Hey, World Wonder

A gateway to the Middle East, Jordan is packed with spectacular sights and experiences. SUHANAAB spends a week discovering its key spots

IT IS SUPPOSEDLY winter in Jordan but it is scorching hot. The woollen Breton-striped sweater I’m wearing does me no favour at all and I find myself working up a sweat. My chiselled-face tour guide, Jacob, laughs at me and chirps: “Forgive our fickle weather; it was snowing just last week!”

As I approach the gates of Petra, I start to think that sunshine is a blessing after all. Even though it’s been only a short while since sunrise, the morning sun has cast a beautiful glow over the famous archaeological site, inadvertently highlighting its beauty.
Petra has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1985. Its claim to fame? It’s predominantly carved out of the sandstone cliffs. The geniuses behind it? The Nabateans, an Arab kingdom that occupied the area more than 2,000 years ago.
Surrounded by mountains, gorges and trekking trails, Petra has a rich history. It was once a caravan centre where merchants converged to trade in silk, incense and spices among many things. Just like other ancient civilisations, the city suffered periods of instability and changes in rulers. By the 14th century, it was lost and remained hidden for some 300 years, till it was re-discovered by explorer, Johann Ludwig.

“Oh come on, we were never lost. It’d be silly to think that Jordanians didn’t know where Petra was. Staying hidden was a choice,” Jacob retorts. Being hidden isn’t too difficult for Petra especially when one has to traverse a 1-km gorge surrounded by sandstone walls of 200m to access its heart. The narrow gorge, also known as the Siq, was formed by the natural splitting of the mountain. It is so deep and narrow that sunshine doesn’t reach the bottom

For those concerned about becoming weary even before embarking on the main Petra trail, there is the option of a horse carriage ride. But to truly soak in the experience, consider walking the distance to Petra’s main architectural attraction, the Treasury. Its facade has appeared in blockbusters such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The Treasury, also known as the Al Khazna, shows itself dramatically via a narrow zigzag opening. As if to build anticipation, only a small portion of carved rocks can be seen initially. I quicken my pace. A tall rose-red column comes into view — just like that, I come face-to-face with one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. To describe it as majestic is quite an understatement. The Treasury is literally a diamond in the rough. While its surroundings are uneven, raw and coarse, the carved monument appears smooth, showcasing precise lines and intricate details. Just look at its Corinthian columns and capitals

After uploading a series of photos onto Instagram, we move on to tour Petra proper. “Are you fit?” asks Jacob. “If you like, I can take you on a hidden trail that only guides like me know.” After leaving the Treasury, we veer right and spend the next 90 minutes scaling the rocky terrain of Petra. Even though strenuous, it is worth the effort. From some 100m up, I am treated to views of other attractions. The Theatre, carved out of the side of the mountain, is a work of art. This trail gives hikers the opportunity to literally sit in the ancient tombs, where dead Nabateans were laid to rest. Today, these hollowed spaces showcase the geology of the area

The descent is much easier than going up. When you reach the bottom, you will find yourself at the end of the central trail right by the Great Temple. Here, you decide if you would like to scale 900 steps to reach the Monastery, a monument similar to but much larger than the Treasury, or take a leisurely stroll on level ground where you can marvel at other sights of interest such the church, theatre, nymphaeum and the Royal Tombs

A two-hour drive from Petra is another Unesco World Heritage Site, Wadi Rum. It is no less famous than the Treasury, having featured in cinematic classics such as Lawrence of Arabia, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and The Martian. Wadi Rum is a desert dotted with large monolithic rocks. The best way to see it is to hire a four-wheel drive with a local guide. Mine is a smiley Bedouin, who over the two-hour drive through the barren landscape, makes pit stops for me to view petroglyphs written by Nabateans on cave walls, hike up sand dunes and take photographs

To make the experience more adventurous, try staying (or rather, glamping) at one of the many Bedouin-style camps. This is where you can enjoy unobstructed scenes of the night sky. After a few days of admiring the natural rocky landscape of Petra and Wadi Rum, I decide to visit the coastal city of Aqaba. Located in the southernmost district of Jordan, it is famous for a diverse marine life.

If you fancy idling on the beach, Mövenpick Resort & Residences Aqaba is where to stay. It is quiet, has a private stretch of beach, and allows you to recharge. Another advantage of staying here is that it’s just a 10-minute stroll to the town centre, where you will get a glimpse of how the locals live. Tuck into Middle Eastern pastries and visit Arab-styled fashion boutiques and provision shops that sell spices and tea

A visit to Jordan is not complete without stopping by the Dead Sea. Located 420m below sea level, it is famous for having waters so high in salt content — eight times more than in other oceans — that one floats with ease.

I check in at the Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea. Sprawled over some 10 hectares, the property replicates the setting of a traditional Jordanian village. The two-storey buildings are constructed with local stones and come with lush gardens to transport one back in time. The Mövenpick offers private access to the Dead Sea so you get to enjoy it rather peacefully. But since it isn’t located within a bay, the waters here can get a little choppy. The descent into the sea is a little rocky, too, so accept help from the lifeguard on standby. He will guide you to deeper waters safely so you can experience floating in the Dead Sea.

For a more pleasant experience, wear goggles to keep the stinging water out of your eyes and water shoes to protect your feet from sharp salt formations. It may be a bit much for young children but fret not, they can splash about in the resort’s large pools

The Dead Sea is only a 50-minute drive to the airport but I am not leaving without visiting Jerash. I’ve been told by luxury tour operator Lightfoot Travel that it is in a league of its own and shouldn’t be missed. After dropping my luggage at the Grand Hyatt in the capital Amman, I head north to Jerash, which is 45 minutes away by car. It is indeed a mesmerising sight.

So mighty, it once was, Jerash was declared one of the 10 great Roman cities of the Decapolis League. A typical tour begins at the South Gate, where the forum is located. Lined with 56 Ionic columns, it once served as the centre of social activity for locals. From here, take a slow walk down the colonnaded streets, and check out the remains of the Roman town including the South Theatre. Try standing at the centre of the auditorium and observe how its ingenious acoustics allows you to be clearly heard throughout the 3,000-seat auditorium without you having to raise your voice

Jordan is truly a land of wonders. From red rocks to blue seas, it has something for every traveller. Safe and stable under the rule of King Abdullah II, visitors gain wonderful insights into the Middle East here.

The best times to visit are between March and May. If you aren’t planning on glamping in the desert where it is freezing at night, September to February works too.

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