The smell of fresh figs, dates and pomegranates is an assault on the senses as I move among the shoppers in the marketplace of Amman. I bite into the nugget of juicy mango offered by the stallholder and accept a handful of saffron-flavoured pistachios and a sliced fig. He smiles a greeting. The smile is genuine, the welcome real, for the Jordanians’ warmth and traditional hospitality have not been corrupted by mass tourism.
Jordan offers the visitor everything from ancient sites to stunning beaches, plus stress-free modern shopping and superb hotels. There are no touts spoiling your walk as you follow in the footsteps of Old Testament prophets or wander the sandy streets of 3,000-year-old cities, and no beggars implore you with outstretched hands for a few cents, for there are no beggars here.
The shopkeepers are busier with their worry beads than with their calculators and no one tries to sell you a kaftan when you finger the beaded silk robes outside a shop. Dead Sea health products – especially the mud, which works wonders on the face and body – finely decorated daggers and swords and the high-quality, hand-blown glass for which Jordan is famous are real bargains in this part of the Middle East.
Amman’s Roman remains are overlooked because of the glory that is Petra but this city that sprawls across seven hills has a rich history of its own. Wander among its centuries-old colannaded streets, its well-preserved Roman theatre and Nymphaeneum. Better still, view them from Citadel Hill in the early morning when the stones of Hercules’ Temple and the Umayyad Palace on the summit are awash with golden sunlight.
Gigantic sandstone blocks litter the ground, part of the Roman Temple jigsaw awaiting completion by archaeologists working on this vast 1200BC complex. The nearby museum houses the third-century Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered by Bedouin in 1947.
A few hours’ drive along the King’s Highway that cuts through the desert and you are in Wadi Rum, familiar to film fans as the setting for Lawrence of Arabia. Massive pillars of red sandstone surge out of the dun-coloured desert that was once a caravan route: many of the rocks and stones still show the graffitti engraved on them 2,000 years ago. To spend a night in the desert as the sunset deepens the shadows and colours the rocks, to sleep under inky black skies filled with stars, and to wake at dawn to see the rocks change from brown to reddish-pink is a life-affirming event you will never forget.
Not far from Wadi Rum, the Red Sea port of Aqaba lies in a spectacular setting of purple-coloured mountains and white sandy beaches ringed with palm trees. A maze of shops clusters together up the wide, hilly streets, many selling the turquoise and lapis lazuli for which the town is famous. Apart from the Mamluk Fort on the corniche and the castle of Saladin on an island in the middle of the Gulf, there are few places demanding attention, making it the perfect little town in which to relax.
Its deep, indigo-coloured waters that never fall below 20 degrees teem with rainbow-hued marine life and make it a mecca for international divers. If you prefer not to get wet, take a glass-bottomed boat from the beach.
Journey from the golden sands of Aqaba to the rose-red city of Petra and you enter a sixth-century BC world of temples, Roman theatres and rock-cut chambers. Petra, a legacy from the Nabataens who settled in southern Jordan more than 2,000 years ago, was lost to the west until 1812, when Swiss explorer Louis Burckhardt penetrated the walls of this hidden city and returned to Europe to tell the world of its wonders. A Unesco World Heritage Site, 85% of the city is still to be excavated.
The cliff walls on either side of the Siq, the 1,200m chasm that winds through the canyon and is the only approach to the hidden city, soar for upwards of 80m into an impossibly blue sky until, suddenly, the narrow defile opens on to a square and you are face to face with the grandeur of the Treasury façade, carved out of the pink sandstone rock. This was used to spectacular effect in the final scenes of the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Walk a little further and you are in the centre of the ancient city, passing intricately decorated housefronts cut into the sandstone cliffs, impressive royal tombs, rock drawings and reliefs, the colonnaded street at the heart of Petra and a theatre dating from 25AD.
By the pleasant terraced restaurant, a flight of 800 steps leads to the Sacrificial Place, with stunning views over the countryside. Those who are daunted by the steps can make the journey on a donkey or horse – well worth it if the day is very hot.
Jordan tourism is still in its early stages but it has some magnificent hotels. The pomegranates, the figs and the cup of sweet tea will be waiting, for a warm welcome and the hand of friendship will always be extended to the visitor from the people of this most peace-loving nation.
The best time to photograph the Treasury façade in Petra is around 11am when the sun has begun to intensify the rock’s colour.
Amman is relatively small, taxis are cheap and drivers knowledgeable. Women should sit in the back of the taxi, but men should always sit in the front. Taxis are reasonable even over long distances, but several bus companies offer regular tours.
For Petra tel: (06) 562 1217/6
For Wadi Rum tel: (06) 562 6135
Car rental is a good way of seeing the country and available with a valid UK driving licence.
Arabic cuisine plays an important part in the culture. A typical meal will include a mouth-watering array of aromatic breads, salads, savouries and mansaf, Jordan’s traditional dish of lamb, yoghurt and pine nuts served on a bed of rice. Alcohol is available in most major hotels and restaurants.
Recommended restaurant in Amman: Reem Albawadi (Gazelle of the Desert), tel: (06) 551 5419
Royal Diving Club: PADI 5* IDC Dive Centre, Aqaba Southern Coastal Road, fresh-water pools, beachfront bar and cafeteria, sun deck, all facilities are wheelchair accessible.
Tel: +926 3 203 2709, email: email@example.com. www.rdc.jo
Jordan Tourism Board in Amman, tel: (06) 567 8294, opens daily 8am-4pm except Fridays
Best Guidebook: 1st Edition Jordan Handbook (Footprint)