Beyond the Siq, Petra opens up as the ultimate adventure playground
If I hadn't remembered from school geography lessons that the shores of the Dead Sea are the planet's lowest accessible point on dry land, then the late-night trip there from Amman's Queen Alia International Airport would have made that clear.
It was an hour's drive downhill - past the twinkling lights of smaller villages, down steeply through the dimly seen dark outlines of surrounding mountains, and yet further down towards the bright patch of sodium glare that was Jerusalem on the opposite shore.
It was a shame the children slept through it. In the morning they awoke to diffused sunlight that revealed luxury hotels, many with Middle Eastern themes varying from rustic village to grand Babylonian temple, forming a kind of pan-Arabian theme park.
Cleopatra, reputedly an early Dead Sea visitor, might have found the surrounds familiar. History fails to record whether she brought along any of her children by Julius Caesar or Mark Anthony, but our room at the Mövenpick had a Star Wars quality our son found delightful: sun-dried mud and straw on the outside but high technology inside (satellite television, broadband internet). It was the perfect start to a family holiday.
A winding route through a labyrinth of mock villages and still further down from terrace to terrace led to a shore dotted with reclining figures who were reading, chatting, or keeping an eye on their own wandering children. The walled-in hotel compound was clearly an outpost of Europe, and the dress code was "skimpy".
The water had a viscous quality - not oily, greasy or syrupy, but in between. Rich with bromine and magnesium it was also as much as 10 times saltier than the average ocean, and this provided built-in water wings, perfect for a four-year-old boy not yet able to swim.
Given the near-impossibility of drowning, the lifeguards on high chairs at intervals along the shoreline seemed redundant, but the salinity of the water could be dangerous if swallowed and one of them insisted on personally lowering my son on to the water, and taking care of him. After a brief suspension he was happy to play in the hotel's shallow swimming pools and to watch his father flop about from the shore.
When I swam face down my legs popped out of the water of their own accord and were no help at all with forward progress. When I turned on my back it was possible to use my arms to scull along, but only very slowly.
When travelling with children you can never go wrong with a beach, even if artificially created with sand imported from Red Sea resorts, and especially when there's illicit amusement in watching other guests at the water's edge smear their bodies and faces with gelatinous black mud, and then promenade up and down, looking like raccoons and pandas. This ancient treatment, available in more sophisticated forms at nearby spas, was supposedly what attracted Cleopatra.
Jordan's other famous attraction, the spectacular hidden labyrinth of rock-cut tombs, temples and monuments at Petra, was three hours' drive south across a largely parched landscape. The 1,200-metre-long winding narrow canyon of an entrance called the Siq, part Lord of the Rings and part Indiana Jones, could hardly fail to delight any child. Riding down at speed between the majestic pink, grey, and caramel cliffs in a two-wheeled horse-drawn cart was an experience with which no theme park could ever hope to compete.
There were many stories appealing to young imaginations and parents keen to slip in a bit of education on the sly. Giant carved cubes of pink stone called djinn blocks provided Arabian Nights references, the djinn being an evil creature in human form, but easily distinguished from humans by the vertical slits of its eyes and mouth.
The portrait of the colonnaded Treasury building at the far end of the Siq, its pink façade spotlit by sunshine and framed by the dark near-vertical and nearly touching cliffs, was perhaps a djinn's-eye view.
Then there was the story of the young Swiss explorer, Johann Burckhardt, who disguised himself as a Muslim scholar and became the first Westerner to see the city since the crusades. This year, Jordan is celebrating the 200th anniversary of this "rediscovery". Had the local Bedouin penetrated his disguise, his reward would have been instant death. His account of Petra was published in 1822, inspiring one of the best-known lines of English poetry, William Burgon's, "A rose-red city half as old as time".
Beyond the Siq, Petra opened up as the ultimate adventure playground. Sometimes leaving my wife and infant daughter comfortable in the shade of some palatial pillared frontage, we boys climbed rock-cut stairways of irresistable allure that twisted upwards across the cliffs to either side and explored the bat-haunted interiors of numerous tombs and temples and admired sprawling views across vast areas of carved rock in assorted valleys. At ground level even my daughter was entertained by sections of cliff that looked like the hide of a psychedelic zebra. Here the rock was striped in pink and blue, while the whorls of red and white resembled streaky bacon.
As the day brightened and warmed the site, whole cliffs begin to resemble blancmange topped with caramel, chocolate, coffee, fudge and strawberry sauces.
We arranged a more private audience with the less-visited Little Petra, a short drive away over the surrounding high ground, where Bedouin Ammarin tribesmen, more welcoming than in Burckhardt's day, welcomed us to a permanent camp of black and brown striped tents. A natural niche in a cliff provided a cool and shady dining area in which to eat pleasantly smoky food, caramelised by wrapping it in foil before baking in a traditional wood-fired oven.
This was a modernised Bedouin meal of chicken, lightly-spiced rice, baked potatoes, yoghurt and more, wolfed down messily by children distracted by the novelty of eating alfresco, and all the more exciting because we were hosted, as if in Tintin, by a genuine sheik in traditional robes.
"Can you ride a horse," Sheik Suleiman charmed my four-year-old, clearly thinking that any boy of his age should be able to do so by now. The tribe still follows traditional nomadic routes around its territory, and a small museum nearby brought the rigours of the desert to life with plentiful photography.
Back at the modern town of Wadi Musa, huddled around Petra's entrance, the small back-street restaurant of Petra Kitchen provided an another food-related highlight.
Here the single, open, green-tiled room was lined with kitchen equipment around wooden tables where guests learned about local dishes and did the cooking themselves under the supervision of chefs moonlighting from nearby resorts, aided by a team of local women. We chopped parsley and tomatoes to mix with bulgar wheat, herbs and lemon juice for a tabbouleh salad, and stirred pots of the national dish of mansaf, tender lamb served on a bed of rice and almonds.
It was all easy enough for my son to join in, filling pastry squares with cheese, folding them into parcels for baking, and proudly making sure his family ate the ones that he had constructed. But the experience he most often mentions was two hours south in the camel hoofprints of Lawrence of Arabia, at the palm tree-dotted Red Sea resort of Aqaba. Here we went out to sea in a rickety boat through whose fibreglass bottom we viewed the sunken remains of a tank, submerged to help revive the coral, and surrounded by colourful fish.
Jordan offers families the perfect mix of cultural and historical sites, resorts with guaranteed sunshine, trekking and other outdoor exercise, and security in an otherwise restive part of the world. Jordan's cuisine is straightforward and unchallenging, but there are plenty of familiar Western options for fussy eaters. All the destinations mentioned feature familiar luxury hotel brands, such as Mövenpick, Marriott and Kempinski, and local hotels and guesthouses.
Additional attractions include crusader castles and sprawling Roman ruins near the capital, Amman, and the valley of Wadi Rum in southern Jordan, famous for its rock carvings and its history as the base for T. E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt of 1917-18, described in Lawrence's classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and famously dramatised by David Lean as Lawrence of Arabia.