Things to Do in Amman
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.
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 It features imagery of the Holy Land depicted in ornate tiles and was originally made to encompass about 51 feet by 19.5 feet.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.
A tranquil oasis hidden between the vast sands and sandstone cliffs of Jordan’s deserts, the Azraq Wetland Reserve offers a welcome change of scenery, and it’s an easy day trip from nearby Amman.
The expanse of lush wetlands, glittering blue pools and seasonally flooded marshland is undeniably scenic, but the main attractions for visitors are the wildlife spotting opportunities. Around 150 species of migratory birds pass through the reserve, while native species include water buffalo and the rare Azraq Killifish.
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.
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.
Located about an hour east of Amman, Azraq Castle (Qasr al-Azraq) is a desert fortress created by the Romans back in 300 AD, although the structure in its current form was built in 1237 by the Mamelukes. The exact location of Qasr al-Azraq (meaning Blue Castle) in the center of the Azraq Oasis was chosen strategically; this area is the only water source in over 7,000 square miles. One of Azraq Castle's striking features is its color – the local basalt gives it an atypical black hue, which is where it’s believed the fortress gets its name, as it can appear blueish at certain times. Flanking an expansive courtyard and mosque are long walls with inspiring towers, and the site’s huge door is a sight on its own; the structure is made completely of heavy stone (hinges included) and can be a challenge to open. The whole thing weighs three tons.
While the design is impressive, most visitors head to Azraq Castle to learn about Thomas Edward Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabia) and Sherif Hussain bin Ali, who stayed in the fortress during the winter of 1917 when the Arab Revolt against the Turks went on. Lawrence wrote about staying at Azraq Castle in his book,Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and more can be learned from the movie,Lawrence of Arabia. Visitors to the fortress can see the room he stayed in here.
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.
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.
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.
In Amman’s old quarter, Raghadan Palace was the first of many Crown properties to be built in the Royal Hashemite Court compound. Designed by Lebanese architect Saadedinne Chatella and built in 1926 as the residence of King Abdullah I and his family, the ornate palace is designed in traditional Islamic architecture style, with stained glass windows inspired by Jerusalem’s iconic al-Aqsa Mosque. Built from stone sourced from the Jordanian town of Ma’an, Raghadan Palace is also famous for its ornate woodwork and Throne Room ceiling fresco.
Renovated in the 1980s after a fire, you may recognize the Throne Room from the newspapers: it’s where King Abdullah II hosts royalty and Heads of State like Barack Obama for important meetings and ceremonies.
“Raghadan” means “the very best life,” and the palace even has its own galleried prayer hall, al-Maar al A’la, on the ground floor. Basman Palace, the offices of the current king, is also in the court compound, as is Al-Qasr Al-Sagheer where Queen Rania works from. Just outside the palace, you’ll recognize the Raghadan Flagpole — standing 416 feet tall, the flag can be seen from 12 miles away, making it one of the tallest flagpoles in the world.
More Things to Do in Amman
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.
La Storia Tourism Complex, located just over a mile (2 kilometers) from Mt. Nebo, offers visitors a quirky overview of the culture, religion, history and heritage of Jordan. The museum portion of the complex comprises a series of dioramas (some of them animatronic) depicting mostly Biblical scenes, starting with Noah’s Ark and continuing through the parting of the Red Sea, the birth of Jesus and the Last Supper. Other scenes show what life was like in a traditional Bedouin village, with animatronic villagers performing day-to-day tasks.
Also of interest is the onsite HandiCrafts Centre, where you can buy handmade mosaics, furniture, carpets, Dead Sea products, scarves, shawls and Bedouin jewelry, much of it made by local artists with special needs. Another section of the museum has been reserved to house what could turn out to be the largest mosaic mural in the world, set to measure 98 feet (30 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) tall.
The ancient city of Pella, one of Jordan’s most underrated attractions, is also one of the country’s most important archeological sites. Humans have been living in and around Pella continuously for more than 6,000 years.
Among the ruins in the area are the remnants of a Greco-Roman theater, a Chalcolithic settlement dating back to the fourth millennium BC, Byzantine churches, Bronze and Iron age walled cities and early Islamic residential neighborhoods. Excavations in Pella have been ongoing since 1979, and there are still countless sites left to be excavated.
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.
A huge draw for car enthusiasts, the Royal Automobile Museum displays more than 70 classic cars and other vehicles, many of which are from the personal collection of King Hussein. Not just about the cars themselves, the museum looks at who drove them and the events they were a part of, making the museum a point of interest to those interested in history and the royal family too.
Each car has a full explanation of its type, and model, plus the year it was made, its engine power, and the occasions it was used for. In addition to grand classic cars, the Royal Automobile Museum also has various types of motorcycles and racing cars on display.
A trip to the Royal Automobile Museum can be combined with visiting the Jordan Museum, King Abdullah Mosque, the Roman Theater, Rainbow Street, and the Citadel, either on a private six-hour tour or a longer sightseeing tour with lunch included.
The Dead Sea, home to the lowest point in the world at 1,269 feet (383 meters) below sea level, also ranks as one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water. This hyper-salinity that is so unique to the Dead Sea attracts visitors from all over the world who come to experience the unusual buoyancy, as well as access the nutrient-rich mud on its banks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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