Kerak Castle

Inside the remains of Kerak Castle

Regular readers of my blog may have noticed that I really, really love a castle and so it goes without saying I was very excited at the prospect of visiting Kerak Castle during my week in Jordan.

Walls and passageways at Kerak Castle

The Crusader castle at Kerak is an enormous white limestone fortress, perched high on a hill overlooking its modern-day namesake town. It was built during the Crusades, in 1142, by Pagan the Butler, lord of Outrejourdain – one of a number of castles built by the Crusaders across the Levant.

Some of the ruined walls at Kerak Castle

The castle’s extensive walls extend across the hill top, dominating the town, and I couldn’t help but be impressed as we approached it.

Dusty white limestone passageway inside Kerak Castle

The enormous castle’s in a ruined state, so you have to use your imagination to picture what it must have looked like during the 12th century. The ground underfoot is rocky and dusty, too, so I was glad I’d worn sensible, sturdy shoes for my visit. Being a clumsy so-and-so, I had to make sure I looked where I was going as I wandered around.

Looking up at the white limestone ruins of Kerak Castle

The sprawling fortress is home to lots of rooms, tunnels and passages, and with multiple floors to explore, uneven staircases, dark, unlit rooms and only a handful of safety barriers, there’s no way it would pass a health and safety inspection in the UK, but I had great fun clambering over the rocks, going up and down the staircases, and exploring the castle’s many, many nooks and crannies.

Walking around the castle, I couldn’t help but admire its grand majesty. The Crusaders built it in an excellent strategic location, with incredible views over the vast valley below – Jerusalem is visible in the distance on a clear day – and it must have been a formidable and imposing sight during its Crusader heyday.

Views over the valley below from Kerak Castle

It’s a superb fortress and a fabulous place to spend a fun-filled hour or so. While it’s in a bit of a dilapidated state, it’s nevertheless an incredible building and I had a fantastic time exploring all there was to see. With so much to seek out, Kerak Castle more than lived up to my (admittedly rather high) expectations.

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Madaba

A sign at the Greek Orthodox Church of St George's in Madaba, Jordan

Tucked away among the narrow streets of Madaba is St George’s Church. And while from the outside, it may look like any other church, inside it’s home to one of Jordan’s greatest treasures – the sixth century map of Madaba.

The Madaba Mosaic Map is a mosaic map of the Holy Land that’s thought to date back to the time of the Emperor Justinian. The mosaic is incomplete with only fragments surviving, but what remains is a detailed and fairly accurate map of the region.

An illustrated diagram of the Mosaic Map of Madaba at St George's Church

Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, the Dead Sea, Mount Sinai, the Jordan River and the Nile Delta are just a few of the famous places featured in the map. The place names are marked using Greek capital letters, and with more than 2,000 characters, it’s one of the largest surviving pieces of Byzantine writing.

The map lay undiscovered until 1884, and once people realised how important it was, St George’s Church was built around it in 1902 to protect it.

When we arrived at the site, we made our way to the visitor centre next door to the church where we were given a brief introduction to the map, before heading inside the church. St George’s Church is a small, ornately decorated Greek Orthodox church and its star attraction, the mosaic map, is in the centre, surrounded by protective ropes.

Part of the Mosaic Map of Madaba in St George's Church

The ancient map was much bigger than I’d anticipated. And while much of it has been lost, the fragments that remain are fascinating and in fairly good condition. I spent quite a bit of time looking at the different parts of the map, trying to work out where the many places depicted were.

Part of the Mosaic Map of Madaba on the floor of St George's Church

The Mosaic Map of Madaba is an extraordinary piece of Byzantine cartography and craftsmanship, offering an intriguing glimpse into the region’s past. It’s amazing to think that such a remarkable piece of history has survived for so long and is now taking pride of place in an unassuming church in the middle of Jordan.

Mount Nebo

Memorial of Moses on top of Mount Nebo in Jordan

According to the Bible, Jordan’s Mount Nebo is the place from which Moses saw the Promised Land right before he died. The mountain, which overlooks the Dead Sea, is today home to the prophet’s purported grave, as well as a church and a small museum.

View towards Amman from the top of Mount Nebo

It was bright and early when we arrived atop Mount Nebo, some 800m above sea level, and thanks to the cloudless, clear skies, we were greeted by fantastic views – to the north, we could just make out the two towers in far away Amman beyond the Wadi ‘Uyun Musa (above); to the south was the Wadi al Judaydah; to the east, the Wadi ‘Afrit; and to the south-west, the Dead Sea, beyond which we could just about see Israel and some of the buildings in Jerusalem (below).

View from the top of Mount Nebo with the Dead Sea to the south-west and Israel in the far distance

Unsurprisingly, given its religious significance, there’s been some form of sanctuary or church on top of Mount Nebo since at least the fourth century, and today, the site is home to the Memorial Church of Moses, which is thought to have been built in the sixth century.

Mix of old and new inside the Memorial Church of Moses on top of Mount Nebo

After spending some time admiring the views from the top of the mountain, we made our way inside the church. The small, simple basilica is a curious mix of church and archaeology museum. The interior is dominated by a series of ancient mosaics, some of which date back as far as 531AD. There’s also a coffin-sized hole in the ground, which is said to be Moses’s grave (below).

A glass top protects Moses's purported grave inside the Memorial Church of Moses

The mosaics cover large parts of the floor and walls, and according to our guide, the mosaics on the floor (below) were only discovered during an earthquake, as they were originally overlaid by those now hanging on the walls. The mosaics are in excellent condition, and it’s clear they’ve been expertly restored and cared for – they look so clean and modern, it’s hard to believe they’re 1,500 years old.

After a good look around the church, we paid a quick visit to the site’s small museum to find out more about its history. Mount Nebo is a curious and unusual place – its undeniable highlight being the breathtaking mosaic floors.

The Dead Sea

At 431 m below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth. A slither of receding water between Jordan and Israel, the Dead Sea is actually a large lake, part of the Jordan Rift Valley, and it’s where I spent a late afternoon relaxing during my week-long sojourn in Jordan.

Road signs on the way to the Dead Sea

As we approached the Dead Sea, the super-salty body of water looked enchanting as it glistened in the late-afternoon sunshine. With a salinity level of 33.7 per cent, the Dead Sea is one of the saltiest bodies of water on Earth and is almost 10 times saltier than the water you find in most seas. It’s this high salt concentration that gives the lake its name, as it’s so salty no living creatures can survive in it.

We planned to stop at a resort on the shores of the lake, which was surrounded by derelict wasteland and home to a small private beach and a couple of swimming pools. As soon as we arrived, we made our way down to the beach, eager to try our hand at floating in the famous body of water.

The water was clear, and in the shallow waters by the shoreline, I could clearly see the white salt crystals glinting on the floor of the lake (below). The salt crystals can be really sharp, so you need to wear shoes when you enter the water.

Salt crystals on the floor of the Dead Sea

As I waded into the water and sat down, I immediately began to float, and found myself lying on my back with my feet in the air. The sea was still and there weren’t many people around, so it was very peaceful, quietly bobbing on the surface of the water. The high mineral content of the water made it feel quite oily and it felt quite unusual against my skin.

We stayed there, floating in the sea, for some 20 minutes, before getting out. And almost as soon as we were back on dry land and began drying off, I could see a fine layer of white salt crystals forming on my body.

The glistening Dead Sea

I washed the salt water off, then made my way back to the shore, where I found a spot of mud, hidden at the bottom of the lake near the water’s edge. I plastered my skin with the mud and let it dry off in the sun, and as it did so, I could see my skin begin to crease and tighten. Once it was completely dry, I waded back into the water to wash it off and was immediately left with baby soft skin.

I had another quick dip in the sea and by the time I’d washed off the water and dressed, it was almost 7pm and starting to get dark. So we decided to stay and watch the sun set over the Dead Sea – and Israel in the far distance. We were pretty much the only people left in the resort by this time and it was such a quiet and peaceful moment, looking out over the beautiful giant body of water as the sun slowly disappeared from view.

Tips

  • Whatever you do, don’t get any salt water in your eyes or in any sensitive parts of your body – it will sting like hell
  • Do slather yourself in the sea’s mineral-rich mud, which you can find in small pockets along the shorefront, leave it to dry, then wash it off for super-soft skin
  • Because of the water’s high salt content, don’t stay in the sea for longer than 20 minutes at a time – and make sure you rinse all the salinated water off you as soon as you get out
  • Don’t forget to wash your hands thoroughly after getting out of the sea before touching your camera or phone, otherwise you risk them becoming encrusted with salt

Jerash

Looking down over the Forum in Jerash

The most striking thing about the ruined Roman city of Jerash is its size – it’s a vast site home to two extraordinarily well-preserved amphitheatres, two temples and even an intact mosaic floor. Known as Gerasa in ancient times, Jerash in north-west Jordan dates back to the 3rd century BC and today lies in the middle of its namesake modern city.

Hadrian's Arch in Jerash

When we first entered Jerash via the stunning and imposing Hadrian’s Arch (above), the ruined city looked deceptively small and it was only when we began walking around the site that we realised just how big it was. Through the arch, we came upon the remains of an ancient church featuring an uncovered mosaic floor, as well as what was left of an old olive press.

Opposite the church, we passed through a doorway into a vast space that once housed the city’s hippodrome, which played host to Jerash’s sporting events and chariot races. Much of the hippodrome has been lost over the millennia, but you can nevertheless get a sense of its size and appreciate how big it must have been.

South Gate in Jerash

From the hippodrome, we walked towards Jerash’s South Gate (above), passing through it and along a passageway to the photogenic Forum (below). The huge oval space, flanked by 56 columns, was practically complete and sensational to look at.

Part of the oval forum in Jerash

We made our way through the forum to the Cardo (below), a long street leading off from the forum, which is also flanked by a series of columns. As we began walking along the Cardo, I got a better sense of the size of the site as the street seemed never-ending.

As we walked its length, we stopped every so often to take a look at the interesting ruins leading off from it – among the various sites we visited were the former market place, an eighth-century mosque and a few churches.

The long colonnaded Cardo in Jerash

Towards the end of the Cardo, we veered off to the left to see the first of the site’s two large amphitheatres, the North Theatre (below). The pretty and impressive amphitheatre was completely open to visitors, so we clambered up the steps to the top of the theatre to get a better view of the stage and the rows of seats facing it.

Looking down over the North Theatre in Jerash

We then made our way towards the magnificent Temple of Artemis (below). Built using a series of ropes to hoist one enormous stone on top of another, I was amazed that so much of the temple was still standing, especially when I learned that it survived the devastating earthquake of 749AD intact. A few of the stones were out of alignment having moved over the centuries and if you popped your hands in the gaps between the stones you could feel the enormous pressure holding the stones in place.

Columns in the Temple of Artemis in Jerash

Walking south from the Temple of Artemis, we had a great vantage point over the ruined city and it brought home just how big Jerash was. We continued walking until we reached the city’s second amphitheatre, the South Theatre, and stepping inside, we found three men in front of the stage performing for the crowds – one of the men was playing the bag pipes.

It was a little surreal to be sitting in a Roman amphitheatre in Jordan listening to the bag pipes, but we learned that the bag pipes were introduced to the country by the British during its occupation following the First World War. The acoustics inside the amphitheatre were incredible, so much so that if you stood on the first stone laid in the centre of the theatre and talked, you could hear what was said throughout.

View over the Forum from the Temple of Zeus in Jerash

Having enjoyed our bag pipe show, we made our way to our final stop in Jerash, the spectacular Temple of Zeus. Unlike the Temple of Artemis, the Temple of Zeus didn’t survive the 749 earthquake because it was built on an artificial hill made of sand, which subsided during the quake. Subsequently rebuilt, the temple boasted fantastic views across Jerash, with around 85 per cent of the ancient city visible from the temple (above).

The remains of the Nymphaeum in Jerash

Jerash is a fascinating place and we spent around two-and-a-half hours walking around the enormous site. I was stunned at how well-preserved its ruins were and amazed that we were free to wander all over the site, there weren’t any restrictions on where we could or couldn’t go. It’s one of the most impressive ancient sites I’ve visited and I really enjoyed our visit.

Jordan

The Treasury in Petra

With spectacular scenery, countless archaeological gems and one of the seven wonders of the world, Jordan is an extraordinary country. Almost entirely landlocked, bar a slither of coastline along the Red Sea, the country is flanked by Syria to the north, Iraq to the north-east, Saudi Arabia to the east and south-east, and Israel and Palestine to the west.

Given the catastrophes playing out in its northern neighbours and the uneasy, violent tensions among its western neighbours, it’s amazing that Jordan has so far emerged relatively unscathed amid the turbulent chaos of the Middle East. That’s not to say the wars playing out around it haven’t impacted the country, for the Jordanian Government says it has taken in an estimated 1.3 million refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

Despite all the chaos surrounding it, the country remains a safe destination for travellers, although if it wasn’t for Petra, I’m not sure I would have visited Jordan as it wasn’t really on my travel radar. I’d long been keen to see the once-lost Nabatean city, seduced by all the gorgeous photos of the Treasury and the Siq, but the rest of the country had barely made a blip in my consciousness.

That all changed when I started researching my trip to Petra and discovered that Jordan was host to an array of fascinating places, and I found myself wanting to tour a much bigger swathe of the country.

The long colonnaded Cardo in Jerash

I spent a week travelling around Jordan, starting in the vast Roman city of Jerash (above) in the north-west of the country, before travelling south to the lowest and saltiest place on earth, the Dead Sea. From there, I explored some of the nearby sites, including Mount Nebo (said to be the place where Moses was buried) and Madaba, home to an extraordinarily accurate mosaic map of the region that dates back to the sixth century AD.

The desert and rock formations of Wadi Rum in Jordan

Continuing south, I stopped by the superb crusader castle at Kerak, before arriving in Petra, where I spent a few days exploring the phenomenal Nabatean city, as well as the nearby smaller site of Little Petra. After the wonders of Petra, we continued south, spending the night in a Bedouin camp in the breathtaking desert surroundings of Wadi Rum (above) on our way to the port of Aqaba, where we spent an afternoon snorkelling in the Red Sea.

From there, we made our way back north to the Jordanian capital, Amman, where we spent a day exploring the city’s sites, including the ancient citadel and amphitheatre, as well as the superb Museum of Jordan (the artefacts on display included some of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

Wadi Mujib in Jordan

One of the things that struck me most when travelling around Jordan was the breathtaking scenery I encountered. The rock formations and colours were out of this world, reminiscent of the far more celebrated rock formations in Arizona and Utah.

The most extraordinary thing for me when I visited Petra wasn’t the tombs (as fascinating as they were) but the geology and the vast array of colours in the rocks. It’s the only place on earth where I’ve encountered rocks in vivid shades of blues, reds, greens, blacks, purples and more. It’s sensational.

I often find when I’m travelling that the people I meet are warm, hospitable and friendly, and it was true of Jordan, too. When I was staying in Petra I was lucky enough to be welcomed for dinner by a local woman who’d grown up living in the nearby caves. She cooked us an amazing feast and happily told us about her life, and was more than willing to share a few of her delicious recipes with us, too.

Meze at the Don Quichotte Restaurant in Amman

Jordan is a culinary delight and I had many great meals in the country. I ate lots of flatbreads and dips (baba ghanoush, hummus), an abundance of salads and pickled vegetables, along with regional specialities such as kibbe (fried minced meat patties), mansaf (lamb or goat served with rice and topped with a sour yoghurt sauce) and mussakhan (roast chicken and onions with sumac).

I can’t say I enjoyed everything I tried, the goats milk/yoghurt drink I had in Wadi Mujib was definitely an acquired taste. But my favourite thing was a flatbread filled with falafel, hummus and salad from a roadside shop just outside Amman that was packed with locals and cost just 30p. As an Islamic country, alcohol is rare in Jordan, but there are lots of great fruit juices to be had – I developed a penchant for lemon and mint juice. Tea, especially mint tea, and coffee are ubiquitous, too.

Laying claim to being the safest and most secure country in the Middle East is something of an achievement given the volatile nature of the region, and I have to say I felt incredibly safe everywhere I went in Jordan. It was clear the country takes threats to its security seriously with police checkpoints along the main roads and a noticeable police presence at all the main visitor sites.

In all the hotels I stayed in, I had to pass through airport-style security to get in, too. Far from making me feel anxious or worried about my safety, I found it reassuring and was glad the country was taking such proactive steps to make sure its citizens and visitors were safe.

The Monastery in Petra

I came back from Jordan raving about the country – telling anyone who’d listen how spectacularly beautiful it was, how great the food was and all about the many interesting and varied places I’d visited. Petra should be on everyone’s travel to-do-list. It’s a magical place unlike anywhere else on earth and I don’t think you can truly appreciate its wonders until you’ve experienced it. But I’d encourage anyone thinking of visiting Petra to spend a little time exploring the other, less celebrated parts of Jordan, too, as you may very well fall in love with it.

Jordan travel guide

Wadi Mujib in Jordan

If I had to guess, I’d wager that Petra is the reason most people visit Jordan and it was certainly why I booked my trip. I’d long been keen to visit the ancient Nabatean city, but little did I realise it’s just one of a number of incredible places to see in this fascinating country.

Jordan is home to wonderfully preserved Roman ruins, the lowest and saltiest point on Earth and Moses’s alleged burial site, as well as cracking Crusader castles, spectacular deserts, and relaxing beach resorts. It’s also one of the most beautiful countries I’ve seen and boasts breathtaking scenery that rivals the great American vistas of Zion and Arches national parks.

Jordan has a long and fascinating history, playing host to a number of cultures and peoples over the millennia; the food is delicious; and the people are warm, friendly and hospitable. I spent a week travelling around the country last year and needless to say, I loved every minute of it. Here’s my mini travel to Jordan…

Sightseeing

Amman

I wasn’t hugely impressed by Jordan’s capital city Amman, it didn’t seem to have much of a centre to it and you needed to drive everywhere, so it felt a little soulless. But there are some impressive places to visit, including the old Citadel (above) on top of a hill in the centre of the city and the Roman amphitheatre below it. The Jordan Museum, which is home to some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is also worth a visit – it’s small, so only takes an hour or so to look around, but it’s full of interesting exhibits about the country, its history and its culture, and has an excellent display about the origins of language.

Jerash

One of the largest and best preserved Roman sites in the world, Jerash is a fascinating place. The ancient city is much bigger than I was expecting and even though we spent a good two-and-a-half hours there, I still felt as though we rushed our trip and didn’t quite see everything there was to see. The spectacular ruins include two almost perfectly preserved amphitheatres, numerous temples and an intriguing mosaic on the floor of an old church.

Dead Sea

The mineral-rich lake that lies between Jordan and Israel is 411m below sea level, making it the lowest point on Earth. There are a number of resorts dotted along the edge of the Dead Sea where you can while away an afternoon floating in the thick salty waters.

Make sure you don’t spend longer than 20 minutes in the sea at any one time before washing all the minerals off your body and avoid getting the sea water in your eyes or other sensitive parts of your body. Look out for small pockets of mud along the shore, which you can use to slather over your body, then wait for the mud to dry before washing it off in the sea – it will leave your skin super soft!

Biblical sites

As part of the Holy Land, Jordan is home to a number of important Biblical sites. Mount Nebo, for example, is home to the Memorial Church of Moses, which commemorates the prophet Moses who reportedly saw the promised land from the spot, and features Moses’s reputed burial site, as well as some fantastic mosaics. The mountain, which lies at the top end of the Dead Sea, also boasts fantastic views over Israel (you can just make out Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem in the distance, above).

St George’s Church in the town of Madaba, meanwhile, features an incredible 6th century mosaic map of the Holy Land (above). Only parts of the map remain, but what’s there is fairly topographically accurate and it’s possible to make out the Jordan River, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem.

Kerak

Perched high on a hill and dominating its namesake town, the crusader castle at Kerak is enormous. The sandstone structure is an imposing and formidable fortress. Much of it is now in ruins, but you can clamber about inside the dark chambers and passages, exploring what remains and there are fantastic views over the nearby valleys.

Petra

The jewel in Jordan’s crown and one of the seven wonders of the world, Petra does not disappoint and is a must for anyone visiting the country. The most surprising thing  about Petra is its size, it’s enormous, and you’ll need at least two, if not three, days to see it all. I spent two full days in Petra and could have done with an extra day.

Petra is famed for its ancient tombs, but surprisingly, they’re not the most spectacular part of the city. Rather I was blown away by its incredible landscapes – it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. The colours in the rocks – greens, reds, whites, purples, blacks, even bright blues – are like nothing I’ve seen before.

Petra gets very busy, especially the area around the Treasury (above), so it’s worth getting there as early as possible. It was incredibly hot and sunny when I visited in May, so we did the bulk of our sightseeing in the morning before the temperatures became unbearable.

Petra’s very hilly so you’ll need to do a lot of hiking to reach some of the more interesting parts of the city. My favourite place was the Monastery (above), high on top of one of the city’s hills, and for me, more spectacular than the iconic Treasury. My surprise when I turned around and saw it after a long hike to the top of the mountain will stay with me forever.

It’s also worth carrying on past the Monastery to the look-out points on the rocks nearby. There’s one overlooking the Monastery and one further on with a Bedouin tent on top of a precarious-looking rock – don’t miss either highest point and stay for tea with the friendly Bedouin. The view from the rock over the Wadi al Araba is extraordinary and one of my favourite travel moments.

Wadi Rum

The beautiful desert of Wadi Rum was immortalised by Lawrence of Arabia in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his detailed account of his time in the Middle East helping unite the Arab tribes. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is named after a rock formation in the wadi (an Arabic term for valley) and there’s even a carving of TE Lawrence on a rock in the desert. Wadi Rum is also home to an old, unused train station with a train you can clamber aboard, as well as ancient Nabatean carvings. You can also spend the night sleeping under the stars in a Bedouin camp where you’ll be treated to great food, music and dancing.

Aqaba

Aqaba lies at the top of the Red Sea and is the only port in this otherwise landlocked country. I spent a day on a glass-bottomed boat on the sea, snorkelling in the coral reefs. The current in the sea can be very strong, but the marine life is incredible – I was lucky enough to find myself snorkelling with a turtle, which was definitely a pinch-myself moment.

Food and drink

Jordanian food is fairly typical Middle Eastern fare – think lots of delicious salads, hummus, baba ghanoush, pickled vegetables, tabbouleh, falafel and flatbreads. Other foods to look out for include kibbe, which are little meat croquettes; mansaf, a dish of goat or lamb served with rice and topped with a yoghurt sauce; and mussakhan, a chicken wrap with onions.

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Alcohol is rare in Jordan – the only places I saw it for sale were in Petra and Aqaba – and instead you’ll find lots of fantastic fruit juices in the restaurants. My favourite was lemon and mint juice, which you’ll find everywhere, although it varied in taste depending on where I had it. Sometimes it was sweet, other times really sour. I also drank lots of mint tea while I was there and tried some fermented goat’s milk, an interesting local delicacy, during a picnic in Wadi Mujib.

Climate

Wadi Rum

Jordan is in the heart of the Middle East and so is a hot, dry country. It’s baking hot in the summer, but cooler in winter, around 5°C to 10°C in January. I visited in May when the sun was searingly strong, so I tried my best to avoid the midday sun, venturing out in the morning or late afternoon and seeking as much shade as possible. I still struggled with headaches and overheating though, despite taking every precaution to protect myself.

Safety

“Is it safe?” was the one question everyone asked when I told them I was going to Jordan. “Yes,” I’d reply wearily, “it’s perfectly safe.” And it is. I didn’t have any concerns about my safety during my trip, and if anything, I probably felt safer there than I do in most European countries.

The Jordanians take their security seriously, so every tourist site has a police presence and there were numerous police checks along the roads. There was also airport-style security at the entrance to a number of hotels. I didn’t find this scary, rather I found it reassuring that the Jordanians know the country’s a likely target for terrorists given its location and are taking the necessary steps to keep everyone safe.

Share your experiences

Have you been to Jordan? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought of it and if you have any tips I haven’t covered here, please share them in the comments.