While the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia) travelled Jordan by camel, our modern-day voyager opted to explore the deserts, remote hillsides, ancient ruins and mythical (as well as modern) cities of this Arab nation by foot—for short and long rambles, alike
I’m floating on my back in the refreshing waters of the Dead Sea, a veritable salt lake of hypersaline water that enables everyone to float, whether they choose to or not. An irrepressible giddiness erupts the first time a newbie steps into the Dead Sea and is promptly swept onto their backside, feet up. Some of my fellow bathers are enjoying the novelty of reading the daily news as they back-float, their totally dry newspapers held slightly above the water. One amiable Russian tourist is unabashedly proud that his cigar has remained lit as he floats about.
The surreal nature of the setting is not lost on me: The banks of the Dead Sea are more than 400 metres below sea level, the lowest elevation on Earth, which means my eyes are constantly cast upward as I loll about in the water. That’s when I truly appreciate my surroundings: Bordering the Dead Sea are Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, some of the most mythical places in history.
How did I get here?
My journey to Jordan started on a crowded sofa in my family’s modest living room in rural Ontario when I was 11 years old. My seven older siblings and I were up late watching Lawrence of Arabia. I’d never seen anything like it. I was smitten by the unfamiliar images of vast deserts and camel-riding Arabs that danced across the screen of our black-and-white RCA TV set (Omar Sharif cut such a fine figure) that I piped up: “I’m going there one day,” pointing my stubby prepubescent fingers at the TV screen. “I’m going to wander the desert just like Lawrence of Arabia.”
I can still hear the laughter and guffawing that erupted from my siblings, but the seed of a dream was planted: It only took about 40 countries and just as many years before I finally made it to Jordan.
Ending my Jordan trip at the Dead Sea was not happenstance. My plan, you see, was to spend most of my time in Jordan exploring by foot—rambling through the deserts, hiking the Jordan Trail and strolling through ancient ruins. Feet-planted-firmly-on-the-ground would be my modus operandi. And after all that walking, I knew my tired feet would be crying out for the curative powers of the Dead Sea.
Here are four enduring recollections of my rambles on foot in Jordan:
Petra: Climbing 800 steps to the monastery
The offer of a donkey rental was tempting, but I was sticking to my guns or, rather, my gams. I am determined to climb all 800 sandstone steps up to the famous monastery at Petra, the ancient city of monuments carved out of the pink cliff faces high in the mountains in the south of Jordan. Petra had been lost to the western world after the Crusades until it was rediscovered in 1812. Not only is it a UNESCO World Heritage site, but in 2007, it was acclaimed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. (And, of course, Petra had a starring role in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.) The most Instagrammed monument in Petra is the Treasury building, which is the first building visitors see after the long canyon walk from the main entrance, but many miss out on the hilltop Monastery—unless they hop on a donkey or hoof it. I opt for the latter.
It’s an hour’s steady climb to reach the top, but finally, gazing at the mammoth façade of the Monastery (Ad-Deir in Arabic) carved out of the mountain face is worth every thigh-crunching step. How the Nabataeans carved the intricate 50-metre-by-45-metre façade in the Third Century is unfathomable. It’s the largest monument in Petra. I’m glad I braved the climb—and thankful that the return is all downhill.
A morning ramble in Wadi Rum desert
It’s a little past sunup and I’ve just crept out of my futuristic-looking domed tent at Sun City Adventure Camp in Wadi Rum. My modern digs for the night are a stark contrast to the surrounding landscape I’ve chosen for a solo morning ramble in the desert. Wadi Rum, which is known as Valley of the Moon, sits on a high plateau at the western edge of the Arabian desert. This is the desert home of the nomadic Bedouins made famous in the epic film Lawrence of Arabia. As far as my eye can see, there are rippled sand dunes, a few wandering camels, enormous rock formations and little else—just endless red sand stretching into the horizon. I just keep walking, walking and walking until my legs are tired and I reluctantly return to base camp. There’s a staggering beauty in the silence and the sand.
Walking the Roman Road at Jerash
It’s only when I stop looking through the view-finder on my iPhone and look down that I notice them—ruts in the well-worn flagstones of the Cardo Maximus, the ancient Roman Road at the ruins at Jerash. The markings left by charging chariots almost 2,000 years ago remind me that the Romans build this 800-metre colonnaded road for practical reasons. It was the main thoroughfare through the historic Greco-Roman city of Gerasa in the 1st century AD.
Jerash, as it’s now called, is considered one of the largest and best-preserved sites of Roman architecture in the world outside of Italy, and they’re best admired by walking the full length and back of the Cardo Maximus. There’s the Temple of Zeus, the imposing Arch of Hadrian, Temple of Artemis, the Oval Plaza, Roman Temple of Dionysus and the ornamental Nymphaeum fountain (dedicated to the Nymphs), which was constructed in 191 AD and two amphitheatres from the same period. It’s a walking history lesson.
Hiking the Jordan Trail at Umm Qais
My eco guide, Ahmad Alomari, points to an olive grove about 300 metres below us near the Yarmouk River Gorge, just outside Umm Qais in northern Jordan. “It’s my family’s farm,” he says modestly. When I ask how long his family has owned the olive grove, he hesitates: “How long? Maybe 300 years, maybe longer. It’s been in my family, well, just forever.” That deep-rooted sense of history—biblical, social and familial—permeates the Jordan Trail, a 650-kilometre hiking trail that stretches the entire length of the country, from Umm Qais in the north all the way to the Red Sea in the south. The route, which crosses through deep valleys and rugged canyons, by Roman ruins, Bedouin camps, the Wadi Rum desert, religious sites, hot springs and waterfalls, represents 10,000 years of history.
The trail passes through 52 villages, towns and settlements. On this particular day, we’re hiking a stretch from Umm Qais, where we spent time exploring the ancient Greco-Roman city of Gadara, southeast of the Sea of Galilee, to Ziglab. After several hours of scrambling down basalt-strewn parts of the trail, we stop at a Bedouin camp to boil water for our tea, and Ahmad tells us that the Jordan Trail was once a famous trade route, the King’s Highway. Camel caravans from Egypt passed through Jordan en route to Syria. It’s believed that Jesus, Elijah, Moses and Mohammed walked what is now the Jordan Trail. I felt humbled to walk in their footsteps.
Fenyan Eco Lodge
In the very heart of the mountainous Dana Biosphere Reserve, in south-central Jordan, is the award-winning, 26-room Fenyan Eco Lodge, which is partnered with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Guests can attend a coffee-making ritual with a Bedouin, explore nearby archeological sites, stargaze at night, hike (it’s close to the Jordan Trail), canyoneer, mountain bike, join a cooking class or learn how to make kohl (Bedouin eyeliner). Visit ecohotels.me/Feynan