With a history stretching back 10,000 years, magnificent desert panoramas and the famous Dead Sea, Jordan is a fascinating place to visit, and surprisingly easy to travel round
Jordan was somewhere I’d always wanted to visit, but when the opportunity finally arose, I have to admit to a little trepidation. I wondered how safe a country that shares borders with Israel, Syria and Iraq would be. Luckily, Jordan enjoys good relations with the West, and generally manages to avoid the problems of its neighbours.
In the past, though, it’s had plenty of conflicts. Around 8,000 years of them to be precise, but to even scrape the surface of Jordan’s history would fill this entire article. Suffice to say that with its position at the junction of Europe, Asia and Africa, and their respective great empires and civilisations, it has more than enough historical highlights to keep anyone interested.
I planned to stay in the capital, Amman, and take trips out to the main centres of interest. Hiring a car is straightforward, the roads are good and petrol is cheap. I was also pleased to find all road signs in both Arabic and English. I was warned – several times – not to venture off roads and into the desert, no matter how appealing it looks. The sands can be treacherous, with sudden soft areas that can trap even the best 4x4s. It should only be attempted in the hands of an expert local guide.
Amman itself was not what I expected, a vast, sprawling city with endless tiers of light-coloured houses, and little style or variance between them. In the busy modern downtown area, traffic is congested and the whole place continually echoes to the sound of car horns. Surprisingly for a place with such an amazing past, not a great deal has survived within the capital.
The Roman theatre was the highlight for me. The huge open semi-circular structure would have held around 6,000 people when it was built in the 2nd century. I was intrigued by the restoration programme, which is returning it to its full original state – and funding the work through performances in the theatre itself. I caught the end of one recital, which was backed by mime artists re-enacting scenes from Roman plays.
Nearby is the city’s most important religious building, the King Hussein Mosque, with its two thin, ornate minarets, and behind is King Talal Street, with its souks. I am always fascinated when exploring these places, as you never know what little gems you will come across. Be prepared to barter for everything in the maze of enticing little stalls, and don’t trust anything is genuine unless you either have proof or are an expert.
The hill nearby is the site of the original city walls, although there is not much left to see. It’s still worth the climb to get great views across the city, and the remains of the temple of Hercules and the palace complex are also worth a stop.
My first trip out of the city took me north some 20 miles, over a hilly route with great views of the Jordan Valley, to Jarash. This is a surprisingly green and pleasant region, with olive groves, wheat fields, and some vineyards lining the road.
Jarash, or Gerasa to give it its ancient name, has some of the Middle East’s most impressive relics. The immense Northern Colonnade leads along the Cardo Maximus to the rare Oval Precinct. Within the ancient city walls are a wealth of temples, churches, mosques, and even three theatres. The huge pillars, the walls of the temples, and even the impressive paved Roman road, all have the same coloured stone that blends them harmoniously together. There is so much to see, and even more to understand here, that even with a whole day I felt I had rushed my fascinating visit.
Further north, the cities of Um Qeis and Ajlun have similarly impressive relics, and also made enjoyable and interesting visits, as did my drive to the desert castles east of Amman. It was to the south, though, that I found the most impressive sights of my tour.
The Kings Highwayfollows a historic route, parallel to the Dead Sea, once used by the Hebrews and detailed in the Old Testament. It passes through ancient cities such as Madaba, Karak and Shawbak, before arriving at the greatest of Jordan’s monuments: Petra. The landscape is one of endless deserts, rocky cliffs and vast canyons. On the road, 21st-century articulated lorries thunder past, while camels and Bedouin tribesmen traverse the rocks and sand. Strangely, for a land that is predominantly all one colour, I found it remarkably appealing.
I stopped to see the Holy Land Mosaic in Madaba, which was discovered when a Greek Orthodox church was being built over an old Byzantine basilica. The mosaic depicts a map of the Holy Land, using a staggering two million tiny tiles. Then, after crossing the Wadi el Mujib, and the Wadi el Hasa, (which both have some stunning panoramas from the various viewpoints), it was on to Petra.
From the first moment you set eyes on it, as you round a bend to be confronted with the stark red cliffs, it’s breathtaking. The natural geology had already spent millions of years creating a magnificent spectacle before the mysterious Nabataeans from Arabia carved an entire city out of the rock. As you walk in amazement through narrow gorges, every turn will bring a vista more enthralling than the last. A necropolis containing more than 800 tombs hewn into the cliffs, the stunning facades of the Treasury and Monastery, and the walk down the Siq to the lower town – all had me marvelling at how an ancient civilisation could create such a place of unique beauty. It’s a vast site, though, and I returned the following day to see the rest.
For me Jordan is a wonderful country, full of interest and fascination, and it left me with many fine memories. My two days at Petra, however, were like travelling back in time, and will live with me forever.
Where to eat
The following two restaurants are recommended: Orient Restaurant (3rd Circle, Amman) and Lebanese House Restaurant (Ajlun Road, Jarash).