WORLD heritage site Petra and the stunning desert of Wadi Rum are Jordan’s best known tourist sites. But there’s more to Jordan than these two marvels. Treat this country as a “by-the-way destination” and you’ll miss discovering one of the Middle East’s most captivating countries. Putri Zanina gives some suggestions on what you should see and do in Jordan.
1. Wadi Rum
This is the desert where Lawrence Of Arabia once held sway and where much of the 1962 movie of the same title was filmed. The real T.E. Lawrence, British archaeologist, adventurer and military strategist, called Wadi Rum his “private resort” in his book, The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom (1927). Indeed, just pick a spot in this vast sea of stunning orange-red sand and you’ll find your own speck of private space. Whether you blaze the dusty desert trail on a camel or in a jeep, you’ll get a taste of rugged desert life.
The sand, the star-spangled night sky and the giant rock formations that rise from the sand dunes will move you the way they have moved travellers for centuries. You’ll be “swallowed” by the Rum’s immense majesty and its “silence” will lull you into a state of humility.
Probe Petra’s mysteries and you’ll be even more mystified. How did ancient men even begin to build a whole “city” of colossal architecture in arid, mountainous desert land and equip it with an intriguing water conduit system? Palaces, tombs, temples, theatres and more are hewn from massive sandstone hills.
Petra, which means stone, is one of the wonders of the ancient world and one of the places “you must see before you die”.
The whole city that’s cut out of rock, looks like a magical fluke of nature. The capital of the ancient Nabatean Kingdom was said to have been built with the help of spirits. The area’s best-known poet, Dean Burgon, described it as a “rose-red city half as old as time”. It has a predominantly pinkish-red facade. In fact, the sandstone walls with their contours smoothed by erosion over the years, have rock veins in shades that range from reddish-gold to pink and lilac.
Petra’s wondrous structures include the As-Siq (deep, narrow gorge) and Al-Khazneh or Treasury, which is Petra’s most beautiful monument, marking the 1st Century BC tomb of a Nabatean king.
3. Jordan Valley
This is also one of Jordan’s amazing places, if not the world’s. Geographically, it’s the lowest point on Earth (just over 400 metres below sea level). Within the valley are several rivers, including Jordan River. The valley is believed to have been the home to biblical cities including Sodom and Gomorrah. Eighty per cent of places mentioned in the old testament of the Bible are located in Jordan.
If you travel for religious pursuits, this is a must-go place. Muslims will find the tombs of several companions of Prophet Muhammad here.
The area opposite the world’s oldest village, Jericho, is most significant for Christians, as they believe it to be the spot where Jesus Christ was baptised by John the Baptist. Christians from all over the world still come to this site to be baptised. The Baptist’s settlement — Bethany Beyond The Jordan — extends between Tell-al-Kharrar (Elijah Hill) and John The Baptist Church area on the east bank of Jordan River. In summer, the river water is just waist high and as narrow as the old two-lane trunk roads in Malaysia. Across a stretch of the river near John The Baptist Church lies Israel, which is so near and yet beyond reach behind the fences. Several worshippers from the Israel side get into the river where a priest baptises them. The scene is perhaps reminiscent of what took place ages ago.
4. Mount Nebo
Go to the top of Mount Nebo and see, as Prophet Moses did, the panorama of the “promised land”, including the Jordan River Valley, the Dead Sea, Jericho and Jerusalem, referred to as the Holy Land.
Christians make a pilgrimage to Mount Nebo where there’s a church commemorating the death of Moses. There’s also a mammoth serpentine cross symbolic of Moses’s bronze serpent.
Mount Nebo is near Madaba, a city renowned for mosaic art. Madaba’s real masterpiece can be seen in the Orthodox Church of Saint George — the 6th Century AD giant mosaic map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
5. Dead Sea
The air around the Dead Sea has been found to be eight per cent richer in oxygen than elsewhere. That’s because the Dead Sea area is located on the Earth’s lowest point. Combine the clean air with the therapeutic benefits of the natural salt, mineral-rich water and mud, and you have the whole sea for a truly fantastic spa — a fact that has been known since ancient times when visitors to the area included Cleopatra, the famously beautiful Egyptian queen.
Spa resorts in the area are becoming increasingly popular for wellness holidays. These resorts also have sea-facing outdoor terraces that make for lovely al fresco dining in the evening. At some stretches of the coastline, you can see the twinkling lights of the West Bank just across the narrow channel of the sea.
6. The Citadel, Amman
If you only have a short time in Amman, the capital of Jordan, make it a point to visit The Citadel, an excellent place to learn about the city’s history and much of Jordan’s as well. A national historic site and home to the highly informative Jordan Archaeological Museum, The Citadel sits on the highest hill in Amman, Jebel al-Qala’a (about 850m above sea level). From there, you get a panoramic view of Amman, dubbed the White City for its facade seen from afar looks like a canvas of white, beige and ochre. The buildings are built using mainly roughly hewn or lightly veined white stones and marbles.
The Citadel is a treasure trove of evidence of occupation since the Neolithic period, the Bronze and Iron Ages (circa 1800 BC) through to the Roman and early Islamic period. Amman and its surrounding regions were ruled by several superpowers of the Middle East in ancient times: Assyria (8th Century BC), Babylonia (6th Century), the Ptolemies, the Seleucids (3rd century BC), Rome (1st century BC), and the Umayyads (7th century AD).
Historic structures, tombs, arches, walls, water systems and other ruins including the Umayyad Palace (circa AD 720) and Roman Temple Of Hercules (162-166 AD) can be seen at The Citadel. At the foot of Jebel al-Qala’a is the 5,000-seat Roman theatre, another legacy of the Romans, then under the rule of Pompey the Great.
It’s not surprising that the Greeks and Romans in the old days settled in the northern parts of Jordan, particularly Jerash, which is greener and slightly cooler with a Mediterranean-like ambience in contrast with the arid deserts in the south. The Romans recreated a mini Rome in Jerash, complete with theatres, colonnaded streets, towering arches and temples, and hippodrome.
The Jerash Roman hippodrome is a sandy, open course where Roman army march, gladiator fights and chariot racing performances are held twice daily at 11am and 2pm (except on Tuesday, while on Friday, only the morning show is available). Tickets for the 45-minute show cost JOD12 (RM54) for adults, and JOD2 for children aged 5-12 years old. It’s worth paying the money to see the legacy of Romans coming alive within the ruins.
If you think that Jordanians don’t know how to party, then you haven’t been to the southern port city of Aqaba with the indigo-blue Red Sea just off its shores. Bikini-clad, auburn-haired girls and bronze, tanned men parade on beaches lined with world-class resorts, beach clubs and recreation centres offering cruises and snorkelling and diving trips.
Aqaba is fast developing with mammoth projects such as Tala Bay with holiday homes, golf courses, marinas and hotels. Its appeal is its proximity to Aqaba’s main diving sites, considered one of the world’s best diving spots with well preserved coral reefs.
For a cruise of the Aqaba Gulf, join Fun — Sun cruise on the 270-seater White Prince Yacht for sightseeing, dining, dancing and more.
There are souvenir shops at major tourist attractions and at rest stops along the long road between Amman/Dead Sea to Petra but for more excitement and colour, go to the souqs in the old part of Amman, near the King Hussein Mosque. The bargaining here is as lively as the blend of modern and traditional items on sale.
Good Jordanian souvenirs include Bedouin crafts such as embroidered cloths and beaded jewellery, silver jewellery with traditional designs, decorated sand bottles, and art pieces and functional items made of mosaic tiles. And not forgetting the high quality Dead Sea products including bath salts, and mud-based soaps and beauty products.
10. Camping, Bedouin-style
Relax under the star-lit desert sky over Wadi Rum in Bedouin tents with vivid-coloured rugs, cushions and blankets. Enjoy campfire meal with Arabian music and dances, and if you like, smoke a shisha while you lounge in the half darkness. Your main meal is the traditional Bedouin dish called zarb — lamb or chicken slowly cooked for one to two hours in underground sealed fire pits. The food spread includes traditional mansaf lamb, pita bread, hummus, labneh (traditional Arab yogurt dip), and fresh and pickled vegetables.
One of the camping sites that offers just a glimpse of desert life is Jabal Rum Camp at the fringe of Wadi Rum. It has readily pitched tents, equipped with beds and electric lights — not authentic Bedouin tents but most travellers appreciate these conveniences in the desert.