When you think of Jordan you likely only think of Petra, maybe the desert, and possibly the Dead Sea, right?
My G Adventures National Geographic Journeys tour of Jordan really opened my eyes to everything Jordan has to offer.
Here are seven things that surprised me about this incredible Middle Eastern country…
Most tourists don’t even spent much time in Amman, Jordan’s capital, and instead head straight to Petra or the Dead Sea. With a population of 4 million, it’s really the epicenter of life in Jordan.
I didn’t know what to expect of the city upon my arrival, but I definitely didn’t anticipate so many hills. Amman is actually built on 7 hills throughout the city, so it’s on par with San Francisco…definitely a big change from flat Chicago!
The number of tall buildings downtown also surprised me, however the whitewashed buildings did seem to fit the vision in my head. The outside of homes must be white and limestone by law to keep a consistent aesthetic in the city.
Amman is kind of like Rome in that you have modern buildings right next to ancient ruins. Some are very well in tact including the largest Roman amphitheater outside Rome.
Did you know the OG Philly is in Amman, Jordan? Philadelphia is one of the 10 cities the Greeks built in the Middle East and the ruins are smack dab in the middle of the city on top of one of the hills. The columns are visible from around the city.
2. The History
Obviously, being in the Middle East there is a crazy amount of history that took place in Jordan, from the Persians/Nabateans to the Greeks to the Romans to the Byzantines to Islam to the Ottomans. There were so many exchanges of power, building things, knocking them down, and things that are still being discovered.
Petra gets all the PR, but there is so much more history in the country that doesn’t get as much attention, like Jerash.
Now that Prince William was there just days after I was, this ancient city has gotten more attention. It’s extremely well preserved, although we can only see 20% of what the city used to be. The rest is under the modern day city that surrounds the ruins.
Jerash was another one of 10 cities the Greeks built in the Middle East. However, the Romans tore it down and built over it, which is what you mostly see today, but some Greek artifacts still remain. At one point, 20,000 people lived in Jerash. You can see the main gates entering the cities – Damascus Gate to the North, Philadelphia Gate to the South, as a nod to the other main cities they led to. The main streets are very well preserved along with an amphitheater, hippodrome, and the city’s Terminus (sacrificial area).
Three Christian families discovered a church built on a huge mosaic map of the region in 1896. It’s viewable in a Greek Orthodox church in town.
This Nabatean gem was discovered in 1812 by a Swiss traveler. It deserves it’s own post about my experiences seeing it by night and also during the day, however I will say that it’s an enormous city and so much more than just the famous Treasury building. We explored Petra for 9 hours and still didn’t see everything!
There’s also a much less popular, but equally as cool, Little Petra, which is where people traveling the Silk Road would sleep and do business. We had the place basically to ourselves when we visited – it was magical.
3. The Religious Sites
Israel has done a very good job at promoting itself as a place for religious pilgrimages. But Jordan has a couple sites that should definitely be on the list – even Pope John Paul II says so.
Mount Nebo is where Moses lived his last 12 years of his life. His grave is believed to be located here, but his tomb has not been found. There are expansive views from the top of the mountain overlooking Israel.
The mosaics on the floor of the church are 1400 years old from the Byzantine period. The stones are all natural, they are not painted.
Jesus’ Baptism Site
This was just discovered in 2003. Archeologist excavated the site because it was exactly 7 Roman miles (12 kilometers) east of Jericho, which is where the Bible said Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. It was also where the only Byzantine church along the Jordan River was found. The archeologists uncovered stairs buried under the sand that the river used to flow over.
The Jordan River is the border between Jordan and Israel. We didn’t believe it when our guide told us we’d be just 6 meters from Israel, but there is a part of the river you can visit and take a dip in that looks over to Israel’s visitor center which was built 8 years ago. There is free entry on the Israel side and they do baptismal renewals by a priest. The priest very sweetly blessed us from the Israeli side of the river when he was done blessing a large group.
4. The Majestic Desert
80% of Jordan is desert, so you don’t have to go far to get to one, but Wadi Rum desert in the south of Jordan is particularly breathtaking. Movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Mars were filmed in Wadi Rum to take advantage of its otherworldly beauty.
We rode camels at sunset, made a bonfire in the desert under the stars, dined on food cooked underground for dinner, and stayed in a tented camp overnight. It was one of those days that almost didn’t feel like real life, like I was transported back in time.
Some of the group chose to do a hot air balloon ride in the morning, which I declined thinking it was just going to be over a vast desert and I had just done that over Arizona last summer, but the landscapes are stunning and they said they went as high as 3000 feet in the balloon, which would be have been incredible. I should have trusted my gut – anytime you get a chance to take a hot air balloon ride, just do it! Jan and I are still kicking ourselves for not doing the balloon ride over Bagan!!
5. The Delicious Food
In my opinion, you really can’t go wrong with a diet based on olive oil. Our guide told us that most households keep approximately 20 kilos of olive oil on hand at any given time and some even do a shot of olive oil in the morning.
Jordanian food is packed with fresh ingredients like tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, parsley, mint, olives, lentils, tender lamb, and savory rice.
We ate surprisingly well in Jordan. Most meals were family style, which I love to be able to sample as many things as possible. On the first night, I had some of the best hummus of my life at Hashem Restaurant in downtown Amman.
My biggest obsession was mint lemonade. It was the perfect summer drink, so refreshing on a hot day. It’s a blend of lemon juice, water, sugar, and mint blended with ice to be a bit frothy on the top. I tried a hack making it with lemonade, mint and ice blended together and it turned out pretty good.
There is some locally made Jordanian wine and beer. It’s nothing to write home about, but really not bad. Alcohol isn’t available too widely. It’s in some restaurants and hotels, but very hit or miss. Hookah/shisha is WAY more common than alcohol.
The group joked that this was basically a detox and wellness vacation between not drinking, all the walking, mud “spa” treatment in the Dead Sea, plus a treat of the Turkish Bath on our final night.
6. The Welcoming & Liberal People
Jordan has been a safe haven for refugees in the region. According to our guide, the total population of Jordan is 11 million people, which includes only 7M Jordanian citizens, then 2M Syrians, 1M Egyptians, and 1M Iraqis and Libyans. As you’ll see below, that’s a lot of people to take in for a not-so-rich country.
Jordan is one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East. For example, homosexuality is legal here (but not gay marriage). Although it’s relatively liberal, I still consider it conservative from a dress perspective, so I erred on the side of caution wearing mostly pants and shirts with sleeves out of respect.
Family ties are extremely strong in Jordan. The Royal Family of Jordan’s roots are from a very powerful Bedouin tribe that started and won the revolution against the Ottomans in 1917. One of the reasons Jordan has remained safe with such volatile neighbors is the extremely loyal Jordanian Bedouin tribes in the south. Israel’s top military strength helps a lot too because they would back up Jordan if anything were to happen to them.
7. The Economy Relies Heavily on Tourism
Jordan is a relatively poor country for the region. It doesn’t have oil and gas resources to sell like it’s rich neighbors. Only 6% of its land is used for agriculture. That being said, they have an incredible education system with 25 Universities and top notch healthcare including one of the top private hospitals in the world.
Looking into the future, Jordan is moving heavily towards solar power (it enjoys 300 sunny days a year) with the goal of owning their power source in the next 10 years. They are also exporting phosphate, which is used in fertilizer.
But the country relies heavily on tourism, which is currently only 20% of what it was 8 years. So if you go to Jordan, not only will you help the lovely Jordanian people, but you’ll be able to visit sites like Petra with minimal crowds compared to the height of tourism.
Now is definitely the time to visit Jordan!
Does this inspire you to visit Jordan? What questions do you have about Jordan? Comment below – I’d love to answer them.