Lay of the Land
“Jordan has a strange, haunting beauty and a sense of timelessness. Dotted with the ruins of empires once great, it is the last resort of yesterday in the world of tomorrow.”~King Hussein I
Jordan is about 37,000 square miles, slightly smaller than the state of Kentucky, and three-quarters of it is desert. For the most part, Jordan’s major cities and sights fall somewhere along the country’s western border; Jerash, Amman, Madaba, Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba descend in a somewhat straight line, a drive that would take roughly four hours without stopping. Thanks to its compact size, Jordan can be easily navigated by car.
Most of Jordanians live in and around Amman in the north, where most international flights arrive. Jordan’s capital and largest city, Amman is a developing rapidly and the landscape is constantly changing. Jerash, one of the best-preserved Roman cities in the world, is only 30 miles from Amman, and many consider it as impressive as Ephesus or Pompeii.
Madaba, 19 miles southwest of Amman, is nearby Mount Nebo, one of the holiest sites in the Middle East. The city boasts incredible mosaics, many churches and the oldest known map of the Holy Land.
Despite popular opinion, Petra is not a city, but the site that draws tourists to the town of Wadi Musa. The ancient city, which was founded in the 3rd century BC and served as a trading center and home to 30,000 Nabateans, is still being excavated and the stunning, massive site can be explored for days.
One of the most iconic deserts in the world, Wadi Rum contains some of the highest mountains in Jordan and their striking, wind-whittled shapes give the landscape its grandeur. The valley is home to deer, ibex, snakes, falcon, camel and Bedouin as well as tourists who come to hike the mountains or explore on horses or camels or by jeep.
Aqaba, on the Red Sea, serves as Jordan’s coastal playground and its only port, which means that swimming here will probably include murky water and views of a massive tanker. The draw is access to the coral reef of the Red Sea, which offers some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world. Visitors can cross into Aqaba from Israel using the southern border crossing, which sees much less traffic than the one in the north.
The Dead Sea is not actually a sea, but a lake that sits at the lowest point on earth, 400 meters below sea level. Its extremely high salt concentration (almost ten times that of most oceans) kills off almost all marine life, hence the name the Dead Sea. The Jordan River feeds its waters, but because the river is also being diverted for irrigation, the Dead Sea is rapidly shrinking; it’s likely that in less than a century it will no longer exist.
When To Go
The best time to visit Jordan is in the spring or fall when the temperatures are most comfortable. Summers can be extremely hot in the desert, making touring sites such as Jerash and Petra arduous. In winter months, the desert can be cold (with snow in Petra).