To Pe­tra and be­yond

Let's Travel - - BEYOND - Words and im­ages by Rob McFar­land

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

Wis­dom.

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

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