Situated at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe, Jordan is set apart by its natural beauty, millennia of history, and above all, the local hospitality. As soon as you arrive and throughout your stay, you’ll hear a heartfelt Ahlan wa Sahlan, which means “hello and welcome.”
Jordan is steeped in ancient history. It’s written in the Old Testament that Moses beheld the holy land from atop Jordan’s Mt. Nebo. Jordan has been ruled primarily by three empires: the Nabataean Empire, the Roman Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, before it became a British protectorate and finally gained its independence in 1946.
The capital city, Amman, is a sophisticated cultural and culinary destination with a stunning skyline that juxtaposes modern skyscrapers with centuries-old minarets. But the real adventure begins when you take the 5,000-year-old Road of Kings from Amman to explore the rest of what Jordan has to offer.
Discover the desert
Long before your visit to the Wadi Rum desert of Jordan, you might already be familiar with its landscape, as it has served as a stunning backdrop for some of Hollywood’s most iconic films, such as 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (where he found the holy grail in the Treasury of Petra), and more recently as a stand-in for Mars in 2015’s The Martian.
Offscreen, you’ll find the warmth of Bedouin hospitality incredibly inviting, and you can stay in their traditional beit shar, which are goat-hair tents bedecked with rugged luxury. During the day, travel the Wadi Rum landscape in open 4x4s, taking in the awe-inspiring vistas. At night, you might be invited to join in traditional Bedouin song and dance at the campsite, but also make sure to go on your own celestial safari, as from the dark reserve of the desert you can gaze upon what seems to be the entirety of the Milky Way.
Behold the modern wonder of Petra
It’s hard to prepare yourself for the magnificence of Petra. One of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, it was once the sprawling capital of the ancient Nabataean Empire. Once you make your way down the 8km siq, the dramatic path between high cliffs, you’ll arrive at the centrepiece of Al Kazneh. This columned treasury carved into the pink sandstone cliffs is alone worth the trip to Jordan, and is ideally seen at different points of the day to appreciate the way the sun changes the colour of the facade into a stunning spectrum of pinks, oranges and greys.
There is much more to see in Petra than the treasury, however. In all, there are over 800 monuments on the site. The intrepid can climb up the 800 steps to Al Deir (the monastery), the largest structure in Petra, for the best views. The colonnaded street functions as Petra’s main thoroughfare around which the whole city grew in the first century, and the street of facades and royal tombs are worth the trek. For those concerned about walking, horse-drawn carriages are available, or if the sense of adventure permits, camels are available for rent as well.
Walk the roads of the Romans
A mere 48km north of the capital Amman lies the ancient Greco-Roman city of Gerasa, just outside the present-day city of Jerash. This site contains the best-preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy. Walking through Gerasa, it doesn’t feel like ruins, but rather like an entire town caught in a moment in time millennia ago. Tracks from Roman chariots can still be seen etched in the original stone streets. Impressive, too, is the imposing arch erected to commemorate Roman Emperor Hadrian’s visit in the year 129, which still stands.
The area shows evidence of human settlement since the Neolithic Age, but it wasn’t until the arrival of Alexander the Great that Gerasa began to prosper. Roman general Pompey conquered Gerasa in 63 B.C., and the city became part of the Decapolis, a league of powerful Roman cities in the Middle East. Today, you can walk the main drag, known as the Cardo Maximo, 800 metres from the South Theatre to the corinthian colonnade of the Temple of Artemis, for an unparalleled visit to the Classical Age.
Float atop or dive deep into the seas
The natural beauty of Jordan is epitomized by stunning vistas of the Dead Sea and its deep blue waters. This lake, at 423 metres below sea level, is the lowest point on earth. The high salinity, caused by evaporation, makes it too harsh for sea life, but perfect for effortless floating. Wade in and let yourself be buoyed to the surface as you gaze towards the sky. After swimming, cover yourself in Dead Sea mud, which is said to possess therapeutic and restorative properties. Or you can visit one of the several luxury resorts on the coast that offer spa treatments using Dead Sea mud.
Jordan also has a slice of Red Sea coastline along its southernmost town of Aqaba. The Yamanieh coral reef draws divers from all over the world to swim with the clown fish and lionfish and explore hundreds of species of coral. The resort town is also a popular yachting destination, and one can take day trips from Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, all of which can be seen from the Gulf of Aqaba. At sunset, find a beachfront cafe and watch the lights of Israel light up the night sky across the water.
The beauty and palpable history of this country make it a world-class destination, but it’s the people of Jordan that make it hard to leave.
Text by Laine McDonnell