Jordan: The Shifting Sands Of Time

The land around Jordan holds many surprises - not least, says Adrian Mourby, the constantly changing landscape of the Dead Sea

'Jordan River Deep and Wide" it isn't. Not any more. It's about 2.5m across and very slow-moving at the one point you can visit these days, a small channel in Bethany. Here, between the Israeli and Jordanian flags, a stone font has been erected to mark the nearest point on the river-bank to the place where John baptised Jesus. Leo Blair was baptised here recently while his father was on one of his many missions to bring peace to the Middle East. Ironically, it was a real peace deal, the one that Jordan signed with Israel in 1994, that enabled archaelogists and tourists once again to visit Bethany and the banks of the Jordan, which had been a military stand-off zone for decades. What they found was not just that the River Jordan had moved several hundred yards west of Christ's original baptism site but that the river itself had dwindled dramatically.

Further north up the rift valley, dams and irrigation initiatives have taken a lot of water out of the Jordan and the results are now clear to everyone, nowhere more so than at the Dead Sea into which the river empties. Stand on top of Mount Nebo today, as Moses did in the Book of Exodus, and you won't see the same Promised Land he did. Jerusalem is still there, but the Dead Sea has definitely retreated. It's now a third of the size it was in 1900. The shrinkage has exposed some great new beaches on the eastern (Jordanian) side of the lake but they symbolise a long-term environmental catastrophe. At the moment the Dead Sea is going down at a rate of one metre a year. In 100 years' time Jordan's new seaside hotels may be left high and dry, bussing people down to the beach.

This is confirmed when I drive up to the Dead Sea Panoramic Complex above Amman Beach. The centre is built out of the distinctive local limestone, shot through with volcanic minerals. It's perched on a rock 800m above sea level. If that doesn't sound impressive enough remember the shores of the Dead Sea are 400m below sea level. The drop truly is vertiginous.

A museum inside the centre explains what's going on. Immediately below us two tectonic plates are parting company. As the African and Arabian plates started to separate 17,000,000 years ago, they formed an enormous rift valley that filled up with water. We know that gap in its latest configuration as the Dead Sea and it's getting bigger because those plates are still diverging. So with the bottom of the sea dropping down gradually, a decrease in river input is the last thing the Dead Sea needs. No wonder when I look down I can see new beaches waiting to emerge from the shallows.

After tea with the director, I head south towards Hammamat Ma'in but something he said stays with me. It seems those two plates aren't just moving apart. The Arabian plate is also heading north. Seventeen million years ago the rocks on which Amman now stands were to the south of the rocks of Jerusalem, then they moved. "Now Amman is to the north of Jerusalem," said my sad man. "And the process is continuing. Every century Amman moves away from Jerusalem the length of a cat." It's quite a thought I agree but, as I drive away, I wish I'd asked him what size of cat.

Hammamat Ma'in is a small park in a valley that runs down to the Dead Sea. Here you can lunch and take turns under two spectacular hot waterfalls that plunge down into the valley from a volcanic fissure - yet more tectonic tourism. The Greeks and Romans had thermal baths here and King Herod (the one who rewarded his pole-dancing stepdaughter with John the Baptist's head) used to come down here for his rheumatism from his castle at nearby Mukawir.

You can still see the site of Mukawir if you want, but the stronghold was seized by rebels in AD70 and so comprehensively smashed up by avenging Romans that not a stone remains. The centurions had every brick thrown down 200m into the valley below.

I chose instead to walk through the nature reserve of Wadi Mujib, which runs down the valley of a Dead Sea tributary. It's a verdant wilderness with three trails, each of which can be traversed by no more than 24 walkers a day. The Mujib river makes a good, if challenging, companion and a certain amount of wading and abseiling is necessary unless you choose your path carefully. However, when I get to the bottom of the wadi, I realise something drastic has happened. A dam has been placed across the valley and the river, instead of flowing into the Dead Sea, is siphoned off into a concrete tunnel turning right up to Amman.

In front of me there is a mass of concrete, a basin built to absorb any excess water during the rainy season but this, I notice, has been smashed. A year ago flood water pummelled the concrete, lifted it up and flung it to one side like a rumpled duvet. It's a reminder that you mess with nature at your peril.

I regain the main road that has been on land vacated by the shrinking sea and cross the Mujib Bridge. Here, above a car park, is a pillar of rock, twisted like a shrill black shriek. This has been known for generations as Lot's Wife, the embodiment of disobedient wives. She looked back as Sodom and Gomorrah fell into the opening chasm of the Dead Sea and was turned into salt. No one put this column here. It was just formed at some vague time in the past, but the moral is clear: don't tamper with the divine plan.



Adrian Mourby travelled to Jordan with BMED, which can be booked through British Airways (0870-8509 850; It offers return flights from London to Amman from around £387. He stayed at the

Kempinski Hotel Ishtar

(00 962 6461 5922; which offers double rooms from £105 per night.


Jordan Tourism Board

(020-7731 6496;

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power