Every stone has a story, and every road follows the forgotten footprints of merchants, pilgrims, and ancient armies. Long before the time when religious scholars claim Jesus and Muhammad walked through Jordan, the King’s Highway linked the three kingdoms of Ammon, Moab, and Edom.
Before embarking on the archaeological adventure of a lifetime, orient yourself at the phenomenal Jordan Museum in Amman. Get a close-up look at some of the oldest human statues in the world, dating back to 6750 B.C. and uncovered at the Neolithic site of Ayn Ghazal. Aside from prehistoric art, the Jordan Museum displays some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and offers marvelous cultural context, including detailed insights into Bedouin life and the many written languages that evolved in Jordan.
Jordan is also a land of pilgrims, spiritual seekers, and mystics. The nation is founded on religious diversity and tolerance. “Christians and Muslims live in harmony—we all grew up together,” says Rustom Mkhjian, assistant director general of the Baptism Site Commission, an independent board of trustees tasked with supporting the Jordanian national park believed to be the site of Jesus’ baptism. “Jordan is the great melting pot of the Middle East and beyond. We have Druze, Chechens, Armenians, Circassians, and Bedouin—and that’s right now!”
For the faithful, Jordan offers an opportunity to visit religious sites referenced in the Bible. “This is not Disneyland,” insists Mkhjian. “Jesus walked here, the first Apostles joined him here, Christianity was born here. Jesus had no borders—all of this is the Holy Land, and it belongs to all of humanity. We in Jordan are merely the custodians.”
To many Bethany Beyond the Jordan—or Al-Maghtas—represents the birth of Christianity, where some believe Jesus came to see John the Baptist. “This is the actual ‘wilderness of John’ spoken of in the Bible,” says Mkhjian. Aside from the cave where John the Baptist supposedly lived, eating “locusts and wild honey,” and Elijah’s Hill, where religious scholars claim the prophet ascended to heaven on a chariot of fire, visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage site can witness the spot where many believe Jesus was baptized.
Though tourists tend to snap selfies at the picturesque, olive-colored River Jordan at the border, the spot that has been recognized by religious officials as the baptism site lies slightly farther east, inside the original dried-up streambed, paved with the worn marble steps of a seventh-century shrine. A clear spring still bubbles up from the ground, and up close, visitors can see and feel the crosses etched into sandstone by early Christian pilgrims in the seventh century A.D.
Jordan is home to plenty of sites mentioned in the Old Testament as well. The land of Zoar, on the southeastern shore of the Dead Sea, is where the Bible says Lot and his family found refuge after they fled the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth takes visitors through the centuries of civilizations in this region of Ghor es-Safi, then leads upward to what’s thought be Lot’s Cave—and where monks built Deir Ain Abata, or the Monastery of St. Lot.
Climbing Jordan’s Mount Nebo will lead visitors to the spot where, in the biblical story, God showed Moses the “Promised Land.” Ascend the 2,630-foot-high peak and take in all that Moses would have seen—the spectacular panoramic view of Jerusalem, Jericho, and the Dead Sea, the same sacred route that pilgrims have followed for ages. The believed burial place of Moses and a holy site for all three Abrahamic religions, Mount Nebo has been home to Christian monks since the fourth century A.D. A beautiful new minimalist church shields the ruins of the Byzantine-era Basilica of Moses, with its baptistery and colorful mosaics illustrating the diverse wild animals of ancient Jordan.
Nearby Madaba dates back to the Bronze Age, but today the city is best known for its incredibly well preserved Byzantine mosaics, including the massive sixth-century map of the Holy Land, originally compiled from around two million hand-cut pieces of colored stone on the floor of St. George’s Church. Though the entire mosaic is not currently visible, the mosaic map is the only one of its kind in the world—look closely for the poignantly illustrated baptism site of Jesus Christ.
Jordan represents the many overlapping layers of civilization that seem to poke up from the shifting desert sands. In the northern city of Jerash, epic stone colonnades mark the streets where Romans walked some 2,000 years ago. The sheer scale of the massive ruins make one feel miniscule. Stepping onto the sandy track of the Hippodrome feels like walking into the chariot scene from Ben Hur, and the sunset view from atop the Temple of Artemis is transcendent.
Yet the crowning glory of ancient Jordan is Petra, the exquisite city carved into the rock by those mysterious incense traders, the Nabateans. Too many day-trippers skimp on Petra, rushing through the narrow Siq to reach the iconic Treasury for a picture with a camel. Bear in mind that Petra is a three-dimensional maze, comprising thousands of caves, rooms, facades, paths, and temples. Plan two to three days to really explore the site, and don’t miss Petra by Night, when the place is flooded with the light of a thousand candles.
For a truly authentic experience, spend the day as an archaeologist, assisting with an active excavation at the Temple of the Winged Lions. The American Center of Oriental Research offers a workshop for visitors, who can learn skills from working archaeologists and help restore the fifth-century chapel.
Islam came to Jordan in the seventh century with the Umayyad Dynasty, who left a chain of “desert castles” throughout Jordan. Over time, the castles grew in size and height, until the 12th-century crusaders built Karak, a high stone fortress that rivals the great medieval castles of Europe. Enjoy the mile-high view of the Dead Sea, then let your inner child scramble through the gothic archways into the kitchen, dungeons, and great hall where true knights once dined. Other not-to-miss crusader castles include Shoubak and Ajlun, both solid outposts in the midst of the sweeping landscape.
History still sits on the surface of this ageless country. Shuffle your feet in the sand and you could uncover a Roman coin, a piece of Greek pottery, or some flint tool from the Paleolithic past. Much of world history points back to this country, and until time machines are actually a thing, Jordan is here to lead you back through the centuries.