Jordan is, for the average tourist, a long driveway to the millennial beauty of Petra. However, just as restaurants in France have to try that much harder to attract attention if they’re outside of Paris, so Jordan amply rewards the visitor for straying from the Middle East’s high-volume destinations.
Its dense capital Amman is not yet a foodie outpost, and if you are seeking ruins, whether Roman, Biblical, Crusader or Ottoman, the region’s archaeological stars — Syria, Turkey, Israel, Iraq — offer denser, grander fare. However, Jordan surprises more by simple abundance than by excellence: for one, there are enough Crusader forts in the vast, still Wadi Rum that you could spend a morning in one by yourself, trying to measure the distance that separates you and your Land Rover from when these oases were worth fighting and dying for.
And while the cuisine of freewheeling Lebanon reigns supreme across the Middle East, Amman offers some distinct pleasures of its own. Our first night there set the tone for the entire trip as we bundled ourselves out of a 90kph-or-die taxi into a quiet suburban street outside of the unprepossessing Beit Sitti (‘Grandma’s House’).
Inside, however, Maria Haddad — warm, engaging, utterly hip — cajoled us through the preparation of a four-course Jordanian meal, discoursing at speed on her country’s deserved reputation for hospitality and the insider secrets of desert sightseeing. It was when Maria added home-made sumac and pomegranate molasses to a simple table salad that I realised I was going to enjoy myself in Jordan — a profoundly unsnobbish country that nonetheless has much to brag about.
The next day, sated and heavy with The Best Shawarma In Jordan (as certified by Maria), my three companions and I set off into the wide desert in a mechanised toaster from Avis. We had to open the windows to fit in, which made us minor celebrities on the King’s Highway, a scenic (for once, not a euphemism for ‘pot-holed’) route that runs down the length of the country parallel to the Dead Sea.
Ramshackle towns lurch up to the road, pomegranates sweat on tiny juice stands, people throw fresh, good food at you for very little money, and you get so lost that signs with exclamation marks start appearing in Hebrew. But eventually, long after dark, we wound into the valley in which the ancient Nabateans set up shop in 312 BCE — the almost recklessly, achingly lost city of Petra.
‘Petra’, as a name, is a lesson in the beauty of the Greek language, because translated, it just means ‘Rock’. And there is quite a bit of rock, as you walk in the cool pre-dawn down the winding, mile-long cleft in the sandstone that leads to the city. This is where you step into a thousand trophy photos, at the moment when a kink in the route reveals, almost coyly, one of the most famous facades in the world — the ‘Treasury’, al Khazneh (top).
We explored Petra all day, and came back at night to see it by the light of hundreds of candles, put there several times a week with considerable effort and gathered up before morning.
Petra astounds by several measures: its giant scale – because this was long a flourishing trading city of several thousand – and the emptiness that surrounds it, but also the subtlety by which a rough rockface becomes stamped with fine Hellenic carving — architraves, Corinthian columns, Bacchus looking rat-faced — and then reverts immediately to raw stone a few metres later.
A curious person needs about 2 days for Petra; we had just the one before it was time to hit the non-scenic, straight highway back to the airport.
Jordan is small and easy to see, but the desert has spaces to think in and look at, the people are the sort that you will miss slightly, and the food is habit-forming. Buy sumac, buy pomegranate molasses. Running out of either is a perfectly reasonable pretext to go back to Jordan.
TOP IMAGE: Petra’s ‘Treasury’. (Via Pixabay)