Jordan ... a road trip through history

| July 7, 2017

Jordan is a kingdom full of history and culture, with Roman cities, Crusader castles and biblical sites. This is a fascinating country for anyone interested in seeing world-renowned archaeological sites dating back as early as the sixth century BC.

The drive from north to south can be done in around four hours, a similar distance as London to Leeds, and yet, it could take days or even weeks to properly explore the numerous sights, landmarks and museums encountered.

Here is a road trip through Jordan’s history, discovering some of its most significant events along the way.


Nubian Ibex in Jordan


Petra – 6 BC

The Nabateans were an early nomadic civilisation, who half-built and half-carved their capital city Petra into the impressive steep cliffs. Surrounded by numerous passages and riddled with gorges, this jewel of Jordan’s cultural crown is the highlight of any visit.  

Petra is also known as the “rose-red city” because of the red, white and pink hues of the giant mountains that surround it. Among its highlights are the impressive entrance to the city through the Siq, ending with The Treasury; a Nabatean-built Roman-style amphitheatre that would have seated 3,000 people; Ad-Deir monastery; and around 500 elaborate rock-cut tombs with intricate carvings, which have survived numerous earthquakes, unlike most of the houses of early Petra. The Petra Archaeological Park in Jordan was declared a Unesco world heritage site in 1985.

In 106 AD, Petra was taken over by the Romans and its importance as a thriving trading centre started to decay, further impacted during the Byzantine empire and then again by the 12th-century Crusaders. Even though each new settler left their own churches, fortifications and monuments behind, it is still the Nabatean rock-hewn remains that are most notable and inspiring.

Treasury temple at Petra (Al Khazneh), Jordan

 The Treasury in Petra

Jerash – 1 BC

The Roman empire extended to the northern tip of Jordan. In 63 BC the city of Jerash was conquered and became one of the 10 great Roman cities of the Decapolis. As the city flourished, it benefitted from the advanced Roman engineering techniques. Public squares, plazas, baths and fountains, huge theatres, paved streets and towering hilltop temples were all introduced.

Some of the main granite and marble landmarks of this Graeco-Roman city are:

  • Hadrian’s Arch, which was built to honour the visiting Emperor Hadrian AD 129.
  • The Hippodrome for chariot races and other Roman sports that would have seated 15,000 people.
  • The North and South Theatres, where council meetings and performances were held.
  • The 800-metre-long colonnaded street at the heart of Jerash, significant thanks to its innovative underground sewage system. Today Cardo is still fully paved with its original stones.

From 350 AD onwards Jerash was influenced by a large Christian settlement, leaving behind mosaic floors and churches as their legacy. After 70 years of excavation and restoration works, Jerash is regarded as the best-preserved city of the Decapolis.


Nymphaeum in Jerash

Madaba & Mount Nebo –527-65 AD

Thirty kilometres south of Amman lies Madaba – the City of Mosaics – where the oldest known geographic floor mosaic in art history was discovered in St George’s Church. The Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land has two million pieces of vividly coloured local stone, depicting hills and valleys, villages and towns as far as the Nile delta.

Madaba, built near the 5,000-year-old King’s Highway, has a long history. First mentions of the city can be found in the Bible at the time of the Exodus, around 1200 BC, and a tomb from the same era has been found in the town.

From the second to seventh centuries Madaba was ruled by both the Roman and Christian Byzantine empires. Today, it is best known for its stunning mosaics from the Byzantine and the following Umayyad period.

Close to Madaba is Mount Nebo, a holy site where it is believed that Moses is buried and where he first sighted the Promised Land.

Fragment of the oldest floor mosaic map of the Holy Land, Madaba, Jordan

 Fragment of the oldest floor mosaic map of the Holy Land. Madaba, Jordan

Desert Castles – 12th century

From the seventh to 13th centuries, Umayyad caliphs and crusaders built many castles into the vast Jordanian desert, along the King’s Highway, east of Amman and Madaba. These fortresses were often built on rocky outcrops and served a multitude of uses such as agriculture and trade centres as well as forts.

Most castles can be visited, and even though many are now in ruins, there are some with intact interior walls covered with frescoes and mosaics. These are beautiful examples of early Islamic art and architecture.

The 12th-century crusader castles of Shobak and Kerak can be easily visited en route to Petra and have commanding views over the surrounding landscape. We recommend packing a torch so you can explore their unlit passageways and tunnels.

Crusader castle Kerak in Jordan

The 12th Century Crusader castle Kerak in Jordan

Amman – 1878

The modern history of Amman started in 1878, but dates back to the Stone Age making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

Amman’s modern history is tracked from when the Ottomans resettled a colony of Circassian emigrants. In 1917, the Great Arab Revolt was under way and the State of Transjordan was established when Emir Abdullah ibn Al-Hussein, founder of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, made Amman his capital in 1921. Today Amman represents a thriving, modern metropolis of over four million people.

Highlights of the ancient city include a historic citadel that sits atop Jabal al-Qala hill and holds the remains of the Roman temple of Hercules, the eighth-century Umayyad Palace with a grand dome and a second-century Roman theatre, carved from a cliff with a capacity for 6,000 spectators.

Blue domes, mosque, Amman, Jordan

 Blue domes of a mosque in Amman

Wadi Rum – the Arab Revolt: 1917-1918

In the very south of Jordan lies Wadi Rum, a dramatic desert wilderness, of around 720 square kilometres. Its harsh conditions would seem to repel the survival of any civilization other than a few odd lizards. Yet the desert surprises with its archaeological remains: 25,000 rock carvings and 20,000 inscriptions tell a different story. For 12,000 years humans have lived in this desert and their evolution through pastoral, agricultural and urban activities to the beginning of the alphabet can be seen in these inscriptions.

During the 1917-1918 Arab Revolt, TE Lawrence had many adventures in the Wadi Rum and makes references to it in his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The film Lawrence of Arabia was also filmed partly in Wadi Rum desert.

In 1998 Wadi Rum was declared a protected area by the government of Jordan.


 Jebel Qatar mountain in Wadi Rum

The above is only a small selection of key events and landmarks from Jordan’s rich and long history. In addition, the country also offers beautiful nature reserves, wildlife and birdwatching areas, delicious cuisine as well as the Dead and the Red Seas, for relaxing after a tour. To find out more order the free Cox & Kings Guide to Jordan.

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