“The best advice I heard before going to Jordan was ‘don’t read anything about it.’ ” Award-winning author Colin McAdam wrote that in the Spring 2014 issue of Canadian Geographic Travel, so weigh his recommendation before exploring the following roundup of some of the country’s natural and cultural riches. Jordan is home to a seemingly impossible number of them — from timeworn cities carved from solid, soaring rock faces to the Earth’s lowest point and body of water; from Crusader castles to fertile wetland oases and other rich nature preserves. (And we couldn’t stop ourselves from reading about them, either.)
Jordan’s capital, sprawled out across 19 hills, is an excellent base from which to explore the rest of the country. Amman is not without great historical riches — the hilltop Citadel and the impressive Roman Theatre among them — but it nevertheless stands in stark contrast to the ancient, mysterious allure of Petra, Wadi Rum and other prominent Jordan attractions. Cosmopolitan, diverse and strikingly modern, the city is full of trendy hotels, restaurants and wine bars, and an array of excellent museums and galleries are never out of reach.
In a boundless desert, the Azraq Wetland Reserve is an oasis. It features seasonally flooded marshland and artesian pools. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise, especially from late fall to early spring, when the protected area is at its wettest. It’s also the only permanent natural wetland in Jordan’s deserts, and has few equivalents across the entire Arabian peninsula. Less than 15 kilometres down the road, the small Shawmari Wildlife Reserve is home to rare populations of ostriches, onagers and gazelles, but most importantly, a healthy herd of Arabian Oryx, an antelope that was extinct in the wild by the 1970s and has since become a major success story of reintroduction and stabilization.
This is the lowest point on Earth, 400 metres below sea level. The River Jordan and other rivers, bearing minerals, flow into the landlocked Dead Sea, from which water can only evaporate. Salt concentrations are as much as 10 times greater than the oceans, and the supposed healing properties of the warm, unusually buoyant water and mineral-rich black muds are enjoyed by modern tourists just as they have been for millennia (Cleopatra and King Herod the Great were both known to have bathed here, for example).
Cleaving to the tip of a high plateau, the Karak castle rules over the walled city that surrounds it. A fortress long before the Crusaders arrived in the 12th century, they nevertheless spent 20 years building it up to the enormous stronghold that stands today. It withstood many long sieges, but was eventually lost by the infamously cruel and reckless Crusader Reynald de Chatillon, who was killed by Saladin, the ruler of Syria and Egypt. This brilliant example of Crusades architecture — built for military utility with little attention to aesthetics — has numerous preserved passageways and tunnels that can be explored, the best of which are deep underground.
They tried for decades, but the Crusaders found Ajlun castle unconquerable. Today the monumental bastion is among the best preserved examples of medieval Arab-Islamic military architecture. No longer does it defend iron mines or the communication routes between south Jordan and Syria, but it does seem to stand sentinel over the region’s woodlands — the world’s southernmost complete pine forest.
This age-old city, sometimes called “The Rose-Red City,” was hewn by the Nabataeans out of a great rift-valley of red-veined sandstone cliffs, probably near the end of the third century BC. An ingenious system of channels, cut into the walls to transport water around the desert city, is still visible, but it’s the elaborate, towering rock facades that have halted many a traveller in their tracks. Perhaps the most famous of these structures is Al-Khazneh, or the Treasury, which is the tomb of Nabataean King Aretas III. One legend says that the 3.5-metre, solid-rock urn on the Treasury’s second level encases pirate gold, which explains why the vessel’s exterior is pitted with bullet holes.
Forbidding yet spectacularly beautiful, the long desert valleys, sandstone peaks, crests and cliffs of Wadi Rum change colour with every angle of the sun. T.E. Lawrence (as in, “Lawrence of Arabia”) famously described the region as “vast, echoing and God-like,” and to appreciate that sentiment one should stay long enough to see at least one sunset, the unparalleled view of every possible star and the pastel sunrise. Trips through Wadi Rum on 4x4 or by camel and guide, often including a campfire meal and a stay in a Bedouin tent, can be arranged through the Visitors’ Centre.
Jordan’s sole coastal city is a haven for anyone ready to temporarily trade dramatic deserts and magnificent ancient monuments for breezy beaches and modern luxuries (but don’t forget that this city has been inhabited for roughly 6,000 years). The Red Sea is as full of life as the Dead Sea is void of it: flourishing coral reefs, teeming with vibrant fish species as well as sea turtles and dolphins, make the Gulf of Aqaba one of the world’s top destinations for diving and snorkelling.
Read about the Dana Biosphere Reserve and the completely self-sufficient Feynan Ecolodge in Colin McAdam’s story “ Desert Oasis,” featured in the Spring 2014 issue of Canadian Geographic Travel.
Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic