Highlights show in Jordan

Steve Hartridge enjoys the many diverse highlights of Jordan, one of the Middle East's safest and most tourist-friendly countries...

This is where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed and, in more recent times, the landscape doubled as Mars in The Martian,” enthuses Asis, my knowledgeable guide and driver from Nebo Tours, one of Jordan’s best known Destination Management Companies.

Looking out over the vast expanse of desert, with its burnt orange and reddish hues, it is easy to imagine Peter O’Toole and the cast of 1,000 galloping camels in David Lean’s 1962 film, or Matt Damon, stranded on the Red Planet.   

To mark the spot where in the movie Lawrence and his army started their ride to Aqaba to banish the Turks there’s a small image of him etched into a rock. Next to this, in a tent woven from sheep’s wool and goat hair, we enjoy some welcome shade from the scorching heat, sip mint tea, eat sugary cakes and buy small ceramic bowls from the Bedouin traders. 

Freshly-brewed mint tea

Wadi Rum

Dotted among craggy sandstone mountains coloured by iron oxide, the narrow canyons and the shifting sand dunes of Wadi Rum, are a number of tented camps that have become an essential overnight stop on any tour of Jordan. The standard offering is a buffet dinner and an evening of music, dancing and, if you want, shisha pipes.

However, I prefer to sit on the deck outside my tent – which comes complete with a separate bathroom and shower and a/c unit – viewing the dazzling ceiling of stars and later lightning illuminating the surrounding towering plateaus. 

Wadi Rum is one of Jordan’s adventure centres with desert Jeep tours – with stops to see some of the more than 25,000 petroglyphs (rock carvings) – camel rides, balloon rides and huge sand dunes that can be ‘sandboarded’.

Wadi Rum desert
Mosaic making

All rounder

To say that ‘safe’ Jordan – “due to wise leadership we are a quiet house in a noisy regional neighbourhood,” Asis tells me –  offers a diverse set of travel experiences barely covers it.

Wadi Rum is the penultimate stop on my six-day trip that has also taken in the capital Amman, the Greco-Roman city of Jerash, the Dead Sea and Petra. 

During the week, I have enjoyed the best Middle Eastern food I have ever tasted (cold and hot mezzes and wonderful salads in a restaurant in Amman called Sufra, surrounded by orange groves and deep pink bougainvillea), trodden the same stone-cobbled streets walked by Roman emperors and gladiators, and been immersed in familiar stories from the Bible.

Delicious mezze at Sufra
Bedouin style at Wadi Rum

I have ‘floated’ in the salty Dead Sea and covered myself in its therapeutic mud,  watched artists in a workshop make intricate mosaic tiles and hit balls on the range of the country’s only golf course (Ayla Golf Club). 

In sprawling Amman, where around 40% of Jordan’s population live, I explored winding streets that led to jewellery and perfume stores and gold souks. High on one of the capital’s 21 hills is The Citadel, a complex with a section of wall dating back to the Bronze Age, and the Temple of Hercules, an important Roman site.

But Amman is more than ancient relics. Earlier in the day I explored  the latest ultra-modern hotel to open: the luxurious Four Seasons, replete with marble imported from Italy and panoramic views of the city. 

About 45 minutes north of Amman, Jerash is the site of one of the best preserved Roman cities in the world. I entered at Hadrian’s Arch, named in honour of the visit of Roman Emperor Hadrian – yes, him of UK borders wall fame – in 130AD.  

Inside the Arch attractions include the Hippodrome, the Oval Forum with its 56 Ionic columns, the Temple of Zeus, the 5,000-seat South Theatre and the Temple of Artemis. It is a vast complex but archaeologists estimate that 70% of it remains underground and unexcavated. 

Camels at Petra

Petra and Aqaba

South of Amman, off the main north-south road known as the King’s Highway, we drive up a windy road to Mount Nebo, said to be where Moses lived and was buried. From outside the Franciscan Church, with its floor of mosaics laid in various periods, the views of the Jordan Valley, Dead Sea and Holy Land are spectacular.

The next morning there are more tales from the Old testament when we visit Al-Maghtas (or ‘Bethany beyond the Jordan’), where John the Baptist baptised Jesus. This complex is right next to the Jordan River, which forms the border with the Israel-controlled West Bank. I watch as white-robed Israeli Jews step into the narrow stretch of water for their own baptisms.

A highlight of any Jordan trip is Petra, one of the world’s most important archaeological sites. A visit shouldn’t be rushed – you can spend a day here, exploring numerous temples, ‘streets’, tombs and walking trails that head off in many directions. To avoid the crowds, start out early.

Petra’s history goes back to prehistoric times but is most known for the Nabatean (ancient Arab) civilisation that carved it and flourished in its rock-cleft alleys around 500 BC. After a walk through narrow canyons, you get to Petra’s star attraction, the Treasury, 40 metres high and decorated with friezes and figures. I pay 10 dinars (about £12) for a Bedouin guide who helps me scramble up some rocks for a better vantage point and photo. 

Wadi Rum rocks
Wadi Rum rocks

My final day is spent in Aqaba, Jordan’s port city and only beach resort. After a swim in the warm sea and some sweet Baklava on Al Raghadan Street, my evening and Jordan trip ends in Kempinski’s rooftop 700 Lounge bar, looking across the Red Sea to the glimmering lights of the Israeli resort of Eilat. 

Book it with… Major Travel

An eight-day Highlights of Jordan tour with Major Travel includes an overnight stay in a Bedouin camp, a guided tour of Petra, a visit to the Dead Sea and a Wadi Rum 4×4 excursion. major.travel