The capital since 1921, Amman contains about one-third of the population. It was in earlier times the Ammonite capital of Rabbath-Ammon and later the Graeco-Roman city of Philadelphia. Often referred to as the ‘white city’, Amman was initially, like Rome, built on seven hills which still form its natural focal points. With wide-ranging modern building projects, Amman is now very well outfitted with excellent hotels and tourist facilities, especially in the jabal (hill) areas. The central market (souk) is lively and fascinating and provides a taste of a more traditional city. Remains from Roman, Greek and Ottoman Turk occupations are dotted around the city, the main attraction being the Roman amphitheater from the second century AD in the center of the city. There is also the Jebel el Qalat (citadel) which houses the Archaeological Museum; the National Gallery of Fine Arts and the Popular Museum of Costume and Jewelry. Owing to Jordan’s small size, any destination within the country may be reached by road from the capital, Amman, in one day.
At the northeast end of the Gulf of Aqaba is Jordan’s only port, which can be reached from Amman by road or air. It has grown significantly over the past few years, both as a port and as a tourist center, due in part to its exceptional beach and watersports facilities, and its low humidity and hot climate. The town has a variety of little shops and several good restaurants, and it leaves most of the other tourist facilities to be provided for by the hotels. These include windsurfing, scuba diving, sailing and fishing. Most hotels have swimming pools, and will offer continental and some traditional cuisine. Some provide business and conference facilities and excursions to Amman, Petra and Wadi Rum. Aqaba’s Church, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 363 AD, was recently excavated and is one of the oldest buildings in the world.
Petra is one of the wonders of the Middle-Eastern world: a gigantic natural amphitheater hidden in the rocks out of which a dexterously colored city with enormous facades has been carved; it was lost for hundreds of years and only rediscovered in 1812. The temples and caves of Petra rest high up above a chasm, with huge white rocks forming the Bab, or gate, of the Siq, the narrow entrance which towers over 21m (70ft) high. Until recently, the rock caves were still inhabited by Bedouins. Most of this unique city was built by the Nabatean Arabs in the fifth and sixth centuries BC as an important link in the caravan routes. It was added to by the Romans who carved out a huge theater and, possibly, the extravagant classical facade of the Khazneh (treasury). Away from the road, it is only possible to reach Petra on horseback. The Dead Sea, 392m (1286ft) below sea level and the lowest point on earth, glistens by day and night in an eerie, dry landscape. The Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are considered to be underneath its waters. Supporting no life and having no outlet, even the non-swimmer can float freely in the rich salt water. The Dead Sea at the end of the River Jordan is the natural barrier between Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority Region.
Elsewhere in the North
Irbid, to the southeast of Umm Qais, is 77km (49 miles) from Amman and is a city of Roman tombs and statues, and narrow streets with close-packed shops and arched entrances. Instead, return along the northwest border from Umm Qais to Jerash through the lush scenery of the Jordan River Valley, stopping at the town of Al Hammeh, in sight of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, a town known for its hot springs and mineral waters. Visitors can also stop at Pella, once a city of the Roman Decapolis, now being excavated, and the hilltop castle of Qalaat al-Rabadh built by the Arabs in defense against the crusaders. The scenery in this astoundingly fertile part of Jordan is often very good-looking, especially in the spring when the Jordan Valley and neighboring area is covered in flowers.
Once the Biblical ‘Gilead’, Salt is now a small town set in the fertile landscape west of Amman, retaining much of its old character as a former leading city of Transjordan. Filled with the character, sights, sounds and aromas of an old Arab town with its narrow market (souk), its innumerable flights of steps, and its donkeys and coffee houses, it has a tolerant, friendly, oriental atmosphere. 24km (15 miles) from Amman is Iraq al-Amir, the only Hellenistic palace still to be seen in the Middle East.
In the far north of the country, Umm Qais, the Biblical ‘Gadara’, dominates the area around Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee). Once a city favored by the Romans for its hot springs and theaters, it had declined to a small village by the time of the Islamic conquests. Its ruins, however, are still impressive: the Acropolis built in 218 BC, the forum, the colonnaded street with still-visible chariot tracks and the Nymphaeum and remains of a large basilica.
There are three routes from Amman to Aqaba, the most striking being The King’s Highway, the whole length of which is dotted with places of interest. Madaba and nearby Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have struck the rock, were both flourishing Byzantine towns and have churches and well-preserved mosaics. In Madaba, there are also ancient maps of sixth-century Palestine, a museum and an old family carpet-making industry which uses ancient looms. Off the Highway is Mukawir, a small village near the ruins of Machaerus of Herod Antipas, where Salome performed her fateful dance. From the summit of nearby Qasr al-Meshneque, where St John was beheaded, is a wonderful view of the Dead Sea, and now and then even of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. Nearby, Zarqa Main has hot mineral water springs. rocky scenery distinguishes this area: deep gorges, waterfalls, white rocks, small oases, birds and wild flowers. Further south on the Highway is Kerak, a beautiful medieval town bordered by high walls and with a castle. Other places of historical, scenic or sacred interest along the route before Petra include Mazar and Mutah, Edomite Qasr Buseirah, Tafila and the outstanding crusader hill fortress, Shaubek Castle.
East of Amman
Towards Azraq and beyond is the vast desert which makes up so much of Jordan. Within this arid landscape are the fertile oases of the Shaumari and Azraq Wetland Parks, now run with the help of the World Wide Fund for Nature. Wild animals once native to Jordan, such as the oryx and gazelle, are being re-introduced, while the wetlands are visited by thousands of migratory birds each year. The Shaumari was opened in October 1983 in an attempt to protect the country’s dwindling oryx population. There are plans to open a further 10 wildlife reserves which will cover more than 4100 sq km (1580 sq miles). The project is being organized by the Jordanian Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, a body which has recently stepped up its efforts to protect the country’s wildlife and to prevent pollution affecting the very busy port of Aqaba. Severe fines are imposed on anyone contravening Jordan’s strict laws on these matters. Also in the east are the desert Umayyad castles (Qasr) of Al-Kharanah and Amra. Built as hunting lodges and to protect caravan routes, they are well preserved with frescoes and beautiful vaulted rooms.