Iit’s 3 p.m. and we’re racing against the now heavy, honeyed sun that touches the dusty peaks of the Wadi Mujib biosphere reserve. My partner and I have been driving for hours along the winding King’s Highway through Jordan, just to watch the sunset over this Unesco site.
We stop the car at the top of the canyon as the sun sets further. By chance, we meet a Bedouin who tells us that he has been waiting for passing tourists to befriend all day and invites us to sit on his makeshift patio – two concrete benches and a large baroque armchair in front a spectacular 600m drop from the cliff edge. He brings us traditional Jordanian tea and a a plate of warm sesame cookies from his bungalow and together we watch the rugged landscape of the world’s lowest nature reserve melt into swirls of orange and pink.
This panoramic view of the “Grand Canyon of Jordan” is just one of many sites dotted along the King’s Highway – when I told my Jordanian friends in London that I would be visiting their homeland with my partner Aidan, they insisted that was the road to follow. Prophets, kings, Roman emperors and Nabataean traders all favored the epic route – there are now two much faster highways across the land, but it was once seen as a shortcut to the Red Sea. Armed with just our £84 Jordan Wanderer passes, which covered the cost of our visa as well as entry to 40 attractions, we embarked on a road trip through Jordan.
Shayma in Petra
We started in Amman, where glittering souk-like shops and downtown restaurants sit alongside ruins left by the Roman Empire. In Amman Citadel, which sits on the highest hill in the capital, we saw Bronze Age artifacts in the Archaeological Museum (including bizarre 9,000-year-old Neolithic dolls known as name of “Ain Ghazal statues”). Fueled by the cardamom-infused coffee of the street stalls, we lost track of time as we explored the Umayyad Palace, the Byzantine Church and the remains of the Roman Temple of Hercules – bigger than anything in Rome and with less restrictions; we found ourselves winding between columns and closely studying the colossal hand of Hercules.
From the top of the citadel, you can see the other six hills, or jabals, that make up Amman – each is a different neighborhood and each is alive with quirky Jordanian street art. Our favorite was a mural called “the column” on Jabal Al Qalaa, the hill that undulates around the Roman amphitheater – a 90 foot painting of an Arab man balancing a pillar head from the Temple of Hercules on his skull . We set out to discover local culinary delights in these neighborhoods as well: musakhan — tender chicken with sumac cooked on a caramelized onion blanket; manakeesh – bread filled with za’atar and oozing cheese; sticky slices of knafeh with baklava and cheesecake; and creamy, crunchy mezze plates, all of which we found in city center restaurants around the corner for under £5.
After Amman, our next main stop was Petra, but before that the King’s Highway would introduce us to many other ancient cities worthy of a pit stop. In Madaba, we listened to the voice of the muezzin harmonize with the church bells as we study a 6th-century mosaic on the floor of the Greek Orthodox basilica. We explored the great crusader castle at Karak and spent a night in a spacious en-suite room at the Cairwan Hotel for just £22 (cairwanhotel.wordpress.com).
A Bedouin in Wadi Rum
A friend based in Amman suggested a detour via the King’s Highway, which took us to a secret salt crystal cove south of the Dead Sea, known locally only as the “public beach”. Its water is an iridescent turquoise and its salt formation islands are hidden from tourists under the steep hills of the highway. We spent most of the time here floating on our backs, amazed to have this mystical place to ourselves.
Via the town of Wadi Musa we arrive at the gates of Petra still asleep at 7am, before any bus tour, and we find ourselves completely alone with the Treasury and its perfect Corinthian columns. As more and more people filtered through the Siq – the long, narrow gorge that leads to the hidden city – we moved on to the tombs, caves and pink sandstone passages that led to the last 850 steps of the great monastery. The official advice is to leave town once it gets dark – unlit paths can be dangerous at night – but Petra never officially closes. Without delay we stayed all day, until well after the other tourists had left.
Amman public beach on the Dead Sea, Jordan
Legs dangling at the edge of the Urn Tomb, we sipped tea with the Bedouin families who still sleep in the caves of the Royal Tombs and watched the Pink City fade into darkness. Petra “lost her heart” during the pandemic, they said, telling us life has been difficult without tourists supporting their communities, as they have for the past 200 years. We promised to return with our families.
Tearing ourselves away from our new friends, we drove an hour south to the Bedouin camp of Wadi Rum in the protected Valley of the Moon. Our host was Mohammed Al-Zalabeh, a Bedouin whose grandfather was the first to welcome Western climbers to this desert landscape. Al-Zalabeh had planned a pre-dinner stargazing for us. Relying only on the guiding hand of his brother Mahmoud, we left in absolute darkness. Lying on top of a cliff, we witnessed the most spectacular spectacle of shooting stars. I reached out to see if I could dip my fingers into the cosmos.
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Dinner was a zarb of spicy chicken, rice and vegetables, prepared by our nomadic hosts and cooked for two excruciating hours under layers of sand and smoke. It was worth the wait, though – without a doubt, it was the best meal of the trip.
An SUV safari in Wadi Rum
The next morning, we jumped into a jeep for a five-hour tour of the otherworldly sites of Wadi Rum: we went into the Khazali Canyon to see 2,000-year-old camel inscriptions carved by the Thamud, an ancient Arab tribe; we visited the ruins of the house of Lawrence of Arabia; we descended fiery red dunes; and rode camels back to camp. It was fun, but felt like it was a route for more impatient tourists. Still, we loved driving through the chameleon landscape while listening to our Bedouin hosts laugh about childhood stories.
The King’s Highway ends just 40 minutes from Wadi Rum – in the city of Aqaba, also known as the Jewel of the Red Sea. Its streets are lined with palm trees and sugar-cube buildings glistening in the heat (even in winter, temperatures can reach 30°C). International divers love it for its climate-resistant coral reefs – but it seemed empty of other tourists.
To make the most of its clear waters, our friends had advised us to book a hotel with a private beach, the public one being littered with glass and sharp rocks. Fortunately, even the best stays in this city are affordable. We found a second home at the Kempinski Aqaba, with its hilly white sand beach; open-air bars with views of the surrounding mountains; and a spa offering Dead Sea scrubs. The staff were the friendliest I’ve met – they took us to night markets and helped us spot sea turtles, happy, they said, to introduce tourists to the beauty of this seldom-visited coastal town.
Anyone can drive 15 minutes north of the city center to dive above the table corals and eagle rays of the Japanese Garden reefs, but to dive among Aqaba’s sunken planes and tanks you must go with professionals. During the yacht trip we booked, we not only saw dazzling schools of pink parrotfish, porcupine fish and eels, but we also swam above the mesmerizing beauty of the Hercules wreck , an aircraft deliberately sunk to enrich the marine habitat.
The Bedouin camp of Wadi Rum
Friday in Aqaba was especially fun. Every week, locals use their religious day off to bring Arabic music and pots of maklouba – an upside-down rice and meat dish – to the beach. Like everyone we met in Jordan, these beachgoers made us feel like family. We were invited by strangers to share their homemade picnics, puffed on their shisha pipes and danced by the water. A couple even took us back to their family home to meet their children.
I was already in love with Middle Eastern culture before this trip, having seen its influence on architecture and food in North Africa, and visited Jerusalem. But as I watched my last sunset over the mountains shared by Palestine, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, I fell a little deeper.
Shayma Bakht was a guest at Kempinski Aqaba, which offers double guest rooms from £180 (kempinski.com), and Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp, which offers all-inclusive luxury tents (sleeps two) from £179; five-hour jeep tours from £20 pp (www.wadirumbedouincamp.com). Six-hour snorkel and dive tour from £70 pp including lunch and transport (diving-inaqaba.com). Book a Jordan Wanderer pass (£84) at jordanpass.jo