The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has been on my to-visit list for quite a while, with pictures of the famed archeological site of Petra drawing my attention many years ago. I’ll admit, however, that I knew very little about what this Middle Eastern country had to offer beyond the Nabatean world wonder until new direct flights made it an easy (and cheap) prospect. Lonely planet accurately describes Jordan as a “safe haven in a region of conflict … delight[ing] visitors for centuries with its World Heritage Sites, friendly towns and inspiring desert landscapes”. From the natural wonders of Wadi Rum desert and the Dead Sea to ancient man-made marvels and historical gems like Petra and Jerash, Jordan is an adventure I’m not likely to forget.
In a change of pace from my usual travels, we largely explored Jordan on a small-group tour with Intrepid, an Australian-based company with over 1,000 itineraries around the world and everything that I think a travel agency should be, for a more immersive and authentic experience with a local guide. Where this post is lacking in food tips and pictures, the reason is that food for the day would have been included in our tour package at our accommodation. Other popular options to explore Jordan include renting the services of a local driver or making it a self-drive trip; the fairly compact size of Jordan allows you to travel throughout the country with land transport. Whatever your preference, put Jordan at the top of your travel list.
The Jordanian capital is likely where you’ll be flying in and out from, so spending a day or two here is natural. Many might not find a draw in Amman’s shabiness, but it is actually an easy place to experience the Middle-East city experience (although the ceaseless car honking might drive you slightly crazy, be warned). Take your time walking around the Downtown area; explore the striking Citadel ruins on the highest hill in Amman, Jebel Al Qala’a, occupied since the Bronze Age; check out the 6000-seat Roman Theatre, a remnant of Roman Philadelphia; and get to know more about Jordan and examine the oldest statues in the world and Jordan’s share of the Dead See Scrolls at the Jordan Museum (free entry).
When you’re hungry, visit the dirt-cheap, basic and authentic Hashem eatery, a legend of the Amman food scene, for a set spread including delicious falafel, dips and warm flatbread; Rosa Damascena for Jordanian and Syrian cuisine in a bright and warm setting (don’t miss the traditional lemon and mint drink); Nasim for evening cocktails and traditional food to share in a luxurious setting at the Fairmont hotel, if you’re looking for something more high-end; and the hole-in-the-wall BIGt Burgers for a change from traditional cuisine. For dessert, no visit to Amman is complete without a visit to Habibah in Downtown to sample kunafeh, a Middle Eastern confection consisting of crunchy pastry stuffed with gooey cheese and drenched in sugar syrup.
The perfect half-day trip from Amman, Jerash is a city towards the North of Jordan, famous for the ruins of the walled Greco-Roman settlement, Jordan’s largest Roman site. I love ruins, and I really, really loved Jerash. A number of earthquakes reduced the magnificent city, once an important imperial centre, to ruins; but what is left for us to explore today is still magnificent. Plazas, imposing gates, long colonnaded avenues, temples and amphitheatres … it’s hard not to find yourself day dreaming about what this place looked like back in the 3rd century BC. Tip – sunscreen and a hat will protect you from the harsh sun in this completely exposed site, although that’s a general rule for most of Jordan.
Wadi Rum, also known as the Valley of the Moon, is a magnificent landscape of red sand and colourful rock formations. Home to nomadic Bedouin tribes, the desert is one of Jordan’s main draws, and with good reason. For me personally, having never visited a desert before, my time in Wadi Rum was amongst the most memorable of my travel experiences; a time of absolute calm, quiet and the bliss that comes from stripping away the outside world and its comforts and immersing yourself in untouched nature. After entering through the visitor’s centre where you pay a small entrance fee (the desert is a protected area), we spent two nights and days at an Intrepid-exclusive camp; basic and authentic, with second-to-none hospitality by the local Bedouins, and filled our time with jeep rides, sunset and sunrise watching, star gazing and a 16-kilometre hike through the impressive terrain of Wadi Rum. If any of the below seems familiar, it’s likely because you’ve seen it in a movie – Wadi Rum is often used as a filming location (check out the boat placed by a film set below) both for desert scenes (think Aladdin) and as a stand in for the red planet, Mars (like in The Martian). It is a place I would love to return to.
The ancient city of Petra, one of the seven wonders of the world, is best described as just that – a wonder. In around the 3rd century BC, the Nabateans carved an entire city into the sandstone cliffs consisting of palaces, temples, tombs, stables and storerooms, from where they commanded the trade routes from Damascus to Arabia. This incredible city was lost to the outside world for hundreds of years, being quite literally hidden in the mountains and canyons in the southwestern corner of Jordan, but what is left of it today is thankfully open for the world to see. I still cannot fathom how those enormous facades were carved into the high cliffs without modern-day machinery. A lot of people go to Petra for a day trip, but if you are planning to explore as much as you can of the city and walk one or more of the climbing trails, 2 days are suggested.
Now that you’re sufficiently intrigued, it must be noted that a visit to Petra is highly physically taxing. To enter Petra, you must first walk around half a kilometre from the visitors’ centre to the beginning of the Siq, a high-walled crack in the rocks created by tectonic forces, and then proceed the 1.2 kilometres length of the Siq, before arriving at the famous Treasury facade; you can then proceed to explore the sprawling city, which includes a number of trails climbing high up into the surrounding cliffs. It would not be half as bad if the terrain were smooth; instead, bumpy and rocky surfaces will leave your feet in a sore state after a day or two of exploring, especially if you enter and exit Petra a total of 3 times in just over 24 hours, as we did. We were so exhausted after our second day of exploring and following the Al Khubta trail climb (viewpoint for the Treasury from above) that we missed out on the trail to the Monastery. Horses and donkeys may be rented to ease your journey, but these poor animals are mistreated and overworked, so that was not an option for us. Choose accommodation close to the visitors’ centre, wear sturdy shoes and take plenty of water and snacks (although you are able to purchase light refreshments from small stalls inside). If you want some fuel on your way into Wadi Musa (the town near Petra, where you will be based), Al-Arabi restaurant serves up great, cheap shawarma and, or falafel wraps.
Apart from the strong rays of the sun, a downside to Petra is the crowds. On our second day, we had an early start and entered Petra before 6 am, with only a handful of other people around. I wish that my first glimpse of the Treasury was that morning instead of the previous day amidst the chaos of late morning and early afternoon. One disappointment for me was Petra by Night (for which you purchase an additional ticket), which I was very looking forward to but was an overcrowded and underwhelming experience. Apart from that, Petra exceeded all my expectations.
Madaba and the surrounds: Mount Nebo, Bethany, Kerak and the Dead Sea
The market town of Madaba is a small town in central Jordan, located southwest of Amman. It is often used by tourists as a base to exploring some of the surrounding areas, with little of particular draw itself. One very interesting Madaba site, however, is the Madaba Map at St. George’s Church. A modest 19th century Greek Orthodox church, St. George’s holds a treasure of great historical significance. In the 19th century, during the church’s construction, the builders discovered parts of a large mosaic map on the flooring underneath the rubble. Surviving fire, neglect and wilful destruction, the map is the oldest map of Palestine in existence, providing important information and historical insights into the region at the time of its creation. A great food option in Madaba is Darna restaurant which serves up excellent shawarma (possibly the best I’ve tried) and local pizzas; if you’re a larger group, like we were, they can serve you a variety of platters to share.
The summit of Mount Nebo is the place where the prophet Moses is said to have last looked upon the Holy Land before he died, and it is believed that he was buried somewhere in the area. Visited by groups of pilgrims, the Moses memorial is a Franciscan territory with pleasant, peaceful gardens and a small basilica with impressive mosaics. On a clear day, you can look from the panorama point across the Dead Sea to Jericho, Bethlehem and Jersusalem; it was foggy when we went.
The Baptism site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan, close to the Dead Sea, is the site considered by the Catholic Church and many historians alike to be the site referred to in the Bible as the place of Jesus Christ’s baptism by St. John the Baptist. Apart from the baptism spot, the popular place of pilgrimage contains Roman and Byzantine remains including churches and chapels, and visitors can look across the Jordan River to Israel, just a few metres away.
Kerak castle is an ancient Crusader stronghold, one of the largest in the Levant. Towering over the town of the same name, the castle was legendary in battles between the Crusaders and Islamic armies of Saladin, as depicted in the popular movie the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Dead Sea is, in fact, a landlocked salt lake bordered by Jordan and Israel, receiving its water from the Jordan River. It is the lowest water body in the world, lying at over 400 metres below sea level. The high salt content in the lake does not permit any life to flourish, thus earning it its name, and results in high buoyancy. A swim – or rather, a float – in the Dead Sea is a must when in Jordan or Israel, with the salt and mud being beneficial for your skin. Just make sure not to swallow water or get it into your eyes; and you will probably want to quickly wash off the layers of salt that will stick to your body when you exit the water. Apart from a dip in the lake itself, we also decided to splurge on a day at a spa to close off our trip. The area has many high-end resorts to choose from; we went for the Ishtar Spa at the Kempinski, and had a luxurious and relaxing day in the serene and well-equipped spa, with great treatments and a beautiful infinity pool in their Lemon Garden.
Thank you for coming along on this journey through impressive Jordan – I hope I’ve inspired you to see it for yourself.
Until the next adventure!