Red alert: Jordan

Dramatic desert sunrises, ancient architecture and a profusion of tombs compound the otherworldly atmosphere of historic Jordan

Travel 30 May 2019

Jordan’s red Mars-like landscape has inspired filmmakers and tech billionaires alike over the years
Myriad species of fish can be seen on the Red Sea’s Yamanieh Reef
Petra’s Treasury

Was this a rehearsal for multiplanetary human existence? Weeks before I arrive in Wadi Rum, Elon Musk holed up there in a geodesic dome tent overlooking the desert’s vertiginous ochre cliffs and burnt orange dunes. The immense otherworldly landscape provides a rich taste of the planet he predicts will fall within range of his commercial SpaceX rocket by 2024 – exactly why director Ridley Scott has cast it as both Mars and a distant alien-infested moon.

If you’re struggling to justify Musk’s vague but slightly alarming ‘less than $500,000’ price tag for the three-to-six month trip, or don’t fancy relocating to the Red Planet – an even worse commute than TFL Zone six, apparently – then the launch of budget flights into the Jordanian port of Aqaba is very good news. The tech billionaire, of course, arrived by private jet rather than EasyJet, but who cares? The end product’s the same: Wadi Rum’s cinematic wilderness, garnished with tropical coral reefs and astounding historical architecture. I follow in Musk’s footsteps, boarding a contemporary ship of the desert: a 4WD Toyota Hilux. Guided by Mahmoud Zawaideh, a local sheik’s grandson, we burn across the flat valley floor to Al Salab, where a stranded astronaut contemplated his solitary fate in Ridley Scott’s The Martian. An afternoon haze and windwhipped sand add an ethereal edge to the widescreen plain pockmarked with rocks like vast Henry Moore abstracts.

The sandstone Siq leads to Petra’s Treasury

Wadi Rum isn’t just about future fact and fiction, however. Alameleh’s inscriptions and petroglyphs are around 2,000 years old, while a nearby carving of TE Lawrence harks back to last century. It appears to be the work of the same Spanish pensioner who restored the Jesus fresco in Borja, but is at least in the right place to celebrate the Englishman who fought alongside the forces of the Arab Revolt.

David Lean’s sweeping lens, Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes and post-WW1 mythology may have over-egged his true motivation, but Lawrence’s legend has been happily polished by the tourist dollar. We visit his gorge, the site of his house and his mountain, Jabal-al-Mazmar, now rechristened the Seven Pillars of Wisdom after Lawrence’s 1926 memoir. As a dying sun bleeds across the Rum Mountains, Mahmoud reveals his great grandfather knew the foreign warrior. ‘It was something jamil,’ he sighs, sipping sweet tea, ‘something beautiful’.

A humbling moment explains Lawrence’s description of the desert as ‘vast, echoing and God-like’

I rise early next morning, a dark sky still frescoed with a wafer-thin moon, and clamber onto a camel. We pad silently across the cold sand until, after 25 minutes, well before sunrise and without warning, a vast invisible brush stroke washes lush colour over the monochrome land. It takes no more than a second: a sudden imperceptible change in the light. It’s a humbling moment that helps explain Lawrence’s description of the desert as ‘vast, echoing and God-like’.

Ninety minutes away there are more glories, this time of the man-made variety. Petra, the Rose City beloved of location scouts for everything from Indiana Jones to Transformers, enjoys A-list status. Peru has Machu Picchu, Egypt has the pyramids, Jordan has Petra. Tucked into the folds of the Sharah Mountains, it’s a piece of brilliant architectural mimicry. The Nabateans traded the crossroads of east and west, accumulating wealth and travelling miles before returning home to carve Greek columns, Egyptian obelisks and Assyrian crow-step friezes in the soft sandstone cliffs – a precursor of English Grand Tour aristos building Italianate palaces in Somerset.

The city, at its zenith in the centuries before and after Christ, is approached by the Siq: a dramatic kilometre-long cleft in the earth. Anticipation builds before you’re stopped in your tracks by the Treasury, its iconic façade igniting in the morning sun, until a curtain of shadow falls around 11am. It’s here that I hire Arun, a local Bedouin, who leads me on a steep climb to the perfect clifftop photo opp. Not only is Arun like a mountain goat but he makes a nearby cave, his occasional home, sound like a city centre Grand Designs eco-build: ‘It’s perfect, not too hot in summer, not too cold in winter – and you wake up next to your work.’

Aqaba on the Red Sea Coast

Pushing deeper into the ruins there are magnificent temples, a nymphaeum – a poetic name for a public fountain – shaded by a 450-year-old pistachio tree, and a souvenir seller whose mother, a holidaying Kiwi nurse, met and married a Petra Bedouin, living in his rock retreat. And there are tombs. Masses of tombs. Don’t come if you’re death-phobic. The Treasury was once the final resting place of King Arteas III; the Street of Facades’ monumental graves hid bodies in their attics to deter robbers; and the Theatre – imagine Cornwall’s Minack on steroids – seated thousands on stone benches hacked into old burial caves. Cue jokes about corpsing on stage.

After finishing with an adrenaline-fuelled donkey ride – yes, really – up 950 slippery, foot-worn steps to the Monastery, I return to Aqaba. The final leg of the Jordanian trinity, the Red Sea’s Yamanieh Reef, packs an awful lot into just 27km of coastline. I snorkel over coral artfully designed into rippling cream sponges, neon green brains and giant ethereal leaves, swimming alongside blue and white striped surgeonfish, purple tangs and lionfish – piscatorial angels with a devilish sting. The government has recently sunk military hardware, creating alternative dive sites to ease pressure on the reef, but it’s the natural world that astounds, particularly a shimmering metallic blizzard of silversides.

As I await my final sunset, I study the NEOM development online. Along with northwest Saudi Arabia and a slice of Egypt, the Jordanian coast will be part of the $500 billion hybrid of tech hub, trade zone and eco mega city that the Saudis modestly claim ‘heralds the future of human civilization’. Sounds familiar? The sort of thing Musk has in mind for Mars? Watch this space.

Seven nights, including Aqaba, Petra and Wadi Rum, from £1,995pp including flights, guided tours and transfers; abercrombiekent.co.uk