There’s more to Jordan than the Lost City of Petra. Embark on a journey replete with ancient ruins, Dead Sea mud baths and all the romance of the Bedouin desert.
Mention the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (to give it its official title) and very often the first thing that comes up is the pastel-pink perfection of the Treasury at Petra, made famous in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when it stood in for the temple that contained the Holy Grail.
But just as there’s much, much more to Petra than that one, albeit astonishing, temple, there’s also much more to Jordan.
This small country of 10 million people shares borders with Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel, the Palestinian West Bank and Iraq but has managed to avoid the violence that has beset much of the rest of the Middle East since the Arab Spring of 2010.
It’s a stable oasis in a turbulent region, one where the Sunni Muslim majority live peacefully alongside a small Christian minority and many hundreds of thousands of refugees of all stripes who have for many years poured in from neighbouring countries.
Landlocked except for a 26-kilometre section of coast on the Red Sea in the far south-west, Jordan ranges from ancient forests and Roman ruins in the north to the Dead Sea and the red, out-of-this-world desert around Wadi Rum in the south.
Today’s Jordan – and what makes it so fascinating a destination – is a living palimpsest on which thousands of years of history have been written and over-written. Some of the oldest statues ever found – dating to 7250 BC – were uncovered in Amman, the capital, and the region was ruled in turn by the Nabateans, the Greeks, the Romans and the Ottomans.
Jerash, an hour’s drive north of Amman, is one of the largest, best-preserved and most complete set of Greco-Roman ruins outside of Italy and, to be honest, it’s all a bit of a shock at first. It’s the word ‘ruins’, I think, because what confronts us is a huge area – 800,000 square metres in all – covered in large amphitheatres, a huge circular forum, majestic temples to Zeus and Artemis, churches full of intricate mosaics, market places and an 800-metre-long road lined with hundreds of well-preserved classical columns.
The latter was the city’s main thoroughfare, the cardo maximus, a colonnaded length paved with stones worn by time and marked by the wheel ruts of the vehicles that jostled along its length for centuries.
There’s even a chariot-racing stadium, a mini-Ben Hur racetrack, which used to house 15,000 spectators on race nights.
The Dead Sea
Much of the western border of Jordan follows the path of the river Jordan as it wends its way from north to south before ending abruptly by flowing into the Dead Sea, 422 metres below sea level.
As on the Israeli side, a visit to the Dead Sea is pretty much a no-brainer. One night will do it but floating on top of those mineral-rich waters and smearing yourself all over with black Dead Sea mud is de rigueur. The jury’s still out on whether the mud is as efficacious for your skin as they say it is but, really, it’s worth it for the photographs alone. Just don’t swallow the water or get it in your eyes; it stings something awful.
The most visited site in Jordan, the famous Lost City of Petra played host to a million tourists in 2019, up from 800,000 in 2018. It’s a drop in the ocean of the place’s potential but it still makes sense to try to get in as early as possible to beat the crowds (it opens at 6am).
Ignoring the exhortations of the locals offering horse and carriage rides, we slowly make our way to the start of the Siq, the narrow geological fracture which marks the ‘real’ entrance to the city.
This natural phenomenon twists and turns through the tall sandstone cliffs of beige sandstone in sensuous waves, its lower sections carved into a clever irrigation system that directed the region’s sparse rainfall into primitive cisterns.
All this – and the city beyond – was the work of a group of nomadic traders and merchants called the Nabateans who created a precociously innovative and cultured empire here in the 4th century BC.
Just before the end of the Siq, our guide makes us hold hands and close our eyes so that we get the full force of the Treasury ‘reveal’. And there it is, the famous facade, framed in all its eye-popping, reddish-pink glory by the dark jagged walls of the cliffs.
But while the Treasury is impressive, the real revelation is just how much there is to see BEYOND it. Follow the path to the right and you emerge in an expansive valley honeycombed with mausolea. At ground level and up in the cliff faces, the soft sandstone has been carved and excavated, the soft, layered swirls of the Neapolitan ice-cream coloured rock transformed into hand-hewn caves, temples and tombs. Rain and wind erosion have also taken their toll, leaving some of the temples looking as if they’ve melted in the sun. There’s even a large, Roman-style amphitheatre.
At its height, some 20,000 people lived here in what was then known as the city of Raqmu. Eventually, the Romans sniffed the place out and, after hundreds of years of unsuccessful military campaigns, finally annexed Nabatea into the Roman Empire in 106 AD.
Which means Petra is peppered with Roman ruins, a Byzantine church (with some impressive mosaics), and the startlingly intact remains of structures such as the monumental Great Temple, the Qasr al-Bint Temple and Ad-Deir, the massive rock wall monastery at the summit of a nearby hill (reached by 850-plus steep and uneven steps carved out of the rock).
It’s in the minibus on the way to Wadi Rum that much of the attraction for this little-known country becomes clear. Our guide, Amer, is telling us tales of djinns and genies as we hurtle through a desiccated terrain dotted with castles, minarets and domes – the flotsam and jetsam of a magnificently sprawling history.
Mix that history and the myths together and you have Scheherazade’s Arabian Nights made real. As we turn on to the road towards Wadi Rum, surrounded by rugged pillars of rock and sweeping plains of sand it’s not hard to believe that Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad the Sailor are all true.
Wadi Rum itself is dreamlike, almost alien. Not for nothing is this where they filmed The Martian, Star Wars, Prometheus, the up-coming sci-fi classic Dune and Will Smith’s recent Aladdin remake.
We are staying at Sun City, a camp of simple tented rooms and more up-market space-age geodesic domes that really do make the place look like an outpost on Mars. Indeed, on the 4WD sunset tour we take our driver stops at a rocky outcrop where actor Matt Damon sat to contemplate his fate in hit movie The Martian (2015).
After a buffet dinner of traditionally cooked meats and salads in the camp’s main dome, it’s early to bed to make the 5am for our hike up Jordan’s highest peak.
It takes two hours of driving through pitch black and freezing cold desert to reach the base of Jabal Umm ad Dami, at which point the sun is just beginning to warm up.
Accompanied by our guide and a Bedouin driver-cum-mountain-guide, Suleiman, we begin climbing the 1854-metre peak at 7:30am. It’s a tough, hot scramble, with plenty of water stops, but after 90 minutes we reach the summit, which is crowned with a Jordanian flag fluttering in a welcome breeze.
While we take in the 360-degree view, from which the Red Sea, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria are all visible, Suleiman lights a fire and brews a kettle of sweet black mint tea.
The Jordan Trail
The Jordan Trail is a 650-kilometre-long hiking route, running from the north of Jordan to Aqaba in the south, which first opened in 2017. It passes through 52 villages and towns and pretty much every major attraction – the Roman ruins at Jerash, Amman, Wadi Rum, the Dead Sea, Petra – in the country.
If you’re of a mind, it takes about 40 days to complete. Or you could complete parts of it, as we did with World Expeditions, through sections such as Ajloun Forest Reserve (a gentle walk) and the more spectacular and challenging 20-kilometre hike through Dana Nature Reserve.
Take me there
Emirates flies to Queen Alia international airport, Amman, from all major Australian airports via Dubai. See emirates.com
World Expeditions selects accommodation, mostly three or four star, for its location, authenticity and value for money.
In Petra we stayed at the four-star Petra Guest House Hotel, right by the entrance to the site. See guesthouse-petra.com
In Wadi Rum we stayed at Sun City camp, which consists of traditional Bedouin tents, eight royal suite tents and 20 white “Martian” domes. See suncitycamp.com
At the Dead Sea we stayed at the Holiday Inn Resort. See ihg.com/holidayinnresorts
At the Dana Reserve we stayed at the Dana Guesthouse, a simple but beautifully situated three-star hotel with six-star views across the reserve, run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. See rscn.org.jo
World Expeditions’ 10-day Jordan Trail Highlights tour costs from $4870 per person, twin share and is 100 per cent carbon offset. Prices include day treks, a 4WD jeep tour, seven nights in hotels and guesthouses, two nights in Bedouin camps and all meals. See worldexpeditions.com