Tell anyone you’re travelling to Jordan and the first points of reference that will come to mind are Indiana Jones and Petra. Yes, that film may have put The Lost City on the map, but there is so much more to this country than Petra alone.
The truth is that Jordan is still a relatively unknown travel destination, yet there is so much to see! The country is home to a wealth of archaeological sites, nature reserves, biblical points of interest, ancient ruins and peaceful deserts – the perfect introduction to the Middle East.
My visit to Jordan last autumn allowed me to sample a varied flavour of some of the destinations this country has to offer, so now I’m sharing these with you.
Located just 48 kilometres north of the capital of Amman, Jerash makes for an easy day trip. This ancient city was inhabited by both the Greeks and later the Romans, and you can always expect to find architectural masterpieces when you visit a place that saw either of these civilizations pass through.
While much of ancient Jerash still remains to be excavated, today you can see Hadrian’s Arch which was built to celebrate the visit of Emperor Hadrian, the Temple of Artemis and the Temple of Zeus, the Hippodrome which could sit 15,000 spectators and was the setting to chariot races and other sports, the North Theatre and the South Theatre, and the Oval Plaza which our guide explained only begun to be excavated in the 1970s!
On another note, if you have dreams of being an archaeologist, this is where you need to be!
Amman, to me, was a foodie destination. Everything I ate there was great, but if there’s one establishment that stands out in my mind, it’s Hashem Restaurant. Hashem is a humble little spot that you could easily miss if you weren’t looking for it, but inside it’s always packed. Popular with foreigners and locals alike (even the Jordanian King and Queen have been known to drop by to get their fix!), this restaurant serves up some delicious hummus, falafel and pita. Add a few cups of sweet mint tea, and it’s easy to see why people are willing to stand in line to get a table.
Aside from great food, Amman also boasts its own share of ancient history and the Citadel is the place to get started. Located on top of a hill in the heart of Amman, not only to do you get spectacular views of the modern city below, but you also get to wander through ancient settlements, an Umayyad Palace, and the Roman temple of Hercules. There is also a stone fragment of what is believed to be the hand of Hercules, but the jury is still out on that one because some experts argue that the hand looks too feminine to belong to the god!
Dana Nature Reserve
Going into the Dana Nature Reserve was a really cool experience for 2 reasons; firstly because I got to stay at an ecolodge that is redefining ecotourism, and secondly because I got to spend the day hanging out with a Bedouin family and learning about their daily life.
I’ll start by telling you about the Feynan Ecolodge which has been winning accolades left, right and centre. This 26 room lodge located in the southwestern end of the Dana Nature Reserve is completely off the grid.
At night, the bedrooms and the grounds are entirely lit by candle with only the bathrooms running on solar powered electric lights. Aside from this, the lodge uses solar panels to heat water, all linens are air dried rather than using a drier, clay jars are used instead of water bottles, and olive pit charcoal is used to heat the place in the winter.
Another cool thing about the Feynan Ecolodge is that they employ the local community, which gave me the opportunity to learn a thing or two from the local Bedouins.
As part of the ‘Bedouin Experience’, our local guide met us at the lodge in the morning, and together we began the walk out to his community. Our first stop: his father’s home.
Here I learned how to roast coffee beans and the importance coffee plays in Bedouin culture when making deals and reaching agreements. I learned that tea should be served pipping hot and that it can never be too sweet. I learned how women make bread and cook the dough by placing it right on top of the coals so that it cooks with the heat. I learned how kohl is made and that applying it to your eyelids is a little easier said than done. And I also learned about true Bedouin hospitality – the kind that will welcome a complete stranger for 3 days and offer food, drink and shelter with no questions asked.
I couldn’t think of a better way to learn first hand about a culture that was so foreign to me.
Ma’in Hot Springs
The Ma’in Hot Springs were all about rest and relaxation. Located in a valley between Madaba and the Dead Sea, this was a lush oasis of greenery where you could hear nothing but the soothing sounds of nature.
The main draw here were the springs, where the water temperatures range from 40-60 degrees Celsius. The thermal pools are high in minerals and renowned for their therapeutic benefits, and while the Evason Ma’in Six Senses Resort had reserved access to certain pools for its hotel guests, there are also public pools in the area which are open to everyone.
Mount Nebo is an important biblical site because this is where Moses first glimpsed the Promised Land. While Moses never lived long enough to see his people enter the land that had been promised by God, he is believed to have been buried on Mount Nebo.
Today, you’ll find the remains of a church atop the mountain, however, it was undergoing renovations when I visited so I didn’t actually get to go in! Instead, I saw this cute pup who was scratching himself and laying on top of these ancient mosaic floors while attendants tried to usher him away… It didn’t quite work, but it made for a cute photo.
If there is one thing Madaba is known for, it’s a map – a very ancient map. Now you’re probably wondering what makes this map so special that it’s considered the main draw to the town, right?
Well, it turns out that this 6th century map from the Byzantine period portrays what the Holy Land looked like around 560 AD. Made up of over 2 million tiny pieces of coloured stone, the map depicts a sprinting gazelle, fish swimming away from the Dead Sea, Jericho and its palm trees, the walled city of Jerusalem, the town of Bethlehem, and numerous small villages and settlements across the region.
I’m not going to lie – there aren’t a lot of budget options along the Dead Sea in Jordan. The friends I was travelling with had been looking at rates for hotels right on the beach and the prices started out at around $200 USD a night. Add the fact that there are still relatively few properties along the Dead Sea (the region is undergoing development with hotels and resorts springing up all along the shore!), and you can understand why hotels are able to charge what they do. This and the relatively short driving distance from the capital make the Dead Sea a popular day trip (as opposed to weekend stay) for most locals and travellers.
However, if you don’t mind splurging for a night or two, there are excellent properties like the Kempinksi Hotel Ishtar and the Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea, where you can get muddy, go for a dip in the salty waters, and then swim in an infinity pool like a queen.
As you can probably see from my photos, I had a lot of fun visiting even though I had already been to the Dead Sea in Israel.
Oh, Petra! What a sight! Even though I had seen images of the Treasury countless times, nothing quite prepares you for that last turn where the Lost City is finally revealed through the slit in the canyon. Setting foot there was pure magic and I walked around with a giant grin plastered on my face for the rest of the day.
Of course, once you reach the Rose City, there’s plenty more to see aside from the Treasury. The archaeological site is a sprawling ancient complex of tombs, palaces, caves, and what little is left of the Roman construction (their buildings didn’t fare as well as that of the Nabateans once the earthquakes hit!)
Some of the most impressive sites include the Urn Tomb, an intricate architectural feat that would later be converted into a church by the Greeks; the Monastery, which can be reached by those willing to climb 850 steps; the Palace Tomb, which held four different burial rooms; and the Roman ruins along the cardo maximus, where some columns still stand while other lie flat like pancakes in the red sand.
Of course you already know that one of the highlights of my time in Jordan was camping out in the desert!
My day in the Valley of the Moon started with some off-roading, where we jumped in the back of pick-up trucks and hit the dunes like Lawrence of Arabia. We climbed up dunes and ran down dunes, and when we had more sand in our pockets than a kid who just came back from the playground, we stopped at a camp for a cup of sweet mint tea served in a glass.
From there it was more off-roading until the sun finally began its descent. We all sat silently on the top of a dune and watched the sky transform itself before our eyes. With the light gone, it was time to head over to the Captain’s Desert Camp, where the night unfurled with singing, dancing and laughing as our new Bedouin friends pulled us up to our feet and invited us to join them in a dance circle around the fire.
We went to sleep in the early hours of the morning and once the laughter died down around the campfire, there was nothing but absolute silence.
This is a night I will remember for a long time.
I bet you didn’t think it was possible to find a scuba haven out in Jordan, but that’s exactly what the coastal city of Aqaba has to offer. Located on the banks of the Red Sea, this holiday hot spot is known for its warm waters and sea life. What’s cool about the Gulf of Aqaba is that it puts you right at the crossroads of the Middle East. While I bobbed in the water in my red life-jacket, I had Egypt to the west, Israel to the north, Jordan to the east, and Saudi Arabia to the southeast. Four countries bordering one narrow body of water and I could see all of them from where I was.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan
Due to its importance as the location where John the Baptist preached and baptised, Bethany Beyond the Jordan was part of the early Christian pilgrimage route that ran between Jerusalem and Mt. Nebo. As I toured this place laden with reeds and willows, our guide brought history to life by merging biblical stories with the landscape in front of us.
When we reached the banks of the Jordan River, I was surprised to see that the river wasn’t as deep or wide as I expected it to be. Considering the Jordan River acts as the border between Jordan and Israel, were it not for the soldiers on either side, you could likely just splash across in two leaps!
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And that’s a wrap! I obviously haven’t covered everything there is to see and do in Jordan. Instead consider this a mere sampling of what the country has to offer.
You still have the Graeco-Roman ruins of Pella, the Shawmari Wildlife Reserve which is home to some of the rarest species in the Middle East, Quseir Amra and its desert castles, the theatre ruins at Umm Qays, Karak Castle which acted as a Crusader stronghold, the ancient fortress of Mukawir, the Mujib Nature Reserve where you can wade, swim and hike through canyons…and still there is so much more!
Have you been to Jordan?
What destinations would you add to this list?