In September 2021, after more than two years of no travel, my girlfriend and I decided to take a trip to Jordan – mainly to see the ancient city of Petra.
For 10 days we traveled in a rental car from north to south through the country, good for about 760 miles. Our route took us along almost the entire length of Highway 35, also known as the King’s Highway, which stretches from the northern city of Irbid to a point about 40 miles north of Wadi Rum, the famous desert valley to the south.
Along the way, we visited many of Jordan’s most beloved tourist destinations: the city of Jerash, with its beautiful Greco-Roman ruins; Amman, the capital, with its cosmopolitan rhythms; the market town of Madaba, with its famous Byzantine-era mosaics; the Dana Biosphere Reserve, with its rich diversity of plants.
Our road trip started near the Dead Sea, although our stay there was relatively short. The environment on the surface — which is more than 1,400 feet below sea level — is arid and stifling. The water itself is so salty that it feels corrosive; a single drop to our eyes or lips made us run to the shore to rinse our faces.
But it was Petra – stunning in its size, dazzling in its grandeur – that captured our imaginations. Tucked away in the mountains between the Dead Sea and Aqaba, and just a few miles from Highway 35, the old city exceeds all expectations.
The many temples, tombs and altars – including the most famous structure, the Treasury or Al Khazneh – left us breathless. No matter how many photos you’ve seen, nothing can ever prepare you for the feeling of standing in front of those incredible structures.
The Treasury, carved into the wall of a narrow gorge and standing some 130 feet high, is said to have been built as a mausoleum some 2,000 years ago. While it is arguably Petra’s most famous structure, the Treasury is not the largest. Ad Deir, a monastery some 50 meters high, claims that title.
Located along important trade routes between the Middle East and North Africa, Petra was built by the Nabataeans, a Bedouin tribe who lived in the area between the seventh century BC and the second century AD. It remained completely unknown to Westerners until 1812, when Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss traveler and geographer who disguised himself as an Arab pilgrim, was led to the city by a local guide.
During our trip, and especially when we were in Petra, we were reminded of how devastating the pandemic has been for those working in the tourism industry.
According to data from the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority, the ancient city received some 1.1 million visitors in 2019 – an average of more than 3,000 people per day. During our visit there were no more than 40 tourists in the city. As pleasant as it was to share the site with so few fellow visitors, we were very concerned about the locals whose business has evaporated: tour operators, camel and donkey owners, artisans, souvenir sellers.
From Petra we traveled further south and finally made our way to the desert landscape of Wadi Rum, also known as the Valley of the Moon, whose spectacular scenery includes towering sand dunes, vast plateaus and narrow gorges, all covered in rich shades of orange. and red.
We chose to explore the area in a pickup truck whose bed was equipped with bench seats — a convenient way to deal with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
We lingered in the desert well past sunset, when a vibrant palette of colors appeared over the dunes.
And after a mythical journey along Highway 35, we continued south to visit the Gulf of Aqaba, the northeastern arm of the Red Sea. There we took in the fresh, salty air and donned snorkeling masks to explore the clear waters.
Perhaps our most surprising experience was at Aqaba’s Underwater Military Museum, where a variety of war machines – tanks, troopships, a helicopter – were sunk near a coral reef, creating habitats for marine life and a fascinating exploration point for divers.
During the day it felt like there was little movement in the city of Aqaba. But at night everything came alive: the city streets were full of sounds and excitement, with crowds gathering to play games, chat and smoke hookah by the sea.
Returning to the airport in Amman, heading north on Highway 35, we had a chance to reflect on our trip. Jordan had given us a perfect opportunity to discover – after years of inactivity – a new place with a rich history and culture. I also really enjoyed shooting the weather: the people, the colours, the smells, the landscapes. All this had inspired my creativity.