Jordan was a target for us largely for one reason, and that is Petra. This unique ancient city could be known to you in several ways: perhaps as a World Heritage Site, maybe as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, or (for the less culturally sophisticated like myself) as the climactic scene of Nazis vs Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade. So when the Eli(z/s)abeths – Elaine’s mother and her friend – suggested adding a Jordan leg onto our Egypt tour, we were excited to both see this famed location as well as discover what else Jordan has to offer.
As you probably know, Jordan is part of the Middle East (a region we did not anticipate visiting on our travels, not for a lack of interest!). Despite being surrounded by the hot spots of Syria, Iraq, and the West Bank, this kingdom is quite stable and secure. We felt absolutely safe walking around unescorted in the capital of Amman as soon as we arrived. It’s a nearly exclusively Sunni Muslim and so we weren’t able to find a beer to finish our travel day with, but we happily discovered that Jordanians are seriously into chocolate and pastries with some good shops right near our hotel.
Switching from Egypt to Jordan brought us a new guide, travel style, and tour group (with the exception of Kurt and Beth, one other American couple). For us the change was a step or two down in quality – the perfect organization and spot-on guidance wasn’t there, and unlike Egypt we seemed to be shuffled into more eating and shopping situations that felt like rip-offs. It wasn’t a bad tour so that’s all I say on that, though it did help us appreciate even more how perfect a visit we had to Egypt!
So, what did we see and do? Our five day itinerary had Petra towards the end so first we visited some Roman ruins in the vicinity of Amman at the northern end of Jordan. I suppose it’s obvious in hindsight but we were surprised by the extent of Roman sites here at this edge of their empire. We first saw Gadara which is perched over the east bank of the Jordan River overlooking modern Syria and Israel. This city is unique because a fair bit of construction was done using local black basalt. Like other sites we visited, this area is only partially excavated and probably has a rich trove of finds for archaeologists (who are absent for some reason).
The most extensive Roman site we saw is Jerash. This has impressive arched gateways, broad roads and central Forum, and several largely intact temples. It’s fun to see cities like this where it’s fairly easy to imagine it alive and bustling: busy streetside storefronts and food vendors, carts and chariots on the roads, working fountains, crowded theaters.
An obligatory tour stop in Jordan is the Dead Sea which is on the border with Palestine and Israel. I have to say it was a lot more entertaining than I expected. When they say you float more than usual, they mean by a lot. You can feel yourself being buoyed up when you’re only knee deep! The salinity and minerals make the water feel strangely oily on your skin as well.
Jordan may be a Muslim country but it covers a fair bit of early Christian sites, including where Jesus was baptized on the east bank of the River Jordan. We didn’t go there but we did see a few other noteworthy locations. The Basilica of Saint George in Madaba contains a 6th century mosaic floor map that, when it was uncovered 120 years ago, helped pinpoint the baptism site and more. From there we went to Mt. Nebo where Moses got his glimpse of the Promised Land before passing on; there is another early church here with extensive mosaics.
Christianity also made its mark here later – and somewhat more obtrusively – by Crusading around. We visited Karak Castle in the middle of Jordan which served many masters including the Second Crusader Raynald of Châtillon. Later on it was home to some Ottoman Turks. Here’s where a quick note on the weather comes in because wow, did you know that it gets freezing cold in the Middle East? Our tour brought us to higher elevations just as rain and high winds moved in. That castle was drafty and cold. We rushed around to see the interesting nooks and crannies before anyone perished (Elaine’s umbrella was KIA though).
Day four of Jordan and we were at Petra! Thankfully the rain held off for us; it was brisk out but not unpleasant. Now Petra has what might be the best opening scene of any ancient site we’ve been to. One walks down a gradually narrowing and winding steep-walled canyon marked with occasional carvings, hearing about how the Nabataeans selected and maintained this site as a defensible city and trading hub. You travel the same entry route as visiting camel caravans, seeing the extensive water channels cut into the rock to supply the settlement with water, and the various dams built to deflect flash floods. After 1.5km the canyon tightens, darkens, and then opens up dramatically on the famed facade of the Petra Treasury! (It’s not actually a treasury, it’s a tomb, like most of the structures in Petra that persist today.)
The best was yet to come, however, as we happily discovered that there is far more to Petra than just this well-known view. From the Treasury onward a large valley opens up to extensive tombs, carvings, and temples. There is original Nabataean construction layered over by later occupying Romans once they finally cracked the city’s defenses. We had a great day exploring the beautiful ruins which are surrounded by scenic hills and canyons. The sandstone of Petra has amazing ripples of color which pop out anywhere the Nabataeans carved into the walls.
Our final major destination was the southern Jordanian desert valley of Wadi Rum. This uniquely scenic area, with stark rock formations climbing out of reddish sand, was frequented by T.E. Lawrence during the Arab Revolt and later used for much of the filming of Lawrence of Arabia. It’s home to Bedouin tribes who cash in on the hype by hosting tourists like us for jeep tours and overnight camping in traditional tent villages.
Our introductory ‘jeep’ tour was actually not in jeeps at all but rather on benches in the beds of old 4×4 pickups. Totally fine except that it was still really cold!! We had fun bouncing around anyway. Then the four of us were dropped off at the camp while the rest of the group headed back to a hotel in Amman. This was optional, we asked each other? Camping is fun, but not when it’s literally freezing…
We made the best of it and had a good time. A sunset camel ride (“there’s nothing else to do”, we told each other) was actually very beautiful. We managed to move our icy fingers enough to eat a delicious traditional lamb dinner, and then huddled up in our fancy en-suite tent under layers of clothing and extra blankets. If the weather had been warmer, this actually would have been quite glamorous!
This about wrapped up our tour. We bumped our way back up to Amman and visited a couple sites in the city – they have an interesting hilltop citadel with ruins from many different civilizations starting from the bronze age, and a very intact Roman theater. We enjoyed our last evening with our new friends Kurt and Beth and reflected on our amazing experiences over the past couple weeks in Egypt and Jordan. We’re really glad we made the small leap it took for all of us to decide to visit these amazing countries!