Things to Do in Jordan
Standing at around 2,680 feet (817 meters) above sea level, Mt. Nebo is an important Judeo-Christian pilgrimage site. Moses first saw the Holy Land from the summit and may have later died here. While it's of particular interest to history buffs, it's also great for its views—on clear days it's possible to see the Dead Sea from here.
First approached by way of a deep, narrow gorge known as the Siq, the Treasury (al-Khazneh) is one of the most dramatic and iconic monuments in the ancient city of Petra. At 131 feet (40 meters) tall, this towering ancient tomb has lost none of its power since Nabatean times.
The stone city of Petra was carved into Jordan’s red rock cliffs more than 2,000 years ago. Once a Roman trading stop and stronghold of the Nabataean Arab kingdom, Petra is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world’s most iconic archaeological destinations.
The signature sight of Petra, Jordan’s signature sight, the Siq is a geological wonder: a stark rift in the land, smoothed by time into a scenic swirl of sandstone. The walls reach more than 500 feet (150 meters), while the path narrows to just 7 feet (2 meters), and the view of the Treasury at the end is one of the world’s great reveals.
Located in Madaba, the 19th-century Greek Orthodox St. George's Church is home to the famous Mosaic Map (Madaba Map). This sixth-century Byzantine 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 It features imagery of the Holy Land depicted in ornate tiles and was originally made to encompass about 51 feet by 19.5 feet.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 Mosaic 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's Church was then built over it to act as its protector. Today visitors can see what remains of this beautiful piece of art and history up close. Since its rebirth, the map has not only enthralled church visitors, but has also helped scientists and researchers discover new landmarks and better understand historical topography.
The brilliantly colored sands and stark rock formations of Jordan’s Wadi Rum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, make this desert wilderness a must-visit for most travelers to Jordan. Signature sights, typically visited by 4WD, include the Burdah Rock Bridge, a natural arch; the Khazali Siq, a narrow canyon; and the scarlet Al Hasany Dunes.
A northern satellite of Petra, Little Petra centers on a narrow canyon known as Siq al-Barid. With its water cisterns, carved houses, and rock-cut stairs, it has more of a lived-in feel than Petra proper. Its signature site, the Painted House, is home to one of the only surviving Nabatean painted interiors, which features jaw-dropping frescoes.
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.
Despite its name, Petra Roman Theater was actually built by the Nabataeans over 2,000 years ago. This massive and impressive theater in the ancient city of Petra was carved out of rock into the side of a mountain, destroying existing caves and tombs in the process, though you can still see some tombs above the theater.
The RestHouse Dead Sea is an ideal spot from which to explore the lowest point on earth. Offering access to Jordan’s public Amman Beach, it’s the most affordable way to experience the unique sensation of floating in the Dead Sea’s ultra-salty waters. After a sea dip, take a swim in the resort pools or bathe in the mineral-rich black mud.
More Things to Do in Jordan
Second only to Petra in terms of archaeological importance, Jerash (Gerasa) is one of Jordan’s most significant Roman sites. The area has been inhabited for over 6,500 years, but its high point was under Roman rule, beginning in 63 BC. Today it’s known for beautifully preserved ancient architecture, including temples and an amphitheater.
This ruins of Shobak Castle (Krak de Montréal) date back to AD 1115 when they were built by Baldwin I of Jerusalem as a way to control the caravan and pilgrimage routes between Syria and the Arabian Peninsula.
Today much of the original fortifications lie in ruins. Calligraphic inscriptions on the exterior of the remaining walls date back to the thirteenth century, and within the castle, visitors will find remains of a small chapel, the original gatehouse and several Ottoman cottages. Two large buildings with arched entrances date back to the time of the Crusaders but were later used by the Mamluks as a school.
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, when it was “discovered” by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, the vasy castle was occupied by a single, 40-member family.
Today Ajloun Castle houses a small museum with artifacts from its long history. Visitors can climb to the top of several towers for sweeping views of the Jordan Valley all the way to the Dead Sea.
Ancient history sits high above downtown streets at the Amman Citadel (Jabal al-Qalaa), a compact hill topped with Roman ruins, a palace, and the National Archeological Museum. Whether you’re exploring the sites or just enjoying panoramic views across Amman, the Citadel is an essential stop.
Located within the ancient city of Petra, the Byzantine Church (or Petra Church) was first constructed in the fifth century AD, on top of Nabataean and Roman ruins, and expanded in the sixth century AD before being destroyed by fire and earthquakes. It’s still being excavated, but visitors can view its well-preserved mosaics.
Situated close to the Roman Theater, the Petra Royal Tombs are carved dramatically into the cliffs above the city, and their facades reveal many Roman and ancient Greek influences. Notable tombs include the vast Urn Tomb, later used as a church, the three-story Palace Tomb, and the Silk Tomb, with its natural swirls of color.
Set in the hills above Petra, the Monastery (also known as Ad Deir or al-Deir) is this ancient city’s most recognizable monument after the Treasury. Carved out of sandstone during the 3rd century BC, the Monastery was built as a Nabatean tomb, but takes its name from the crosses etched into its walls during Byzantine times. It’s 148 feet (45 meters) high.
Dating back 18,000 years to the reign of Antoninus Pius, Amman 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 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, which displays items related to traditional Jordanian life such as Bedouin tents and looms. Just to the left of the theater is the Amman Folklore Museum, where you can see displays of traditional costumes, jewelry, and facemasks.
Once known as Abu Baker al Siddiq Street, this popular destination is a one-stop strip for travelers looking to experience the beauty, diversity, history and culture of Amman. Rainbow Street is home to international council buildings, major businesses, roof top bars and dozens of restaurants. Several significant historical sites, like the residence of King Talala and the home of former military commanders are also located nearby.
Travelers say this central location is the ideal spot to grab an evening meal on a visit to Jordan, and the perfect place to smoke some shisha surrounded by travelers and locals alike. Visitors say women should be mindful of how they dress, as a more conservative culture can result in unwanted attention for those who show too much skin.
With the Roman ruins of Gadara, an abandoned Ottoman village, and sweeping views over Jordan, Israel, and Syria, the little town of Umm Qais (Gadara) has a lot to offer the visitor. The undisputed highlight is the ancient city, Gadara, where the remains of Roman theaters, colonnades, and tombs enjoy a spectacular hilltop location.
The collections of the Jordan Archaeological Museum, established in 1951 near the Amman Citadel, run from the Stone Age to the Islamic era and include Nabatean and Roman works of art. The museum has lost some of its most important pieces to the Jordan Museum, which opened in 2014, and there are plans to update it.
A fine example of contemporary Islamic architecture, the King Abdullah Mosque commemorates King Abdullah I, founder of the dynasty that rules Jordan to this day. The vast blue dome, decorated with texts from the Quran, shades a space that can hold over 10,000 people, while a small museum celebrates the king’s life.
A true “desert castle” near the Saudi Arabian border, Jordan’s Kharana Castle (Qasr al-Kharanah) sits two storeys tall over the desert plain. Built in the early Umayyad period 1,300 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 Kharana Castle 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 Kharana Castle 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 al-Kharanah from the interpretive plaque which is in both English and Arabic.
Qasr Amra (Amra Castle) 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 1,200 years.
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- Things to do in Petra
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