The King’s Highway – the grandiose translation of an old Hebrew term which probably only meant “main road” – is a long, meandering squiggle of a road running through some of Jordan’s loveliest countryside. It has been the route of north–south trade and the scene of battles since prehistoric times – but today is a simple byway, often rutted and narrow, which follows the contours of the rolling hills above the Dead Sea rift. Major stops include the historic town of Madaba, Crusader castles at Karak and Shobak, and the spectacular Dana Nature Reserve, set in an isolated valley with good facilities for camping and hiking. But the King’s Highway also runs through fields and small towns, linking a series of springs and following the line of maximum hilltop rainfall: travelling on it can give a glimpse of the reality of rural life for many Jordanians.
The King’s Highway is mentioned in the Old Testament: Moses was refused permission to travel on it by the king of Edom, and later the Nabateans, from their power base in Petra, used it to trade luxury goods between Arabia and Syria. When the Romans annexed the Nabatean kingdom, Emperor Trajan renovated the ancient road to facilitate travel and communications between his regional capital at Bosra, now in southern Syria, and Aqaba on the Red Sea coast. Early Christian pilgrims visited a number of sites on and off the road around Madaba, whose beautiful Byzantine mosaics still merit a pilgrimage today. The Crusaders used the highway as the linchpin of their Kingdom of Oultrejourdain, fortifying positions along the road at Karak and Shobak – where extensive remains of castles survive – and also at Petra and Aqaba.
However, with the development by the Ottomans of the faster and more direct Darb al-Hajj (Pilgrimage Route), from Damascus to Medina and Mecca through the desert further east – and the subsequent construction of both the Hejaz Railway and the modern Desert Highway along the same route – the King’s Highway faded in importance. It was only asphalted along its entire length in the 1950s and 1960s.