Jordan – The Warm Heart of the Middle East

When you walk across a border from one country to another, it is almost always confusing. It’s like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and in this case the right hand is Israel and the left hand is Jordan. Each country has its own processes and requirements and jurisdiction. There isn’t a single source of truth you can go to for figuring it all out.

And that’s why it took four well-traveled adults two attempts to walk from Israel to Jordan.

Ajloun Castle Jordan

No, this is isn’t the bridge we used to walk to Jordan. It’s medieval aged Ajloun Castle!

Itinerary:

  • Day 1: Cross border from Israel, drive to Amman via Ajloun and Jerash
  • Day 2: Drive to Petra via Mount Nebo, Madaba and Shoubak
  • Day 3: Visit Petra and drive to Wadi Rum
  • Day 4: Wadi Rum tour and drive to Amman via Kerak
  • Day 5: Fly out

Dates: September 2-6, 2018

Our Odyssey:

In order to cross the Jordan border, Tim and I, along with our travel companions Rich and Janet, rode with an Israeli driver from Tel Aviv, Israel to the border. He dropped us off at a short rectangular concrete building.

Inside we saw two counters – one for currency exchange and the other for immigration. We didn’t have any currency to exchange so we went to the immigration counter and presented our passports and Israeli entry cards. Only a few moments later we had our departure cards and were ready to proceed.

We walked through the duty-free shop (yes, even at border crossings you must exit through the gift shop) which led outside.

Without much shade it was a hot, but thankfully short, walk across the street to another building where a bus waited to drive people to the Jordanian immigration office.

Impressed by our good timing, we approached the bus. We asked if we needed to buy tickets on the bus or somewhere else. He told us on the bus, so we put our bags in the undercarriage and went to board. It was only then that he asked us if we’d paid our departure tax.

What? No…

He explained we had to grab our bags, go back through the gift shop, back past the immigration counter to the departure tax counter. I didn’t recall seeing any other counters but without another option, we trudged back through.

None of the doors are meant to be entered from this direction, so employees had to pry each automated door open for us to get through. Each time, we had to explain why.

When we got back to the hall with the Israeli immigration desk and currency exchange counter, we asked an official where we were supposed to pay the tax.

He pointed at the currency exchange counter. I still don’t know how we were supposed to know that. Or why none of the officials who greeted and directed us when we entered pointed us to it then.

Finally, with our departure tax paid, we proceeded back through immigration, through the gift shop, across the hot road, and to the building where the bus comes. Then we waited there for a half hour before the bus returned.

When it finally arrived, we showed the officer our departure tax receipt, paid the bus fare and boarded. The ride itself took less than a few minutes and we realized that we could have walked this much faster than waiting for the bus for thirty minutes.

Ajloun Castle Jordan

Catching a glimpse of the Jordan flag from Ajloun Castle

But we’d made it and our Jordan guide, Abdul, greeted us in the Jordanian office. The same tour company we used in Israel (Noah Tours) arranged our tour in Jordan via their partner, Jordan Experience.

Read more: Our week in Israel

The first thing I noticed in Jordan were the lighthearted smiles among the immigration officials. Normally, immigration control is one of the least pleasant experiences you have going from one country to another. The officers in most countries are typically very stern, and sometimes even rude.

Not these guys though. They welcomed us to Jordan with the ease of seeing an old friend. They laughed with us and each other when one of their cameras malfunctioned trying to get a photo of Tim. As they handed us back our passports, they wished us a good visit. And unlike lip service I’ve gotten elsewhere, here I felt like they meant it.

Ajloun Castle

Once through the immigration process, we got into a van with Abdul and our driver. From the western border of Jordan, we headed south east towards the capital city of Amman.

Along the way, we made a few stops to places I admittedly didn’t even know existed. I normally do a lot of research before our trips, but one thing that’s really nice about having booked a guided tour is that I didn’t have to. I got to experience the joy of being surprised by many amazing places in Jordan.

An hour into our drive we stopped at the ruins of Islamic Ajloun Castle. The castle’s name goes back to Byzantine time (4th century), when a Christian monastery sat on this hill and a monk named Ajloun lived there. Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria who led the campaign against the Crusaders, had this castle built on top of the old monastery. These are the ruins visitors can see today.

Walking through the many tunnels and rooms, Abdul told us about the castle’s 800-year-old history. Soldiers lived here to defend the region against the Crusaders. With its high vantage point the castle held a strategic location against enemies.

Ajloun Castle Jordan

A sweeping view of the Jordan River Valley surrounds Ajloun Castle ruins

Ajloun Castle Jordan

There were so many rooms to explore in Ajloun

Ajloun Castle Jordan

When you have the room all to yourself

Jerash

After exploring the ruins and taking in the view of the Jordan River Valley, we drove for another hour to the ancient Roman ruins of Jerash. Yes, that’s right – Roman ruins in the Middle East. This spot was another surprise for me and easily one of my favorites.

At Jerash we explored the ancient amphitheater, collonaded streets, and the most magnificent column-lined forum, all while looking out for the grooves in the road leftover from chariot wheels.

The Romans conquered the region in 64 BCE, and for several hundred years the city flourished. It wasn’t until 747 CE when a devastating earthquake struck that the city finally declined. Over a thousand years later, Russians discovered the ruins and sparked a century of excavations.

The city feels very complete, and it’s easy to visualize what it would have looked like in its heyday. To me, it is as impressive as Pompeii in Italy. It is significantly less crowded, though, since, like me, people don’t typically think Middle East when planning a trip to visit Roman ruins.

From Jerash we continued on to Jordan’s capital city of Amman. Exhausted from the day, Tim and I just ordered food to the room and rested.

Forum Cardo Jerash Jordan

Panoramic shot of the forum cardo

Hadrian Arch Jerash Jordan

Hadrian’s Arch – this gate was built for Emperor Hadrian to celebrate his visit to the city in 129 CE

Theater Jerash Jordan

The north theater at Jerash

Jerash Jordan

The column-lined main street of Jerash

Mount Nebo

The next day was largely a driving day south to Petra, but we did make a few stops along the way on the King’s Highway. It’s an apt name, since there are even more medieval castles along the route.

We started with a visit to Mount Nebo, which is the last place anyone recorded seeing Moses. The Bible says that this is where Moses looked out over the Promised Land after the exodus from Egypt and saw the future home of the Jewish people.

From the lookout point, we were able to see the Dead Sea and Israel. We visited the Moses Memorial Church on the summit, which has beautifully preserved tile mosaic floors from 530 CE. The imagery depicts scenes of hunting and herding and detailed renderings of African animals like giraffes, zebras, and lions.

Mount Nebo Jordan

The view from Mt Nebo

The tiled floor mosaic at the Moses Memorial Church Jordan

The tiled floor mosaic at the Moses Memorial Church

Madaba

After another short drive, we arrived in the town of Madaba to visit St. George’s Church and its famous mosaic map. The floor inside the church depicts a tiled map, crafted in 560 CE, of the Holy Land from Egypt to Palestine. It’s the oldest map of Palestine still in existence, and it depicts all of the major cities and locations of significant biblical events.

St George's Church in Madaba Jordan

St George’s Church in Madaba

St George's Church in Madaba Jordan

Mosaic map of the Holy Land

From here, we had a longer drive and then a lunch break. Unfortunately, despite there being plenty of restaurants around, Abdul took us to one of those roadside tourist traps. The meals cost $20 each so we opted to just buy snacks of nuts and fig cookies instead. Rich and Janet did the same.

Admittedly, this wasn’t our first annoyance with Abdul. We noticed he didn’t share much information about the places we visited, and what he did provide was inaccurate a few times (or at least, information that contradicted historical accounts in my guidebook). Coming from our guide Dani in Israel who was absolutely incredible, we were a bit disappointed.

To complicate it further, his company gave him a different itinerary than what Noah Tours (who we booked through) had sent us. This resulted in him skipping entirely the Kerak Castle and only taking us to Shoubak Castle.

We caught the mistake but it was too late to backtrack that day. Instead Abdul gave us the option of skipping the Dead Sea on our last day and going to Kerak in its place on our way back to Amman. We weren’t crazy about the Dead Sea in Israel, so we agreed with that change. We figured, when are we going to come back here? It’s better to see these different places now than never.

Shoubak Castle

Visiting Shoubak Castle was interesting. Like Ajloun, it’s a castle dating from Crusader times. This one, however, was built by a Crusader king in the 1100s. Though less complete than Ajloun, it’s imposing when you see it from the town below. Additionally, the view out over the Jordan desert is even wilder than at Ajloun, which was a bit more lush thanks to its proximity to the Jordan River.

The Muslim Mamluk empire took over the castle in the 14th century. Though they built over much of the Crusader Era features, visitors today can still see the remains of their churches. Shoubak has many hidden passageways, old Arabic carvings, and many rooms to explore.

Shoubak Castle Jordan

Walking into Shoubak Castle

Shoubak Castle Jordan

You can see ancient Arabic carvings in some of the stones in Shoubak Castle

Shoubak Castle Jordan

View of Shoubak Castle from below

Petra & Wadi Mussa

After leaving Shoubak, we drove south to Wadi Mussa, the modern town outside of the ancient city of Petra.

Our hotel in Petra was admittedly not great. They checked us into a room in the 4th floor, but didn’t tell us there were two 4th floors or that only one of the elevators in the back of the property goes to the one we needed. We ended up in storage area, completely confused and thinking we were doing something wrong. We went back to the front desk where reception told us how to get to our room. We got there only to find that it didn’t have any bedding. We went back down to reception where they switched us to a room that smelled like spoiled milk. We went down for a third time and switched again to a better room on the 6th floor. After all this, the elevator broke.

Thankfully, the restaurant we found for dinner was better than the hotel. We ordered mansaf, which is the national dish of Jordan. It’s a meal of rice and lamb cooked in fermented dried yogurt. It was delicious and I loved the yogurt sauce!

The next morning we visited Petra. One of the 7 Wonders of the World, Petra is the sole reason many travelers come to Jordan at all. The nomadic Nabataean people built this city in 300 BCE. At its peak, 30,000 Nabataeans lived here, until Romans conquered the Nabataean empire in 100 CE and made Petra a capital city of a newly established Roman province. It thrived until an earthquake in 363 CE ruined the city. Petra sat empty until the 1800s save for the Bedouins that lived in the area

It’s a 1.2 km walk through the siq, or canyon, to get to the ancient city. Walking through the canyon is an adventure in itself. It reminded me of the national parks in the American West like Arches or Canyonlands.

Petra, Jordan Siq

Getting ready to enter the siq at Petra

Petra, Jordan Siq

Inside the siq

Petra’s most famous tomb, the rock-hewn Treasury (visible through the narrow siq as we neared the end), is the first thing we saw when we finally arrived.

Since it was still very early in the morning, hardly anyone else was there. It was fun having the place to ourselves for photos and generally admiring the impressive facade of the Treasury.

There are more than 800 sites in Petra, and over 500 of them are tombs. Obviously there would never be time to see them all, but on our 4km walk from the Treasury to the museum, we saw many of the highlights. I enjoyed walking down the columned streets, past the theater and the impressive Royal Tombs. There are options to ride camels or donkeys, but I like walking and don’t like using animals that way.

With our morning in Petra, the only major site we couldn’t see was the Monastery, because it’s an additional 2 hour hike from the main trail.

The Treasury at Petra Jordan

The Treasury at Petra

Petra Jordan panorama

Panoramic view of Petra

Tombs at Petra Jordan

Tombs of Petra

The Great Temple at Petra Jordan

The Great Temple at Petra

Wadi Rum

After touring Petra, Rich and Janet returned to their hotel, and Tim and I transferred about 2 hours southeast to the wild Wadi Rum Desert. This is probably Jordan’s second best-known tourist draw.

We checked into the Bait Ali Camp, which is truly an oasis in the middle of a vast nothingness. The setting feels surreal, like you’re on a different planet. Rusty red mountains jut up in all directions from the otherwise flat and empty sand-scape. You could show me photos and tell me it’s Mars and I would probably believe you.

When we arrived we realized the tour company had booked us into a canvas tent. With hundred degree heat beating down, we decided to pay for an upgrade to a room in the main building with AC. Once settled in the room, we did laundry to take advantage of the hot and sunny weather that would dry our clothes quickly. Then, we went to the pool and laid both our laundry and ourselves out for a bit.

Bait Ali Camp in Wadi Rum Jordan

The dreamy pool and my dreamy husband at Bait Ali Camp in Wadi Rum

Later on, right before sunset, we climbed up the small mountain behind the camp. From there, we had a great view of our little oasis and the surrounding landscape, all basked in the pink hues of the setting sun.

Bait Ali Camp in Wadi Rum Jordan

View from the mountain at Bait Ali Camp in Wadi Rum

The next morning, Rich and Janet met back up with us for a 4 wheel drive trip through the Wadi Rum Desert. On makeshift seats in the bed of a truck, we set off with a local Bedouin driver and Abdul. It was a fun and relaxing trip (even with a slightly bumpy ride!) through the bright orange and burnt red sands of the desert.

We stopped at various rock formations before eventually arriving at the tented home of a Bedouin man who lives beside a cliff wall. He served us tea all made from herbs found around Wadi Rum. As I was drinking my tea, he gestured for me to try on a burka, the traditional clothing for women in Jordan that covers the full body with only the eyes showing.

I put the dress-like garment over my clothes and he linked arms with me and pretended to try to walk away with me as if I were his wife now. It was mostly humorous, but also uncomfortable given the reality of women being forced into marriages in many places in the world, including the Middle East.

I shook it off and instead focused on just appreciating that this was his way of communicating and connecting with us without a shared language.

Wadi Rum Jordan 4wd

Me, Tim, Rich and Janet on the back of our truck in the Wadi Rum Desert

Bedouin man's tent in Wadi Rum Jordan

Bedouin man’s tent

Herbal desert tea in Wadi Rum Jordan

Herbal desert tea

Shortly after this we said goodbye and got back in our truck. On our way back to the camp, we came across several camels walking across the sand. They were domesticated livestock, not wild. Abdul said they were returning to their owners, which they always do since that’s where they get food.

Back at camp, we said our goodbyes to Rich and Janet. They were heading to the Red Sea for a few days of scuba diving, and we were headed back to Amman.

On the drive back to Amman, we stopped for snacks and a bathroom break. Our driver, to our surprise, bought Tim and I each a Snickers candy bar. Even though we couldn’t talk much with each other due to the language barrier, this small gesture spoke volumes to me about the warmth Jordanians feel towards the people they spend time with – even when they don’t understand them.

Watch: Exploring Wadi Rum Desert

Kerak Castle

Next, we went to Kerak Castle, the one we had missed on the way down. Abdul totally phoned it in during our tour of the castle. It was obvious to us he didn’t really want to add any value to our visit. After his uninspiring 5 minute speel about the castle ruins, Tim and I did what we do best: frolic around fascinating places together.

Crusader King Baldwin I built Kerak Castle in the 1100s. In the later part of the century, Saladin’s army took control on the castle and the town. Overtime it was forgotten, like all ruins are, until the 1880s. At that point excavation and repair work started. Now it’s one of Jordan’s main attractions.

While exploring the ruins, we met a local man wearing a traditional red and white checked keffiyah head scarf and white tunic. He smoked a cigarette, so common in Jordan, while asking us about our visit. He welcomed us warmly to Jordan and Kerak, demonstrating the kindness we’d experienced so much in this country.

Kerak Castle Jordan

Aqueduct system at Kerak Castle

Kerak Castle, Jordan

Kerak Castle

Jordan has a long history of welcoming visitors, and we saw it in most people we met. Currently, Jordan provides a haven for refugees from the Palestinian Territories, Syria, and Iraq. With arms open to the outside world, yet maintaining their distinctive national identity, Jordan is eager to show its guests what makes it special. We saw this right away in the immigration office, even having tea with the Bedouin man, again when our driver gave us each a candy bar and then on our last day in the country at Kerak castle. Among many surprises I had in Jordan, the lesson in kindness was one of the best.

Check out our Jordan Photo Gallery

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