could say that about almost any country (Guantanamo anyone?)
Disclosure – I travelled to Jordan as part of iAmbassador’s #GoJordan project in partnership with Visit Jordan. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like and think what I like. As ever, as always, otherwise there’s just no point.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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