I’ve never been a fan of tour groups, said Gully Wells in Condé Nast Traveler. “Being herded onto a bus, having to follow somebody else’s schedule, sitting down for every meal with total strangers, and never, ever being alone is not how I want to see the world.” When it came to Jordan, however—a place I’ve always dreamed of visiting but one that seemed dauntingly foreign in every sense of the word—I made an exception. An “eight-day magical mystery” tour seemed the best way to take in this small Arab kingdom that sits atop centuries of history. Arriving in the capital, Amman, I was greeted by two guides: a London University professor with “geniusy hair, English teeth, and snappy red-framed glasses” as well as a local whose grasp of “everything Jordanian” ranged from Neolithic sculpture to the identity of the country’s second most common disease, irritable bowel syndrome. “Between them, there was nothing they didn’t know.”
I sat back like a “contented baby” as we headed north to Jerash, “one of the best preserved and largest Roman cities in the Middle East.” The scale of this ancient metropolis is only hinted at by the sight of the triumphal arch built by the Emperor Hadrian and the Corinthian columns along the Cardo, or main street. We tested the Temple of Zeus’ acoustics, which are “as acute as they were when players declaimed the works of Plautus,” and wandered the Hippodrome, where tracks from chariots “that had thundered past 2,000 years ago” were still carved into the limestone.
Then we followed our leaders to one of their “favorite places in the whole of Jordan”: Qusayr Amra. Built around A.D. 711, the small castle is a “sort of pleasure palace,” with frescoes depicting “every delight and fantasy any man could dream of.” My eyes moved from “a woman wearing nothing but a long diaphanous skirt” to bunches of grapes ripe for winemaking. Finally, we were whisked away to Petra, the “rose-colored city half as old as time,” which is easily the “highlight of any visit to Jordan.” As I caught my first glimpse of the “peachy pink” ruins from the first century B.C., all my misgivings about group tours disappeared.