The Kingdom of Jordan is a fascinating country rich in history, culture and incredible natural landscapes that can’t be missed when visiting the Middle East.
Home to one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, I concluded my trip to Israel with a 3-day visit to its neighbouring country, starting with the Roman city of Jerash and the Citadel of Amman, the capital city.
How to visit
Jordan is an incredible destinations that deserves numerous days in order to explore all of its history and tourist attractions. If you have at least a full week to spare, you won’t regret dedicating it to this Middle Eastern country.
Unfortunately, I had limited time as I had spent most of my trip visiting Israel, but being so close to Jordan, I couldn’t return home without going at least to Petra.
If you’re in Israel and want to combine your trip with a visit to Petra, there are many tour operators that will organise a 2 or 3 day trip to Jordan. Considering that visitors in a group of 5 or more don’t pay for the Jordanian visa if they stay in the country for at least 3 days (and the visa is not cheap!), the 3-day visit makes way more sense. What you save from the visa you can use it to spend an additional day exploring the Wadi Rum desert. There are also one-day visits that go straight to Petra and back, but they sound extremely rushed; personally, I wouldn’t bother with those.
Like most of the tours that I took in Israel, I also travelled to Jordan with Abraham Tours. Their 3-day visit follows the basic itinerary of Jerash, Petra and the desert of Wadi Rum, however, contrary to most tour operators, they also stop in Amman for a quick visit to the citadel. Most other companies either skip Amman completely or stop at Madaba and/or Mt. Nebo instead, which didn’t really interest me after having visited so many biblical places in Israel. Abraham Tours’ itinerary caught my eye since the very beginning and considering that the trip was pretty much all inclusive for a very reasonable price, the choice was made!
I’ve said this multiple times in my posts about Israel, but Abraham Tours is one of the best tour operators that I’ve ever travelled with. The trip to Jordan also was an unforgettable experience that I can’t recommend enough. I got the best guide and group that I could’ve asked for, and the time spent in each place was just perfect; we spent almost a full day in Petra with plenty of time to wander around (many tour operators only allow a few hours!). In my opinion, 10 out of 10!
Crossing to Jordan
My visit started from the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem and after a pit stop in Tel Aviv to pick up some additional travellers, we drove a total of two hours north to the Jordan River Border Crossing, located next to the city of Beit Shean. Crossing the border between Israel and Jordan wasn’t too bureaucratic but it did take some time: we first had to leave Israel and get our exit paper, then drive for a few minutes to the Jordanian side and wait to obtain our visas. Since I was in a group, all I needed to do was give them my passport and wait to obtain my entry stamp.
Something very important to remember if you want to visit some Muslim countries that don’t have very good relations with Israel is to ask them not to stamp your passport. Israel usually gives a separate piece of paper and never stamps the passport, however, Jordanians will stamp it until you explicitly request them not to. I asked them not to stamp mine as I wanted to visit Iran in the near future (Iranian visas are denied to those with an Israeli stamp or any proof of having travelled to Israel). Visiting Jordan isn’t an issue, however, having a stamp from the land border between Israel and Jordan is very clear evidence that you’ve been to Israel before. Instead of stamping my passport, they just gave me a separate white paper that I had to fill in with my information and the problem was sorted.
After waiting for about an hour, that was it, I was officially in Jordan!
As soon as we crossed the border, we met our Jordanian guide, who would come with us for the next three days. Because we were in a big group, we were assigned a member of the tourism police to also escort us for the remaining of the trip. Even though being escorted by police sounded a bit scary at first, this is general practice in Jordan and it definitely gave us an increased sense of security, even though I found Jordan to be a very safe country overall. Apparently, having a member of the tourism police with the group also avoids getting stopped by the local police for security checks.
From the Israeli border, it took us an additional 1h30m to arrive in Jerash. Along with Petra, I was especially excited to visit what is known to be one of the best preserved Roman cities in the Middle East.
What is known today as Jerash became under Roman rule back in 63 BC, when it was conquered by General Pompey. Previously called Gerasa, it became one of the most prosperous cities of the Roman province of Syria. It’s flourishment arrived in the 2nd century, when Emperor Hadrian visited the city and many of the most prominent temples were built, including the Temple of Artemis and the Temple of Zeus.
The city started its decline in the 3rd century to flourish again in the 6th century under the Byzantines. After the Persian and Muslim invasions, as well all multiple earthquakes that brought the city to ruins, Jerash remained inhabited for centuries and hidden in the desert until it was excavated in the last century. Thanks to its grandeur and incredible state of preservation, it has been named as the Pompeii of the East.
The ruins are accessed from Hadrian’s Arch, an imposing triumphal arch built to commemorate the visit of Emperor Adrian back in 129 AD.
As you cross the arch, you’ll find on the left-hand side the Hippodrome of Jerash. When the Hadrianic project to expand the city over the south necropolis was abandoned, the western side of the Gerasa/Philadelphia (today Amman) road was free to build this hippodrome.
It is the smallest known hippodrome of the Roman Empire and also the best preserved; particularly the arched careers, which are the starting gates where the horses would be positioned. Built for chariot racing, it had a capacity for 17,000 spectators.
Surrounded by the most prominent ruins is the Oval Plaza, emblematic of the ancient city of Gerasa in its architecture, grandeur and development.
The oval shape is unique and the plaza was actually built to connect the Cardo (the main street of Gerasa) with the Sanctuary of Zeus. The plaza and the ionic columns that line the perimeter were built in the beginning of the 2nd century under the rule of Emperor Trajan.
Two small monuments decorated the centre of this plaza: the first was a base for a group of statues, probably representing priestesses, and the second a small base on which stood four columns which perhaps protected a statue of the emperor Hadrian.
My personal highlight of Jerash was the South Theatre, which is the largest and oldest of three ancient theatres in Jerash.
This one is a typical Roman plan theatre that was built between 80 and 96 AD and it is estimated that it could seat more than three thousand people. Theatres were an important part of ancient Roman life, where cultural performances would be staged.
The South Theatre included an imposing and superimposed levels of Corinthian columns. Parts of the theatre were ruined by the earthquake of 749 Ad, after which it probably served as a fortress during medieval times to shelter a small group of crusaders before Muslims re-conquered the region permanently.
Uphill from the Great Theatre stand the ruins of the once grand temple dedicated to Zeus Olympios. Built around 162 AD, it lies on a terrace above the original sanctuary to Zeus and overlooks the Oval Plaza.
The Great Temple of Zeus stood on a podium surrounded by columns. The plan and ornamentation were in a classic style typical of its time, and the facade was marked by eight Corinthian columns and a unique series of niches that decorated the outside walls.
Scattered among the Roman ruins, one can also find the remains of some Byzantine churches. Instead of following the Cardo, I took a detour to the left in order to explore these peculiar constructions in what is mainly known to be a Roman city.
These churches include the Church of Saints Peters and Paul, a two-sailed basilica built around the turn of the 6th to the 7th century; as well as the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damianus, built between 529 and 533.
Although never completed, the Temple of Artemis was built as a shrine to the patron goddess of Gerasa. It lies inside the large courtyard of the sanctuary.
Construction of the temple began in the 2nd century AD, however, only 12 columns out of a planned total of 32 were erected. The temple sits on an extensive system of underground vaults, the exact purpose of which is not known. At the back is an adytum, or inner shrine, where only the Roman priest would be permitted.
Going back to the cardio and just next to the temple of Artemis is the Propylaeum, Greek 'for before the gate'. This was part of the grand and monumental approach to the Temple of Artemis that began on the east bank of the wadi.
Worshippers would cross a bridge and then encounter this magnificent gateway. Its four colossal columns were aligned with the colonnades of the street and the entryway was richly decorated and comprised three openings.
As the city of Gerasa thrived and expanded there was a greater need for a substantial and continuous water source within the city. Around 125 AD Gerasa’s water supply system was built, and by the end of the 2nd century, the flow of the main aqueduct was increased to address a growing demand for water following the construction of the baths.
This imposing Nymphaeum was then built around 190 AD to add a main source of water to the multiple small public fountains that had previously been built along the Cardo, becoming a monumental fountain that served the public’s daily water needs.
The last stop along the Cardo and before reaching back the Oval Square was the Cathedral, the oldest known Byzantine church in Jerash built around 450/455 AD.
The site was previously occupied by a pagan sanctuary, perhaps dedicated to Dionysus the god of wine. During his reign, Bishop Placcus dismantled the Temple of Zeus and used some of the stones for this church, as well as to build the nearby baths named after him. This church was dubbed “the Cathedral” by the American excavation team that unearthed it in the 20s.
After visiting the main highlights of Jerash in a fascinating journey back in time, we continued our drive to the capital of Jordan: Amman.
When researching before my trip, I noticed that most tour operators completely skip Amman in other similar short trips to Jordan, focusing on some other biblical sights such as Mt. Nebo. However, my visit did include a quick stop in the Citadel of Amman, one of the main highlights of the capital city.
Located on top of a hill, it offers panoramic views of the entire city of Amman.
The citadel of Amman, referred to as Jabal al Qala’a, is one of Amman’s oldest known sites, perched on top of one of the city’s high hills. Archaeological excavations reveal that this summit has been used as a settlement and a fortress for millennia, dating back 7000 years according to some estimates, to the time of the rise of civilisation in Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley.
The settlement at the Citadel continued from at least the Middle Bronze Age through the Iron, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Arab Muslim periods.
The citadel is an astounding open-air museum where visitors can walk through time and see the relics of numerous civilisations. The site is associated with deities referenced in the Bible and witnessed numerous sieges, wards and earthquakes.
While the fortification walls enclose the site, occupation throughout the various archaeological periods spread out beyond the enclosing walls.
We entered the citadel and headed to the Great Temple of Hercules, which was actually dedicated to a supreme Roman deity.
The temple has been attributed to the popular hero-god Hercules due to the discovery of gigantic arms of a marble statue near the temple area. Also, Hercules was depicted on Roman coins minted in the city, which was called Philadelphia at the time.
The temple stands within an immense temenos (sacred precinct) that is surrounded by porticos. It was positioned on a large purpose-built stone podium and was meant to be seen from the lower city.
On the northern side of the hill of the citadel of Amman, a great palatine complex with an urban structure was built during the Umayyad period (1st to 8th century). The prominent monumental gateway was the formal entrance to the Umayyad palace. Visitors would be screened here and then wait to be announced to the governor before entering his palace beyond.
The palace is formed by three different parts: a more public one including a large entrance hall with a bath related to it, a pool for water supply and a great plaza. Nine residential buildings with their access streets and squares are situated in the intermediate area. Finally, at the northern end, the main residence was built with an audience hall, a throne room and four residential buildings with a layout similar to those mentioned above.
After a comprehensive tour of the citadel and some free time to enjoy the wonderful views, we continued our way for an additional 3 hours until we reached the bedouin camp where we would sleep for the following two nights.
The camp was located just a few minutes away from the entrance of Petra and managed by a family of bedouins that still lived in the desert. If you have the chance to sleep in a bedouin camp, do not miss it. The experience of sharing their culture, food and music made the trip to Jordan much more enriching.
Next day it was time to explore one of the New 7 Wonders of the World: the Lost City of Petra.
All opinions are my own.
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