The first glimpse of the poster-view of Petra – a flickering mirage by night – did nothing to smother the excited whispers. It seemed the experience would be lost in an angry chorus of ‘shhhh’, more noisy than the rebels. But when a musician started to pluck his rababah (a traditional Bedouin instrument), his voice joining the mournful notes as they floated up into the dark sky, the murmurs died down. By the time the flautist begins there’s nothing to rival his haunting tune.
When the music stops a speaker makes his way towards the centre of the makeshift lanterns. Usually he tells a story but tonight he has a different message – one urging us all to vote for Petra as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It’s a convoluted sales pitch, involving comparing the colourful rock formations to chocolate, but he had us at hello. If ever we were going to be won over it was tonight, and last month Petra was duly (I like to think) crowned a wonder by The New7Wonders campaign – up there with Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal.
There is a fear that the title may be a double-edged sword. Prices will no doubt rise but, as always, the main worry for visitors is other visitors. Will the inevitable increase in numbers destroy the sandstone city for everyone? The answer, I’d like to think, is no. Among the 800 buildings carved from the rock by the Nabateans, there’s always a way to escape the crowds, whether into the night on a wave of Bedouin music, or by rounding a corner and finding yourself utterly alone.
The second of these happened on my third encounter with the city. After a day spent exploring it in the traditional way – down the Siq, past the royal tombs and theatre, through the colonnaded street and up the punishing steps to the Monastery (a thirsty climb but worth it for the mighty facade that looms even larger than the Treasury) – we chose a different route into the city. Banking left off the Bab as-Siq, our guide Osamah Twal leads us via Madras following in the 2000-year-old footsteps of the Nabateans but less than 1 per cent of visitors to Petra.
Up we climb to the summit, where the High Place of Sacrifice offers a platform to admire the surrounding mountains and behatted tourists milling around the city far below. From here you can take a flight of steps down or continue on the less beaten track around the back of the mountain, turning each corner to find muted rainbows of rock and more traces of Nabatean creativity.
As we return to the heart of the city – you almost feel like an intruder coming in the back route – we make use of the donkeys for hire. With their help we ride out again, up the road to the new Bedouin village just above Petra. Umm Sayhoun, a series of concrete houses, was built as alternative accommodation for the local population of Petra, who had to relinquish their cave-dwellings when the city was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1985.
I ask Osamah if the Bedouin were sad to leave their homes. “Why would they be?” he says, genuinely perplexed. “Now they have electricity and running water, it’s much better.” A group of men prepare for a wedding – grinding coffee beans in a big pot, laughing, joking and all the while making Osamah’s point.
Petra and its locals survived a fresh wave of interest once, I don’t doubt they’ll do it again. And here, among the Bedouin, as kids jostle for prime position in front of my camera and my teacup is endlessly refilled, I’m certain everyone will find their own slice of Petra somewhere.
Lost and found
In 80BC nomadic Bedouin tribe the Nabateans were at the height of their power. Petra, their capital, became an important centre of trade – and the glorious facades the fruit of their riches. Rome, unhappy with this rival centre, began directing trade elsewhere – the Nabatean empire crumbled and in AD106 fell to Rome. The city never recovered and was hit while down by an earthquake in AD363 and again, after Islamic invasion, in AD749. For the next millennium the local Bedouin were left to amuse themselves.
Then in 1812 Swiss explorer Jean Louis Burckhardt infiltrated the ancient city, his stories and drawings showing the world what they’d been missing. Gradually more travellers found their way to the place soon to be dubbed the ‘rose-red city half as old as time’. Today, half a million visitors arrive in Wadi Musa each year to get a glimpse of the nearby wonder. More than making up for all those years of neglect, it’s now Jordan’s number one attraction.
Don’t leave without
Playing at Lawrence of Arabia
If you want to see Jordanians really let their hair down then head out on the town in Amman – once inside a bar or club modest dress is forgotten and the dancing much like you’d find anywhere. When Kanabaye isn’t hosting salsa lessons, the two-level bar throbs with international and Arabic pop and the dancefloor is packed. New to the scene is Ceasars, a spacious, upmarket club with live music and the odd impromptu performance from famous Jordanian singer Omar Al Abdallat. For something more chilled head to Books@Cafe – a bookshop, internet café and rooftop bar in one.
Floating in the Dead Sea
Once the stinging subsides, lying on the surface of the world’s richest source of natural salts is incredibly relaxing. Until you try and get out. Made buoyant by a salt content eight times that of your average ocean, standing up tends to involve a big, usually undignified effort. Still, if you’re keen to smear the mineral-rich Dead Sea mud all over yourself you shouldn’t be worried about looking a little silly. Bake for 10 minutes until the mud goes hard and rinse off. My skin was glowing afterwards but that could have been from the heat of the lowest place on earth.
Time-travelling in Madaba
Like Petra, the town of Madaba had a reawakening in the 19th century, when preparations for the construction of a new church uncovered a mosaic map – the oldest known map of the Holy Land. The excavation work has continued ever since, regularly unearthing more mosaics and archeological remains. Take a trip to nearby Mount Nebo where Moses is said to have seen the Promised Land and, depending on your faith, died and been buried. Even if you’re not religious the view is stunning, particularly at night when you can see the lights of Jerusalem twinkling in the distance.
Coffee and cigarettes
You’ll be offered tea or coffee wherever you go in Jordan and, refreshingly, there’s no catch (“we look upon tourists as guests, not as cows to be milked,” our guide Osamah told us). Given a choice I’d opt for the Turkish coffee. It’s syrupy and aromatic – often ground with cardamom. Give it a minute to settle and leave the last mouthful to avoid the sediment.
You’re unlikely to see many people rolling around drunk but, as they do in general, Jordanians have a relatively relaxed attitude to alcohol. You’ll be able to get an Amstel (brewed locally) at most hotels and in more upmarket restaurants, particularly in Amman. It’s not cheap, though, so if you’re on a budget head to Amman’s duty free shop.
The smoking ban definitely hasn’t reached Jordan and while this might not seem a good thing on a long bus journey, it’s great if you’re into shisha. Called nargileh here, there are few bars, cafes or restaurants that don’t supply it. The lingering, sweet smell of the flavoured tobacco is part and parcel of your experience in Jordan.
• Amy Adams travelled to Petra on a tour of Jordan and Syria with On The Go Tours, 020-7371 1113; www.onthegotours.com. The 11-day Arabian Highway trip starts at £649