‘For all the modernity of infinity pools, the past is rarely invisible’
Ihave been on the plane for just over five hours, drifting in and out of consciousness – so that, when I open my eyes fully, I have lost track of the exact progress of the journey. Yet it takes only a second for my internal GPS to retrieve my coordinates – because there is something immediately recognisable about coming in to land at Aqaba.
It is the shape of the water at this juncture – that easterly finger of the upper Red Sea, poking between the hard shoulders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and reaching its cul-de-sac where Israel and Jordan meet at the waves’ edge. I can see the geography clearly as we descend, the land flinty and serrated, a parched grey-brown; the liquid chasm alongside silverblue in its salinity – sundering Africa from the Middle East, as in biblical days when prophets wandered its banks. I could not be anywhere else.
Of course, any British traveller could be forgiven a case of mistaken identity – for the Gulf of Aqaba, and the sunshine hotels along it, has been rather difficult to visit from the UK in the past four years. While Egyptian resorts on the main body of the Red Sea – such as those at Hurghada and Marsa Alam – are currently reachable, those to the north-east have tumbled into an exclusion zone. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice against all but essential travel to the Sinai Peninsula currently rules out getaways to Taba and Dahab. And while, technically, Sharm el-Sheikh is not off limits, no UK-based airline has been able to land there for three years due to FCO concerns about security at its airport, following the crash of a Russian airliner shortly after take-off in October 2015.
Yet in the past six weeks, the picture has changed – via the launch of two flights. On Oct 28, Wizz Air unveiled a direct connection from Luton to Israel’s Red Sea port Eilat (replacing a link flown by the now-defunct Monarch, which collapsed last autumn). Two weeks later, easyJet followed suit with a non-stop service from Gatwick to Eilat’s neighbour, the Jordanian city of Aqaba, just four miles (6.5km) east.
The budget airline’s move may be a masterstroke. Jordan is often considered the most stable state in the Middle East, but there is also a fair argument that it is the most alluring to visitors – awash with history that pre-dates the Romans, and hewn from a landscape that rears to craggy peaks while plunging to salt-crystal depths. If it has proved troublesome to travellers, this has largely been a matter of access – until last month, the only point of direct touchdown for flights from Britain was the capital Amman, in the north-west. The new easyJet service to Jordan’s southern hemline resolves this issue. It also brings two of its most fabled attractions, the ancient Nabataean city of Petra and the low desert of Wadi Rum, to within tantalising proximity – long weekend territory no less.
Squished between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Jordan boasts just 17 miles (27km) of Red Sea coast – but Aqaba is increasingly making the most of the space. Literally, in the case of Ayla, an under-construction complex of marina moorings, luxury condominiums, golf greens and beachside sunloungers that all but bangs its elbows on the Israeli border fence. There are new hotels aplenty, too – such as the Al Manara, which opened on the seafront in July, its 208 rooms and suites gazing at a lagoon carved from the shore as a rippling backdrop.
Those who go to the city, chasing little more than a sun that holds its nerve at 20C (68F) in December, will find all the indolence they need in such oases – although there are distractions beyond the walls. At the dock, boat operators offer snorkelling trips, fish fluttering at your fingertips. At the Aqaba Museum, artefacts including Bronze Age pottery and a milestone from the Via Traiana Nova (a Roman road to Syria that began in the city) drag the local tale back through the centuries.
The museum is a reminder that, for all the modernity of hotel infinity pools, the past is rarely invisible in a country that revels in heat haze on the highway, and dust in the air. Certainly, yesteryear feels closer as I go 40 miles (64km) east. The Red Sea recedes, Aqaba fades, and Wadi Rum opens its pink and orange arms. The desiccated valley where TE Lawrence slipped impishly around Ottoman defences during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18, and which generations of Bedouin nomads have called home, makes no attempt to conceal its age – its coxcombs of granite jutting up like sinking ships in an ocean of sand.
I am, though, briefly confused as to my location – as Sun City Camp seems to believe it is on another planet. At the bottom of a shallow slope, 15 globular “Martian Domes” face the wadi (valley). Inside, all is comfort – soft beds, en suite bathrooms, transparent “walls” that display the view beyond. But from easyJet (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com) flies to Aqaba once a week from Gatwick. Returns for £302.
Al Manara hotel, Aqaba (00962 3 202 1000; marriott. co.uk). Doubles from £126. Sun City Camp, Wadi Rum (00962 7 9566 6673; suncitycamp.com). Double tents from £139. Petra Guest House, Petra (00962 3 215 6266; guesthouse-petra. com). Doubles from £62.
Sea Guard (00962 3 201 6905; c-guard.net) runs snorkelling trips in Aqaba from 40 Dinar (£44). Cox & Kings (020 3642 0861; coxandkings.co.uk) offers a “Splendours of Jordan” tour that covers Wadi Rum and Petra. From £1,725 per person – with flights. outside, the “tents” resemble sealed pods, protecting their inhabitants from an oxygen-free void on another fragment of the galaxy. The impression is, of course, deliberate. The Martian – the 2015 science fiction epic starring Matt Damon as a stranded astronaut, which garnered seven Oscar nominations – was partially filmed in Wadi Rum, and the camp has been quick to make good the association.
This clever conceit only vaguely diverts my attention from the main event. Sun City offers four-wheel drive forays into the valley – in time for sunset, and, for those who can countenance a 5am alarm call, for sunrise. The two excursions are curiously different. In the evening, it feels as though the vehicle is losing a race with the shadows, which lengthen at a prodigious rate – the sun throwing itself below the horizon, then painting the firmament an eerie shade of tangerine. At first light, it returns invigorated, the sky to the east a fervent fire-yellow, the desert darkness retreating. The chill that swaddles the night in Wadi Rum is slower to leave – and I am grateful for the coffee, heavy with cardamom, warmed on an open fire by Bedouin hands that do not fear the flames.
The same sun is on its midday plinth when I arrive at a Petra that is barely less known than our solar guardian. The citadel cut from sandstone by the ingenuity of the Nabataean civilisation is more of a celebrity now, in the gleam of 2018, than when established in the fourth century BC. Its fame is enshrined in a lone structure, the six-pillared Al-Khazneh, which hovers silently at the end of the Siq (the passageway between soaring cliffs that channels visitors into the site). Its name, translating as “The Treasury”, is also indication that Petra is only semiappreciated. The citadel’s Instagram landmark was not a place of money storage, but a tomb for a first-century AD Nabataean king, Aretas IV. This misunderstanding is emblematic of many visitors’ experiences of the site – a swift selfie with the star attraction and a return to the tour bus, missing many of the wonders of a “lost city” whose one-time size only reveals itself if you explore on foot.
In some ways, it is the tiny subtleties, often unnoticed, that show off the Petra that once was – traces of a Roman arch that was added to the Siq after Trajan’s conquest of the Nabataean kingdom in AD107 (which proved less immune to the rumblings of time than the indigenous constructions); the remnants, in the same thin corridor, of a sculpted camel train, now reduced to the disembodied feet of merchant and animals, trotting into the city.
In other ways, it is the showpieces beyond Al-Khazneh that detail what a mighty settlement it must have been – the Nabataean Great Temple, piled high in the first century BC and still towering above the paved Roman street; the adjacent Qasr al-Bint al-Faroun temple, conceived in the same epoch, and probably dedicated to
Wadi Rum, main; Aqaba, below; explore the depths, right