This atmospheric Jordanian coastal town is the first port of call after crossing the border from Southern Israel. It’s a sister port to Eilat on the opposite side of the Red Sea, proud of being at the very tip. I found Aqaba to be a fantastic, lowrise town that’s so much more charming because the tourist explosion hasn’t happened there yet - although it’s about to. It’s on the verge, with premium brands like Four Seasons, Kempinski and Inter-Continental all building there.
Aqaba’s coastal culture still has an everyday charm, with locals even growing vegetables on AL-HAFAYER BEACH. There are plenty of local cafes, five star seaside resorts, dive sites and freshwater pools right on the beach at the ROYAL DIVING CENTRE and a marina and aqua park at TALA BAY.
After driving around Aqaba for the next hour I met up with my Jordanian guide Ashraf Nawafleh who would accompany me to Aqaba. He seemed to understand that I was genuinely interested in the real flavour of his country and meeting everyday people, as well as the big, show stopping, ancient attractions. Ashraf gave me a warm welcome to the desert and we bonded as we took the KINGS HIGHWAY north to Petra, parallel to the Israel border. There is a strong tour culture here due to the fervent interest in this part of Jordan, and guided tours are very easy to arrange either through the Israeli Tourist operators as a short trip, or locally.
Travelers can feel quite comfortable coming into Jordan from Israel. It is one of only a few countries that have easy travel access in this region. Although the borders are strict and well patrolled, there is a strong agreement and real synergy between Israel, Jordan and Egypt, so travelers pass through quite freely.
The late King Hussein, who was married to the glamorous, Queen Noor, did a remarkable job building this accord and his son, King Abdullah - who is also married to a beautiful queen whom the West are charmed by (Rania) – is keeping this up.
Traveling through these lands gives you an on-the-ground feel for how peace opens doors both literally at borders, and in people’s minds.
The adventure of Petra really begins on the drive there, through a magnificent desert valley that is the most colourful in the whole Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Ironically enough, for someone who loves mingling with people and being near water, I am also struck by the rare vastness of deserts; wide stretches of scorched earth always impact me. But Wadi Rum really puts on a show of beauty as well. Dunes swell and dip like ocean waves, etched with patterned ripples; rocky cliffs of brilliant reds, browns and oranges form deep canyons in between and the wind sculpts strange rock formations into bridges, arches and mushroom shapes.
If you are looking for the early romance of travel and breathtaking landscapes of films like Lawrence of Arabia, Wadi Rum is literally where the film’s hero, T. E. Lawrence lived and wrote about in real life. You could easily stay longer just exploring this desert on foot, the ancient way by camel or donkey - or go on one of the new 4WD tours that have sprung up in recent years. Going off track to follow the ancient merchant incense and spice routes is a new travel trend, so slow travelers could also take the NABAL TRADE ROUTE to wind their way from Wadi Rum to Petra.
I love to interact with the people who give a place its soul, and fill in the scenic picture postcard… This is BEDOUIN TERRITORY, so certain tribes still live in tents nomadically in summer, wear traditional tribal attire and raise camels and goats as their ancestors have for thousands of years. In a world where authenticity can get trampled by crass commercialism and modernity I always cherish coming across these continuums with the past.
I encouraged my guide Ashraf to stop for coffee at one little roadside settlement, a completely ramshackle shop front that sold soft drinks and junk food for truck drivers. The wooden flaps literally folded up onto hooks for the shop to be open for business.
We saw kids by the side of the road holding water bottles filled with milk, which my guide urged me to sample, “you must try, you must try…” I drank the camel’s milk, which in these parts is as everyday and familiar as cow’s milk, and actually didn’t mind it. An intrepid traveler has to go the edge occasionally, which for other people is the norm!
One of the kids mentioned that he lived in a BEDOUIN TENT and agreed for us to visit it, so I was excited to get a glimpse of his life in this casual, spontaneous way. The father was out working the field, while the mother slipped away to the side as we approached because she couldn’t be seen by strange men.
Inside, a giant, hung cloth created a makeshift wall and we were invited to sit on thick, strong mats and drink black coffee. The modern touch was a fridge, but it was just used for storage purposes, as of course there was no electricity. You could smell the goat and camel hair of the tent fabric, which was totally rough hessian, and it was amazing to think that the Bedouin family who lived here and had created this home, tending their sheep, would dismantle everything and move on in a few weeks time. I just loved this sampling of famous Arab hospitality in these desert valleys of Wadi Rum, which was as genuine as you can get.
I also enjoyed meeting people on the roadside and talking “with my hands;” l remember conversing clumsily but happily with one artisan who was selling handmade metal jewelry, displayed on a big slab of rock.
Of everyone I encountered, The DESERT PATROLMEN of Wadi Rum were the most impressive sight with their dashing uniform that sums up the exotic romance of the Middle East and the unknowable desert wilderness. Their long khaki “dish-dash” robe is held together by a bright slash of red - the “bandolier” holster which holds a dagger and a rifle within easy reach, all topped off of course by their Bedouin red and white “keffiyeh” scarves. These traditional desert guards are based in an old, colonial era police fort, and look so picturesque that any photo of them instantly transports you to the sand dunes of Jordan.
After the beautiful contrast of eating simply in roadside stalls and meeting the Bedouin people of the desert, I was ready for the grandeur of this ancient, rock-carved city - one of the great sites of the ancient world. Amazingly, the Western world only heard about Petra in 1812, when Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt discovered it.
The old city lies at the end of the narrow WADI MUSA Valley, on the slopes of MOUNT HOR. Before we even got to any carvings, I found the geological formations themselves extraordinary, creating eerily beautiful, massive natural corridors.
My guide Ashraf and I made our way into the eastern entrance between two walls of rock, THE SIQ (shaft) - a dark, narrow gorge that not only had the height and scale of a cathedral, but looked like molten lava that had only just solidified. In places the sandstone rock walls narrowed down to only 3 or 4 metres apart. But it’s not just the sheer drop, dramatic curves and cave formations that are spectacular at Petra, the colour of the sandstone itself is exquisite: a rich ochre red that is threaded like marble in places with cream.
All these natural geological “accidents” make the man-made, rock cut architecture even more awe-inspiring. Coming through the narrow promontory between two rock faces, you soon see all the elaborate ancient carvings of the 6th century BC capital city of the NABATAEANS.
You can tell this was a great culture by the artistry and symmetry of the columns, windows and decorative flourishes. They were clever enough to create an effective fortress, and as traders, the Nabataeans controlled the major caravan routes in the region to important ancient centres like Damascus and the Persian Gulf. Officially “Semites,” the people of Petra spoke ARAMAIC, the language of biblical times.
Even though tourists walk by in shorts and T-shirts, the sheer size of the towering rocks and beauty of the architecture still transports you into another world. It’s hard to believe the city has only been on the archeological and historical map for two hundred years.
Petra has made up for lost time as Jordan’s most famous attraction, becoming a WORLD HERITAGE SITE and a “new wonder of the world.”
It’s fame as one of the exotic hotspots in the “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” also gives it that extra aura of a mystical place visited by 1940s romantic explorers.
Even a novice like me walking around these ruins could easily see that this was once a flourishing, powerful city. The tombs were sumptuous and the town, with its own water supply and obvious design sophistication, was rich. But after Roman rule the Arabian trade routes were diverted away, so Petra lingered on as a religious centre. With an earthquake in 363AD, and the sheer age of the buildings, thieves stole the old treasures over time.
As you meander past the geological wonders, you make your way for over a kilometer and a half until you reach the man made ones. My guide Ashraf encouraged me to take a photo walking through the gorge as we came to the first elaborate, façade that has been etched into the rock as if half a building, THE TREASURY. The columns, classical rooflines, religious statues and eagle in front all beckon you through the giant doorway into an inner, 12 sq metre chamber.
This is the marvel that starred as a ‘secret temple’ in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” In real life, we are still not sure if it was a tomb or a temple; it only got its name as a ‘treasury’ because Bedouin lore claimed that pirates had hidden treasures of the pharaohs in the giant, round urn on the second story.
What really brought the citizens of Petra alive for me was THE AMPHITHEATRE, on a hillside a little further on. Deities, pirates and aristocratic tombs are so otherworldly, but modern people can all relate to sitting in a theatre enjoying entertainment. The giant semicircle with tunnel openings would have seated the whole town; the theatre is situated as dramatically as anything that would have played onstage. At the foot of the EN-NEJR mountain, with amazing views of the tombs, it emerges from the rock like a vanished world, right where the valley opens out to desert plains.
The EL DEIR (MONASTERY) monument loomed above us, a simpler version of the ancient-Greek influenced grandeur, well worth the hour climb on steps that are cut into the earth and as old as the city itself. The plaza space in front was carved out also, a breathtaking amount of labour. But it’s the elegant 1st century BC edifice of columns and giant round urn that stand out as surreally smooth and technically brilliant compared to the pockmarked, craggy rock around it. El Deir was dedicated to Obodas I, a king whose big ego and PR paid off even after his death when he became a god to his people.
I found Petra a great opportunity to see the Arab gods and goddesses who are carved as statues into the rock all over the site. We associate Arabic culture so much with Islam that it is fascinating to see what came long before. It was quite common to deify kings, but there was also a head male god, Dushara - with a difference to the Western concept. He always had a trinity of female goddesses around him, Al- 'Uzza, Allat and Manat.
When you travel through Petra accompanied by a specialist guide, these kinds of details bring the artwork and archeology alive. Even those who have left organising one till the last minute (I tend to plan ahead) can book one at the VISITORS CENTRE at the gate in Arabic, French, Greek, Italian and English. It’s an absolute must here, where everything is steeped in history. Even the valley itself, WADI MUSA means “Wadi of Moses;” in Arab tradition, it was here that Moses struck a rock with his iconic staff and caused water to spontaneously spring forth.
Modern travelers like me who don’t have the luxury of a staff with superpowers are well catered for in this UNESCO site; there is a small CAVE-CAFE opposite the Monastery where you can rest at a table in the shade. Sellers here and there add a little of the makeshift, modern Arab flavour that you find out on the roads traveling. I loved that real life touch, which helps keep sites from being too sealed off and sterile.
Whether walking along paths looking at all the formations, or standing at the foot of these towering buildings, it is hard to believe how many stories high the beauties of Petra are until you stand in front of them yourself; it is daunting and thrilling at the same time. For those who would rather be intimidated by the architecture than the walk up the stairs, there are DONKEY RIDES up the hill, another opportunity to chat and haggle with the locals.
After negotiating a ride, I told my guide Ashraf that I wanted to do something impromptu. Along with a couple of kids, we hopped on and just kept following a little old road high on the hill instead of heading back down to the old city. I remember looking up at the sculptural formations and seeing a goat with its kid, both with the swoop of curved horns and both exactly the same colour as the rock - as perfectly adapted to the environment as the tomb facades were in contrast to it. It was one of those inspiring travel moments when I lifted far out of my daily life and into a foreign existence; these are the moments I hold out for!
Ashraf really got this, and decided to take me off the trail and show me a very interesting corner where an Indian movie was being shot. All of a sudden I was on location, gazing at the perfection and beauty of Bollywood actors and actresses, as if they were statues on the tomb edifices. Amongst the BC ruins of a vanished kingdom, in the desert region of a current one, anything seemed possible before coming back down to earth…
Ashraf and I also decided to see this extraordinary, smaller-scaled area near Petra, with its own ancient tombs and monuments just a few kilometres north. Not a lot of tourists go, but Ashraf told me that the King of Jordan often has amazing Bedouin parties out in the wilderness here. I can see why, as it’s the perfect hideaway spot. Located right in the centre of a mountain, also entered through a SIQ (crack in the rock), there are plenty of caves and passageways.
There is a real sense of the people who once lived - and died - here as you walk past the tombs, caves and stairways. Internal shelving to hold the corpses is still intact; it’s easy to imagine the bustling scene at night in a street of dining halls, with only the façade washed away; you can see fountains where water was directed to cisterns for the town below. Stairways lead to unexpected canyons, which you would never see if you hadn’t climbed them.
But I didn’t want to just imagine the Nabateans hawking their wares and mingling in the streets thousands of years ago; I wanted to meet the contemporary version. Naturally where there are travelers, there are street vendors selling glass, beads, jugs, hand-filled bottles of sand and their Bedouin checked keffiyeh headdresses.
We chatted with some Bedouins and got invited to their tent to shelter from the heat and relax, much to my delight. I remember the woven rugs (probably by machine) with images of King Hussein and his successor and son, King Abdullah as a mark of identity and respect.
I also enjoyed the landscape and have plenty of memories, like the rocky roads full of goats, the perfect hardy animal for this terrain; and a startling geological formation on top of a hill that was like a blowhole, with jagged little rock protrusions like teeth. In Jordan, the more I asked my guide to take me off the beaten path, the more the landscape would surprise me.