More than Just Sand

There’s a rumor going around America that Jordan is just a big sandy desert. Now in the business of clarifying that, there are two slight misconceptions there. First of all, not all of Jordan is a desert, just most of it. And unfortunately for those who were expecting images of sunsets over golden dunes, most of the desert is not sandy.

What is Jordan, geographically speaking? In fact, it’s a rather eclectic mix of environments.

Most of the people in Jordan, and in fact, most of everything is concentrated in a little North-South strip on the Western edge of the country. In the north of this strip you find the capital, Amman, home to 38% of country’s population and the center of the country’s economic, intellectual, and cultural life. In the far North, Irbid (my city) and the city of Zarqa hold 34% of the people, and serve as hubs for the country’s industry and trade. The South holds desert outpost cities like Ma’an and Tafila and on the Red Sea, the luxurious resort town of Aqaba. Then, to the East, it’s pretty much all desert. (There’s also a valley in the South called Wadi Rum, which is home to massive sand dunes and monoliths and mountains and such. It looks like the stereotypical “Middle Eastern Desert”, and as such it is one of the most popular locations to shoot classic films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Transformers II. I haven’t seen it yet, so it’s not in this post, but I’ll be sure to snap a few shots when I visit it.)

The eastern desert plateau covers 80% of the country and has an arid climate year round, which explains why there’s nothing much on the map there. (Thanks to USAID-Jordan for some of the stats.)

But what are all of these places really look like? How exactly is this country sculpted?

First of all, we have our pretty regular looking climate around Amman and Irbid. Classified as “Mediterranean” or “Semi Arid”, this is characterized by rolling hills, shrubs, and sparse tree cover.

It doesn’t rain much here in the summer, and in the winter, the rainfall is irregular at best, but nonetheless, it’s enough to sustain life.

In the north of the country, the Ajloun mountains add a taste of greenery to the landscape. This area gets a decent amount of rainfall and even snow during the winter, and as a result, it hosts beautiful green forests and cool weather during the summer.

Also, if you’re in the castle building mood, the Ajloun mountains provide a pretty great vantage point for defense against invaders. I’m pretty jealous of the crew that got to hang out here.

At the northernmost part of the country, the Jordan River Valley winds through a rare strip of fertile farmland and hosts much of Jordan’s agriculture. Only 2.8% of Jordan’s land is arable, and most of it is found here.

Umm Qais, an ancient Roman City perched on the northwest corner, provides a beautiful vista of the surrounding landscape and an interesting lesson in politics, as you can see the fertile hills of the Jordan Valley stretch across the northern border and join with the hills in the West Bank of Palestine, Israel, the Golan Heights, and Syria. (Like most borders that I’ve seen in the Middle East, I can’t help wondering what the Brits and the French were thinking of when they penciled this one on the map. I knew before that it wasn’t about the people, and seeing the land, I’m not pretty sure it wasn’t about geography.)

On a side note, the pine groves nearby offer a pretty comfy place for a barbecue and a nap.

Down south of Amman, the land gets increasingly desert-y. But every once in a while, the dry plateau opens up into a huge wadi that collects what little water there is in the water table and funnels it into a stream that ends up in the Dead Sea. These wadis, some of which are dry in the summer and flow only in the winter, serve as valuable sources of water for plant, animal, and human life.

From the outside, the Wadi looks like an extension of the dry and barren desert, but when you poke your head inside – or go slogging for hours through a stream bed – you find a treasure trove of greenery and life. If you poke around a bit, there are some interesting surprises.

And then… finally, there’s the great eastern desert. Before I visited, I had grand illusions of a vast sea of sand dunes inhabited by camel caravans, bedouin king, vipers, bands of 40 thieves, and castles. As it turns out, I found the camels and the castles, but unfortunately the other rarities have remained elusive.

You get a sense of heading off into the wild when you leave Azraq, the last important town on the Eastern frontier. There’s really only one major road heading East, and there’s not much on the road except huge trucks shipping cargo to the Iraqi or Saudi borders. And off the road, there’s dirt, shrubs, rocks, and power lines. As the road rolls over the hills heading off towards Iraq, the stark rocky landscape rolls by with the occasional turnoff for a small bedouin village or a military outpost or a mine, but for the most part, there’s not much human activity.

If you keep going for a while, you hit As-Safawi, which really is the last thing before the middle of nowhere. There doesn’t seem to be a lot there except a main street with a tasty chicken restaurant and a couple of vegetable stalls, but as always, the people are friendly and welcoming. It’s an understatement to say that foreigners don’t usually tend to come here.

After As-Safawi, there’s a road and one more town before the Iraqi border. But in the hundreds of kilometers that stretch between them, there’s earth, and there’s sky.

It’s quiet, peaceful, and rugged. The towers of power lines rising from the earth and the loud roar of 18 wheelers chugging down the highway provide a striking contrast to the serenity of the landscape; it really is man’s industry versus desert’s wildness. Right now, they seem to have found a friendly working relationship.

So far, from what I’ve seen, this place isn’t exactly what I was expecting from watching Aladdin, but for real life, I think it’ll do.

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One Response to More than Just Sand

  1. nickfrack says:

    A nice overview of the country Mark; I remember that epic Michael Bay scene in the desert from TF2. 😉 Enjoy your travels, and keep posting!

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