Ancient adventures in Jordan's Little Petra, also known as Siq al-Barid

The two boys race through the Siq, clouds of white dust billowing in their wake as they try to outpace each other. Rounding a bend they are swallowed by the soaring sandstone walls that close like pleated curtains behind them. The only sound is the melody of a rababa, its high notes swirling around us like invisible threads, pulling us deeper into the gorge.

We inch forward, past an elderly Bedouin playing his one-stringed instrument, before stopping in front of a wall of carved buildings, their darkened recesses looking like the hollowed eyes of human skulls. Above us beehive domes tumble from the sky; stretching across the Arabian Desert and pinning the flinty landscape in place.

This is Jordan's Little Petra, or Siq al-Barid, a former Nabataean site from the first century, thought to be a resupply post for Petra, eight kilometres to the south. Archaeologists have also suggested the complex may have been a hospitality stop for traders, or even a training site, where artisans were schooled in rock cutting before building Petra.

We push on. A rise of hand-hewn steps brings us to the entrance of the "painted house", a dining room with ceiling frescoes of vines and birds, one of the very few Nabataean paintings to have survived the centuries.

"Little Petra may be the smaller, lesser-known cousin," says our Jordanian guide Ahmad Hussein. "But there are things here you won't see anywhere else." Lack of crowds is the first thing. While neighbouring Petra can receive thousands of visitors each day, our small group of 16 are the only visitors at Little Petra. Considered part of the greater Petra Archeological Park, but with its own entrance and no fee, it is included in Petra's inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our tour starts  next to a small Bedouin campsite, home to a group of people who still live a traditional lifestyle as camel and goat herders. Children come out to watch, all shy smiles and bright clothing, curious at first, but soon distracted by a wayward goat that requires some pint-sized wranglers.

"The Bedouins still make use of the original channels and cisterns to water their livestock," says Hussein. "While the Nabataeans were master carvers they were also skilled engineers, their ability to control water the key to their success in controlling the trade routes."

Today the only trade at Little Petra is a lopsided stall selling refreshments – cappuccino, juice, herbs? – and another selling trinkets, with not a hawker or "free donkey ride" in sight.

The sky is a blue canvas scribbled with clouds as we head across the brittle landscape towards the start of the 400-metre Siq al-Barid, an intricately carved facade marking the entrance. Cool and shady, the Siq lives up to its name – cold canyon – the sun's rays not making it to the canyon floor.

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An open section flares out to reveal what was possibly a temple, deeper still we find more colonnades and porticos, and dozens of recessed dwellings. It's like staring up at an ant farm with its layers of connected tunnels and pathways. The ceiling frescoes speak of opulence amid the parched desert; of wine and welcome, of weary travellers delighting in tall tales and companionship.

As the sun strikes the chasm I find shelter in a cave, drinking in the distant views as the Nabataeans have done before me.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/jordan

visitjordan.com

FLY

Emirates Airlines flies to Dubai daily from Melbourne and Sydney, with onward connections to Amman in Jordan. See emirates.com

TOUR

Bunnik Tours' 25-day Egypt and Jordan in-depth tour includes nine nights in Jordan visiting Petra and Little Petra, Amman, Jerash, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum and Aqaba. From $10,995, including international airfares. See bunniktours.com

Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Bunnik Tours.

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