THE GANG: Women on tour in Petra.
THE GANG: Women on tour in Petra.

Romance, beauty and history in Jordan

"YOU'VE just been where?" people asked in astonishment. "Weren't you afraid?"

The new Queen Alia airport in Amman, the capital of Jordan, glittered in the morning sunlight as the Emirates jet made an on time perfect landing. Entry visa on arrival costs about $60 for an Australian, and takes no time to process. Little sign of security, police or guards as the busy airport goes through its daily ritual of welcoming and farewelling thousands of passengers. Waiting for me at the airport was the driver from Petra Moon Tours who whisked me to the Toledo Hotel, located on a hill above central Amman. With a free day before joining the tour group, I walked fifteen minutes down to the main shopping street lined with market stalls. I happily wandered absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of a country new to me. Older women in long black shapeless chadors (a Persian word for tent) and attractively dressed younger women wearing a belted manteau, which is a coat worn over smart clothes, and coloured scarves, shopped and laughed like women in any other city.

Next day our small group of nine travellers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and USA set off on a day trip in a mini-bus with Rami, our Jordanian guide from Petra Moon Tours. Our first destination was Jerash, a vast ruined Greco-Roman city north-west of Amman. This site has been continuously occupied for over 6,500 years and reached its golden age during the Roman empire around 2000 years ago. Built on top of an existing Greek city, Jerash is one of the best preserved ancient cities in the Middle East, with paved streets lined with colonnades, shops, public squares, thermal baths, fountains and most exquisite of all, splendid temples to the gods and a huge amphitheatre. It was a city combining the best of the Occident and the Orient, with architecture, religion, and languages that reflected the peaceful co-existence of the Greek and Roman civilisation and ancient Arab tradition.

The rest of our time in Amman was spent wandering around the main sites, including the ruined Citadel towering over the city, then we headed south along the Kings Road towards Petra, that 'Rose Red City half as old as time', stopping at the ancient Crusader fortress of Karak Castle build atop a commanding hill in 1140, and subsequently captured by Saladin following the Battle of Hattin in 1189 after beating the Crusaders to end the Second Crusade. The road passed by Mt Nebo from where Moses viewed the Promised Land, with extensive vistas over the Jordan Valley, Dead Sea, Jericho, the Golan Heights and the Judean hills. At intermittent points along the road, soldiers manning tanks guarded the land.

Our introduction to Petra couldn't have been more romantic with the Petra by Night candlelight walk along the narrow one and a half kilometre Siq leading into the equally imposing Treasury, lit by hundreds of candles protected by brown paper bags. Some sites are so extraordinary that mere words are inadequate to describe their effect on a visitor. Petra is one such place. As around two hundred people sat in silence on long mats facing the subtly lit columns of the Treasury, a flute began to play, followed by a one-stringed violin. The effect was magical. The violinist then welcomed us, speaking about merging with the Soul of Petra and the Spirit of the World to send peace and harmony around the Middle East. Most visitors walked back along the Siq in silence, so moved were they by the event.

Next day, Petra regained its business as usual; the noises of camels, donkeys, horses and their owners exhorting us to ride through the vast ruined city, cameras clicking, and guides talking in a myriad of languages to tourists from many lands. This bustle made the mystery of the previous evening seem otherworldly, exposing the sunlit colonnaded streets, tiered theatre, carved facades and tombs, secret places and monasteries. Driving away along the high scenic road leading to Wadi Rum it was difficult to make out the hidden valley containing Petra. The scenery changed from arid to desert dotted with tall, jagged rock formations. Our Arab drivers raced along Wadi Rum, over sand hills and soft sandy roads to a permanent camp featuring a row of camel hair tents and a large common area for meals. Sitting on wind-weathered rocks above the camp watching the sun set over the western hills was another sight to store in the list of visual treasures. Slowly, stars appeared in the clear sky. This was truly a million star resort.

The culmination of the Jordan tour was a swim in the Dead Sea followed by a sumptuous lunch at the pleasant Dead Sea resort and spa. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on the Earth's surface, with a mineral content of over 30% which enabled us to bob like corks in this fast disappearing sea. It's levels have fallen dramatically in the last fifteen years. Our last night was spent in Madaba, the mosaic town with its unique Archaeological Park, not far from the new international airport.

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