When I was a child growing up, there were two countries that seemed to contain most of the history I heard about apart from my own country's. I wasn't even sure back then if they were even real. I looked in my school, but couldn't find them. Only later did I learn that countries change borders and names, sometimes happily; sometimes not. The world today has countries that didn't exist back then in school. Africa is nothing like it was and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 changed the map of Europe. The names I kept hearing were ancient biblical names but I finally worked out they were what corresponds roughly to what are now Israel and Jordan. Today, I want to take you on a journey around the latter.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (المملكة الأردنية الهاشمية), more simply usually referred to as Jordan (الْأُرْدُنّ), is an Arab country bordering Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. The Dead Sea (البحر الميت) and the river that feeds it, the famous River Jordan (نَهْر الْأُرْدُنّ) lie on its west. The country is important to both Judaism and Christianity and is mentioned in the Bible many times. Today, it is 95% Islamic in religion, although freedom of religion is maintained. Approximately 4% are Christian, down from around 20% in the 1930s; despite the percentage falling, total numbers are actually higher today.
Being one of the more politically stable countries in the Middle East, Jordan is a popular travel destination. The tourism industry did suffer during the so-called Arab Spring in the early 2010s, although the country itself felt little effect — it was just that the whole Arab area was, mistakenly, seen as unsafe.
The country has a staggering amount of history going back at least 200,000 years. It has been ruled by various factions over the centuries, who all left their mark. The ancient Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, Alexander the Great, The Nabataeans, the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, The Muslims, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Empire all came and went before the country gained full independence on May 25th 1946. Today the country is a constitutional, parliamentary monarchy under King Abdullah II.
Apart from the wonderful historical relics to be seen, there is also considerable religious tourism as visitors seek out the biblical locations and other related sites. There are also a number of important Islamic sites to be visited. There are splendid natural sights to be seen. There are beach holiday spots and, in places, lively nightlife.
So here, I hope to introduce you to some of the highlights of Jordan, in the hope that you'll be tempted to see this wonderful country for yourself.
Most visitors arrive in Jordan at Queen Alia International Airport (مطار الملكة علياء الدولي). Named in honor of Queen Alia, who died in a helicopter crash in 1977, the airport is 32 km / 20 miles south of the city center. The city, built on seven hills, is used by many visitors merely as a jumping off point to other places, but it has its own attractions.
Downtown Amman (عَمّان), known as al-Badad (البلد) is the oldest part of the city and home to souks (markets) and a number of historical sites which are well worth visiting. Amman Citadel sits on one of the hills and is believed to be among the world's oldest continuously inhabited places. Many buildings remain from the Roman times through the Byzantine times and the rule of the Umayyads (الأمويون) who ruled from 650-1031AD. Notable here are the Temple of Hercules built by the Romans between 162 and 166 AD and the 8th century Umayyad Palace. The Temple of Hercules was probably never finished, but six huge pillars (around 10 m /33 ft tall) remain and are an impressive sight. There was originally a statue of Hercules here believed to have been 12 m / 39 ft tall, but it was probably destroyed in an earthquake and all that remains is three fingers and an elbow. The Umayyad Palace too is mostly in ruins, but a domed entrance gate has been restored and is equally imposing.
Amman's 6,000 seat Roman Theatre, built between AD 138 and 161, is still in use to this day and is a popular destination for visitors. Today it is used to stage concerts, festivals and other cultural events.
Amman is Jordan's or even the whole Arab world's most westernized city and has a lively nightlife with local and international restaurants and even bars and nightclubs. To get the real Amman experience a visit to a shisha den or hookah bar is a must!
In southern Jordan is one of the country's top attractions, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Petra (ٱلْبَتْرَاء), sometimes nicknamed the Red City as it is carved out of a pinkish-red sandstone cliffs - Petra means "rock" and is also the feminine form of the name Peter. This 9,000-year-old city was established by the Nabataeans, nomadic Arabs who ruled this area and controlled the trade routes. The city hence became one of the richest in the Arab world. To get to the city one has to pass through a narrow 1.2 km / ¾ mile-long gorge called the Siq (السيق). This leads directly to the 1st century AD El-Khazneh, which is believed to have been the mausoleum of a Nabataean king, Aretas IV. Only later did it come to be known as the El-Khazneh (الخزنة), which means "The Treasury". There are conflicting legends as to the origin of this name. The rock-hewn building features sculptures of mythical beasts and other figures, also carved from the cliff. The entrance is guarded by statues of Castor and Pollux, the twins from Greek and Roman mythology.
The Siq of Petra
Most of the ancient city was destroyed in an earthquake in the year 363 AD and eventually was abandoned and forgotten until being rediscovered in the 19th century. Badly eroded and still threatened by time, the weather, and poor tourism management practices in the past, it is hoped the city can be saved. The Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority is working with partners to achieve its strategic master plan which is hoped to lead to a balanced and sustainable future for the site. At the same time, archaeological investigations continue and in 2016, using satellite imagery, a previously unknown, large monumental structure was discovered buried beneath the sands of Petra.
To the south of Petra lies Wadi Rum (وادي رم), meaning "Valley of Sand", also known as the Wadi al- Qamar (وادي القمر), meaning "Valley of the Moon". The valley is carved by nature into the same red sandstone of Petra and is a stunning sight, resembling the surface of Mars. Any time you see Mars in a Hollywood movie, you are probably looking at Wadi Rum as it is a very popular movie location. In fact, Jordan only really became a popular tourist destination after the release of the hit 1962 movie "Lawrence of Arabia" which was largely filmed here.
The valley is a fantastic place for rock climbing, if that's your thing. Alternatively, you may prefer to see the mysterious landscape by taking a trek past the huge rock formations or, if you'd rather, explore on a fine Arabian horse or camel tour. If you are less active, vehicle trips by 4x4 all-terrain vehicles or jeeps can be arranged. Try camping overnight to see the spectacular sunset and sleep under the unbelievable canopy of stars for an unforgettable memory. You can read more about Wadi Rum on my colleague's article 10 Interesting Facts About Wadi Rum That Will Surprise You.
Even further south, on the Gulf of Aqaba, part of the Red Sea, is the city of Aqaba (العقبة). This is Jordan's only coastal city and is a popular venue for scuba-diving among the coral reefs or taking relaxing beach vacations. There are many hotels and coffee bars and a fairly active nightlife scene. Aqaba is a very popular place for both Jordanians and overseas visitors and can get very busy during national holidays and especially at the end of Ramadan. It's probably better to choose a quieter time.
THE DEAD SEA
The Dead Sea (البحر الميت) forms much of Jordan's western border and is a must-see for most visitors. Fed by the River Jordan, the sea is the lowest place on earth with its shores and surface being 430.5 meters / 1,412 ft below sea level. It is also one of the saltiest bodies of water, having a salinity 9.6 times that of the average sea water. This accounts for its name, as the area is too salty to support most animal or plant life.
The only living organisms found in the sea are bacteria, microbial fungi and tourists! So salty is the sea that it is impossible for humans to sink into its waters, so every visitor, swimmer or not, likes to have a picture taken while floating on the water. The salt water has also been considered to have therapeutic benefits since at least the time of the Romans. Over 2,000 years ago, the biblical King Herod the Great established what might be called the first spa resort here.
The Dead Sea
For various environmental reasons and due to water being diverted from the River Jordan upstream, The Dead Sea is shrinking at a rate which alarms scientists and environmentalists. Between 1930 and 2016, the sea shrank in area by 57% and is shrinking still. Jordanian officials are working to halt or hopefully reverse this trend.
East of the Dead Sea is Madaba (مادبا). This city is famous for its mosaics which are best seen in Madaba Archaeological Park (Address: Abu Bakr As Seddiq St; Open 8 am to 4 pm, October to April and 8 am to 5 pm, May-September). This is an open-air museum displaying elegant mosaics from the 1st century BC onwards. In the park you will find Hippolytus Hall a 6th century Byzantine villa which probably has the most impressive mosaics to be seen. Don't miss the mosaics in each corner showing the four seasons. Also here and dating from the 6th century is the Church of the Virgin Mary which sports a magnificent mosaic with a geometric design and thought to be from around the year 767AD.
Exquisite mosaics in Madaba Archaeological Park
Most prized of Madaba's riches is the oldest known geographic floor mosaic, the famous Madaba Map of the Middle East, which contains the earliest cartographic description of the Holy Land and Jerusalem. Also from the 6th century, the 16 x 5 meter / 52 x 16 foot floor mosaic can be seen in the Byzantine church of Saint George.
27 km / 17 miles west of Madaba are the Ma'in Hot Springs (حمامات معين). Apart from the springs, the popular resort area has a number of waterfalls and pools. If you take it seriously, a dip in the springs will apparently cure everything; if not it's a bit of fun and relaxation.
In the north of Jordan is the city of Jerash (جرش), famous for its Roman history. The Greco-Romans called the city Gerasa and the city they built is considered to be one of the best preserved Roman cities outside of Italy. Between 63 BC and 614 AD the city prospered. Still remaining are the near complete city walls, two theaters, two large temples, an arch built to commemorate the visit of the emperor, Hadrian in 129 AD and much more. The Forum and the Gerasa Nymphaeum are not to missed. The Hippodrome has twice daily shows most days (not Tuesday) featuring fully armored legionaries showing Roman army battle tactics and drills. Ten gladiators "fight to death" and there are exciting seven lap chariot races.
Jerash is only 48 km / 30 miles from Amman, so is a good place to end this Jordan journey. Now I'll head back to the capital to take in a last breath of Jordan before catching my flight to pastures new.
Odynovo can arrange you a custom-made tour of Jordan taking in all of these sites and more. Many travelers like to combine a visit to Jordan with its neighbor Israel, another country of great religious and historical significance. This can easily be arranged, too. Just let us know where you want to go, what you want to see and do and leave it up to us to provide you with a free no-obligation itinerary within 24 hours.