South along the Dead Sea road
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South of the Dead Sea hotels and beaches, the shoreside road continues all the way to Aqaba, roughly 275km away. This is a reasonably fast, mostly empty driving route, offering spectacular scenery that shifts from the deep blue of the Dead Sea to the sandy deserts of the Wadi Araba – though don’t get carried away: mobile police speed traps are common.
From Amman Beach, it’s roughly 12km south to a series of thermal springs at Zara, lying downstream from the hot waterfalls of Hammamat Ma’in. Zara is a very popular Friday outing spot, with cars lined up along the highway, and people alternating between dipping in the Dead Sea and washing the salt off in the warm spring water. Men can splash around freely but even in the secluded valleys women would do best to venture in fully clothed. A few hundred metres south of Zara are the remains of King Herod’s baths and Dead Sea port at Callirhoë, although there’s little left to see other than a handful of column drums and the remnants of a harbour wall.
Beside cliffs on the Dead Sea shore road, 27km south of Amman Beach, the Mujib Bridge forms a graceful 140m span across the outflow of the River Mujib; on the lake side of the bridge you can splash around in the refreshing river water. The Mujib valley system, which extends high into the mountains, is the centrepiece of the Mujib Biosphere Reserve, run by Wild Jordan, the ecotourism arm of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). Below the bridge, on the cliff side of the road, is the visitor centre. Staff here have maps, brochures and light refreshments, and can advise on walking routes, though you should always book in advance directly or through the RSCN’s Wild Jordan centre in Amman.
The easy but dramatic Siq Trail (April–Oct only; JD13/person self-guided, JD40 extra with guide; 2hr 30min) heads into the Mujib gorge, leading you between towering sandstone cliffs to the base of a waterfall before returning; you may be wading or even swimming some sections. A tougher alternative is the dry Ibex Trail (year-round; JD21/person including compulsory guide; 4hr), which heads from the Mujib Bridge south to a steep access route up into the mountains, traversing a number of valleys on the way to a ranger station: you may spot ibex roaming wild here.
Longer routes include the wet Malaqi Trail (April–Oct only; JD56/person including compulsory guide; 6hr), a classic canyoning route, graded difficult, which initially follows the Ibex Trail before descending into the Mujib gorge and heading upstream to the confluence with the Wadi Hidan, then returning – via a 20m waterfall abseil – to the Mujib Bridge.
More options, and other walks that start from the reserve’s eastern highland entrance at Faqua, are outlined on the website. All routes are closed during Ramadan. For detailed trail reports, see w walkingjordan.com and Tony Howard’s fine book on Jordan walks.
Beyond Mujib the Dead Sea road continues south, hugging the salt-spattered shore below rocky cliffs. Some 24km south is Mazra’a, a small town on what was the Lisan Peninsula – now a belt of dry land across the lake. Exploring the peninsula isn’t encouraged by the Arab Potash Company, whose massive factory complex stands nearby, but it’s still possible to turn off at the company’s sign, drive out a little way and then venture into the soft white sand on foot. You might stumble upon one of the old Byzantine monasteries that lie ruined here, unexcavated, in an eerie landscape forever sultry and thick with haze.
Ghor Mazra’a (ghor, meaning “depression”, refers to the agricultural lands around the village) and neighbouring Ghor Haditha are the location for an experiment in “exchange tourism” run by the Zikra Initiative.
About 1km south of Mazra’a is a turn-off leading up into the hills to Karak. Take this road for about 1km and you’ll come to the Bronze Age tell (archeological mound) of Bab adh-Dhraa, rising on your left. It’s a sparse site, offering a thick city wall and a handful of foundations – but the attraction is in relating the place to a name. Bab adh-Dhraa is the site of a large town which flourished around 2600 BC – some graves in the huge necropolis across the road date from as early as the fourth millennium – and is the leading candidate for biblical Sodom, location of so much depravity that God felt compelled to raze the city and kill its inhabitants. Standing on the tell today, amid barren rocks on the hazy shores of a salt lake, you can only wonder what on earth the poor Sodomites must have been up to in these rooms to deserve such a fate.
Near Safi village, 22km south of the Karak turning on the Dead Sea road at Ghor Safi, a sign points left to Lot’s Sanctuary – a rich archeological site that has thrown up evidence of Early and Middle Bronze Age habitation, as well as Nabatean pottery, Byzantine mosaics and the earliest example of carved wood yet discovered intact in Jordan: a door that dates from the seventh-century Umayyad period. The location – not to mention the notion of standing in Lot’s sandalprints – is dramatic enough to warrant a visit.
About 1km along the turn-off from the Dead Sea road, you’ll spot The Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth, a grand, semicircular building designed to showcase the historical heritage of the southern Dead Sea area. It opened in summer 2012 – and seems set to become a major attraction.
Highlights within the modern, well-lit galleries include finds from the Lot’s Sanctuary site, including a complete mosaic pavement. There are also some extremely rare Greco-Roman textiles discovered at Khirbet Qayzun on the Dead Sea shore – felt hats and women’s wool-fringed head veils – as well as early Christian tombstones from Zoara (Safi’s biblical name). One display section explains the area’s importance as a sugar-processing centre during the Mamluke period (twelfth to fifteenth centuries), when dozens of mills processed sugar cane in industrial quantities for export to Europe: Zoara, then known as Zughar, may have given its name to the product.
The museum also has a small shop and café run by the local women’s cooperative, selling their handmade crafts (saficrafts.blogspot.com– also search Safi Crafts on Facebook).
From the museum, a track continues steeply up the hill to a parking area. The guardian will then accompany you up to the sanctuary site, which involves a tiring climb of almost 300 steps.
The first area you come to is a court, part of which has slipped down the hill, but which originally supported the floor of the church above. The main apse has seating for the bishop and is slightly raised. Five mosaics – one dated April 606, another May 691 – have been renovated, and may be uncovered for viewing once a site shelter is in place. The narthex was originally entered from the right, via a doorway from the court below; this ingenious piece of design enabled visiting Jewish and Muslim pilgrims to avoid stepping inside the church and instead head straight for the holy cave, the entrance to which is to the left of the apse. A beautifully carved lintel over the cave entrance, marked with crosses, presages an interior mosaic which mimics the round stones embedded in the roof. All around the church was spread a monastery: the remains of six or seven cells are dotted around the parched hillside. The views over the Dead Sea and the nearby town of Safi are stunning.
Safi, at the southern tip of the Dead Sea, is the phosphate capital of Jordan, although – under the name Zoar – it also has a history as one of the five biblical “cities of the plain”, along with Sodom and Gomorrah. The southernmost portion of the Dead Sea has been corralled into huge evaporation pans for Jordan’s phosphate and chemical industries and, with its neighbour, the lush farming village of FIFA a bit further south, Safi shares a natural hothouse that is one of the most intensively farmed areas of Jordan, with bananas, tomatoes and other fruits as staple irrigated crops.
Just beyond Fifa, a scenic turn-off climbs to Tafileh, while continuing south brings you into the long Wadi Araba, with drifting sand and wandering camels all the way south to Aqaba.
The tale in Genesis of how God punished the depravity of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and how Lot and his wife escaped, is one of the best-known biblical stories. After arriving in Canaan (Palestine), Lot and his uncle Abraham began to bicker over grazing grounds. They separated, and Lot pitched his tents at the southeastern corner of the Dead Sea near Sodom, one of the five “cities of the plain” (the others were Gomorrah, Zoar, Admah and Zeboyim). “But,” as Genesis warns, “the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly.” One evening, Lot was visited by two angels, come to warn him of the city’s impending divine destruction. Lot, his wife and two daughters fled and “the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire.” Every one of the five cities was destroyed, and every person killed. As they were fleeing, Lot’s wife disobeyed a divine order not to look back at the destruction, and was turned into a pillar of salt.
Seemingly the last people left alive in the world, Lot and his daughters sought refuge in a cave in the mountains. Calculating that, with all potential mates vaporized, they were likely to die childless, the daughters hatched a plan to get their father so drunk he wouldn’t be able to tell who they were, whereupon they would seduce him and thus preserve the family. Everything worked to plan and both daughters gave birth to sons; the elder named her child Moab, and the younger Ben-Ammi, or “father of Ammon”.
The last of these bizarre biblical episodes has been commemorated for centuries, and possibly millennia, at a cave-and-church complex in the hills above Safi. Ruins within Safi itself, as well as at four other scanty Early Bronze Age sites nearby (Bab adh-Dhraa, Numayra, Fifa and Khanazir), show evidence of destruction by fire. At Numayra, archeologists also found the skeletons of three men whose bones were crushed by falling masonry. These five could possibly be the “cities of the plain”. The only fly in the ointment is that they were razed around 2350 BC, several hundred years before the generally accepted era of Abraham and Lot, although archeologists are still debating the precise timescales involved.