Petra and the sands of time

Johann Ludwig Burkhard is a bit of a mouthful and the 19th Century Swiss traveller who unearthed Petrra probably needed work on his image too.

It fell then instead to the fedora-wearing thrill-seeking archaeologist Indiana Jones to come whip-cracking away up to the doors of Petra.

And to crack the secrets of the ancient Treasury for us.

Burckie’s story has been mostly lost, blown away by the sands of time and a Steven Spielberg blockbuster since he donned Arabian robes and turban.

The Swiss carved his name in history as the first Western man to cast his eyes on the mysterious kingdom of the Nabataeans.

I’m not flagging: With the Jordanian flag in Petra

Whip-smart in Petra

The Nabataeans were whip-smart too carving a kingdom out of sandstone in Wadi Musa (or Valley of Moses) 2,500 years ago after tapping into undiscovered streams.

And founding an oasis for parched traders bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh from the east on the King’s Highway.

They built Petra into the jewel of the desert.

Until the Romans overran them (you’ll see their imperial presence all over Jordan, and particularly in the remarkably intact ancient city of Jerash).

It’s just us this time, though, a ten-strong international party travelling with the award-winning G Adventures small group travel specialists.

And a couple of Bedouins, a camel and an old woman sweeping the stones when we roll up at the 127ft tall, 80ft wide Al Khazneh.

Channeling my inner Lawrence of Arabia: In Wadi Rum

Petra time dials

It’s early. How early? Well, you could probably work it out by reading the signs on the building.

The Treasury’s first secret is that it is really an ancient calendar.

It is dictated by the sun, the moon and its carvings.

The four eagles underneath the urn on the edifice stand for the four seasons.

And above the pillars in the lower level there are seven cups, or glasses, of wine.

For the rest I turn to the modern time dial, my IPhone.

Getting to Petra early is the key to holding off the hordes.

There is a good 4kms of Nabataean architecture to discover.

And by the time you come to climb the winding rocky path up to the Monastery it’s getting busy.

Giddy with the goats: Petra

Camels in Wadi Rum

Single file, we must give way to Bedouins, some as young as six, transporting businessmen on their donkeys or horses.

And past market stall owners holding their trinkets protectively.

Camels are more my style, although for thrill-seekers wanting to taken in the desert’s dunes there are 4x4s.

I have fond memories of Larsson from the Sahara 16 years ago and Reme is equally compliant until you try to get to close for a selfie.

We are camping out in the desert to Wadi Rum. Valley of the… I wish!

Modern transport: In Wadi Rum

Dining in the Wadi Rum desert

This is Ramadan and anyway Jordan is predominantly dry.

Aside from hotels in the capital Amman where half the population live and work.

And the Red Sea resort Aqaba and even then it’s expensive.

But you’ll not miss the booze. The mint and lemon soft drinks and Turkish tea will salve your thirst and complement the banquet of Middle Eastern foods.

The centrepiece of our desert banquet under the stars is chicken zarb with pitta bread, rice and baklava.

The carb is cooked underground in foil, or in the olden days palm leaves which saves on a kitchen.

Important if your’re on the move.

I hope there’s no sand in that: That’ll be the chicken zarb then

My inner Lawrence in Jordan

The tents are sturdy, not glamping, nor those bubble luxhotels with their Jacuzzis which sprung up after The Martian, starring Matt Damon, was filmed out here.

But the tents are more authentic and nearer to what Lawrence of Arabia encountered.

Well, OK, he didn’t have a double bed and a washroom!

We stay in a range of comfortable hotels on our trip with stunning views of minarets and valleys and morning calls to prayer.

G Adventures encourages sharing (it also cuts down on cost) and my first two nights are spent across from Aussie.

Until tough-talking Texan Rick generously gives up his room (a spider would later freaks him out in the desert.

A golden sun: Over Wadi Rum

Floating in the Dead Sea

And G Adventures also likes to share its good fortune with local communities in partnership with Planeterra Foundation, its non-profit partner.

It helps them build organic farms and restaurants and provide tourist opportunities for trekking and cycling enthusiasts.

Although it’s too hot when we visit (mid-30s) to think about putting foot to the pedal.

Better lying on your back and doing nothing – and where better than on the Dead Sea.

You’ll also get to wash off all that mud from the mud bath (the ladies in our group swore by it).

Take a book in for the obligatory photo, or just drift off, though be careful as you might shrivel up.

Because nothing survives in 34 degree salinity, or be carried off across to Israel.

All floaty: In the Dead Sea

British Airways flies me there

Israel is rarely far away from Jordanians’ thoughts or eyeline – this is the middle of the Middle East and the Jordanians are known as honest brokers.

It pays to hold the centre ground when your neighbours are Israel, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

I first view these lands from above, cocking my head from my reclined position on my British Airways business class bed.

Full from the best Middle Eastern foods and wines and a range of action movies.

And feeling oh so refreshed after dozing off after putting the seat down to create a bed.

Those sleepy dirts, your vanity bag and eye masks will see to that.

And, yes, I am vain. I don’t mind admitting it.

Let’s talk Moses: Where Moses saw the Promised Land at Mount Nebo

Holy Moses in Mount Nebo

Moses too was on high, if not on a high when he first laid eyes on The Promised And from Mount Nebo.

God would not allow him to enter because of a row and he would rest for eternity here.

I rest too, taking in a stunning view of Jericho and Jerusalem before being jivvied along.

I get as close as humanly possible to setting foot in Israel when I visit the site of Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.

Or at least where the Israelis say it was, the Jordanians cite the Bible and a spot more inland.

Fancy a dip: Pilgrims in Israel

A baptism of fire on the banks of the Jordan

Here, though, on the banks of the Jordan, Israel is so close you can almost touch it, touch them, although I wouldn’t.

The two rifle-toting Israeli women soldiers among the white-robed pilgrims about to submerge themselves in the water just a couple of feet away might have something to say about that.

This is the nearest you’ll get to the border which is really just a floating rope

But like much else it is layered with symbolism.

The shower of Scotland: Snorkelling in the Red Sea

Red Sea and snorkelling

Whether to further their case, or it really is divine intervention, a dove swirls above the Israeli shrine though I hazard he flies between both sites.

The bird of peace though will always be welcome in these troubled lands which have been fought over from long before Jesus.

Through the Crusades, and we also visit the haunting Karak Castle, right up to today.

I am intrigued to learn on my last day here that we will be snorkelling over a fallen aeroplane and tank in the Red Sea.

I assume they are the debris of war.

I’ll drive you to Israel: On the Red Sea

Water, water everywhere in the Red Sea

The truth is less dramatic as the Jordanians lowered them into the sea for the snorkelers.

Of whom I am not one.

The water soon fills up my goggles and snorkel and I shoot up th steps.

My moustache is too bushy, blocking the airways. Be warned.

It comes as no surprise to me. I’m better off lying back thinking of Jordan than on my front swimming with the fishes.

TRAVEL FACTS

How to get there: I flew Dublin-Amann return in Club World/Business Class with British Airways, €1,429 plus tax. World Traveller/Economy Class costs €309 plus tax. Visit www.britishairways.com.

They were here before us: Jerash

The package: G Adventures’ eight days Highlights Of Jordan tour starts from €1,039pp. Inclusions: Six hotel nights, one night in a Bedouin desert camp, seven breakfasts, one dinner, one lunch, a full-time Chief Experience officer, Wadi Rm excursion, guided tours in Jerash, Petra and Karak Castle. Visit adventures.com.

A version of this article was first published in the Irish Daily Mail.

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