Sketching Jordan

When we asked our travel agent to add a day tour to the ancient lost city of Petra, Jordan, to our Holy Land tour, she suggested that we should stay three days and see more of Jordan. At first I hesitated, thinking other than Petra there was nothing else to see in Jordan except miles and miles of desert. Boy, was I mistaken. Jordan was a surprise – bustling urban areas, historical and Biblical sights, and great people. We were so glad we took her advice. With sketchbook in hand, I tried to portray Jordan as I experienced it.

These are some of my sketches from my watercolor travel journal of Jordan.

 Bedouin Performer - Jerash, Jordan (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

Bedouin Performer - Jerash, Jordan (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

I spotted this Bedouin performer taking a cigarette break as we were touring one of the amphitheaters in Jerash, Jordan. As I applied the finishing touches to this sketch in my studio, I could still smell the smoke from his cigarette and hear the laughter of other tourists as they danced to the music of Bedouin musicians. I imagined his ancestors sitting in the same spot in the heyday of the ancient city of Jerash, when it was a center of culture and trade during the Greco-Roman Era until an earthquake destroyed it in 749 AD.

 Old City Center – Amman, Jordan (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

Old City Center – Amman, Jordan (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

What struck me upon seeing Amman, the capital and largest city of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, was its homogeneous look due to the fact that most of the buildings were made of sandstone. This sketch is a view from Citadel Hill overlooking Amman’s old city center with its predominantly creamy hue giving it the nickname “The White City.” Amman is the most “westernized” city of the Arab world. Not too far from this area large, dark skyscrapers rise above the skyline, ushering the imminent end of The White City as I saw it.

 Treasury (Al Khazneh) – Petra, Jordan (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

Treasury (Al Khazneh) – Petra, Jordan (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

As we emerged from the mile-and-a-half trek through The Siq, a narrow gorge with rock walls rising hundreds of feet on each side, the imposing Treasury (Al Khazneh) tantalized us as it peeked through a thin opening. Then it rewarded us with its full jaw-dropping glory as we finally reached the end of the gorge. I was rendered speechless and just stood there taking in what UNESCO refers to as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage.” Carved into the red rock prevalent in Petra, this once was the burial place of a Nabatean King. If this were all we saw of Petra it would’ve been well worth the trip; but Petra is a vast ancient city filled with architectural treasures and engineering marvels.

Built as early as 312 BC and later all but lost to the world, it was rediscovered in 1812, when photography was in its infancy and travel drawings were the window to the wider world. The drawings of the Treasury and other structures in Petra held the Victorians enthralled. I included a sketch of El Khazneh in my travel journal as a homage to those who came before me and brought Petra back for all to see. 

 Camel Riders – Petra, Jordan (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

Camel Riders – Petra, Jordan (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

We were resting at a café, admiring the Royal Tombs of Petra across the way, just taking it all in. These camel riders and their colorfully decorated camels were in front of us waiting for passengers. It amused me that the camels seemed intent on being rendered in a sketch. I grabbed the moment to sketch them against the backdrop of the Royal Tombs

 Mosaic Artist – Madaba, Jordan (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

Mosaic Artist – Madaba, Jordan (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

Madaba is known as “The City of Mosaics” because of the plethora of mosaic work uncovered there, the most famous of which was a 6 A.D. Christian pilgrimage map made of over two million tiny mosaic pieces found in the Church of St. George. We visited an art center where I drew this woman as she intently worked on a Tree of Life mosaic. Immediately, I thought about the ordeal and the conditions the artists of the Middle Ages and Byzantine period had to live through in order to produce the beautiful mosaics we see today. 

 Bedouin Shepherd - Mount Nebo, Jordan (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

Bedouin Shepherd - Mount Nebo, Jordan (Illustration by Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan)

At Mount Nebo, I sketched this scene of a shepherd and his flock of sheep and goats, today a ubiquitous scene across the deserts of Jordan and the Holy Land. It would have been a familiar scene thousands and thousands of years back, which proves that traditions and life do go on. Mount Nebo is Moses’ reputed burial place, where the everyday life of the Bedouin nomads still unfolds.  

Some Travel Tips:

A case of you think you are helping but you are not: In Jordan, you will come across many children selling postcards and souvenirs. Our guide warned us that we are not really helping the children since they forgo formal education in lieu of easy money from tourists, resulting in an inability to support themselves or their families later in life. This is a cautionary tale that probably applies to the rest of the world.

Immerse yourself in the culture: While in Petra my husband wore a keffiyeh, the typical red and white head gear worn by men of all ages in Jordan. I wore a hijab in the style of Queen Noor. It immediately opened us up to the country’s culture, which led to fully experiencing and communicating with the Jordanians.

Hit the pause button: My sketchbook, pen and pencil accompany me everywhere I travel. Sketching is my favorite way of chronicling our travels. But even if you are not sketching, take time to hit the pause button, sit down and have coffee and local snacks to allow yourself to embrace the tastes, smells and sounds around you. This is the moment that often surprises you, and you’ll find it more gratifying with sketchbook in hand.

And a Final Note:

Everywhere we go in the world, we meet up with Filipinos at every turn without fail. While in Jordan, we did not come across any and wondered where they were. Surely, there were Filipinos there. As we were leaving Petra, a young woman approached us and asked if we were Filipinos. From the ensuing conversation, we discovered that she was in the military service and had been for three years. She originally hailed from Angeles, Pampanga. It is indeed a small world for Filipinos.

(I found out later that there are about 25,000 expat Filipinos in Jordan, but they were not visible to us.)


 Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan

Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan

Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan is a retired corporate director of accounting, payroll and compensation at OfficeMax (formerly Boise Cascade Office Products). An alumnus of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, she now devotes her time to volunteer work and her travels, art, food, quilting and needle arts, which she writes about in her blogs, Finding Art and Ang Kusina ni Lola Alfonsa.


Also from Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan:

Travel Sketching In The Holy Land
June 3, 2014
Why sketching can better preserve travel memories than souvenir pictures