Jordan: A land that has fascinated visitors for thousands of years

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For Jonathan Lorie, a visit to the 'lost' city of Petra in the bicentenary year of its rediscovery reveals mystery and history in abundance

"Cousin, do you remember me from 2,600 years ago, when I sold you a shipload of ivory from Africa?" Mahmoud the red-scarfed storyteller shines his torch along our path, lighting the pavement where Hadrian walked, the statues where ancients worshipped and the walls of rock that rise on either side of us to a crack of night sky 500ft above.

"We are walking on tombs," he whispers, leaning closer. "I have found things here by night that I could not find in the morning. Come, cousin, walk with me through the ancient Siq to Petra."

Not every entry into this hidden city, immortalised by emperors, explorers, painters and film-makers, is quite so dramatic. But in the bicentenary year of its rediscovery by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812, I have come to find out what Petra is all about. And Mahmoud is the perfect guide.

"I was born in a cave here, 60 years ago," he confides, as he leads me down the narrow gorge that is the entrance to Petra. "This was my home, like all the people of the village. There were very few tourists then."

And there are very few tourists now, thanks to the Arab Spring. If you ever want to see the ancient sites of Jordan without the crowds, this is your moment.

Tonight the Siq is lit by candles, flickering beside the path. We walk between rows of flames in the dark, turning under towering cliffs, mesmerised into silence. And then we see the sight I have come for.

Nothing you have read prepares you for this. The path makes one last twist. A gap in the rock shows a pillar far off, then a giant statue broken at the waist. You hurry the last few feet as the cliffs part to reveal a vast building carved from the mountain. It has winged goddesses and pediments and a doorway seven times human height. It is the fabled Treasury. And tonight it is lit by hundreds of candles on the square before it, a glittering field of light.

An audience has gathered for a show called Petra By Night. It starts with a musician sitting alone among the candles, scraping a lament from a rababah violin. His wailing song echoes off pillars and cliffs into the dark. Then Mahmoud appears, reciting the city's legends. King David ruled here, and Solomon, and a lost Egyptian princess. "Imagine," he barks, "the days when 5,000 camels arrived in caravan."

After the show I sit among the flames, gazing at the carvings, sifting sand between my fingers like an hourglass. Mahmoud wanders over and smiles. "The Nabateans who built this city also believed in magic," he murmurs, and disappears into the night.

Petra is the original lost city in the desert. Once a mighty trading post, it was abandoned after the Crusades and lay ruined for 500 years. Hostile local tribes kept it secret, but Burckhardt travelled among them in disguise. A storyteller of another kind, he posed as an Islamic scholar for seven years, and bluffed his way into Petra. The report he sent back to London astonished the outside world.

Next morning I return for some exploration of my own. In daylight the place is a scorching bowl of pink and yellow rock, ringed by mountains. Its streets are lined with classical façades cut into the cliffs, housing the tombs of nobles. The city was rich from camel trains bringing frankincense from Arabia, pepper from India and silks from China. Its coins have been dug up in ancient Rome.

To get a sense of all this grandeur, I make the mistake of climbing to the highest tomb at the hottest time of day. It's 854 burning steps up a mountain gorge to the monastery – and for once I'm glad there's a café at the top. I sink on to a bench and order lime juice.

Here on the mountain top is a façade even larger than the Treasury: a doorway and columns 150ft high. I climb inside. It's a vast cube of dark space, where pagan priests once prayed: a huge assertion of faith and power, high above a city now in ruins.

There's only one place in Jordan comparable in scale to Petra, and that's where I'm heading next – because it too will be empty now. Wadi Rum is the Monument Valley of the Middle East, only bigger and with more legends. Here, Lawrence of Arabia swept across the desert with his camel cavalry, blowing up railways in the First World War. And you can see why he chose this as a hideout. It's 500 square miles of loneliness, of bare dunes and forbidding cliffs, where grey rocks tower 2,000ft above red desert and you feel as small as a grain of sand.

Near the Wadi's entrance I spot an old steam train. I stop my Jeep and climb aboard. There are wooden carriages and a flatbed truck protected with sandbags, as though expecting gunfire. A guard says the train will soon be running for tourists: King Abdullah just tried it and they staged a camel attack for him. But the engine, it seems, is real: a pre-war original from the Hejaz line – the railway that Lawrence raided.

That campaign is vividly described in Lawrence's best-selling memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It's a heroic tale of exotic tribes and handsome warriors. But parts of it are close to fiction, with Lawrence wildly retelling what he did and who he was. This inspired David Lean's epic film Lawrence of Arabia, which is being re-released this weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of the film, in a restored digital version that suits the grandeur of this story and its setting.

Lawrence travelled the Wadi by camel, as many tourists do today. But I fancy going by horse. So I drive to the stables run by Jordan's first Arab equine guide, Atallah Sabbagh Sweilhin. He's a grizzled veteran, keen to explain the traditions of Arab horsemanship. He looks sternly at my hiking boots and combat trousers and warns: "Adventure on horseback is for real riders."

I swing on to a frisky brown stallion. The desert beckons. As does my minder, a bright-eyed boy called Ibrahim, who rides with a speed and elegance that put me to shame. We trot out of the yard and into infinity.

It's a hypnotic afternoon of riding between the big mesas, up red dunes, across black gravel washes, along yellow valleys dotted with green thorns. Camels graze in herds. My leg muscles ache. Atallah was right: this is not for beginners.

Ibrahim tells me stories about his tribe. "We are the Howeitat," he grins, "powerful people in Wadi Rum. The people who rode with Lawrence." A wind blows up, swirling a sandstorm around us and darkening the sky. Ibrahim winds his scarf around his mouth. I eat dust. We whip up the horses and canter into the storm, racing for home.

Tribal life comes alive for me that evening at Rainbow Camp. This remote pitch of brown tents is perched between rocks high above the wadi floor. Over a snapping fire, the camp cook roasts lemon-drenched kebabs of chicken and lamb. My guide wanders over, clutching a nargile waterpipe. Okla Nawafleh is a young dude in a baseball cap, but he proudly describes the desert life. "Around the Bedouin campfire we learn our manners and our history. An hour sitting with the elders round a fire is worth a day in school." He sighs and takes a drag. "But we are losing this. It's a changing world."

To catch that older world before it goes, we drive next day to the Feynan Ecolodge, located in the Dana Biosphere Reserve. Our route takes us past the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. It's a barren scene, the waters sullen grey, edged with a scorch of white where the salts are burning off.

Feynan is a turn-off on to pebbles, a jolting drive through dried-up river beds dotted with Bedouin tents. Hidden in a gully lies the lodge itself, a handsome blockhouse modelled on a caravanserai. Inside it has tiled courtyards and arched ceilings and many chandeliers, for it is lit only by candles at night.

"This lodge is 100 per cent off-grid," says the director, Nabil Tarazi, a softly spoken Palestinian who hands me a glass of spicy tea. We sit on the terrace under a twisted tree whose name, he says, is Tears of Christ. "Our water is from a spring, our electricity from solar panels, and our staff from the local community. Seventy-five Bedouin families are supported by us, as staff or suppliers. We can visit them this afternoon."

But first he walks me up a stony hill to a maze of broken walls. It is the remains of a village from 10,000 years ago. "This is one of the first places on earth where people stopped being nomads and settled down." He sighs. "From this, so much has come." I pick up a chip of stone and see it is an arrowhead.

Then we wander through wadis sprinkled with oleanders and goats to a camp of brown tents on a ridge. We duck inside a tent with a floor of beaten earth and a carpet where we sit. The owner, Khalifeh, speaks no English but greets us with a blinding smile. He rattles around a fireplace, roasting coffee beans in a cloud of fragrant smoke. It's an ancient ritual for honoured guests. I wonder how old is this nomadic way of life – older than those ruins?

"This is the last generation who live in tents," says Khalifeh's son, Suleyman, who is already a tour guide at the lodge. "The younger ones don't want to look after goats. But this is the best life – the freedom, the quiet." Outside a boy leads a donkey to a barrel of water. Women's voices burble round a fire. "Come back in 20 years," muses Nabil, "and none of this may be here."

My last stop, near the airport, is Mount Nebo. This dusty hill is steeped in the legends of the Bible. Here Moses looked at the Promised Land. I stare across the yellow plain of the Jordan Valley, to the green slash of the Jordan River. There Jesus was baptised. Beyond is Jericho. On the far slopes, a white city glitters. It is Jerusalem. In these places, in this land of fabulous storytellers, the greatest story of all was formed and told: a story that still touches all of our lives.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Jonathan Lorie travelled with of On the Go (020-7371 1113; onthegotours.com), which offers a six-day private tailor-made tour of Jordan, visiting Madaba, Wadi Feynan Nature Reserve, Petra, Wadi Rum and Shobak Castle, for £1,329 per person, based on two people travelling together, with hotels, transport and Royal Jordanian flights from Heathrow to Amman included (020‑787 6333; rj.com).

More information

Jordan Tourism: visitjordan.com

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