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.
Along this topographical wonderland came marching a whole host of history's characters, and one of the road's most famous stories is said to have its gruesome ending right here. Sitting atop a stark conical summit, King Herod's mountain eyrie of Mukawir (the site of ancient Machaerus) is a lonely and rather lovely spot where the sparse ruins fight a modern battle against the weeds as a reminder of how kingdoms crumble. Legend says it was here that King Herod's son and successor, Herod Antipas, had St John the Baptist beheaded after he denounced his recent marriage to Herodias. Dancing her way onto the stage of eternal infamy, his scheming step-daughter Salome tricked Herod into vowing to bring her the Baptist's head on a plate.
Joining the King's Highway again, it is a 35km drive south to the site of Umm ar-Rasas. Scattered over a vast field of thistly weeds and wild flowers is a settlement area occupied since the Iron Age. But it is the area’s Byzantine remnants that earned Umm ar-Rasas its Unesco World Heritage status. Ringed by the remains of a Roman wall with rubble from long ruined buildings strewn across the site, an incredible collection of gloriously-preserved mosaic floors from this period, depicting riotous hunting scenes and long forgotten towns, are on display within the ruins.
Returning to the road, it is 52km to the mighty Crusader castle of Kerak. Make a stop at the lookout over Wadi Mujib Gorge on the way, which swoops its way downwards in a craggy tumble of rock. This marks the Old Testament border between the Amorites and Moabites of the Exodus, which Moses instructed the Israelites to cross. Built in 1140, the battles fought over Kerak between the Arab hero, Salah ud-Din and the vicious French noble, Reynald of Châtillon, are the stuff of silver screen legend. These days you will fight your own traffic war through the streets of modern Kerak to get there, forging through the bustling uphill souk streets and their baffling one-way system on your way to the castle's gate.
From Kerak, the King's Highway climbs up to a stark plateau before descending downward through winding mountain bends. The scenery of Jordan's staggeringly beautiful Wadi Dana National Park (68km from Kerak) provides a nature break from the history lessons along the road. This nature reserve swoops 1,200m down through a semi-arid landscape of serrated sandstone cliffs to finish in a plateau of green palms and desert. Spending a night or two here at the Dana Guest House rewards trekkers with regular sightings of buzzards and eagles sweeping across the sky, and the rare luxury of empty trails where the silence is only broken by an occasional Arcadian meeting with a flute-playing shepherd.
Twenty four kilometres further south, Shobak Castle is another Crusader masterpiece that rears up from its lonely hilltop home. It was strategically-placed strongholds such as Shobak that helped the Crusaders reign over the region from Jerusalem during the 12th Century -- and when their castles fell, their kingdom did as well. Less restored, and much less visited than Kerak, Shobak exudes an air of abandoned dreams in its crumbling fortifications and ramparts.
From here it is only 25km until you reach the modern town of Wadi Musa, on the doorstep of the Nabataean ruins of Petra. Their capital, carved out of colossal rose-coloured rock is testament to the profits these wily traders made by controlling the region's caravan routes. Lying at the end of the King's Highway, these magnificent monuments are only part of a much larger story of one path's might; a tale of wars won and lost, and civilisations that rose to glory and then were vanquished over whom held sway over a road
The easiest way to travel the King's Highway is to hire a car, as public transport is sparse along a lot of the route. Generally good road conditions and a lack of traffic make this an excellent option for drivers.
In Wadi Musa/Petra, the luxury accommodation pick is the Mövenpick, home to comfortable rooms and a fabulous Arabesque atrium. Mid-rangers should stick to Wadi Musa town, up the hill from the ruins, and grab a room at the Amra Palace. Budget travellers are well catered for with the Sunset Hotel, which offers decent rooms only a short walk from Petra entrance gate at bargain prices.
If you want to split your journey along the King's Highway over a couple of days your best bet for an overnight stay is in Wadi Dana National Park, south of Kerak. Dana Guest House is run by Jordan's Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature and the staff are knowledgeable about the trekking and hiking opportunities in the area. There are stunning views from the terrace over the breadth of the nature reserve, and the hotel’s restaurant dishes up some of the best food in Jordan.