Petra is full of mysteries. One that astonishes me is hearing our guide say that 95 per cent of this abandoned ancient city remains unexcavated.
‘And,’ says Abdullah, as we peruse the vast archaeological site from a lookout known as the High Place of Sacrifice, ‘it’s only recently that Jordanians have realised the worth of our treasures. In the past, ancient sites would be dismantled to use for building materials but now they’re protected.’
Like most, I feel familiar with Petra only from the scene in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade when Indy (Harrison Ford) and his father (Sean Connery) venture into the Treasury to seek out the Holy Grail. But nothing compares with the real thing.
And you could base yourself here for days and still only scratch the surface as it’s spread over 100 square miles — four times the size of Manhattan. While old Petra, which was founded in the year 312 BC as the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom with a 30,000-strong population, is no longer a working city and a protected Unesco site, the steadily growing, modern-day town of Wadi Musa is within walking distance.
I’m on a whirlwind seven-day tour travelling the length of Jordan arranged by adventure tour operator Exodus and our 16-strong group check in to a basic hotel in the heart of Wadi Musa. ‘I’ve just always dreamed of visiting this place,’ says Donna, a retired climbing instructor, as we clamber out of the white tour bus.
Rich in culture: Sadie Whitelocks explores Jordan on a seven-day trip arranged by adventure tour operator Exodus. A highlight of the trip is a visit to the abandoned ancient city of Petra, where she sees the Treasury (pictured) temple before the crowds arrive for the day
The problem is that many others have had the same dream — and on our first day in Petra it’s impossible to get a clear shot of the Treasury without tourists and weary-looking camels in view. It is not possible to go inside the elaborate Greek-style temple but Abdullah reassures us ‘there’s not much to see inside’, with one main chamber.
In a bid to beat the crowds, James, another solo traveller, and I get up at 6am the next day and jog down to Petra from our hotel to get there for when it opens.
We are rewarded with an eerie silence as we snake through the towering sandstone gorge before standing in front of the Treasury. Hardly anyone else is around.
From there, we embark on a hike to Petra’s other big draw, the Monastery. Built by the Nabateans — a lesser-known Arab tribe hailing from the south east of the Arabian Peninsula — around the first century, this place of worship or tomb has a huge sandstone facade, measuring 47 metres in width and 48 metres in height.
The descent from the Monastery follows the same route, with a peppering of small Bedouin souvenir shops along the way selling everything from colourful scarves to black kohl eyeliner used by the Arabs to protect their eyes from the sun’s glare.
In Petra, Sadie hikes to the Monastery, pictured, a place of worship or tomb that was built around the first century
Half the group reconvene at one of Petra’s more unusual features, a cave bar inside a 2,000-year-old tomb teetering on the edge of the ancient city.
Legend has it that Jesus drank wine from a small town in northern Jordan with his disciples at the last supper. We had started our tour in the bustling Jordanian capital of Amman, hitting a spread of historical sites in and around the metropolis. And after Petra, our bus takes us to another famous site, Wadi Rum.
Nicknamed the Valley of the Moon, this rust-coloured desert does feel otherworldly. ‘Vast, echoing and God-like,’ was how Lawrence of Arabia described the 720 square kilometre area almost a century ago.
We transfer into ramshackle open top Jeeps to get to our Bedouin-style desert camp, which would be our base for the night. Here, the rooms take an even more basic turn, with metal beds housed inside stilted cloth-covered huts.
‘Nicknamed the Valley of the Moon, this rust-coloured desert does feel otherworldly,’ Sadie says of Wadi Rum (pictured)
Above, a Bedouin makes tea in Wadi Rum. Lawrence of Arabia once described the desert as ‘vast, echoing and God-like’ (file photo)
The next day we head back north, stopping in Aqaba for a restorative beach day by the Red Sea and our final port of call lands us on the shores of the Dead Sea in our fanciest hotel yet, a sprawling Holiday Inn. After a long day in the bus, all of us swiftly change into our swimming gear and head to the beach to experience the unique floating effect of one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water.
I enjoy some effortless bobbing in the briny waters and slather the Dead Sea’s slimy mud all over me, hoping it will give my skin a more youthful look.
The remnants of muddy minerals in my hair aren’t the only enriching takeaway from this ancient land.
Exodus Travels offers a nine-day trip in Jordan from £1,949 pp, including flights, all accommodation, breakfasts and two dinners, transport and listed activities, tour leader throughout and airport transfers. Multiple departure dates throughout 2023 (exodus.co.uk, 0203 1312 785).