Bordered by Israel and Palestine to the west, Syria to the north, Iraq to the east, and Saudi Arabia to the southeast, Jordan is a relatively small country—but it is home to some of the most historic and culturally significant places on Earth.
Amman, the country’s capital, is among the Middle East’s most westernized and liberal cities and is where the majority of Jordan’s population lives. Built on seven hills, it’s one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. The archaeological evidence of civilization found here is believed to date back to the Stone Age. But in spite of its ancient past, Amman is a modern city. Mixed in among the traditional Middle Eastern markets, mosques and archaeological ruins, you’ll find trendy restaurants, night clubs, cafes, shops, and museums.
The Royal Automobile Museum
One of those museums is home to King Hussein’s private car collection. Built by King Abdullah II to honor his father, the Royal Automobile Museum houses vehicles from the early 1900s to the present day. Raja Gargour, the director of the museum, explains, “It’s not about the cars themselves—it’s about the events the cars witnessed. The country is 100 years old, so many of these cars have witnessed very serious events since the ‘30s and ‘40s. So, they really are a driving history of the country. The late King Hussein loved anything mechanic. He loved automobiles, airplanes, and tanks. He was a very keen flyer and he was a great automobile enthusiast and he was a racer as well.”
“We have about 80 cars, spanning from 1916, which is the beginning of the great Arab Revolt. The earliest car we have is a 1916 Cadillac that was actually used here in the Middle East, as Cadillac opened up many routes to Baghdad and Iraq through Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan off into the desert. The newest is the about 2010, 2011 and was gifted to us. All the cars still run, and we use them every Tuesday outside in the park. The craziest car we got here is Mercedes Benz. It’s a Mercedes McLaren, SLR Sterling Moss edition. McLaren only did 75 of them. It’s quite crazy with no windshields, no windows, and no top. It’s very fast. The car’s doors go up flipping up. It’s a fantastic car to enjoy, but is quite limited in usage.”
The best part of the whole museum is it’s an active museum. When people come and visit the museum, they can actually get involved—they can get into a car every once in a while. “We always allow a car to be touched and felt, so we have a car that they can get a photo opportunity in. But on special occasions in summer, we do car rides for kids, especially orphans,” Raja Gargour says.
The beauty of driving these cars is you’re not just driving the cars, you’re experiencing the history of the country. Raja Gargour agrees, “The whole country is history. Everywhere you look is archaeological history and these cars are historic, so it’s the perfect way to visit the country.”
Al Ma’wa Animal Sanctuary
There’s another destination with a royal connection that you should see while you’re in Jordan, and the star attractions here have four legs instead of four wheels!
Al Ma’wa Animal Sanctuary was established in 2009 as a joint project between Four Paws, an animal welfare institution based in Austria, and the Princess Alia Foundation, the nonprofit group named after and run by King Abdullah’s half sister. The Princess explains that before opening the sanctuary, she first had to save the forest. “It’s been a solution to two problems. One was the deforestation of this amazing forest and the other was to actually find a suitable home for the animals.” All of them were in need of home. Jordan has a poaching smuggling problem fostered by illegal trade in wildlife. “Some animals here were stolen and recovered, some come from local zoos, other ones have been traded and smuggled across the borders,” says Princess Alia. Every lion in the sanctuary has a name. For example, there is Samas, Luna, Nina, and, of course, Simba. The sanctuary has quite a lot of land. “We’re trying to give as you see, enough space to each pride and so that each animal has a good amount of space because otherwise you’ll end up with behavioral problems and aggression.”
Just five years ago the Princess never even envisioned being involved in animal sanctuary. “You know, the first day we were on, first in terms of an actual lion, like this is really something. The lions they’re all amazing. If you can just bring relief to any creature it’s, it’s such a blessing and I always see them just, it all just goes up into the ether if it’s something positive.”
Ancient Cities of Jordan
Gadara was a member of the Decapolis: a group of ten cities that were the center of Greek and Roman culture in the region. In its heyday, it became known as an arts city because of the number of philosophers, playwrights and writers who lived there. In 747 AD, the city was abandoned after it was destroyed by an earthquake. But today, you can still see the remains of the baths, streets, temple, and hippodrome that were part of this once thriving hilltop town.
The ancient city of Jerash was also part of the Decapolis, and is considered one of the greatest classical cities in the world and one of the best-preserved outside of Italy. Upon entering the town, you’ll pass through Hadrian’s Gate built in honor of the Roman emperor’s visit to Jerash around 129 AD. As you continue to explore, you’ll see the remnants of buildings and monuments that look much as they did over two thousand years ago: Corinthian columns, a hippodrome, theaters, churches, fountains, and the large oval forum, surrounded by 56 limestone columns, which once was the center of social and political life in Jerash.
Hidden Gems of Petra
Jordan is also a home of Petra, which was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. But even in Jordan’s most visited tourist attraction, there are things that most people don’t see unless you know where to look.
Walk down through the narrow sandstone gorge until you arrive at Al Khazna, also known as The Treasury. It’s one of the most iconic structures in the Middle East. Even if you’ve never seen a photo of it, you might recognize it as the Lost Temple from the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
But if you continue on beyond the crowds at the treasury building, there are hidden gems waiting to be found all around this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most people never get beyond the Treasury building. But even many who do only walk a short distance into the valley to see the theater and to glimpse the royal tombs from a distance.
However, if you really want to see the theater, you should see it from above. Take one of the trails up to a plateau, where you’ll have a view of the 4,000-seat stone amphitheater from across the valley. From the top, continue down the trail for a real surprise: a two-room family tomb hidden underneath the trail. It looks like it’s been hand painted by an artist, although it’s actually layers and layers of striped sandstone.
If you walk further along the valley floor toward the royal tombs, look carefully and you’ll find a trail opposite the tombs. Follow it and climb the steps to the top of a crusader’s castle. That’s where you’ll be treated to one of the best views in Petra and you’ll likely have the place all to yourself.
Although Jordan may not be the first place that comes to mind, when you think of important historical religious sites, there is, in fact, an archaeological site that is a place of Christian pilgrimage. On the eastern bank of the river Jordan, you’ll find Bethany beyond the Jordan, where many believe Jesus of Nazareth was baptized. There is another site there that most people who visit never see: the cave that many people think was the home of Saint John the Baptist.
Rustom Mkhijan, Assistant Director of the Baptism Site Commission, elaborates: “We are at one of the most important places in Bethany beyond the Jordan, actually in the background we see Elijah’s Hill. Why is it called Elijah’s Hill? It’s a place where Elijah was taken up to heaven. We discovered that this hill is important for basically five reasons. It showed it’s a place where Elijah was taken up to heaven, where Elijah received the prophecy. And we have a cave in the western part of Elijah’s Hill where John the Baptist, John the Forerunner, lived waiting for the arrival of Jesus, baptizing the believers in this spring next door where the have the reeds now. Unfortunately, not a lot of pilgrims visit this site in particular, to be honest, if one doesn’t visit this site in particular, he wouldn’t understand why John came here and eventually whey Jesus came here and was baptized by John and Christianity started.”
The Dead Sea
From the baptism site, it’s only about six miles to the Dead Sea. Sure, you can spend an afternoon sitting by the pool by the water’s edge at one of the resorts. But you’re at the lowest point on earth—1,377 feet below sea level—with the saltiest water on the planet! For about $5, you can cover yourself in the kind of mineral-rich mud that people pay hundreds of dollars for at a spa.
Community-Based Foodie Experiences
Last but not least, there’s the food, which is a truly immersive experience you won’t find in the guidebooks or brochures. In fact, you’re not going to a restaurant.
Muna Haddad is the Founder & Managing Director of Baraka, a group that is working with locals to develop unusual and interactive programs for tourists. She explains the experiences they’re creating for visitors to Jordan: “Baraka Destinations is a pilot project that we’re testing out in Umm Qais area. We have a very different partnership with the local community—we’re setting up community-based tourism. Lots of people around the world want to dig deep into the destinations they visit and get to know the people, the culture, their way of life, their food, and so many villages have this unique aspect of them. Umm Quais is one of them, and what we’re doing here is working in partnership with several local community members here to set up businesses that showcase what they have to offer—their food, their culture, their way of life. We’re going into people’s homes, we’re going to their places of work, their beekeeping farms, we’re walking with them, we’re slowing down, we’re hearing their stories, we’re eating. We’re talking.”
Most of the food here you’ll have is organic, it’s home grown, and it didn’t come out of a bag. Even the chicken that you’ll have—they know the farmer, they know the shepherds. There’s a personal relationship with food here.
“Tourism today is really about digging deeper and understanding destinations,” Muna continues, “and I think Jordan is specifically one of those countries where you can’t just come and brush over it, ticking things off the list and just see Petra and—Jerash and these amazing sites. It’s time to really dig deeper and get to know the people—especially the people of the Middle East and being here and sitting down and drinking tea with them and hearing their stories really tells the story in a different way.”
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By the Peter Greenberg Worldwide team for PeterGreenberg.com