Petra is the Greek for rock. As I walk through the valley towards the Treasury building, I can see why the most famous archaeological site in Jordan – and one of the Seven Modern Day Wonders of the World – was given the name. The Nabataeans moved here in part due to the sheer immensity of the rock walls that would successfully defend them from hostile incursion. But it also allowed them to carve their statues and temples to both their gods and the dead. According to Mohammed, the ancient inhabitants of the place were more concerned with life than death.
And for this I guess we should be thankful. For the UNESCO World Heritage Site is truly a wonder to behold.
The Petra National Trust has various schemes, including a cultural education programme at schools in the area, which educates people about the site’s culture, environment and traditions, as well as adopting measures to protect the monuments from erosion. Vehicles are banned from the site, so those wishing to avoid the lengthy walk have to ride a horse or sit in a cart, but this does not stop the sound of jet planes flying overhead as part of US-Jordanian military exercises – further reminder if any is needed of the nearby troubles.
As with good comedy, the trick to Petra lies in the timing. By the time we reach the first main structure – the Treasury Building that was never used as a treasury – the area is overrun with tourists and locals plying their trade, apparently there is a cruise ship in town – despite Petra being far from the sea. Youthful Bedouins ride their horses through the canyon like outlaws fleeing a posse in the Wild West.
Fortunately, I have time on my hands and remembering advice that the best time to visit is at 6am, I can return to Petra later on my trip and, torch in hand, retrace my steps through the canyon. This time I arrive at the Treasury as the sun is rising, and find myself alone.
The next hour or so, I wander through the valley of temples and statues in perfect isolation, able to appreciate the majestic buildings without the click of horses’ hooves or camera shutters. Eventually, I make my way up to the viewpoint behind the Monastery and look down upon the valley below. I even regret being on my own this time as there is nobody to share the moment with.
The only person I do meet is a fellow 40-something Brit, Jon Poulter, who is trekking the Jordan Trail. Twenty-five days of “full on stuff” according to the veteran of similar exploits across Australia and Mongolia.
“I’ve just shed a tear it’s so awesome,” the hard man from Devon confessed upon seeing Petra for the first time. “I just want as many experiences like that as possible.”
A Dead Sea mud bath
At 427 metres below sea level, the area around the Dead Sea is the lowest land point on earth. It’s also retreating by about a metre a year, as water is being diverted to Israel, dammed and increasingly used to power industry, as well as the impact of climate change.
People come here to laze in the salt waters and smother themselves in mud; both of which are said to be good for the skin. Leaving the sanctuary of the Mövenpick where I am staying, I walk down to the shore and into the waters. After a while bobbing up and down on the surface – the salt water means that even the least buoyant can float – I try to scramble to the shore, only to discover that the same qualities that make flotation easy discriminate against graceful departure.
Eventually I manage to reach dry land, my dignity left dead in the sea. Then I apply the mud, as much as possible, as instructed by my mud-application-instructor-cum-life-guard. And I sit and wait while the sun dries the mud on my body, before once more returning to the salt waters to wash away my sins.
A cynic by nature, I’m amazed later that evening to discover my skin tingling as if the water had cleansed all its perfections along with the mud. Tonight at least I feel totally rejuvenated.
I have one last trip to recount on this most unusual journey.
Taking a taxi up from the Dead Sea back to Petra for my dawn excursion, we pass through a mountain range, where we stop en route for a coffee and to enjoy the view. In the distance, I can hear trucks passing in and out of a potash factory, and I can just make out the Dead Sea beyond the haze. Eagles drift by. My driver sits and contemplates.
In travelling, the least anticipated experiences can prove the most rewarding. I am not expecting anything from this drive, but the view across the mountains to the Dead Sea, and passing through small villages with their deserted old stone houses, gives me a snapshot of Jordanian life that I will cherish for a long time. In Jordan, there is a totally relaxed attitude to life, as if time itself has become lost in translation.