Into Jordan’s hidden city

by Jonathan Lorie

“Cousin, do you remember me from two thousand 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 five hundred feet 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 two centuries after its rediscovery by the explorer 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 turbulence in the region. 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 Jean Louis 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.

By daylight, Petra is pretty good too, as I discover next morning. The site is a scorching bowl of pink and yellow rock, hidden within a mountain range. Once inside, you walk down ruined streets lined with Classical facades.

In the centre is a monumental heap of rubble. This was the residential area of a city that housed 30,000 people at its peak, around the time of Jesus. The language they spoke was the same as Jesus – Aramaic – the language of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Book of Daniel.

Incredibly, I am addressed in Aramaic as I wander on. A grey-haired man introduces himself as Ahmed Moamer, archaeologist turned tour guide. He waves airily at the fallen stones. “Ninety per cent of this site has not been excavated. Those were houses, shops, walls. The city was ruined by earthquakes. We are near the Rift Valley, between the plates of Europe and Asia, and there were many earthquakes.”

Petra’s position at a crossroads of the world was its source of wealth. It built a trading empire, with camel trains across the deserts bearing frankincense from Arabia, pepper from India and silks from China. Nabatean coins have been found 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 onto a bench and order lime juice.

Here on the mountain top is a facade even larger than the Treasury: a doorway and columns 150 feet 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 place as a hideout. It’s 500 square miles of loneliness, of bare dunes and forbidding cliffs, where grey rocks tower 2,000 feet above red desert and you feel as small as a single grain of sand.

Near the Wadi’s entrance I spot a stretch of railway and an old steam train. I stop my jeep and climb aboard. There are wooden carriages, a stoker’s perch, and a flatbed truck that’s stacked with sandbags as though expecting gunfire.

A guard says the train will soon be running for tourists: King Abdullah tried it last week 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 bestselling 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 its fiftieth anniversary, in a superbly 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 reckon the best way to experience this place is 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 finer points of Arab purebreeds and Bedouin horsemanship. He looks sternly at my hiking boots and combat pants. “Adventure on horseback is for real riders,” he warns. “You must show the horse who is boss.”

I swing onto a frisky brown stallion whose name I don’t catch. The desert beckons. As does my minder, a bright-eyed boy called Ibrahim who rides a white steed 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. We hack beneath an overhang as tall as a skyscraper. Camels graze in herds. My leg muscles ache. Atallah was right: this is not for beginners.

Ibrahim trots alongside and tells me tales 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 floor of Wadi Rum. I am the only guest. Over snapping flames, the camp cook roasts lemon-drenched kebabs of chicken and lamb. I loll on brightly striped Bedouin cushions, beside a table piled with salads, dips and flatbreads.

My guide wanders over, clutching a narghile waterpipe. Okla Nawafleh is a young dude in a baseball cap, but he proudly describes the desert life. His aunt still lives in a tent. “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 Feynan, an eco-lodge in a nature 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 famous salts are burning off.

Feynan is a turn-off onto pebbles, a jolting drive through dried-up river beds dotted with Bedouin tents. The driver is a white-robed Bedou with a wild beard and a red headscarf flickering in the wind.

Hidden in a gully lies the lodge itself, a handsome blockhouse modelled on the caravanserais of old. Inside there are tiled courtyards and arched ceilings and many chandeliers, as it is only lit by candles at night.

“I have spent a lifetime finding a place like this,” says the lodge’s director, Nabil Tarazi, a softly spoken Palestinian. “I was born in Jerusalem, then travelled the world, and now I am not allowed back.”

We sit on a terrace beneath a twisted tree whose name, he says, is Thorns of Christ. He pours us glasses of spicy tea.

“This lodge is 100 per cent off-grid. 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 will visit them this afternoon.”

But first he leads us to the ruins of a village on a dusty hill, 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 slender chip of flint and see it is an arrowhead.

Then Nabil walks us 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 in a firehole scooped in the ground, roasting coffee beans in a cloud of fragrant smoke. It’s a ceremony for honoured guests – the beans are ground, roasted and brewed in front of us – and an ancient symbol of community. I wonder how old is this nomadic way of life? Khalifeh pours me a cup.

“This is the last generation who live in tents,” says his son, Suleyman, already a lodge guide speaking English. “The younger ones don’t want to look after goats, to bake bread. 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.”

Somewhere outside, a muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, his wailing cry echoing off the stony hills. A boy leads a donkey to a barrel of water. Women’s voices bubble up from a cooking fire. The sun begins to set, turning the mountains to green.

My last stop, near the airport, is Mount Nebo. This yellow hill above a dusty valley is steeped in the myths of the Bible. Here Moses looked towards the Promised Land, which he would never enter. I stare as he would have done across the burnt plain of the Jordan Valley. It is slashed by the green of the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptised. Beyond is the town of Jericho, the oldest in the world, where the ancient Hebrews planted their kingdom.

On the far ridge, a white city glitters in the heat. It is Jerusalem. In these places, in this land of fabulous storytellers, the greatest story of all was formed and told. Much of it may have been myth, but it’s a story that still touches all of our lives.