The deep cleft of the Jordan Valley carries the River Jordan south from the Sea of Galilee (some 200m below sea level) to the Dead Sea (400m below). It’s a distance of only 104km as the crow flies, although the meandering river twists and writhes for more than three times that length. Set down in a deep gorge flanked by a desolate flood plain (the zor), the river is never visible from the main road, which runs through the ghor, or cultivable valley floor, well to the east. Flanked by 900m-high mountains on both sides and enjoying a swelteringly subtropical climate of low rainfall, high humidity and scorching temperatures, the valley, with its fertile alluvial soil, is perfect for agriculture on a large scale: this vast open-air greenhouse can produce crops up to two months ahead of elsewhere in the Middle East and can even stretch to three growing seasons annually. As early as five thousand years ago, foodstuffs from the valley were being exported to nearby states, and irrigation systems and urban development progressed hand-in-hand soon after. Agriculture has remained at the heart of the valley economy, from the wheat, barley, olives, grapes and beans of the Bronze Age to an extensive sugar-cane industry under the Mamlukes. Since the late nineteenth century, rapid development – and, in particular, the building of the King Abdullah Canal in the 1960s to irrigate the eastern ghor – has led to a burgeoning agricultural industry that supplies most of Jordan’s tomatoes, cucumbers, bananas, melons and citrus fruits, as well as producing a surplus for export.
In contrast to the prosaic vistas of concrete piping, plastic greenhouses and farm machinery that characterize the area today, well over two hundred archeological sites have been catalogued in the valley, although – with the notable exception of the Roman-Byzantine remains at Pella – almost all of them are Neolithic or Bronze Age settlements on the summits of tells, with little to see other than stone foundations. South of Pella, a few kilometres from the river’s outflow into the Dead Sea, lies the Baptism Site of Jesus.