As we walked down the meandering, dusty passageway set in between towering, sandstone cliff walls, I felt like we were uncovering a secret. We were entering Petra – a unique, ancient city, sitting cosily in a canyon in the mountains of southern Jordan, which until recently, I had never even heard of.
The dramatic entrance known as the Siq is a winding path set in rock split by a shift in the earth’s tectonic plates. The 1.2km corridor is largely protected from the midday heat but as you turn each corner, you’re greeted by an awesome sight of rock formations lit by the occasional glimpse of sunlight. About half an hour later, you turn your final corner before entering a vast archaeological site boasting thousands of tombs dating back to the Nabateaeans, a 3rd century BC Arab Dynasty. As you step inside Petra, it really feels like you’re stepping back to the times of the old testimant,
Jordan isn’t a common backpacker destination but it certainly provides an adventure off the beaten track. You can trek deep into the desert and camp out under a blanket of stars, read a book whilst floating in the Dead Sea or be pampered at one of it’s spas using local, natural products. Jordan is located close to the heart of Judaea Christian history so you can trace the footsteps of the prophets and soak up the generous, forthcoming Jordanian hospitality. Throughout my trip I was constantly amazed at the kindness of locals who invited me into their homes, gave directions when I was lost, and helped me when we I was sick (a particularly nice guesthouse owner looked after me during a ghastly episode of food poisoning).
I was also very fortunate on my first day in Petra to meet two locals who kindly took the time to show me their ancient home. Ahmed and Zohair had learned and perfected spoken English from speaking to tourists from a young age, yet they explained that because there were few visitors, they had little work and so were happy to show me the place in which they grew up. On my final night in Petra, they invited me to their village and into their family home for dinner. I sat on their floor, tearing homemade bread and dipping it into the most delicious hummus while I drank mint tea heated over a fire and exchanged stories over a sheesha. These people may have grown up in a rural desert, but they were well educated in world affairs and were light hearted about the Middle East and its relations with the west, namely the United States. This became apparent when they introduced us to their two donkeys, ‘Monica’ and ‘Lewinsky’.
Meeting Ahmed and Zohair served as a reminder that touts and pick pockets are not always the norm when traveling. Perhaps the friendliness of Jordanians comes from their eagerness for westerners to see Jordan for its qualities and not to be hazed by its location. They say that geographically, Jordan is stuck between a ‘rock and a hard place.’ I’m assuming the ‘rock’ is Iraq and the ‘hard place’ any of its other neighbours; the West Bank, Israel, Syria or Saudi Arabia. Yet it is relatively safe. Indeed, if you’re after something a bit different, before the crowds arrive, I suggest you hurry. The Foreign Office is currently advocating travel to Jordan and The Jordanian Tourist Board has unleashed new initiatives in a bid to boost tourism. In addition, Petra has just been named one of the new ‘Seven Wonders’ of the world. It seems to me that the secret’s out.