There are bucket-list destinations, and then there’s Jordan.
Nestled in the heart of the Middle East, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is among the world’s most amazing countries. In November, a group of 12 tour operators, church travel planners and other readers of Going On Faith discovered the beauty, culture and hospitality of Jordan during a weeklong familiarization tour hosted by the Jordan Tourism Board.
During the trip, participants discovered some of the most revered pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land, from the baptism site of Jesus to the summit of Mount Nebo, where Moses first saw the promised land of Canaan stretching west of the Jordan River.
Tracing the footsteps of Jesus and the prophets, they also encountered remnants of the world’s oldest civilizations, including the Greco-Roman ruins of Jerash and the legendary rose-red city of Petra, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. In the south, they rode camels and jeeps across the spectacular desert of Wadi Rum, which T.E. Lawrence once described as “vast, echoing and God-like.” Along the way, they discovered handcrafted mosaics, ornate scarves, rich spices and more.
Follow along on this itinerary to plan your own Jordan journey.
• Arrival in Amman
• Overnight at Petra
• Marriott Hotel
The travel planners arrived at the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman on a late Sunday afternoon, just as the sun began to fade into hazy clouds over the desert. After a smooth exit through customs, the travel planners piled onto a bus and drove three hours south to Wadi Musa, the closest town to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Petra. There, they dined and settled in for the night at the Petra Marriott Hotel.
• Overnight at the Kempinski
• Hotel Aqaba Red Sea
The next morning, the group set off to see the fabled Rose-Red City of Petra, an ancient civilization carved out of rose-colored rock over 2,000 years ago by Nabatean traders. During its prime between 400 B.C. and 106 A.D., the city thrived as a central trading hub in the Middle East, where caravans transferred incense and myrrh from southwestern Arabia, as well as spices, fabrics and precious stones from India and China.
The route was eventually abandoned around 700 A.D. and faded into legend until its rediscovery by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. Some archaeologists speculate that only 15 percent of the city has been discovered and that the vast majority remains buried and untouched.
Today, Petra is widely recognized as one of the most extraordinary archaeological sites on earth, drawing nearly half a million visitors each year. Visitors can follow an easy 2.5-mile trail through the archaeological park to see key landmarks such as the Treasury, the Royal Tombs, the Theater, the Great Temple and the Colonnaded Street. Carriages and burros are available for those with limited mobility.
After an exhilarating morning and afternoon of exploring the prehistoric city, the group traveled two hours south to the port city of Aqaba.
Just beyond the Petra Archaeological Park entrance, visitors can follow the main path into a narrow passageway between the towering sandstone walls of the Siq, a beautiful gorge of pink, red and white rock. At the end of the passage, the rock walls open to reveal the colossal facade of al-Khazneh, or the Treasury, a 131-foot-tall edifice that cuts deep into the rose-hued rock face of the cliff.
The main trail concludes at the Basin Restaurant, where groups can stop for lunch before heading back to the entrance. However, if visitors have time, they can continue past the restaurant and climb a series of stone steps up to the imposing rupestrian sanctuary of Jabal ad-Dayr, or the Monastery, a monument that rivals the Treasury in both size and surrounding scenery. This route offers some of the most impressive panoramic views of the Wadi Musa Valley and Royal Tombs, and most travelers will find it well worth the effort.
• Wadi Rum
• Overnight at Kempinski
• Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea
Nestled along the banks of the Red Sea, Aqaba is a colorful hub-and-spoke destination near popular attractions like Petra, Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea. Before leaving, several members of the group opted for an early-morning swim in the warm, crystal-clear waters of the Red Sea, from which they could see the city of Eliat on the opposite shore in Israel.
Next, the group traveled an hour east to the vast desert expanse of Wadi Rum, also known as the Valley of the Moon. This otherworldly red-rock wilderness has set the stage for several notable films over the years, including “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Martian,” “Prometheus,” “Rogue One” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” The group learned that a crew was also on-site shooting footage for a new “Star Wars” movie during their visit.
Later that afternoon, the group settled back onto the bus for a four-hour drive north to the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea, where they closed out their evening with a lavish feast at the hotel’s Ashur Pizza and Grill Restaurant.
After a quick stop to the Wadi Rum Visitors Center, the travel planners climbed into three trucks with cushioned, open-air seating in the back and took off across the desert. During the ride, they took in the otherworldly landscape, which features a stark contrast between the towering red-rock formations and the flat, sweeping surface of the desert floor. At one point, the vehicles pulled over so visitors could trek up a steep sand dune for a breathtaking view of the desert.
Lunch at Bedouin Camp and Camel Ride
Around noon, the jeeps arrived at Sun City Camp, a small desert encampment with traditional Bedouin tents as well as a selection of “Martian Domes” where guests could stay overnight. All the accommodations were equipped with private bathrooms and showers, hot water and 24-hour electricity. Though the schedule did not allow for an overnight visit, the group enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch in a spacious domed restaurant, followed by a caravan-style camel ride through the desert.
• Dead Sea
• Baptism Site of Jesus
• Jordan Jewel Art and Mosaic
• Panorama Restaurant
• Overnight at the Kempinski
• Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea
With a full day of scheduled activities ahead, many members of the group woke up around sunrise on Wednesday for a quick swim in the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth and one of the world’s most famous salt lakes. The dense salinity of the lake provides natural buoyancy, allowing swimmers to bob like corks in the water. Many guests also opted to coat their arms and legs in some of the lake’s mineral-rich black mud.
The first stop of the day was Al-Maghtas, the Baptism Site at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where Jesus stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist. Because of military restrictions, this sacred site was completely closed off from public viewing until the 1994 Peace Treaty between Israel and Jordan, which finally allowed archaeologists to excavate the area. These efforts led to one discovery after another, from historic churches to baptism pools and caves used by monks, confirming many of the descriptions of the site recorded by early Christian pilgrims.
After perusing this beautiful area along the Jordan River, the group stopped by a prominent mosaic factory and shop called Jordan Jewel and then concluded the afternoon with a late lunch at Panorama Restaurant before returning to the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea.
Baptism Site at Bethany Beyond the Jordan
Considered by many to be the birthplace of Christianity, the Baptism Site at Bethany Beyond the Jordan marks the site of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, making it one of the most venerated landmarks in the Holy Land. Though the Jordan River no longer runs through the site because of the Israeli government’s decision to divert the flow during the mid-20th century, visitors can still see the foundation stones of several early churches that were built over the spot between 500 and 700 A.D. Just a short distance from this area, hundreds of pilgrims gather on the east and west banks of the Jordan River to get baptized or dip their feet in the water.
Along the route from Madaba to Mount Nebo, Jordan Jewel is one of the region’s most famous mosaic factories and shops. The shop supports hundreds of local families, including many employees with disabilities. Visitors can watch the artisans at work as they carefully cut colorful natural stones and place the pieces over sketched designs to create exquisite mosaic illustrations, tables, vases and more.
• Mount Nebo
• Overnight at the Four
• Seasons Hotel in Amman
The following day, the visitors traveled to the summit of Siyagha on Mount Nebo, the site where scholars believe the prophet Moses first saw the “land of milk and honey” that God promised to the Israelites. Siyagha provides a sweeping view of western Jordan and the Holy Land, from the biblical plains of Moab to the mountains of Judea and the Qumran area where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. On a clear day, visitors can even make out Bethlehem, the Herodian Fortress of Herodium, the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
Next, they drove back down the mountain to Madaba, also known as the City of Mosaics. Throughout its colorful history, Madaba has passed from the rulership of the Israelites to the Nabateans of Petra and, later, the Romans of the Byzantine Empire. A thriving Christian community eventually found its home in the city, leading to the construction of many beautiful churches throughout the region.
While exploring the city, the group visited the St. George Greek Orthodox Church, which houses a stunning mosaic map of the Middle East, and then stopped for an authentic Jordanian meal at the Food Basket, a cozy house that has been converted into a restaurant.
Memorial of Moses
One of Mount Nebo’s most significant peaks, Siyagha marks the site where Moses first surveyed the land of Canaan to the west of the Jordan River shortly before his death. In 1932, Franciscan monks purchased the property from local Bedouins and carefully excavated the churches, tombs and other archaeological items left by early Christian pilgrims over the years. The large number of mosaics uncovered within these structures have proven instrumental to the study of Byzantine-Omayyad art.
Greek Orthodox Church of St. George
In 1884, a group of Greek Orthodox Christians unearthed an exquisite mosaic map of Syria, Palestine and Egypt while preparing to build their new St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Madaba. Archaeologists later verified the piece as the oldest map of Palestine and the Holy Land in existence. Representing only a third of the map’s original size, the 30-square-meter fragments were integrated into the design of the new church as part of the flooring.
• City Market in Amman
• Dinner at the Wild Jordan Center
• Overnight at the Four
• Seasons Hotel in Amman
For the final excursion of the week, the group journeyed an hour north of Amman to the ancient city of Jerash, also known as the Pompeii of the Middle East. Historically called Gerasa, the city contains an extensive collection of Roman ruins on the west side of the valley, adjacent to the modern portion of Jerash on the east side. Although Gerasa was not mentioned in the Bible by name, it was one of the 10 cities of the Decapolis that Jesus visited during his ministry.
After returning to Amman, the group ventured into the downtown area to browse some of the fresh spices, coffee beans and other goods in the market stalls. That evening, they brought the incredible adventure to a close with dinner at the Wild Jordan Center, which overlooks the old city of Amman, the Citadel and the Raghadan Flagpole at the royal Raghadan Palace.
Greco-Roman Ruins of Gerasa
Groups could wander for hours through the Greco-Roman ruins of Gerasa, one of the world’s most ancient cities. Among the highlights are two amphitheaters, an expansive oval colonnade, the Temple of Artemis, the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch.
Downtown Market in Amman
After a week of sampling rich foods, spices and sauces all over the country, the group could not leave without picking up some culinary goods for the road. Browsing the crowded market shops in downtown, they saw cinnamon sticks the size of batons, heaps of colorful spices like saffron and sumac, locally made chocolates, loose-leaf teas and much more.
• Departure from Amman
After a fascinating week in Jordan, the group returned to the Queen Alia International Airport on Saturday morning to journey back to the U.S. With so many new memories, experiences and friends to carry home, the travelers left knowing they had only scraped the surface of Jordan’s rich history and culture.
For more information on this trip contact Zina Ammari with the Jordan Tourism Board North America at 877-733-5673 or go to www.MyJordanJourney.com.