1. History in the city
Amman is a city seemingly dislocated from the usual passage of time. It was an important city as far back as 1200BC, when it was the capital city of the Ammonites, and it continued, though with ebbs and flows, to be significant through to the 12th century AD. However, from then it declined in importance, and became more or less just ruins, used only as sporadic shelter by seasonal farmers and Bedouin tribes until the late 1800s, when Circassian refugees settled in the ruins and started to make it a town again.
Walking around today, this history means you are in both in a very old city and a modern city, with nothing in between. The majority of Amman was built only in the last hundred years, and consist largely of understated, functional buildings, but suddenly you will turn a corner and find the ancient city intruding on the modern maze of roads.
The above Roman theatre was completed in in the 2nd century AD and sits just a few twists and turns from the old downtown district, still very much the bustling focus of daily life for many Amman residents.
The Citadel is a large site, with ruins from the Romans, the Byzantines and the Umuyyads, and thanks to the extremely hilly nature of Amman, it sits both in the very heart of the city and also elevated above it, providing an excellent navigation point.
There are very few cities where such impressive and old ruins can be not only strolled to after a jaunt through the shops, but also feel so out of place surrounded by such newer buildings. Other historical cities are just that- it’s not surprising to see Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury as the rest of the town gives a sense of age and grandeur. In Amman it’s as if the ruins were just dropped here to give some extra life to a Middle Eastern Milton Keynes.
2. Whole cities of history
For those who prefer the immersive experience when it comes to history, Jordan can also provide. Jerash is by far the most popular of the remaining Roman cities to visit, being just a shade under an hours drive from Amman. It is a huge site, covering around 800,000 square metres (or 200 acres in old money), and it is imposingly complete. The climate is so dry that most things in Jordan that survived the earthquakes and pillaging for resources through the ages are very well preserved.
The museum within the city grounds is small and not overly impressive (For the real gems, you need to visit the two museums in Amman), but what it does have looks like it’s just been made yesterday. To be able to walk through the streets, climb the steps and take your seat in the theatre or the hippodrome or stand on stage at the civic centre and pretend to be a pioneer of democracy is a strange feeling indeed.
You can also visit Umm Qais (also known as Gadara), a bit further north of Jerash. The ruins are not as extensive, but you’ll find yourself even more alone than at Jerash.
3. the views
Jordan is a very small country but manages to squash in a huge amount of scenery. While you can drive from Amman to Aqaba, the southern-most point of the country, in about 4 hours using the new, fast Desert Highway, it is well worth taking the time to drive the old, meandering and very slow King’s highway. It’ll easily take you 6 or 7 hours to do the same journey, and you’ll be thoroughly sick of speed bumps by the end of the trip, but the views are more than worth these inconveniences.
You’ll pass through tiny villages, and tourist sites such as Kerak Castle, Shoubak Castle and Petra are just small, easily navigable diversions from the main road.
The road surface isn’t always great, but the changing landscape as it rises and falls from near sea-level to 1700 metres above sea-level is unbeatable.
4. crusader castles
Honestly, the surprise key demographic Jordan should be aiming for is families with children aged about 8 to 12. As long as they have a little bit of sense about road traffic, Jordan is just perfect for them. The history the country has is all of the exciting bits, as far as children are concerned, and the location linked to it are so interactive they are guaranteed not to get bored. Romans, Greeks, lost empires like the Nabataeans and of course, crusader knights and Saladin’s Muslim warriors.
There are plenty of castles dotted across the country, with ones in the north being more likely to have been built by Muslim inhabitants, and those in the south more likely to have been built by crusaders, most notably the French. Of course, during the crusades, castles often changed hands and many shows evidence of both European and Muslim architecture.
The castles vary a lot in terms of how ruinous they are, but with all of them you can clamber around and explore and really imagine the place back to life. Kerak is one of the most complete, and sits above the town of Kerak like it is still the authority in the area. It makes for an excellent lunchtime detour if driving from Amman to Petra, whereas many of the Northern castles are in more far-flung places and require a special effort to get there.
5. the desert
This might be more a point for Europeans, but these landscapes really are something else. There is a chance Americans will visit and think it’s a bit like Nevada, but not only are there differences, the point is Nevada is also stunning in places.
The sand here is so red (which does have a habit of staining any shoes you might wear in it), the scale so incomprehensibly large and the whole landscape so strange, it’s very easy to see why Wadi Rum has become the go-to location for Hollywood looking to film alien planets.
Of course, there are other deserts in Jordan, but Wadi Rum is the strangest of them all. As well as the vast stretches of sand and the towering rock faces, there are also ancient Nabataean and Thamudic rock carvings, dating from between 300BC and 100AD.
6. Mars pods
There are plenty of ways of enjoying Wadi Rum, and many of them are a lot more what you might expect from staying in the desert. You can choose to sleep out in the open, or in a full Bedouin-style tent but the most unique options are these Mars Pods.
They are in no way an authentic desert experience- they come with a shower, en-suite toilet, four-poster bed and air-conditioning- but there is no better place for them to be than in the desert. Once the sun goes down, the camp goes dark and the stars come out.
With no light for miles, the stars put on a magnificent show that can be seen from the comfort and warmth of your own pod, although braving the desert cold for a while in the small hours is certainly recommended.
Aqaba is an usual seaside resort town. While there are plenty of resort along the tiny Jordanian coastline, the town itself doesn’t at first glance offer much for tourists. Head down to the beach in the bright sunshine, and the town seems closed and empty, no one is enjoying themselves in the sea or even sunbathing. After an hour of trying to find life, you might start to understand why there isn’t any. The heat is just so oppressive, even for the most ardent beach-lounger fan.
However, head out as dusk falls, and you get to watch the town spring into life. The cafes and coffee shops open, people hawk inflatables on the beach and the children bomb into the clear water off the end of the pier.
For serious divers, there’s a whole assortment of diving trips you can take, exploring old shipwrecks, sunken tanks and huge coral beds, and your hotel will almost certainly be able to set you up with a good trip.
However, it is for the casual swimmer that Aqaba really shines. At the public beaches, just ten minutes drive from the city centre, there are places that the coral comes almost up to the shore. You can walk in with a shop-bought snorkel, swim for 5 metres and already be watching the tropical fish darting in and out of bright, chaotic coral reefs.
8. dead sea relaxation
For swimmers who think even putting their face int he water is bit too extreme, welcome to the Dead Sea! 3 hours north of Aqaba, an hour and a half from Amman, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth. You can drive right along the edge enjoying the beautiful views, and then up on the North-Eastern shore is the designated hotel area. This is the place to come if you want a relaxing, all-inclusive break.
Choose your resort carefully- you want to make sure it has direct access to the Dead Sea. If it’s just a swim in the sea you want, it’s still best to pay for day-use of a hotel’s area, as you’ll want to shower off as soon as you come out of the chemical mix. The water itself feels quick thick on your skin, and if you get it in your eyes or on recently shaved skin, you’ll really feel it!
It is undeniably relaxing bobbing around though, and not a feeling you’ll be able to experience elsewhere. For spa treatments, the Dead Sea mud is highly-prized, and outside of Jordan can be very expensive. Here, feel free to slather it on down at the beach, or your hotel will almost certainly have a spa for more refined treatments.
9. bible tourism
Regardless of whether you believe in the Bible as a historical document or not, if you were brought up in a Christian country then the places in it hold a draw for you. Even if you do not believe in the stories, you know them, and standing in the place that John the Baptist was beheaded has the same kind of resonance as standing in Sherwood Forest can to those who know the tales of Robin Hood.
Jordan has an abundance of these places- Herod’s Palace, the spring that Moses brought forth from the rock, Moses burial place, Lot’s Cave and the pillar of salt that was his wife, the baptism site of Jesus and more. Some are eerily quiet and impressive, if only for their location, and some, such as the Baptism site are much more prepared for tourists, with guided tours and coach parties queuing through the gift shop.
Of course. No matter how much you enjoy getting off the beaten track, you should not pass up the opportunity to visit Petra. Unless you hate dust, heat and history, in which case Jordan may not be the best place for you.
Petra is a place like no other, and frankly makes the trip to Jordan worthwhile by itself. It is not only a wonder of architecture, but a fascinating look at a hugely cosmopolitan peoples, who were, briefly, dominant in the region. To have this window into their society, a monument from their transition from nomadic life to permanent bases, is such a freak occurrence it truly is unlike anywhere else. By all rights, the Nabataeans should have been lost to history. They were a small group of nomadic traders, living between the great empires of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Persians, who barely wrote anything about themselves to leave behind as historical documents and exist mostly in the footnotes of other peoples writings. That this city, that in historical terms barely existed before being abandoned, survived, let alone in such good condition, is just unbelievable.
The Nabataeans seemed to do everything differently, at least at the beginning. Their buildings are hewn from the rock, rather than being built up from blocks. They fused architectural styles from all the different traders that would visit them, giving us incredible Roman porticoes sitting atop Egyptian columns with Assyrian crow-step tops. They started off not personifying their God(s), but simply representing them as square blocks, but were so open to the new ideas flowing in from east and west, it’s not long before their new buildings are adorned with Roman, Greek and Egyptian gods, creating their new, wonderful synthesis of ideas, art and culture.
The site is huge, and at least a whole day is needed inside Petra, meaning at least a two night stay in the town, if not more for those who really love their history or will finding walking about the rocky site in the heat slow-going.