many years, I resisted travelling to the Middle East: too much sand, too hot,
no shopping, not modern, and more recently, not safe. Even after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,
which famously featured Petra’s splendid Treasury facade, I was still not
sufficiently moved to visit, despite having been to Greece, Italy, Egypt, and
Turkey, partly out of interest in ancient history (and related ancient myths
liberation from corporate life in 2015, I committed to visit new destinations. Inspired
by close friends who visited Jordan in 2016, I thought “if not now, then when?”
The main concern was safety, because Jordan’s neighbours are Syria, Iraq,
Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But my friends and many travel articles reassured
me, so together with my good friend Eileen, we set off in late February 2017 on
our first trip to Jordan.
gave ourselves two weeks, enough time to properly do our itinerary, which included
the must-see places of Petra, the Dead Sea and the Baptism Site. Then, there were
other sites: the incredibly well preserved ancient Roman city of Jerash
(Jordan’s 2nd tourist site); the vast and awesome Dana Nature
Reserve; Mount Nebo, where Moses (or Musa) is said to be buried after leading
his people to the edge of the Promised Land; and Wadi Rum, the desert stomping
ground of the WW1 British military hero, TE Lawrence, who fought alongside Arab
tribes against Turkish rule in 1915. Who remembers the classic movie, Lawrence of Arabia?
did not disappoint in any respect. What I came away with:
Jordan is safe to visit. It may be
surrounded by conflict zones, but Jordan is sort-of the Switzerland of the
Middle-East – an Arab League member that has diplomatic relations with Israel. Despite
its proximity to Syria and Iraq, and its many refugees, I can categorically
state that there wasn’t anything we saw that made us fear for our safety. I’m
not a proxy for the national tourism board, but this fascinating country really
needs tourists to return. So, take the usual precautions you would travelling
to or in any country today, and give Jordan a visit.
There’s so much more to Petra than the Treasury
Petra the benefit of three days. Until I got there, I did not know just how
vast it is, and how much walking and climbing one has to do. To get to the magnificent
Treasury, the first main structure, we walked about 900 metres down a gentle incline
through a wide valley known as the Bab el-Siq to arrive at the entrance to The
Siq, a canyon formed by natural disasters centuries ago. This is the only
visitor access to the City of Petra proper. It’s a further one-kilometer
downhill trek going in, which means it’s uphill on the return trip! There is
the option of horse carriages, but where’s the fun in that? Walking through The
Siq is a prelude of what’s to come.
Nabataeans, who built the settlement between the 3rd Century BC and
1st Century AD, had an appetite for carving structures into the
sandstone. Evidence of their architecture surrounds you in The Siq, and it was
clear theirs was a very high culture.
finally confronting the Treasury, we continued “round the corner” to the city
centre, where there is an amphitheatre, the royal tombs, and other
architectural relics of the Nabataean (and later) civilisations. I could just
imagine how lavish these buildings were back in the day. An unexpected bonus was
seeing what nature had done to the sandstone over the centuries, creating dramatic
palettes of earthy colour.
Petra: don’t miss the Monastery. What I found even more impressive, though, was the Monastery. Its façade is similar to that of the Treasury, but the Monastery is so much taller. Getting there will forever be etched in our memories, muscles and bones, for we had to climb some 850 natural steps to reach it. And that means 850 steps back down! For perspective, there are about 270 steps at Batu Caves in Malaysia. I highly recommend making the effort, but be aware that it’s a 5.5-kilometre hike to the foot of these steps from the entrance to Petra. That said, there are many architectural relics and other sites to see along the way, enough time to mentally prepare for the climb! The reward is worth it – truly breath-taking. There are tea and fresh juice vendors at the site so you can replenish your energy and get ready for the trek down. And there’s WiFi, so you can upload your photos straight to Facebook! I should add that the views on the ascent and descent are spectacular.
Petra: great for getting high. Another
must-see in Petra is the High Place of Sacrifice, which is 1,000+ metres up Jebel
Attuf mountain. More steps, on a “stairway” narrower than the one to the
Monastery, so basically, “don’t look down”! Animals were sacrificed to the
Nabataean deities. There is speculation about human sacrifices, but no one’s
the way down, we were lucky when one of the many Bedouin trinket vendors offered
to take us back to the main entrance walking the Bedouin path, bypassing The
Siq. We’d already made three round-trips through The Siq, so we were thankful
for a change of scenery. And did we get one! The walk over hill and dale was
magical – the views, rock formations, the fresh air, the absence of donkeys and
other humans – and our impromptu guide introduced many herbs and plants they
use for healing and cooking plucked straight from the ground. An unforgettable respite
from the madding crowd.
Wadi Rum really is
are deserts, and then there are deserts.
The desert of TE Lawrence defies description, but I offer Eileen’s poetic
effort: “silky red and white sand bordered by craggy cliffs that boil out of
the surface, bearing the scars s of centuries of wind and sand.” This is the place where you can enjoy as
authentic a Bedouin experience as you can get in this day and age. Wadi Rum has also served as the terrain for
Mars and other planets in recent movies, among them Red Planet, Prometheus, The Martian, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
had a two-hour drive into the desert, which was once an important trade route,
evidenced by Nabataean inscriptions on the rocks that were directional signs
for camel caravans traversing the vast place. Our drive culminated in watching
the sun set over the desert, after which the temperature plunged rapidly.
for our Bedouin experience, while we avoided the camels, we did stay in a tent
and sit outside in the freezing night air looking at a clear and starry sky.
Yes, the desert is very cold at night, no matter the season. It felt like 5°C
or lower. Our tent had no heating but did have electric blankets, and hot water
was available only between 17:00 and 21:00 hours. Our camp was only six months old,
mostly powered by solar energy and only open to foreigners.
get a fuller and richer Wadi Rum experience, at least two days are needed,
depending if you opt for the camel, horseback or jeep experience.
The Dana Nature Reserve is a hidden wonder
largest nature reserve covers about 320 square kilometres of mountains and
valleys along the Great Rift Valley. It’s been described as a “melting pot of
species” from three continents – Africa, Asia and Europe – ensuring rich biodiversity.
It’s said to be the only nature reserve in Jordan that includes all four of the
country’s bio-geographical zones. We hiked only a fraction of the Reserve, but
we could see the difference in the eco-systems on our trails.
stayed at the 150-year old Dana Village itself, a once-thriving community
undergoing revitalisation under the auspices of an NGO, the Royal Society for
the Conservation of Nature, with support from the United Nations. The RSCN was
established in 1966 to protect and manage Jordan’s natural resources and
biodiversity, and aims to make Dana Nature Reserve a model of integrated
conservation and socio-economic development.
you’re a seasoned hiker, environmentalist, nature photographer, or just someone
who enjoys the outdoors and fresh air, Dana Nature Reserve has something for
you. We met small groups from France, Germany, and Singapore who opted to stay
one night at Dana Village, then hike across the valley (at least six hours) and
stay at the ecolodge at the other end. We stayed three nights in Dana Village,
once again enjoying the comfortable temperatures in the day for hiking, and
enduring the very cold temperatures after sunset.
accommodation was pretty basic, but hot water was available 24 hours. Heating
came in the form of a medium-size gas heater, which was not really effective,
but added to the rustic experience!
hiked the “easy” trails. On hindsight, we should have started earlier, around
8:00 am, because by 10:30 am, the sun was blazing. Nevertheless, the hikes,
fresh air and scenery were invigorating. Dana Village lies at an altitude of
about 1,000 km, so basically you’re descending on the trail, which means
climbing back up after!
Great Rift Valley is stunning. It stretches as far as the eye can see, shrouded
in mist at the other end. Jordan has many nature reserves, each with its own
unique nature adventure experience. Just look up www.wildjordan.com.
What of the rest of the Levant?
heritage and historical sites, from Petra in the south to Jerash (a full Roman
settlement) in the north and everything in between, are mostly still intact,
thanks to the many who are working to excavate and preserve as much of the
history as they can find. It made me think of neighbours Syria and Iraq, whose
historical ruins must now be even more ruined. Sites that pre-date organised
religion, yet other sites that are significant to the three monotheistic
religions, possibly gone forever.
is well worth a visit – and Jordanians would welcome you! Amman (ancient name
Philadelphia) is the commercial and administrative capital, and has the
trappings you’d expect in other cities, as in trendy streets with hipster
restaurants, and souqs (markets or
bazaars). The food – falafel, hummus,
tabbouleh, babaghanoush, shish, mansaf, sharwerma; Arab bread, Jordanian bread,
Lebanese bread, Syrian bread; spiced black tea or coffee with cardamom; fresh
olives, pomegranates, persimmons, oranges, dates; seeds and nuts spiced and
roasted or smoked; sweet patisseries that make your arteries crack just looking
at them. Cheese featured quite a lot in many savoury and sweet dishes, which
is a lot to see and experience in Jordan, if you’re willing to put in some hard
yards, I found its ancient history fascinating, its culture intriguing, and its
natural resources bountiful and surprising.