What to see in Jordan
Images of the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, carved from the rock over a thousand years ago, have long been most people’s first impression of Jordan. But while Petra is indeed one of the most stunning attractions in the Middle East, Jordan offers so much more for the modern traveller. A well-travelled bridge between sea and desert, east and west, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a land of mesmerizing beauty and contrasts, from the Jordan Valley, fertile, ever changing, to the remote desert canyons, immense and still. Visitors can explore splendid desert castles, gaze in awe at the haunting wilderness of Wadi Rum, or bathe in the restful waters of the Red Sea. For adventure lovers, there’s horse riding, 4x4 safaris, rock climbing and hiking. For taking it easy, nothing on earth compares to the Red Sea and its many spa facilities. Modern Jordan was founded by King Abdullah I after World War I. Jordan has grown into a modern nation which has enjoyed a remarkable measure of peace, stability and economic growth in recent decades.
The Nabataean City of Petra
Although much has been written about Petra, nothing really prepares you for this amazing place. It has to be seen to be believed. Often described as the eighth wonder of the ancient world, it is without doubt Jordan’s most valuable treasure and greatest tourist attraction. It is a vast, unique city, carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled here more than 2000 years ago, turning it into an important junction for the silk, spice and other trade routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome. Entrance to the city is through the Siq, a narrow gorge, over 1 kilometre in length, which is flanked on either side by soaring, 80 metres high cliffs. Just walking through the Siq is an experience in itself. The colours and formations of the rocks are dazzling. As you reach the end of the Siq you will catch your first glimpse of Al-Khaznah (the Treasury). This is an awe-inspiring experience. A massive façade, 30m wide and 43m high, carved out of the sheer, dusky pink, rock-face and dwarfing everything around it. It was carved in the early 1st century as the tomb of an important Nabataean king and represents the engineering genius of these ancient people. The Treasury is just the first of the many wonders that make up Petra. You will need ample time to really explore everything here. As you enter the Petra valley you will be overwhelmed by the natural beauty of this place and its outstanding architectural achievements. There are hundreds of elaborate rock-cut tombs with intricate carvings – unlike the houses, which were destroyed mostly by earthquakes, the tombs were carved to last throughout the afterlife and 500 have survived, empty but bewitching as you file past their dark openings. Here also is a massive Nabataean-built, Roman-style theatre, which could seat 3,000 people. There are obelisks, temples, sacrificial altars and colonnaded streets, and high above, overlooking the valley, is the impressive Ad-Deir Monastery – a flight of 800 rock cut steps takes you there. Within the site there are also two excellent museums; the Petra Archaeological Museum and the Petra Nabataean Museum both of which represent finds from excavations in the Petra region and an insight into Petra’s colourful past. A 13th century shrine, built by the Mameluk Sultan Al Nasir Mohammad to commemorate the death of Aaron, the brother of Moses, can be seen on top of Mount Aaron in the Sharah range.
The Dead Sea
Without doubt, the world’s most amazing place, the Jordan Rift Valley is a dramatic, beautiful landscape, which at the Dead Sea, is over 400 metres (1,312 ft.) below sea level. The lowest point on the face of the earth, this vast, stretch of water receives a number of incoming rivers, including the River Jordan. Once the waters reach the Dead Sea they are land-locked and have nowhere to go, so they evaporate, leaving behind a dense, rich, cocktail of salts and minerals that supply industry, agriculture and medicine with some of its finest products. The Dead Sea is flanked by mountains to the east and the rolling hills of Jerusalem to the west, giving it an almost other-worldly beauty. Although sparsely populated and serenely quiet now, the area is believed to have been home to five Biblical cities: Sodom, Gomorrah, Adman, Zebouin and Zoar. One of the most spectacular natural and spiritual landscapes in the world, the Jordanian east coast of the Dead Sea has evolved into a major hub of both religious and health & wellness tourism in the region. A series of good roads, excellent hotels with spa and fitness facilities, as well as archaeological and spiritual discoveries make this region as enticing to today’s international visitors as it was to kings, emperors, traders, prophets and pilgrims in antiquity. The leading attraction at the Dead Sea is the warm, soothing, super salty water itself – some ten times saltier than sea water, and rich in chloride salts of magnesium, sodium, potassium, bromine and several others. The unusually warm, incredibly buoyant and mineral-rich waters have attracted visitors since ancient times, including King Herod the Great and the beautiful Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra. All of whom have luxuriated in the Dead Sea’s rich, black, stimulating mud and floated effortlessly on their backs while soaking up the water’s healthy minerals.
This is a stupendous, timeless place, virtually untouched by humanity. Here, it is the weather and winds that have carved the imposing, towering skyscrapers, so elegantly described by T.E. Lawrence as “vast, echoing and god-like”. A maze of monolithic rockscapes rise up from the desert floor to heights of 1,750 metres creating a natural challenge for serious mountaineers. Hikers can enjoy the tranquillity of the boundless empty spaces, explore the canyons and water holes to discover 4000 year old rock drawings and the many other spectacular treasures this vast wilderness holds in store. Also known as ‘The Valley of the Moon’, this is the place where Prince Faisal Bin Hussein and T.E. Lawrence based their headquarters during the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in World War 1, and their exploits are intrinsically woven into the history of this amazing area. There are several options for exploring Wadi Rum. Visitors should head for the Visitors Centre where, apart from visitors’ facilities, they can hire a 4x4 vehicle, together with driver/guide, and then drive for two or three hours into the Wadi system to explore some of the best known sites. Alternatively they can hire a camel and guide. Once transport has been arranged, there are various excursions available – for example, a trip to Burdah Rock Bridge, the highest in Wadi Rum, via the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and many other interesting sights, is a full day by car or an overnight trip by camel. There are many alternative routes and information on these is available from the Visitors Centre on-site. The Bedouin people that inhabit the area still maintain their semi-nomadic lifestyle. They are hospitable and offer a friendly welcome to visitors, often inviting them to sit and enjoy a coffee or even a meal.
Aqaba & The Red Sea
With its wealth of other attractions, Jordan’s splendid Red Sea resort is often overlooked by modern-day visitors. But apart from being a delightful place for discerning holidaymakers, this is actually a great base from which to explore various places of interest in southern Jordan. Aqaba is a fun place. It is a microcosm of all the good things Jordan has to offer, including a fascinating history with some outstanding sites, excellent hotels and activities, superb visitor facilities, good shopping, and welcoming, friendly people, who enjoy nothing more than making sure their visitors have a good time. But perhaps Aqaba’s greatest asset is the Red Sea itself. Here you can experience some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world. The temperate climate and gentle water currents have created a perfect environment for the growth of corals and a teeming plethora of marine life. Here you can swim with friendly sea turtles and dolphins as they dart amongst the schools of multicoloured fish. Night dives reveal the nocturnal sea creatures, crabs, lobsters and shrimp, as they search for a midnight snack. There are several dive centres in Aqaba. All offer well-maintained diving equipment, professional instructors, and transport by boat to a variety of dive sites. For those who prefer to keep their feet dry, all the deep sea wonders can be viewed through a glass-bottomed boat or by submarine, or you can just relax under the sun on the resort’s sandy beaches. Plus, of course, there are plenty of other water-sport activities available, as well as an extensive and interesting Marine Park. From as far back as five and half thousand years ago Aqaba has played an important role in the economy of the region. It was a prime junction for land and sea routes from Asia, Africa and Europe, a role it still plays today. Because of this vital function, there are many historic sites to be explored within the area, including what is believed to be the oldest purpose-built church in the world. Aqaba International Airport is situated just a 20-minute drive from the town centre and services regular flights from Amman as well as from several European cities.
The Roman City of Jerash
A close second to Petra on the list of favourite destinations in Jordan, the ancient city of Jerash boasts an unbroken chain of human occupation dating back more than 6,500 years. Jerash lies on a plain surrounded by hilly wooded areas and fertile basins. Conquered by General Pompey in 63 BC, it came under Roman rule and was one of the ten great Roman cities known as the Decapolis League. The city’s golden age came under Roman rule, during which time it was known as Gerasa, and the site is now generally acknowledged to be one of the best preserved Roman provincial towns in the world. Hidden for centuries in sand before being excavated and restored over the past 70 years, Jerash reveals a fine example of the grand, formal provincial Roman urbanism that is found throughout the Middle East, comprising paved and colonnaded streets, soaring hilltop temples, handsome theatres, spacious public squares and plazas, baths, fountains and city walls pierced by towers and gates. Beneath its external Graeco – Roman veneer, Jerash also preserves a subtle blend of east and west. Its architecture, religion and languages reflect a process by which two powerful cultures meshed and coexisted, The Graeco – Roman world of the Mediterranean basin and the traditions of the Arab Orient. The modern city of Jerash can be found to the east of the ruins. While the old and new share a city wall, careful preservation and planning has seen the city itself develop well away from the ruins so there is no encroachment on the sites of old. The Jerash Festival, held in July every year, transforms the ancient city into one of the worlds liveliest and most spectacular cultural events. The festival features folklore dances by local and international groups, ballet, concerts, plays, opera, popular singers and sales of traditional handicrafts, all in the brilliantly floodlit dramatic surroundings of the Jerash ruins.
Once an important trading centre of the Roman Empire, and straddling the ancient Holy Land of the world’s three great monotheistic religions, Jordan is a tiny desert kingdom wrapped in history. Stand on Mt Nebo and survey the land promised to Moses; unwrap a scarf or two at Mukawir, where Salome cast a spell over men in perpetuity; float in the Dead Sea, beside a pillar of salt, reputed to be Lot’s disobedient wife; go just about anywhere in Jordan and you’ll find every stone bares a tale, and those of Madaba’s legendary mosaics tell more tales than most. Petra, the jewel in the crown of Jordan’s antiquities, is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The magnificent rock-hewn city of the Nabateans has been a favourite destination for Europeans since the 19th century, and at sunset on a winter’s day, when the rose-pink city catches alight, it is easy to see why this enchanting place has charmed generations of visitors.
The Capital: Amman
Amman, the capital of Jordan, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world; and despite being essentially a product of the 20th century, it still retains its old world charm. In modern, culturally diverse Amman, it isn’t uncommon to see luxury hotels tower over traditional coffee shops where old men gather to play backgammon. Travellers looking to discover old Arabia in Amman will find the souks and bazaars intriguing. There you can find traditional stores that sell handcrafted coffee cups and plates, although the souks are worth visiting for the atmosphere alone. Amman is one of the safest and friendliest cities in the Middle East.
The climate in Jordan is semi-dry in summer with average temperature in the mid 30°C (mid 90°F) and relatively cold in winter averaging around 13 °C (55 °F). The western part of the country receives greater precipitation during the winter season from November to March.
The major characteristic of the climate is humid from November to March and semi dry weather for the rest of the year. With hot, dry summers and cool winters during which practically all of the precipitation occurs, the country has a Mediterranean-style climate. In general, the farther inland from the Mediterranean a given part of the country lies, the greater are the seasonal contrasts in temperature and the less rainfall. Atmospheric pressures during the summer months are relatively uniform, whereas the winter months bring a succession of marked low pressure areas and accompanying cold fronts. These cyclonic disturbances generally move eastward from over the Mediterranean Sea several times a month and result in sporadic precipitation.
Jordan is a young state with a long history. Born out of the ruins of WWII, the modern state and its territory east of the Jordan River can claim to have hosted some of the oldest civilizations in the world. The region has always sat at the fringes rather than the centre of empires but its strategic position ensured that all the great early civilizations passed through. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks and Crusaders all traded, built cities and fought their wars here, leaving behind rich cultural influences.
Evidence of human habitation in the area dates back about 500, 000 years, when the climate of the Middle East was considerably milder and wetter than today. Archaeological finds from Jericho (on the other side of the Jordan River, in the Palestinian Territories) and Al-Beidha (near Petra) date from around 9000 BC and can rank among the world’s first cities, whose inhabitants lived in circular houses, bred domestic animals, made pottery, practiced a form of ancestor worship and used sophisticated agricultural methods.
The innovation of copper smelting during the Chalcolithic (copper) Age (4500-3000 BC) was a major technological advance for the region. Remains from the world’s earliest and largest copper mines can be found at Khirbet Feinan in Jordan’s Dana Nature Reserve. Sheep and goat herding produced milk and wool for the first time and crops such as olives, wheat and barley were introduced, creating a split in lifestyle between the nomad and the farmer, the ‘desert and the sown’, that would endure for millennia.
During the Bronze Age, crafts such as pottery and jewellery-making came under the dominant cultural influence of Egypt. Permanent settlements were established in modern-day Amman and in the southern desert regions. Foreigners introduced the idea of mixing copper and tin to create bronze, a hardier material that allowed the rapid development of tools and weapons.
The Early Bronze Age (3000-2100 BC) also saw the occupation of the Jordan Valley by the Canaanites, a Semitic tribe. Along with other tribes in the area, the Canaanites raised defensive walls against invaders, creating a string of emerging city states. Trade gradually developed with neighboring powers in Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
The later decline of Egyptian influence (though artistic influence continued) around 1500-1200 BC created opportunities for nearby tribes, such as the Hebrew-speaking people who later became known as the Israelites. The innovation of the camel saddle in the middle of the first millennium BC gave a huge technological boost to the native peoples of the Arabian peninsula.
By the Iron Age (1200-330 BC) three kingdoms had emerged in Jordan: the Edomites in the south, with a capital at Bozrah (modern Buseira/Busayra, near Dana); the Moabites near Wadi Mujib; and the Ammonites on the edge of the Arabian Desert with a capital at Rabbath Ammon (present-day Amman). According to the Old Testament, this is the age of the Exodus, during which Moses and his brother, Aaron, led the Israelites through the wildernesses of Egypt and Jordan to the Promised Land. The Edomites barred the Israelites from southern Jordan but the Israelites managed to wind their way north, roughly along the route of the modern King’s Highway, to arrive at the Jordan River. Moses died on Mt Nebo, in sight of the Promised Land, and it was left to Joshua to lead his people across the Jordan River onto the West Bank.
Several hundred years later came the rule of the great Israelite kings David and Solomon. Trade reached a peak during the golden age of King Solomon, with trade routes crossing the deserts from Arabia to the Euphrates, and huge shipments of African gold and South Arabian spices passed through the ports of Aqaba/Eilat. However, in about 850 BC the now-divided Israelite empire was defeated by Mesha, king of Moab, who recorded his victories on the famous Mesha Stele in the Moabite capital of Dhiban. In 586 BC the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and deported the exiled Israelites to Babylon.
Jordan General Information
Your passport should be valid for at least six months after you arrive in Jordan. Always carry your passport with you when travelling around sensitive areas such as near the border of Israel & the Palestinian Territories – which means most of the Jordan Valley and anywhere along the Dead Sea Highway. Checkpoints and passport checks are common in these areas.
Visas are required by all foreigners entering Jordan. These are issued with a minimum of fuss at the border or airport on arrival. Note that visas are not issued at the King Hussein Bridge if you plan to enter from Israel & the Palestinian Territories. At the airport immigration counters, join the normal immigration lines to get your visa. There are moneychangers adjacent to the counters; ATMs are only available after immigration.
Tourist visas are valid for three months (ie you must enter the country within three months of the date of issue) for stays of up to one month from the date of entry, but can be easily extended for stays of up to three months.
Health insurance is strongly recommended. There are excellent hospitals in large towns and cities, with clinics in many villages.
Dinar (JOD; symbol JD) = 100 piastres or 1,000 fils. Notes are in denominations of JD50, 20, 10, 5 and 1, and 500 fils. Coins are in denominations of JD1, 1/2 and 1/4; 10, 5, 2 and 1/2 piastres; and 1 and 1/2 qirsh.
ATMs abound in all but the smaller towns. There are no local charges on credit card cash advances but the maximum daily withdrawal amount is around JD500, depending on your particular card. All banks have large signs (in English) outside indicating which credit cards they accept. Visa is the most widely accepted card for cash advances and using ATMs, followed by MasterCard.
Most major credit cards are accepted at top-end hotels and restaurants, travel agencies, larger souvenir shops and bookshops. However, always be sure to ask if any commission is being added on top of your purchase price. This can sometimes be as much as 5%.
Arabic is the official language. English is widely spoken. French, German, Italian and Spanish are also spoken in many tourist areas.
Every town has a souk (market) selling everything from meat and live chickens, to clothes and jewellery. The gold is usually 18kt or above and there is no charge added for the craftsmanship of items like bangles, chains and earrings.
Tourist-oriented towns offer many handicrafts, including mosaic; mosaic schools train young people to work with the colourful, locally hewn stone.
Another distinctive local craft is ostrich-egg painting: the paint is applied with needle pricks and designs can take weeks to complete.
Other hand-crafted items include sand jars, hand-blown glass and embroidered clothing. Bottled Holy Water from the river Jordan can also be purchased, as can skin-care products made of Dead Sea mud.
Sat-Thurs 0930-1330 and 1530-1800; some open as early as 0800 and close at 2000. Shops are closed on Friday except for the souks which usually open from 1600.
Food and Drink:
Jordanian cuisine shares many of the characteristics of Middle Eastern cooking but the inclusion of freshly made, local yoghurt and cheese adds a twist to the menu. Aubergines, chickpeas, lentils and beans turn up in many of the dishes and rice and khoubs (flat Arabic bread) are staples. Most restaurants have a mixed menu including Arabic and European dishes. Alcohol is served in most restaurants and bars, except during the fasting month of Ramadan (non-Muslim nationals can drink alcohol only in hotels during Ramadan).
• Meze: A selection of starters that pre-empt almost every main meal; they include fool (thick stew made with fava beans), hummus (mashed chickpeas with tahini or sesame paste), moutabel (smoked aubergine dip) and tabouleh (finely chopped parsley salad).
• Mensaf: Stewed lamb in a yoghurt sauce. As with most Bedouin dishes, it is normally eaten with the fingertips of the right hand.
• Makloubat: Chicken with spices, including cinnamon, allspice, cardamom and nutmeg.
• Kibbi: Often deep fried, this ground lamb or beef dish is combined with burghul (ground, steamed wheat), onion and cinnamon.
• Baklava: Assorted honey-drizzled, nut-filled pastries.
Generally, 10 to 12% service charge is added in hotels and restaurants; extra tips are discretionary.
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