Yes it’s true, Petra is No.1
Ancient city, magnificent rock formations, unbelievable feats of engineering and carved-in-stone architecture. It’s on one of the many “Seven Wonders of the World” lists that have come up in recent years, and definitely a place to behold.
We arrived late in the day and everyone said we were lucky because that was one of the three days each week with night walks to the Treasury, one of the star attractions of this ancient spectacle. We joined the throng just after 8pm, it was uncomfortable walking in the dark not knowing what we were stepping on. We just followed the path lit by lanterns, into an area where great formations loomed over us, left and right. About 40 minutes later, the Treasury appeared in front of us, lit up and magnificent. Hundreds of people seated on mats laid out on the ground. There was a flute and poetry recital I’d recommend to only the most dedicated cultural tourist, because I kept waiting for the real show to start. We all were served a half cup of tea and that was it. The main reason to be in Petra at night came at the end, when there was a brief light show and the Treasury was lit up by changing coloured lights. Instagrammable.
The next morning we saw Petra again, and what a difference daylight made. The mysterious dark route we took at night was the Siq, the narrow entrance to the city. So I say, just go in the daytime and you get the Nabatean Rose City of Petra at its best. Start as early as they’ll let you in, while it’s cool and the hordes are still in bed or having breakfast. Later it gets hot quickly, and everyone else will crowd into your selfie. You don’t want that.
There is so much to see in Petra you could spend a day of hiking and not see even a fraction. It was hot and almost noon and we had to decide whether to climb 800 steps uphill to the Monastery, another star attraction among the grand carved facades. So when the helpful Bedouin turned up with two strapping mules and said: “Would you like a ride?” we succumbed. We wouldn’t have made it up all those stairs ourselves, so thanks to Hatma and Azul, we got to see the Monastery and got back again. Oh what a ride.
No.2 Wadi Rum
In Petra they tell you one of the Indiana Jones movies was made there. In Wadi Rum they say this was the setting for The Martian. You also hear a thousand times that Lawrence of Arabia was here, and then you quietly Google, Lawrence who? But none of that is why you go to Petra or come to Wadi Rum. This is the place for desert landscape, massive rock formations, sweeping sands, breathtaking vistas and wishing you paid more attention to Geography.
Wadi Rum is a nature photographer’s dream location, but I had my trusty iPhone. Our desert driver Waseem lets his toddler take the wheel and assures us this is a no-seatbelt zone. I don’t know about that.
Two things to think about twice before you commit: We spent a night at one of the many allegedly five-star desert camps run by Bedouins and I felt afterwards that driving through Wadi Rum is the real five-star event, and a day trip would do very nicely.
Our desert camp came with our own tent with bathroom attached. At another camp we passed, the rooms were hexagonal domes just like in the movies.
We also took the early-morning hot-air balloon ride, which was pleasant enough but the view from the air was not a lot more magnificent than the view from the ground. I’m comparing with our most memorable balloon ride in Cappadocia, Turkey, some years ago, when going up provided an entirely new and exciting experience than the perspective on the ground. Oh well. Wadi Rum is fabulous, wonderful.
Great views from the sky, but staying on the ground is pretty spectacular already.
No.3 The Dead Sea
This is the weirdest, funnest place in Jordan. There’s the Bible story of Sodom and Gommorah, and the fact that the Dead Sea is 400m below sea level and the water is so salty you can’t swim in it. So you just bob up and float no matter how hard you try to swim. Our hotel has its own stretch of beach and I like that a lot of the people here are fatter than me and show off their curves happily, so pretty soon I’m getting myself muddied up and getting into the water as well. It was disorientating, I forgot to resist the natural inclination to swim, and a helpful fellow soaker turned me over. If you’re in Jordan, you must get muddied once. It’s a unique experience.
No.4 Al-Maghtas, the Baptism Site
This was among my top sights in Jordan, and I described it in an earlier post.
No. 5 Mount Nebo
Hopeless tourist that I am, I had no idea why we were stopping at Mount Nebo. If only I listened harder to the readings from the Old Testament. This is the spot where God showed Moses the Promised Land, and the beautiful Jordan Valley stretches out in all directions. After leading his people out of Egypt and spending 40 years in the desert, Moses only caught a glimpse of their destination and never got there himself. He died, and is said to be buried somewhere in the area.
The Franciscan Friars run the place, and have a church with beautiful old mosaics. This was a holy place, another accidental pilgrim stop on my not-a-pilgrimage visit to Jordan.
Our guide was named Mousa Saleh Hamad. So, yes I met Moses on Mount Nebo.
No. 6 Jerash
I feel sad at ancient ruins like these because they remind me too much of Palmyra in Syria, which we visited in 2011, just before the country went to pieces. Jerash is a sweeping Greco-Roman complex of streets, market place, temples and theatres. Everywhere you look on the ground you’ll see some ancient piece of something that could be in a museum if only there were the resources to dig and collect, dust and preserve.
No. 7 King’s Highway
The scenic route from Amman to Petra takes you through the King’s Highway and you are treated to spectacular desert views going down and up and around this valley. You can stop for pictures like we did.
No. 8 Ajloun
Jordan has more castle ruins than I care to visit and after the first two, we skipped the rest. I did not like the Crusader Castle in Kerak at all because I thought it was too unsafe for visitors and needed barriers and railings at numerous precarious spots. If you have to see a castle, drop in at Ajloun, which is just outside Amman, well maintained and good for a short visit.
There was plenty of good stuff in Jordan. So let me end with Bedouins and tea.
Our driver had a way of stopping at Bedouin tea shacks and he’d say: “Have a cup of tea.” These were generally pretty filthy places, swarming with flies. Then some ragged Bedouin guy would bring out cups of tea and biscuits you really don’t want to eat. And afterwards our driver would say: “You can give him $1, or $3, or $5. As you like.”
At a tea shack with a view along the King’s Road, the Bedouin turned out to be a grave-raider by night and he proudly showed us what he’d robbed from ancient graves he pointed out in the distance. The bits and bones should have been in a museum. Or still in those graves.
Afterwards. we paid him for the tea and cookies with mosquitoes.
How much? “As you like.”
I kept hearing that at least once a day in Jordan. Even at the portaloo beside the Bedouin tea stop in Petra. A Bedouin woman left her baby and ran up just as I was about to use the loo, and held out her hand. I asked her how much, and she said: “As you like.”
What I liked least in Jordan were the tea stops in filthy places. After the third, in the middle of the Wadi Rum Desert, I said to our driver: “No more Bedouin tea, Arafat.”
He was cool with it.
“As you like.”