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.
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.
The ruined city of Jerash is Jordan's largest and most interesting Roman site, and a major tourist drawcard. Its imposing ceremonial gates, colonnaded avenues, temples and theatres all speak to the time when this was an important imperial centre. Even the most casual fan of archaeology will enjoy a half-day at the site – but take a hat and sunscreen in the warmer months, as the exposed ruins can be very hot to explore.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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