In September 2021, after more than two years without traveling, my girlfriend and I decided to take a trip to Jordan — mainly to see the ancient city of Petra.
For 10 days we traveled through the country from north to south in a rental car, tallying around 760 miles. Our itinerary took us along nearly the entire length of Highway 35, also called the King’s Highway, which stretches from the northern city of Irbid to a point some 25 miles north of Wadi Rum, the famed desert valley to the south.
Along the way, we visited many of Jordan’s most treasured tourist destinations: the city of Jerash, with its stunning Greco-Roman ruins; Amman, the capital, with its cosmopolitan rhythms; the market town of Madaba, with its renowned Byzantine-era mosaics; the Dana Biosphere Reserve, with its rich diversity of plant life.
Our road trip started near the Dead Sea, though our stay there was relatively short. The environment near the surface — which sits more than 1,400 feet below sea level — is arid and suffocating. The water itself is so salty as to feel caustic; a single drop near our eyes or lips sent us rushing to the shore to rinse our faces.
But it was Petra — stunning in its scale, dazzling in its grandeur — that captured our imaginations. Tucked away in the mountains between the Dead Sea and Aqaba, and just miles from Highway 35, the ancient city defies all expectations.
Its many temples, tombs and altars — including its best-known structure, the Treasury, or Al Khazneh — left us breathless. No matter how many photographs you may have seen, nothing can ever prepare you for the feeling of standing in front of those incredible structures.
Carved into the wall of a narrow canyon and reaching some 130 feet high, the Treasury is thought to have been built as a mausoleum some 2,000 years ago. Though undoubtedly Petra’s most famous structure, the Treasury is not its largest. Ad Deir, a monastery that reaches some 154 feet, claims that title.
Petra, which lay along important trade routes between the Middle East and northern Africa, was built by the Nabataeans, a Bedouin tribe who lived in the area between the seventh century B.C. and the second century A.D. It remained entirely unknown to Westerners until 1812, when Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss traveler and geographer who had disguised himself as an Arab pilgrim, was led to the city by a local guide.
Throughout our trip, and especially while at Petra, we were reminded of how devastating the pandemic has been for those who work 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. During our visit, there were no more than 40 tourists in the city. As pleasant as it was to share the site with so few fellow visitors, we felt great concern for the locals whose business has evaporated: tour operators, camel and donkey owners, artisans, souvenir sellers.
From Petra we traveled farther south, eventually making our way 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 pickup truck whose bed had been outfitted with bench seats — a convenient way of coping with temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
We lingered in the desert until well past the sunset, when a vivid color palette emerged across the dunes.
And after a mythical journey along Highway 35, we drove farther south to visit the Gulf of Aqaba, the northeastern arm of the Red Sea. There, we took in the fresh, briny air and donned snorkel masks to explore the clear waters.
Perhaps our most surprising experience was at Aqaba’s underwater military museum, where a variety of war machines — tanks, troop carriers, a helicopter — have been scuttled near a coral reef, providing habitats for marine life and a fascinating point of exploration for divers.
During the day, it felt like there was little movement within the city of Aqaba. But at night everything came alive: The city’s streets were full of sounds and excitement, with crowds of people gathering to play games, chat and smoke hookah by the sea.
While returning to the airport in Amman, wending our way 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 real pleasure in photographing again: the people, the colors, the aromas, the landscapes. All of it had inspired my creativity.