Jordan’s prime attraction is Petra, an unforgettably dramatic 2000-year-old city carved from sandstone cliffs in the south of the country. Its extraordinary architecture and powerful atmosphere imprint themselves indelibly on most visitors’ imaginations.
There is a wealth of other historical sites, outstanding among them the well-preserved Roman city of Jerash, but also including Umm Qais, set on a dramatic promontory overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and Madaba, which has the oldest known map of the Middle East, in the form of a Byzantine mosaic laid on the floor of a church. After the Muslim conquest, the Umayyad dynasty built a series of retreats in the Jordanian desert, now dubbed the “Desert Castles”, including the bath-house of Qusayr Amra, adorned with naturalistic and erotic frescoes. Centuries later, the Crusaders established a heavy presence in southern Jordan, most impressively with the huge castles at Karak and Shobak. The Arab resistance to the Crusader invasion left behind another fortress at Ajloun in the north.
Jordan is part of the “Holy Land”: its religious sites include the Baptism Site of Jesus on the banks of the River Jordan, and Mount Nebo, from where Moses looked over the Promised Land. John the Baptist met his death at Herod’s hilltop palace at Mukawir after Salome danced her seductive dance. Nearby is Lot’s Cave, where Abraham’s nephew sought refuge from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Your most abiding memories of a visit are likely to be of Jordan’s varied and beautiful natural environment. With its sheer cliffs and red sands, austere Wadi Rum – where David Lean filmed Lawrence of Arabia – presents the classic desert picture of Jordan. Less well-known are the gentle northern hills around the Ajloun forests, hosting walks through flower-strewn meadows and cool, shady woodland. In the south, tranquil Dana overlooks a swathe of territory from verdant highland orchards down to the sandy desert floor, offering a memorable hideaway at the Feynan Ecolodge. The protected Wadi Mujib is a giant canyon, 4km wide at the top, that narrows to a high, rocky gorge carrying a fast-flowing river down to the salty Dead Sea, an inland lake too buoyant for swimming but perfect for floating, your body supported by the density of the salty water. Last but not least, Jordan has some of the world’s best diving and snorkelling in the coral-fringed Red Sea off Aqaba.