Travel Happy Other Destinations Petra, Jordan: Half As Old As Time Itself
Visiting Jordan soon after the first Gulf War might not seem the safest of travel plans – but the ancient city of Petra became a must-see, thanks to a particularly audacious pop video.
When was the last time a pop video inspired you to travel half way round the world into a war zone? Unlikely and indeed foolish as it may sound, this is exactly what I did during the halcyon days of my year out between finishing school and starting university. It was 1991: I’d been working for real money for the first time and was still living at home with my long-suffering folks, allowing me to save up and satiate my wanderlust before I entered into the halls of academia. I had three weeks left until university began and the need for one last venture overseas was becoming overwhelming. But where to go?
The answer came from one of the many drunken evenings spent listening to deafeningly loud music and watching pop videos. One song whose video had stood up to repeated viewing was the track Dominion, a smash hit for intellectual rock ubermeisters The Sisters Of Mercy back in 1988. Filmed in the ancient city of Petra deep within the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, Dominion’s video was a cross between Laurence of Arabia and Apocalypse Now. I still had trouble believing Petra actually existed, with its vast temple facades carved from the very mountains themselves having remained virtually intact over the last two thousand years. It looked so much like a movie set designed by Cecile B De Mille that it couldn’t possibly be real. (George Lucas evidently thought the same, which is why they filmed the climax of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade there. Petra also appears in the Tintin book The Red Sea Sharks, trivia fans). And so I decided that I had to go and see Petra for myself.
However, there were a few factors I hadn’t taken into account, such as the fact that Jordan borders Iraq and the first Gulf War had ended only six months ago. Tour operators to Jordan were therefore somewhat difficult to find, but eventually my friend Matthew and I were set up. We arrived in Amman airport late one night, expecting to meet up with a minibus of other hardy souls unphased by the possibility of hostilities breaking out again. Instead, we were greeted by a chauffeur with a banana yellow Mercedes who informed us that we were the only two people to have booked the tour and therefore this was to be our mode of transport for the duration of our stay. We were, as you can imagine, terribly disappointed.
Over the next nine days, Akmed was to drive us the length of Jordan, taking us from Amman down to Petra via the spectacular King’s Highway and from there onto Aqaba, the desert town on the shores of the Red Sea. Matthew and I were both a little perturbed that he had a photo of King Hussein of Jordan shaking hands with Saddam Hussein sellotaped to his dashboard, but there was little reason to worry. Akmed, like all the Jordanians we met, was impeccably courteous and friendly – there was no mention of the various international troubles going on between our respective countries. The only time they were mentioned was when we visited the Dead Sea and met a bunch of Iraqi tourists who were also finding it completely impossible to stand upright in the water thanks to its six-times-higher-than-normal salt content. Pointing across the water to where Israel lay, they asked us, “What are you doing here? This is the most dangerous place in the world – Palestine is just over there!”
While it felt gratifying to be able to talk aimably to Iraqi fellow tourists when only six months before our respective countrymen had been trying to kill one another, their comments about Israel were indicative of our completely different worldviews. Israel’s existence is not acknowledged by Jordan – on Jordanian maps Israel simply doesn’t appear. When you’re travelling within the sanitised bubble of tourism, where anything unsettling is meant to be hidden from the visitors’ eyes, these sort of details are the ones that remain as enduring memories.
Our progress to Petra almost never happened thanks to another difference in East-West worldviews, this time a financial one. Before Matthew and I had left the UK, we’d both acquired Visa cards to keep carrying cash to a minimum. we were both assured Visa was widely welcomed in Jordan. Well, it had been up until about a year before our arrival, when the banks backing Visa in Jordan collapsed and the card could not be honoured anywhere, leaving us stranded in Amman with barely a Jordanian dollar between us. We visited virtually every bank in the city trying to get some cash but were politely refused at every turn. Finally, Providence intervened – staggering into another bank, covered in dust and looking very dodgy, it turned out the teller we spoke to was not only the manager’s son but had been educated in London. We were promptly taken off to the air-conditioned and leather armchair heaven of the conference room while the son went and pulled various strings to get us enough cash to see us through the rest of our time in Jordan. It was mentioning The Sisters Of Mercy that won him over, I’m sure – seems that he spent his student days in London listening to deafeningly loud music too…
Arriving in Petra is as dreamlike as the city’s legend. Surrounded by a ring of mountains, the only way to enter Petra is through the Siq, a naturally hewn passage, only 15 feet wide in places, which snakes through the mountain rock. The desert sun almost disappears on entering the Siq, so high are its narrow walls. Eventually the gloom is pierced by a shaft of bright light as the mountains drop away into great rift valley where Petra was built. Visible before even emerging from the Siq is the Treasury, a staggering ornate building carved out of the mountain rock.
Despite the Treasury being Petra’s most-well known attraction, no photo or film is any sort of preparation for its sheer scale and size, a monument both to the skill and wealth of the Nabateans, the ancient civilisation who made Petra their capital in the third century BC. Thanks to the natural protection afforded it by the mountains, Petra flourished as a spice trading city, even after it was conquered by the Romans in 65 BC. The Nabatean and Roman civilisations fused in Petra, producing architecture using both peoples’ influences such as the still intact amphitheatre and the colonnades carved high above the main causeway. How Petra never became the eighth wonder of the ancient world will forever remain a mystery.
Changing trade routes and an immense earthquake in 551 AD meant that Petra fell into decline. Incredibly, it was only seen by the western world in 1812 for the first time since the Crusades when it was rediscovered by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Rampantly pretentious though it may sound, I felt a bit like Burckhardt wandering through Petra. The entire city was virtually empty, the usual 2000 tourists who visit Petra daily having disappeared in the aftermath of the Gulf War. I walked the empty causeway and climbed up the still intact stairways to be surrounded by silence and my own thoughts. It struck me both then and now as being particularly ironic that it was neither school nor my parents nor even a friend that had told me about this place, that had fired the irrational but overwhelming need to see it with my own eyes. It was that supposedly most banal of things, a pop video. But then, I always knew I had impeccable music taste.