New affordable air routes are opening up Jordan's wonders to the short-break market, says LIZ BIRD
HUNDREDS of candles lined the steep-sided gorge's path, throwing shadows on to the walls as we slowly made our way down towards the haunting Bedouin music.
We turned a corner and caught a glimpse of something illuminated in front of us, a towering Hellenistic façade carved into the sheer rock.
We had arrived at the Lost City of Petra.
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We sipped mint tea on rugs in front of a carpet of lanterns at The Treasury, Petra's most elaborate ruin, as incense burned and the Bedouin played more soulful music beneath the star-lit sky.
I had flown to Jordan on easyJet's inaugural flight to the capital Amman the previous day, greeted by a host of smiling dignitaries keen to celebrate something positive amid the Middle East's troubles.
The launch is certainly good news for British travellers, with the affordable fares already forcing rivals to drop their prices.
The timings of easyJet's new thrice-weekly service also make short breaks possible: if you fly on a Thursday afternoon from Gatwick, for instance, you can pack in three full days of sightseeing before the return flight on Sunday evening.
The next morning we got up at 5am to see Petra by day.
What a contrast. "Welcome to the city of craning your neck, " joked our guide Adel, as we gasped at the multicoloured narrow sandstone gorge, Bab as-Siq, dotted with tombs hewn out of the rock.
The Siq, leading to the city, is a three-quarters-of-a-mile chasm created by tectonic movement and once provided the perfect natural defence from marauders.
A few hours later and this path would have been filled with the sound of clattering hooves from the horse-drawn carriages and the echo of tourists' voices.
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However, at this hour we had the place to ourselves.
Created by the Nabataeans more than 2,000 years ago, Petra became the capital of a vast kingdom that stretched across Arabia. This nomadic Arab tribe, which settled in the area around the 6th century BC, certainly knew a thing or two about stone masonry.
The grand 142ft-high façade of The Treasury, a tomb for the Nabataean king Aretas III which featured in the film Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, looks just as dramatic in daylight with its classical Greek columns.
It's at its best from 9am to 11am when the sun hits its façade and turns it rose red.
The architecture here was no doubt inspired by the international travellers arriving laden with incense, silks and spices who passed by this important trading hub between China and Rome.
The Nabataeans offered them water and protection and grew wealthy from the proceeds. The Treasury is just the start of this vast complex spanning 38 square miles.
Turning right, the steep sides opened to reveal the Street of Façades lined with 70-odd tombs (the higher up the mountain, the more important you were).
You need at least two days to see the whole of this Unesco World Heritage site, rediscovered by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.
One of the highlights is the 40-minute walk up to the monastery, a bigger version of The Treasury, sitting at the top of an 800-step path with dramatic mountain views. If you don't fancy the climb you can hire a donkey.
While Petra is obviously the big draw for tourists, Jordan has lots of other attractions. At the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, I spent an enjoyable afternoon at the Mövenpick Resort & Spa with its pretty landscaped gardens surrounding a series of pools leading down to the water's edge.
I had my obligatory float in the water (it's so salty you can't actually swim) before chilling out in the sleek modern spa.
Part of the Holy Land, Jordan also has plenty of Christian sights. The town of Madaba is home to a mosaic floor map depicting all the key Biblical sites of the Middle East such as Jerusalem and Jericho.
Dating back to AD 560, it was discovered under the 19th-century Greek Orthodox church in 1884.
We had a superb lunch at Haret Jdoudna, a classy complex of craft shops and cafés set around a pretty, flower-filled courtyard with a tinkling fountain.
I loved the fried eggplant with sesame, fattoush salad and lamb kofta with a potato and tahini sauce.
With good, easy-to-navigate roads, the journey between Petra and the capital Amman takes around three hours.
Amman may not match cities such as Istanbul and Damascus for picturesque ancient mosques and atmospheric bazaars but it does have its own appeal.
I headed downtown (Amman is spread across 20 hills so taxis are advisable) to visit the wonderfully preserved Roman amphitheatre.
The Hussein Mosque is particularly atmospheric during Friday prayers when men spill out on to the streets and hotly debate the day's political affairs.
Everywhere I went the locals were incredibly warm, no one pressured me to buy anything and everyone said: "Welcome, welcome". In Jordan, the hottest new short-break destination, it's almost impossible to feel anything but.
Low Cost Holidays (0843 104 1000/www.lowcostholidays.com) offers five nights in Jordan from £455pp (two sharing), room only. Price includes easyJet flights from Gatwick to Amman, one-night at The Amman Marriott Hotel, two nights at the Mövenpick Resort Petra and two nights at the Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea.
Visit Jordan: 0207 223 1878/ www.visitjordan.com