Where the silk and spice roads merged with the King’s Highway, a rose-red city was born.

Standing on the verge of the millennia-old ‘King’s Highway’ which linked Damascus to the Red Sea, the vast emptiness of southern Jordan stretches across rocky and barren sands to distant mountains of the Jebel Ram – a seemingly unlikely setting for what in Biblical times was a commercial empire that would be the envy of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or Richard Branson.  

For nearly four centuries, from rock-hewn Petra – described by one Victorian poet as the ‘rose-red city half s old as time’ – the Nabataeans (former prates who had been driven from the seas by the Egyptians in 340BC and took to desert marauding instead) controlled all commerce between the Orient and the West.

Southern Jordan’s desert from the King’s Highway. Petra is tucked
among the mountains on the right.

At its height, the Nabataean kingdom stretched from Damascus to eastern borders of the Red Sea, contracting to the southern part of modern Jordan under the military pressures of first Greece and then Rome – and finally undone by its own greed. By contrast modern Jordan – though rich in tourist attractions and breath-taking archaeology – is the poorest of all the Middle East’s Arab nations, importing oil for its energy needs, desperately short of water for its 10% of arable land, and a high level of unemployment among the young. A nation on the cusp of Third World status, yet paradoxically, in a region where poverty and youth unemployment equates with violence and unrest, Jordan is probably the ‘safest’ of destinations. 

A camel caravan sets out into the vast wastes of Wadi Rumm

In the kingdom’s rich history, camel caravans carrying spices of India, the silks of China and the incenses of Arabia all crossed its lands. Initially the caravans were raided and looted by Nabataean brigands, who mounted their attacks from the safety of a protected valley which could only be reached through a narrow high-sided gorge – Al Siq – easy to defend and today’s dramatic approach to an amazing city.

But, according to academic lecturer Aziz Copty, who was my guide in Jordan, the Nabataeans soon found it more profitable to provide shelter and water at settlements along the trade routes and extract ‘protection money’ from the wealthy traders. They also charged tolls – as much as 25% of the value of the goods, according to Copty – on foreign traders, for crossing into their territory. For centuries, these vast profits helped pay for the Nabataean state, including its spectacular capital.

Between 100 BC and 106 AD (when Nabataea fell to Rome’s legions) they grew ever richer. Part of this new wealth was spent on carving graceful tombs, temples and shrines into the red sandstone cliffs surrounding Petra. They even paved the floor of Al Siq – a pavement providing a bone-jangling ride for an unwary visitor (such as I) who makes the 2-kilometer trek from the Visitor Centre to the ancient city through the gorge on a horse-drawn ‘carriage’.

The first view of the magnificently carved mausoleum, incorrectly dubbed ‘The Treasury’.

Although it is most famously linked to the Nabataeans, Al Siq contains several roughly shaped blocks of stone set on ledges or in niches, which archaeologists believe to represent the gods of Neolithic and Iron Age tribes, and there are petroglyphs – rock carvings attributed to even earlier inhabitants of the area. Copty pointed these out and explained – as we traced their remnants along the walls – of a water management system that led through pipes, cisterns and rock-cut channels from springs near Wadi Mousa  to support the city’s population, which is estimated to have topped 20,000 in the city’s peak years

Neither words nor pictures can fully do justice to a trek through Al Siq and the spectacular explosion of light and colour at the end of the narrow gorge. For perhaps five minutes one has walked between the towering cliffs in a nocturnal gloom in some parts never reached by the sun.  Then, turning a final corner – where the walls, more than 150m high, are only a couple of metres apart – the space is filled with part of the golden-pink, Grecian-style facade of Petra’s most photographed structure, the 45m-high Al Khazneh, the ornate temple and mausoleum also known as ‘The Treasury’, carved from solid rock.

The mausoleum itself – the most famous of Petra’s landmarks.

“Small rooms – tombs, really – are carved into the stone on either side of the huge entrance columns,” Copty explains. “On the left were placed those who faced an uncomfortable afterlife, while on the right those who had been good were assured of a place in heaven.” He pointed to what appeared to be a ladder, carved halfway up at the edge of the structure: “That represents the stairway to heaven.”

Although it is the first of the many structures the visitor uncovers, the mausoleum dates to the later part of the city’s story. Beyond another narrow defile between lower cliffs, Petra’s great ruins – regarded by the UN as one of the world’s biggest and most important archaeological sites – spreads out, half built from local stone, half carved into the rock. The main valley stretches for a further 1.5 km and in places is some 800 m wide, surrounded by mountains pock-marked with caves and riddled with narrow passages. Its inhabitants built at least 25 classic tombs and temples marked by intricate carvings as well as countless shrines and houses; the structures reflect a range of architectural and artistic influences of  Assyrian, Greek, Roman,  and even Egyptian styles. There are also countless little shrines and rocks bearing graffiti of the early occupants and passing merchants. Early Christians also worshipped there and added symbols to some of the temple carvings. There are ruins, too, of two Crusader castle dating from the 12th century.

But it was the Roman-style theatre which Copty was keen to discuss, for it symbolise the greed which, combined with the power of Rome, proved to be Petra’s undoing.

The mausoleum itself – the most famous of Petra’s landmarks.

“The Nabataeans squeezed and squeezed the merchants for more and more tolls and duties, and with the rise of the Roman Empire, other routes both maritime and overland become possible – routes which offered the passing merchant caravans more than protection and water,” Copty explains. “There were improved caravanserais, tolls cost less, and most importantly the new routes offered entertainment… brothels, theatres even gladiatorial combats. Documents suggest that some traders were still prepared to use the Nabataean routes – if they could offer similar facilities.

“So Petra carved and built its theatre at the foot of the High Place of Sacrifice, but it took more than 30 years to build, and by the time the 4,000-seat stadium was complete, the new routes had become so well-established that no one wanted to travel through Petra and the south. The theatre was never used.

“Petra fell into disuse and local Arabs kept the area hidden from the outside world for nearly a millennium,” Copty revealed. “But in 1812 a Swiss explorer named Burkhardt, disguised as a Moslem sheik, was led to Wadi Musa on the pretext of visiting the grave of Moses’ brother Aaron, and was later led through the Siq to the Petra valley. Even so, it was not easily accessible until the road from Amman to Aqaba was opened in 1961…”

As a teenager I had read and been fascinated by ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ – Lawrence’s accounts of his part in raising the Arab revolt against Turkish rule in World War I – and decades later had seen the David Lean film starring Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, part of which had been shot in Wadi Rum – the 720 square kilometre stretch of desert with dramatic mountainous outcrops of sandstone and basalt over which Lawrence frequently enthuses.

This giant red sand dune in Wadi Rum is a popular site for filmmakers who use the desert behind the small stone caravanserai as a giant ashtray.

So from Petra we set off down the Kings Highway – now a tarred but steeply curving auto-route – for Bait Ali Camp, the traveller’s gateway to Wadi Rum, a mock Bedouin village established as a tent site for back-packers 20 years ago, but which has since developed into a hotel complex where the tents are wired for electric light and some even have TV sets (which we eschewed). There is an open-air restaurant, a giant palm-thatched rotunda containing a bar, a shower and toilet block (finding the loo by torch-light after dark is an adventure in itself) and a swimming pool – taken over while we were there by a particularly rowdy group of Jordanian army ‘squaddies’ who had come in from a fortnight’s desert patrol.

By noon temperatures can reach 40°C, so after an early breakfast our Bedouin guide collected us for a three-hour journey to some of the main features of the Wadi. Lawrence’s description of his first visit can’t be equalled:

“The ascent became gentle, till the valley was a confined tilted plain. The hills on the right grew taller and sharper, a fair counterpart of the other side which straightened itself to one massive rampart or redness,” he writes. “They drew together until only two miles divided them: and then, towering gradually till their parallel parapets must have been a thousand feet above us, ran forward in an avenue for miles.

“They were not unbroken walls of rock, but were built sectionally, in crags like gigantic buildings, along the two sides of their street. Deep alleys, fifty feet across, divided the crags, whose plans were smoothed by the weather into huge apses and bays, and enriched with surface fretting and fracture, like design. The crags were capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the hill; rather grey and shallow. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place: this processional way greater than imagination… Later, when we were often riding inland, my mind used to turn me from the direct road, to clear my senses by a night in Rum and by the ride down its dawn-lit valley towards the shining plains…”

Lawrence said it all, and Lean’s film did justice to the magnificent emptiness. But it also attracted the attention of other film-makers and – perhaps appropriately, for one of its Arabic names in ‘The Valley of the Moon’ – it its crags and dunes have been the setting for space and lunar adventures, as well as for a string of adventures set in deserts or on a post-Apocalyptic Earth.

‘Lawrence’s Spring’ marked on the sloping scree of a towering, rocky bastion by a rather woebegone tamarisk has featured in six epics, our guide told me. Empty Coke cans and plastic take-away food wrappers marked a relatively recent gathering – though whether from a film crew or package tour one could not tell. But, at a stone shelter at the foot of Wadi Rum’s only giant red sand dune – a mere child’s seaside plaything compared to the dunes I have climbed in the Namib and Kalahari deserts – a film crew had been at work the previous week, leaving behind not only litter but a spread of cigarette butts that would have qualified for the ‘world’s biggest ashtray’ in the Guinness Book of Records.

Lawrence must be spinning in his English grave.