People have lived in modern-day Jordan for a very, very long time — and as you explore the country, you’ll see the mark they’ve left behind. From rock-hewn cities to colorful mosaics and Roman ruins, Jordan is home to an impressive variety of archaeological sites.
So, if you’d like to walk in the shoes of this country’s ancient inhabitants, you’ll first need to know a little about Jordan’s history.
Let’s start digging!
As one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Petra attracts a lot of attention. After all, everyone has seen photos of its Treasury, an imposing building decorated with columns, carvings, and statues of gods and goddesses. But what most people don’t realize is that the Treasury is just one of many buildings that make up this site. Petra is actually an entire city carved from sandstone by the Nabataeans — an Arab group of traders, who were first mentioned in a historical record in 312 B.C.
The gateway to Petra is the Siq, a mile-long gorge that splits a massive rock formation in two. It ends in front of the Treasury, depositing travelers at one of the most photogenic structures in the world. Although the building’s name is misleading, since the “Treasury” was actually a tomb for a prosperous king, the facade’s Hellenistic details faithfully indicate that the Nabateans were influenced by their contemporaries in Alexandria, Egypt.
The Nabataeans called Petra home for many years, constructing small houses, building an 8,000-seat amphitheater, conducting business in marketplaces, worshipping in temples, and carving tombs for their dead. In fact, hundreds of these simple tombs are located around the city, but scholars still don’t understand the Nabataeans’ funerary practices. Interestingly, no one has ever actually found human remains in any tomb on the site, so archaeologists still have a lot to learn.
And since only 15 percent of Petra has been excavated, puzzling burial customs aren’t the only unsolved mystery. The Romans annexed the site in 106 A.D., and although the Nabataeans continued to live there for a couple of centuries, the city was eventually abandoned — potentially because of changing trade routes or a destructive earthquake. Today’s archaeologists believe that everyone left Petra sometime during the fourth century A.D., and, given the site’s overall tidiness and lack of debris, that the evacuation was highly organized.
Fast facts: Petra was the Nabataean capital from roughly the first century B.C. to 106 A.D., when Roman forces annexed the city. By the fourth century A.D., few people inhabited the area. The city is located about 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of Amman.
Speaking of the Romans, we can thank them for playing an important role in Jordan’s second most famous ancient site: Jerash. Although they didn’t technically build this city from the ground up, it’s now best known for its Roman ruins.
Humans have lived in Jerash for more than 6,500 years. When the Romans conquered the city in 63 B.C., they made it part of the province of Syria, and it soon became a major metropolis. In fact, the Golden Age of Jerash occurred under Roman occupation, and trade flourished for the next 200 years.
Today, the city’s archaeological gems include Hadrian’s Arch (a massive triumphal arch commemorating the Roman emperor’s visit in 129 A.D.), the Hippodrome (a large arena for chariot races and other sporting events), and the Colonnaded Street (a paved road bearing telltale ruts from chariot wheels).
Fast facts: Jerash reached its high point during a period of Roman occupation that began almost 2,000 years ago. The city is located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Amman.
This small town, not far from Jordan’s capital, has fashioned itself as “the City of Mosaics” — and it lives up to its nickname. Showcasing depictions of plants, animals, everyday scenes, well-known myths, and even maps, Madaba is famous for this type of artwork.
The mosaics date back to the Byzantine Empire and the Ummayad Caliphate, when Jordan was under Christian and Islamic rule (respectively). Many Jordanian communities prospered during these periods, allowing the population to grow and the townspeople to pursue crafts like mosaic-making.
The most famous mosaic is located on the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. A huge map of the Holy Land, the mosaic once contained two million pieces of brightly colored stone, and even though much of the map has since chipped away, its representation of Jerusalem is still cohesive. The mosaic’s current home (St. George’s Church) only dates back to 1896, but the map itself is an original sixth-century work.
Hundreds of other mosaics are present throughout Madaba and can be found in churches, residences, and the archaeological museum. And, since the city is committed to keeping this art form alive today, the Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration trains artisans and scholars to make, repair, and restore mosaics.
Fast facts: Located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) southwest of Amman, this small city’s mosaics put Madaba on the map (no pun intended).
This desert castle joins Petra on Jordan’s list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Dating back to the early eighth century, Quseir Amra was both a pleasure palace and a fortress, so its residents included Ummayad caliphs, their guests, and military troops.
Located in the desert east of Amman, Quseir Amra was once an oasis, drawing its water from a nearby seasonal source. Built with a hammam (bath house) and a reception hall, it was designed as a relaxing getaway — but today, the site is primarily celebrated for its outstanding frescoes.
Depicting people, animals, and courtly scenes, the frescoes display an interplay of Islamic, Byzantine, and pagan influences. What’s more, the domed ceiling of the hammam shows a zodiac, one of the earliest maps of the night sky. With its mixture of styles and subjects, this desert castle’s paintings were extremely unique at the time of their creation.
Although archaeologists have discovered plenty of Ummayad desert castles, Quseir Amra is probably the best-known example, owing its fame to excellent preservation and colorful decor.
Fast facts: Quseir Amra was built by a pleasure-seeking Ummayad caliph in the early eighth century. It’s located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Amman.
After the fall of the Ummayads, Jordan passed into the hands of the Abbasids and then the Fatimids. A little more than a century after the Fatimid reign began, the Crusades kicked off, placing Jordan in the crosshairs.
The European crusaders spent 20 years building Karak Castle, hoping to maintain it as a stronghold along a major trade route, but when they broke a peace treaty, Saladin (the sultan of Egypt and Syria) claimed the castle for himself.
The castle’s carefully chosen design and geographic position make it highly defensible, and for centuries, it was positioned at the center of the (often bloody) action. Karak Castle traded hands again when it became the first target of cannons and gunpowder in the Middle East, and it later acted as both an administrative center and a prison.
Today, Karak Castle is an excellent specimen of military history, and archaeologists continue to excavate the site, hoping to unearth more information about its past residents. For visitors, the castle offers a living history lesson and a chance to learn about pre-modern war techniques.
Fast facts: Karak Castle was originally built by crusaders and was then occupied for centuries by Islamic leaders. The site is located just a two-hour drive southwest of Amman.
Traversing plains and hills, offering views of the Dead Sea, and snaking through desert scenery, this ancient road has meandered through Jordan for millennia. And it’s seen its fair share of history during that time: the Nabataeans and the Romans once used it as a trade route, Christian and Muslim pilgrims walked it for centuries, and the crusaders secured their holdings by building fortresses alongside it. But the most remarkable aspect of the King’s Highway is the connection it provides between several archaeological sites. It winds past Madaba, Karak Castle, Petra, and plenty of other significant locations — such as Khirbet Mukhayyat, Mukawir, Umm ar-Rasas, and even Dana Biosphere Reserve.
Between its scenery and sights, the King’s Highway makes for the perfect Jordanian road trip. Just remember that between the low speed limits, abundance of twists and turns, and exciting pit stops, it takes quite a while to drive the route.
Fast facts: Not only does the King’s Highway link several important archaeological sites, it’s also pretty old itself. Although it was only asphalted in the 1960s, the route dates back a few thousand years.
Cover photo by J. Basiga