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Between a rock and the Dead Sea


TOMB RAIDERS: Al-Khazneh's massive facade with multi-level columns and figurines explain why Indiana Jones thought it contained the Holy Grail

Rich biblical history, dramatic landscapes, lost tombs - Jordan's rose-red city is emerging as one of the hottest tourist destinations.

It's surprising that Bollywood hasn't yet discovered Jordan for, Hollywood most certainly has. Starting as early as Lawrence of Arabia, which was partly shot in the majestic Wadi Rum or Rum Valley, Jordan - which has deserts, mountains, ancient ruins and a fabulous coastline, all within three to four hours from each other - has been a favourite with western movie crews.

Kathryn Bigelow, who shot most of the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker here, is back again to film her yet unnamed movie. And of course, how can movie buffs forget Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade arriving at the Al-Khazneh at Petra (which doubled as the Canyon of Crescent Moon) to look for the Holy Grail?

In fact, a visit to Petra - a 2, 000-yearold city carved almost entirely out of rock - tells you why Jordan is suddenly so hot with tourists tired of the delights of Europe and America.

Petra, which is about three hours from the capital city of Amman, is, without doubt, the crowning jewel in Jordan's portfolio of tourist sites. The Petra valley today is actually a huge collection of pink, rock-hewn tombs. The city, which rose to prominence as a major junction along the silk and spice route between India-China and the western world, lost its cache when the trade route moved away. As the city got lost in history and the people - except for some Bedouin tribes - moved, the houses crumbled and fell to the ground but the tombs built into the rocks, over 500 at last count, survived.

In fact, Petra so totally faded from prominence that it was termed the 'lost city' and remained unknown to the western world for 300 odd years until it was re-discovered by a Swiss traveler, Johann Burckhardt, exactly 200 years ago.

The best part of the Petra journey is not so much the majestic Al-Khazneh or the treasury building but the kilometre-long journey to it along the magnificent Siq or gorge. As you enter the Siq, you instantly step away from the scorching desert heat into coolness as the gorge is flanked on both sides by soaring, almost 100m high cliffs. They provide the shade as you walk along and see faint markings of what would have been large murals on the cliff sides of camel caravans, horses and even elephants. As the rocks are mainly sandstone, it was easy to carve on them.

As you walk along the Siq, admiring the colours of the stone and the towering cliff faces, while the guide explains the significance of yet another mysterious marking, you suddenly realise that the walk has come to an end, and the edifice peeping out of the narrow opening is the one on every postcard from Jordan. The pink-coloured Al-Khazneh is actually wrongly named because it is not a treasury but a tomb, perhaps of a king. The Bedouin shepherds, who call Petra valley their home, believed for the longest time that a treasure was stored in the building, especially in the vase at the top. So they aimed their guns at it. Scars from the hundreds of bullets are still visible. The building is built on a single rock, bottom up. The massive pink facade with its multi-level columns and figurines is majestic. You can truly understand why Dr Henry 'Indiana' Jones believed that the Holy Grail could be found here. Tourists, however, can no longer enter the building.

The best time to visit Petra is early in the morning when it is cool. The walk to the treasury and back from the entrance is eight kilometres. If one is well equipped with comfortable walking shoes, a cap and plenty of water, then the walk isn't too strenuous. However, it is possible to make the excursion on horseback or in a horse carriage and once inside, the fun option is to take a donkey ride or for the more adventurous, a camel ride, which the local Bedouins offer.

Desert Bedouins, contrary to their portrayal in romantic Hollywood movies, prove not to be as handsome. Constant exposure to harsh winds and a cruel sun lends itself only to ruggedness.

While the Al-Khazneh is the main attraction, the massive Petra valley is dotted with tombs, altars, an open air theatre from Roman times that looks down majestically over the tourist trails, a monastery which the hardy can reach by climbing 800 steps and hundreds of shrines. Most tourists barely see two percent of the site. There's a Greek church with brilliant mosaics. Another recently excavated building - the debate is whether it was a palace or a large public audience hall - is said to have a statue of Lord Ganesh, which I have to admit, I didn't have the energy to go certify.

Petra by night - which I did not do - is highly recommended by people who have gone through the experience. Offered thrice a week - Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays - the tour starts after sunset with nearly 2, 000 candles lit all along the Siq leading upto the Treasury where one is greeted by Bedouin music. Regulars recommend a two-night-one-day trip to Petra. Land at night, next day do a morning trip to explore the expansive grounds for a few hours. Rest in the afternoon or visit Wadi Musa (the nearest city meaning Valley of Moses) and go for the candlelight walk in the night and leave the next morning.
While the Treasury building is in the main Petra site, little Petra which is a little distance away and at a height, is also a major tourist destination. The highlight of my trip was the dinner organised by the Jordan Toursim Board at Little Petra. With the whole area in darkness except for paths lit by lamps, there was a magical quality to the evening with a lone Bedouin flautist perched atop a huge rock playing into the quiet desert night. The lamps lining the paths were improvised for the desert openness rather brilliantly. Candles are placed in thin, plain brown envelopes that are filled with sand at the bottom and open at the top.
The sit-down dinner was in front of a large tomb entrance which was very subtly lit. A sound-and-light show which spectacularly lit the rocky surfaces was followed by a wonderful dance performance from a group of Bedouin male dancers in full ceremonial garb, swords etal.

While Petra is the highlight of any trip to Jordan, those with time on their hands can explore other places like Wadi Rum, where you get a taste of the desert in its infinite splendour. One can participate in adventure sports here - helicopter and hot-air balloon rides or rappelling on the granite cliffs are on offer. It's also one of the best places to watch the sun set. As the ruby sun slowly disappears behind the dunes and you sit in the jeep surrounded by vast expanses of the desert, it's difficult not to be humbled by the experience.

Jordan's two seas, the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, are also massive draws. Dead Sea is where even those who don't know how to swim can go for a dive because everything floats in the briny water, including humans. Hence, watching people execute a perfect 'naukasana' in the Dead Sea is a must watch. It is also an attraction for those who want to lather themselves with Dead Sea mud, much renowned for its therapeutic qualities. The Red Sea also makes for a tranquil swimming destination with its cobalt-aquamarine coloured waters.

All this, without touching upon Jordan's place in the 'holy land' pilgrimage. In fact, the only Indian tourists I spotted during my week-long stay in Jordan were Malayalees at Mount Nebo (from where Moses sighted the Holy land after 40 years of roaming in the desert).

The country, in fact, depends hugely on tourism. It accounts for nearly 17 per cent of the nation's GDP. Badly hit last year by the troubles in the region, especially in neighbouring Syria, Jordan Tourism officials are at pains to explain to tourists that their country is among the most stable and safest in the region. The message seems to be filtering out for tourist arrivals were back up again in the first quarter of this year.

The author was in Jordan at the invitation of the Jordan Tourism Board.

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