A sprawling city spread over 19 hills, or “jebels,” Amman is the modern – as well as the ancient – capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Known as Rabbath-Ammon during the Iron Age and later as Philadelphia, the ancient city that was once part of the Decapolis league, now boasts a population of around 2.3 million people. Amman, often referred to as the white city due to its low size canvas of stone houses, offers a variety of historical sites. There are a number of renovations and excavations taking place that have revealed remains from the Neolithic period, as well as from the Hellenestic and late Roman to Arab Islamic Ages. The site which is known as the Citadel includes many structures such as the Temple of Hercules, the Umayyad Palace and the Byzantine Church. At the foot of the Citadel lies the 6,000 seat Roman Theatre, which is a deep-sided bowl carved into the hill and is still being used for cultural events. Another newly restored theatre is the 500-seat Odeon that is used for concerts. The three museums found in the area offer a glimpse of history and culture; they are the Jordan Archaeological Museum, The Folklore Museum and the Museum of Popular Traditions.
The trip south from Amman along the 5,000-year-old Kings Highway is one of the most memorable journeys in the Holy Land, passing through a string of ancient sites. The first city to encounter is Madaba, “the City of Mosaics.” The city, best known for its spectacular Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics, is home to the famous 6th century mosaic map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. With two million pieces of coloured stone, the map depicts hills and valleys, villages and towns as far as the Nile Delta. Other mosaic masterpieces found in the Church of the Virgin and the Apostles and the Archaeological Museum, depict a rampant profusion of flowers and plants, birds and fish, animals and exotic beasts, as well as scenes from mythology and everyday pursuits of hunting, fishing and farming. Literally, hundreds of other mosaics from the 5th through the 7th centuries are scattered throughout Madaba’s churches and homes.
The ancient city of Petra is one of Jordan’s national treasures and by far its best known tourist attraction. Located approximately three hours south of Amman, Petra is the legacy of the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled in southern Jordan more than 2,000 years ago. Admired then for its refined culture, massive architecture and ingenious complex of dams and water channels, Petra is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that enchants visitors from all corners of the globe. Much of Petra’s appeal comes from its spectacular setting deep inside a narrow desert gorge. The site is accessed by walking through a kilometre long chasm (or siq), the walls of which soar 200m upwards. Petra’s most famous monument, the Treasury, appears dramatically at the end of the Siq. Used in the final sequence of the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” the towering façade of the Treasury is only one of myriad archaeological wonders to be explored at Petra. Various walks and climbs reveal literally hundreds of buildings, tombs, baths, funerary halls,temples, arched gateways, colonnaded streets and haunting rock drawings – as well as a 3,000 seat open air theatre, a gigantic 1st century Monastery and a modern archeological museum, all of which can be explored at leisure. A modest shrine commemorating the death of Aaron, brother of Moses, was built in the 13th century by the Mamluk Sultan, high atop mount Aaron in the Sharah range.
Aclose second to Petra on the list of favourite destinations in Jordan, the ancient city of Jerash boasts an unbroken chain of human occupation dating back more than 6,500 years. The city’s golden age came under Roman rule and the site is now generally acknowledged to be one of the best-preserved Roman provincial towns in the world. Hidden for centuries in sand before being excavated and restored over the past 70 years, Jerash reveals a fine example of the grand, formal provincial Roman urbanism that is found throughout the Middle East, comprising paved and colonnaded streets, soaring hilltop temples, handsome theatres, spacious public squares and plazas, baths, fountains and city walls pierced by towers and gates. Beneath its external Graeco-Roman veneer, Jerash also preserves a subtle blend of east and west. Its architecture, religion and languages reflect a process by which two powerful cultures meshed and coexisted – The Graeco-Roman world of the Mediterranean basin and the ancient traditions of the Arab Orient.
Famed for its preserved coral reefs and unique sea life, this Red Sea port city was, in ancient times, the main port for shipments from the Red Sea to the Far East. The Mameluk Fort, one of the main historical landmarks of Aqaba, rebuilt by the Mameluks in the 16th century. Square in shape and flanked by semicircular towers, the fort is marked with various inscriptions marking the latter period of the Islamic dynasty. The current excavations at the ancient site of the early Islamic town Ayla, with its two main streets intersecting in the middle and dating back to the 7th century already revealed a gate and city wall along with towers, buildings and a mosque. The museum houses a collection of artefacts collected in the region, including pottery and coins. Aqaba also hosts the house of Sharif Hussein Bin Ali, the great grandfather of King Abdullah II. Other places of interest include the mud brick building thought to be the earliest church in the region
Ajlun Castle (also known as Qal’at [Castle] Ar-Rabad) was built in 1184 by ‘Izz ad-Din Usama bin Munqidh, a general of Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders in 1187. A fine example of Islamic architecture, the fortress dominated a wide stretch of the northern Jordan Valley and passages to it. From its hilltop position, Ajlun Castle protected the communication routes between south Jordan and Syria, and was one of a chain of forts that lit beacons at night to pass signals from the Euphrates as far as Cairo. Today, Ajlun Castle is a splendid sight with a fascinating warren of towers,chambers, galleries and staircases to explore, while its hilltop position offers stunning views of the Jordan Valley.
The fort itself is a dark maze of stone-vaulted halls and endless passageways. The best-preserved are underground, and to be reached through a massive door (ask at the ticket office). The castle in itself is more imposing than beautiful, though it is all the more impressive as an example of the Crusaders’ architectural military genius. Karak’s most famous occupant was Reynald de Chatillon, whose reputation for treachery, betrayal and brutality is unsurpassed. When Baldwin II died, his son, a 13-year-old leper, sued for peace with Saladin. The Leper King, however, died without an heir, and in stepped Reynald, who succeeded in winning the hand of Stephanie, the wealthy widow of Karak’s assassinated regent. He promptly broke the truce with Saladin, who returned with a huge army, ready for war. Reynald and King Guy of Jerusalem led the Crusader forces and suffered a massive defeat. Reynald was taken prisoner and beheaded by Saladin himself, marking the beginning of the decline in Crusader fortunes. The castle was enlarged with a new west wing added by the Ayyubids and Mameluks.
A lonely reminder of former Crusader glory is Showbak Castle, less than an hour north of Petra. Once called “Mont Real,” Showbak dates from the same turbulent period as Karak. It is perched on the side of a mountain, with a grand sweep of fruit trees below. The castle’s exterior is impressive, with a foreboding gate and encircling triple wall. Despite the precautions of its builder, the fortress fell to Saladin only 75 years after it was raised. Inscriptions by his proud successors appear on the castle wall.
In addition to Jerash and Amman, Gadara (now Umm Qays) and Pella (Tabaqit Fahl) were once Decapolis cities, and each has unique appeal. Perched on a splendid hilltop overlooking the Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee, Umm Qays boasts impressive ancient remains, such as the stunning black basalt theatre, the basilica and adjacent courtyard strewn with nicely carved black sarcophagi, the colonnaded main street and a side street lined with shops, an underground mausoleum, two baths, a nymphaeum, a city gate and the faint outlines of what was a massive hippodrome.
Pella (Tabqit Fahl)
Pella is exceptionally rich in antiquities, some of which are exceedingly old. Besides the excavated ruins from the Graeco-Roman period, Pella offers visitors the opportunity to see the remains of Chalcolithic settlement from the 4th millennium BC, evidence of Bronze and Iron Age walled cities, Byzantine churches, early Islamic residential quarters and a small medieval mosque.
The eastern most of the major northern cities, Umm Al-Jimal is located at the edge of the eastern basalt desert plain, along a secondary road that was close to the junction of several ancient trade routes that linked central Jordan with Syria and Iraq. Among the most interesting structures to visit are the tall barracks with their little chapel, several large churches, numerous open and roofed water cisterns, the outlines of a Roman fort, and the remains of several town gates
Excavations in Umm Ar-Rasas have uncovered some of the finest Byzantine church mosaics, including a large carpet depicting Old and New Testament cities on both the east and west banks of the Jordan River. Another feature at Umm Ar-Rasas walled settlement is a 15m Byzantine tower used by early Christian monks seeking solitude.
The Kings’ Highway
The Kings’ Highway winds its way through the different ecological zones of the country, including forested highlands, open farmland plateaus, deep ravines, the edge of the Eastern Desert, and the warm tropical Gulf of Aqaba. Lining both sides of this 335km (207 mile) thoroughfare is a rich chain of archaeological sites that reads like an index of ancient history and a biblical gazetteer — prehistoric villages from the Stone Age, biblical towns from the kingdoms of Ammon, Moab and Edom, Crusader Castles, some of the finest early Christian Byzantine mosaics in the Middle East, a Roman-Herodian fortress, several Nabataean temples, two major Roman fortresses, early Islamic towns, and the rock-cut Nabataean capital of Petra. First mentioned by name in the Bible, the Kings’ Highway was the route that Moses wished to follow as he led his people north through the land of Edom, which today is in southern Jordan. The name may, however, derive from the even earlier episode recounted in Genesis 14, when an alliance of “four kings from the north” marched their troops along this route to do battle against the five kings of the Cities of the Plain, including the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah
Jordan has a rapidly developing fine arts scene, including an increasing number of female artists. Today, artists from various Arab countries find freedom and inspiration in Jordan. The Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts (Tel: 4630128, Fax: 4651119), for example, boasts a fine collection of paintings, sculptures and ceramics by contemporary Jordanian and Arab artists. The Jordan Association of Artists can help in organizing studio and gallery tours of Amman.
Jordan hosts a number of centres devoted to local arts and culture, such as the Royal Cultural Centre – a modern complex housing theatres, cinemas, and conference / exhibition halls. A monthly programme is available upon request and local English-language newspapers carry details of upcoming events.
Few cities in the world have been a part of human culture as long as Amman. The richness of modern Jordanian culture is in part due to the additions stirred in by the Assyrians, Nabataeans, Romans and Ottomans who lived here, and this legacy is captured in its museums.