‘For all the moder­nity of in­fin­ity pools, the past is rarely in­vis­i­ble’

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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