Jordan: just the right time to go

It was certainly an interesting time to travel to the Middle East. The conflict in Syria was continuing to escalate in October 2012, so Jordan wasn’t exactly the most obvious destination. But in fact, the conflict in Syria made a trip to Jordan necessary. Like Syria, Jordan has some incredible ancient remains, which in Syria are in danger of never being seen again. What if a similar situation arose in Jordan and the wonderful sites of Petra and Jerash suddenly became inaccessible, or worse, destroyed?

Our plane touched down late at night and we were met by our driver. We would have a driver for the whole week, as driving in Jordan is somewhat chaotic- in Amman it would appear that painted lanes mean nothing. In the darkness I didn’t have much of a chance to catch my first sight of Amman but early in the morning I was awoken by the call to prayer (especially since our hotel was a stone’s throw from what is said to be one of the most beautifully decorated mosques in the world). I knew about the call to prayer issued from the mosques but for some reason it had completely passed my mind that I would be hearing it every morning at 4am. Having never actually heard the call to prayer before though, I found it beautiful as I listened, lying in bed. It was slightly eerie too though, the only sound in an otherwise silent city, and the market below our window not yet bustling, the sound echoing around.

First stop, the Roman city at Jerash (I hesitate to call them ruins because parts were perfectly preserved) was absolutely breathtaking. At times I felt that the central square and pin-straight roads, one of which marked one hundred miles to Damascus, our guide informed us, could rival the ruins of Rome. The sheer scale was immense, and the columns still stood despite the years of earthquakes. The minute detailed carving still survived on numerous columns and doorways too. Seeing the grandiose square, still with paving, and the streets lined sometimes only with the doorways of buildings, all the while hearing the shouting the car horns of modern-day life was a curious experience. We climbed up to a temple and it was there that I had my first taste of sweetened mint tea, something that would become a staple drink of my time in Jordan!

My experience as someone with fairly light hair was certainly an interesting one and something definitely worth noting. The most memorable was definitely was we were exiting Petra. A man sitting outside a shop suddenly shot to his feet and shouted at me “show me your blue eyes!” on the assumption that light hair and pale skin meant blue eyes. Sadly, I had to disappoint him with my brown eyes. Despite this though, I never felt threatened, and soon learnt that the Jordanians have a great sense of humour.

Petra was utterly magnificent. The siq, the narrow gully of smooth rock that is the only way to approach the famed Treasury building, was incredibly atmospheric; the suspense of waiting to round the corner and be greeted with your first sight of the incredible buildings nearly unbearable. In one sense we went at exactly the right time. The conflict in Syria was sadly putting many people off visiting Jordan (the economy is very reliant on tourism, the only other main export being phosphates) but it meant that Petra was far less busy than it normally was, making the whole experience far more powerful, and meaning I could take my photos without inadvertently including another family!

The Treasury was imposingly beautiful, and the dark doorways so intriguing as to what lay beyond. I must have spent a good twenty minutes trying to get photographs from every angle, especially considering that the light at that time in the morning shone it, giving it a divine appearance. It's definitely worth going early in the day, first to avoid the crowds and secondly because there is so much to see you'll be there from opening to closing if you really want to appreciate it all. In the space in front of the Treasury there were camels lazily chewing and tiny Bedouin children trying to sell postcards to all the tourists. Their sweet voices could be heard crying “one JD” (a Jordian dollar, which nearly everything cost, although we later learnt the Jordanian currency is actually denominated into thousandths, so one JD was probably the special “tourist price”.) The children had also been taught to say “cheap as chips” and whilst it’s very cute, it’s also important to remember that these children aren’t going to school so they can earn money for their families, Bedouin “gypsies” marginalised by the rest of Jordanian society.

Of my visit to Jordan, the one thing that I would recommend above everything else is making the climb to the Monastery. You soon lose sight of the main city of Petra and the crowds as you ascend steps cut into the rock, overtaking morose-looking donkeys carrying up tourists and goats perched on impossibly steep ledges.

But as you round the final corner you are greeted with the sight of a building much less ornate but far larger than the Treasury. Similarly cut into the rock, you can actually step inside the one boxy room. But for the best effect, there’s one more climb to be had. Up haphazard steps to the top of another hill (where there is a man to offer you tea) and you get an aerial view of the Monastery. To fully appreciate its size you need to see it from this angle.

And along with history and culture, Jordan is an incredibly beautiful country too, from the Star Wars-esque rock formations in which Petra is found to the vast, vast expanse of desert. A keen photographer, I thoroughly enjoyed taking pictures of the sites and the wildlife. A new experience for all of us, we stayed one night in an eco-lodge in the desert. No electricity, the rooms had to be lit by candles at night and they had found a beautiful and ingenious way to light the rooms as much as possible, by setting the candles in small alcoves lined with bits of mirror. In the morning we went on a walk along a dried up river bed and the gradual transformation from barren, rocky desert to a lush river noisy with birds was incredible, the contrast between the two states almost unbelievable. For the naturalists, there were some small animals to be found along the way, including this little guy!

Another experience to be had is spending the night in a traditional Bedouin desert camp, complete with camels! You will usually be taken on a drive out into the dunes just before sundown and then spend half an hour watching the sun sink below the horizon, enjoying some more of that sweetened mint tea. A night in the desert represents a fantastic photo opportunity and a chance to experience a totally different way of living, with live traditional music and incredible local food in the large communal tent in the evening.

The Dead Sea is definitely worth a visit , but when there is such a wealth of history and nature to explore perhaps only for one night. If you can, make that the night before you flight, and then wake up at six in the morning to be the first ones in and float serenely in the calm and peace. Later that day as you touch down at home you won’t regret it. As you look up at the most likely grey and rainy skies you can remember that only that morning you were watching the sun ascend over a beautiful vista.

Sadly Jordan is no longer quite as safe to go to. On our second day in Amman we drove past a noisy gathering in the centre and we assured by our guide that they group was celebrating for the King. However, as none of my family knew a word of Arabic we had no way to tell whether or not this was the case. But now there are reports of unrest, and the pressure of thousands of refugees from Syria is increasingly burdening Jordan.

Even if Jordan is no longer the most practical place to visit, the point is that if you have an opportunity to go on holiday somewhere a bit off the beaten track, somewhere unexpected or somewhere you’re just not sure about, take that opportunity with both hands. It might not be there next year.