Things to Do in Jordan
Mount Nebo is 817 meters (2,680 feet) above sea level, and thus more than 1km (0.6 mi) above the neighboring Dead Sea. It is a site holy to both Christians and Jews: Moses is said to have died on or near the mountain some time after God had showed him the Holy Land from its summit.
You can still enjoy the prophet’s view today – gaze out over the sea lying under a saline haze, the ancient city of Jericho and, if you’re lucky, all the way to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. On Siyagha (one of the mountain’s twin peaks), you can see the remains of mosaics from a Byzantine monastery.
Thought to have been built sometime in the first century B.C., the Treasury is one of Jordan’s most intricate temples (or perhaps tombs; no one knows which one it is for sure), with a design influenced by Greek architecture. At the entrance, visitors are greeted by statues of Castor and Pollux, Zeus’ mythological twins, who are believed to have spent half of their time in heaven and the other half in the underworld. Glance up and you’ll spy two enormous eagles symbolizing Dushara, a deity linked to Zeus and worshipped by the Nabateans. There is also an urn at the top, one believed to have once been filled with a Pharaoh’s treasure and covered in bullet marks said to have been from Bedouins wanting the urn for themselves. Peek inside the Treasury to see a chamber with attached rooms and uniquely rounded windows.
Shuttling between archaeological sites, an inevitable component of any Jordan trip, may have you longing for those haunting, limitless expanses of desert you’ve glimpsed from car windows. If so, head south for Wadi Rum, which offers spectacular vistas of towering cliffs and bold rock formations etched by erosion into other-worldly forms.
Lawrence of Arabia was a well-known visitor to the Wadi Rum, and there are a number of sites here associated with him through tradition or historical proof. But generally there is little in the way of construction, or even vegetation, with only the nomadic Bedouins able to scratch an existence out of the red desert sands.
Located in Madaba, the 19th-century Greek Orthodox St. George Church is home to the famous Madaba Map. This sixth-century Byzantine mosaic map is believed to have been created in 542 AD, making it one of the world’s oldest biblical maps. It features imagery of the Holy Land depicted in ornate tiles and was originally made to encompass about 51 feet by 19.5 feet.
The map features more than 150 Greek inscriptions and shows locations like Jericho, the Dead Sea, Palestine, the Nile Delta, Karak and the focus of the map, Jerusalem. Today it’s about one-third its original size, although it is still in excellent condition and worth a visit. It’s said that Muslims once damaged the maps in places where Islam was portrayed as an apostate religion due to offense taken by the fact that the map depicts Jesus as God’s son. The map was unearthed in 1894 AD, and St. George Church was then built over it to act as its protector.
Running north-south along the squiggling spine of the Dead Sea rift, a road trip along the King’s Highway from biblical Madaba to Petra is to journey along a 2,000-year-old trade route bursting with history. Check out the Crusader castles at Karak and Shobak, and the ancient town of Madaba. Pop into Roman forts and visit a Nabataean temple. Or if you’re more into nature, Jordan’s Dana Nature Reserve is famous for its hiking, and in April the region is known for its black irises. Then there’s Wadi Mujib. Reaching nearly 1000 meters downwards, it’s known as the Grand Canyon of Jordan, and the King’s Highway crosses its upper reaches.
Not really a highway but more of a quiet, country road with amazing views around and alongside its 280-km route, you’ll get a glimpse of rural life in Jordan as you drive between the villages which collect at the top of the mountains.
Little Petra (Siq al-Barid) was a northern satellite of the main city, and it resembles Petra proper in enough ways to earn its nickname. Like at Petra, visitors approach Siq al-Barid through a canyon-like passage similar to the Siq at Petra. Unlike Petra, many of the structures carved into the cliff walls served as houses, as well as temples and communal gathering areas.
Archeologists believe Siq al-Barid (Cold Canyon in English) once served as a trading post and agricultural hub where camel caravans could resupply on the way to and from Petra. Wander through the narrow passage with rock-cut stairs climbing up on either side, and it’s easy to imagine Little Petra as a busy community humming with activity. One of Little Petra’s most famous sites, the Painted House, houses one of the only surviving Nabatean painted interiors. The frescoes depict scenes related to wine consumption and Dionysus worship.
In ancient times, the Roman town of Gerasa grew rich from iron ore as well as agricultural products which flourished in this comparatively lush temperate region. This wealth in turn endowed the town with architectural treasures: the unique oval Forum, Hippodrome, Amphitheater, Agora, and the proud columns of the Temple to Artemis. The majestic Hadrian’s Arch dates from the eponymous Roman Emperor’s visit, an event which signaled the town’s importance.
Not long after the spread of Islam into the area, Gerasa was devastated by an earthquake and for centuries lay buried in sand. This accounts for the remarkable state of preservation in this, one of Jordan’s most important Roman sites. Significant sections of all the above-named sites can still be seen next to the modern town of Jerash, as well as colonnaded streets and city walls which precisely delineate the town’s contours, giving a vivid sense of life in an ancient Roman town.
More Things to Do in Jordan
One of the many resorts located on the shores of the Dead Sea, the Dead Sea Resthouse is an ideal spot from which to explore the lowest point on earth. Offering access to the public Amman beach, it’s the most affordable way to take a dip in the Dead Sea and experience the unique sensation of floating in the salty waters.
As well as swimming in the resort pools or bathing in the mineral-rich black mud, visitors can learn more about the unique natural wonder, the only sea in the world where there are no living fish, and find out why it is shrinking each year.
Built atop the ruins of a monastery between 1184 and 1188, Ajloun Castle (Qala’At Ar-Rabad in Arabic) sits on Jabal Auf hill overlooking the countryside in the north of Jordan. Arab general Azz ad-Din Usama, Saladin’s nephew, oversaw its construction in part to protect the region from Crusader expansion and to safeguard iron mines in the nearby hills. The fort was enlarged in 1214 but largely destroyed by Mongols in 1260. It was rebuilt almost immediately, and while earthquakes have twice caused significant damage, ongoing restorations have kept the castle in much the same condition as it stood in the 13th century. During the Crusades, the hilltop fort was one in a series of beacon and pigeon posts that allowed messages to be transmitted from Damascus to Cairo in a single day. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the fort served as a garrison for Ottoman troops, and in 1812, the vast castle was occupied by a single, 40-member family.
In 1990 American archeologist Kenneth W. Russell discovered the ruins of a Byzantine-era church. Two years later excavation began on the site of what is today simply called Byzantine Church or Petra Church. Originally constructed by the Nabataeans in the middle of the fifth century AD, the church as expanded and remodeled by the Byzantines in the early sixth century.
Today, the awning-covered ruins are most famous for the 750 square feet (70 square meters) of well-preserved mosaics found within. These floor and wall mosaics, added during the Byzantine remodeling of the church, depict humans, birds and animals within geometric frames. In 1993 archaeologists discovered a series of carbonized papyrus scrolls dating back to the fourth through sixth centuries AD. Collectively known as the Petra Scrolls, these scrolls represent one of the largest collections of ancient written material ever discovered in Jordan.
Dating back 18,000 years to the reign of Antoninus Pius, Amman’s restored Roman Theater is a popular visit on any trip to Jordan’s capital. Carved into the northern side of a hill that held the city’s necropolis, its position was designed to shield spectators from the sun.
Big enough to fit an audience of 6,000, as you wander the huge arena you’ll notice that the seating is split into three tiers, or diazomata: the lowest seats, closest to the action, would have been reserved for the ruling class. The middle seats were for the military, and the top seating, known as “The Gods,” would have been reserved for the general public. Head down to the stage and you’ll see how easily your voice carries. The top tiers would have heard everything! In summer, you can see Amman’s Roman Theater come back to life with regular sporting and cultural events in July and August especially. You can also visit the Jordanian Museum of Popular Traditions on the right side of the amphitheater.
Located about 2.5 hours from Jordan’s capital of Amman, the Umm Qais Museum is home to a mix of history and natural beauty that shouldn’t be missed. The site’s most popular draw would be the ruins of Gadara, an ancient Greco-Roman city occupied since the seventh century BC and originally ruled by the Ptolemaic Kingdom. According to the Bible, it was in this very place that Jesus removed demons from within two possessed men and put the evil spirits into a herd of pigs, who then sprinted into Lake Tiberias.
Gadara was a flourishing city, largely due to its strategic location atop fertile, rain-soaked land and its position as an intellectual hub for writers, artists, philosophers and academics. Today visitors can stroll the colonnaded streets; admire the dramatic black-and-white basalt columns of the Basilica Terrace; see the remains of two Roman theaters; view an abandoned Ottoman village; photograph ancient tombs; and try to imagine the shops, baths, and hippodrome.
This rather rambling but fascinating museum is perched on the Citadel Hill in Amman, just northwest of the Temple of Hercules. Built in 1951, the Jordan Archaeological Museum displays artifacts in chronological order from archaeological sites all over Jordan, dating from prehistoric times to the 15th century.
A stand out attraction is the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of 972 texts from the Hebrew Bible that were discovered in the 1940s. You can also see ancient sculpture, preserved skulls and rhinoceros teeth that date back 200,000 years.
Also housed here are several jewelry and coin collections and ancient items of daily life such as pottery, glass, flint and metal tools. Inscriptions and statuaries are also on display.
Tucked in the hills of Petra, the Monastery (Al-Deir) is only matched in magnificence by the Treasury. Built during the first century, the structure carved into the mountain was not a monastery at all, but rather served as either a tomb or a temple for members of the cult of Obodas. While less ornate than the Treasury, the Monastery is significantly larger, measuring 148 feet high and 165 feet across.
An uphill but relatively easy trail leads from the Nabataean Museum to the Monastery, ascending a set of some 800 ancient rock-cut steps along the way. As an alternative to the 40-minute walk, visitors can hire a donkey and guide to carry them to the top. Either way, those who make it to the Monastery are greeted with panoramic views over the surrounding hills and gorges.
Stunning King Abdullah Mosque was built between 1982 and 1986 as a memorial to the late King Hussein’s Grandfather, His Majesty As-Sayyid Abdullah I, King of Jordan. A fine example of modern Islamic architecture the mosque is capped by a magnificent blue mosaic dome, beneath which 3,000 Muslims can offer prayer at any one time. Inside the dome are verses from the Quran, along with a chandelier also inscribed with Quranic verses. A red carpet represents fertile land and its patterns direct people towards Mecca. There is a small museum inside with a collection of pottery and photographs of His Majesty King Abdullah I. Visitors to the mosque are welcomed but should remember to remove shoes and dress modestly.
A true “desert castle” near the Saudi Arabian border, Jordan’s Qasr Kharana sits two storeys tall over the desert plain. Built in the early Umayyad period 13,000 years ago, the purpose of the 60-room monolith is unclear — its design shows that it was never a fort, and it’s not on a trade route so it’s unlikely to have been a caravanserai either. It’s most likely that Qasr Kharana was a meeting space for Damascus elite and local Bedouin tribes. Whatever it was, the thick-walled limestone building remains imposing even today.
Excellently restored in the 1970s, its location in the barren desert makes Qasr Kharana one photogenic place. As you explore the upper rooms set around the large courtyard with a rainwater pool in the middle, look out for ancient Arabic graffiti. Just inside the entrance, learn more about Qasr Kharana from the interpretive plaque which is in both English and Arabic.
Qasr Amra earned itself UNESCO World Heritage site status in 1985 because of its famous frescoes, and it’s one of Jordan’s most renowned desert castles. Built near a wadi of pistachio trees during the reign of Walid I in around AD 711, restorations by a group of Spanish archaeologists in the 1970s unveiled floor-to-ceiling frescoes that caused the powers that be at UNESCO to describe the castle as a “masterpiece of human creative genius.”
Built from limestone and basalt, from the outside Qasr Amra doesn’t look particularly special. And then you enter. Greeted by frescoes of cherubs and hunters, nude women bathing, and all kinds of scenes of wine drinking, the racy images are a world away from typical Islamic art. Look up at the ceiling of Qasr Amra’s main dome to see an accurate painting of the zodiac, still remarkably well preserved after 12,000 years.
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