Jewel of Jordan
Michael Hinch steps back through the centuries in ancient Jordan with a visit to the extraordinary treasures of Petra and an obligatory float in the salty waters of the Dead Sea
Nothing can prepare you for your first glimpse of Petra, Jordan's most-famous ancient wonder. Carved out of soaring sandstone rock, this "rose-red city half as old as time", with its magical tombs and temples, is without doubt one of the most remarkable sights in the Middle East.
It is reached on foot through the Siq Gorge, a haunting narrow passageway nearly a mile long and flanked on either side by towering cliffs. As we reached the final bend of the winding track, our guide saved the best experience until last. He moved us into position facing back up the Siq, told us to take one step back, then move to the right and turn around.
Before our eyes, the dazzling Al-Khazneh, or Treasury, appeared, the most-photographed sight in Petra where visitors first fall under its captivating spell. Dating back to 56BC, its massive 40-metre facade, hewn from dusty pink rock, dwarfs everything around it and is testimony to the engineering genius of the Nabataean people who built it.
A nomadic Arab community in search of a home hidden from the outside world, they chose Petra as their capital after uncovering several springs in the region. From their new home, they set up a lucrative water-cum-protection racket for passing caravans on the Silk Route, amassing huge wealth from the thriving trade in spices and incense.
As highly skilled architects, they devoted their spare time to sculpting temples and tombs out of sheer rock with elaborate columned facades and intricate designs on a par with those in ancient Athens and Rome.
The city's glory days reached their peak around the time of Jesus, until the trade routes changed direction after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the city fell into decline.
For centuries, few even knew of Petra's existence, but in 1812 a young Swiss traveller called Johann Burckhardt heard talk of a beautiful lost city hidden in a valley of the Wadi Musa mountains. He disguised himself as an Arab and uncovered Jordan's jewel for the rest of the world to see.
After exploring the impressive chambers and inner sanctuary of the Treasury, which once served as a tomb for a Nabataean king, we headed towards the centre of the city along the Street of Facades to the breathtaking 6,000-seat theatre.
After lunch in the air-con-ditioned restaurant at the bottom of the site, we climbed up to the Ad-Deir Monastery, a 900-step journey suitable only for those with the energy and time to make it.
You need at least two hours to get there and back, and then there's a three-kilometre walk uphill to the bus back -- so it's a good place to take advantage of a cart ride. As part of the entrance fee of 21 Jordanian Dinar (€20), a horse will take you down to the beginning of the Siq, though it's more enjoyable to stroll this section on foot, taking in the scenery that changes at every turn.
Comfortable shoes, a sun hat and plenty of drinking water are a must and we were delighted to have the company of a guide, Zuhair Al Dmour, who kept us entertained with stories and useful tips along the way. Petra is nearly a four-hour bus ride from the capital Amman and you need at least two days to fully appreciate it.
That night, exhausted from the exertions of the day, we had dinner at the Petra Kitchen. This is no ordinary restaurant -- guests prepare and cook their own food under the supervision of local chefs.
Two Americans had driven 200 miles from Iraq just to experience it. Using local produce freshly harvested that day, we whipped up Jordanian mezze such as green wheat soup (shourbat freekeh), cucumber and yogurt salad (salatat khyar), tabbouleh, hummus, and cheese triangles (sambousek b'jibn) made with filo pastry.
When everything was cooked it was served by the local staff but, as it was the beginning of Ramadan, there was no wine on the menu that night.
The next morning, we grabbed one last view of Petra from the soothing surroundings of the Marriot Hotel then set off on the three-hour drive north to the pretty mosaic town of Madaba.
This predominantly Christian town houses the Byzantine Basilica of Saint George, whose floor contains a stunning mosaic map depicting all the major biblical sites of the Middle East. From the villages of Palestine to the Nile Delta, the jewel of this masterpiece, which dates from 560AD, is a mini-map of Jerusalem showing the city walls and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Hundreds of other mosaics from the 5th to the 7th centuries are scattered throughout the town, a brilliant example of religious tolerance in the Middle East, where the minaret's call to prayer chimes harmoniously with Christian church bells.
In the afternoon, we stopped for a mouthwatering lunch of mutaffi bethanjan (fried eggplant with sesame) and sawani (meat and vegetables cooked on trays in wood-burning ovens) at the Haret Jdoudna, a local café set in a restored house.
Another trip worth making is to to the ancient city of Jerash, which is a 40-minute drive north of Amman. It has spectacular ruins among which are Hadrian's Arch, the Hippodrome and the Cardo or colonnaded street. Allow at least half a day to explore this beautiful city.
Next stop was Mount Nebo, the biblical site where God showed Moses the Promised Land. After 40 years wandering in the desert, the 120-year-old prophet died here but his exact point of burial is still the subject of debate. Just nine kilometres from Madaba, it's worth the visit alone for the exceptional views over the Dead Sea and into Israel.
The journey from Mount Nebo to the Dead Sea is even more dramatic, plunging 1,500 metres along ancient villages and rugged purple mountains until you reach the lowest point on earth.
As compulsory as a gondola ride in Venice, a float in its salty water is a unique experience -- even the weakest of swimmers bob about like human corks. Approach the sea backwards to keep the water from entering your eyes as it stings like crazy, and don't shave before visiting. You'll discover cuts you never knew you had.
Our hotel, the fabulous five-star Marriot, had a series of pools leading down to the sea shore, where towels and plastic shoes are distributed at various locations to help you along the way.
After a dip you'll be caked in salt, so have a shower as soon as you can. The healing powers of the local mineral-rich mud have been part of the ancient world's beauty regime since Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba, so slap it on and wait for the transformation to occur.
With water levels falling to about 420 metres, the world's lowest spot keeps getting lower and lower, largely because there is no longer any inward flow from the near-stagnant River Jordan.
It has already shrunk in length by almost a third and some experts believe it may disappear completely 50 years from now.
So get there while you can for the adventure of a lifetime and a swim you'll never forget.