Traveling Jordan, from Petra to the Dead Sea and the beauty in between

The desert landscapes of Wadi Rum, the ancient wonders of Petra and a dip in the Dead Sea - Jordan is an eye-opener every step of the way. Pictures: Shutterstock
The desert landscapes of Wadi Rum, the ancient wonders of Petra and a dip in the Dead Sea - Jordan is an eye-opener every step of the way. Pictures: Shutterstock

There's more to Jordan than the Lost City of Petra. Keith Austin journeys to all its treasures, from the Dead Sea to 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 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 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 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, Greeks, Romans and Ottomans.

Jerash

The North Gate in the ancient Roman city of Gerasa of Antiquity in modern-day Jerash, Jordan. Picture: Shutterstock

The North Gate in the ancient Roman city of Gerasa of Antiquity in modern-day Jerash, Jordan. Picture: Shutterstock

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 - covered in large amphitheatres, a huge circular forum, majestic temples to Zeus and Artemis, churches full of intricate mosaics, marketplaces and an 800-metre-long road lined with hundreds of 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 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

Palms dot the shores of the Dead Sea. Picture: Shutterstock

Palms dot the shores of the Dead Sea. Picture: Shutterstock

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.

Petra

Camels bask outside Al Khazneh - the Treasury - at Petra. Picture: Shutterstock

Camels bask outside Al Khazneh - the Treasury - at Petra. Picture: Shutterstock

The most visited site in Jordan, the 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 its 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 in sensuous waves, its lower sections carved into a clever irrigation system which directed the 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 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 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 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 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).

Wadi Rum

The desert landscape of Wadi Rum, where shooting was done for Star Wars, Prometheus, the up-coming sci-fi classic Dune and Will Smith's recent Aladdin remake. Picture: Shutterstock

The desert landscape of Wadi Rum, where shooting was done for Star Wars, Prometheus, the up-coming sci-fi classic Dune and Will Smith's recent Aladdin remake. Picture: Shutterstock

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 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 our 4WD sunset tour the 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 salad and traditionally cooked meats in the camp's main dome, it's early to bed to make the 5am hike up Jordan's highest peak.

A Bedouin man prepares traditional Jordan tea on fire in Wadi Rum. Picture: Shutterstock

A Bedouin man prepares traditional Jordan tea on fire in Wadi Rum. Picture: Shutterstock

It takes two hours of driving through pitch black and freezing cold desert to reach the base of Jabal Umm ad Dami, and 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.

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 from Umm Qais in the north to Aqaba in the south.

It passes through 52 towns and many major attractions - 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.

Fly: Emirates flies to Amman, from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai. See emirates.com

Stay: In Wadi Rum, the Sun City Camp has traditional Bedouin tents, royal suite tents and 20 "Martian" domes. In Petra, the four-star Petra Guest House Hotel is right by the entrance to the site.

The tour: World Expeditions' 10-day Jordan Trail Highlights tour costs from $4890 per person and is 100 per cent carbon offset. Prices include day treks, a 4WD jeep tour, seven nights in hotels, two nights in Bedouin camps and all meals. See worldexpeditions.com

Explore more: visitjordan.com

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