Jordan — The river and the country

Amman, Jordan — Among the smaller nations of this region with large histories, Jordan, which lies on the ancient and famous Damascus-Arabia trade route, can hold its own with any neighboring state for having a long and colorful story to tell.

For centuries, it was administrated from Damascus and, along with Palestine, was known as South Syria.

The area of modern Jordan extends east of the River Jordan, from the Yarmuk River in the north to the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea; it stretches eastward from the Syrian Desert to the frontiers of Iraq and down to the Arabian Desert. Jordan’s total length is 380 kms and its width varies from 150 to 380 kms. Modern Jordan would have been landlocked, however, except for a unique exchange of territory with Saudi Arabia which took place in 1965. Jordan gave up a substantial tract of inland desert in return for a small piece of sea-shore near Aqaba.

The River Jordan, which shares its name with this small but pivotal country, is not much of a river by world standards. From its source to its mouth it drops by 1300 meters and is always below its surrounding countryside, with much of its course also below sea-level. It seldom exceeds 30 meters in width and much of its flow is diverted for irrigation. The Yarmuk and Zarqa are major tributaries, but most other streams that join the Jordan on its way to the Dead Sea are often dry for much of the year.

The Dead Sea, which is the saltiest body of water on earth, is in trouble. It has fallen more than 20 meters over the past 40 years. Studies by the University of Jordan show that the sea is now dropping at the alarming rate of one meter of depth each year. The water level began (and has continued) to drop much faster since 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank territories and took control of the watercourses and aquifers that feed the River Jordan.

Between the second and third centuries of the Common Era, Christianity gained a strong foothold east of the Jordan River. Ancient writers like St. Jerome (349-419 CE) mentioned this area, which came to be called the Transjordan. But the first to write scientifically about it was the German traveler Ulrich Jasper Seetzen in his 1813 book, "A Brief Account of the Countries adjoining the Lake of Tiberius, the Jordan and the Dead Sea."

Today, Jordan is home to nearly six million people, while its capital of Amman accounts for more than one million of the national population. Most Jordanians are Muslim, but there is also a small Christian minority of mainly Greek Orthodox adherents.

Although the area in and around Jordan was inhabited even in prehistoric times, no civilization earlier than the Roman Empire has left any known monuments. Within Amman itself lies Citadel Hill, which is believed to be the site of an ancient city often referred to in the Old Testament as Rabbath Ammon.

During the third century BCE, Rabbath Ammon was renamed Philadelphia after the Ptolemaic ruler Philadelphus. The city later came under the rule of the Nabataean Arab civilization, whose capital was the spectacular rock-carved city of Petra.

During the Byzantine period, Philadelphia became the seat of early Christian bishops and a number of churches were built.

The Citadel itself may have been built in the eighth century by Arab Muslims. The entire area, including Amman, was absorbed into the Turkish Empire until Amir Abdullah made Amman his capital in 1921, after the First World War.

At the Citadel, a small archaeological museum houses a fine collection of artifacts illustrating the life and history of Jordan from prehistoric times down to the 1700s.

The country presents a variety of scenery and geology, from black basaltic mountains to beautiful green valleys, from brightly hued sandstone highlands to arid flat deserts. The country is divided on a north-south axis by the old Turkish railway line, with the west mostly mountainous but fertile (in fact, it is part of the ancient Fertile Crescent) and the east a flat plateau of mainly desert.

Jordan’s western mountain range follows the Great Rift Valley, a straight fault line in the earth’s crust which lines up the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, the Wadi Araba, and on down to Aqaba; this area has periodically been affected by earthquakes since before recorded history and yet became one of the world’s "cradles of civilization."

The country is mainly a tilted plateau region reaching an altitude of 1856 meters at Jabal (or Mount) Ram and sloping to the Dead Sea Lowlands which include the lowest point on earth — more than 400 meters below sea level. Most of Jordan averages about 300 meters above sea level.

The climate is variable with at least one fall of snow during the winter, while summers (reaching the mid-30s in deg. C) can be so hot that touring the country is not recommended then. The rainy season begins with an occasional shower during November and December with the heaviest rains arriving in January and February, sometimes for three or four days without a break. The best months for traveling in Jordan are March and April.

If you enjoy the stark beauty of desert scenery, your chances of being rained out of a visit are very slim — some parts of the Jordanian desert go without rain for two or three years at a time! But when the moisture does come, it is usually as a short, intense downpour. Small shallow pools are rapidly formed and last for a few days. And during this brief time, a remarkable phenomenon occurs.

Within a short time of a pool’s formation, it becomes alive with numerous tiny swimming creatures that rapidly mate and reproduce. They bury their offspring in the mud at the bottom of the pool, there to await the next rain, when the whole frantic cycle will be repeated. It is amazing that these creatures can survive such long droughts and somehow work their way through to new life again as soon as water touches the soil.

About 30 km south of Amman, on the way to Petra, lies Mount Nebo which is one of the alleged sites of the tomb of Moses. In 1932, Franciscan monks built a church there and excavated the area. Even though the authenticity of the site has never been confirmed, it attracts many Jewish, Christian and Muslim visitors, as all three faiths revere Moses as a major patriarch.

On a clear day, one can look out from the Franciscan church and see the Mount of Olives, Jericho, and even the Dead Sea (the Jordan River itself is hidden in its deep gorge). It is believed that Moses stood here and surveyed the Promised Land, for the Biblical name of Mount Nebo is preserved in the modern name of a nearby hill called Jabal Nab.

This special site inspires present-day visitors, just as it inspired the Irish poet Frances Alexander (1818-1895) who wrote:

By Nebo’s lonely mountain,
On this side Jordan’s wave,
In a vale in the land of Moab
There lies a lonely grave;
And no man knows that sepulchre,
And no man saw it e’er;
For the angels of God upturned the sod,
And laid the dead man there.
O lonely grave in Moab’s land;
O dark Beth-Peor’s hill;
Speak to these curious hearts of ours,
And teach them to be still.
God hath His mysteries of grace,
Ways that we cannot tell,
He hides them deep, like the hidden sleep
Of him he loves so well.