27 January 2023

The famous temple at Petra, as featured in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade
Keeping up with the Joneses
John Kampfner found no use for bullwhip, pistol or machete. But he still felt like Indiana Jones as he explored the splendours of Jordan
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e walked down the dark hill, hemmed in by towering sandstone rocks on either side. We had been told to prepare for a marvel – but no guidebook entry can possibly capture the splendour of what unfolded before us. The narrow chasm gradually opened like a pair of curtains to reveal the Treasury, illuminated by a chink of sunlight – a magnificent facade of columns and figurines built more than 2,000 years ago. The previous evening, my ten-year-old daughter, Constance, and I had arrived in Jordan, and straightaway we were driven the three hours south from the capital Amman to ancient Petra.

We met our guide, Jamili, and she outlined our week’s schedule: culture, desert, then sea – and not any old sea. But first, the wonder that is Petra. After walking down the Siq, the steep entrance to the ancient city, we were in raptures. How could an ancient people, the Nabataeans, a Bedouin tribe from western Arabia, have created all this? Some of the sites are little more than ruins, but much of this startling city is completely intact. For two days we wandered, and wondered, around and on the second morning, Jamili took us into the surrounding hills. We clambered between deserted valleys and ravines and I felt like Indiana Jones, who found the Holy Grail here in Harrison Ford’s third Indiana outing, The Last Crusade.
Stained glass in the church at Mount Nebo
That evening we joined a Jordanian cooking class. We prepared delicious chicken and rice, crisp cheese parcels, a wonderful aubergine dish called Baba Ganouj and (Constance’s favourite) a soup of green wheat, herbs and spices. Jordan is fairly small, and in a single morning you can sample both snow (there’s lots of it in chilly winter) and desert.

I wondered how a country sandwiched between Iraq to the east, the West Bank to the west, Syria to the north, and Saudi Arabia to the south, could have become such a successful tourist destination? Jordan seems to have achieved the feat of being (largely) safe and welcoming, while being true to its heritage. Despite being immortalised by Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones, it has escaped being overrun with tourist tat. The next destination was Wadi Rum, a spectacular desert landscape decorated with dramatic granite and sandstone mountains.

Each peak features its own weird shape and each changes colour as the sun slips through the sky. Next to the visitors’ centre stand the Seven Pillars of Wisdom – the mountain peaks which share a name with T.E. Lawrence’s autobiography and were named by him when he was based in the area during the Arab Revolt in World War I. You don’t have to drive far here before you find yourself alone. Constance and I took off our shoes and ran up an enormous sand dune. We held hands and charged down before toppling head-first into the sand, laughing. As evening approached, we climbed up a jagged crag to watch the sunset, but it was pitch black by the time we made it to the top. Fortunately, two bedouins were already there, preparing tea under the stars. Back at camp, we had been provided with a spacious tent and many blankets.
At one point we scuttled into a cave to shelter from hailstones. The storm passed and we made it to the High Place of Sacrifice, rocks that overlook Petra, and a trio of royal tombs. On our way out, we rode horses back up the hill: a fitting return to the real world and the town of Wadi Musa.
Spend a day in the Dead Sea
"Jordan seems to have achieved the feat of being (largely) safe and welcoming, while being true to its heritage."
I had been told to prepare for the cold, but this was freezing. The next day, after a 6am breakfast, we were given camels to ride back into town, while Jamili and driver Ibrahim disappeared in a 4x4 – the 21st century ‘ship of the desert’. A young local boy accompanied us on our slow but spellbinding journey, as our backs were warmed by the rising sun. I had ridden a camel before but never for this long.

We could feel the after effects in every bone and muscle for days to come. After the man-made beauty of Petra and natural beauty of Wadi Rum, it was time for some serious relaxation.
On our four-hour journey back to the north, Jamili taught me some Arabic wordsand recited with me the five pillars of Islam. She also told me how her grandfather once rode a camel to Mecca for the Muslim Haj pilgrimage. It took him four months. How he must have ached! But we still had two more sites to take in. Mount Nebo is sacred ground for all three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – for it was here that Moses, after leading his people for 40 years through the wilderness, peered from the summit at the Promised Land below. Some believe he was buried here. We wound our way down the mountain, twisting through snaking bends.

The temperature rose as a large expanse of water appeared before us. This was the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth. During the height of the Middle East conflict, it was out of bounds for all but the military. Now it has opened up for tourism. The big hotel chains are rushing to build here, and the Kempinski is the most luxurious. We were covered in dust from the desert, so it was with some embarrassment that we walked through the ornate marble reception to our delightful sea-view room. But nobody seemed to mind. The service was attentive but discreet throughout. And what an indulgence it was. We had invigorating massages in the state-of-the-art spa and we ate fantastically in the various restaurants.

After the endeavours of the first four days, it was pure bliss. The hotel has nine freshwater pools and the longest private beach in the country. Finally, we made for the Dead Sea itself. As we stepped gingerly in, we were overwhelmed: nothing beats the sensation of weightlessness as you float on the famous salty water. I tried a few strokes of crawl but gave up immediately. I simply submitted myself to the waters, relaxed and wondered whether I could get a part in the new Indiana Jones film.

Original article published in Jun 2008. All info and prices correct at time of publication.

"After the man-made beauty of Petra and natural beauty of Wadi Rum, it was time for some serious relaxation."
Pick up a local handicraft in one of the many markets
Spectacular Wadi Rum
Visit the sacred ground of Mount Nebo
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