To describe Petra as spectacular is selling it short. UNESCO calls it “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage” and it’s featured in countless ‘places to see before you die’ compilations. So what’s all the fuss about? First up is its sheer size. At 102 square miles the space is crammed with amphitheatres, majestically carved rock faces, ancient tombs and breath-taking vistas.
There’s also a great sense of mystery. Historians think Petra was built was around 300 BC by the Nabataeans; Arabic people from what was northern Arabia and the Southern Levant. But no one can be sure. So there’s a feeling of huge anticipation as you enter the site and tread gingerly down a dusty path, hemmed in on both sides by sheer faces of pink-hued stone stretching 10, 20, 30 metres skyward. Suddenly a crack light appears. You walk towards it and gasp. You’ve arrived at The Treasury.
No one is certain how the Treasury was built or even what it was used for, but you can’t help marvel at the skill it would have taken to build with modern equipment, let alone rudimentary tools. With the camels stretched out in front sunning themselves, it’s a ready-made Instagram-no-filter moment. And the Treasury is just the start of the Petra odyssey. Over the next few hours our guide Ramzi expertly guided us round the nooks, crannies and caves.
Treasury aside, the jewel in the crown was the Monastery. The description is a bit misleading as archaeologists now think it was temple, but I was more concerned by the tortuous, rocky, hill walk.
“We should go by mule,” was Ramzi’s advice.
None of us fancied tackling the 800 steps and the donkey/horse hybrids looked like they knew what they were doing so we hopped aboard. As the mules gracefully negotiated their way up the hair-raising inclines, I couldn’t help feeling smug passing puce-faced pedestrians. This was the way to travel. And travel we did; it took around 20 minutes to get to the top of the canyon on which the Monastery was perched. But it was worth it. Another breathtakingly beautiful feat of architectural genius and one of the most awe-inspiring panoramas imaginable. A word of warning, tempting though it may be to get an award-winning sunset photo, it’s far too dangerous to climb up or down in the dark. It’s also forbidden and you get the impression the guards aren’t slow to enforce the rules.
Aside from the ultra-impressive edifices, there are also some unexpected retail opportunities in and around the ancient city. Normally I steer well clear of shops in tourist destinations but I made an exception for Petra Rosemary, a shack perched on a hill opposite the remains of the amphitheatre.
“It’s a bedouin pharmacy,” explained the owner Mazen Assre, showing us round his treasure trove of medicinal teas, fragrances and biblical sounding spices.
“I have frankincense and a few different types of myrrh. The quality varies depending on the price.”
I went for a small block of amber which is used by both sexes as a beautifully exotic perfume. Mazen then pointed my face towards him, got out a tiny brass bottle and applied some traditionally made kohl, the ancestor of modern eye liner.
“It lasts three days,” he warned before I could object.
After a potent home-blended ginger tea we reluctantly waved goodbye to Petra. We only had half a day but would have happily stayed far longer. A lot of people do. You can’t sleep onsite but there are several hotels just outside the gates. If you feel like a bit of pampering after a hard day’s trek, you could do worse than the Movenpick hotel. It’s an oasis of luxury in the desert but has some good offers which make it reasonably affordable. And if you don’t want to stay overnight it’s worth stopping for a drink in one of the magnificent public areas.
Although Petra alone would make a holiday, there’s a lot more to Jordan than the rose city. A few hours’ drive away is Wadi Rum. It’s a dramatic desert-scape covering 720 square kilometers and is mainly inhabited by bedouin tribespeople. So if you get excited at the thought of camels, campfires and underground cooking Wadi Rum is for you. There’s quite a bit of choice when it comes to accommodation and we stayed at Captain’s Desert Camp. The night we arrived we were just in time for a traditional zarb dinner; huge hunks of chicken and lamb cooked along with bucketful’s of veg in a pit in the ground. It was dug up after a couple of hours cooking and served with rice, freshly baked bread and salad. Simple but delicious. The camp wasn’t exactly a party venue but we were treated to some skilful oud playing during dinner. The perfect to end to a long day. Or so we thought.
“Fancy a quick jeep ride?” asked Mahmoud, the camp’s manager with a twinkle in his eye.
With a swift thumbs up, we all clambered into Mahmoud’s 4 by 4 and sped off into the night. After 10 minutes of high octane dune hopping we came to an abrupt halt. An imposing, be-robed figure stepped out of the shadows, his arms out-stretched. Being mugged wasn’t part of my plans, but hey-ho stuff happens. Turns out however I needn’t have worried. The mystery man, it transpired, was local camel herding legend, Shabula.
After some good-natured back slapping Shabula galloped up a sand dune, grabbed an armful of stray twigs and got a fire going. Over cups of strong sweet tea he told us how he slept outside at night keeping watch over the camels. Mahmoud ribbed Shabula about his cult status with visitors to the camp and he smiled as coquettishly as a big, burly bedouin can. Getting off the beaten track and meeting the locals is a huge traveller cliché. But just for an hour, it felt like we’d been invited to share something genuinely personal and special. A highlight of the trip.
If you want to experience Wadi Rum in Shabula style there is the option to rough it in the middle of the desert with only a sleeping bag and a few friendly ungulates for company. We however went for a tent. It came with a basic bathroom and proper beds; welcome luxuries ahead of a 4am start.
Sunrise over Wadi Rum
Next morning was a case of up, out and up again. Half an hour before sunrise my travelling buddy and I were hoisted on to a pair of elegant camels for a true desert adventure. Sitting a couple of metres up on the graceful but powerful beasts, we trekked out into the sandy half-light. Dismounting some time later with a graceless jolt, I got my camera set up and was soon rewarded with the a sky so brilliant it seemed to be photo shopped; stunning strips of pink, purple and blue with bands of cotton wool clouds.
After an hour of happy snapping we rode back to the camp for a buffet breakfast and then one more trip into the desert in the beloved 4 by 4. Sitting out in the back of the jeep, photo opp after photo opp whizzed by. Magnificent canyons, caravans of camels, Bedouin camps. Shrines to Lawrence of Arabia.
“But there’s so much more to see,” said Mahmoud when we told him this was the final day of our trip. He reeled off a list which included canyoning, week long camel treks, the Dead Sea… but I didn’t need any encouragement and would definitely go again. The sunrises were worth it by themselves.
For information on Petra admission prices go the Jordan tourist board site: http://uk.visitjordan.com/
* You can fly direct into Jordan’s Amman airport from the UK with Royal Jordanian and British Airways.
* You can also travel from Israel through one of three border crossings. Check for latest travel advice and costs as both are subject to change.