Exploring Jordan, the Ancient Heart of the Middle East

Petra by Night

It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,

by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;

But from the rock as if by magic grown,

eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!

Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,

where erst Athena held her rites divine;

Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,

that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;

But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,

that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;

The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,

which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,

match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,

a rose-red city half as old as time.

John Burgon – Petra (1846)

Treasury, Petra, Jordan
Not just the home of the Holy Grail

Now, those words may not mean anything to you, but that last line is etched into my memory and no small part of the reason I was delighted to find myself booking flights to Jordan. Not only that, but it is one of the most evocative pieces of poetry I’ve read and enough to make any traveller’s mind wander.

Few places conjure up such strong images for me as the ancient Nabatean city of Petra. It’s one of a handful of sites that I can’t really remember not having been aware of, up there with the Pyramids of Giza. And yet, for some reason, I had never given any serious thought to how to get there. It had always seemed distant and perhaps even dangerous to visit.

Then, in October 2013, I found out a friend had been to Jordan recently and done it both easily, cheaply and safely (this really isn’t a concern in Jordan). Suddenly it seemed possible and affordable.

Brendan at a Wadi
Not me, Brendan, looking out over a wadi

A small group of friends was assembled, all of a similar mind and we set about it. I have to give all credit for organising it to Mr. Neil Barnes of Backpacks and Bunkbeds. His planning skills are second to none. Soon the flights were booked and the countdown began. A few basics of planning a trip to Jordan; there are two main carriers that fly there I’m aware of – British Airways and Royal Jordanian. Easyjet did fly until recently, but have sadly stopped. Nonetheless, return flights to Amman run from around £270pp and are worth every penny.

Walking across Abbey Road, Jordan
Abbey Road…

There are a wealth of tour companies that will take you on excellent tours of Jordan of varying lengths and my favourite, G Adventures have what I am sure are some excellent options for all budgets and types of traveller. Alternatively, you can do what we did and book your first night’s accommodation and then use local taxis organised by your hotels. They all provide this service and split between four of us it made it very affordable. The journey from Wadi Rum to Amman, for example, came to 90 dinar (somewhere in the region of £75-80 for six hours’ driving).

St. George's Cathedral, Madaba
St. George’s Cathedral, Madaba

After a night and morning in Madaba and seeing its highlight – the mosaic map in St. George’s Cathedral, we headed south to Petra and arrived just in time to do Petra by Night. This unique event takes places on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday night and for 12 dinar is well worth it. The atmosphere is fantastic and it is perhaps the best introduction one can get to the site. It is less crowded, less hot and if anything the walk through the Siq (the narrow slot canyon that leads to the site) is even more atmospheric. Arriving in front of the Treasury to see it lit only by candles and with some gentle Bedouin music playing to set the mood is something I shall never forget and ranks up there with a first glimpse of the Taj Mahal.

Petra by Night
The Treasury, Petra by Night

Entry to the site for Brits during the day is 50 dinar for one day and 55 for two (prices vary depending on your nationality). Depending on how much time you have I would recommend the two day pass as the site is vast and best absorbed at a leisurely pace. We spent an entire day exploring it, getting as far as the Monastery at the far side of the site and returning by way of the many tombs carved in the cliffs, but still hadn’t seen everything by any means. The site exceeded my expectations in every way, but I strongly suggest you get there for as early in the day as possible. This will help you beat the crowds and the soaring temperatures during the summer months.

The Monastery, Petra, Jordan
Pete, at the Monastery. Totally unmonastic.

After a full day in Petra and a good night’s sleep, we headed on to Wadi Rum – the vast expanse of rocky desert that was home to Lawrence of Arabia and the filming location of The Martian, among others. We spent a brilliant day on a jeep safari exploring the slot canyons, massive sand dunes, walking across precarious rock arches and driving across sweeping spaces between enormous rock outcrops. The feel of the place is desolate and beautiful. Finally, arriving at our Bedouin encampment as dusk drew in, we were treated to a feast and plenty of Bedouin whiskey (tea – Jordan is largely dry, although alcohol is available in bars and they do a good line of non-alcoholic beers) before settling down to a night in a tent under the starry sky. The peace in the desert really is something that everyone should experience. I found the total silence and absence of buildings extremely refreshing, almost primal.

Wadi Rum at Night
An awesome silence

Finally, heading back to Amman, we spent three days here recovering and also visiting the sites of Jerash, Mount Nebo, Bethany and the Dead Sea, which, with the exception of Bethany, I would definitely urge you to visit if you have time*. Jerash, particularly, is a real hidden gem. It is a massive, well excavated and extremely well preserved Roman site just to the north of Amman. It is also quite far off the tourist path and so we had it, more or less, to ourselves.

View of Jerash
Jerash. A hidden Roman gem.

Overall I cannot be more positive about Jordan, the food is delicious, the people are extremely welcoming, it is very safe in my experience and overall felt like a secure and peaceful country, despite its turbulent history. I have really barely scratched the surface of either our time there or this fantastic little country, I urge you to go and visit for yourselves.

Dead Sea Sunset
They also do a good line in spas and mud baths.

The Jordanian Tourist board can be found here, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

*Bethany is really only of note for the fact that it is where the river Jordan forms the border between Jordan and Israel. Aside from that, it is home only to a couple of old, but plain churches and an awful lot of scrubland.

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