Travelling the slow route to Petra
One of the many highlights along Jordan’s King’s Highway is the mighty Crusader castle of Kerak. (Danita Delimont/Getty)
Jordan's King's Highway ducks and dives across the spine of the Great Rift Valley, from where a rippling tor of barren stratifications rolls in jagged strips of brown, beige and mustard rock down to the Dead Sea. It was along this road that a prophet saw the Promised Land and a saint lost his head after a plotting female danced for a king. This is the backdoor route to Petra.
One of the Middle East's most scenic and ancient routes, the 280km-long highway is often overlooked in favour of the modern Desert Highway, which marches through Jordan's flat and sandy core in a speedy three and a half hours from the capital, Amman. Driving this alternative road to the famous red-tinged ruins may take longer, but this road's history stretches back to the curtain opening of civilisation.
The origin of the road's regal name is said to stem back to a league of kings who advanced this way to wage war with the wicked Cities of the Plains -- the Old Testament cities of Sodom and Gomorrah -- which are thought to have lain along the Dead Sea. Whether this was the inaugural event that handed this byway a royal nod or not, the King's Highway has since forged itself into the history books as a vital corridor for all who came after. The Nabataeans, who built their capital at Petra, travelled along this road in the 4th and 3rd Centuries BC as they built up their trading prowess; the Romans recognised its importance and made it part of their Empirical master route, the Via Nova Traiana, in the early years of the 2nd Century, and Hajj pilgrims throughout the Islamic world followed its path for centuries on their journey to Mecca.
Once Amman's urban sprawl falls away, replaced by rolling arid fields and olive groves, it is only a short drive to Madaba where the King's Highway begins. Today this low-rise town is a modest spread of boxy cream-coloured stone, but its prosperous heyday was in the 6th Century and remnants of Byzantine finery remain behind its unassuming facades. Slap in the centre of town stands St George's Church, where the only surviving fragment of the famed Mosaic Map of the Holy Land is interred in the floor. This startling cartographical relic was a Byzantine pilgrim's guidebook; documenting, in intricate detail, every holy site from Egypt to Lebanon's Levantine coast.
Down the road lays more mosaic mastery. Head to the modern Archaeological Park Musuem, built over a part of the town's Roman-era decumanus (the main east-west road in a Roman town). The major highlights here are not only the exuberant floral designs that abound on the mosaic floor of the Church of the Virgin (itself built over a Roman temple), but the multiple layers of Madaba's history -- inhabited in some way since the Old Testament Exodus period -- which this tiny section of town reveals.
Eight kilometres west of town is Mount Nebo where, in the Old Testament, Moses saw the Promised Land from its peak. Today this pilgrimage site sees floods of visitors come to admire that very same view, which stretches over the Dead Sea to Israel and the Palestinian Territories beyond. If you have time, it is only a short 2km drive from here to the little-visited ruins of Khirbet Mukhayyat, believed to be the original ancient town of Nebo, settled since the early Bronze Age. The most impressive sight is the relatively modern Byzantine-era Church of SS Lot and Procopius, which is home to more sumptuous surviving mosaics.
Meandering 14km south along the King's Highway, take the turn off for the ruins of Mukawir and prepare yourself for some stunning scenery. Surrounded by the plunging clifftop views, it is not difficult to imagine biblical kings and prophets panting their way up the slopes -- although it is more likely you will meet a battered truck laden with tomatoes grumbling up the steep inclines. The road dips a precipitous path along the ridge from where the deep geological gash of the Great Rift Valley cascades downwards to meet its bottom at the Dead Sea, 400m below sea level.