It's just after sunrise and there is barely a soul around. The sound of soft sand underfoot is the only thing we hear as we make our way into The Siq – a narrow, 1.2-kilometre-long canyon created from a rock pulled apart by tectonic forces.
This is the pathway leading to Jordan's "lost city", its greatest tourist attraction. This morning, it's calm and cool, shaded by the rosy walls of the gorge that reach as high as 150 metres, blocking out the sun's harsh rays. The walls start to narrow, sometimes barely half a metre apart, and we peer anxiously around every corner for the first sight of the Treasury and the entrance to the city of Petra, now one of the seven wonders of the world.
Suddenly, the Siq ends and there is the Treasury, carved into the facing rock wall, and set alight by the sun; every bit as astonishing as its architects had intended, warning weary travellers of the power within.
Ironically, the building was just as it is now – an empty shell. Not that the Bedouin people believed that – bullet holes in its facade remain from their futile attempts to find hidden treasures.
At this hour of the morning, the Treasury is an imposing structure. Camels sit front and centre for the perfect photo opportunity. Bedouin men are dotted around the foreground, eyes heavy with kohl and mascara, seeking to put women visitors under their thrall; free mule ride here, jewellery there. "I have met you before," one says to me, with an unwavering stare, implying it may have been on some spiritual level, although he was right – this was not my first visit. I was caught off-guard. He looked more like a cast member from Pirates of the Caribbean, and with Johnny Depp good looks to boot. I look at my friend, and we giggle hysterically, scuttling back to our group like schoolgirls.
At this same spot in 1978, a young woman from New Zealand named Marguerite van Geldermalsen came to Petra looking for adventure and instead found a husband. Meeting on the steps of the Treasury, she fell in love with a Bedouincalled Mohammad, moved into his cave and married him. Mohammad died in 2002, but she also fell in love with the lifestyle and remains in Petra.
As the sun gets higher and the Treasury starts to fill with tourists, we make our way through what was once a bustling city, unknown to the Western world until 1812 when it was discovered by a Swiss explorer, who infiltrated the site disguised as a Bedouin.
Archaeologists continue to dig up pieces of ancient history from the open-air museum that is Jordan. They claim that 85 per cent of Petra is still underground, undiscovered and untouched.
Established in 213BC, It was once the capital city of the Arab Nabateans – nomads known for their talent of carving structures into large rocks. Petra's wealth came from its position on the trade route, cunningly devised by the Nabateans. Eventually conquered by the Romans, its decline followed under their rule, and trade was redirected to Palymra, a Roman town further north in Syria. But it was an earthquake that forced its inhabitants to leave.
The most impressive and famous structure remains Al-Khazneh – the Treasury – placed firmly on the map after Indiana Jones went in search of the holy grail. "You can't really say that anything in Indiana Jones is accurate," Haifa University archaeologist Ronny Reich told National Geographic. "I was once asked in the United States if one of the responsibilities of Israeli archaeologists is to chase down Nazis. I told them, 'Not any more. Now we just chase down pretty women.' "
Past the Treasury, and lined with columns, the "Colonnaded Road" runs alongside a steep rocky hillside where royal tombs have been carved. To the other, flatter side, it's distinctly Roman, and a largely intact Roman amphitheatre and countless ruins remain.
The road ends at a steep hill where a rocky path with 800 steps take you to the hilltop Monastery – Al Deir – which might have been a former temple used as a church or monastery by later civilisations. Break the sweaty trek and stop to play with ginger kittens or photograph mules taking respite in the shade, or chat to the Bedouin women who offer encouragement, or even more welcome, cold bottles of water as you climb in the merciless heat. "Stop and shop!" they urge, or plea, given that tourism in Jordan has plummeted by almost 50 per cent, thanks to its noisy neighbours.
Eventually, the steps open to a desolate clearing where the monstrous structure is carved into the rock facade. Several signs point to "the best view in Petra!" and although paths may lead via a Bedouin camped out selling trinkets or drinks, the claim is true. Not only can you drink in a perfect and often tourist-free view of the Monastery, but it also takes in the surrounding hills and desert, once home to Petra's suburbs that housed 30,000 people.
It's another 5½ kilometres back to the visitors' centre in Wadi Musa, the town that hosts the 425,000 visitors who come to Petra each year. The return trip has us stumbling over the rocky terrain, exhausted. Then, I hear someone call out to me, among a clatter of hooves. "You want a ride on my mule?" another Bedouin asks, turning on the charm. He has shoulder-length curls on his Bob Marley T-shirt and smiles with perfect pearly white teeth. I don't want to encourage him. But he follows me back to the Treasury, offering a free mule ride before giving up and turning on two unsuspecting Japanese tourists. He cracks jokes and laughs uproariously before turning back towards me and offering me one last cheeky compliment: "I do really like your smile."
Three other places to visit in Jordan
At 430.5 metres below sea level, the Dead Sea sits in the lowest valley on Earth, and has a salinity 10 times higher than the ocean. Fifty kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide, the sea looks directly across to Jerusalem and Jericho and you can see their lights twinkle at night. The minerals in the water and sand are supposed to have great healing qualities, attracting many visitors to the high-end resorts that line its beaches. Take great comfort in swimming here – its salinity forces you to float, and there are no nasties lurking beneath – the water is too salty for flora or fauna to survive. Just don't swallow the water. Make sure you secure a high spot for the spectacular light shows at sunrise and sunset.
Experience Arabian nights in Jordan's desert landscape marked by huge red rock formations. The area has been the backdrop of many movies (including The Martian and Lawrence of Arabia). It is best experienced by a four-wheel-drive tour that will escort you to prehistoric petroglyphs etched into the caves, the former home of Lawrence of Arabia, and the best spots to take photos. You can also take all-terrain-vehicle tours through its sandy dunes, ride a camel or spend a night in a luxury version of a Bedouin camp, flanked by craggy mountains, grazing camels and rocky outcrops that stretch into the hazy distance. Warm clear skies and its remoteness make Wadi Rum one of the best places in the world for stargazing.
It takes only 15 minutes to cross Jordan's densely built capital at a quiet time of day. Like Rome, the city was built across seven hills, but now it sprawls much further. Head to the hilltop Amman Citadel, which is the best place to get a sweeping view of the whole sand-coloured city as well as a taste of its vast history. At night, wander the vibrant Rainbow Street, lined with coffee shops, shops selling tourist trinkets and restaurants with atmospheric courtyards where patrons smoke shisha pipes and cats meow at your feet for food.
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The writer was a guest of Visit Jordan and Qantas.