Clutching anything I could, my body shaking from top to bottom and teeth-rattling inside my head, I hoped that I’d manage to cling on for the rest of the 15-minute journey. I was squeezed into the back of a horse-drawn cart, bumping along a narrow, sandy path that cut through a rocky mountain, the sides of which were closing in on me rapidly. In the distance, I could see a shard of sunlight piercing through a tiny entrance, and as we approached, I closed my eyes, sure we wouldn’t make it through to the other side in one piece. Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by Indiana Jones. I wanted to be Harrison Ford, exploring the world, discovering lost temples and wearing the famous leather jacket and cowboy hat, master of the bullwhip. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has been a favourite – I’d watch it over and over – and I remember asking my dad: ‘Is it filmed in America?’ He shook his head and said, ‘No son, this place really does exist, it’s called Petra, and it’s in Jordan.’ I didn’t know where it was, but from that moment on, I wanted to go there.
Now, emerging from the 1.5-km-long Siq, I was finally in the Lost City. I clambered out of the cart – and gasped. My driver Hasam watched as I took off my sunglasses and looked up, and up, and up. There, towering above us, was an intricate, beautiful building carved out of the rock. Dappled pink sunlight bounced off the amber rock as if to highlight the grand pillars and mesmerising façade. I was speechless. I’ve flown over the Grand Canyon, which was awesome, been to the top of the Eiffel Tower and toured the ancient ruins of Greece and Rome, but I’d never seen anything as amazing as the Treasury – or Al Khazneh as it’s known in Arabic – which looms 40m high. Among the most elegant remains of the ancient world, it’s believed the Treasury was built in the first century BC, but no one knows why. It could have been a temple or a royal tomb, but it’s a real-life Indiana Jones mystery. One thing’s for sure though – it wasn’t a treasury.
Al Khazneh got its name from the belief that pirates hid treasures of the pharaohs in a giant stone urn that stands in the centre of the building’s second level. They would try to steal the riches by periodically firing at it – the bullet holes are visible in the urn. Inside, the colossal doorway leads to an inner chamber, but it’s closed to visitors, so I had to make do with gawping at the jaw-dropping beauty of it all. All I needed now was that infamous bullwhip and a giant stone ball to come rushing down the Siq towards me, and I would be starring in my own Indiana movie amid a majestic set.Petra lies on the slope of Jebel Al Madhbah in a basin among the mountains that form the eastern part of Arabah, a broad valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. It was unknown to the Western world until 1812 when it was discovered by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Also known as the Rose City because of the colour of the stone, Petra is one of the new seven wonders of the world (along with The Colosseum, in Rome, and The Great Wall of China) and a Unesco World Heritage Site – which the Jordanians are very proud of.
At one point I reached for my camera only to find it had been grabbed by my new friend and unofficial guide, 15-year-old Omar. He led me to a series of secret spots only locals know about, which offer glorious panoramas of the city. Soft pinks and red hues were perfectly captured in the midday sun. As I posed for my selfies, children and women came up to me to sell Jordanian silver jewellery, handmade bracelets and bangles, gemstone necklaces and hand-printed postcards – inexpensive but authentic souvenirs to take back home, though sadly no bullwhips or leather hats.
I had arrived in the Jordanian capital of Amman the day before from Dubai. It was evening by the time I landed and, after checking into the InterContinental, I dined at the traditional Jordanian restaurant Sufra, on the bustling Rainbow Street where everyone was hanging out and catching up with friends and family. Young Jordanians drove by, windows rolled down and music playing.
With a table laid out in a secluded outdoor courtyard – all palm trees and terracotta pots – it felt like what dining in the Middle East really is: relaxed, friendly and passionate, with dish after dish knocking your traditional sandals off. The highlight was arguably the sujuk, a home-made variety of sausage, but the roasted aubergine salad topped with tahini and fresh lemon came pretty close too.
The trip next day to Petra was a four-hour coach ride but worth it for the historical wow factor. After a long day of taking in its beauty, I finally tore myself away to get on the bus to our next destination – the Wadi Rum or Valley of the Moon, so-called because of its elevated position.
It is the largest wadi in Jordan and the most impressive, I was told. Indeed, I was impressed. But I was also hungry. I was spending the night at Captains Desert Camp, and while I admired the valley, which cuts through sandstone, my dinner was being cooked using traditional Bedouin methods. That is to say, it was being prepared by being placed deep down in the sand This, I was later shown, included a three-tier Zarb container stacked with whole chickens, lamb, rice and vegetables, and then placed in a brick chamber under the sand. Hot coals create the heat while a foil top is used as cover. Then, the entire stack is topped with sand and left for three hours.
When it was time for dinner, the sand was kicked away, and the chamber uncovered and gosh, the smell! Gathering around the stove and then the vast dining table, there wasn’t a dry mouth in the house. Or, instead, the tent. As plate, after the dish was brought out, I could only admire the fact that an ancient cooking method like this one could yield such beautiful results, and I couldn’t resist going back for more.Finally, full, we sat chatting around the campfire before, exhausted,
I decided to turn in. The interiors of my tent were decorated with brightly coloured blankets and net drapes, but I couldn’t admire it too much – I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. Which was a good thing? Because at 5.30am the next day, I wanted to be up to see the famously beautiful Jordanian sunrise.
‘You’re in luck,’ a guide said to me as I emerged from my tent. ‘We’ve got you the best, most advanced desert vehicle ever invented.’ He pointed at a camel. ‘There she is.’ Not quite an SUV, but I was game. So I clambered on, and we were soon off at a steady pace, headed to where our guide said would be the best spot for watching the sunrise. And he sure knew his stuff. From there, in the Jordanian desert, it was as if the sun was being pulled up from behind the mountains, with the light changing softly but notably every few seconds. For centuries, my guide told me, men have come here and contemplated philosophy and the universe and the infinite complexities and mysteries of life as the sun, millions of miles away, radiates its heat and light onto the majesty of the desert and the mountains. I nodded as he said this and then got on with the business of taking some selfies. My skin has never looked so flawless. Hashtag Jordan, no filter. Oh, and the sunrise in the background looked nice too!
The final destination of the mini-tour was the Dead Sea coast, some 220km away. I’d been booked into the Crown Plaza resort and, after almost 48 hours of adventuring, I was ready to relax. The sea – just a few minutes’ walk from the hotel – is a Middle East must-do. That’s because while the high salt level makes the water pretty much intolerable and inhospitable for all marine life apart from the most microscopic forms (hence the name), it also creates the sensation of stepping into a warm oil bath. Famously, you can float on the sea – actually a landlocked lake – and while it takes a little time to get used to being so buoyant, you can feel your body being given a natural scrub the whole time. It’s a weird sensation, but not unpleasant me, and my skin will always be grateful for.
As I lay back, I reflected on the past two days – from living like a Bedouin to seeing one of the most incredible cities ever built by humankind – and smiled. Nothing, I decided, could have prepared me for Jordan’s beauty, except perhaps a rerun of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Just for research purposes, of course.
FlyDubai operates regular flights to Amman from Dubai. Return fares (business class) start at Dh2,900. www.flydubai.com
WHERE TO STAY
■ At the Intercontinental Amman, deluxe room costs from Dh660 per night. Visit www.ihg.com or call 00962 6 464 1361.
■ At Captains Desert Camp, double rooms start from Dh440 including breakfast. Call 00962 3 206 0710 or visit www.captains-jo.com.
■ At Crowne Plaza Jordan – Dead Sea Resort and Spa, a standard room starts from Dh547. Call 00962 5 349 4000 or visit www.ihg.com/crowneplaza.
WORDS MARK SETCHFIELD