We discover breathtaking mountains and ancient historical sites
Time Out Dubai staff
Cruising into the coastal town of Aqaba – Jordan’s only seaport, and a popular beach resort in the south of the country – I’m instantly intrigued by what the nation has to offer. Upon entering, my driver points out the city of Eliat in the distance, whose bright lights become increasingly alluring as we drive closer. He also alerts me to the fact that Aqaba, so named as it’s situated in the Gulf of Aqaba, sits just across the water from Taba in Egypt, making it an ideal transit point for Middle Eastern travellers, not to mention a strategic trading hub for Jordanians.
My instincts tell me this is a pleasant retreat for holidaymakers and backpackers alike: while it’s often disregarded by tourists in favour of Jordan’s better-known cities (Amman, Petra, Jerash), it still has plenty to offer. As well as being a serene, quiet resort, perfect for relaxing, it boasts cultural landmarks such as the Al Sharif Al-Hussein Bin Ali Mosque (not to be confused with the King Hussein Mosque in Amman). At the same time, its handy location, just two hours from hotspots Petra and Wadi Rum, makes it an ideal base camp for those with less time on their hands.
Importantly, the city is a tax-free zone, making it the perfect hunting ground for opportunistic shoppers who can purchase anything from electronics to Dead Sea skincare products. Indeed, the Aqaba market is particularly good for those seeking spices, teas, nuts and tobacco.
The lost city After a good night’s sleep and beach breakfast, I hit the road to visit Jordan’s most visited tourist attraction: Petra. Home to the ancient peoples of Jordan, known as the Nabataeans, this archaeological and historical wonder, which dates back to 6 BC, is also described as the Lost City, and more widely known as the filming ground for the 1989 Hollywood adventure flick Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the 2009 movie Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Interestingly, its early inhabitants, who came to Jordan from Arabian Peninsula countries such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia in search of a new settlement, left little trace of their existence, making it difficult for historians to get a feel for this bygone culture. According to my guide, there were no inscriptions found on cave walls, nor any trace of Nabataean literature.
Venturing deeper into Nabataean territory, I’m left speechless by the rock-hewn architecture and carvings of gods (Egyptian, Greek and Arabian), not to mention a sophisticated water conduit system. Indeed, it was the access to water that made Petra such an attractive site for the Nabataeans in the first place, in addition to the towering stones that were used to create a fortress around the city. My guide explains that the Nabataeans controlled flash flooding – to which the site is prone – with the use of dams, which also enabled them to store water in the event of a drought.
Al Khazneh (The Treasury) is the elegant and elaborate centrepiece of Petra. It’s hard to believe that such a masterpiece was carved by hand from top to bottom some 2,000 years ago. Though much of its detail has eroded with time, its intricate sculptures remain clearly visible, and are thought to represent various mythological figures from the afterlife. Historians believe it was originally built to hide treasure, which could explain why it’s peppered with bullet holes.
But the Treasury is not the only important landmark within Petra – others include the 8,000 amphitheatre, the Monastery (tomb complex) and the 800 steps up to it (about an hour’s climb). Touring the site is a gruelling workout, especially in the midday heat amid an impromptu entourage of souvenir-selling children. Thankfully there’s an opportunity to ride a camel, donkey or horse back to the entrance, which comes free with your ticket, though you’re obliged to pay a ‘tip’ of JD5 (Dhs25) to the owners. Fervent horse enthusiasts should request a longer hack around the mountains, providing a view of one of the world’s oldest cities from above. The horses are fairly tame, but will take you for a good gallop upon request.
Bobbing about On my second day, I decide to hit the road to visit the Dead Sea. Jordan has a good network of roads and highways, so the trip, albeit a long one (about three and a half hours), gives an interesting insight into everyday Jordanian life and some spectacular roads (the best being the route that snakes alongside the Dead Sea). Amazingly, many rural Jordanians still live between Bedouin-style camps and rock dwellings. I reach the Dead Sea around lunchtime. Visitors are instructed to bathe in the salty water first, before dowsing themselves in natural mud, leaving it on for half an hour and then washing it off. I adhere to the traditional bathing formalities, though soon find it’s not as easy as it sounds – because of the Dead Sea’s abnormally high concentration of salt, swimmers float naturally (a feeling akin to having a life-jacket wrapped around your ankles and head), making movement a little clumsy. But after splashing around and accidentally gulping down some of the salty water (which has an almost oily consistency), I emerge with my skin feeling softer.
Downtown drifting I’ve been trying to see as much of Jordan as humanly possible in the space of 48 hours, so there’s not much time to take in the sights and sounds of the capital, in downtown Amman. But what I do see, I love. A good meeting point and stopover for backpackers is the Abbassi Hotel, which comes complete with hostel-type rooms, friendly front-of-house staff and cheap by-the-night rates. The staff can also direct you to the best restaurants and cafés, which are otherwise hidden among Amman’s small cobbled streets.
The city is best explored by foot and tourists can breathe in a wealth of tradition as they stroll around the shops and souks. Keen to grab a quick drink and evening meal, I venture up a steep hill, where stunning views of the houses and mosques on the mountains opposite open out in front of me. It’s at this point – at the end of my journey – that I truly come to appreciate that a weekend in Jordan is a worthy excursion, but the tight timeframe doesn’t do the country’s wealth of history and culture justice. For me, at least, a return visit is definitely in order.
Need to know
Getting there Flydubai flies direct from Dubai to Amman, with return flights from Dhs970 return. www.flydubai.com.
Where to stay Radisson Blu Tala Bay Resort, Aqaba Overlooking the Red Sea, this comfortable hotel offers six bars and restaurants (including the amusingly named Baywatch), plus a private beach with snorkelling and diving. From Dhs424 a night. South Beach, Tala Bay, www.radissonblu.com/resort-aqaba (+962 3 209 0777).
Also see Wadi Mujib The infamous gorge that enters the Dead Sea at 410m below sea level is among Jordan’s most striking sites. It is the lowest nature reserve in the world and boasts fantastic biodiversity.
Wadi Rum (The Valley of the Moon) Tourists have described Wadi Rum as similar to what Mars might look like, with its red sand and sunsets.
King Hussein Mosque, Amman Built in 1924 by King Abdullah and restored in 1987, the mosque is thought to be Amman’s largest, and can apparently hold 10,000 people.