There are some things a first-time visitor to a special place must-see. Likewise, certain things are important to know when venturing into a strange environment. Go with an open mind and avoid stereotypes. You will have a much more enjoyable time and learn more about the culture. For my first visit to Jordan, here are my lists of the most important “Must See” and “Must Know” places and things.
What you must know about Jordan:
- I was surprised to find English so commonly spoken. Had I rented a car and traveled on my own, I would have been very comfortable driving and visiting attractions, shops and lodgings as most signs are in both languages. All of the people I met whether with the group or alone were friendly and welcoming. One incident brings that into focus. I had brought a power adaptor and charger but it went bad. I needed a replacement. This was in Petra where we were staying at a Movenpick Hotel just across the street from the site. The street was lined with small shops much like large flea market stalls. I walked into any that looked like they might sell an adapter/charger. The first three I visited, the owners were friendly but did not have any. One told me where I could get one in town and offered to call a cab for me. Finally, in the fourth, the owner led me to where he had several adapters plugged in and offered to charge my devices while I shopped or went back to the hotel. I explained that I needed to buy a charger. He agreed to sell me his charger at seven dinars ($10) and I was very happy. I would have paid at least that had I ventured into town to buy one. I wondered how many American shopkeepers would have been so accommodating to a strange tourist who probably would never be around to visit their shop again.
- When I told friends and family I was going to Jordan, most replied with “Aren’t you afraid?” and “Isn’t it dangerous there?” After seeing the security and walking the streets of the cities and towns, sometimes alone, I can answer truthfully, “I felt safer there than in many American cities I have visited.
The level of security at all hotels is similar to our courthouse security. When we entered, we put all of our luggage and handbags on am x-ray screener each time we entered a hotel. The attendants were always courteous and polite but I am sure they were vigilant for any signs of danger.
As our bus made its way across the country, which is about the size of Indiana, there were several points where we stopped and our guide and driver were checked by security. Our guide, Mohammed, told us this is normal and often he welcomed it as it helped get us to places he was taking us by a more direct route. He did tell us we were not allowed to take pictures at these points or of any policemen.
- As you probably surmised from my misadventure with my adaptor, the electric voltage is different in Jordan than in the U.S. We operate on a 120-volt system so our chargers and small appliances are set for that. In Jordan, 220 voltage in the norm. If you ever crossed a small appliance with your 220 AC or electric stove or dryer, you know what happens. POW! The appliance is burned out and will not work. Many of the hotels in Jordan recognize this and have special 120 plugs but for those that don’t, buy a good charger and adaptor for charging your cell phones and tablets there. Otherwise, you will be in the same situation I was and my kindly shop owner may not have replaced his charger so he can sell it to you.
- Speaking of buying things, the local markets, called souks, are where you get the best bargains. Aqaba is a duty-free zone, which means shopping in Aqaba at any of the shops is cheaper than the rest of the country. The souk there seems to have everything, clothing, jewelry, dead sea products, produce, spices and anything you might imagine.
We visited the stall of a spice merchant who gave us a taste of almost all of his products and then served us tea. They are open late at night too. The spice merchant said he would be open until 11 pm.
- One thing not commonly available, at least in public restrooms, is toilet paper, I got in the habit of putting a few tissues in my pocket each day. In some, some attendants will hand you a few sheets but in many of the restrooms, there is no attendant or paper. Almost all of the restrooms have a type of shower spray attached to the toilet as a sort of portable bidet. I leave it to your imagination as to how to use the sprayer.
- One of the most important things to remember is you are in the desert. You must drink water frequently to avoid dehydration.
- A visit to Jordan reminded me of how
wasteful most of us are about energy. Here you see a lot more solar panels than back home. Also, in the hotels, I stayed at all had the lights set so you had to insert your room card to have them on. That way the hotel ensures that when you leave the room, energy is not being wasted by lights left on.
- Another fact of the conservatives is the lack of ice. It is a bit of culture shock to find no ice bucket in your room and an ice machine on every floor. They are not on any floor here. Even in nice restaurants, ice is not commonly served. If you get a soft drink, specify “with ice.” I thought I would have iced tea one night. It is not common here even though the delicious Bedouin tea would make a great sweet tea to please any Southerner. I finally gave up after waiting for about 15 minutes and being told it would have to be ordered specially from the bar downstairs. I just switched to a Coke Cola with ice which I got in just a few minutes. I should have just ordered a glass of ice and a cup of tea and made my own.
Another beverage common here but viewed differently in some parts of Jordan is wine. Some of my friends like to have their glass of wine with dinner. In Amman and bigger cities, most restaurants will have it. There is even a great winery in Jordan, St. Georges, but when you travel to the southern part of Jordan, alcohol is less available so if you go there bring your bottle.
- A minor thing that may be hard to get used to is no clock radio in your hotel room. I quit wearing a watch back when cell phones became common. Waking up at night, I am used to looking at the clock radio to see if it is almost time to get up. If you need that reassurance, buy a cheap luminous dial watch or portable clock for your bedside so you won’t have to turn your phone on to see the time.
- As you ride out of big cities like Amman into the desert, you begin to see simple black cloth tents and families going about everyday life in what looks like homeless camps to us. These people are not homeless, they are the Bedouins. As our guide pointed out they are not poor either. He reminded us that each sheep is worth at least 140 JD (about ($200.) most of these tents are surrounded by hundreds of sheep. Do the math.
- Naturally, you want to take photos of local people to remember your trip. However out of respect for local customs, always ask before you take pictures of women.
- As I will talk about later, Jordan’s deserts are fabulous, particularly Wadi Rum but do not venture into this road-less area without a guide.
- Clothing is something people traveling to Jordan always are concerned about. As long as you dress conservatively, there is one to tell you women must cover their hair or anything like that. Clothing that is appropriate anywhere else is fine here. It is a good idea to pack clothing that will have multiple uses. My favorite garment was my cargo pants because of all the pockets so I could carry back up camera batteries and media cards. Also, a good place to carry your cell phone. The photo opportunities are once-in-a-lifetime so I suggest a real camera as well as the cell phone. You will want some of these photos to be print quality.
One point, if you plan to visit the Dead Sea, some type of water shoes are needed. The beach is filled with small pebbles and the sea itself has rocks and sharp objects. Flip flops will not stay on in the water, you need something that grips the foot.
Things you must do in Jordan:
There are so many fantastic things to see and do I am not going to try to rank them in any order. All are experiences you will never forget. I’m just going to give you the highlights, Later there will be lots more about these places.
1. Roman Ruins at Jarash
Here you step back to a city built in 331 BC by Alexander the Great or one of his generals. The Romans conquered the Greeks and rebuilt the city to their specifications. Hadrian’s Arch was built in 129 BC in honor of the popular emperor’s visit. But even earlier than the city’s founding you see traces of what was once a Neolithic city. Mohammed, our guide, showed us a structure where we could see a difference in the stonework. The latest, the top part of the wall was large stones, Roman construction, below was a section of smaller cut stone, the Greek style. Beneath that was an even different style of stone dated back to an earlier Arab people who had begun the original wall.
There is so much to see here: the Hippodrome, Temple of Artemis and Zeus, a mosaic still visible in the ruins of a Byzantine church, Nymphaeum, Colonnaded streets and all so well-preserved you can see detail in the stonework and imagine the uses of the structures.
The citadel is the site of the ancient city of Rabbath-Ammon. It towers on the highest hill over modern Amman and was occupied since the Bronze Age, around 720 AD, It’s not as extensive as Jerash but still fascinating. It shows a different cultural influence although there is a lot of Rome there also. The two highlights are the Temple of Hercules and the Ummayad Palace.
There is a bit of controversy about the Temple of Hercules. No inscription or stature was found originally so it was a guess as to which god the temple honored. After it was decided to name it for Hercules, several fingers of a carved stone hand were uncovered. Some say the hand appears feminine. Whoever the hand represented was probably the temple’s patron. It’s displayed in front of the National Archaeological Museum so you can decide what you think; male or female god?
Umayyad Cistern shows the knowledge these people had of construction. It is an enormous circular holding pit built of stone with steps leading down to the bottom. It supplied water to the palace and the adjourning homes.
The palace was home to the governor of Amman. It only lasted a few years and was destroyed by an earthquake in 749 AD and never fully rebuilt. The dome was cleverly reconstructed making it look pre-earthquake.
3. Byzantine Mosaics
St George’s Church is a Greek Orthodox Church in Madaba. It might not be worth driving the 30 miles southwest from Amman except, for one thing, its mosaic map of the Biblical world as it was known by the Byzantines. You have to see the detail of this mosaic to realize the craftsmanship to assemble it.
The area inhabitants were removing old stones to build modern structures in 1864 when they found it. Originally the complete map had 157 Greek captions of major biblical sites across the Middle East and dates back to 560 AD making it the oldest map of the Holy Land. Archeologists estimate that it once contained more than 2 million pieces. Sadly when new churches were constructed over the old ruins, much was lost and today only about a third of the map remains. It is still a treasure that has been vital for scholars trying to reconstruct the original layout of Jerusalem before its destruction in 70 AD. Other mosaics have been excavated in Madaba giving it the name “City of Mosaics”
4. Mount Nebo
One of the most unforgettable passages in the Old Testament is Deuteronomy 34:1 where Moses went to the top of Mount Nebo and viewed the Promised Land. Religious or otherwise, it is a thrill to stand in that spot and look over the same scene Moses saw. You have to squint and use your imagination a bit to blot out the modern world but it’s a place you need to visit in Jordan.
There are several mosaics here also. One is called the Old Baptistery mosaic from 531 AD which was preserved when another was laid over it just a few decades later in 597 AD. The older mosaic was undiscovered for 1,400 years and uncovered in 1976.
A museum and several sculptures onsite give more definition to the site.
It was time to get into the ecology of this country. That’s what Feynan Eco Lodge. a part of The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature does in spades. Set in the middle of the harsh beauty of Wadi Dana. You reach it by four-wheel drive or hiking in only. And once there you immerse yourself in a solar-powered sustainable lifestyle. It’s rated as one of the top 25 ecolodges in the world by National Geographic Traveler. I’m just giving you a taste as there is much more at (link to Agri-Lanes)
6. Bedouin Experience
While at the lodge, one of the opportunities is the Bedouin Experience. This is your chance to learn the culture of the Bedouin people as a guest in their home. This is something you cannot get from a book or film. Again (more at Agri-lanes)
7. Wadi Rum
Wadi Rum is known as the Valley of the Moon for a landscape so strange it might well be on some unknown satellite. We ventured out into it in rugged four-wheel-drive pickups with Bedouin guides who were born to this landscape. Once off the road, we faced unending sand punctuated by strangely eroded mountains that seemed older than time.
Lawrence of Arabia called it “vast, echoing and Godlike.” We spent four hours in this time-eroded paradise. It is so untouched by 21st-century life until you see another tiny pickup weaving its trail through unmarked sand, you feel as if you moved back in time. This land has not changed much since Biblical times. We found ancient “signposts” carved into the rock written in Aramaic, the language of Christ. It was directions to Nabataeans and Greek caravans that are indecipherable to present-day desert trekkers. We discovered carved rock bridges over only air, ruins of a stone house where Lawrence sheltered and plotted the attack on Acaba and a Bedouin tent filled with souvenirs and a cat where we were welcomed with sweet Bedouin tea.
We spent the night sleeping in black goat hair Bedouin tents sheltered by a circle of mountains from the cold that descends on the desert-like a blanket once the sunsets.
8. Camel ride
When morning arrived. I sipped a cup of Bedouin tea. Others enjoyed the strong coffee and mounted our camels for the ride back to the main camp and breakfast. They kneel while you mount and if smart grip both of the wooden horns mounted in front and back of the saddles. Mine almost unseated me when he (or she) rose hind feet first tossing me forward. Then he rose on the front legs tossing me back into position.
I can only say a camel ride through the desert is vital to understanding the culture. It is something I am glad I did but do not care to repeat too often. We rode for 45 minutes. Long enough to become more accustomed to the gait and to realize I did not want to do this all day long as Bedouins do.
When you leave the dessert to travel to Acaba, you are seeing Jordan’s other extreme. It’s Jordan’s only entrance to the Red Sea and its only viable port. For the visitor, it’s a beach paradise where you can rent a yacht and venture out to dive, snorkel or swim the turquoise water.
Seafood is plentiful and fresh here. We dined on a trout our captain caught as we cruised still in sight of Jordan and viewing the shores of Israel and Egypt on our opposite side.
10. Dead Sea
You can’t drown in the Dead Sea. You can’t swim in it either. I tried to turn face down and swim but no luck. The weight of your posterior keeps you floating on your back. Trying to stand is a struggle. I kicked very hard to get my feet down below the water level and force them to the bottom to stand.
After being salted like a herring, I came back to shore and smeared myself with the black mud from the sea bottom. Attendants will bring it to you on the beach or you can struggle back up the top of the steps where a central supply is kept. After letting it dry in the sun for about 20 minutes, I hobbled back into the sea. I had not known to bring water shoes with me and the beach and sea bottom is covered with stones. I washed as much as possible off without getting the water in my eyes. That’s a big no-no as it is so salty it could damage the eye if not wash out with fresh water at once. Then up the steps to the shower and rinsed off the remains suddenly I felt 10 years younger. (You can choose to believe that or not.)
11. Baptism Site
“I’m only going over home. I know dark clouds will gather ’round me, I know my way is rough and steep; And beautiful fields lie just before me…” How often had I sung those words without giving thought to the actual river…? Here standing on the shores of the Jordan River I understood those words have a real meaning as well as a metaphorical one. We drove through arid desert land; the lowest spot on earth on one side and rugged eroded mountains on the other side of the highway. You can look at it as a religious experience or an archeological site. You don’t have to be a religious fanatic to appreciate this site.
As we drove to the site, our guide explained that 2,000 years ago the river was much wider than it is today. Excavation on the site is recent, 1996, because of the war between Jordan and Israel. We entered the site and parked. When we walked back to the site of an ancient church, our guide explained some unusual facts about this church. “There were a couple of churches with a unique design that was built in the late fifth century by the Romans. The question was why people would back in the fifth century build a church in the middle of nowhere. The church we found had a unique design. There was a back door behind the altar where you step out where the river was then. This church is considered to be the actual site of Jesus Christ’s baptism.”
The pool of water behind the church is several yards back from the river’s edge today. We gazed in wonder at the small pool. Then we walked out of the river. It was narrow. We could see the Israeli side. We put our feet into that water. On the Israeli side, there was a baptism in progress. Naturally, I had to fill a small bottle from the baptismal fount placed on the pavilion so I could bring a little bit of the Jordan River home with me.
Several beautiful churches of varying denominations set back a short distance from the actual river site. One being built by the Roman Catholic Church, with a gold-domed roofline, promises to be a beauty worthy of the site.
12. Mujib Canyon
Mujib Reserve of Wadi Mujib is another of the protected reserves in Jordan. It is located in the mountains just east of the Dead Sea. We drove by on the highway and got a brief look. Enough to know it is a place you want to visit. The landscape is so mountainous on the east and the water of the Dead Seaway down on the west. The canyon just cuts sharply through the mountains. Where we parked on the seaside, we could see a strange pillow-like stone column. Our guide told us that legends say this is Lot’s wife. He also said that archaeological records of Sodom and Gomorrah’s actual locations would make that improbable but the column does look like a pillar of salt so maybe…
For the more adventurous, the canyon is a famous hiking area filled with wildlife. There is a station in the reserve that is working to breed and return to the wild the native Nubian ibex, a large mountain goat with curved horns, which is threatened in the wild due to hunting.
Walking between the narrow walls of the Siq, I knew that at some point I would reach the Treasury but when our guide led us over and had us look at a shape in the rock then told us to turn, I was not prepared for the sight that met my eyes framed by the canyon walls. The rose-red beauty took my breath away.
The Treasury is the most magnificent and best-preserved of the buildings thanks to its surrounding mountain walls. When you gaze at it you understand why Petra is often called The Rose Red City. The stone has a pinkish cast that makes it even more beautiful.
The Urn Tomb, perched high on the mountainside, is one of the Royal Tombs. Some archeologists believe this is the tomb of Nabataean King Malchus II who died in 70 AD. Others think it is the tomb of King Aretas IV. No matter who is the resident, the structure is magnificent not only for its elaborate design but its sheer size.
Petra has over 800 monuments, spread out over 102 square miles. And this is only what is already excavated. Our guide told us there is so much more that is still buried and will one day reveal more mysteries. The scale of the buildings is immense. It feels like a city built for giants.