See the Ancient Ruins, Spectacular Desert and the Rose-Red City of Petra, Jordan
Stuck behind a computer and in traffic can feel a long way from adventure. But Jordan, home to some of mankind's earliest settlements and the world's great civilisations, is straight out of an Indiana Jones film (The Last Crusade to be precise); could this be the most rewarding short-haul travel destination?
As the crossroads of the Middle East, Jordan has long served as a strategic nexus connecting Asia, Africa and Europe. Thus, since the dawn of civilisation, Jordan's geography, from parched desert and reddened dunes to mysterious canyon passes, has played host to travellers and tradesmen from across to world.
Nowhere is more iconic in Jordan than the ancient rose-red city of Petra - Jordan's most valuable treasure and greatest tourist attraction. Carved from the red sandstone of the region, the city used to house more than 30,000 inhabitants and was an important trading hub in ancient times.
The vast, unique city was created by the Nabataeans, an industrious and nomadic Arab people who settled here around the 6th century BC. It was one of the world's great hubs for the silk, spice and other trade routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Greece and Rome.
There are more than 800 separate sites within the city where you can see evidence of the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and even the Crusades. Petra had been all but forgotten by everyone but the Bedouin, lost for hundreds of years, until the great Swiss explorer, Jean Louis Burckhardt chanced upon it in 1812 and rediscovered it for the western world.
While on the road to Cairo, Burckhardt heard rumours of ancient ruins in a narrow valley in the former Roman province of Arabia Petraea. He told his guide he would like to sacrifice a goat at the supposed nearby tomb or Aaron, brother of Moses, and was led through the valley to become the first modern European to see the ancient city of Petra.
Modern visitors retrace these steps. Starting at the entry gate, it's a walk of just over a mile through the narrow gorge, or Siq, which is flanked on either side by soaring, 80m-high cliffs. Finally, you too come face to face with the impressive Al-Khazneh, or The Treasury building. The colours and formations of the rocks are dazzling, with the sunlight breaking through into the gorge for the first time as you arrive. Depending on the time of day, the colours will range from deep reds to beige and apricot.
This is an awe-inspiring experience; a massive facade, 30m wide and 43m high, carved out of the sheer, dusky-pink rock face and dwarfing everything around it. It was carved in the early 1st century as the tomb of an important Nabataean king and represents the engineering genius of these ancient people.
But that is just the start of this Unesco World Heritage Site; the royal tombs, the Byzantine mosaics, the Roma colonnaded street, The Monastery, the High Place Of Sacrifice and even Aaron's Tomb all await the intrepid explorer.
The compactness of the city means it can be explored in on full day, but if you have the time, two or Three is advisable to really uncover the secrets, while four of five will really make you feel in touch with the city. If you want to taste before you go, Google Street View has even mapped the ancient city, providing future travellers with a video tour of its historic sights, along with commentary by Queen Rania of Jordan. Also, for everything you need to know, the Visit Jordan website is packed with information.
The Treasury may be the best known, but it is just one of many wonders that make up Petra. As you enter the Petra valley, what beauty of this place, which seems perfectly in tune with the ancient manmade structures. Hundreds of elaborate rock-cut tombs with intricate carvings still survive, outliving the houses, which were destroyed mostly by earthquakes. Five hundred have survived, empty but bewitching as you file past their dark openings.
Other highlights are a Roman-style theatre, which could seat 3000 people, alongside obelisks temples, sacrificial altars and colonnaded streets. It almost comes alive in front of you. Overlooking the valley is the impressive Ad-Deir Monastery; you just need to tackle a flight of 800 rock cut steps to get up there.
Finally, check out two world-class museums located within the site: the Petra Achaeological Museum and the Petra Nabataean Museum, both of which chart the excavation in the Petra region. Cars are banned from the site, but you can hire a horse or a horse-drawn carriage to take you through the Siq. Once inside, you can hop on a camel to explorer or travel on foot.
While in Jordan, why not check these out:
Wadi Rum - For those on the trail of Lawrence of Arabia, Wadi Rum is a must. T. E. Lawrence described it as 'vast, echoing and God-like', this is a desert landscape hardly changed for 1,000s of years. A maze of monolithic rockscapes rise up from the desert floor to heights of 1,750m. Hikers can explore the canyons and water holes to discover 4,000-year-old rock drawing; others may choose to explore by 4x4 or even camel. The duration of the trip can be arranged beforehand through the Visitor's Centre, as can a stay under the stars in a Bedoiun tent, where you can enjoy a traditional compfire meal accompanied by Arabic music.
The Dead Sea - The lowest point on the surface of the Earth, the Dead Sea is one of the world's most epic places. Created incoming springs and streams, the water is landlocked, evaporated ad leaving a rich cocktail of minerals and salts. Ten times saltier than sea water, a highlight of any trip is floating effortlessly on your back and soaking in the magical waters of magnesium, sodium, potassium and bromine. Visitors to the sea are said to have including King Herod the Great and Cleaopatra.