I’m standing on the top of Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have surveyed the Promised Land before giving up the ghost and being buried somewhere beneath my feet. A massive billboard of Pope John Paul II, who visited in 2000, towers over a solemn group of bible-clutching pilgrims, heads lowered in prayer. One of the Pope’s hands is raised as if he’s blessing the vast expanse of wilderness - a shimmering expanse of fudge-coloured desert, where the hot air creates mirages of palm-fringed oases and lost cities.
In the distance, the Dead Sea shimmers in the morning sun. Jericho is up the road, as is Bethlehem and the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. And if you come at dawn, you can just make out the lights of Jerusalem twinkling next to a purple smudge, otherwise known as the Mount of Olives.
Pilgrims the world over come to the Jordan Valley to visit its biblical landmarks, but this country of seven million souls also offers a treasure trove of ancient pagan wonders that have been astonishing visitors since antiquity. Here are seven extraordinary places to visit:
PETRA – lost city of the Nabataeans
Few ancient cities cast such a powerful spell. Carved into the soft pink and mauve sandstone cliffs of the Petra Mountains, the mesmerising city of Petra was "lost" to the Western world for hundreds of years until a Swiss explorer stumbled on it in 1812.
During its heyday (400BC -106AD), the city of Nabataeans was full of gold. The key to its great wealth lay in its location deep in a gorge - the only thoroughfare that connected the hinterland to the Mediterranean Sea. Anyone who wanted to pass through its temple- and tomb-lined streets had to pay a toll, including, no doubt, the Three Kings of the New Testament as they journeyed west to Bethlehem. What remains today are dozens of monumental edifices carved directly into towering sandstone cliffs.
Several scenes from the blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were filmed here and the movie's fictional Canyon of the Crescent Moon was modelled on the eastern entrance to the city, a 76-metre-high sandstone slot canyon known as the Siq that leads directly to the Treasury – one of the city’s most beautiful buildings.
TIP: In summer, it’s best to visit early in the morning at 6am when it’s cool and tourist traffic is light. By 9am, it’s packed. Leave at least three hours to see all and don’t miss the Treasury and the Monastery.
DEAD SEA – health treatments as old as the pharoahs
One word of advice: don’t attempt your usual freestyle or breaststroke when swimming in the Dead Sea. It’ll end in tears. Within a stroke or two, you’ll capsize and be floundering on your back with some the world’s saltiest water in your eyes. Unless you wish to test your pain threshold, gently enter the water and float on your back.
People in search of better health and longevity have been soaking in the Dead Sea for millennia. By the time the tribes of Israel crossed the Red Sea to escape Pharaoh’s army, the Egyptians had been using the salt to embalm their kings for centuries in the hope of giving them eternal life.
If you arrive on the road from Wadi Rum, you’ll pass Lot’s wife – the poor soul who God turned into a pillar of rock for looking back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Have some hard-boiled sweets on hand as at 427 metres below sea level, the shore of the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth and the rapid descent from the desert plateau will have your ears popping.
Not far from the forlorn figure of Mrs Lot is the ruin of the great fort of Machaerus, where Herod beheaded John the Baptist. There’s nothing biblical about the row of lakeside resorts around the next bend in the road. These are palaces dedicated to pampering. Equipped with spas, fresh water pools, palm gardens and Dead Sea beachfront, visitors cover themselves in therapeutic mud from head to foot before soaking away their sores and sorrows in the salty sea.
The 5-star Swiss-run Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea looks like a Tuscan village and has rooms from $212 a night. Perfect for families and children.
TIP: Normal ocean water has between three and five per cent salt; the Dead Sea has 36 per cent so before you take a plunge, ensure you have a bottle of fresh water close at hand to wash salt from the eyes. Young children should always wear goggles in the Sea.
JERASH – shop like a Roman in an ancient city
Along with Italy’s Pompey and Herculaneum, Jerash must be one of the world’s best preserved Roman cities. I gave up counting the number of Corinthian columns still standing when I got to the market place, where I discovered a butcher’s shop with stone counters still in place. A beautiful slab of granite decorated with bulls’ heads marks where the beef cuts were once displayed … not far away are the fish stalls and bakery. You can spend half a day wandering around this extraordinary city, chat to the locals in the forum, take in the exquisite sculpture of the fountains, play with echoes in the amphitheatre and visit the public baths. After exploring the city on foot, you won’t feel like jogging around the hippodrome, where atheletes once worked out. Instead, find a pew in the Temple of Zeus and enjoy a well-deserved rest.
TIP: Visit the ancient city before 10am or in the late afternoon, when the honey-coloured sandstone buildings glow in the softer light and it's much cooler.
You can be floating in the Dead Sea before breakfast and snorkelling in the Red Sea after lunch. Separated by a four-hour desert drive, the two seas have one fundamental difference – the Red Sea is like an aquarium full of multi-coloured fish, whereas the Dead Sea is bereft of all life, except for bacteria. Jordan’s only port, Aqaba, is the gateway to this palm-fringed, coral paradise, which is big on fish, but not strong on beautiful sandy beaches. There’s only a 27-kilomentre stretch of coastline but there are plenty of gardens of hard and soft coral just moments from the shore, populated with the usual critters, including stone and scorpionfish, pipefish, nudibranchs and a plethora of frogfish. Snorkelling and diving is best done from the back of a boat, hired either in the port of Aqaba or from one of the five-star resorts that fringe the coast that runs south to the Saudi Arabian border.
TIP: Aqaba is Jordan’s seafood destination and the little port is packed with excellent value fish restaurants.
MADABA & MOUNT NEBO – gateway to the Promised Land
What did Jerusalem look like 500 years after the death of Christ? Travel 30km from Jordan’s capital, Amman, along the 5000-year-old Kings´ Highway and you’ll arrive at Madaba, the City of Mosaics, a small dusty town where every other street has a house or a church with an exquisite Byzantine mosaic. Best known is the famous 6th century Mosaic Map of the Holy Land at the Greek Orthodox Church of St George on Al-Malek Lalal Street.
Created in 542AD with two million pieces of vividly coloured local stone, it shows Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land from the Nile Delta to the Jordan Valley, with hills and valleys, birds and animals, villages and towns, all beautifully depicted. Jerusalem is portrayed as a city of red-tile roofs and 40 churches, two grand colonnaded boulevards running from north to south, a mighty city wall and a great gate in the north opening onto a large plaza. Reassuringly, the map’s accuracy has been proved by many archaeological digs.
To the west of Madaba is Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have laid down his staff for the last time after taking in the incredible view of the Jordan Valley and the Promised Land.
TIP: Some 200 metres from St George’s Church on the same street is one of Jordan’s best known restaurants, Haret Jdoudna. Superb, inexpensive food is served in tree-shaded courtyards where the people-watching opportunities are intriguing. Perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
WADI RUM – walk or ride in Lawrence of Arabia’s footsteps
Described by T.E. Lawrence as “vast, echoing and God-like”, Wadi Rum is desert with attitude. This astonishingly beautiful landscape is made up of a maze of monolithic rockscapes rising from the desert floor to heights of 1750 metres. One of the most spectacular, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, would look more at home on Mars - its seven colossal columns conjuring up the ruins of a long-forgotten alien fortress.
On the surface, the Wadi is bone dry and yet beneath the petrified rock and sand dunes - which come in dazzling array of colours, ranging from ivory, pale yellow to pink - lies a subterranean sea of fresh water, tapped by the local Zalabia Bedouins. Occasionally, a camel train appears in the distance, wending its way along a valley of sand, its cameleers, old rifles to hand, reminiscent of David Lean’s spectacular 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia (Wadi Rum was where Lawrence led the British-inspired Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I).
Half- and full-day 4WD excursions into the wilderness will give visitors a spectacular taste of the desert. Just a 40-minute drive away from Wadi Rum are the coral reefs and beaches of the Red Sea and Aqaba, Jordan’s only port.
TIP: To enjoy the serenity of the desert and the dazzling star-lit sky, stay overnight in a bedouin tent.
AMMAN – a modern city built on the sands of time
Like Rome, Amman was originally built on seven hills, but has long since spread over many more - a pleasant jumble of old and new. Ancient even before the Greeks named it Philadelphia, today Amman is one of the Middle East’s liveliest and safest cities.
Since the early days of the Arab Spring, there have been sporadic protests, but the country has been described as a place of peace. Amman may not have the intoxicating, winding souqs and magnificent mosques of other Middle Eastern capitals, but it does have plenty of theatres, galleries, cinemas and restaurants.
The ancient Citadel towers above the rest of the capital. This is the original city, with its monumental Temple of Hercules, Umayyad Palace, National Archaeological Museum and panoramic views of the city.
Jabal al-Weibdeh is one of the city’s most pleasant old districts and its pine trees, restaurants, galleries and parks make it a joy to explore. Stroll along leafy Rainbow and Mango Streets, with their 1920s villas, cafés and boutiques, perhaps popping into Books@Café to mingle with hip young Ammanites.
TIP: At the Fakhr el-Din restaurant, on the 2nd Circle in Jabal Amman, excellent Lebanese/Levantine cuisine is served in an elegant stone villa. On warm evenings, sit on the terrace and enjoy some Jordanian wines – they’re excellent.