Jordan’s Biosphere Reserve is an Oasis in the Desert


Dana (Photo credit: sharnik)

Up in the Ottoman-era labyrinth of Dana village, the RSCN is shepherding a groundbreaking restoration project with U.S. Agency for International Development funds. The developers who have despoiled the Dead Sea coast with large, unsympathetic resorts are being kept at bay, in favor of boutique hotels that complement the region’s rich heritage.

Though not as spectacular or wellpreserved as some other Jordanian ruins — Dana’s main site, the Byzantine citadel of Khirbet Feynan, was reduced to rubble by an earthquake in the 8th century — Dana’s ruins lay claim to being as valuable, for some of them are infinitely older. On a stony hillside overlooking the desert plains, I spend hours picking through the animal bones and limestone crockery of a Stone Age settlement believed to date back 11,000 years.

It’s little wonder that the locals should feel a potent sense of ownership. Yet all the people I talk to seem to have embraced the influx of low-level tourism. The old indigenous life perseveres, but interactions between tourists and locals seem unjaded. My trip is punctuated by invitations to share a cup of Arabic coffee — a spicy brew infused with cardamom — and handshakes with grizzled farmers driving their herds in search of meager pasture.

According to Tarazi, this honest cultural exchange has become one of Dana’s main drawing cards. “What started as a project aimed at benefiting the local community has traveled full circle,” he says. “Now, the opportunity to interact with local people is one of the main reasons for Feynan’s success.” From the outset, conserving Dana has meant conserving this timeless human presence.

Mohammad epitomizes the way this coming together of old and new has served to enrich the tourist experience here. Born in a cave not far from where the lodge now stands, he lived his childhood on the knife-edge of subsistence. From age 6 he worked as a goatherd, camping out at night among the rocky pinnacles with only his flute for comfort.

After he finished school, the opportunity to go to university lured him away from Dana — just one migrant in a wider diaspora, as the countryside’s young people, disillusioned by the traditional life, headed for the cities — until the prospect of a job with the ecolodge enticed him back. Today, that job, well-paying by Jordanian standards, means a better life for his young family and a small home in a village on the reserve’s western periphery.

And the job comes easy. Mohammad is a natural guide, as deeply reverent of the old ways as he is proud of his work. “Some visitors have said that this is the best trip of their lives,” he claims, later sending me the TripAdvisor testimonials of former Feynan guests to prove it. “This makes me very happy.”

Together, in pleasant springtime temperatures, we meander along the tracks that radiate from the lodge. Barely a minute goes by without Mohammad stopping to point out things that my less keen eyes might have missed, such as the pattern of a plant fossil high on a wind-polished wall, or a brief cameo from the reserve’s shy wildlife: a blue lizard darting across the pebbles or a griffon vulture wheeling against the lapis sky.

Of the reserve’s stellar cast of mammals — several of which are endangered — we find little, save for the gaggles of domesticated camels that we see often, their forelegs fettered to stop them from striding off into the shimmering desert.

Over at the pioneering copper mines, we spend a whole morning peering into the crab-holes that perforate the bedrock, attempting to imagine the files of blinking men emerging from below, laden with ore chipped from the seams that begin 100 feet down and run for 300 feet underground. In between sites, we walk along gulches scattered with shards of green malachite, where Mohammad demonstrates the knowledge that develops where harsh conditions demand ingenuity: that the white-flowered artemisia can be used as an antiseptic and that marjoram, when crushed, behaves like soap.

But our most memorable foray takes us into the famously beautiful slot canyon of Wadi Ghwayr. The scenery gets better the deeper we go. The walls gradually narrow, until we are burrowing into a gullet of granular rock that rises in raspberry-ripple dips and bulges, blocking out the sun. An hour in, rivulets of water appear at our feet, running in braided channels before disappearing back underground — a sign that up on the Shobak plateau, the rains are beginning.

“Where you find the water you can make the life,” Mohammad counsels happily, hopping from boulder to sandbank before pushing on up the gorge. Five hundred generations have done just that in Dana. And as Jordan sets the standard for eco-tourism in the Middle East, it seems likely that people will be living here for generations to come.

Explore posts in the same categories: Archeology, Conservation, Eco-Tourism, educational, Environmentally Friendly, Jordan, Uncategorized

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