South of Madaba, the King’s Highway meanders up and down across several valleys draining rainwater off the hills, including the dramatic canyon of Wadi Mujib. One of Jordan’s most spectacular natural features, lying midway between Madaba and Karak, the immense valley has been dubbed, with a canny eye on the tourist dollar, “Jordan’s Grand Canyon”. The name, however, is well earned, as the King’s Highway delivers you to stunning viewpoints on either rim over a vast gash in the barren landscape, cutting through 1200m of altitude from the desert plateau in the east down to the Dead Sea in the west. It is every bit as awe-inspiring as its Arizonan cousin and has the added selling-point of the memorable road journey winding down to the valley floor and up the other side. A large chunk of the surrounding territory now forms part of the protected Mujib Biosphere Reserve, offering the chance for wilderness hiking and canyoning as good as any you’ll find in the Middle East.
More about Jordan
Find out more
Some 2km south of Dhiban, the vast canyon of Wadi Mujib opens up spectacularly in front, over 500m deep and 4km broad at the top. Just over the lip of the gorge is a small rest stop and viewing platform. The dramatic canyon is an obvious natural focal point, and in biblical times, Arnon, as it was named, was the heartland of Moab, although with shifts in regional power it frequently marked a border between tribal jurisdictions; today, it divides the governorates of Madaba and Karak. The sheer scale of the place takes your breath away, with vultures, eagles and kestrels wheeling silently on rising thermals all around, and the valley floor to the right losing itself in the mistiness of the Dead Sea. The broad, flat plain of the wadi bed, now dammed, is noticeably hotter and creaks with frog calls.
The Mesha stele
The Mesha stele
These days a largely unregarded village, in the past Dhiban was an important city, capital of Moab and mentioned many times in the Old Testament. In around 850 BC, a man named Mesha, described as a “shepherd king”, liberated Moab from Israelite aggression, built a palace in Dhiban and set about refortifying the King’s Highway against future attack.
Almost three thousand years later, in 1868, a German missionary travelling in the wild country between Salt and Karak was shown by Dhibani bedouin a large basalt stone inscribed with strange characters. Unaware of its significance, he informed the German consul of his discovery, who then made quiet arrangements to obtain the stele on behalf of the Berlin Museum. However, a French diplomat in Jerusalem who heard of the discovery was less subtle; he travelled to Dhiban, took an imprint of the stele’s text and there and then offered the locals a large sum of money. Suddenly finding themselves at the centre of an international furore over a seemingly very desirable lump of rock, the bedouin refused his offer and sent him packing; they then did the obvious thing and devised a way to make more money. By heating the stone over a fire, then pouring cold water on it, they successfully managed to shatter it, and thus sell off each valuable fragment to the covetous foreigners one by one. Meanwhile, scholars in Europe were studying and translating the imprint of the text, which turned out to be Mesha’s own record of his achievements, significant as the longest inscription in the Moabite language and one of the longest and most detailed original inscriptions from the biblical period yet discovered. The mostly reconstructed stele now sits in the Louvre in Paris; having become something of a symbol of national pride, copies of it are displayed in museums all over Jordan.