Tourism and Archaeology in Jordan

The North Gate at Lejjun

Travel is easy in Jordan. The roads are fine, taxis are everywhere, food is nice, hotels are good, the people are friendly, and they usually speak English. A surprisingly high number of people also speaks Italian. Your cell phone is working, you can read the international newspapers, and many hotels have access to the internet.

Of course there are the usual sources of irritation. Women are gazed after and even married ladies will have to cope with “funny” remarks like “you don’t need sugar in your tea because you’re sweet enough”. You can often see dollar signs in the eyes of the people: you’re expected to pay lavish tips even after you’ve already paid six times the normal price for a bottle of water. And of course there’s the usual hypocrisy – the Petra authorities request visitors to leave the site before sunset “for safety reasons”, while they also allow a spectacle called “Petra by night”, suggesting that it less unsafe than implied. Yet, if you can ignore these things, which are common in the Near East, you will be surprised how easy it is to travel through Jordan.

The Deir 'Alla Inscription, carelessly stored away in the Amman Museum.

The main ancient monuments are Petra, in a landscape full of fascinating, multicolored rocks, and Jerash, which only lacks a romantic setting in the desert to make it comparable to Palmyra. There are several Crusader castles, like Kerak and Shobeq, and religious sites, like Mount Nebo and the “Baptism Site”. In the eastern part of the country, you are able to visit the desert castles from the Umayyad and Abbasid age. So, this country is a garden of delights for archaeologists and historians, and even better: you can take your photos almost everywhere – something that needs a lot of discussion in the museums of Damascus or Cairo.

Yet, tourism is very one-sided. It is a source of income, not of study or inspiration. Jerash and Petra have been designed to enable as many people as possible to visit the sites and leave behind their money, and you will find it hard to buy a good book. I have never seen an inventory of Nabataean inscriptions or the catalog of the museum of Amman – books that you can easily find in, say, Turkey, Syria, or Iran. In the end, the Rough Guide and the DuMont Reiseführer remained our main source of ready reference.

The baths of Gadara

I was particularly intrigued by Qasr Bshir, one of the best-preserved Roman forts in the Near East, and a perfect place to illustrate how the province of Arabia was a net tax-importing province. Any tourist guide would love to use it to explain the mechanisms of Roman imperialism, but in fact, its existence is almost a secret (although it is mentioned in the DuMont Reiseführer). You won’t see a road sign, at least.

There are many examples of this. Tourism is concentrated on several splendid sites, but there is little else. Archaeology is treated as a source of income, not as something intrinsically interesting. And this is a pity, because in this way, the Jordanian people will identify their past with western tourists from whom money can be extracted; they will not accept the past as their own as long as they are unaware that those ancient ruins next to their village are more than just a source of income.

Several causes may be mentioned to explain this attitude. The Hashemite dynasty is young and may want to distance itself from the past, presenting itself as the bringers of prosperity after ages of poverty. And it is difficult to present a “national” past in a country that has a very, very large Palestinian minority. I do not know. Yet, the result is that the past is neglected. To put it bluntly, Jordan is selling its past to westerners. That is not a good thing.

One Response to Tourism and Archaeology in Jordan

  1. jostamon says:

    Hiya. I’ve been lurking on your blog for a while now, and it’s always an enriching experience. Having recently been to Petra, and indeed attended that ‘by night’ show, I thought I might comment. Did you go on “Petra by night”? They put little candles all the way from the visitor centre till the Treasury, and there are guards around, so the biggest danger is stepping on some horse-dung, really! The rest of the area is in complete darkness and I guess that’s why they want everyone out by sunset.

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