Story and photos by Bob Schulman Travel Editor www.WatchBoom.com
additional photo by ISV Ltd.
Discovering the Treasures of Jordan
If you've come to Jordan to see the country's three main showstoppers – Petra, the Dead Sea and the site of Jesus' baptism – there's a big surprise in store for you. Visitors quickly find the whole country is an outdoor history museum.
The other jaw-droppers start soon after you get off the plane at Queen Alia International Airport at Amman, Jordan's capital. Once named Philadelphia (after Ptolemy II Philadelphus, an Egyptian conqueror), it's a modern city of 1.5 million people, overlooked by a hill full of temples and shrines dating back to the Bronze Age.
From there, most of the country's heavyweight historical sites – places where you can walk in the footsteps of everyone, from biblical luminaries such as Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Lot, Ruth and Elijah to those of Roman emperors, Persian kings, crusader knights and the Arab army of T.E. Lawrence – are within a 230-mile-long stretch of real estate. It starts a little north of Amman and runs down the western edge of the country to the border with Saudi Arabia.
What's more, many of the tourism hot spots are less than an hour away from the capital. For instance, just 30 miles north of Amman is a jump back in time to Imperial Rome in the sprawling ruins of Jerash. Allow at least a couple of hours to wander around the city's temples, arches, theaters and colonnaded streets where General Pompey's legions once paraded before 30,000 cheering townsfolk.
The road west of Amman is dotted with buses heading to one of the top Christian religious sites in the world: the place where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus. Located along the Jordan River on the border with Israel, the complex of churches, baptismal pools, monastic caves and riverside steps is named “Bethany Beyond the Jordan,” from biblical writings.
Among eye-poppers a little southwest of Amman is Mt. Nebo – the spot where Moses first saw The Promised Land. At the top of the mountain, imagine yourself standing in Moses' sandals as he looked out on the panorama of the Jordan River Valley and across the river to the nearby city of Jericho.
Hop back in your car or tour bus for a quick ride to photo ops at the Dead Sea. The lowest point on earth (1,312 feet below sea level), the salty sea not only edges spectacular landscapes but also top-rated health and wellness resorts. From there, the highway runs through stretches of flatlands peppered with Bedouin tents, biosphere reserves, moonscape-like deserts and rugged mountain ranges. It ends at the Jordanian seaport of Aqaba a few miles from the border with Saudi Arabia.
All told, it's a drive of only four hours from Amman to Aqaba, but few tourists make the trip in a single day. Many are on week-long guided tours, while others opt to stay over at hotels or inns near dozens of historic and religious sites, at spas along the Dead Sea and in mountain resorts. Another option: an overnight stay in a Bedouin tent in the desert.
And – about three hours from Amman -- just about everyone spends a day or a two exploring the country's crown tourism jewel: the ancient city of Petra.
If you were surprised by the huge number of biblical and historical sites around the country – just a few of which have been named in this report – you're in for a real stunner at Petra.
“Many tourists think the cliffside 'Treasury' building they've seen so often on travel posters and in movies such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the only thing that's there,” says tour guide Mahmoud Iwaissi. “True, there's nothing else quite like (that building) in the world, but it's only the start of the thrills waiting for them at Petra.”
Iwassi notes the historic site is one of the Seven New Wonders of the World and attracts more than 900,000 visitors a year.
Some history: Roughly 2,500 years ago, Nabataean nomads decided to settle down in what's now known as Petra, most likely when they found the place was easy to defend, thanks to a labyrinth of steep canyon walls, and was blessed with lots of water. Over time, the city became a hub for caravans traveling on trade routes linking China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome.
In exchange for protection, water and a time-out for rest and relaxation, the caravans paid taxes to the Nabataeans, making Petra one of the wealthiest cities of the ancient world. The good times lasted until the first century B.C., when the city fell to Roman legions and later became part of the Roman province of Arabia.
Whatever you've seen or heard about Petra, nothing really prepares you for the immense size of the city – around four square miles, mostly not excavated yet – and the 800 structures there, from rock-cut tombs to churches, temples and baths to a 3,000-seat amphitheater. And if you're up to climbing 900 stairs, a towering monastery awaits you atop the cliffs.
Put on your walking shoes and slip a fresh memory card in your camera before entering the complex for a mile-long trek through the “Siq” walkway to the treasury building. And then another trek of almost a mile to the end of the site.
Visitors who can't handle walks that long can opt for rides on donkeys, camels or horses, or in horse-driven carriages – all offered at varying prices depending on your haggling skills.
Perhaps taking a tip from the old-time Nabataean taxes, Jordan today charges 50 dinars (about US$70) for a day in Petra for visitors who spent at least a night in the country. If you didn't, you'll need to shell out a whopping 90 dinars (US$127) to get in.
The road continues south from Petra for another 70 miles to Aqaba. Along the way you can take jeep or camel rides across the sands of the Wadi Rum, a long stretch of desert edged by monolithic rockscapes. Bumping over the dunes, it's easy to conjure up a picture of Peter O'Toole leading thousands of Arab tribesmen across this desert to capture the World War I Turkish stronghold of Aqaba in the movie Lawrence of Arabia.
Staying there: The country offers a total of some 8,000 rooms in upscale hotels including many in Amman, Petra, Aqaba and along the Dead Sea. Among popular properties are the Four Seasons in Amman, the Evason Ma'in Hot Springs & Six Senses Spa outside Madaba, Moevenpick hotels in Petra and on the Dead Sea, and the Intercontinental and the Kempinski in Aqaba.
More info: Visit the Jordan Tourism Board at www.visitjordan.com.
© June 2011 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.