Jordan (1999)

Tonight the king will spend a night among his people. King Abdullah, the king in question, rules over five million Jordanians. He has come to the red sandscape of Wadi Rum, in the south of his kingdom, to consult with the bedouin who form an important (and fiercely traditional) part of his population. The king, a keen rally competitor, will drive his own jeep out into the desert to a specially-erected tent encampment under one of the weathered sandstone mountains. Of course he won't be exactly roughing it. Two pantechnicon lorries of catering supplies have already arrived, along with trucks of soldiers, a retinue of mobile-phone wielding advisors, and something which looks like a satellite communications rig. At Rum village the white-robed bedouin drink tea, smoke cigarettes, saddle their camels and ride out to meet him, whipping the beasts across the desert in an impressive cloud of dust.

If you are already thinking of Peter O'Toole, you are on the right track. Wadi Rum is Lawrence of Arabia country. It was this vast landscape of crazily-eroded rocks and towering escarpments that hid Lawrence, Abdullah's ancestor Prince Faisal and their rag-tag bedouin army as they blew up Turkish railway lines and pursued the disintegrating Ottoman forces towards Damascus during the Arab Revolt. In England Lawrence is viewed as the colonial hero par excellence, uniting the Arabs and leading them to victory. Nostalgic imperialists will, however, be disgruntled to find that in Jordan he is seen as something of a joke, an Englishman who went 'along for the ride' and was mostly useful as a source of guns and money for the independence struggle. Yet whatever the historical truths it hides, Wadi Rum remains an awesome place. Today the area attracts hikers and climbers, attracted by the eerie presence of the mountains and the opportunity for that rare thing, complete loneliness.

Since I haven't blagged a backstage pass to meet the King, I decide to make the most of the solitude and head away from the festivities, riding several hours on a camel towards Jebel Khazali. This mountain was named for a lucky local criminal who was chased to the summit, jumped off and floated safely to the ground, thus executing a supernaturally clean getaway. A scramble up a shady cleft in the rock reveals two-thousand year old graffitti, drawings of camels, goats and people with their arms raised in prayer. Such traces are everywhere in this seemingly blank land, which was for thousands of years on the main caravan route from East Africa and Southern Arabia.

Perhaps this long occupation accounts for the diffuse sense of consciousness which pervades the desert. Though I know (or at least believe) that I am alone - except for my guide Atiq and his placid camel - I have a peculiar feeling that the land itself is watching me. This is confirmed when a quivering forty-foot column of sand forms out of nothing and starts making its way towards me. I come to the conclusion that this would be an opportune moment to abandon my atheistical city ways and start grovelling to whatever desert spirit I have just disturbed. Sorry, your efreet-ness. Whoever did it, it wasn't me. I'm from London...

No amount of rationalisation about localised thermic activity and dust-bearing updrafts can dispel the idea that the thing is alive. It proceeds towards me at a stately pace and eventually I have to step out of its way, watching open-mouthed as it undulates its way across an open stretch of sand before dispersing. Later I watch an extraordinary sunset drip yellow light over the mountains, and later still go for a walk under a canopy of stars whose depth and brightness is completely undiluted by haze or light pollution. I make a note to come back and lose myself in this place for a week, or perhaps a month.

The glories of the Southern desert make it all the more inexplicable that, for many people, Jordan is a day-trip destination from Israel. Israeli tourist guides are keen to keep it that way, outrageously exaggerating the difficulties of Jordanian travel. In fact it is an easy country to wander in, with a liberal Islamic culture that accommodates most of the peculiarities of tourist behaviour. Petra, the ancient city carved out of the mountains North of Wadi Rum, is justly famous, but the coach parties who drive across the border to mill around in front of the façade of the Treasury are missing more than they realise. The city is worth spending several days exploring. The Nabateans who built it made a killing by controlling the Frankincense and Myrrh routes from Ethiopia at precisely the time when these items were considered top-of-the-range birthday gifts. Until the Romans spoiled the party by diverting the trade through Egypt, camel trains numbering thousands of animals and people passed through the 'rose city', and traces of every style from Assyria to Macedon can be seen in the architecture. Out of the city centre are numerous beautiful carved tombs and temples, and even if ancient history leaves you cold, the variety of colours in the rock and the wild beauty of the landscape (worth some hard and sweaty climbs) justify its reputation. For the more adventurous, hiring one of the fiery local horses and trekking away from the city centre to some of the outlying sites in the highlands is also unforgettable, especially if (like me) you experience much of the scenery at an unscheduled flat-out gallop.

Further North, Jordan makes its major transition from white to red. The sandstone and basalt give way to pale limestone, and the desert to olive groves and apple orchards. The roads are lined by cypress and desert oak, growing at an oddly-uniform forty-five degree angle, thanks to the fierce West wind which cuts over the land in winter. Muslim and Christian holy places are dotted across the country, from the shrines of minor Islamic prophets to the Byzantine monastery on Mount Nebo, where Moses first saw the Holy Land. Grim crusader castles cling to vantage points over deep valleys, and at Karak, one of the best preserved sites in the Middle East, you get a sense of quite how medieval the middle ages really got. Clambering around the ruins, the horrors of an eight month siege, such as Karak endured in the twelfth-century, are made unpleasantly vivid. There is also a steep drop to contemplate, down which miscreants were thrown, with wooden boxes built round their heads so they experienced as much bone-shattering pain as possible on the way down. Nice. The bustling market town around the old walls, with its vegetable stalls and haggling traders, comes as a relief from guided-tour tales of dog-eating, thirst and pestilence.

After several few hard days pretending to be Lawrence of Arabia, or Moses, or Lord Reynald of Karak, the only sensible policy is to head for the pool. As a resting place the Dead Sea wins hands down over Aqaba, Jordan's Red Sea resort. Located on the country's tiny stretch of coastline, with Eilat to one side and the Saudi border to the other, Aqaba is forced by circumstance to double as tourist destination and major container port. The mix is unhappy, and despite the line of new hotels on the seafront, the only real attraction is the diving. The Red Sea coral is gorgeous, though not up to the standard of some of the Sinai coast diver's paradises like Sharm El'Sheikh or Dahab.

The Dead Sea is an altogether more enticing prospect. Cover oneself head to foot in smooth black mud, enter the water and spend a few hours watching your toes bob around, pointing in the general direction of Israel. This can soothe away any known variety of stress, and ease the worst camel or trek-induced muscle pains. For the well-heeled, the best way to experience this, the lowest point on earth, is the new Mövenpick Dead Sea Spa resort. With a treatment centre run by London relaxation moguls The Sanctuary, and accommodation in a souk-like warren of traditionally-styled buildings, it offers an absurd level of luxury, as well as an entertainingly-kitsch pool culture. Watch rich matrons swim in Jackie-O shades, hats, jewellery and full make-up, as boys in Hawaiian shirts and white shorts serve drinks to their leisure-shorted husbands. There is a plunge pool with an uninterrupted view of a premier-league sunset (guaranteed nightly), and it is possible to have drinks served to you as you view. It is shameless, decadent fun.

This piece first appeared in Time Out