Located at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Historically, the biblical kingdoms of Moab, Gilead and Edom were situated within its borders; the Persian Empire occupied portions of the region between 549 and 330 BCE before Alexander the Great swept through the area. Simultaneously, in the southwestern corner of the region, the Nabatean kingdom was flourishing with its wealthy trading centre of Petra before it was ultimately annexed into the Roman Empire in 106 CE as the province of Arabia Petraea. Subsequently, beginning in the 7th century CE, Islamic Caliphates ruled the area and it was part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I, when Britain and France partitioned off the area. In 1946, Jordan became an independent kingdom. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War Jordan annexed the West Bank, but lost it to Israel in 1967 (though it was not until 1988 that Jordan formally renounced its claim to that territory). In 1994, Jordan became the second Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel and is frequently referred to as an “oasis of stability” in the oft turbulent Middle East. While its population of ten million is predominantly Sunni Muslims (95%), it does have a small Christian minority and has welcomed thousands of Iraqi Christians fleeing persecution. Since as early as 1948 Jordan has accepted millions of refugees from its volatile neighbours and continues to do so, although the influx from Syria is putting increasing strain on the country’s limited resources and infrastructure.
Summers in Jordan are dry with average temperatures around 32°C (90°F), though they often exceed 40°C (104°F) in July and August. Winter, which lasts from November to March, is cooler with temperatures averaging around 13°C (55°F), and has frequent showers with the potential for snowfall in elevated western areas.
Jordan’s economy is defined as an emerging market with natural resources of phosphates and potash, but is hampered by a lack of water as it is considered one of the most water-scarce nations in the world! Additionally, it relies completely on oil imports for its energy. Tourism is considered a cornerstone of their economy and the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact in a country already suffering with high unemployment rates and poverty.
Dollars – We were travelling with friends on this trip and used money we had previously set aside for some travel in 2020, pre-retirement, that was derailed by COVID, so you’ll note our costs fell outside our desired nomadic lifestyle budget of $110/day Canadian, but we still tracked expenses to give you an idea of what a 7-day/6-night stay in Jordan could cost. We averaged about $325 per day Canadian ($262 USD / €227), which included accommodation, restaurants, sightseeing, Jordanian Visas and our portion of a car rental. We have not included airfare in our averaged costs as that will vary greatly depending on your starting point.
Our main expenses were:
- Accommodations – details and links can be found in the section below;
- Transportation – car rental, shuttles, and parking;
- Sightseeing – Jordon Pass and other entry fees;
- Meals – all meals were restaurant meals on this trip; and
- Health Insurance – $11.67/day combined for both of us.
Madaba – We spent our first two nights in Madaba, 22km due west from the Queen Alia Airport along an ancient trade route connecting Amman with the Gulf of Aqaba, and approximately 10km from Mt. Nebo where, according to the Bible, Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land.
Madaba truly flourished during the Byzantine Empire, and while the city proper was destroyed and abandoned following an earthquake in 746 CE, the general area has been continuously inhabited by peacefully coexisting Christians and Arabs. In the late 19th century, Christians from nearby Al-Karak resettled the city and discovered a treasure trove of mosaics. We stayed at the Mt. Nebo Hotel & Restaurant which is a lovely establishment run by a delightful husband and wife who made it very clear to us upon our arrival that they were Christians and would be happy to sell us wine!
Wadi Musa – Wadi Musa is the nearest town to the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, and where all of the lodging for a visit to the archeological site is located. Most of the town’s population belongs to the Layathnah Bedouin tribe who rely almost exclusively on tourism. We stayed at the Infinity Lodge, which is run by a local gentleman and his American wife. It was fantastic accommodation, up on the hill with a view of Wadi Musa. We ate all of our meals at the Lodge and were treated to delicious, traditional Jordanian fare. They also offered a boxed lunch for our day long visit to Petra, which was very convenient.
The Dead Sea – Sitting 1,410 feet (430 metres) below sea level is the Dead Sea, one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water (9.6 times saltier than the ocean). It’s like stepping into a warm bath tub, and is the oddest sensation as you lay back in the water with your entire body floating effortlessly on the surface, or if you’re vertical, bobbing along with your head and shoulders well out of the water! This extreme salinity means nothing really lives in the water, but the water is an important factor in Jordan’s potash, sodium chloride, and bromine industries which contribute nearly 4% to the country’s GDP. The mud along the banks supposedly has significant health benefits when applied topically, and we can certainly attest to how silky smooth our skin felt after caking ourselves in the goo and rinsing off in the Sea. Word of warning, you should not put your face in the water because of the risk of getting salt in your eyes (which would be excruciating) and if you accidentally do get splashed with some water in your mouth it is disgusting!!! I would also recommend wearing water shoes. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Dead Sea Resort, which, while nothing special, had a great beach and was fine for a single night stay to experience the area.
Amman – The last two nights of our visit to Jordan were spent in the capital city of Amman at the Layaali Amman Hotel, with a view of the ancient Roman theater and within walking distance of the Citadel and the Jordan Museum. Very pleasant hotel in a great location, and they also put us in touch with a transportation company through which we arranged transport to and from the Airport and a trip to Jerash.
Tips, Tricks & Transportation – We flew from Turkey to Jordan, and I have never before been searched so thoroughly! I don’t know whether the problem was coming from Turkey, or just the precautions that Jordan requires for entry to their country. Security in Ankara, Turkey examined every single item in my cabin bag, and while ultimately none of it was a problem, my deodorant stick did cause great confusion with its English packaging – I was just about to demonstrate its use when one of the agents finally figured it out. Upon arrival in Jordan the small binoculars Howard had in his checked luggage flagged his bag for a secondary security check, and they were again a problem when we were leaving the country. We figured it had something to do with the cylindrical shape and composition which perhaps looked suspicious going through an x-ray machine? The flip side of that level of security was when we were returning our rental car to the airport and had to pass through a checkpoint; as soon as we rolled down the window the officer looked at us, pronounced “no Arabic” and waved us through.
If you are staying in Jordan for a minimum of three days, we highly recommend pre-purchasing a Jordan Pass. In addition to including entrance fees to Petra and multiple other tourist sites, if you pre-purchase the pass, and qualify for a visa upon arrival (which many countries do), the cost of the visa is included – the visa upon arrival process was super quick and efficient. There are three levels of passes depending on how many days you plan to spend visiting Petra. We opted for the level which included a one-day visit with a cost of 70 JD ($120 CAD). Even if you don’t visit any of the other sites included in the pass, 70 JD is a deal – the cost of a Jordanian visa is 40 JD and one-day entry to Petra is 50 JD! The other sites included in the pass were a bit hit and miss on whether we found someone actually checking for passes or even charging admission.
We rented a car to travel around Jordan rather than using a tour company, and found other than the random speed bumps which occasionally had us slightly airborne if we didn’t break in time, the driving was great and gave us more flexibility. FYI the gas stations all have attendants to fill your tank so we didn’t have to figure out how to operate the pumps. Significant road signage was in English, but we used Google maps and followed it’s verbal directions to drive from the Amman Airport to Madaba, Petra and the Dead Sea. I would not recommend driving in the city of Amman, nor driving yourself from Amman to Jerash, as it was very clear to us the lines on the road were merely suggestions.
If you need a PCR test to fly home (or elsewhere) from Jordan, we can recommend Biolab at the Amman Airport. Make it clear you need the 24-hour turnaround test (28 JOD), not a rapid turnaround as it was significantly more expensive. We had our results in about 3 hours, complete with QR codes. At the time of our visit, PCR testing was only available in Amman, and while Biolab does have locations elsewhere in the city, the airport was convenient as we were dropping off our rental car before our final two nights in Amman. The lab is located outside on the second level of the airport.
Out and About – Madaba is often called the city of mosaics, and the name is well-deserved. During construction of a new Greek Orthodox church in 1884, a floor mosaic depicting the Holy Lands was uncovered. Believed to be the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of these lands, it dates from the 6th century CE, and 2010 excavations in Jerusalem substantiated its accuracy with the discovery of a road shown on the map running through the city center. The archeological park contains more amazing floor mosaics in the Hippolytus Hall, Virgin Mary Church, and the Burnt Palace.
Madaba also has an archeological “museum” which I wouldn’t bother with as there was very little on display. It’s entry fee is included with the Jordan Pass, but the fellow at the ticket booth insisted he “tour” us around and simply pointed to things, providing very simplistic single-word descriptions, and then demanded a tip!
With the freedom of our own vehicle we went a little off the typical tourist path and from Madaba headed south to the Mujib Biosphere Reserve near the Dead Sea to hike the Siq Trail through the Wadi Mujib gorge. The entry fee is 21 JOD ($36 CAD) and this river hike is not for the faint of heart. You must have good, grippy water shoes, life jackets are provided and mandatory as much of the hike is through chest deep water, including scrambling over rocks, and it is AMAZING!!! It was exhilarating, beautiful, creepy (with the little fish providing a “spa-like” exfoliation treatment by nibbling the dead skin on your legs whenever you stood still in certain pools) and I will forever have a souvenir of this adventure as I dislocated the tip of my middle finger during our hike. On our trip back out of the gorge I slipped climbing down the rocks, and as my hand slid down the rope one of the knots hit the joint. We were out in the middle of nowhere so I bravely popped it back in and then kept the damaged finger buddy-taped to my ring finger for the next several days – unfortunately it appears to have healed slightly crooked.
Jordan is probably best known for the rose-coloured city of Petra, capital of the Nabataean kingdom, with its awe-inspiring facades carved into the rock face. The Nabataeans were Bedouin traders who were especially skilled in water management, and their sophisticated system of hidden channels, cisterns, dams, and reservoirs for storing rainwater ensured a continuous water supply in an area generally devoid of water. Between the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE, the Nabataeans controlled the spice and incense trade routes from Arabia to Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea creating an extremely prosperous kingdom. Earthquakes and the increase in sea trade routes lead to the demise of Petra, and by the 7th century CE the area was largely deserted. In 1812, following up on rumours of a lost city in the desert, swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt disguised himself as an Arab, convinced a Bedouin guide to take him to this lost city, and re-discovered Petra.
Only a fraction of the area has been excavated (15-20%) and consists mainly of tombs, temples and other public buildings. The Nabataeans frequently hired foreign artisans to design and construct their rock-cut tombs and the facades often showcase these Greek and Roman influences. The most iconic site in Petra is likely Al-Khazneh (the Treasury) which is believed to be the mausoleum of the Nabatean King Aretas IV, and is the reward for visitors at the end of the 2km trek through the Siq, the narrow gorge/slot canyon leading into the city. You might recognize the facade from the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
This walk through the Siq is just as interesting as the site of Petra itself and you’ll still see the Nabataean’s water channels carved along the sides, together with some of their dams.
While the Treasury is breathtaking, the rest of Petra is equally stunning. The colour gradients in the rocks are gorgeous.
The Roman theatre is the only such theatre carved entirely out of stone, and if you’ve got the fortitude, climbing the 800 steps to Ad Deir (the Monastery) at the far end of the site is worth every sweaty step. There may be a “backdoor” entrance to the Monastery if you enter through Little Petra and pay a bedouin to guide you in, but you miss the satisfaction of telling everyone you climbed up those steps!!! Because we had a car, we needed parking near the site and found a free gravel lot to the south of the Visitors Centre.
If you’ve got the time, we would also highly recommend buying a ticket to Petra by Night (17 JOD / $30 CAD). Offered every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday night, the Siq comes alive with candlelight as you make your way to the Treasury (which is bathed in more candlelight) to enjoy an enchanting view of this remarkable building. Petra by Night is very popular so unless you really feel the need to be at the front of the line, wait until almost everyone else has headed down the Siq first and then you can enjoy the eerie walk virtually alone. Howard had a great time taking pictures in this glowing wonderland. We also thought it was worthwhile doing our day time trip to Petra after seeing it at night the previous evening.
Another off-the-beaten-path stop was Qasr al-Abd and it’s nearby neighbour Iraq Al-Amir, both of which have entry fees included in the Jordan Pass but there were no official entrances nor ticket booths. Dating from 200 BCE Qasr al-Abd may have been built by the local governor, and head of a wealthy Tobiad family, as a pleasure palace, but it was never completed. It is a rare example of Hellenistic architecture in Jordan and was built from single blocks, some of which are the largest single blocks found in any building in the Middle East. Iraq al-Amir which means “Caves of the Prince” is a series of caves dug into the hillside about 1km north of Qasr al-Abd. They have clearly been used as shelters over the centuries and one of the caves appears to be lined with seats carved into the walls. Another cave has a visible Aramaic inscription “Tobias” carved above the entrance which may refer to the builder of Qasr al-Abd, but it’s all speculation.
The modern city of Jerash is located about 48km north of Amman and is the site of the Greco-Roman ruins of Gerasa. Recent excavations in 2015 revealed even earlier habitation when human skulls dating back to the Neolithic period (7500-5500 BCE) were unearthed. Greek inscriptions in the area seem to support the theory that Alexander the Great founded the city somewhere around 331 BCE. The ruins are considered to be one of the largest and best preserved sites outside of Italy. With its massive oval forum, multiple colonnaded streets, two theatres, city gates, tetrapylon and several temples, along with ruins from the Byzantine period, Jerash is indeed impressive.
We used Amman as the base for our day trip to Jerash, but Amman also has its own Roman ruins. The well preserved 6,000 seat theatre dates from the 2nd century CE when Amman was known as Philadelphia and is still used to host various events. To the east of the theatre is a small 500 seat odeon which has also been beautifully preserved. Take the time to visit The Jordan Folklore Museum and The Jordanian Museum of Popular Traditions inside the theatre area (on the east and west sides), both of which were very interesting.
If you aren’t tired of ruins yet, the Amman Citadel is worth a visit too. Most of the buildings are from the Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad periods and with its hilltop location is a great spot to overlook downtown Amman.
If you see nothing else in Amman, visit the Jordan Museum. It is not included in the Jordan Pass, but only has an entry fee of 5 JOD ($8 CAD) and is outstanding. It is a comprehensive history of Jordan, is extremely well laid out and includes the only copper version of the Dead Sea Scrolls! It is definitely one of the best museums I have ever visited.
Us (our thoughts on the area) – Jordan’s landscape is harsh and rugged, but its people are warm and welcoming. It has spectacular ancient sites, and brought to life many of the stories we learned as children in Sunday School. As North Americans I think we often take infrastructure for granted, and it was eye-opening to see the lack of it here as the amount of trash strewn about the cities and countryside was shocking. Off to Egypt for more ancient sites!
Restaurants – A couple of dishes I definitely recommend trying while in Jordan (in addition to the hummus which was yuuu-mmy!) are Mansaf and Maqluba. Mansaf is considered the national dish of Jordan. It is a rich meal made with rice, lamb (gag) or chicken, jameed (fermented goat yogurt) and nuts. Now before you question how could I enjoy something made with goat milk, which is so similar in flavour to lamb, just know that the yogurt was served on the side and I used it sparingly.
Maqluba is also traditionally made with lamb, but chicken is common too. The meat, rice, eggplant and potatoes are stewed together and then flipped onto a serving dish to form an impressive tower. Cloves, cardamom, bay leaves, cinnamon, salt, pepper, turmeric, and cumin all lend their flavours to this delicious dish.
Speech – English was understood pretty much everywhere, but these are useful words to know too:
- Salam or Marhaba – Hello;
- Ma’asalama – Goodbye;
- Min fadlak – Please (male) or Min fadlik (female);
- Na’am – Yes;
- Laa – No;
- Shukran – Thank you (combine it with “laa” if you need to deal with pushing vendors);
- Addesh? – How much?;
- Hada ghalee kheteer – It’s too expensive;
- Mumkin shoof – I’m just looking;
- Laww smaht? – Excuse me (as a question) (male) or Laww smahti? (female);
- Afwan – Excuse me (as an apology – to satisfy our Canadian need to say “sorry”).