independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

An Eastern jewel

From the Dead Sea to Petra, Jordan is ripe for exploration, writes Nicola Brady

When my plane touched down in Jordan, I was a little apprehensive. It was a country I knew little about, but its location in the Middle East, bordered by Iraq, Syria and Israel, made me slightly anxious.

But as I walked the streets of Amman with my guide, Mohammad, he explained that this is a common concern with visitors to the country.

"People think of the Middle East, and they think of violence, fighting and terror. That's not Jordan. We're a completely separate country, but because we're in this region, people are wary about coming."

These fears, I soon learnt, are unnecessary. Visitors are advised to exercise caution around large public gatherings, and to avoid the Syrian border, but other than that, the country is yours to enjoy and explore.

And it is a country ripe for exploration, with a vivid and intriguing history. Remnants from occupations throughout the ages remain in the ancient capital city of Amman, some so hidden they could be easily missed.

We walked through the old town, as Mohammad pointed out artefacts obscured by the medina and mosques. On the edge of the city, the ruins of the Roman Temple of Hercules stand tall, a sight that is peculiar to behold when standing among Arabic signs in the markets.

Hop in a car, and the contrasts become more vivid. The city is shrouded by seven hills, each of which seem to have a unique character. There is the moneyed area, home to embassies and politicians, where you'll also find an opulent shopping mall. Drive just a few minutes, though, and you'll see camels roaming the hillside and rustic tents, home to Bedouin families.

On Rainbow Street, we were granted a view of the city in its entirety, from one of the many restaurants along the road. We sat among platters of hummus, mutabal and burak, and I happily dug in, oblivious to the dark clouds forming over the mountains behind me. A storm was coming, the kind of storm that would shut down a city, and leave all those within stranded. Our driver looked out at the darkening sky, shook his head, and I learnt a key new phrase – "If you don't like the weather in Jordan, drive half an hour."

Our ears popped as we made the descent down to the Dead Sea, officially the lowest spot on the earth's surface, and safe from the approaching blizzard.

Unfortunately, the high winds had closed the beach at the Dead Sea itself, so a float was out of the question. It wasn't just my swim the weather was hindering. All across the country, snow was falling, sites were flooding and roads were closing.

The only spot still open for business was the beach resort of Aqaba, so we changed our plans and headed south. A mecca for divers, Aqaba is surrounded by crystal blue waters and, I happily discovered, blessed with frequent sunshine. While Aqaba provided respite from the freak weather, I was getting restless. My trip was nearing an end, and two attempts to reach the ancient city of Petra had been thwarted.

Thankfully, the weather gods smiled down upon me, and on my final day in Jordan the roads were opened.

Jordan has long been associated with Lawrence of Arabia. The desert scenes that you'll recognise from the movie are in the region of Wadi Rum.

Less than an hour from Aqaba, the red sands of Wadi Rum felt like the surface of another planet. Mountains of sandstone and granite rose from the flat plains. We drove higher into the mountains, on smaller roads that wound through tiny villages, before Petra finally appeared before us.

Mohammad pointed out remnants of an ancient era. A set of steps were carved into the rock, leading to a hidden doorway. The crumbling remains of tombs were obscured in the red stone.

We'd been walking for a while when Mohammad stopped me. "For all the time we've been walking, I haven't heard you say 'Wow' once." I worried that I'd offended him. But he was smiling. "Now turn around."

There, between two curved masses of stone the colour of a sunset, stood the Treasury building, glowing in the sunlight. It's the view that stuns all those who see it. The Treasury looked like it had been freshly carved the day before. People stood transfixed, unable to tear their eyes away.

I could have happily spent the entire day walking the walls of the legendary city, but the real world was calling. I left Petra behind me, feeling blessed to have seen a sight so beautiful and unique. When I flew home the next day, I realised I felt exactly the same way about Jordan.

For more information, including a list of accredited guides, see Visit Jordan (visitjordan.com)

Irish Independent

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