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Back on the road to Damascus

· Jordan Jerash UmmQai

Jordan is one of my top three favourite countries. I've visited many times over the last 15 years and taken my mother, my son and, finally on this trip, the Major. All have been entranced. It's not just the sites - though Jordan has sites to rival anywhere in the world. It's not just the wonderful climate or the delicious and authentic cuisine. (Don't try to refuse yet another course, they'll bring it anyway "just for hospitality.") And that is a clue to its secret. The hospitality, generosity and welcome you receive in Jordan are like no other.

So where are all the tourists? Clearly, there is the question of geography - Jordan is as Middle East as it gets and it's surrounded by difficult neighbours (Syria, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia) all of whom are either in a war with someone else or with some of their own citizens. Yet people still visit Israel and the soulless Gulf states that are - with the noble exception of Oman - a paean of praise to the worst excesses of western materialism side by side with the most austere and dour version of Islam.

In Jordan, while the vast majority are clearly devout Muslims, their lifestyle is another matter. A few days ago I was at a concert in the Oval Forum in the Roman ruins of Jerash starring Andrea Bocelli and it was an event that would be unimaginable anywhere else in the region. The sexes mixed freely, the women came with groups of friends (no chaperones!) and mostly had their hair uncovered. They were animated with each other, rapturous about the concert. It was a delightful night in a glorious setting.

In the city of Salt earlier that day, a group of old men playing backgammon and a curious game that involved stones and a wooden board, greeted us and wanted to chat about the importance of everyone getting along with each other. Later, losing our way, some traders left their stalls and walked us to where we needed to go. Later still, a policeman (flak jacket, semi-automatic) rushed to embrace our guide (an old friend) and told us how welcome we were in Jordan. This is the kind of thing that should be giving the Middle East a good name and Jordan's neighbours would be wise to follow in these footsteps.

The day after the concert, the Major and I went to Umm Qais, north of Amman. This is the site of ancient Gadara where Jesus cast devilish spirits out of two local men and into some nearby pigs (those Gadarene swine who ran crazed into the Sea of Galilee). Umm Qais was a Greek then a Roman town and you can still see the remains of an octagonal church, a magnificent theatre facing the setting sun and a splendid nymphaeum, or fountain. Much of it, though, still lies beneath the sand waiting to be discovered. In the meantime, there's the view.

Straight in front of us across the valley is the long, flat-topped ridge of the Golan Heights. Beyond that, Lake Tiberias, aka the Sea of Galilee, shimmers in the heat. On our way, we pass the road to the Syrian border. There's an Israeli checkpoint in the Golan foothills. Ancient, modern, biblical history layer themselves, over and over, in this region. 

And then it's time for lunch in the Romero restaurant in the midst of the Umm Qais ruins, looking across into Israel and Syria - and on a very clear day into Lebanon. I first came here with my son, then aged nine, who proceeded to clear ever dish of meze with gusto. "I know the salads are irresistible," I warned him, "but there will be more to come." But it's impossible - these are too good to leave. You just have to relax and go with the flow of Jordanian hospitality.

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