This is a trip I’ve been wanting to make for a long time; we learned so much about the Holy Land at school - I’m expecting a very spiritual experience. But my trip has become much too scary before I’ve even left home. Saddam Hussein, with immaculate timing, has invaded Kuwait and the Middle East is in uproar. We’re wondering if the trip will be cancelled but the FCO haven’t declared Jordan a no-go zone, even though Israel is polishing up its rockets, and the tour goes ahead.
Naturally, by the time my plane lands, the FCO has changed its mind, but we’re here now. David, our tour leader tells us to keep our head down, in all senses of the word. The British are not very popular here currently and sightseeing in Amman is off. We’re not too oppressed, though there are some surly faces and a few internationally recognised gestures in our direction. It’s ironic that Amman was the original Philadelphia - City of Brotherly Love.
Jordan is home to many biblical sites including, among others, the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptised by John, as well as the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah Ancient Jerash, located in the Gilead Hills is still a sightseeing possibility. The itinerary says that ‘this beautiful Roman city is considered to be the best preserved of the Decapolis, a confederation of ten Middle Eastern cities established by Pompey’ but I believe it’s the only one to have survived at all, in any meaningful way. There’s plenty of colonnaded streets, theatres, temples, baths and an oval forum to be admired.
There’s also a crusader castle or two, one of which, Qasr Al Abd, is actually older than it first appears - it dates from Hellenistic times. At the time I’m more concerned with a distinct lack of toilets – gut rot has already set in. Perhaps the national dish, mansaf - lamb cooked in a sauce of dried yogurt hasn’t agreed with me. Then over the Allenby Bridge...
Back into Jordan and down the King's Highway, roller-coastering over huge 'wadis' (valleys). We stop at Madaba, the city of the mosaics, and finally reach Nabataean Petra (sixth century BC), billed as one of the world's most outstanding ancient cities –‘the rose-red city, half as old as time'. It’s deliberately located in the midst of mountains, most of the buildings carved out of the rock face, making it virtually unapproachable. This was to protect the riches collected in levies on caravans. We venture in on horseback (walking is discouraged), through the Siq, an exceedingly narrow chasm and the first thing we see is the huge basilica of the (Khazneh) Treasury, made famous in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Petra is even more eerie than Jerusalem. All the other tourists have gone home. I expect it’s usually heaving, so it’s lovely to have it all to ourselves.
We are guided high and low - streets, tombs, cave houses, a wonderful theatre and shards of pottery lying in heaps on all the mountainsides. It is a unique and unforgettable place, enhanced by the play of light and shadow.
Onwards on the ‘fast’ Desert Highway, which is increasingly full of vans and trucks, as Egyptians leaving Iraq retreat to their homeland, in anticipation of an invasion. Wadi Rum is how one imagines deserts to be, instead of the rocky desolate places they often turn out to be. It has dunes and dramatic sandstone mountains rising from the sandy desert floor. This is where Lawrence of Arabia operated and where part of the film was actually shot.
The road to Aqaba is now lined with vehicles, as the fleeing occupants wait patiently (some have been here for several days already) for a ferry back to Egypt. Jordan has just 16 miles of coastline along the Red Sea. This is my first opportunity to snorkel - and this area, of course, is famous for its coral reefs. But Aqaba is struggling with its influx of refugees and we are patently unwelcome. After my underwater adventure it’s time to go home.