On a hike along the northern stretches of the Jordan Trail, our featured contributor Lola Akinmade Åkerström finds a world of farm-to-table dining, local beekeepers and storied traditions.
Wind lightly rustled through the branches of oak trees and straws of wheat while herd dogs barked in the distance. Apart from the crunching of our hiking boots on rocky trails and the clanking of goat bells a few dozen feet away, there was a sense of stillness.
We kept hiking along those rolling hills spotted with turfs of green, snaking our way through widely spaced deciduous oaks until we reached a viewpoint overlooking the River Yarmouk. Across the river stood the politically iconic basaltic plateau of Golan Heights, and to my left, the biblical Sea of Galilee.
From this vantage point at Jordan’s northernmost region, I could see Syria, Israel, Palestine and Lebanon all at once. They were nothing but undulating masses of grass, dust, and earth, all belying decades of pain within their borders.
Yet, the calm I felt here was at odds with what I had anticipated feeling. After all, I was inadvertently trapped between volatile political landscapes. This perspective-providing trek along Jordan’s borderlands had pulled me away from ground-level and given me a borderless view of peace.
Not many foreigners make it this far north, to Yarmouk Nature Reserve, a nationally protected park established in 2010 which spans roughly 20 square kilometers and borders Syria. Since the Syrian war broke out, tourism to Jordan has suffered tremendously. For a country that had easily welcomed foreign travelers who clamored to see infamous Petra and Wadi Rum for decades, drawing them out here to border regions seemed impossible.
I was traveling with local company Experience Jordan and was exploring the entire length of the country from its northernmost tip to its southernmost borders with Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Finding local communities and understanding their everyday lifestyles against a socially heated backdrop was the reason I was here, roaming around Jordan’s border regions. I was meeting locals who were opening up their homes and businesses to help break down unjustified fear which has mired the region. How did one live everyday beneath the foothills with such political tension from all angles?
Self-sustainability is the main goal behind Baraka’s projects throughout the region: To help return locals to subsisting on resources right in their backyard.
I first saw those rippling peaks from a distance when we arrived into the sleepy border town of Umm Qais to Beit Al Baraka, a modest three-room bed and breakfast the day before.
Started in 2017 as a sustainable tourism project by Amman-based Baraka Destinations, Beit Al Baraka has hosted over a thousand guests since its opening. Baraka’s local community projects employs over 30 local families from Umm Qais.
Over centuries, many poets and philosophers have called this unassuming town, which overlooks the Jordan Valley, home. Once a Decapolis city (one of 10 on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire) with Greek and Roman influences, Umm Qais was also the biblical location of the Gardarene Swine miracle where Jesus cast demons out of a herd of swine before they rushed over a cliff to sudden death.
When I arrived in Umm Qais, it was into a slow-hum town seemingly untouched by current political tensions and one which did not wear its historical importance on its sleeve.
It was at Beit Al Baraka I met Alia and Um Hani who make their living by weaving and selling baskets against this historic milieu. Pulling out banana leaves, palm fronds and straws, Alia was teaching me a craft spanning thousands of years with an intricate mastery (in glaring contrast to my inelegant fumbling patterns).
And as her fingers delicately pulled and twinned fronds together, I could see the symbolic weaving of history into everyday life here. A region so defined by its past that one can’t help but tread carefully.
Dinner was at another local community project, Galsoum’s Kitchen where I was immersed in a farm-to-table experience while sitting on floor cushions around a squat communal table in Um Sulaiman’s home. Using organic ingredients from local farmers, she prepares home-cooked feasts for travelers, inviting them into Umm Qais through its cuisine.
From Cha’cheel, a traditional dish cooked in a yoghurt sauce, to pickled vegetables and an upside-down chicken and rice dish called Maklouba, I dug into simple hearty cuisine, that had been made only from what the town grows in its own backyard.
With an uncharacteristically lush backyard filled with nectar and pollen, I would experience yet another community project at a local apiary where former soldier-turned-beekeeper Yousef Sayyah has been tending bees for over 15 years.
Looking out to the quiet Sea of Galilee in the distance, I began to fully comprehend just how holy the grounds I was treading on were.
With 15 beehives housing roughly 60,000 bees, he’s been harvesting honey, jelly and wax from their combs, selling them locally and to the few foreign travelers who pass through Umm Qais.
This self-sustainability is the main goal behind Baraka’s projects throughout the region: To help return locals to subsisting on resources right in their backyard as this region has done since biblical times.
The next day, I met my guide Ahmed Al Omari to find out why Umm Qais was also called the “new Athens”.
Tramping over black basalt rocks and stone ruins with spectacular views of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan Valley, that answer lay in the ruins of Roman theaters, bath houses, mausoleums, and terraces of the ancient Decapolis city of Gadara. With history spanning 2,400 years across both the Roman, Greek and Ottoman empires, this UNESCO World Heritage site has an unparalleled panorama of the “sea” and Golan Heights.
Born and bred in Gadara, Ahmed has been scrambling amongst these ruins since childhood. He pointed out various complexes of dilapidating pillars and underground wells where he used to play hide-and-seek with his friends.
It would seem an unlikely location—at the confluence of these countries—to find a prehistoric entertainment complex built by the Romans. But during its heyday, Gadara, now known as Umm Qais, was home to many philosophers who moved through this region known for its religious landmarks and biblical pertinence.
The Romans occupied Israel and neighboring lands during the time of Christ and standing among the pillars of Gadara’s terrace, looking out to the quiet Sea of Galilee in the distance, I began to fully comprehend just how holy the grounds I was treading on were.