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For the Tuned-In Traveler, a Feast for the Ears Awaits in Jordan

By Ryan Knighton

10.11.19

From the November/December 2019 issue

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Built during the 2nd century, the Roman Theatre in Jordan’s capital, Amman, is still used today as a concert venue.

Photo by Alex Cretey Systermans

Built during the 2nd century, the Roman Theatre in Jordan’s capital, Amman, is still used today as a concert venue.

When you take the time to listen, the country speaks through the buzz of bees, the hubbub of the market, the desert wind.

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For most people, Jordan conjures images of the Dead Sea or the colossal sandstone ruins of Petra. But not for me. I have absolutely no images and no ability to seek them out. In my mind’s eye, my flight to Amman was carrying me to a blank slate. As we touched down, I wondered if sighted travelers, living in a Google Earth world, could ever experience the epic thrill of entering such an unknown.

A few hours later, from one of Amman’s many hilltops, my friend Matthew Teller described the city. I pictured it flowing like water down from its ancient citadel to snake between the hills where the city was founded and gather in the valley basin. But when you’re blind, as I am, such a vista reveals itself differently. Up here, Amman peeked at me from behind its sounds, unfolding an acoustic map dotted by life. I could hear pigeons in rooftop nooks, pigeon-raising being a popular Ammanian pastime. Farther to my left, a vegetable truck weaved through a neighborhood, broadcasting its sales pitch over a tinny PA system. Traffic was bad on the distant west side, dense flocks of cars honking like pissed-off geese. And just over there, the public market faintly buzzed. Earlier, I had walked amidst its crowded stalls, jostled by men’s voices calling prices, radios playing music, and customers bartering for hot peanuts. With so much coming at me at once, I struggled to focus. A specific sound must guide me and my curiosity. As I ate pomegranate seeds and listened, my fixer for the week, Sanad, placed my hand on what felt like a potato. It was actually a desert truffle. To find them, foragers keep track of the rains, watch for lightning, and listen for thunder. They believe that truffles will grow where they hear it. Sounds reveal things you didn’t know you weren’t seeing.

Shoppers and vendors do business along King Talal Street in downtown Amman.

Silences can be just as powerful. As Matthew and I paused at one stall to taste za’atar and smell jars of orange blossoms, the call to prayer suddenly rang across the city. Then, something I had never heard before: The booming, chaotic market fell silent. Instantly. That, to me, was as iconic as I imagine the sight of Amman from its citadel to be.

I was here for this. To listen to Jordan. In a land so ancient, with a desert geography so different from my home in Canada, Jordan promised an acoustic experience that would take me far and away.

The idea of this trip was first suggested to me by Matthew, a fellow journalist who, more than 20 years ago, researched and composed the first Rough Guide to Jordan, and he’s done every edition since. Earlier this year, he connected me with Muna Haddad, a revolutionary force in Jordanian tourism. Her company, Baraka Destinations, works to bring tourism and economic opportunity to Jordan’s unsung corners. Muna has played a pivotal role in creating the Jordan Trail, a network of hiking paths that can take visitors across the entire country, north to south, in a matter of weeks. The challenge of my perspective became her obsession. It asked for a different kind of travel experience, one that could be exciting to any visitor, sighted or blind. If anybody knew how to listen to Jordan, its unheard places, people, and stories, it was Muna.

On my second day, we drove north of Amman to the ruins of Pella, where Muna and her team took me to a house unlike any other. I’m sure the views were fantastic, but more than that, the house is specifically designed to feature the lively natural soundscape of the valley below. This home, Beit Al Fannan, or “House of the Artist,” was designed by Ammar Khammash, a Jordanian architect, painter, geologist, botanist, and master of any number of other Renaissance pursuits. This place, his former atelier and country home, is now a guesthouse open to travelers, and it displays not only his paintings but also his ongoing interest in an architecture that asserts sound over spectacle. As you step past the metal door and up some stairs to the main level, you meet with a wall. You must choose a direction: a hard left or a hard right. To the right, an open deck amplifies the sounds of the valley’s birds, frogs, insects, and trees, bringing their music inside the house. To the left is the kitchen and garden. Before your eyes can evaluate either view, your ears help you decide which one to visit first.

I felt around for a twig to scrape away the dirt, and half an hour later, I plucked a shard of pottery from the earth like a sword from a stone.

By design, the walls also preserve the natural tones of the landscape. Their stone is not a foreign or synthetic material. In fact, the rock was excavated from the ground below. From the kitchen, a set of stairs took me down into the cave left behind when the rock for the house was excavated. Here, in Beit Al Fannan’s negative space, like the hollow body of a guitar, hung some of Khammash’s playful paintings. These were deconstructed depictions of the landscape outside, like windows where there were, in fact, none. They hang in my mind’s eye now, too. Not as oil paintings, but as descriptions given to me by Muna.

Khammash was not there for my stay. But I was told I would meet him at the end of my trip, back in Amman.

Located in the Jordan Valley northwest of Amman, the ruins at Pella, known in Arabic as Tabaqat Fahl, divulge millennia of the ancient city’s history, from the Neolithic era through the Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic periods.

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From the house, Muna took Matthew, Sanad, and me to visit one of the archaeological digs in the nearby ruins of Pella. Pella was a thriving city when it was destroyed by an earthquake in 749 C.E. From the middens that Australian archaeologists have been excavating since 1979, so many pottery fragments had been removed that Muna had difficulty describing to me the extent of the site’s trash heap. To measure it for myself, Sanad hoisted me onto the pile so I could walk across: 2, 4, 8, 13 strides over shards of Neolithic and Byzantine bowls and cups, history snapping tunefully under my feet. I was assured these were discarded finds of no value, but I felt queasy at the thought of each loss. Still, that sound. Smash a potter’s rejects and kick them around if you ever get the chance.

Later, descending into the archaeological trench itself, Sanad placed my hand on a sheer wall to feel the changing geology of the sediment layers. Then a point, like a single dot of braille, poked my palm. I felt around for a twig to scrape away the dirt, and half an hour later, I plucked a shard of pottery from the earth like a sword from a stone. The edges were rippled and glazed, suggesting, along with its stratum, a piece that was perhaps 1,600 years old.

Pottery is not something I’ve given much thought to. But I can still feel in my hands, like a phantom limb, my discovery as I released it from its burial. I doubt I’ll ever feel that again.

6 Adventures in the Middle East That Just Got Easier

Jordan’s northwest, which borders Israel and the Golan Heights, is nothing like the country’s southern dunes. The summer heat spares the low mountain villages such as Umm Qais. Day-trippers from Amman drive here for some respite among cool oak forests and olive groves. Cautiously, wearing space suits and mesh hats, Matthew, Sanad, and I walked into one of these forests with a man named Yousef Sayah, who had invited us to hear honey being made.

His honey had sweetened the yogurt on our table that morning at Beit Al Baraka, or “House of Blessings,” a bed-and-breakfast Muna had established so that visitors to the nearby Roman ruins could stay longer, thereby creating more economic opportunities for local villagers such as Yousef. Now I had my ear just inches from the 5,000 bees that had made part of my breakfast. The noise of a hive up close was overwhelming, its choral buzz like the roar of a jet engine. Not a single sting was visited upon me, other than the shock of a revelation. Yousef had me taste honey from hives situated on different bluffs. One presented a rich, warm, carob flavor; another, a bright perfume of spring flowers. I never did see the views of Umm Qais, but I did taste their startling difference. Tastes are landscapes, too.

Beside Umm Qais are the Roman and Byzantine ruins of Gadara, or “the city of philosophers,” a winding assemblage of stone dwellings, mosaics, theaters, and baths that was once home to more than 30,000 people and a key city in the Roman Decapolis. My site guide, Ahmad, drew my fingers along the ancient grooves left by chariot wheels in the street and helped me crank a perfectly preserved stone mill. As we walked through the grasses and overgrowth, he picked crown daisies and stripped their stems for me to taste. These were the foraged snacks of his childhood, he explained, then continued telling the history of the Ottomans and the Romans and the rubble around us. But Ahmad told another story, too.

“And in here, this is where my family and I lived until I was 14,” he said, pointing to an empty stone room. “I can still smell the smoke in my mother’s dress from the fire when she made bread for us each morning.”

A Bedouin shepherd with his traditional red kaffiyeh.

Many of the families of Umm Qais had lived for generations in the ruins. But in 1987, the government moved everyone to the neighboring village in order to develop the site for tourism. That development never really happened, but locals have since opened their own shops for visitors. Ahmad pointed my hand at the roof of his old home.

“I slept up there in a tent in protest until they finally forced me to leave.”

Down the path from his childhood house, which before that could have been an Ottoman home, and before that a Roman stable, we wandered into the crumbling ancient theater, once a gathering place for poetry readings and lectures, and hundreds of years later the place where Ahmad and his friends played hide-and-seek. I stood center stage, at the mathematically defined point where a voice is amplified and returns in a perfect echo. I smacked the floor with my white cane; the walls brought it back from every direction. I thought about Ahmad’s life and the history of this place. I had heard two stories at once. Something like an echo, but deeper. More layered. Something other than the way time is told by a museum.

My day with Khammash had almost arrived. But first, a surprise stop. Matthew, Sanad, Muna, and I drove three hours south from Umm Qais to an area called Al Beida, nicknamed Little Petra. Climbing out of the van, I could feel cool evening air. Sand was already in my teeth. No more mountains, no more groves. Then a roar in the distance, louder, closer, as two trucks rumbled out of the horizon. These were our Bedouin hosts, a family of seminomadic shepherds. They had come to take us off the grid to join them for the night. Habu, one of the guides, wrapped his immense hand around mine. Soon we were off, Sanad and me bouncing across the desert in the back of Habu’s truck under what I imagine was an open sky.

After a night of stories and songs and more coffee, we unrolled mats to sleep. But my ears were too busy.

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Perhaps 15 travelers stayed that night in a traditional tent made of goat hair. A fire burned in the middle of the room as I drank three cups of coffee during my ritual welcome. As the sky darkened and the rains came, we ate bread that I had made with a Bedouin elder over the fire, both of us kneading flour and water and salt into a flat loaf that took on the smoky flavor of the coals in the few minutes it took to cook. This, I learned, is how shepherds often eat as they wander with their goats and sheep in search of plants to graze. You can’t stop for long when your animals are on the move.

After a night of stories and songs and more coffee, we unrolled mats to sleep. But my ears were too busy. The dogs howled in the distance and chased whatever they found lurking. At one point, I heard a fox scratch the tent wall by my head. Soon it tried to slip inside to join us, only to be chased away by the dogs. Later it returned to try to take a chicken. A baby goat mewled most of the night. The donkey was unhappy. Until dawn I just lay still and listened to the theater of animals.

The drive from Amman to Petra leads travelers to the ancient city of Madaba, past castles built by Crusaders, and through daunting stretches of desert.

On my final day, Ammar Khammash, the artist and architect of the Pella house, picked me up at the Marriott Hotel in Amman for our expedition. Together we were going to hunt a particular sound, the way other people might forage for truffles or chase tornadoes.

Immediately I liked him. He had the intense character of a man who chooses words with care. A craftsman of talk. For a couple of hours we drove east into the desert, toward Iraq, chatting the time away, his polymath mind taking us through topics ranging from architecture to writing to botany.

“Go ahead. Open your window,” he told me, as he continued driving. His voice had a smile in it.

The eastern desert, I learned, is geologically nothing like the rolling dunes of the south made famous in films such as The Martian. Rather, we were driving into an ancient seabed abundant with fossils. As he described the geology around us, I could hear his attention scanning for something, his voice turning away as he surveyed the horizon. Then he found what he was looking for. We made a hard left and off-roaded across the landscape.

“Go ahead. Open your window,” he told me, as he continued driving. His voice had a smile in it.

When I did, the ground beneath the car came alive with music. Here, the desert surface was an endless sheet of limestone plates topped with flint that snapped and shattered under our tires, each one setting off its own ringing note. I was on top of the pottery heap in Pella again, only here it was the size of the world itself, an instrument being played by the weight of our car.

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We stopped and climbed out. Without a word, Khammash uncoiled a long foam tube on the ground and wandered off, returning now and then with pieces of flint. Pancakes of stone the size of small plates. He arranged them on top of the foam tube and placed a set of wooden wands in my hands, inviting me to play. So I did. I drummed the stone plates, tapping and rubbing them, their glassy chime nothing like a marimba’s wooden thunk, nor a glockenspiel’s metallic ring.

Back in Khammash’s home in Amman, he has built an instrument from these stones. Called a lithophone, it hangs on a metal rack in his living room, with a range 60 percent that of a grand piano, each note perfectly in tune. Khammash scoured the desert for years until he had collected a set of rocks that naturally vibrated to the frequencies of a Western scale. He even added stones above and below the main keys to lend a range of sharper and flatter microtones. Later, when I visited his house in the city to play his invention, I raked my wand up and down its keys as if I were playing slide guitar.

But out amid the fossils, I just listened in awe to what geological time had gifted us. Sure, I have never seen Jordan. But I have played its eastern desert.

The water level of the Dead Sea, the lowest body of water on Earth, has dropped dramatically since the 1960s due to the diversion of water from the Jordan River.

How to Visit Jordan

by Brooke Vaughan

Most first-time visitors spend about a week exploring the country’s iconic sights, often as part of an itinerary that includes Egypt. Writer Ryan Knighton stayed within Jordan, checking out the famous sites before he ventured into less-visited areas.

How to Go


Knighton worked with Baraka Destinations, an Amman-based travel consulting firm, to create his itinerary. U.S.-based travel companies such as Intrepid Travel, GeoEx, and Abercrombie & Kent offer guided trips that vary from 7 to 14 days. For a customized trip, contact a member of AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council.

Visas


For 40 Jordanian dinars (about US$57), travelers can get a single-entry visa valid for one month at Queen Alia International Airport in the capital city of Amman and at most border crossings. Multiple-entry visas are also available.

One of the many simply carved tombs in Petra.

Essential Stops


Amman: In Jordan’s capital city, public markets sit alongside ancient Roman temples and the remains of an 8th-century palace complex. Visitors take in sprawling urban panoramas from the surrounding hills.

Petra and Al Beida (Little Petra): The former trade capital in the southwestern desert is an archaeological site of tombs and buildings carved into sandstone rock face that dates to the 1st century B.C.E.

Dead Sea: The high salinity of the famous lake makes it easy for bathers to float on the surface of its dense waters; it sits more than 1,300 feet below sea level.

Wadi Rum: Located two hours south of Petra, the red-rock desert is filled with natural arches, sand dunes, and prehistoric carvings.

Revealed through the sandstone Sîq gorge, Al-Khazneh (The Treasury) is the most famous facade within Petra. Carved from the rose-colored rock, it’s thought to date to the 1st century BCE.

Off the Beaten Path


Pella: One of the Decapolis cities of the Roman Empire, Pella is known for its archaeological remains, including Byzantine churches, a theater, and a public fountain.

Umm Qais: The northwestern town enveloped by fertile hills offers views of Syria, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. Nearby stands the ancient city of Gadara, with ruins that include a 4th-century basilica.

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