In 2015, Belgian photographer Johan Lolos spent one week in Jordan to capture the raw beauty in the desert dunes, canyons and ancient wonders of the Arab nation. Bordered by Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq, Jordan is located at the crossroads of the Middle East. It strikes the balance of preserving a traditional way of life while becoming one of the Arab world’s most cosmopolitan and liberal countries. The nation’s moderate, non-ideological and revolution-averse political culture has meant that it has maintained stability and security amid the Middle Eastern conflict that engulfs its neighbors. Despite a sharp decline in tourist numbers in recent years, Jordan remains one of the safest countries in the Middle East.
Jordan has seen a dramatic decline in visitors ever since the situation in Syria has escalated, but Johan feels safe here. “What people don’t know is that Jordan is one of the safest countries in the Middle East… It’s sad that people are now scared of visiting Jordan,” he says. Jordanians have a reputation for their warm hospitality and generosity, eager to welcome foreigners to marvel at their country’s natural and historical wonders, as Johan discovered during his stay.
Wadi Rum. Wadi Rum, or the “Valley of the Moon,” is the largest valley in Jordan. The otherworldly landscape has inspired writers, photographers and filmmakers for centuries. Johan peppers our conversation with references to films set in Wadi Rum, from Lawrence of Arabia to The Martian. He spends the evening sharing stories around the campfire at Mitlag Wadi Rum, a luxury campsite in the valley. Private tents line the sandy campsite, which is lit by candlelight. Away from the bright lights of the city, the wide, open sky is teeming with stars and the charm of the desert begins to work its magic. The following morning, he is up before daybreak for a hot air balloon ride over the desert. He admits, “Before visiting Jordan, I would never have even thought that such a dry and hot country could be a source of inspiration for my photography work.”
The Dead Sea & Surrounds. More surprises wait for Johan in the canyons around the Dead Sea, some 1,300 feet below sea level. He meets his local guide, who will lead him on long hikes through the dramatic, red rock canyons. Usually, he finds inspiration in lush, mountainous landscapes, like in New Zealand. He looks for mountains wherever he goes, but now, at the lowest point on earth, he starts to notice that the sharp canyons are just as captivating as the mountains. His hotel on the shores of the Dead Sea is his favorite of the three luxury resorts he visits. The five-star resort is on the shores of the Dead Sea and seems to spring out of the surrounding desert, mimicking an oasis.
Petra by candlelight. Jordan’s most important historical site, Petra, is the ancient capital of the Nabatean Kingdom, which dates back to 300 BC. Many buildings, such as the Greek-style Treasury, are carved into the red rock face, earning the city the nickname “The Rose City.” Three nights a week, Petra is illuminated by thousands of candles. It’s an evening show for tourists, rather than a religious or cultural ceremony, but it’s an evening that will be etched into Johan’s memory forever. The ceremony begins with a candlelit walk along the narrow pathway between the Siq and the Treasury. As Johan is led through the valley, there’s complete silence. Mobile phones and talking are forbidden. “Leaving the lights of Wadi Musa behind to enter the dark valley in silence is magical,” he says. Emerging from the darkness of the valley, he finds Treasury Plaza illuminated by 1,800 candles, throwing dramatic shadows onto the ancient stone façade. A Bedouin musician plays the pipe, as participants are momentarily transported back centuries in time. After the ceremony, he experiences traditional Jordanian hospitality over a cup of tea, while he listens to a local storyteller.
Wading through Wadi Mujib. It’s only when they reach a flooded valley that Johan finds out his guide is afraid of water, while they are hiking through Wadi Mujib, a narrow valley near the Dead Sea. Johan decides to push through without his guide and wades through the water on his own. It’s not recommended to hike through the canyons alone, but his guide promises him that he’ll run into other tourists. As he scrambles over rocks and climbs over powerful waterfalls, the water level rises from around his knees to around his chin. Fortunately, he runs into a different guide in Wadi Mujib, who leads him through the rest of the hike.
Left in awe of the country’s landscapes, ancient history and culture, the warmth of the Jordanian people is what left the most impact. “I arrived in Jordan with a prejudice about the country and the culture, but it happened to be a false one. People are so charming and welcoming; they truly want to share their culture with you. I think every single country has something unique to offer, and I want to see all of that, all around the globe.”
Photography by: Johan Lolos | johanlolos.com