To Petra and beyond
As we’re walking through the Siq, the meandering chasm of rock that leads to the ancient city of Petra, our guide beckons us over to the right-hand wall. Apparently we’re looking for an eagle’s nest lodged high in the cliff face. None of us can see it so he shuffles us over to the opposite wall and tells us to turn around. Suddenly, it all becomes clear… through a narrow gap in the rock we get our first glimpse of Petra’s infamous Treasury, a spell-binding, 43-metre-high Hellenistic facade carved out of sheer rock in the first century AD.
This is the reason I’m in Jordan. Long before Harrison Ford made it famous in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, my parents visited Petra and told me it was one of
the most impressive sights they’d ever seen. What I’d failed to realise is that the Treasury is just the tip of the iceberg. Stretching beyond it is a vast ancient city that once housed 30,000 people.
While you could easily spend several days exploring the site, you can get around a lot in a day. I’d recommend tackling the 800 steps that wind their way up to the Monastery where your efforts will be rewarded with an even more remarkable carved rock facade and a fraction of the crowds.
For an insight into life here in more recent times, make sure you say hello to New Zealander Marguerite van Geldermalsen. She wrote a bestselling book about her life married to a Bedouin and you can pick up a copy at the stall run by her and her affable son.
While Petra is what initially lured me to Jordan, over the course of a week I discover that this compact country is crammed full of Biblical sites and natural wonders.
Our adventure started three days ago in Amman, the country’s capital. Nicknamed “The White City” due to the extensive use of local limestone, it’s a busy, thriving metropolis. While it may lack the headline sites of its more famous neighbours, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it does have a well-preserved Roman theatre and several bustling souks.
For an authentic introduction to Arabic food, head to Hashem Restaurant located in an alleyway off Al-Amir Mohammed Street. This no-frills establishment serves warm flatbread with deliciously smooth hummus, falafels stuffed with chillies, onion and garlic and refreshing, sweet mint tea.
From Amman, we drive 300 kilometres south along the Desert Highway. The scenery for the most part is uninspiring – arid, windswept plains punctuated by shrubs and the odd Bedouin shepherding a small flock of sheep… and then we hit Wadi Rum.
The road squirms down a hillside toward the valley floor and suddenly we’re surrounded by paprika-coloured sand punctuated by towering peaks of granite, sandstone and limestone. The rock formations are stunning – 500 millionyear-old weathered escarpments stained red by iron oxide. This is Lawrence of Arabia country. It’s where the inimitable TE Lawrence led the Arab revolt in 1917 and it was the setting for his autobiographical novel Seven Pillars of
The best way to explore is on the back of a 4WD – ideally with a slightly mad Bedouin at the wheel. We career
along the desert floor, dodging boulders and cliffs before stopping at a Bedouin tent for some nerve-calming sage tea.
Accommodation for the night is at Captain’s Desert Camp, a cluster of goat hair tents wedged into a rock face. A sunset camel ride followed by a Zarb (a traditional lamb feast cooked underground) completes our introduction to Bedouin life. From Wadi Rum, we head north again to tick off three of Jordan’s historical heavyweights.
Mt. Nebo is where Moses is said to have died after being shown the Promised Land. Today you’ll find a small museum, the Moses Memorial Church and some fine mosaics from the area. Just nine kilometres away is Madaba, a charming town whose claim to fame is a mosaic found in 1884 in the ruins of a Byzantine church. It turned out to be the world’s oldest map of Palestine, which was intricately handcrafted in 560 AD.
Our last stop is a site only discovered by archaeologists in 1996. Situated on the banks of the Jordan River, Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan is the place where it’s claimed Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. Sadly, the river is a rather underwhelming trickle nowadays but there’s a visitor centre and an impressive gold-roofed Greek Orthodox church.
After a week crammed with epic vistas and Biblical sites, I’m ready for a relaxing day at the impressive Movenpick Hotel on the shores of the Dead Sea. At 408 metres below sea level, it’s officially the lowest point on earth and, with a salinity level of 31 percent, it’s one of the saltiest. You don’t so much float, as bob. It’s a bizarrely addictive sensation that leaves me grinning for days.
While languishing in the Dead Sea’s mineral-rich waters, I look towards the opposite bank and see places that in recent years I’ve come to associate with protest and unrest – Israel, Palestine and the West Bank. And yet, during my week here in Jordan, I’ve encountered nothing but friendliness, openness, courtesy and respect. The wry comment from a Royal Jordanian airline official I met at the start of the trip says it all: “We’re a safe haven in a rough neighbourhood.”
Treasury at Petra
Monastery at Petra
Dinner at Hashem Restaurant
Captain’s Desert Camp
Camel ride at Wadi Rum
Movenpick Dead Sea Hotel