It was the picture of Petra on the front of the holiday brochure that attracted me to book Christmas in Jordan.
In fact, there’s a great deal more to see across Jordan – the Roman city of Jerash, where you can visualise the proportions of streets and buildings and temples and climb to the top of the theatre and look down to the stage and the frons scenae like sitting in the gods at the Hackney Empire, the great Crusader castle of Kerak, and the Omayyad desert castles, none of which are actually castles – Qasr-al- Kharana (which is a 7th-century hotel for caravanserai), Qasr Amra (which is a bath-house, of all things, in the middle of nowhere) and Qasr Azraq (not so much a castle as a fort, Roman, even to its stone doors, last operational when T E Lawrence was about).
But Petra is what I’d come for, and Petra is what it’s all about – “the rose-red city, half as old as time”.
(It’s often said that Guy Burgess, the Cambridge spy, maliciously picked up Rev John William Burgon’s poetic phrase about Petra and twisted it mischievously to describe Harold Nicolson as “a rose-red sissy, half as old as time”. In fact L A Brooke of Wolverhampton, writing in The Sunday Times (August 10th 1997), refers to a slim book of poems by William Plomer, entitled The Dorking Thigh…published either in the late 1940s or the early 1950s. The poem begins: “Aloft in Heavenly Mansions W1. / Heavenly? well certainly sublime, / one finds the abode of D’Arcy Honeybun, / a rose-red sissy half as old as time.”)
You set off down a ravine, through a cleft in the rock, called a Siq, barely ten feet across in places and anything up to a couple of hundred feet high.
And there at the end – though you know it’s coming from the travel-posters, it’s still a surprise – peeps the pink stone façade of what is called the Treasury. It’s bigger than a two-storey building, in crisp clean Classical lines, dating from the 1st or 2nd century AD: it’s actually a tomb, carved from the rock from top to bottom, with three huge chambers behind, which are plain and completely without decoration.
From that grand-slam aesthetic experience the walk down into a widening valley, impregnable from the outside world, is punctuated by lesser but still remarkable surprises – a rock-cut theatre, the Urn Monument, the Corinthian Monument, a gigantic temple to some Nabatean (pre-Roman) god.
The sandstone is not all pink, but in some places has so many different colours in the sediments that it has a rainbow effect. (So the Bedouins make sand-bottles, rather like the Isle of Wight but with camels in the design. I endlessly refused to buy, because not only did the concept feel unutterably naff but some of the bottles were HP.)
The loos were surprisingly salubrious. We stopped for coffee at a tent where the Bedouin in charge turned out to have the most outrageously accurate East London accent, which he claimed to have learnt from a tourist. I didn’t see a fraction of what there is to explore, though I stayed long enough to see the Bedouin souvenir-sellers climbing into their Toyotas at the end of the afternoon, ostensibly to return to their houses on the hills behind. So I’ll have to go back again one day.