A road trip to Jordan’s unsung sights

From the place where Moses died to a city that hopes to become the next Dubai, the country’s lesser-known gems are peppered along a 370km route between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, currently one of the safest countries in the Middle East, is a small country of roughly 90,000sqkm packed full of biblical sites, Roman towns and Bedouin camps. Yet at the mention of Jordan, most people think only of Petra, especially in 2012 when the red-rose city stepped into the limelight for the 200th anniversary of its rediscovery by Swiss explorer Ludwig Burckhard. 

Incredible as this Unesco World Heritage Site is, Petra often overshadows the other historically rich parts of Jordan that are exceptional in their own right. From the site where Moses died to a city with ambitions to become the next Dubai, these culturally significant places can be easily reached on a 370km drive that extends almost the full length of the country, from the city of Jerash in Jordan’s north, to the city of Aqaba on the north end of the Red Sea.

Many people fly into Jordan’s capital and leave without allowing time to explore the sand-coloured city built on seven hills. But there is plenty to see, starting with the arts centre Darat al Funun in Amman’s wealthy downtown district of Jabal Al Lweibdeh. The three 1920s mansions contain the work of more than 70 contemporary Arab artists, such as Syrian photographer Hrair Sarkissian. Jabal Al Lweibdeh is also home to the city’s other top galleries, including the impressive National Gallery, and beneath the spires of the nearby Husseini Mosque, daily street markets sell everything from household goods to gold jewellery.

Known as Philadelphia in Graeco-Roman times, Amman dates back to the Stone Age, and the city’s most impressive ancient site is the Citadel, a fortified hill with early Bronze Age tombs dating from 3300 to 1200 BC. Among the Citadel’s impressive Roman structures is the Temple of Hercules, built under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161 to180 AD); the 6,000-seat Roman Theatre; and the recently restored 500-seat Odeon, a small amphitheatre that is still used for concerts.

Once you have had your fill of Amman, hire a car and make for the open road, heading 50km north to Jerash, arguably the most impressive of the country’s many untrumpeted sites. Counted among the world’s best preserved Roman ruins, the city’s historical gems, such as Hadrian’s Gate and the Temple of Artemis, were hidden below ground until excavations began in 1925.  

Each year in July and August, the ancient city comes to life with the Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts, three-weeks of dance, music and theatre. But the most iconic Jerash activity is the chariot race; daily, 45-minute shows in the restored Hippodrome bring the ancient sport back to life.

Mount Nebo
Heading southwest, drive 120km towards the northern end of the Dead Sea, stopping briefly at Mount Nebo. One of Jordan’s most revered holy sites, this is where Moses is said to have died and been buried.

Set high on a ridge, the view from the 800m-high mountaintop stretches down to the Dead Sea, across to the West Bank city of Jericho and on a clear day, even to Jerusalem, showing just how close cities and countries are in this part of the Middle East. On the highest point, Syagha, sit the remains of a Byzantine church and monastery, which were constructed by early Christians in the 4th Century and rediscovered in the 1930s, stand on the mountain’s highest point. A one Jordanian dinar ticket buys you access to the Mount Nebo Interpretation Centre and the Basilica of Moses, which contain a few very detailed Byzantine mosaic floors.

Driving 10km southeast is the Roman Byzantine town of Madaba. Known as the City of Mosaics, Madaba is part of the 5,000-year-old King’s Highway and dates back to the Middle Bronze Age. Its most famous site is the Greek Orthodox Church of St George, on the floor of which lies a 6th-century Byzantine mosaic map that details Jerusalem, the Mediterranean coast and the Nile. Only part of the map remains, but the original measured 16m by 6m, took six years to complete and was made from two million pieces of stone.

You can also admire the making of modern-day mosaics at Nebo's Pearl on the road between Mount Nebo and Madaba. Sip strong, sweet coffee as you watch the women labouring over the art form in a studio, then shop for souvenirs in the extensive gift shop.  

We could hardly suggest you drive past Petra without stopping, and Wadi Mousa, the modern town adjoining the three millennia-old city, is just 200km south of Madaba. Built more than 2,000 years ago as a tax collection point by the Nabataeans, a nomadic Arab tribe, Petra’s giant rock-cut monuments are known across the globe. Allow at least a day – or a couple if you can – since the city covers almost 100sqkm and there are many lesser known sights, such as Little Petra and the High Place of Sacrifice, to be discovered. Try to arrive at dawn when the sun seeps over the canyon, illuminating the rock face in soft light.

Tala Bay
Connected to the Red Sea by the Gulf of Aqaba, just less than 100km south of Petra, Aqaba is Jordan’s only port city. It is a great diving spot, thanks to the red coral that gives the Red Sea its name, but as a duty-free destination where people come to shop, the city has ambitions to be more like Dubai. Visit Souk Ayyadi, one of the city’s three large malls, to find Jordanian crafts such as ceramics and jewellery.

A 14km drive south of the metropolis is Tala Bay, an exclusive resort where the Sharah Mountains become more visible and the waters clearer. You can also travel between Tala Bay and Aqaba by boat, which offers good views of the city and allows for snorkelling with turtles, angelfish, tigerfish, seahorses and dolphins. For sandwiches and snacks when you arrive, try Kenzy’s, a café situated among the shops and super yachts on the harbour. From Tala Bay you can also cross the water for a day trip to Sharm el-Sheikh for more diving, and perhaps to sample the nightlife in Egypt’s renowned resort.

Jordan is a small country and is very easily traversed by car. All the major car hire companies have rentals, including Hertz which has branches in Amman and Aqaba. Most flights go to Amman or Aqaba.

If you have the budget then the Swiss chain Mövenpick has several luxury hotels in Jordan, including one along the shore of the Dead Sea that mimics a traditional desert town with adobe-style buildings leading down to the water. There are also plenty of mid-range and backpacker options dotted around the country. In Madaba, both Mosaic City Hotel and Mariam Hotel are comfortable and mid-range, while Black Iris is a simpler, family-run hotel where you can try some great Jordanian home cooking. In Jerash, the Olive Branch Hotel has a swimming pool and tents if you prefer to camp, and Hadrian’s Gate Hotel provides affordable accommodation and a top location opposite the real Hadrian’s Gate.