In September 2021, after more than two years without travelling, my girlfriend and I decided to take a trip to Jordan – mainly to see the ancient city of Petra.
For 10 days, we traveled the country from north to south in a rental car, totaling around 760 miles. Our route took us almost the full length of Highway 35, also known as the King’s Highway, which runs from the northern town of Irbid to a point about 25 miles north of Wadi Rum, the famous valley desert to the south.
Along the way, we visited several of Jordan’s most popular tourist destinations: the city of Jerash, with its stunning Greco-Roman ruins; Amman, the capital, with its cosmopolitan rhythms; the town of Madaba, with its famous mosaics from the Byzantine period; the Dana Biosphere Reserve, with its rich plant diversity.
Our road trip started near the Dead Sea, although our time there was relatively short. The environment near the surface – which lies more than 1,400 feet below sea level – is arid and sweltering. The water itself is so salty that it seems caustic; a single drop near our eyes or lips would rush us to the shore to rinse our faces.
But it was Petra – stunning in her scale, dazzling in her grandeur – that captured our imagination. Nestled in the mountains between the Dead Sea and Aqaba, and a few kilometers from Highway 35, the ancient city defies all expectations.
Its many temples, tombs and altars – including its most famous structure, the Treasury or Al Khazneh – took our breath away. No matter how many photographs you may have seen, nothing can ever prepare you for the thrill of standing in front of these incredible structures.
Carved into the wall of a narrow canyon and standing about 130 feet tall, the Treasury is believed to have been built as a mausoleum around 2,000 years ago. Although it is undoubtedly Petra’s most famous structure, the Treasury is not the largest. Ad Deir, a monastery that reaches some 154 feet, claims this title.
Petra, located along important trade routes between the Middle East and North Africa, was built by the Nabataeans, a Bedouin tribe who lived in the region between the 7th century BC and the 2nd century BC. century AD It remained completely unknown to Westerners until 1812, when Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss traveler and geographer who had disguised himself as an Arab pilgrim, was led into the city by a local guide.
Throughout our trip, and especially 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. When we visited, there were no more than 40 tourists in the town. As pleasant as it is to share the site with so few visitors, we felt great concern for the locals whose trade has evaporated: tour operators, camel and donkey owners, craftsmen, souvenir sellers.
From Petra we traveled further south, eventually heading to the desert landscape of Wadi Rum, also known as the Valley of the Moon, whose spectacular scenery includes towering sand dunes, vast mesas and narrow canyons, all covered in rich shades of orange and red.
We chose to explore the area in a van whose bed had been fitted with bench seats – a convenient way to cope with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
We lingered in the desert until well after sunset when a vivid palette of colors emerged across the dunes.
And after a legendary trip along Highway 35, we drove further south to visit the Gulf of Aqaba, the northeast arm of the Red Sea. There, we breathed in the cool, brackish air and donned snorkel masks to explore the clear waters.
Perhaps our most surprising experience was at the Aqaba Underwater Military Museum, where a variety of war machines – tanks, troop carriers, a helicopter – were scuttled near a coral reef, providing 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 streets of the city were full of noise and excitement, with crowds of people gathering to play games, chat and smoke hookah by the sea.
Returning to Amman Airport, heading north on Highway 35, we had a chance to reflect on our trip. Jordan had offered us a perfect opportunity – after years of stasis – to discover a new place with a rich history and culture. I also felt a real pleasure in photographing again: people, colors, aromas, landscapes. All of this had inspired my creativity.