This past winter, we combined a trip to Israel with a week in Jordan, a neighboring country with a diverse set of attractions and some of the most hospitable people we’ve ever encountered. Tourism being a huge part of their economy means they take great care to ensure the safety and satisfaction of visitors, making it a sort of haven in the hotbed of the Middle East. Additionally, the orientation of the main attractions along the dominant North-South highways makes it easy to traverse the country from border to border. Many visitors come to see Petra, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, but those that stop there are missing out on Jordan’s surprising wealth of attractions. If you’ve ever longed for desert landscapes, camel rides and feeling like Indiana Jones, this is the place to go.
At the desert crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa, Jordan has a long and varied history that has contributed to its cultural richness. The land beyond the Jordan River is referenced often in the Bible, being the land Lot settled in after fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (and also being a probable location for those cities). The Israelites maneuvered through here on their way to the Promised Land, and pilgrims can visit the mountains on which Moses and Aaron are buried. In the New Testament, John the Baptist ministered here and Jesus came here to be baptized by him, and the legacy of the early Christian Church can be seen in numerous Byzantine chapels and mosaics across the country.
In the south, the Nabataeans created for themselves an impressive civilization, of which Petra is the highlight. By mastering the valuable trade routes through the desert, they accumulated vast wealth which manifested itself in the opulent carved cities of their empire, and the lavish gifts they bestowed upon their neighbors to maintain peace. While the Nabataeans secured the wilderness of the south, the Romans expanded their provincial rule in the north, and the impressively preserved Roman city of Jerash highlights the splendor of the empire.
The Byzantines made their mark on the land after the Roman Empire split, and the city of Madaba entices visitors with its beautiful mosaics. The rapid expansion of Islam pushed the Byzantines out, and each successive caliphate made its impression on the architectural and cultural history of the region. This clash of civilizations gave rise to the Crusader Era, one of the most unfortunate but also most compelling chapters in Jordan’s history. Although Jerusalem was the center of the conflict, many of the skirmishes between Crusader and Saracen occurred in Jordan, and today you can visit the fortresses and fortifications the Crusaders built.
Starting from Aqaba, as we did, you can follow in the footsteps of T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), and his campaign to liberate the Arab tribes from Ottoman rule during World War I. Encampments of Lawrence and his company can be found across the country, from the fort in Aqaba (which dates to the Crusader Era), to a compound erected in Wadi Rum, and the desert castles in the harsh landscape of the east. Lawrence’s campaign led to the establishment of the modern nation of Jordan, so his legacy is very appreciated and preserved.
Culture, Language, ReligionMost Jordanians trace their lineage to the nomadic Bedouin tribes of the desert, and to a culture with a rich tradition of hospitality and manners. Since ancient times, the King’s Highway has served as a trade route, meaning the Bedouin have had a lot of practice in welcoming foreigners. Expect the same courtesy to be extended to you.
The majority of the population are Muslim, so a few cultural tips would be to dress modestly and don’t shake hands with members of the opposite sex. However, Jordan prides itself on its multicultural heritage and history of hospitality, so followers of other religions will be just as welcome.
Arabic is the official language, but many residents speak English as well. We ran into a few issues where it was difficult to communicate, but there was always someone close by happy to mediate and clear up any confusion.
Jordan has been mostly insulated from regional strife in the area, but has absorbed millions of Palestinian and Syrian refugees as a result. If you do the Desert Castle Loop, you will see a camp that houses some 2 million refugees, displaced by the turmoil in their neighboring country of Syria, perhaps the ultimate expression of Jordan’s hospitality.
Getting AroundIf there’s one thing we didn’t budget enough for in Jordan, it was taxis! Aside from Amman to Aqaba, public transportation is quite unreliable, and when you’re on a tight schedule as we were, waiting around for the bus to fill up to leave is just not an option. We ended up taking taxis across the entire country, and a few times were able to share a taxi with other travelers to split the cost. The good news is, many drivers will cut you a good deal if you schedule them for the next day as well. The condition of the Kings Highway and the Desert Highway also makes renting a car a good option for visitors, which is something we definitely would look into if we had to do it again.
Here’s a few examples of taxi prices:
Aqaba–Petra (less than 2 hrs): 30JD
Wadi Rum–Suweimah (4 hrs): 90JD
Amman–Desert Castle Loop (7 hrs round trip with multiple 45 minute stops): 50JD
It’s almost criminal how many natural and cultural wonders Jordan packs into its borders. History and nature have left their mark, which makes for a varied and packed itinerary. If you plan on working your way through the country, it may make sense to purchase a Jordan Pass, which grants entry to Petra as well as numerous sites across the country and visa fees. The price depends on how many days access you want at Petra.
Petra: The ancient Nabataean city you may know from Indiana Jones, now classified as a Wonder of the World.
Amman: A new and modern city that serves as the capital of Jordan, but also has an ancient heritage in the form of the hilltop Citadel and Roman Forum and Amphitheater.
Jerash: This ancient Roman city is so well preserved, it’s called the Pompeii of the Middle-East.
Madaba/Mount Nebo: The mosaics of Madaba testify to the Byzantine heritage of the country, and you can see the same view of the Promised Land as Moses from the top of Mount Nebo a few miles away.
Dead Sea: The lowest point on earth, with plenty of spas and resorts for pampering and relaxation in the saline rich waters.
Desert Castle Loop: An easy day trip from Amman, these outposts in the harsh landscape in the east of the country served as inns, hunting lodges, and as fortification for T.E. Lawrence.
Wadi Rum: It’s not hard to see why The Martian was filmed here. The awe-inspiring landscape is absolutely otherworldly.
Crusader Castles: Karak and Shobak are the two best known of these medieval fortifications built by Crusaders during their campaigns in the region.
Aqaba Diving: Unique species of coral attract divers from around the globe.
Nature Reserves: Home to impressive biodiversity, various nature reserves around the country offer rewarding trekking and adventuring opportunities.
Jordan beckons with Petra, but visitors who stop there are missing out on a truly rich and beautiful nation. If Petra is on your bucket list, scratch it out and change it to the entire nation of Jordan. You won’t be disappointed!
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