Arriving in the modern town of Jerash today, with its provincial streets and small market gardens, there’s little to suggest its illustrious past. But the moment you cross from the new town into the ancient city boundaries, marked by the imposing Hadrian’s Arch, it becomes immediately apparent that this was once no ordinary backwater but a city of great wealth and importance.
Irbid & Around
Jordan’s far-flung northern hills were once popular with those heading overland to Syria, but these days see relatively few travellers. This is a shame as the region’s rolling hills and verdant valleys are home to characterful rural villages, country lanes overrun by goats, and ubiquitous olive groves among whose ancient trunks lie the scattered remains of forgotten eras.
Umm Qais (Gadara)
And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?’ Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them.
Progressing along the Jordan Valley in either direction, it is worth taking a 30-minute detour into the hills to visit the characterful old town of Salt. Part of the fun of the visit is climbing to a viewpoint and marker, 10 minutes from the valley floor, which indicates sea level. If you were just about anywhere else on the planet, you’d be surfacing for air at this point.
Pella (Taqabat Fahl)
In the midst of the Jordan Valley are the ruins of the ancient city of Pella (Taqabat Fahl), one of the 10 cities of the fabled Roman Decapolis. Although not as spectacular as Jerash, Pella is far more important to archaeologists as it reveals evidence of 6000 years of continuous settlement. In fact, it’s regarded as the most historically significant site in all Jordan.
Then Jesus came from the Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. Matthew 3:13 This took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptising. John 1:28 Whatever one’s religious persuasions, it’s hard not to be moved by this minimal pile of ruins with its preposterously long name, lying at the end of the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea.
Dibeen Forest Reserve
Established in 2004, this small area (around 8 sq km) of Aleppo pine and oak forest is a nature reserve. Managed by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), Dibeen is representative of the wild forests that once covered much of the country’s northern frontiers but which now account for only 1% of Jordan’s land area.
If you have a car and are intrigued to know why all roads out of Irbid seem to lead to Yarmouk Battleground, then follow the signs northeast towards the village of Saham Al Kfarat. The site is of great significance to Muslim Arabs as this was where, on the 12th of August in AD 636, an army of 40,000 Arabs confronted 125,000 Byzantine fighters and emerged victorious.
Lying just 10km north of Irbid, between the twin hills of Tell Abila and Tell Umm-al-Amad, are the ancient remains of the Decapolis city of Abila. At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that this site could only be enjoyed by the committed ruin hunter or the aspiring archaeologist.
Shuneh al-Janubiyyeh (South Shuna)
Serving as a junction for public transport along the Jordan Valley and King Hussein Bridge, as well as for the Dead Sea, this town is well connected by minibus with Amman’s Muhajireen bus station (800 fils, 45 minutes), as well as Madaba (600 fils, 45 minutes) and Salt (500 fils, 45 minutes). There are also frequent minibuses to Suweimeh, 3km from the Dead Sea resorts.
If you have just paid a visit to the Yarmouk Battleground viewpoint you may be interested to descend to the hot springs of Al-Himma in the village of Mukheiba. At the confluence of the Yarkmouk and the Jordan Rivers, you can gain a good idea of the battle site from the ground, although access to the site proper is currently restricted.