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A safe haven in a region of conflict, Jordan has delighted visitors for centuries with its World Heritage Sites, friendly towns and inspiring desert landscapes.
Jordan has a tradition of welcoming visitors: camel caravans plied the legendary King’s Highway transporting frankincense in exchange for spices while Nabataean tradesmen, Roman legionnaires, Muslim armies and zealous Crusaders all passed through the land, leaving behind impressive monuments. These monuments, including Roman amphitheatres, Crusader castles and Christian mosaics, have fascinated subsequent travellers in search of antiquity and the origins of faith. The tradition of hospitality to visitors remains to this day.
Petra: A World Wonder
Petra, the ancient Nabataean city locked in the heart of Jordan’s sandstone escarpments, is the jewel in the crown of the country’s many antiquities. Ever since explorer Jean Louis Burckhardt brought news of the pink-hued necropolis back to Europe in the 19th century, the walk through the Siq to the Treasury (Petra’s defining monument) has impressed even the most travel weary of visitors. With sites flung over a vast rocky landscape and a mood that changes with the shifting light of dawn and dusk, this is a highlight that rewards a longer visit.
Take a ride through Wadi Rum at sunset, and it's easy to see why TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was so drawn to this land of weathered sandstone and reddened dunes. But Jordan's desert landscapes are not confined to the southeast: they encompass a salt sea at the lowest point on earth, canyons flowing with seasonal water, oases of palm trees and explosions of springtime flowers scattered across arid hills. Minimal planning and only a modest budget is required for an adventure.
It takes tolerance to host endless waves of incomers, and Jordan has displayed that virtue amply, absorbing thousands of refugees from the Palestinian Territories, Iraq and most recently Syria. Despite contending with this and with large numbers of tourists who are often insensitive to conservative Jordanian values, rural life in particular has managed to keep continuity with the traditions of the past. While Jordan faces the challenges of modernisation and growing urbanisation, it remains one of the safest countries in which to gain an impression of the quintessential Middle East.
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The spectacular sandstone city of Petra was built in the 3rd century BC by the Nabataeans, who carved palaces, temples, tombs, storerooms and stables from the soft stone cliffs. Today it is a World Heritage Site that needs little introduction; suffice to say, no visit to Jordan is complete without at least two days spent exploring the remarkable Ancient City. It is approached through the adjacent town of Wadi Musa, which is the accommodation and transport hub. It was from Petra that the Nabataeans, a community of master builders whose skills included hydraulic engineering, iron production and copper refining, commanded the trade routes from Damascus to Arabia, profiting by the taxes paid on the caravans that passed through Nabataean territory. An earthquake in AD 555 is the most likely cause of the city's demise, but thankfully many of Petra's most impressive structures remain intact, making it a treasure trove of architectural surprises, hidden along hiking trails of various lengths and difficulties. The Ancient City is approached through the 1.2km-long, high-walled Siq – a crack in the rock, torn apart by tectonic forces. Just as you start to think there’s no end to the Siq, you catch breathtaking glimpses ahead of the most impressive of Petra’s sights, the Treasury, known locally as Al Khazneh. Carved out of iron-laden sandstone to serve as a tomb, the Treasury gets its name from the misguided local belief that an Egyptian pharaoh hid his treasure in the top urn. The Greek-style pillars, alcoves and plinths are truly masterpieces of masonry work. From the Treasury, the way broadens into the Outer Siq, riddled by more than 40 tombs known collectively as the Street of Facades. Just before you reach the weather-worn 7000-seat Theatre, notice a set of steps on the left. These ascend to the High Place of Sacrifice, a hilltop altar, an easy but steep 45-minute climb. Descend on the other side of the mountain via the Garden Tomb, Roman Soldier’s Tomb and Garden Triclinium and follow your nose back to the Street of Facades, not far after the Theatre. Almost opposite the Theatre, you’ll notice another set of steps that lead to a fine set of tomb facades cut into the cliffs above. These belong to the Royal Tombs and are worth a visit not just as they illustrate some of the best carving in Petra, but also because they give access to another of the city’s mystic high places. To climb to the plateau above the Royal Tombs (one-hour round trip), pass the Urn Tomb, with its arched portico, and look for stairs just after the three-storey Palace Tomb. If the tea vendor at the top is available, ask him to show you an aerial view of the Treasury. Return the way you came or search out a set of worn steps leading down a gully to the Urn Tomb. Returning to the Theatre, the main path turns west along the colonnaded street, which was once lined with shops, passing the rubble of the nymphaeum en route to the elevated Great Temple and the Temple of the Winged Lions on the opposite side of the wadi. At the end of the colonnaded street, on the left, is the imposing Nabataean temple known locally as Qasr Al Bint – one of the few free-standing structures in Petra. From Qasr Al Bint, the path leads towards two restaurants, on either side of the wadi. The one on the left is the Nabataean Tent Restaurant; the one on the right is the more upmarket Basin Restaurant. Both offer a good range of salads and hot dishes. If these don’t appeal, there are plenty of stalls dotted around the site where you can buy water, herb tea and minimal snacks. Behind the Nabataean Tent Restaurant is the small hill of Al Habis (the prison). A set of steps winds up to a path that leads anticlockwise around the hill with fine views overlooking fertile Wadi Siyagh. Eventually you will come to another set of steps to the top of a hill, the site of a ruined Crusader fort, built in AD 1116. The views across Petra are spectacular. Allow an hour to circumnavigate the hill and reach the fort. Beside the Basin Restaurant is the opening to Wadi Siyagh and the start of the winding path that climbs to one of Petra’s most beloved monuments, the Monastery. Known locally as Al Deir, the Monastery is reached by a rock-cut staircase (a 45-minute walk to the top) and is best seen in late afternoon when the sun draws out the colour of the sandstone. Built as a tomb around 86 BC, with its enormous facade, it was most probably used as a church in Byzantine times (hence the name). Spare 10 minutes to walk over to the two viewpoints on the nearby cliff tops. From here you can see the magnificent rock formations of Petra, Jebel Haroun and even Wadi Araba. On the way back down, look out for the Lion Tomb in a gully near the bottom of the path.
The area known as the Citadel sits on the highest hill in Amman, Jebel Al Qala’a (about 850m above sea level), and is the site of ancient Rabbath-Ammon. Occupied since the Bronze Age, it's surrounded by a 1700m-long wall, which was rebuilt many times during the Bronze and Iron Ages, as well as the Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad periods. There's plenty to see, but the Citadel's most striking sights are the Temple of Hercules and the Ummayad Palace. Artefacts dating from the Bronze Age show that the hill was a fortress and/or agora (open space for commerce and politics) for thousands of years. The two giant standing pillars are the remains of the Roman Temple of Hercules. Once connected to the Forum (downtown), the temple was built during the reign of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 161–80). The only obvious remains are parts of the podium and the columns, which are visible from around town. There’s also a rather touching remnant of a stone-carved hand, which shows the level of detail that would have adorned the temple in its glory days. Nearby is a lookout with sweeping views of the downtown area. The Citadel’s most impressive series of historic buildings is focused around the Umayyad Palace, behind the small (and rather old-fashioned) archaeological museum. Believed to be the work of Umayyad Arabs and dating from about AD 720, the palace was an extensive complex of royal and residential buildings and was once home to the governor of Amman. Its lifespan was short – it was destroyed by an earthquake in AD 749 and was never fully rebuilt. Coming from the south, the first major building belonging to the palace complex is the domed audience hall, designed to impress visitors to the royal palace. The most intact of the buildings on the site, the hall is shaped like a cross, mirroring the Byzantine church over which it was built. After much debate as to whether the central space had originally been covered or left open to the elements, consensus came down on the side of the ceiling dome, which was reconstructed by Spanish archaeologists. A courtyard immediately north of the hall leads to a 10m-wide colonnaded street, lined with numerous arches and columns, and flanked by residential and administrative buildings. Further to the north is the former governor’s residence, which includes the throne room. East of the audience hall is the Umayyad Cistern, an enormous circular hole with steps leading down to the bottom, which once supplied water to the palace and surrounding areas. The small disc on the floor in the centre once supported a pillar that was used for measuring water levels. Near the museum to the south is the small Byzantine Basilica, most of which has been destroyed by earthquakes. It dates from the 6th or 7th century AD, and contains a few dusty mosaics. The Citadel ticket office is on the road leading up to the Citadel’s entrance. Multilingual, fully licensed guides (up to JD15 per hour) usually congregate near the ticket office and can really enhance your visit. The only access roads to the Citadel are from Al Malek Ali Bin Al Hussein St. It’s better to hire a taxi for the trip up (around JD1 from downtown) and save some energy for the recommended walk down. Steps lead from east of the Citadel complex, past a viewing platform to Hashemi St, opposite the Roman Theatre. This makes a fine start to a walking tour of downtown.
The 1.2km Siq, or canyon, with its narrow, vertical walls, is undeniably one of the highlights of Petra. The walk through this magical corridor, as it snakes its way towards the hidden city, is one full of anticipation for the wonders ahead – a point not wasted on the Nabataeans, who made the passage into a sacred way, punctuated with sites of spiritual significance. The Siq starts at an obvious bridge, beside a modern dam. The dam was built in 1963, on top of a Nabataean dam dated AD 50, to stop floodwater from Wadi Musa flowing through the Siq. To the right, Wadi Muthlim heads through a Nabataean tunnel – the start (or finish) of an exciting hike. The entrance to the Siq was once marked by a Nabataean monumental arch. It survived until the end of the 19th century, and some remains can be seen at twin niches on either side of the entrance. Many people charge through the Siq impatient to get to Petra. That’s a pity because the corridor of stone is worth enjoying for its own sake and the longer you take to travel through it, the more you can savour the final moment of arrival. Technically, the Siq, with its 200m-high walls, is not a canyon (a gorge carved out by water), but a single block that has been rent apart by tectonic forces. At various points you can see where the grain of the rock on one side matches the other – it’s easiest to spot when the Siq narrows to 2m wide. The original channels cut into the walls to bring water into Petra are visible, and in some places the 2000-year-old terracotta pipes are still in place. A section of Roman paving was revealed after excavations in 1997 removed 2m of soil accumulation. Some historians speculate that the primary function of the Siq was akin to the ancient Graeco-Roman Sacred Way. Some of the most important rituals of Petra’s spiritual life began as a procession through the narrow canyon, and it also represented the end point for Nabataean pilgrims. Many of the wall niches that are still visible today along the Siq’s walls were designed to hold figures or representations (called baetyls) of the main Nabataean god, Dushara. These small sacred sites served as touchstones of the sacred for pilgrims and priests, offering them a link to the more ornate temples, tombs and sanctuaries in the city’s heart, reminding them that they were leaving the outside world, and on the threshold of what was for many a holy city. At one point the Siq opens out to reveal a square tomb next to a lone fig tree. A little further on, look for a weathered carving of a camel and caravan man on the left wall. The water channel passes behind the carving. Hereafter, the walls almost appear to meet overhead, shutting out the sound and light and helping to build the anticipation of a first glimpse of the Treasury. It’s a sublime introduction to the Ancient City.
The most accessible of Petra’s High Places, this well-preserved site was built atop Jebel Madbah with drains to channel the blood of sacrificial animals. A flight of steps signposted just before the Theatre leads to the site: turn right at the obelisks to reach the sacrificial platform. You can ascend by donkey (about JD10 one way), but you’ll sacrifice both the sense of achievement on reaching the summit and the good humour of your poor old transport. The obelisks are more than 6m high; they are remarkable structures because they are carved out of the rock face, not built upon it: looking at the negative space surrounding them, you can understand the truly epic scale of excavation involved. Dedicated to the Nabataean gods Dushara and Al ‘Uzza, their iron-rich stone glows in the sun and they act like totems of this once-hallowed ground. The altar area includes a large rectangular triclinium, where celebrants at the sacrifice shared a communal supper. In the middle of the High Place, there’s a large stone block preceded by three steps. This is a motab (repository), where the god statues involved in the procession would have been kept. Next to it is the circular altar, reached by another three steps; stone water basins nearby were used for cleansing and purifying. The faint bleat of sheep or the clunk of a goat bell evokes the ancient scene – except that no ordinary person would have been permitted to enter this holy of holies at that time. Cast an eye across the superb panorama in front of you – far above the mortal goings-on of both ancient and modern city – and it’s easy to see how this site must have seemed closer to the sky than the earth. The steps to the High Place of Sacrifice are well maintained, if unremitting, and it takes about 45 minutes up through the crevices and folds of the mountain to reach the obelisks from the Theatre. From here you fork right to reach the altar area. The route is steep but not unduly exposed, so is manageable (unless you suffer from severe vertigo) even without a head for heights. From the altar area, descend the shelves of rock to a broad rim: about 50m down are regal views of the Royal Tombs. It’s worth sitting here for a while. From this lofty vantage point you can watch the everyday dramas of camel handlers arguing with their mounts, young children moving goats from one patch of sparse vegetation to the next and Bedouin stallholders regaling the unsuspecting traveller. They each move beyond the languishing tombs of ordinary folk, far too mindful of the needs of the living to worry much about the forgotten hopes of the ancient dead. From the obelisks it's possible to continue to the city centre via a group of interesting tombs in beautiful Wadi Farasa.
Hidden high in the hills, the Monastery is one of the legendary monuments of Petra. Similar in design to the Treasury but far bigger (50m wide and 45m high), it was built in the 3rd century BCE as a Nabataean tomb. It derives its name from the crosses carved on the inside walls, suggestive of its use as a church in Byzantine times. The ancient rock-cut path of more than 800 steps starts from the Basin Restaurant and follows the old processional route. The cave tea shop opposite is a good vantage point for admiring the Monastery’s Hellenistic facade – particularly spectacular bathed in mid-afternoon sunlight. The courtyard in front of the Monastery was once surrounded by columns and was used for sacred ceremonies. Behind the tea shop, tomb 468 is worth exploring for another fine facade, some defaced carvings and excellent views. A trail leads up to stunning viewpoints over Wadi Araba, Israel and the Palestinian Territories and south to the peak of Jebel Haroun, topped by a small white shrine. The easy-to-follow trail from the Basin Restaurant to the Monastery takes about 40 minutes (if in doubt as to the trailhead, look for weary hikers coming down). Alternatively, donkeys (with a guide) can be hired for about JD20 return depending on your negotiation skills; you’re better off walking coming down as the donkeys travel fast and the way is steep and slippery, making for an uncomfortable and at times dangerous journey for both you and your mount. The trip is best started in mid-afternoon when there is welcome shade and the Monastery is at its most photogenic. The path follows the old processional route and is a spectacle in its own right, with flights of eroded steps scooped out of the weird and wonderfully tortured stone. There are several side paths to explore, including a detour to the Lion Tomb, set in a gully. The two weather-beaten lions that lend the tomb its name face each other at the base of the monument. An exciting 6km hike leads from the Monastery to Siq Al Barid (Little Petra; it takes about 2½ hours and involves a newly paved path and steps). Ask at Petra Visitor Centre or at local travel agencies for a guide as the route is difficult to find.
Established in 1975 by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), this 22 sq km reserve was created with the aim of reintroducing wildlife that has disappeared from the region, most notably the highly endangered Arabian oryx, Persian onagers (wild ass), Dorcas gazelles and houbara bustards. The reserve has recently undergone a radical overhaul to make it an excellent and singular Jordanian tourism experience. The startlingly modernist visitor centre provides a mass of information on the area's ecosystems, as well as the biology of its most celebrated inhabitants. Enclosures allow you to get a good view of oryx, onagers, gazelles and bustards before leaving for the safari experience (JD20). You ride in special safari jeeps with raised seats, and the guides are fonts of knowledge on the flora and fauna, as well as being experts at picking out distant wildlife (onagers in particular are very skittish and require the provided binoculars to spot). A special area is set aside for the oryx captive breeding program that has helped rescue the species from extinction. It's often possible to see calves. Near the entrance is a reserved aviary, which houses falcons that have been confiscated by rangers from Gulf Arabs who visit the region to illegally hunt. After rehabilitation the birds are reintroduced to the wild. Another bird likely to make a return to Shaumari soon is the ostrich, as the RSCN is currently looking at plans to reintroduce the species, which had been hunted to oblivion in the area. The turning for Shaumari is well signposted, 7km from the Azraq T-junction, along the road to the Saudi border. A minimum of four people is required for the safari, which lasts up to three hours.
Originally built by the Nabataeans (not the Romans) more than 2000 years ago, the Theatre was chiselled out of rock, slicing through many caves and tombs in the process. It was enlarged by the Romans to hold about 8500 (around 30% of the population of Petra) soon after they arrived in 106 CE. Badly damaged by an earthquake in 363 CE, the Theatre was partially dismantled to build other structures but it remains a Petra highlight. The seating area had an original capacity of about 3000 in 45 rows of seats, with three horizontal sections separated by two corridors. The orchestra section was carved from the rock, but the backdrop to the frons scaenae (stage, which is no longer intact) was constructed, as opposed to carved, in three storeys with frescoed niches and columns overlaid by marble. The performers entered through one of three entrances, the outlines of which are still partially visible. To make room for the upper seating tiers, the Romans sliced through more tombs. Under the stage floor were storerooms and a slot through which a curtain could be lowered at the start of a performance. From near the slot, an almost-complete statue of Hercules was recovered. With a backdrop worthy of a David Roberts canvas, the Theatre now offers a vantage point from which to watch a modern tragicomedy of the ill-costumed, cursing their high-heeled footwear; the ill-cast, yawning at tedious tour guides; and the ill-tempered – mainly in the form of irritable camels and their peevish owners.
The Dana Biosphere Reserve is the largest in Jordan and includes a variety of terrain, from sandstone cliffs more than 1700m high near Dana to a low point of 50m below sea level in Wadi Araba. Sheltered within the red-rock escarpments are protected valleys that are home to a surprisingly diverse ecosystem. About 600 species of plant (ranging from citrus trees and junipers to desert acacias and date palms) thrive in the reserve, together with 180 species of bird. More than 45 species of mammal (25 of which are endangered) also inhabit the reserve, including caracals, increasing herds of ibex, mountain gazelles, sand cats, red foxes and wolves. The installation of night traps has given reserve wardens a better understanding of the movement of these rarely spotted animals. The best time to visit Dana is in spring, when the hillsides bloom with flowers, or during autumn, when the auburn foliage thins out, making it easier to spot wildlife. While winter can be bitterly cold in the upper part of the reserve (some of the trails will close), it's a good time to explore the Feynan area in the lower part of the reserve. Similarly, when it's sweltering in summer in the lower reaches of the wadi, there's seldom need for air-con in Dana.
On the hillside to the north of the downtown area, this cultural haven is dedicated to contemporary art. The main building features an excellent art gallery with works by Jordanian and other Arab artists, an art library, and workshops for Jordanian and visiting sculptors and painters. A schedule of upcoming exhibitions, lectures, films and public discussion forums is available on the website. Almost as significant as the centre’s artistic endeavours are the architectural features of the site. At the base of the complex, near the entrance, are the excavated ruins of a 6th-century Byzantine church. Buildings further up the hill are mostly restored residences from the 1920s in the lovely Mediterranean-Venetian style that was popular in the region in the 1920s. There is also a peaceful cafe and gardens with views over Amman. Access is easiest on foot. From near the southern end of Al Malek Al Hussein St, head up the stairs under the ‘Riviera Hotel’ sign. At the top of the stairs, turn immediately right onto Nimer Bin Adwan St and walk uphill for 50m where you need to take the left fork. The entrance gate (no English sign) is on the right after a few metres.
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