The most famous site in Jordan is undoubtedly the breath-takingly lovely ancient city of Petra, magnet for visitors from around the globe, but on a recent visit to this wonderfully diverse country, I discovered many other world-class sights. Here are 5 places that will appeal to any lovers of history, art and beauty.
Amman – Ancient Philadelphia
The capital of Jordan, Amman is a beige mish-mash of busy highways, modern skyscrapers, ugly office blocks and higgledy-piggledy housing, where charm needs to be searched out. The jewel in its historical crown is the Lower City, where picturesque streets and old markets can still be seen. However, it’s the ruins of venerable Roman Philadelphia that attracted us. The huge Theatre, built in the 2nd c AD, seating 6,000 spectactors, is still used for public performances and from the top there’s a great view of Amman. Bedside the main amphitheatre is the intimate Odeum, a well-preserved structure that seats an audience of up to 500. Our guide, Burhan, made sure we visited the Museum of Folk Tradition, housed in the original entrance to the theatre.
It has a delightful collection local costumes, attractive jewellery and artworks from around Jordan. I particularly liked the silver necklaces and face masks, embroidered dresses and mosaic fragments from Madaba, dating back to the 5th c AD. Towering over the Theatre is the Citadel, originally the acropolis of the city.
It has the remains of the Temple of Hercules and a huge hand from a massive statue. There’s also an excellent Archaeological Museum, with some of the oldest ‘human’ statues ever found.
Madaba – City of Mosaics
Known as Medba in the Bible, Madaba is renowned for its many churches, the floors, walls and ceilings of which are decorated with intricate mosaics. The first to be discovered in recent times is on the floor of the Greek-Orthodox Church of St George. ‘The mosaic panel enclosing the Map was originally around 15.6 x 6m, 94 sq.m., only about a quarter of which is preserved.’ It’s a map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, dating back to the time of Emperor Justinian (527 – 56 AD) and is belived to be the oldest map in the world.
It was probably designed for the benefit of pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land; surviving fragments include Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, the River Jordan and the Dead Sea. What amazed us most was how close you can get to it; there is just a little rope surrounding it, over which you can lean to take photos!
Jerash – Roman Gerasa
I’m ashamed to say that I had never heard of Jerash (ancient Gerasa), yet it is acknowledged as one of the most impressive Roman ‘provincial towns’ in the world. It’s easy to see why. The enormous Arch of Triumph, erected in AD 129 in honour of Emperor Hadrian’s visit, sets the tone for this trip back in time to Rome’s heyday in Jordan. Wandering past the Hippodrome you can almost hear the chariots racing round the track to the cheering crowds. Through the South Gate, you pass the Temple of Zeus and onwards to the large, elegant colonnaded horse-shoe of The Forum. With few tourists around during our visit, it was easy to get a feel for the splendour of this site.
The main artery of Jerash is the Cardo Maximus, a paved road flanked by mighty columns decorated with agapanthus leaves. Some lie toppled where they fell hundreds of years ago, adding to the sense of history and myth. I loved the Nymphaeum, which must have looked wonderful when the fountains were in full spate. Hiking up to the South Theatre we were intrigued to hear the incongrous sound of bagpipes drifting across the ruins. Inside the Orchestra area were two guys in Jordanian army uniform, playing their hearts out in the midday sun.
We chatted to them; it turns out they are retired soldiers who do this all summer to entertain the tourists. They’ve even performed at the Edinburgh Tatoo! Very quirky and unexpected …
Salt – Abu Jabber House Museum
Salt Museum of Archaeology and Folklore, opposite the town centre Mosque, is a little gem. Opened in 2010, Abu Jabber House is a traditional Jordanian dwelling where the first King of Jordan stayed. Salt (Al Salt) is thought to have been built during the reign of Alexander the Great and has a strong historical past. Salt’s heyday was in the late 19th century when traders arrived from Nablus to expand their trading network eastwards beyond the Jordan River. As a result of the influx of newcomers this period saw the rapid expansion of Salt from a simple peasant village into a town with many architecturally elegant buildings, many built in the Nablusi style from the attractive honey-coloured local stone. A large number of buildings from this era survive. Wikipedia
The museum is home to a number of old artefacts, a recreation of a school-room, traditional Bedouin costumes and a model of the town as it used to be. The curator is very enthusiastic about Salt’s latest attraction and spent a great deal of time explaining its history. On a wall in one of the elegant upper rooms is a series of photos of the Kings of Jordan. This country is very proud of its Heshemite ruling family; there are pictures of King Abdullah II and his wife, Queen Rania in public places all over the country.
River Jordan – Baptism Site
Last but most definitely not least, the Baptism Site (Bethabara – Place of Passage) at the River Jordan. This is by far and away the most significant religious site in this part of the Middle East. There was some dispute over which side of the River Jordan was the ‘genuine’ site, but in 2015 ‘UNESCO weighed in on the rivalry, designating Jordan’s baptismal area on the eastern bank a World Heritage site. The UN cultural agency declared this month that the site “is believed to be” the location of Jesus’ baptism, based on what it said is a view shared by most Christian churches.’
En route to the site itself is a newly created path that leads to the Chapels that have been built over the centuries and to the impressive (newly erected) Church of St John the Baptist with some interesting icons and murals plus some fairly tacky souvenirs and vials of ‘Holy Water’ taken from the rivulet nearby that is all that is left of the original River Jordan.
The river is a narrow muddy place with a covered pavilion on the site of an ancient chapel. On the opposite side (Palestine) is a much more elaborate complex with many pilgrims immersing themselves totally into the water. You can almost touch those on the other side and there is a feeling of great harmony as people of all races and creeds smile over the water and take photos of each other. Whilst we were there, a group of British visitors were celebrating the Baptism Service in the most appropriate place on earth.
At the time of publication Jordan has the same safety rating as Canada, United States, China and Germany and has fewer tourists at present so it’s a great time to go. Many thanks to our knowledgeable guide Burhan and Visit Jordan for inviting us to experience Jordan, a country beyond expectations. Check out their website for more information on what to see, where to stay and when to go.