Jordan: Kingdom of desert castles
JORDAN is famous for Petra, the fallen capital of a pre-Roman empire whose citizens carved impressive buildings directly into the rock.
But there is much more to this country, which is also a kingdom. To reinforce his authority, King Abdullah II claims to be and is generally accepted as the 41st descendent of the Prophet Muhammad.
His Majesty has a cameo on the in-flight entertainment on Royal Jordanian Airlines and his picture, often with his teenage heir, features prominently in offices, billboards and newspapers through his realm.
I'd seen similar family portraits a few years ago in Libya and, knowing how that turned out, it is hard to feel optimistic for the prince-ling; however, here many citizens seem genuinely attached to their monarch.
Amman, the capital, was known as Philadelphia in antiquity but today there are only two rather sad remnants of this history; a reconstructed Roman theatre and an adjacent hill with Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic ruins. I saw both before lunch and spent the afternoon in one of Amman's malls.
Malls tell you a lot about a city. Jordan lacks oil so there was no indoor skiing but this wasamall Westfield would have been happy with. Amman has a thriving middle-class, and the wealthy area could have been cut from the leafy sections of any European city.
There are, of course, poorer suburbs but I saw no evidence of slums.
Taxis in Jordan are cheap if you insist on them running the meter and, according to Lonely Planet, public transport works. But why travel halfway around the world to sit in the back of a bus with someone holding a chicken? I hired a car.
Jordan is a small country: six-and-a-half million people squeezed into a square the size of Northland.
The east is desert and home to the inaptly named Desert Castles, a collection of historically important but otherwise uninteresting ruins, is spread over 300km of paved roads. Still, it was a nice drive and included the vanished Azraq wetland.
This huge inland lake was drained out of existence in the 1980s to cater for the surging population of Amman and it is unquestionably one of mankind's most impressive acts of ecological vandalism.
They are repeating this trick on a much grander scale to the east; the Dead Sea is falling byametre a year as the Jordan River that feeds it is bled dry.
Jerash, a short drive north of Amman, has the most impressive Roman ruins in Jordan and the locals animate the hippodrome (a Roman race track) with mock gladiators and real horses.
For more than 600 years Jerash was home toaGreek-speaking city probably established by Alexander, ruled by Rome and Byzantine but vanquished by the Arab invasions of 700 AD.
To walk through the striking forum and the wide Roman roads of a city on the edge of a vast empire that must have seemed invincible is a little saddening.
Modern Jerash is a glum place with all the romance and grandeur of an empty gas cylinder.
The crusaders left dozens of impressive castles through the region, two of which survive in southern Jordan. This tenacious Christian kingdom lasted for a century before she and her Jordanian castles fell to the Kurdish leader Saladin 800 years ago.
Jordan boasts two key sites for the Christian faithful. One is Mt Nebo where Moses gazed upon the promised land before dying. It is a lookout with a monastery on it, nothing exciting, but Bethany Beyond the Jordan was different.
On an abandoned tributary of the river, archaeologists recently identified the site where third-century pilgrims
erected a church and memorial to commemorate the site where John the Baptist baptised Jesus.
The Jordan River marks the border with Israel and lies a few hundred metres away. Here Jordan and Israel have built facing access ramps over the tiny river allowing the odd sensation of sitting in Jordan while eavesdropping on a conversation in Israel, under the watchful eye of both nations' troops.
Damien Grant paid his own way to Jordan.