The Sands That Time Forgot

Issue 8 - 2018

On a road trip through the Jordanian desert, Chris Moss discovers the wonders – ancient and modern – of the Middle East’s most family-friendly country

Issue 8 - 2018

On a road trip through the Jordanian desert, Chris Moss discovers the wonders – ancient and modern – of the Middle East’s most family-friendly country

Amman, the capital of Jordan, spreads itself under the warm yellow sun across a wide bowl, where neighbourhoods of cream-coloured blocks cling to the slopes. We’d only been up on the city’s highest hill, Jebel Al Qal’a, taking in the view from the ancient citadel, for a matter of minutes when something magical happened: the afternoon adhan, or call to prayer, began around the city, and the voices, real and piped, criss-crossed and echoed across the rim. When the moment passed, we walked among the Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad ruins, pausing at the 2AD Temple of Hercules and partially rebuilt Ummayad Palace.

 

Amman, for most visitors, isn’t the main event, but for a Jordanian odyssey, it’s not a bad start. Today, more than four million people live here, compared to 5,000 a century ago. A cosmopolitan cultural centre and a banking hub, Amman has gained prominence with remarkable speed.

 

We got a real sense of the local whirl after we passed the coffee shops and bookstores along Rainbow Street to enter the throbbing downtown area. It’s packed with markets, traditional food stalls – their bean (fasoulya) bites and fresh khubz breads are classics of Levantine cuisine – and traders towing carts of olives, tomatoes and peppers. A glass of Carakale beer cooled things down; the local microbrewery claims the Sumerians invented beer 5,000 years ago. North of downtown is Darat al Fununa, a cultural haven dedicated to contemporary art. Amman feels like the future of the Middle East: energetic, proud and connected.

 

Jordan has leapt up the travel bucket list in recent years, emerging as a must-visit destination for adventurous families. It’s easy to see why: for older children (Scott Dunn suggests aged eight upwards), it’s as if Horrible Histories has been blended with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: a thrilling melange of dramatic desert landscapes, romantic Bedouin living and incredibly preserved ancient remains that feels pinch-yourself unreal. Jerash, a 30-mile drive across the desert north from Amman, is where the Roman story really comes to life; even the coolest teen can’t fail to be impressed. Framed by ceremonial gates, it’s an imposing settlement of colonnaded avenues, capacious temples, theatres and Hadrian’s Arch – built in AD129 for the Roman emperor’s visit. Beyond it is the hippodrome, where 15,000 excited spectators once watched chariot races.

 

But we were taking our own chariot – a 4WD with air-con and a Jordanian guide-cum-driver – first up to the Dead Sea, to paddle and pose for floating photos, then to a shrine from which Moses is said to have admired the Promised Land, then south along the King’s Highway. Over the centuries, Jordan has been traversed by Nabateans, Romans, Crusaders, pilgrims and wanderers, from 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Burton to TE Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia). As we journeyed through desert canyons, it was easy to see why people feel a near-spiritual attachment here. There were few towns and no cities, but plenty of shepherds and goatherds, donkeys, camels and Bedouin encampments.

 

 

A thrilling mix of desert landscapes, romantic Bedouin living and incredibly preserved ancient remains

 

We were heading for Wadi Rum, the desert wilderness in the south of Jordan, and first stop was a tented camp at the foot of a sandstone massif. Hot towels and fresh pomegranate juice awaited, along with spacious Bedouin tents. Set amid a maze of monolithic rocks, this was to be our home- from-home for three nights. The first evening began with a beautiful moon and a delicious barbecued lamb and mezze supper around an open fire. It’s hard to imagine a more exotic setting: staggering desert scenery, stargazing and campfire conversation.

 

 

Wadi Rum

 

 

A Bedouin woman

 

 

Kempinski Hotel Aqaba

 

 

A Bedouin musician

 

A dawn drive took us to the towering peaks nicknamed the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, after TE Lawrence’s memoirs. Rutted ways led us to high viewpoints, through Martian valleys (Wadi Rum, also known as the Valley of the Moon, has a lunar-like landscape) into natural cuttings with tiny oases. In the morning the heat was mellow enough for a stroll to the redbrick ruins of a Nabatean temple dating from 1 or 2AD. The temple is believed to contain remnants from 14BC, when it was dedicated to two Mesopotamian deities: Hadad, god of thunder and rain, and Atargatis, goddess of fertility, fruit and foliage.

 

Wadi Rum was sculpted by time and nature. Our next stop, Petra, was created by people. The eastern entrance to this archaeological marvel leads you through a narrow passageway known as the siq (the “shaft”). On exiting, you’re greeted by Petra’s stunning centrepiece, the Treasury, or Al-Khazneh in Arabic, its elaborate facade carved from a red sandstone rock face. The name refers to a local belief that bandits hid their loot in a stone urn on the upper level. In fact, the building originally served as a mausoleum and crypt. Wind and rain have eroded the finer details, but archaeologists have spotted figures representing the afterlife, as well as dancing Amazons and the mythological twins Castor and Pollux.

 

UNESCO-listed Petra is Jordan’s number one tourist attraction, with 500,000 visitors a year, yet it’s expansive enough not to feel cramped. Tombs, temples and a Roman-style theatre gave us some sense of how big and affluent Petra must have seemed to its original residents. Under the midday sun, the 850 steps up to the Ad-Deir Monastery were slow-going, but another beautiful neoclassical facade was our reward at the top.

 

The heat was rising. We found a restaurant serving juice and falafels. Petra continues to welcome its dusty pilgrims. You can even pop back after dark for Petra By Night, when thousands of candles are lit in front of the Treasury for a truly magical session of music and storytelling.

 

Sand… then the sea: perhaps humans need both to complete a holiday. We drove two more leisurely hours to wash up at Aqaba, a lovely port that still has a small-town feel. It also offered five-star beds, superb cuisine and world-class snorkelling. We had travelled from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea. From dry to fertile, from capital to coast, from ancient to modern, Jordan is as close to time travel as this dimension permits. Go now, while the eternal is still very much intact.

SCOTT DUNN SUGGESTS

Begin your trip with two nights in Amman, giving you the chance to visit the Roman ruins of Jerash and enjoy a walking tour of the city (where you’ll get to try some of the country’s best falafel). Then head to the Dead Sea, visiting the mosaic towns of Madaba and Mount Nebo en route. Here you can float in the world-famous salty waters and have spa treatments with the Dead Sea’s minerals and rich mud. Continue to the Dana Nature Reserve, stopping off at Kerak or Shobak Crusader castles, before spending a night at the Dana Guest House – a perfect spot to watch the sunset. For those looking for beautiful treks, we recommend walking for five hours (with a guide) through Dana Nature Reserve, to Feynan Ecolodge – a great spot for stargazing. Your next destination is the legendary Petra. Don’t miss the monastery and its spectacular views, but with 850 steps to reach it, it’s not for the fainthearted. A night in the desert of Wadi Rum is essential. There, you can explore the desert by camel and Jeep before stargazing from your tent. Start the next day with a sunrise hot-air-balloon ride. The Red Sea is one of the world’s best places for diving and snorkelling, and a stay at the Kempinski Hotel Aqaba will allow you to experience both. Drive back to the Dead Sea for one final float in the afternoon, before heading off the next morning.

Scott Dunn offers holidays to Jordan from £2,700 per person for seven nights including flights and transfers. For more information, call 020 8682 5075 or visit scottdunn.com/jordan

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