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Situated between Israel, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom of Jordan is unexpectedly peaceful amid the turmoil of its neighbours and is a wonderful place to visit. With two of the most magnificent sights in the Middle East, namely the ancient city of Petra and Wadi Rum's spectacular desert scenery, it is sad that so few people explore its rich history.
Jordan is a kingdom layered in antiquity, from the work of Nabataean stonemasons to characters such as Moses and Lawrence of Arabia; from ancient cities and Biblical sites to desert castles, Crusader forts, and Byzantine mosaics.
This ancient culture belies the fact that it is also a modern country, with good infrastructure, a thriving business and arts scene, and first-class hotels, restaurants, and shopping opportunities. The contrast between the old and new is astonishing.
Jordan is a relatively small country of varied landscapes, where the fertile Jordan Valley, bordering the entire western side of the kingdom, is separated from the immense desert stretching to the east by the populated highlands. As part of the Great Rift Valley, the Jordan Valley incorporates the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the earth's surface and most famous for its heavy salt and mineral concentrations.
The main towns strung along the length of the highland plateau include the capital of Amman, as well as plenty of historical sites from ancient civilisations. Home to brilliant deserts, colourful coral reefs that are unequalled the world over, and sweeping vistas, Jordan is full of charismatic beauty.
Like much else in Jordan, the variety and quality of sightseeing opportunities will take visitors by surprise if they haven't done their homework. There is far more to see than just desert landscapes, although these are just as astoundingly beautiful as any others in the world. Jordan gives travellers a great way to see the Middle East in a safe environment, and everything visitors could want out of a desert adventure can be found here. Jordan is on friendly terms with its neighbours, making it the safest destination to travel to in the Middle East, all while serving up fantastic sights such as the ancient and wonderful city of Petra.
Beyond Petra, there are many other fascinating desert cities, castles and fortresses to be explored, many of which can easily be accessed from the capital of Amman or from the lively city of Aqaba. Visitors can opt to take these excursions by local taxi, hired car, 4x4 or do it in style, atop a camel, as native Jordanians have done for centuries. Not merely a land of desert and camels, there are great opportunities for visitors to get their feet wet in either the Dead Sea or the Red Sea. While the Red Sea (situated at the very southernmost tip of Jordan) offers up a fantastic chance to swim and scuba in crystal clear waters, harbouring some of the most spectacular coral reefs in the world, the Dead Sea experience is something totally different. The lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea allows swimmers to float weightlessly in its extremely salty waters.
From its position on top of a hill overlooking the city, the Citadel (known locally as Jabal al-Qal'a) stands testament to the history of Amman, with its ancient ruins and excavated relics. It is the site of the ancient capital Rabbath-Ammon and numerous excavations have revealed Stone Age remains as well as those from the Roman to the Islamic periods. Other items from throughout the country are housed in the Jordan Archaeological Museum. The site contains several structures including the impressive Omayyad Palace (al-Qasr), a small Byzantine basilica and what was once the Temple of Hercules, the Great Temple of Amman. Also on the site is the Jordan Archaeological Museum, which has an excellent collection of artefacts from Jordan dating back to the earliest settlement in the region over 700,000 years ago. The Dead Sea Scrolls, Iron Age sarcophagi, and a copy of the Mesha Stele are its most important exhibits.
Below the Citadel is the magnificent Roman amphitheatre, an impressive relic from ancient Philadelphia that is cut into the hill and can seat up to 6,000 people. The theatre is still used occasionally for events today. Two cultural museums form part of the complex: the Jordan Folklore Museum, which has exhibits on traditional life, and the Museum of Popular Traditions with traditional costumes and mosaics from 4th to 6th century Jordanian churches. The theatre was built during the reign of Antonius Pius (138-161 CE) and is today a famous landmark in Amman and of course the ancient Roman city Philadelphia. It surrounds the Hashemite Plaza, Odeon Theatre, and the Nymphaeum.
Stretching to the east of Amman towards Saudi Arabia and Iraq is the vast desert plain where a cluster of historic ruins such as castles, forts, baths, and palaces have been preserved. They are collectively known as the Desert Castles. Their purpose is largely unknown, but most are thought to have been built as recreational retreats by the Umayyad caliphs during the early Islamic Period (7th to 8th centuries AD). Qasr Mushatta is the biggest and most elaborate of the castles, a fine example of Umayyad architecture despite never being completed. The best preserved and most enchanting is the luxurious bathhouse of Qusayr Amra, with its domed ceiling, colourful interior frescoes, and mosaics. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other desert castles include the black rock fortress at Azraq, which was the desert headquarters of Lawrence of Arabia during the Great Arab Revolt in 1917, the mysterious Qasr al-Kharrana, Qasr al-Hallabat's crumbling remains, and the well-maintained complex at Qastal.
Lying 42 miles (68km) north of Aqaba, the scenery of Wadi Rum is acclaimed as one of the most stunningly beautiful desert landscapes in the world and is a major tourist destination in Jordan. Towering mountains of weathered sandstone rise vertically from the pink desert sands where the vast emptiness and silence is takes the breath away. There are many ways to explore the vast desert interior where the likes of Lawrence of Arabia once rode. Serious mountaineers and climbers relish the challenge of its high peaks, particularly the highest in the area, Jabal Rum, and the remarkable Rock Bridge, while hikers can enjoy the grandeur of the interior by walking out into the wilderness and camping alone under the stars. Camel trips and 4x4 vehicle tours can also be arranged from the Government Rest House. Wadi Rum is home to several nomadic Bedouin families who are famous for their hospitality, and visitors are often invited to share mint tea with them inside their goat-hair tents or beside the fire under the starry sky.
Originally spread over seven hills, or jabals, the capital of the Hashemite kingdom now sprawls over 19 hills and is home to over a million people, almost half of Jordan's population. Known as the White City, the hills are covered in a jumble of light-coloured stone houses, consistently box-like in shape with flat roofs characteristic of a typical desert city.
Faded minarets, pavement markets, Arabian sweet shops, and the crumbling remains of ancient civilisations contrast wonderfully with the contemporary edifices, fashionable boutiques and international restaurants. This blend of the old and the new combines in the noisy and chaotic downtown area where the city's extraordinarily friendly residents go about their business.
At the heart of downtown is the Ottoman-style King Hussein Mosque, around which the buzz and bustle is at its most interesting. Even busier at prayer times, the surrounding streets are filled with the essence of Arabia, exotic smells and rows of glittering treasures in the souq (market) amid the noise of frenetic haggling.
Just as overwhelming is Amman's sense of history, dating back 5,500 years to its position as the ancient capital of the Ammonites, Rabbath-Ammon of the Old Testament, and later as Philadelphia, the Roman city that became part of the Decapolis. Overlooking the city from atop Jabal al-Qala'a is the Citadel, the site of the ancient Rabbath-Ammon, and at its foot lies the impressive Roman amphitheatre that is the most remarkable remnant of ancient Philadelphia.
Amman is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world, and today functions as a thriving commercial and administrative centre with modern facilities, historical attractions and a longstanding tradition of hospitality. It is an excellent base from which to explore the surrounds, even the rest of the country as its no more than five hours drive from anywhere, and is surprisingly agreeable for a capital city.
Carved into the rock and protected by rugged mountains on all sides is Jordan's most famous attraction, the ancient city of Petra, one of the world's most spectacular ruins, set within a canyon near the town of Wadi Musa.
Wadi Musa, or Valley of Moses, was once the name of the valley and not just the small tourist town along the sides of the valley leading down to Petra. The town's existence is primarily to service the tourist industry as the gateway to Petra.
More than 2,000 years ago, a nomadic tribe from Arabia settled in the area and these Nabateans established Petra as their capital. It became a powerful fortress city that controlled the passage of traders, and grew prosperous from the caravans crossing their land carrying spices and riches from India and Arabia.
An astonishing city of monumental tombs, temples and decorative buildings carved from the solid rock was created from this wealth, which still stands as a testament to the remarkable creativity and engineering prowess of the Nabateans.
Today's Petra is a staggering landscape of rock-hewn monuments, amphitheatres, palaces, arched gateways, water channels, and detailed carvings spread over a vast area. Dramatic tombs and temples unfold with each step taken further into the winding canyon.
Intricate facades cut into the soaring cliff faces dwarf the ubiquitous camel drivers, traders and tourists to insignificance. Where the uppermost layers of the rock have eroded away, fantastic surreal streaks of blue, red, yellow, purple, and white cover the monuments in undulating patterns.
To enter the city, visitors must first pass through a long, narrow chasm in the rock, the Siq, that winds its way for almost a mile (1.5km) with steep inclining sides that come close to meeting 656 feet (200m) above. Suddenly, the Siq opens out onto the canyon floor, dramatically revealing Petra's most famous monument: the Treasury, or Al-Khazneh.
The Treasury is intricately carved into the solid rock of the pink mountain face and stands 140 feet (43m) high. The towering façade was used in the final moments of the film Petra's second most fabulous structure is the Monastery (El-Deir) situated among spectacular desert scenery high up on the mountain, and while it is bigger than the Treasury, it was never finished and is less ornate.
A number of places require a bit of effort to reach, but climbing will be rewarded with enchanting views of the desert setting, an overwhelming sense of the size of the site and panoramic lookouts over the rose city of Petra, a certain highlight of any trip to Jordan.
July and August are the hottest and driest months of the year, especially in Amman and the Jordan Valley, and in the desert areas, with temperatures over 97°F (36°C). Spring and autumn are the most pleasant times to visit with clear, sunny days and moderate temperatures. The winter months from December to March can be very cold, particularly in Amman, with snow, rain and wind, but there is little rainfall in the desert regions and in Aqaba, which makes a pleasant wintertime resort. About 75 percent of the country can be described as having a desert climate with very little annual rainfall.
The official currency is the Dinar (JOD), which is divided into 10 dirhams, 100 piastres or 1,000 fulus. Foreign currency can be changed at any bank or moneychanger. Banks are closed on Fridays. Better hotels will also exchange money. American Express, Visa, MasterCard and Diners Club are the most widely accepted credit cards and can be used at major hotels, restaurants and tourist shops; cash can be withdrawn from inside banks. ATMs are available, though acceptance of foreign cards is limited.
Arabic is the official language, but English is understood by most people involved in the tourist industry and by middle to upper class Jordanians.
Electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz. European two-pin plugs are most common, though occasionally UK flat three-pin plugs are used.
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Jordan. A visa is required, and can be obtained on arrival.
UK nationals: British citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Jordan. A visa is required and can be obtained on arrival.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Jordan. A visa is required, and can be obtained on arrival.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Jordan. A visa is required, and can be obtained on arrival.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Jordan. A visa is required, and can be obtained on arrival for a maximum stay of 30 days. It is possible to apply for an extension.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Jordan. A visa is required, and can be obtained on arrival.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Jordan. A visa is required, and can be obtained on arrival.
All foreign passengers to Jordan must hold return/onward tickets, and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination. Furthermore, most nationalities require a visa to enter Jordan, which can be obtained on arrival, if arriving by air. A single-entry visa costs JOD 40, and is valid for two months; a JOD 60 visa is valid for 3 months and two entries; a JOD 120 visa is valid for 6 months and multiple entries. Note that the fee is payable in Jordanian Dinars only. This fee may be waived for registered tour groups of more than five people. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Inoculations are not required unless travelling from an area infected with yellow fever, in which case a certificate will be requested on arrival. Although not necessary, it is recommended that a vaccination for typhoid be had before travel to Jordan, except for short-term business travellers who restrict their meals to major restaurants and hotels. It is advisable to drink bottled water, which is cheap and widely available, although better hotels have their own water filtering systems. Medical services are good throughout the country with clinics, hospitals and medical centres in every city and village, many doctors in the larger towns and cities speak English. Most hospitals are privately owned. Travellers should carry their own prescription medicines and medical insurance is recommended.
Most of the better hotels and restaurants will add a 10 percent service charge to the bill, but smaller establishments usually expect a tip. It is customary to round up the price of a taxi trip instead of tipping.
The vast majority of tourist visits to Jordan are safe and trouble free. However, there remains a moderate risk of terrorist attacks throughout the Middle East including Jordan and foreigners should maintain a degree of vigilance particularly in public places frequented by tourists and at tourist sites. The situation in Iraq has had an impact on local opinion, as well as the violence between the neighbouring Israelis and Palestinians, and foreigners should avoid all public demonstrations and political gatherings. There is a fair degree of anti-American and anti-Western sentiment in the country, and no distinction is made between US government personnel and ordinary citizens. Care should be taken at the borders with Israel and Iraq. Though crime is not a serious risk for travellers, visitors can be targets of pickpockets or petty thieves on buses and in crowded places.
The consumption of alcohol is strictly forbidden in the streets. It is advisable to respect local Muslim conservatism regarding dress and women in particular will be better respected if their legs and shoulders are covered in public places. It is advisable to ask permission before photographing people. Bargaining is expected with merchants especially in the markets. Religious customs should be respected, particularly during the month of Ramadan when eating, drinking and smoking during daylight hours should be discreet as it is forbidden by the Muslim culture. Homosexuality is illegal. Bedouin hospitality is genuine, but custom requires that visitors should leave some small gift in return for a meal or a glass of tea.
Business in Jordan is conducted with an emphasis on modest, formal attire. Women, in particular, should be sure to dress conservatively. As with most Arab countries, business is very male-dominated and therefore women should clarify their role early in meetings. Meetings often start very late, but it is always advised to be punctual nonetheless. Most business is conducted in English, although using a few words of Arabic (particularly for titles) will be appreciated. Business cards are often exchanged. It is common to be invited for meals by one's host, who will usually pay the bill, although it is appreciated if the guest pays for the final meal or gives a small gift. Business hours are usually 9.30am to 1.30pm and 3.30pm to 6pm Sunday to Thursday.
The international dialling code for Jordan is +962. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the UK). Jordan has international direct dialling with most countries. City/area codes are in use, e.g. (0)3 for both Aqaba and Petra, and (0)6 for Amman. Free wifi is available in most prominent hotels and international coffee shops.
Travellers to Jordan over 18 years do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes or 25 cigars, or 200 grams of pipe tobacco; 1 litre of alcohol, 1 or 2 bottles of perfume and eau-de-Cologne or lotion for personal use; and gifts to the value of JD200 or US$280. Restricted items include firearms, sporting guns and other weapons without prior approval from authorities of country of origin and destination country. Prohibited items include all narcotics and birds or bird products.
Jordan Tourism Board, Amman: +96 26 5678 444 or www.visitjordan.com
Embassy of Jordan, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 966 2664.
Embassy of Jordan, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Ireland): +44 20 7937 3685.
Embassy of Jordan, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 238 8090.
Embassy of Jordan, Canberra, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 2 6295 9951.
Embassy of Jordan, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 346 8615.
United States Embassy, Amman: +962 6 590 6000.
British Embassy, Amman: +962 6 590 9200.
Canadian Embassy, Amman: +962 6 520 3300.
Australian Embassy, Amman: +962 6 580 7000.
South African Embassy, Amman: +962 6 592 1194.
Irish Honourary Consulate, Amman: +962 6 553 3616.
New Zealand Consulate, Ankara, Turkey (also responsible for Jordan): +90 312 446 3333.
Situated about 31 miles (50km) north of Amman is one of the top attractions in Jordan: the ancient city of Jerash, considered to be one of the best-preserved Roman sites in the world. Its exceptional preservation is due to it being buried in sand for centuries and the magnificent baths, theatres, temples, arches, columns ,and stone chariot-rutted streets have long attracted scholars and tourists from across the world to admire the most complete city in the Roman Decapolis. Excavations dating to the Neolithic Age have indicated that Jerash was continuously occupied for more than 6,500 years. Today visitors can marvel as the ancient amphitheatre comes to life at the annual Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts, where artists from around the globe sing, dance, act, and play music on stage in a celebration of Jordanian and international culture.
Situated about 28 miles (45km) from Amman, lies the famous attraction of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth at 1,335 feet (407m) below sea level. Devoid of plant or animal life due to the high salt concentration (four times saltier than normal), it is the incredible mineral rich water that has made it an internationally sought-after destination since ancient times, popular for its curative properties as well as for the experience of floating effortlessly on its surface. Most holidaymakers go to the main resort area on the northern shore at Sweimeh, where the Government Rest House provides showers, a restaurant, a beach, and the opportunity to smother oneself in the mineral-rich black mud. Accommodation is available at the Dead Sea Spa Hotel, where various medical treatments are also on offer.
The most sacred site in Jordan, Mount Nebo is believed to be the burial site of Moses who climbed the hill in order to survey the Promised Land that he would never enter. Situated on the edge of a plateau about six miles (10km) from Madaba, Mount Nebo affords spectacular views towards Jerusalem, whose spires are visible on a clear day, and across the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea. A modern day shrine sits on the ruins of a 6th-century Byzantine monastery, and affords protection to the original floor mosaics, while in the grounds stands the symbolic Serpentine Cross.
Madaba is most famous for its spectacular Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics from the 5th to 7th centuries which are scattered throughout the town's homes and churches. Located just 19 miles (30km) south of Amman, Madaba is also home to the famous 6th-century mosaic map of the Holy Land, in which Jerusalem and its surrounding regions are depicted. One of the town's most beautiful mosaics covers the floor of the Byzantine Church of the Apostles, and the Archaeological Park features an impressive collection of mosaic collages, where a series of ramps has been built over excavated mosaics to allow people to view them from above. The Greek Orthodox Church of St George is home to Madaba's main attraction and most famous mosaic: the 6th-century Madaba Map. Millions of pieces of coloured stone embedded on the church floor create a vivid picture of Jerusalem and its holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dead Sea, Jericho, and the Jordan River. It is the earliest surviving original map of the region and was laid around 560 AD. Madaba is also known for its hand-woven carpets and tapestries and it is possible to see them being made in several shops around town.
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