The unearthly delights of Jordan

From the wind-carved alleys of Petra, to the shifting red-gold sands of Wadi Rum, to the gleaming reaches of the Royal Stables, Alice B-B finds revelation piled upon revelation on an archaeologist-led private tour of Jordan

Discovery Bedu camp, sometimes described as Jordan’s best “hotel”, in the Wadi Rum desert
Discovery Bedu camp, sometimes described as Jordan’s best “hotel”, in the Wadi Rum desert

Nothing, but nothing, can prepare you for the wonder that is Petra. After an early rise to beat the crowds and the hazy heat, I march down the kilometre-long “Siq” , a natural fissure in the 80m-high mountains. Until, like a Broadway show, the sandstone curtains part to reveal the starlet: The Treasury. Pillars and broken pediments adorn this royal tomb, hewn with extraordinary skill and detail over 2,100 years ago by the Nabataeans, borrowing architectural wow factor from Alexandria. 

Walking deeper into this vast city, with its endless tombs, theatre and temples, it’s clear that to appreciate the visual spectacle of Petra, you need nothing more than your eyes. But to appreciate the cultural importance of the Pink City, you need an ace guide who can bring history to life. So as I walk through Petra, I’m feeling a bit smug that at my side is Professor Konstantinos Politis.

From left: One of the horses performing in the arena of the Royal Stables. The author beside the late King Hussein’s vintage 1932 Morris Cowley Tourer
From left: One of the horses performing in the arena of the Royal Stables. The author beside the late King Hussein’s vintage 1932 Morris Cowley Tourer | Image: Alice B-B

Politis is one of the world’s pre-eminent archaeologists and a Jordan specialist since he participated in a dig in 1987 on the northern border at Umm Qais that unearthed the New Testament site of the Miracle of the Gadarene Swine. Here in Petra, Politis conjures up the city’s past – it was a place where frankincense, brought from southern Arabia by the Bedouin, was ferociously traded. “Bedouin businessmen, exhausted, tired and thirsty, who hadn’t seen their wives in a while, having crossed the desert for weeks, would leave their camels in Little Petra. And as [archeology professor] Dr Stephan Schmid says, Petra was like Vegas,” explains Politis. “This was not a dead city, with rocks and stones and tombs. Yes, you came to trade frankincense, visit your relatives’ tombs. But you also came to Petra for a bit of fun.”

Today, Petra still bustles. Horse-drawn carts clatter down the Siq like Roman chariots, while local lads with kohl-lined eyes do their best Johnny Depp and flirt with passing girls. Politis points out the former hotel (now a base for archaelogists and historians) that featured in Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, then introduces us to a stallholder, who happens to be New Zealand-born Marguerite van Geldermalsen, author of Married to a Bedouin

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While I would like Politis to be all mine on this week‑long trip through the Hashemite Kingdom, I’m reconciled to sharing him with nine others – a state of affairs that made my heart sink with recollections of a geography school field trip. But the point, and pay off, of travelling in small groups – particularly those, like this one, orchestrated by Henrietta Loyd of bespoke operators Cazenove+Loyd – is that they deliver both specialist guides and extraordinary access not always available even as part of a private tailormade trip

As our bus heads over the hill from the capital city of Amman towards verdant woods, Loyd’s estimable pulling power becomes clear. She has garnered access to the Royal Stables, where Princess Alia Al Hussein (the eldest child of the late King Hussein of Jordan) continues to maintain the pure Arabian line, known to the Bedouin as “the drinkers of wind”. There are now 88 horses, all of them descendants of the remaining seven mares and five stallions that survived the Great Arab Revolt of 1916. A white picket fence surrounds an emerald grass arena, a cool contrast to the warm, dusty city, as Iftikhar Hussain, director of the Royal Stables, puts on a display of various former winners of the Middle East Arab Horse Show. Each steed is more elegant than the next; for the finale, a grey called Jamil is led into the ring. His handler shows off the purebred’s neck extension (which in competition carries 40 per cent of the marks), before letting him off the leading rein. “He has the best trot in the whole of the stables,” says Hussain proudly, as the stallion prances around the arena, somehow hovering mid-air between strides. 

The 2,100-year-old sandstone city of Petra is reached via the kilometre-long fissure in the mountains called the Siq
The 2,100-year-old sandstone city of Petra is reached via the kilometre-long fissure in the mountains called the Siq | Image: Alamy Stock Photo

As we leave, a further surprise awaits. Like Cinderella’s carriage, the bus has vanished; in its place is not a pumpkin but a line-up of gleaming vintage automobiles that form part of the late King Hussein’s collection. I leap into an army-green 1932 Morris Cowley Tourer – the rest of the group are in 1971 Excaliber Series 11s and 1958 Mercedes Benz W180s – and we’re driven through the city – a rare treat indeed, as this is the very first time the cars have been used to transport non-royal visitors. Arriving at The Royal Automobile Museum, there’s a dearth of tourists – strange, until it becomes evident that once again Cazenove+Loyd has ticked the access box: the museum has been shut to the public so that we can have a private tour of the collection of 85 cars and 45 motorbikes, including the 1952 Aston Martin DB2 that the late King Hussein used while studying at Sandhurst in England, and a slinky BMW M1 on which he and his son, Prince Abdullah (now His Majesty King Abdullah II), would zoom to the coast at Aqaba. 

Later that night, in Amman, I visit the area of Abdoun – once a coyote-filled suburb, now a swanky district where non-veiled teens hang out at Four Winters drinking liquid nitrogen-frozen milkshakes after a yoga session with insta-guru Farah Abdulhadi. As the sun sets, I sit on the rooftop of the Sekrab Bar. I sip a G&T, surrounded by people drinking and smoking as the call to prayer echoes down the valley, astonished by the leniency of this Muslim country and remembering the last time I was in Jordan, in 2014, reporting on the work of Unicef in the refugee camps of Zaatari and Irbid. Most of the adult refugees I met thought they would be in the camps for a few weeks before going home, while the schoolchildren were full of optimism and ambition, many dreaming of becoming doctors and lawyers. Jordan’s altruism is remarkable: roughly one in every four inhabitants is a refugee, putting immense pressure on its resources, for this country is the Middle East’s poor cousin. Jordan has virtually no oil. But as Queen Rania was quoted saying in a recent interview: “If my husband closed the borders, how would we sleep at night?” 

From left: the author about to embark on a hot-air balloon trip. Alfresco dining at Discovery Bedu camp
From left: the author about to embark on a hot-air balloon trip. Alfresco dining at Discovery Bedu camp

Tourism is at a low right now because Jordan sits bang in the thick of political chaos, bordering Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel/Palestine and Syria where, six years on, civil war continues to rage. The recent ban on laptops and tablets in hand luggage on flights from Jordan (and five other Middle Eastern countries) to the UK doesn’t help. But I travel boldly to the Hashemite Kingdom with author Bella Pollen’s words ringing in my ears: “I drove across Syria with my family the week civil war broke out in 2011,” she tells me. “We were warned not to go, but I wanted to see it so badly and knew we’d never get another chance.” Thankfully the situation in Jordan, known as the “Switzerland of the Middle East”, is a far cry from that of Syria. The country feels safe – not just on the streets at a petty-crime level, but also on a geopolitical level, which is largely due to King Abdullah’s remarkable peacekeeping skills. 

The next day we head south to experience the 720sq km of desert that make up the Wadi Rum. The drive takes us along the Desert Highway, which is used by pilgrims driving to Mecca following the Hajj route, and, in 2003, by scores of American troops driving tanks to Iraq in the days before Baghdad fell. It’s easy to forget to breathe as you enter the desert: pink sandstone mountains pierce a cloudless, crystalline sky, the wind-carved monolithic rocks displaying nature’s artistry at its most majestic. “Vast, echoing and God-like” is how TE Lawrence so aptly described the Wadi Rum, the place from which he helped to launch the Great Arab Revolt. 

The Dead Sea, 430m below sea level
The Dead Sea, 430m below sea level | Image: Getty Images

Our guide Saleh puts pedal to the metal in our Jeep, kicking up sand as we go and go. No road signs, no speed limits, just his innate knowledge of the terrain as we head to Discovery Bedu – our camp for the night, which some say is the best “hotel” in Jordan. Six pure-white tents with double and twin beds, hot showers and solar power; blissfully free of WiFi and phone connection; and, most importantly, an unsurpassable sunset view between pillared mountains. 

That night, after a traditional zarb dinner (the lamb is baked for hours in a drum beneath the sand until the meat slips from the bone), I wrap up in a blanket against the desert’s night chill and stare at the stars, thinking of the Bedouin who for years have made this harsh environment their home. And of explorer and spy Gertrude Bell, bold and brave, crossing this desert in 1905 – a woman in a man’s world. Then I recall that Bell liked to travel with her full china tea set and roll-top bath tub – which somehow absolves me as I fall asleep in the soft, pure-linen lap of tented luxury

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Despite a 5am wake-up call the next morning, an early start is easy when it’s to watch the sun rise from a hot-air balloon in the Wadi Rum. Saleh, wrapped up against the morning dew in a dalmatic camel coat, zooms us back through the desert to meet a former member of the special forces-turned-Montgolfier – his military prowess comforting for this balloon virgin. We lift off as the flying machine makes its magical ascent to 900m. Life is put in perspective as I stand suspended in that tiny wicker basket above the vast burnt ochre and shadowy blue of the desert.

The rest of the busy day is no less thrilling. Politis leads us to view petrographic rock art: an ibex, a lady giving birth, a pair of feet (a symbol of good luck) – all marks by Bedouin Arabs from about the 1st century AD. Later we’re granted an audience with 87-year-old Bedouin Abu Salem in his camel-hair tent. While his son bakes a flatbread, we sit cross-legged as he tells tales of the hardship of growing up in the desert and how much easier life is now. 

Politis has saved the best for last, one of the most important Jordanian discoveries in the past 30 years: Lot’s Cave – the site from the Old Testament story, where Lot lived with his daughters after his wife was turned into a pillar of salt as she fled the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. “I came here in 1986, on a survey looking for sites, and found it by accident,” says Politis. “For 15 years we struggled to uncover the site of a Christian church, and then, on 15 Sept 1991, workers were digging a hole and I said,  ‘Stop digging so deep’ – I was ready to fire them! But they were actually revealing the top of what is the entrance to Lot’s Cave, whose name was inscribed three times inside.” As he explains how the early converts to Christianity needed to build their churches above holy sites and relics in order to sanctify them and thus attract pilgrims, mine and my fellow travellers’ gratitude for the privilege of being guided by this exceptional man, with his primary source of knowledge, is palpable.

The final hit of wonderment happens later that day, as we head to the lowest point on earth at the shore of the Dead Sea, some 430m below sea level. It’s another nothing-can-prepare-you-for-it moment: the feeling of floating like a cork on the saline water, while looking across the vast lake towards the West Bank, knowing that beyond those mountains lies Bethlehem. And as the air above twinkles with evaporated crystals, it saddens me that the Dead Sea is shrinking at an alarming rate. Proof, again, that the Hashemite Kingdom is a place of extraordinary, but increasingly fragile, experiences that need to be savoured now. For time, and Jordan’s salty tide, wait for no man.

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