JORDAN MAKES you feel like a traveller more than a tourist. It is une grande aventure. Think Indiana Jones, think Petra, the ancient city locked in the sandstone escarpments, think the Dead Sea, in which you cannot sink, think Wadi Rum, the reddened sand dunes, and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
We found the country to be far more welcoming on our second visit in 2017. It started with a surreal experience — one of sleeping in a bubble tent in Wadi Rum and the promise of a starry night surrounded by rose-coloured sand dunes. Caught in two days of freak fog, the starry night, unfortunately, never happened. But the experience of dining in tents billowing in the winds was still worth it. Next day, the camp guide took us to explore the dunes and rock climbs, friendly enough for children as young as three years old. The fog didn’t lift, but we drove all the way to Petra in one-metre-visibility conditions, quite unhappy that the children couldn’t witness the wonder that my husband and I did years ago.
Memories from that first trip in 2010 are still fresh. Given its archaeology and sheer awe-inspiring architecture, the historical city, declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1985, was named recently as one of the New7Wonders of the World.
What starts with an innocuous Petra Visitor Center in Wadi Musa becomes a journey into a different world. We got there early at 8 am to beat the tourist buses to the 15 km trek through the forgotten city. Like most sites (Machu Picchu in Peru is the other I can think of), the place seems almost inaccessible. The length of the trek and the 800-odd steps up would deter people, but the beauty of the ancient escarpments beckons aloud. There is also the option of taking a horse or carriage instead of trekking.
For us, part of the adventure was being there as original explorers on foot. So in we went past the Siq, the main entrance to Petra. The 1.8 km walk through the narrow canyon with towering cliffs on both sides usually takes almost 30 minutes. We stopped occasionally to admire the rock face and to look up at the distant sky, as the passage space alternated between the width of a large dining room and a person’s arm span.
Caught up in admiring the Siq itself, we didn’t realise when it ended, quite unexpectedly, slithering into the light with a view of Al-Khazneh (the Treasury), one of the most elaborate temples of the ancient Arab nomadic tribe, Nabataean, in the city of Petra. The sight does not fail to impress.
Just the sheer scale of it carved in stone made me wonder how they did it. No words save those of a poet, a sonnet by John William Burgon, can do justice to the city of Petra:
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet
Match me such marvel save in
a rose-red city half as old as time
Since there was no sign that forbade us from entering the structure, we sneaked in for a closer look. The guides, though, shooed us away. A few mandatory photographs later, we moved on to explore the houses/rooms carved in stone. Even at that time, possibly built between fourth and sixth century BC, houses were built to flaunt wealth — high ceilings, carved bigger rooms and the plain small ones.
Next up, the 861 steps to the Ad Deir (or monastery) was quite a climb even in the pleasant November weather. The route is dotted with little Bedouin shops selling artefacts along with snacks and juices. We stopped for some lemonade, and more photographs. The Bedouins with their horses and little shops fit right into the scene, and we lingered around feeling like we were breathing in a life and time from hundreds of years ago.
We returned later, for the “Petra by Night” walk. Ambling through the Siq at night is a moving experience. If the imposing structure of the Treasury draws during the day, at night, the focus of the onlookers shifts to the lit-up beauty of the Siq’s red rocks. Lit candles, on both sides, mark the route for walking. As I looked up through the narrow opening facing the sky far above, the stars shone down in millions and I felt like I had been looking at the world all wrong — it wasn’t above, this river of stars was flowing down below while I looked at it from my perch high above.
In 2016, archaeologists discovered a huge ceremonial monument buried beneath Petra’s sands using satellite imagery. Much as our technology progresses, the ancient city of Petra doesn’t cease to amaze.