Land of prophets and crusaders

Helen Anderson takes a road trip through a fire-and-brimstone desert to one of the wonders of the world.

In the Hollywood classic Lawrence of Arabia, a callow reporter asks T.E. Lawrence why he likes the desert. The British adventurer looks down his aquiline nose and replies slowly: ”It’s clean.” The answer is not entirely condescending, for there is a startling purity about Wadi Rum, the mountainous desert in southern Jordan where Lawrence joined the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks and where much of the film was shot.

Most of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is desert: sandy, flat desert; stony, undulating desert; rocky, mountainous desert; stone plains; salt pans. But Wadi Rum is in a league of its own.

Imagine a vast, cloudless sky over a flat desert floor, from which erupt scores of rose-coloured granite monoliths, some weathered to form stone bridges, some separated by severe canyons, others resembling strange faces and half-formed figures. The scale is difficult to comprehend until the eye can focus on, say, a camel that is dwarfed beneath a towering cliff overshadowed by a still-larger monolith in a landscape of monumental magnificence.

Yet its beauty is overshadowed by the Lawrence factor, which rendered the place less attractive to me than it should have been. For all his courage, I’ve always suspected he was less a hero than an egotistical loon who, frankly, made a bit of a mess of things as he strode imperiously through the Middle East. I recently read the first chapter of his hefty manifesto, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – a book easier to put down than pick up – which only reinforced my suspicion.

So by the time we reach a landmark named the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, at the entrance to the Wadi Rum Protected Area, and view a wooden carriage that survived the guerilla bombings incited by Lawrence along the Hijaz railway line, I’m thinking the place might be a kind of colonial theme park – Lawrence of Arabia Land. But there are the turrets of the Seven Pillars, astonishing, bigger even than T.E.’s ego, and the memory of an odd British officer recedes as the monoliths grow larger.

This is a land of Bedouin, camels and clapped-out four-wheel-drives. Saddam wears a fine moustache and brilliant-white robe and keffiyeh headdress as he drives us along criss-crossing tracks to rock bridges and red sand dunes, past the remains of Lawrence’s house and to an ancient road map carved into a rock face by the Nabataeans, of whom we’ll hear much more. There are about 10 vehicles of similar antiquity disgorging tourists at each stop. But by mid-afternoon, when we swap the trucks for ships of the desert, there are few travellers about. (Camel numbers are dwindling in Jordan and the best new bloodlines come from Australia.) I’m assigned a young punkish male camel, the only one with a nose peg. ”Yalla!” I venture – Arabic for ”we go” – and, despite his reputation, he obliges.

”Soften your tread,” wrote the 1st-century Arab philosopher Al-Ma’arri, ”methinks the Earth’s surface is but bodies of the dead.” This is particularly sage advice in Jordan, a dried crisp of territory wedged in the world’s hottest geopolitical zone, surrounded by Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian territories and with only a sliver of waterfront on the Red Sea. You’re always walking in someone’s lofty footsteps, or on their graves – the Bedouin and Lawrence in these parts but before him the Ottoman Turks; the Crusaders; the Mongols and all the incarnations of the Islamic empire; the Romans, whose ruins are everywhere; the mysterious Nabataeans; and a string of kingdoms chronicled in the Bible: Edom and Ammon, Moab and Judah. As we gather around a fire at a Bedouin camp that night after zarb, a Bedouin barbecue cooked beneath the sand, I imagine the traffic that has passed this way.

Perhaps nowhere else in the world can a day’s drive cover such a dizzying span of ancient and modern history, of holy and unholy. For me it’s a jigsaw puzzle of half-remembered Sunday school stories and almost-familiar landforms. ”To the Promised Land,” grins Omar, a gentle bear of a man who is our guide and history teacher for the next couple of days.

Our desert tour begins in the capital, Amman, an unlovely sand-coloured metropolis whose heart lies in the still-standing ruins of a Roman city state named Philadelphia. Every kilometre or so is a billboard of King Abdullah II: here in military fatigues, there in keffiyeh, looking businesslike in a suit or as a football fan among his people. Past a sprawling Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of the city – there are about 2 million living in the kingdom and about 60 per cent of Jordan’s population has Palestinian heritage – and we’re on the King’s Highway, a 350-kilometre north-south traverse used by everyone from Moses heading north during the Exodus to Rupert Murdoch heading south this year to baptise his children in the River Jordan – not just anywhere but the spot where Jesus was baptised by John.

At the town of Madaba we stop for a shot of cardamom-laced coffee and join a queue in a Greek Orthodox church to see a 6th-century floor mosaic bearing the oldest surviving map of the Holy Land. It’s thought to have helped pilgrims orient themselves in a landscape littered with biblical attractions. One of the most potent is a 10-minute drive from the Madaba map, at Mount Nebo. Moses climbed this mountain and looked out at the land promised by God to the Israelites (you can look, He warned, but you can’t touch). It’s said that Moses died up here and was buried by God himself.

I look back now at the few photos I snapped – populated by the backsides of tourists in white sneakers and fold-up hats also taking photos – and the view is … what view? But the effect of standing on this mountain is something else: looking upon the parched West Bank city of Jericho and the silver ribbon of the River Jordan and, swivelling south, at the blasted lowlands once occupied by the biblical ”cities of the plain”. It’s a fire-and-brimstone landscape.

The remarkable English adventurer and diplomat, Gertrude Bell, travelled this way in 1905. ”The Jericho road is bare enough,” she wrote, ”but the valley of Jordan has an aspect of inhumanity that is almost evil … the imagination must travel back to flaming visions of Gomorrah and of Sodom, dim legends of iniquity that haunted our own childhood as they haunted the childhood of the Semitic races.”

Somewhere on the shores of the Dead Sea were the five cities described in the Book of Genesis, four of which were destroyed by God in the time of Abraham. It’s unclear exactly what their sins were but Sodom has become shorthand for every conceivable human vice. We pass a stone cairn by the road dedicated to Lot, the righteous nephew of Abraham who fled Sodom before it burnt but lost his wife, who looked back and morphed into a pillar of salt; he was seduced later by his two daughters in a cave somewhere in the mountains above us. ”We always drive past quickly,” Omar says with a grin.

We follow the shore of the Dead Sea for much of its length and a stranger 70-kilometre drive I can’t recall. ”A heavy stifling atmosphere weighed upon this lowest level of the Earth’s surface,” Bell wrote, ”the valley was stagnant and lifeless like a deep sea bottom.” The sea is glossy and still, like mercury, and fascinating in its lifelessness; there’s something suffocating about staring into a void where no life exists, not even a microbe.

The southern shores of the sea around the evocatively named Potash City are heavily mined for magnesium, bromine, potash and salt, with glittering pyramids of powder piled high around evaporation ponds so stark they’re visible from space. Bell described being caught in a shower and only narrowly escaping being sucked into the ”Slime Pits of Genesis” – I wonder if I’m staring at them.

I find no slime but plenty of mud beside the ever-shrinking Dead Sea – it has receded 25 metres in the past 50 years and continues at the rate of a metre a year, caused largely by the diversion of the River Jordan upstream. A coachload of Japanese tourists with buckets of the therapeutic mud are blacked up and loving it. In fact, we’re all tickled by the sensation of super-buoyancy and giggling as we gently bob like corks in water as viscous as a martini and 10 times saltier than the ocean. Getting the stuff in your eyes or mouth or, worse, a skin graze is no laughing matter.

All roads in Jordan lead to Petra and, unlike Lot’s wife, I don’t look back as we ascend from Earth’s lowest point into a moonscape of canyons in Wadi Mujib and then on to a plateau crowned by the muscular Crusader castle of Karak, one of five in Jordan. It’s late afternoon by the time we pass in the distance another Crusader castle, at Shobak, backlit by the sunset, and approach Petra’s extraordinary sandstone mountains, smoothed into thousands of geological cleavages.

All day we’d been checking our progress on a map bearing an irresistible image of the famous Treasury facade lit by candles. ”Petra by night is very busy,” Omar tries to warn me. But it’s nearly a full moon and I can’t wait until tomorrow.

I line up at the gates after dark. With at least 400 others. This doesn’t seem so many until the crowd shuffles into the 1.2-kilometre Siq, ”the shaft”, leading into the ruins of Petra and the noise begins bouncing off the canyon walls, less than three metres wide in parts. Ahead we can see a clearing but the glorious Treasury building is barely discernible – the reported 1800 candles simply don’t illuminate it. We’re meant to sit on rugs here and listen to an hour of lute strumming. I, however, must heed an inconvenient call of nature. And so I retrace my candlelit steps along the Siq – alone and in miraculous echoing silence.

That night I order a glass of Jordanian St George red wine in Tower Tomb No. 4, otherwise known as the Cave Bar. ”The oldest bar in the world” is a funerary chamber, with six niches and a decent beer list.

Next morning, a ticket seller at the gate tells me that just over 4000 people were admitted yesterday. ”It is usual,” he says. On Wednesdays and Saturdays the crowd swells even further, with cruise ship passengers arriving at Aqaba, Jordan’s only port, a few hours’ drive away. The ruins at Petra have been well documented since the Middle Ages, World Heritage-listed since 1985, invaded by Indiana Jones in 1989 and voted among the seven wonders of the world in 2007. With so many words, so many digital snaps, so many tourists, can the ”rose-red city” retain some magic?

I’m among the first visitors winding through the Siq the next morning, past fossils and mysterious shrines and reliefs carved into the sandstone walls and clever irrigation channels – the Nabataeans developed hydraulic techniques to create an oasis in the desert. In this natural fortress they carved an elaborate city of more than 800 monuments, a theatre, temples and a paved street and from this sublime HQ they controlled trade between the Red Sea, Gaza, Damascus and far across the Saudi desert. The Siq has carried us all – kings and paupers, merchants and tourists – and everyone anticipates their first glimpse of the great Al Khazneh, the Treasury, hewn delicately into a cliff.

After two millennia, it doesn’t disappoint. ”Totally awesome,” enthuses a teenager beside me and for once it’s the right description. We learn it wasn’t a treasury at all, despite the name given it by hopeful plunderers, but probably a mausoleum for royals. Only Indiana Jones in his last crusade found the Holy Grail here.

Past the Treasury we turn the corner and the city opens out before us – the Street of Facades, the massive amphitheatre, a river of tourists moving along an ancient paved street flanked by rosy temples. ”It’s a privilege to come here every day,” says Marguerite Van Geldermalsen, who is selling fine silver jewellery made by Bedouin women in the neighbouring village.

The New Zealander has lived here since 1978, when the then 22-year-old backpacker fell in love with and married a Bedouin. They raised their children in a cave above the amphitheatre, in a surreal landscape of royal tombs and mountains that appear like melted Neapolitan ice-cream.

A 45-minute walk beyond the main city is Al Dayr, or the Monastery, 50 metres high, just as glorious as the Treasury and perhaps more impressive at the end of a hot climb. With the great facade behind me, I look out over Wadi Araba and, beyond, the Negev Desert – vast, unknowable and totally awesome.

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