One of ABTA’s destinations to watch in 2019, Jordan fuses rich history, effusive hospitality and sweeping vistas. Emily Eastman travels from Amman to explore this ancient gateway to the Middle East
The benches in the open-back jeep judder beneath us as the vehicle gathers speed. Clouds of sand create a trailing haze. Ahead: the undulating reaches of Wadi Rum, a desert wilderness and Unesco World Heritage Site of sandstone mountains, awesome rock formations and the dunes that we are currently hurtling down.
The convoy of three jeeps carries the 14 members of my G Adventures tour group – new friends from around the world who have joined this eight-day Highlights of Jordan round trip from Amman. Small-group specialist G has carved a niche in guided whistle-stop tours that engage with local communities. It’s a fun, sociable and effortless way to travel – our CEO (Chief Experience Officer), Hakam, takes care of everything.
Jordan is just two hours ahead of the UK, so, with no jet lag to worry about, I arrive a day before the tour begins to explore Amman. The capital’s café culture is reminiscent of continental Europe – just with more shisha pipes – while the bustling souks and sonorous calls to prayer are distinctly Middle Eastern.
I walk up to the Citadel to explore the spectacular Roman ruins, admiring the towering Temple of Hercules and the beautifully beige metropolis below. Beyond the cityscape is the promise of Unesco sites and places of pilgrimage in spectacular settings.
Hakam is eager for us to see it all. The tour takes us north to Jerash, a city inhabited since the Bronze Age and of renown thanks to the ancient walled Greco-Roman settlement of Gerasa, just outside the perimeter of modern Jerash. The city was once part of the Decapolis, the ten most important cities in the Middle East, and we spend a peaceful morning wandering around the Oval Forum colonnade, the second-century Hadrian’s Arch and the Corinthian columns of the Temple of Artemis – considered the best-preserved ruins outside of Italy.
Once a stop along the ancient Silk Road trading route, Jordan has a compelling history.
Highest on most visitors’ lists is Petra, below, an ancient Nabatean city that thrived from around 6BC. Petra’s fortunes changed when new trading routes opened up, and the city eventually became obscured by the landscape until it was rediscovered in 1812. Today, the Rose City is once again the jewel in Jordan’s crown.
A pre-dawn start is worth it for the quiet calm as we arrive in the lost city. We tread between colossal rocks and along the Siq (the 1.2km-long entrance, which ends in a narrow gorge) to approach the first stop: Al-Khazneh, or the Treasury. Standing tall thousands of years after it was built, its effect is undiminished. Carved deep into the rock face and sufficiently protected from weathering, it’s still possible to detect the iconography on the facade – understood to represent the Nabateans’ chief male deity, Dushara, and the goddess Isis.
The Bedouin, a tribe said to be descended from the Nabateans, welcome us. They occupied Petra’s caves until the site gained Unesco World Heritage status in the mid 1980s, when they were relocated to the nearby settlement of Umm Sayhoun. Yet many return daily to work as tour guides and provide local colour, sharing stories, playing music and offering horse and camel rides.
We stroll the ancient routes, admire temples and tombs, and climb 800 rudimentary steps carved into the sandstone cliff to the monastery, where we marvel at the elaborate architecture and take in the stupendous mountain-top views over the immense Petra basin.
While Jordan’s history fascinates, its natural attractions captivate. Our itinerary includes an afternoon floating in the mineral-rich waters of the Dead Sea – an unctuous expanse of water so salty that we bob like corks. It is the lowest place on Earth and melds natural beauty with alleged healing properties.
A word of advice: shave at least 12 hours before you visit, and try to avoid getting the water in your eyes (as I manage to do not once, but twice).
On the shore, we slather ourselves in therapeutic mud. The itinerary is comprehensive in its coverage of Jordan. We visit Madaba, an ancient town known as the “City of Mosaics”. A member of our group studied archaeology and her excitement at the sixth-century Byzantine mosaics is contagious.
We travel to Karak Castle, a crusader stronghold, and Mount Nebo, from where, according to the Old Testament, Moses saw the Promised Land. Along the River Jordan, we visit the site of Jesus’s baptism, situated at the border between Israel and Jordan. A baptism is taking place across the water, and their hymns carry on the breeze.
Hakam’s calls of “Yalla! Yalla!” signal that it’s time to move. A few days into the trip, he laughingly reveals that it means “let’s go!”, not “hurry up”, as some of us had suspected.
We savour Jordanian life at every turn: a glass of sweet mint tea, a bowl of mansaf – a traditional lamb dish – and still-warm bread to dip in olive oil and za’atar. Wherever we go, artists and hawkers are keen to engage. Jordan is living up to its reputation as the Middle East’s friendliest nation.
We travel comfortably by private minibus down to the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, a diver’s paradise where we hire a boat and snorkel the teeming coral reefs. During each journey, Hakam shares details of the landscape, area and culture as the bus rumbles along.
Wadi Rum, above, is a personal highlight. Having survived the jeep excursion, we sit atop the dunes and watch the setting sun cast copper-red hues across the sand. Our destination is a Bedouin camp, where we sleep in camel-hair tents. Our noses twitch on arrival at the wafting smell of zarb, a dish of meat and vegetables slow-cooked in an underground pit.
Dinner is followed by a walk out into the desert, where we each pick a spot free of camel droppings and lay back to stargaze. The air is pristine, the world silent; the desert feels good for the soul.
Back in Amman, we collectively opt to dine at Hashem – a legendary eatery that overflows on to the street. Our last supper is aptly biblical: a feast of melt-in-the-mouth falafel, silky hummus and fresh pita.
G Adventures’ tour: eight days, to and from Amman, including accommodation, in-country transport and some meals, from £819pp. Fly direct from London with British Airways or Royal Jordanian