Going Indiana Jones in Jordan
| 12 December 2019
Sipping sage tea beside a campfire at a cliff-edge Bedouin tent, I watch as the first light slowly casts the famous rock-hewn Treasury in a rosy glow.
"Petra is the centre of mysticism; the result of a collaboration between man and nature,” my guide Ali says in a half-whisper as the mystical Arabia of my imagination finally materializes before my eyes.
I’d risen before dawn to beat the crowds and make the steep pilgrimage to this viewpoint at the rim of the ravine, and my reward was silent, sacred awe.
My journey had begun in Jordan’s thriving capital Amman, reminiscent of a Middle Eastern Athens. Ancient Acropolis-like ruins are strewn across a peaceful hilltop and a stone amphitheatre rises from the bustling streets of downtown. The echoing call to prayer casts a haunting air across the 26 tenement-studded wadis (valleys) and jebels (mountains) around which the city is crafted.
Like their Nabatean ancestors in Petra, here the Jordanians chose to work with the land rather than try to master it, incorporating its curves and contours into the infrastructure.
Hide and Siq
In Petra, the Nabateans' ingenuity is mind-blowing. Approaching the Siq - a sliver-thin canyon into the site - there are eroded signs of the magnificence beyond, cave-like cubby-holes and Lycian-style tombs with triangular plinths peeking out from pastel-striped cliffs. My guide points out the ancient water system cut into the sloping marbled sides of the Siq.
At points so narrow the rattling horse-and-carts can barely squeeze through, the Siq meant the Treasury would have been easy to defend from marauders. As horses, camels and donkeys rattle past, whipping sun-baked dung and dust into the air, it’s a pungent reminder of Petra’s former status as a key trading post more than two thousand years ago. Today they ferry tourists instead of spices, frankincense and other exotic goods.
The site is much bigger than I expected, fanning out from the narrow canyon into a vast valley with winding trails to yet more marvels. Almost as awe-inspiring as the Treasury, the Monastery is not to be missed. It's tucked upon a mountain plateau, and I made the trek up a sloping path and found its strange beauty momentarily upstaged by a free-running local making a heart-stopping leap of faith between its high plinths.
In Jordan a canopied and carpetted bedouin camp is never far away, and I find one and a promise of shade and ritual refreshment at Petra’s highest peak. With vertigo-inducing views in all directions, I sit sipping tea with friendly locals. Later that evening I visit a bedouin tribe at Petra’s Ammarin camp and bond with tribe chief Hussein over a complicated coffee ceremony, and a delicious traditional dinner of Biryani-style chicken, baba ganoush and flatbreads.
The next day I am treated to yet more tea and hearty hospitality at Sun City Camp in the mesmerizing desert of Wadi Rum.
Lawrence of Arabia’s stomping ground of Wadi Rum is sand-blasted pillars of rock and glittering silken dunes - a surreal cinematic beauty that’s been the backdrop for more movies than you can shake a lightsaber at. Scenes from Mars, Aladdin, and Star Wars flash across my mind as we safari across the UNESCO-protected desert in a convoy of 4WDs.
We sail past the Seven Pillars that appear like a set of gigantic melting candles and a collection of ancient camel-shaped etchings that look like the archaic stock-take of a long-lost trading station.
After all that adventure, the Red Sea and Dead Sea offer a welcome restorative break. On a gentle cruise along the languid sun-dappled shores of Aqaba, I snorkel among thriving coral gardens and sunken wrecks, while the group stretch out on deck to top up their tans.
Down at the Dead Sea it's sauna-hot but there's no need for sunscreen, the low altitude stops the UVA rays from reaching your skin. There’s also 8% more oxygen in the air, and storming upstream through Wadi Mujib my lungs are thankful for the extra help. On this wild canyoning adventure, I navigate tumbling waterfalls and fast torrents using ropes and ladders. But the ride back down is like a lazy river through Petra’s Siq. Floating on my back wearing a lifejacket, I let the current carry me, and it’s a serene moment.
Floating is all you can do in the saline-rich Dead Sea, which is so dense that swimming is ungainly. The mineral-rich mud on its shores is feted for its skin-boosting properties. Taking great clods of mud from pots down by the water, I cover myself from head to toe and then take a dip in the water to wash it off. It doesn't make me ten years younger, but my skin definitely has an agreeable glow. Relaxing in this natural spa is the ideal way to top off an action-packed trip.
From spiritual sites to mystical monuments, this little land of myth and legend delivers beyond all expectations. Add to that beach time in Aqaba, the natural Dead Sea spa, the delicious food and pleasant buzz of Amman, and you really do have a safe, friendly and compact portal into the best of Arabia.
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