For complete appreciation of Wadi Rum, you need to mount up and go full Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, it’s a tourist cliché, but there are authentic reasons for trekking by camel through this spectacular landscape in southern Jordan. Camels have been the prime mode of transport here for centuries, and even today they will take you places not even an SUV can reach.
With help from the Bedouin guides, I wrap the keffiyeh — the traditional checkered scarf — around my head and face, leaving only a gap for my eyes. I approach my camel with caution; their tempers can be as unpredictable as a desert sandstorm. Another member of the tour group received a nip to the arm when he walked too close to the head end of his camel (fortunately, the only damage was to his sleeve).
I swing onto the saddle, then grip tightly as the camel unfurls its long limbs, first the back, then the front. Once my animal is standing, the first thing I notice is how high up I am. I tuck my feet into the sides of the saddle to ensure I don’t accidentally kick the camel’s neck — the prompt for a gallop. The second thing I notice is just how beautiful this place is.
From this vantage, I can tune out the immediate scattering of litter — feed bags, car tires, rusty pieces of machinery — and focus on the bigger picture. Ahead of us stretches a great, red-sand valley (or wadi), hedged on both sides by granite and sandstone massifs (known as jebels).
Off we go, into the scenery. It takes a while to adjust to the camel’s motion and to stop worrying about falling off, but eventually I become confident enough to cast myself in the role of T.E. Lawrence, who came here to assist an uprising of the Bedouins against the ruling Ottomans in 1917. Of course, the picture in my mind’s eye is defined by Peter O’Toole’s charismatic performance in the epic 1962 biopic.
When we break out of the valley, the terrain opens up to full Panavision glory. The Lawrence of Arabia theme surges through my head; it will play on repeat for most of the day. We ride through the dry, shimmering heat, taking occasional breaks, until we finally reach a Bedouin-style camp in an isolated patch of desert: our overnight stop.
The heat bleeds away as soon as the sun sets. We cluster around the campfire, enjoying lamb stew and traditional music. The stars glitter above us in the moonless sky.
Come morning, the previous day’s journey has taken its toll. We’re all saddle sore, and we return to our camels with trepidation. On we go. The cool of early morning evaporates. The jebels around us constantly morph through a broad palette of colors, from deep red to purple to khaki. This is a landscape that never settles.
By midafternoon we finally dismount and cautiously say goodbye to our camels. Mine attempts a parting bite; I leap back just in time. We transfer to an untemperamental Land Cruiser and head back to the visitors center.
Under lengthening shadows, Wadi Rum takes on an otherworldly aspect. It is little wonder it has stood in for Mars in several movies, including Ridley Scott’s forthcoming film The Martian, starring Matt Damon.
As ever on this trip, our thoughts keep returning to Lawrence of Arabia. We are about to head southwest, and inevitably we recall the famous scene in which Peter O’Toole and Anthony Quinn rally their Bedouin troops with cries of “To Aqaba!”
For us, the journey to Aqaba takes just over an hour on a smooth, divided highway. When Maj. Lawrence arrived here, he was plunged into a fierce battle against the Ottomans. We check in at the Kempinski and plunge into the lapping waters of the Gulf of Aqaba.
The complexity of the Middle East is encapsulated in the morning view from my room. I can see three other countries: Immediately to the west is Elat in Israel, farther along the coast are the mountains of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and on the opposite coast lies the rugged shore of Saudi Arabia.
Jordan is thoroughly hemmed in. Its other neighbors are Syria and Iraq. Trouble elsewhere inevitably has ramifications in Jordan, often leading to influxes of refugees and the ratcheting up of tensions within the kingdom.
Over the past decade, Egypt has launched regular rocket attacks at Elat, with occasional stray rockets hitting Aqaba. When traveling in Jordan, you must constantly maintain awareness of the current regional situation and be prepared to change your plans at short notice.
The political turmoil recedes to insignificance when you keel off a boat into the warm waters of the Gulf of Aqaba. This is one of the world’s best diving locations, with a variety of dive sites encompassing wrecks, reefs and blue holes. You don’t have to scuba dive to make the most of it; many of the dive sites are also ideal for snorkeling.
After the coast, we return to the arid hinterland, driving north for nearly two hours to Jordan’s greatest treasure and, for more than a thousand years until the early 19th century, its greatest secret. At first sight you can understand why the early travelers passed by without any comprehension of what lay concealed within the barren mountains. But in 1812 a Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, disguised himself as an Arab pilgrim and went in search of a rumored lost city. We prepare to retrace his steps without need for disguises and in confident knowledge that the trek will be worth it.
We assemble in the lobby of the Mövenpick Resort. Burckhardt had no such comfort. We head out, past the tour bus parking lot, past souvenir stalls, past the modern visitor center. It all falls away and we find ourselves on a long, sandy path meandering through a broad valley.
Seemingly impenetrable cliffs loom ahead. The path funnels us down into a narrow, shaded gorge — the Siq. We follow its twists and turns with mounting anticipation, eager for the first glimpse. And finally, there it is, partially revealed at the end of the gorge, a classical façade carved into a sheer sandstone cliff: the Treasury at Petra.
There is much more to the fabled rose-red city of Petra than this iconic building. It was an extensive settlement which 2,000 years ago thrived as a hub for the world trade in frankincense and myrrh. Its builders, the Nabataeans, drew inspiration from their far-flung trading partners. The architecture, most of it hewn from solid rock, is a synthesis of Greek, Roman, Assyrian, Egyptian and Indian influences.
Even now, more than two centuries after its rediscovery, Petra is still yielding long-held secrets. For all its fame and its proud status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, there is a genuine sense of exploration as you roam among the ruins. If you get a chance to talk to any of the archaeologists currently at work, they may well share with you new discoveries that haven’t yet made it into the guidebooks.
Just as Petra was defined by outside influences, so Jordan’s capital, Ammān, is a diverse mix. Many of the city’s 4 million inhabitants are refugees, arriving in periodic waves over the past four decades. First the Palestinians from Israel, then Iraqis and now Syrians.
Sprawling across 20 hills, Ammān is a dynamic jumble of old and new, conservative and liberal, wealth and poverty. The clearest proclamation of its future ambitions is the new downtown, Al Abdali, a six-square-mile development of broad boulevards and modern skyscrapers currently under construction.
But peel back the city’s layers and you’ll find ample evidence of its long history, including a fine Roman theater and the hilltop Citadel. Towering over everything is the 416-foot Raghadan flagpole, which rises from the grounds of King Abdullah’s Raghadan Palace. A huge Jordanian flag, 200 feet by 100 feet, flaps languidly. This is a small nation with plenty to be proud of.
Jordan Info to Go
International flights arrive at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport (AMM), located 20 miles south of Amman and approximately a four-hour drive from Petra. The most convenient method of transfer into the city is by taxi. Fares are fixed into town and are displayed at the airport curbside (the current rate is around $28). For the return journey, agree on the price before setting off.
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