You can do Jordan, north to south, in a mere five hours. Even better, says Ian Belcher — spend 10 days circling this land of biblical beauty, star-dusted skies and aquarium-bright seas
t takes just the blink of an eye. One second, my camel is padding across a monochrome desert beneath an ambivalent dawn sky still sprinkled with stars. The next, without warning, a celestial hand is daubing warm rich colour across the silent Jordanian valley. Suddenly, it’s a different landscape: waves of burnt orange dunes dwarfed by cappuccino-hued cliffs and vast rock formations resembling Henry Moore abstracts. It’s humbling: a moment that makes me feel very small and completely justifies TE Lawrence’s passion for ‘this processional way greater than imagination’.
Arabia’s favourite Englishman was referring to Wadi Rum, but ‘this irresistible place’ is a fair description for most of this extraordinarily beautiful, safe country. Jordan’s elegy-inducing landscapes, astounding archaeological sites and intriguing history — including some divine biblical spots — need to be seen rather than imagined.
It’s as compact as it is irresistible. A five-hour drive takes you from top to bottom, while a 10-day circular tour, starting in the capital Amman, easily covers the hot-ticket attractions. Stick on a couple of days and you can hike in diverse, sometimes surprisingly lush, nature reserves.
Wadi Rum isn’t one of them. This is unapologetic, magnificently stark, highly photogenic desert. In the soft early evening sunshine, my 4WD vehicle ventures into the enigmatic wilderness that has entranced filmmakers from David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) to Michael Bay (Transformers).
We stop at Al Salab, where Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut pondered his fate in Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Whirling sand and soupy air add an interstellar edge to the massive red plain. Then, only 3km away, I’m teleported back a couple of thousand years by Alameleh’s rock inscriptions, with crags and crevices embellished by petroglyphs of athletic hunters and herds of camels, before returning to the early 20th century.
Lawrence of Arabia’s heroics have received a generous spit and polish — after all, 99,999 locals ousted the Ottomans in the Arab Revolt, too — but his presence is unavoidable. It’s in the air. It’s in the rocks. I visit ‘his’ mountain, his spring and his canyon, where he camped on the narrow floor between towering golden cliffs. However, Wadi Rum is about more than English gents and geology. It’s about the Bedouin. My guide, Mahmoud Zawaideh, is the grandson of a desert sheikh (of course, his great-grandfather knew Lawrence). Everyone we meet appears to be a relative and, after a couple of hours, I’m addressed as his brother.
As a molten sunset weeps into the Wadi Rum Mountains, we sip tea from a battered kettle over an open fire. ‘All knowledge is passed on,’ says Mahmoud, recounting his childhood in gentle, silky tones. ‘What you can eat, where to find water, the safest routes. The desert is my heart. I could never live in the city.’
Darkness only adds to Wadi Rum’s allure. The stars — heavens, the stars. After a roast Bedouin lamb, cooked underground in an earth oven, I lie back on a pillow-like dune, look up and a billion twinkling eyes return my gaze. If you want some astronomical luxury, observing the sky straight from your bed, then the space-age glass geodesic domes at nearby Memories Aicha camp will be for you.
There’s nothing so futuristic at Petra. Two hours’ drive from Wadi Rum, tucked into the Sharah Mountains, the Rose City is one of the planet’s greatest archaeological discoveries. Its 2,000-year-old ruins merit every drop of adulation. They also deserve their fabulously theatrical entrance, the Siq, created 20 million years ago — the gods were clearly in a creative mood when seismic activity rent a 1.2km cleft in the turbulent earth. After shopping at Awny’s bazaar, where blocks of musk, amber and myrrh are displayed on millstones pre-dating Jesus, I enter the passageway between walls of rock almost 200 metres high.
The altitude drops and anticipation rises as I proceed along stones scarred by the wheels of ancient chariots. Then, suddenly, nature draws back the curtain to reveal the iconic facade of the Treasury, its sculptures, columns and plinths having provided a backdrop for countless heroes from Indiana Jones to Tintin.
It’s ridiculously impressive, but the delight is in the detail. Its famous urn is riddled with bullet holes from fortune hunters, their pot shots motivated by rumours that it contains the riches of King Aretas III. Either side, the walls still bear the niches that provided rudimentary scaffolding for the talented craftsmen. To see it ignite in the morning sun, arrive by 9am. A night in the Movenpick Resort, close to Petra’s main gate, is the easiest way to do it.
I stare for several hushed minutes — neither words nor photos can really do it justice — before recruiting Arun, a local Bedouin, to lead me up a breathlessly steep climb to the perfect selfie spot. As I snap away, he talks about a nearby cave that serves as his occasional home. “It’s perfect,” he says, sounding unnervingly like Kevin McCloud. “Not too hot in summer, warm in winter, and I wake up next to my work.”
The Treasury, however, is merely Petra’s Act I. The unfolding drama contains more than 600 tombs cut into the cliffs, including four royal blockbuster graves (one of which was turned into a 5th-century Byzantine cathedral), houses, temples and a theatre. The Nabateans, whose civilisation peaked in the centuries either side of Christ, weren’t just brilliant traders and builders, they were architectural magpies, returning from sales trips to carve Greek capitals, Egyptian obelisks and Assyrian friezes into the rock. They also snaffled their clients’ deities, merging foreign gods into Nabatean worship like a gap-year student returning home a dreadlocked Buddhist.
The scale is almost overwhelming — Petra really needs two days, plus a candlelit evening visit. On this one, I time my finish to perfection. A donkey floats me up about 850 steps, smoothed by millions of footsteps, to the monastery, its face glowing in early evening sun. Sure, there’s a dazzling view across the top end of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, but the most memorable moment? When my guide, an archaeologist, tells me half of Petra is yet to be excavated.
While the Rose City is a human construct, the Dead Sea, on Jordan’s border with Israel and the West Bank, is a deft work of nature. The world’s lowest point on land — more than 430 metres below sea level — its waters are nine times saltier than that of an ocean. High summer turns it into a furnace — one of the reasons that spring and autumn are peak seasons for Jordanian tourism. March, after the winter’s rains have freshened the desert, is slightly less busy.
In the past, I’ve floated in the Dead Sea’s buoyant brine, reading a magazine. Today, I’m staying dry. Far from the big shoreline hotels, with spas that harness the mineralrich mud, I turn off the highway at the sign for Ma’in Hot Springs, climbing a ladder of dizzying switchbacks tailor-made for a 007 car chase. At the top, around sea level, I contemplate a layered Rothko abstract of Prussianblue water, ochre rock and cloudless cyan sky. On the opposite shore, to the south, lies Masada, where besieged Zealots were said to have committed mass suicide nearly 2,000 years ago; to the north, the Qumran Caves, hiding place of the Dead Sea Scrolls. If you don’t find inspiration here, there’s no hope.
Actually, you could try nearby Mount Nebo. Moses scaled the 700-metre peak to spend his final days gazing out across the Holy Land towards Jericho and Jerusalem. Some believe he’s buried here; others that he left the Ark of the Covenant in a mountain cave. Alternatively, there’s Machaerus, just 24km away. It was said that John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded here in Herod the Great’s hilltop fortress, his head presented on a platter to Salome after she belly-danced for the king’s son.
Jordan, I’m rapidly learning, is nothing if not generous with its charms. In Machaerus, I’m not far from Madaba, with its exquisite mosaics including a 6th-century map of the Holy Land, originally over 21 metres long with more than two million tesserae (tiles), like some hellish Byzantine jigsaw. I can also nip over to Kerak’s imposing Crusader castle, perched on impossibly steep slopes and twice besieged by Saladin.
I consider driving up to Jerash — perhaps the world’s best-preserved provincial Roman town, an hour north of Amman. Instead, I turn south to finish my journey in the Red Sea port of Aqaba. The final spectacular but brutal stretch bisects jagged coastal mountains streaked with volcanic minerals. The only sign of life is a solitary goat herder seeking shade beneath a lone acacia tree. On arrival, I make for the port, joining a throng of locals at Hashem and Sons to refuel on its famous fatteh: a dish of chickpeas, pine nuts, hummus, crunchy bread and olive oil. And then it’s time for the beach.
Its petite sandy stretches offer mesmerising sunset panoramas over Sinai’s crinkled peaks, across the water, but Aqaba’s beaches aren’t beautiful in themselves. Their crowning glory lies beneath, not above, the shimmering sea. I snorkel along Yamanieh reef, lost in tropical swarms of silversides, blue-and-white-striped surgeonfish, orange anthias and purple tangs, all flitting around a coral forest of rippling cream sponges, soft ruby tangles and neon-green brains. I’ve no idea if it’s all painted by the same otherworldly brushstroke I witnessed at Wadi Rum. But I’m absolutely certain that Jordan is a wonder — a natural wonder.