A country with a rich and turbulent past, the country now known as Jordan has a history which spans thousands of years. Indeed, its capital, Amman, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with buildings there having been built during the Stone Age in around 7000 B.C. Other history includes the ancient biblical kingdoms of Moab, Gilead, and Edom, which lie within its borders, as does the famous red stone city of Petra, which was described by British traveller Gertrude Bell as being ‘like a fairy tale city, all pink and wonderful.’
Part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918 and later a mandate of the United Kingdom, Jordan has been an independent kingdom since 1946. Today, a number of fascinating sites remain which offer a rich insight into the country’s changeable past. Here’s our pick of 10 of the very best.
Jerash is one of the world’s best preserved ancient Roman sites. Once known as Gerasa, Jerash is believed to have been inhabited since the Neolithic Era. However, it is the impressive Roman city built in Jerash which has left its greatest mark on the area, becoming Jordan’s second most popular tourist site after Petra.
Tourists flock to see Jerash’s extensive and impressive ruins, including the Temple of Artemis and the Forum with its large ionic columns. Jerash’s original main street, the Cardo, runs through the centre of the site and, with its visible chariot marks and underground drainage system, is fascinating in its own right. Other must-see aspects of Jerash include its still-functioning 3,000 seat South Theatre and its Nymphaeum fountain.
Petra is an iconic ancient site in southern Jordan. A secret to all but the Bedouins until 1812, Petra’s incredible monuments are now considered to be one of the wonders of the world. Petra was established by the once nomadic Kingdom of the Nabataeans. Carving a city out of the sandstone rocks and cliffs, the Nabataeans settled and made Petra into their capital.
Visitors to Petra cannot help but be inspired by its incredible remains. Intricate temples and tombs emerge from rocks and cliffs together with later additions from the Roman era and even a Byzantine church resplendent with mosaics. However, it is Petra’s most impressive and well-preserved monument, The Treasury, which is the first site to greet most visitors. Comprised of an elaborate façade hewn into the rock, The Treasury is thought to date back to the first century BC. If the façade looks familiar, this might be because of its prominent appearance in the film ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’. Sadly, the inside of this monument does not meet the expectations created by its exterior – it is in fact remarkably bare.
Qasr Bashir is an extremely well-preserved Roman fortress that lies in the Jordanian desert. Unlike many Roman remains, Qasr Bashir was never been re-built by later civilisations, meaning that the ruins on the site are original.
It is likely that Qasr Bashir was originally home to an auxiliary cavalry unit, charged with defending the Roman frontier and keeping the peace in the surrounding area. For lovers of well-preserved Roman architecture, Qasr Bashir is certainly a hidden gem. Standing within the solid walls of Qasr Bashir, you will certainly be able to feel the living history of life on the edge of the Roman Empire.
Present day Umm Qais has within it the remains of one of the ancient Decapolis cities, the Greco-Roman settlement of Gadara.
Umm Qais still has remnants of Gadara including a theater, churches, shops, a nymphaeum, baths, and paved roads. One interesting part of the sites in Umm Qais is that many of the structures, such as the theater, were made out of black basalt. There are also Byzantine-era elements built atop the original Roman ruins.
Qasr Amra is an eighth century desert castle in the Jordanian desert. Listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, the square-shaped Qasr Amra is mostly gone, but its country house is extremely well preserved, with many of its walls and even ceilings intact.
The remains include a reception room and bath house adorned with murals, which have been restored. Mythology, history, and philosophy all play a part in these murals, with depictions of various events and figures, both real and imaginary. With regard to Qasr Amra itself, visitors can see its foundations.
A grand medieval castle commissioned by Saladin and built by his nephew Izz al-Din Usama, Ajlun Castle was a fortress designed to strike fear in the heart of the Franks.
A visit to Ajlun Castle will immerse visitors into the culture of siege warfare and take them back in time to one of the most destructive periods in the region’s history. The site also holds the remarkable Ajlun Archeological Museum, housed inside the castle, offering fine examples of pottery and ceramics as well as other displays and artefacts from the region.
Kerak Castle is an impressive 12th century Crusader-era fortification located to the south of Amman, Jordan, on the ancient King’s Highway.
Today, the castle operates as a visitor attraction and contains a maze of corridors and chambers within the imposing fortifications. There are seven different levels within the castle and visitors can wander through vaulted passageways and dungeons. Bringing a torch can help with navigating some of the smaller and darker passageways. The castle kitchens contain an olive press and ovens, and there is also a partially ruined chapel to be seen. There is a museum located on a lower floor of the castle, and one route leads onto the keep, which provides spectacular views. Visitors can look across the Dead Sea and out to the Mount of Olives, bordering on Jerusalem, on clearer days.
This early Byzantine church in Madaba holds the famous Madaba Map of the Middle East; a floor mosaic dating back to the 6th century AD depicting an area from Lebanon to the Nile Delta, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Eastern Desert. It is the oldest known geographic floor mosaic in art history. Most probably made by the Christian community of Madaba, it contains cartographic depiction of the Holy Land and especially Jerusalem which is the largest and most detailed part in the centre of the map. It faces east towards the altar which coincides with the actual compass directions of locations.
After conquests and earthquakes, the mosaic was rediscovered in 1884 during the construction of a new Greek Orthodox church, and underwent restoration by the Volkswagen Foundation in the 1960s. In 1967, excavations in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem revealed the Nea Church and the Cardo Maximus in the exact locations depicted by the Madaba Map. In 2010, the discovery of a road running through the center of Jerusalem as shown on the map again proved its accuracy and priceless value for the archaeologists.
Along with Philadelphia, Gerasa, Pella, Gadara, Kanatha, Dion, Scythopolis and Damascus, Abila made up part of the Decapolis, a ten-city Greco-Roman federation southeast of the Sea of Galilee in Jordan providing a strategic defence post protecting the eastern front of the Roman Empire. It was occupied in the Bronze Age around 6,000 years ago to approximately 1500 AD (although an earthquake in 747AD turned much of the thriving city into rubble) and even though the site fell to ruin, there have been some spectacular discoveries.
Archaeologists have painstakingly uncovered Byzantine churches, a monastic complex from the early Islamic period, Roman baths, a theatre, temples used to worship Herakles, Tyche and Athena, miles of subterranean water tunnels, aqueducts, megalithic columns, tombs, city gates, and various municipal buildings. Abila has been excavated extensively for almost 40 years but it remains one of the most exciting sites, since much is only partially visible and is still waiting to be excavated.
Built during the reign of Antonius Pius around 140 AD (though some sources claim it was during the reign of Marcus Aurelius) in the Roman city of Philadelphia – now Amman – the 6,000-seat Roman theatre is one of the world’s best surviving examples of classic Roman amphitheatre architecture. The south-facing stage is bathed in sunlight for most of the day while the audience seating is shaded while the acoustics, as they are in virtually all remaining Roman theatre complexes, are excellent.
The standard three tier layout meant the rulers sat on the bottom, closest to the action, the military and assorted dignitaries took the middle tier and the general public had to squint from the top. Even today, theatrical and musical performances and other cultural activities are held in the theatre. The forum in front of the theatre was added by Commodus, although the only physical remains are a long Corinthian colonnade and some Roman paving stones. Visitors can also see the restored Odeon on the east side of the forum which could accommodate around 500 spectators, and the Nymphaeum, an ornamental fountain dedicated to the water nymphs which was built in 191 AD.