Jordan – this beautiful country is troubled by its crisis-prone neighbors, infamous for its location, and causes many tourists more of a stomach ache than wanderlust. This does an injustice to the country in the Middle East, because Jordan must absolutely be on your travel list. The sooner you put a tick behind it the better, because there are things to discover here that will take your breath away and create memories that will stay with you for a lifetime. Find out now what makes this country so unique and which places you can’t miss on your Jordan trip! Here is our list of the 16 best places to visit in Jordan.
16. Wadi Rum
Wadi Rum is one of the most beautiful desert landscapes in the Middle East. Today, the landscape is a refuge for desert hikers and ideal for trekking tours and jeep safaris. In 2011, Wadi Rum was declared a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site.
About 40 km northwest of the port city of Aqaba, not far from the border with Saudi Arabia, the Jordanian desert reveals a special beauty. Here, gigantic rock towers, cliffs and rock faces rise hundreds of meters high out of the desert sand, crisscrossed by broad flat expanses of sand in the wadi landscape. The rocks shimmer in all reddish, brownish and yellowish tones, depending on the incidence of light and the time of day. We are talking about the legendary Wadi Rum.
The Wadi Rum is a vast rocky desert landscape that was formed during tectonic earth movements more than 30 million years ago as an offshoot of the Great Rift Valley and was shaped by wind- and rain-induced erosion.
The Wadi Rum is Bedouin country. For thousands of years, trade caravans passed through this area along ancient trade routes. The most important route came from southern Arabia, Yemen and Oman. From there, frankincense was transported along the eastern Arabian mountains of Hejaz. Via Wadi Rum and the trading city of Petra, the route continued to the cities of the Mediterranean.
Inscriptions on the rock walls bear witness to the ancient times. Many date from pre-Islamic times and are written in early Arabic scripts, Thamudic, Nabataean and Minaic. The petroglyphs are also from this period. Some are even much older, dating back to the Neolithic (Neolithic) and Copper Age (Chalcolithic), i.e. are more than 5,000 years old.
It alone is worth a trip: the ancient rock city of Petra is one of the most fascinating sights of the Near East. Two thousand years ago, the Arab Bedouin people of the Nabataeans carved monumental sanctuaries and tombs into the rock faces of deep gorges, built theaters and temples, and created a thriving city of caravan trade.
The ancient ruined city of Petra (El-Batra) is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Middle East. It was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1985 and has attracted tourists from all over the world for decades. Embedded in a breathtaking rocky desert and mountain landscape with deep valleys and gorges, ancient monuments and buildings line up, often carved directly out of the reddish-colored shimmering rock.
Petra is a monumental open-air museum. One can spend days walking through the canyons of the rocky desert and always come across more monuments and buildings. Although the city is popular with tourists and well visited, the visitors spread out in the valleys and canyons. The atmosphere of the abandoned desert city is thus preserved, at least away from the central buildings.
Amman is the official capital as well as the political, cultural and economic center of Jordan. With a population of around 2 million, it is also the country’s largest city. It is at least three thousand years old and dates back to the biblical Ammon. The lively metropolis spreads over a landscape of seven hills and combines the pulsating life of the modern metropolis with the tradition of a long history.
Those who come to Amman for the first time will be amazed at how modern the city appears at first glance. Unlike many other large cities in the Middle East, the historic medina takes up little space. Amman is a thriving economic and financial center. Because the legal and social framework and rules are handled more loosely in Jordan than in the Gulf, for example, Western companies also feel at home here. For tourists, the focus is mostly on visiting the historical sites, of which Amman has several to offer.
For example, the Roman Theater, the bazaars in the medina near the Hussein mosque, and the citadel that towers over Amman like an acropolis.
Magnificent and highly interesting archaeological sites abound in Jordan. But nowhere else have such unique mosaics been found as in Madaba. The archaeological finds are the highlight of the city of 70,000 inhabitants. Located only 30 kilometers south of Amman, a visit to Madaba can be wonderfully planned into any trip to Jordan.
The history of the city of Madaba has not yet been sufficiently researched historically and archaeologically, although there is much evidence to suggest that the city is around 3000 years old and was also inhabited in biblical times. But so far, research has focused on the legacies of late Roman and Byzantine antiquity. Many church ruins have been found from this period.
The city experienced its heyday from the Roman imperial period in the 1st century AD until the Arab conquest in the 7th century.
To say it right away: Whether or not this was actually the place where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist is neither historically nor archaeologically certain. But apparently there are reasons that suggest that this place could be considered as a baptismal site. For most pilgrims and tourists, it is enough to know that this place has been traditionally agreed upon as the baptismal site of Jesus (see in the New Testament John 1:28). Therefore, in recent times, the Jordan site of Bethany has increasingly become an important point of Christian pilgrimage.
From two sides, Jordanian and Israeli, one can approach the river. Both sides have been prepared for the influx of guests. Some tourists are surprised because they imagined the Jordan River more as a big river than as a small stream. However, it should be noted that in ancient times the river probably had more water than it does today. In addition, it must be remembered that in most regions of Palestine there were only wadis, which carried water only in winter, if at all. Therefore, a year-round watercourse was already considered an important river in this region.
The idea that this must have been the site of Jesus’ baptism was mooted in late antiquity. Excavations nearby have revealed the remains, foundations and mosaics of three ancient churches, believed to date from the 5th and 6th centuries. Also found was an ancient baptismal site, in once prepared with stones and at that time located directly on the course of the river. A water source was identified right next to the baptism site. It is therefore reasonable to assume that in early Christian antiquity the faithful were baptized at this point on the banks of the Jordan River with fresh water from the neighboring spring.
11. Dana Nature Reserve
Dana National Park is a section of a geologically highly interesting region. The mountains and rocky plateaus of the desert run parallel to the gigantic Wadi Araba, which is the direct connection between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea. They are all part of the great African Rift Valley, which extends into East Africa and foreshadows the future division of the continents. This rift valley is responsible for the earthquakes that have struck the region throughout its history. The enormous depths of the Dead Sea and the Jordan Rift in general are also a result of this geological evolution of the rift.
Nature lovers and preservers of cultural traditions will find equal pleasure in Dana National Park: Dana National Park is a successful attempt to combine cultivated land and nature. The cattle breeding of the Bedouins and nomads is preserved. Nevertheless, one tries to protect nature and to bring both in harmony by the just measure. With a soft and limited tourism the foreign exchange earnings are generated to be able to finance the national park permanently. A simple guest house has been set up for the tourists. A small village called Dana, after which the national park is named, is picturesquely situated on a mountain ridge. Visitors can enjoy the magnificent distant view from here.
Aqaba is located on the Red Sea. It is Jordan’s only port city and namesake of the Gulf of Aqaba. The city looks back on an ancient history as a trading city and is today a popular destination for bathing and diving tourists. The Red Sea coast is famous for its year-round warm water and colorful coral reefs. From Aqaba you can easily make day trips to the south of Jordan and Israel.
Aqaba has been the Levant’s coastal city to the Red Sea for thousands of years. When the Suez Canal was not yet built, trade goods from South Arabia, East Africa and India were unloaded in the city’s port to be subsequently transported via camel caravans to the Levantine coastal cities of the Mediterranean.
Aqaba is a rapidly growing city. Including the suburbs, a total of about 140,000 inhabitants live there. The city lives mainly from maritime trade and tourism. Over time, the city has adapted to the tourist demand: Cafes, restaurants, souvenir stores, bazaars and promenades provide a mixture of oriental flair and tourist entertainment.
9. Umm Qais
In the very north of Jordan, not far from the Sea of Galilee and within sight of the Golan Heights, on the Israeli and Syrian borders, the ruins of ancient Gadara spread out on a hill. The place, today called Umm Qais in Arabic, was once a metropolis of the Roman decapolis – with everything that belonged to an ancient city, from baths and boulevards to the great theaters.
The landscape seems like the natural continuation of Galilee. Especially in winter and spring the hills shine in fresh green. In the background the olive trees of the plantations line up. In the foreground, from the hill, one can enjoy the distant view over the vast landscape. In the midst of this idyll, the visitor walks through the mighty ruins of the former city. The buildings were all constructed with large dark gray stone blocks. All of them were built very massive.
Those who have already visited the ruins of Petra and Jerash (Gerasa) with great interest will also enjoy the ancient site of Umm Qais. The mentioned cities belonged to the Decapolis. This Greek expression means as much as “city of the ten” or “ten-city”. It meant a total of ten cities that flourished as trading cities on the southeastern border of the Roman Empire. All of them had either come into being in Hellenistic times or had been remodeled on the Greek model, so that in Roman times they appeared more Classical-Antique-Mediterranean than Ancient Near Eastern.
The historically most important and largest crusader castle in Jordan is Kerak (El-Kerak, Crac des Moabites), located about 140 kilometers south of the capital Amman. It is one of the largest in the Middle East. Built high on a mountain promontory, it dominates the wildly rugged rocky landscape.
There are many crusader castles in the Middle East. But Kerak is one of the largest of its kind, along with Saladin Castle and the famous Crac de Chevaliers in Syria. Its fortress walls, casemates and defense towers had become the model for medieval castle building in Europe. For it was in the Oriental Levant that the Crusaders learned to build massive fortresses, while in Europe simple ramparts were still built around a central keep. The experience gained during the Crusades, with all their sieges and fortress defenses, as well as the symbiosis of occidental and oriental architecture, had finally given a new dimension to castle building in Europe. Kerak is an imposing example.
Kerak is the name of both the castle and the town in the shadow of the fortress. The fortress dominates the landscape on its rocky promontory, so travelers are greeted with its sight from afar. Even better is the view from the fortress itself with its panoramic view over the dry, rocky landscape. On clear days, one can see as far as Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives.
A fortress that, like the Karak, also belonged to the chain of castles between Turkey and the Red Sea is the Shobak Fortress, built in 1115 by the Crusader King Balduin I. Originally called Montreal, the citadel is perched on a mountain cone near the rock-cut city of Petra. Like the Karak, this citadel fell to Raynald de Chatillion and like him, Shobak was conquered by Saladin in 1189. The fortress owes its present form mainly to the Mamluks, who expanded the complex in the 14th century.
From Shobak you have a beautiful view of the surrounding area. Even if the castle is not as well preserved as the Karak, a visit is always worthwhile. The deep well is also impressive, with 350 slippery steps leading down into it.
6. Desert Castles
Jordan is the land of desert castles. These are small to medium-sized fortresses and residences in the desert landscape and steppe, which often served as hunting lodges, but were also intended to protect the caravan routes. Often they have a fort-like ground plan. Some were decorated inside with magnificent wall paintings.
Each country has its own unique monuments. In Jordan, the ancient cities, the medieval crusader castles and the early Islamic desert castles stand out. These three groups of monuments are among the main cultural attractions in Jordan. In addition, there are the unique natural landscapes such as Wadi Rum or Dana National Park.
The so-called desert castles are a special type of monuments from the early Islamic period, especially the era of the Omayyad caliphs. Most of the desert castles were built between 660 and 750 and are widely scattered in northern Jordan, southern Syria and Palestine. All Jordanian desert buildings from the caliph period were due to the fact that nearby Damascus in southern Syria was the capital and seat of government of the vast Omayyad Empire.
5. Dead Sea
One of the most fascinating landscapes on earth can be experienced at the Dead Sea. The salt lake with its deep blue to turquoise water is embedded in a bizarre desert landscape with high table mountains. The water of the lake is supplied by the Jordan River. In winter there are few days when the rare rainwater of the surrounding wadis flows into the Dead Sea. From the Jordanian side, the water comes especially from Wadi el-Mujib. Because more water evaporates during the summer heat than is replenished in the winter, the water level of the Dead Sea constantly decreases.
Depending on depth, shore region and season, the salinity varies between 28 and 33 percent. This means that the salt content of the Dead Sea is about ten times higher than that of the Mediterranean Sea. The Dead Sea has a water surface of about 1,000 square kilometers. The water level of the lake is currently about 418 meters below sea level. This makes the shore region of the Dead Sea the lowest-lying landscape on earth.
Many people take recreational vacations on the shores of the Dead Sea. Numerous hotels of all comfort categories and resorts at the Dead Sea offer spa, wellness and recreational stays. The dry climate and high salt and mineral content of the Dead Sea is said to have a healing effect on many skin and joint ailments. The dry air is said to be beneficial for bronchial ailments. Special spa centers have been set up for vacationers and spa guests.
A special kind of bathing fun results from the fact that the high salt content keeps the bather from sinking. However, one must not get the water in the eyes or swallow it.
High on a green hill rises the medieval castle Ajloun / ‘Ajlun (Qalaat er-Rabat) from the 12th century. Although it looks like a Crusader castle, it was built by the Arabs. The well-preserved castle is a prime example of how much western and eastern fortress construction influenced each other during the Crusader period.
When the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land in the 11th and 12th centuries, they had numerous castles and fortresses built on the European model, which they gave to vassal princes and their knights in order to defend the newly-emerged Christian kingdom of Jerusalem against the Muslims. The Arabs, for their part, did the same. The rulers of Syria and Egypt were keen to keep the Crusaders as confined as possible to the Holy Land and not to allow them to penetrate further into Islamic territory. And so they, too, built forts and castles on hills and at strategic points to secure the borders and caravan routes.
One such Arab castle is the fortress of Ajloun / ‘Ajlun (Qalaat er-Rabat), perched on a hill halfway between Jerash (Gerasa) and the Jordan Valley. The well-preserved ruins of the castle overlook a green Mediterranean landscape with trees and shrubs.
Jerash is a small oriental town in the north of Jordan. About 45 kilometers north of Amman, Jerash welcomes its visitors with an almost lovely hilly landscape that is barren in summer but exceptionally green in spring. Jerash has a surprise in store for its guests. For most tourists have no idea that the ancient ruins of Jerash are as significant and spectacular as those in Petra or Palmyra, Syria. True, the dramatic background scenery is missing – as in Palmyra the desert dunes and in Petra the rocky mountains. But the ruins and ancient buildings of Jerash bear witness to a great past.
The city is crossed by the Wadi Jerash, named after the city, which in ancient times was a river called Chrysorhoas (“Gold River”). East of the wadi stretches the modern town of Jerash, which today is home to some 50,000 people. West of the wadi spreads the ancient ruined city of Gerasa. In the past, Gerasa extended far to the east. But this part of the ancient city has been built over by the modern town. This means that only a western part of ancient Gerasa can be visited. Many ruins probably still lie under the modern city.
2. Wadi Mujib
The Wadi Mujib is the lowest national park in the world. The reason for this is that the rocky gorge that constitutes Wadi Mujb flows into the Dead Sea at an altitude of 410 meters below sea level. However, as the gorge stretches up to 900 meters, the national park encompasses a gradient of 1300 meters.
Due to its nature, it is also called the ‘Grand Canyon of Jordan’, which is undoubtedly not inappropriate. In total, the river feeds from seven tributaries that flow into each other in the barren rugged landscape. Especially for friends of ‘canyoning’ the Wadi Mujib is a recommendable address, but also newcomers in this field can experience here an unforgettable highlight of their Jordan trip. At the entrance to Wadi Mujib there are several places to stay, which, in addition to accommodation, also offer bathing in the hot springs and hikes into the canyon.
1. Mount Nebo
Mount Nebo is located about 10 km northwest of Madaba. This mountain is sacred to Christians and Jews as well as Muslims. According to biblical tradition, Mount Nebo was that massif in the land of Moab from which Moses first glimpsed the land of Canaan. Thereupon, God is said to have presented this land to Moses as the land of the forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which was now to become the home of the Israelites once again.
This event was the reason for the construction of a Byzantine monastery and a church on the top of the mountain and other churches in the surrounding area. The foundations and ruins of the Church of St. George, the Church of Lot, the Church of Casiseo and Amos and the Church of St. John that have been found, as well as the ruins of the monastery from late antiquity, all date from the Byzantine period – that is, from the 4th to the 6th century. The oldest church foundation on Mount Nebo dates back to 394.
The churches and the monastery had already become an important destination for pilgrims in late antiquity. Even in the Islamic Middle Ages, the Christian enclave remained. It was not until the 16th century that it was abandoned. The buildings then fell into ruins and were forgotten.