Story by Devin Windelspecht
It seems that only the worst news comes out of the Middle East: wars in Yemen and Iraq, a refugee crisis in Syria, terrorist attacks in Baghdad and Beirut. With each passing year, the region appears to be becoming increasingly more dangerous, unstable, and conflict-prone. Beyond the headlines, however, there is another side to the Middle East that is too often forgotten: a beautiful side, one defined not by conflict but by history, religion, and natural wonder.
Today, Jordan is an island of stability in an increasingly tumultuous region. Its capital, Amman, a massive sprawl of a city, served as my home during my month learning Arabic through Northeastern’s Dialogue of Civilizations program. But beyond the city limits, there lies a spectacular other side to the country in the nation’s south, where the cities and towns of the north taper off and the great Arabian desert begins. It was this land that I had the opportunity to visit during the last week of the Dialogue program.
Halfway between Amman and Saudi Arabia, the Dana Biosphere Reserve represents the transition between the arid but still fertile north and the deserts of the south. Known also as Wadi Dana, or the Dana Valley, Dana is a vast canyon that carves a path from a collection of 1,300 meter mountains to the desert below at nearly 300 meters below sea level, encompassing nearly a dozen separate ecological biomes within the span of only a few dozen miles. It was Dana where I met Abu Yahia, a 65 year old guide who is what remains of the original inhabitants of the valley: a wandering Bedouin people who lived off the land and what animals they could herd amongst these high canyon walls.
To be with Abu Yahia is to see a part of Jordan that is rapidly disappearing: a time when to be Bedouin was a way of life, when people still lived side-by-side with the land, instead of massing together in cities. Walk beside Abu Yahia, and he may stop to point out a cave that he and his family once lived in during the winters, or bend down to show a type of plant that used to boiled into a tea. Stop for a moment to take in the canyon’s stillness, and you might just have the chance to ponder the little lessons that can be learned from an otherwise unremarkable green vine growing in tandem with a juniper bush. It is an experience unique to traveling in the Middle East, and offers a glimpse of how life in Jordan once was, only a few decades ago.
South of Dana, impossibly large temples considered one of the New Wonders of the World stand carved into the red stone in Petra, monolithic and seemingly ageless centuries after their creators abandoned them to the desert. Further south still is Wadi Rum, the “Valley of the Moon”, a landscape that resembles the surface of Mars stretches endless in every direction, with only the occasional passage of wild camels reminding of its presence on Earth. Here, there is no green, and no blue aside from the ceaselessly cloudless sky above– just endless shades of brown and red, a landscape of mud and stone and sand.
Once, visitors from around the world flocked to see the natural and manmade wonders of Petra and Wadi Rum, or to relax in the spas and resorts along the Red Sea. But today tourism isn’t what it once was– regional conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, as well as terrorist attacks in Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon have crippled a once vibrant tourism industry, characterized by a “grand tour” of Cairo, Damascus, and Jerusalem. Today, tourist sites that once drew thousands stand nearly empty, with foreigners from Asia, Europe, and the Americas more afraid than ever before to travel to the Middle East.
This absence of visitors isn’t just a blow to the tourism industry. It deprives people from witnessing this other side to the Middle East, the side that is not in war or political turmoil, and allows the image of a purely war-torn land to cement itself in people’s minds. But even if the country no longer draws the same crowds as it once did, Jordan has not lost a single bit of its absolute beauty. And there is so much to see: the blue waters of the Gulf of Aqaba, the ruined Roman city of Jerash, and the summit of Mount Nebo, where Moses first glimpsed the holy land. The deep, salty Dead Sea, the crusader-era fortresses of Aljun, and the ruins of Umm Qais, with a view that encompasses Syria, Lebanon, and the West Bank.
The Middle East may today be characterized by its conflicts, but it cannot be solely defined by them. There is a beauty to this land, a beauty that must be seen and experienced first-hand, a beauty which tells the story of the Middle East in a way no conflict report or political science analysis ever could. It is a beauty that is not the least marred by the current conflicts, but that stands apart from them, reminding us that even in the worst of times, the world can still continue to amaze and to inspire.