Waiting in airports has never been my favorite part of traveling, but that changed when I arrived in Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International airport recently. As I approached my gate, the sound of an oud string instrument echoed through the air. A crowd had gathered to watch an energetic dabke performance—a Middle Eastern folk dance marked by circle and line dancing—by the Faris El-Layl Dabke group. The occasion for this festive celebration was the inaugural United Airlines flight to Amman, Jordan.
Since May 5, the airline has been the first to offer nonstop flights from the U.S. capital to Jordan’s capital, and it will be the only North American carrier flying to Amman with service three times a week. This latest initiative is one of five new destinations United will serve this summer, including Bergen, Norway; Azores, Portugal; Palma de Mallorca, Spain; and Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands, in its largest ever transatlantic expansion.
This was my first time to the Middle East, and my knowledge of Jordan was limited to its proximity to the Dead Sea, the mighty rock formations of Petra, and of course, scenes from Indiana Jones. A weeklong journey through the country deepened my understanding of the region and included visits to some of its most visited sites, as well as chats with chefs, artists, and other residents who shone a light on Jordanian culture and history in more intimate, impactful ways. And what a history it is, encompassing a biblical legacy, Roman-Greco architecture that dates back nearly 7,000 years, and a capital that’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
Tucked between Israel and Saudi Arabia in the Arabian Peninsula, Jordan’s topography offers swaths of desert and fiery amber sand dunes, multihued coral reefs in the Red Sea, unearthed Neolithic religious sites dating back 9,000 years, and the crystallized salt rock shores of the Dead Sea.
Here’s how I spent my time getting to know Jordan’s ancient past, diverse terrain, and welcoming residents.
Landing in one of the world’s oldest cities
After landing in Amman, I checked into the St. Regis Amman in the downtown commercial district of Abdoun. A spiral marble staircase led to 260 guest rooms and apartments that overlook the city, and there are four restaurants on the property, including the city’s first Spanish restaurant, Mercado. At night, the bar was abuzz with hotel guests and residents enjoying cocktails and Jordanian wines, including chardonnay and shiraz.
The next morning, a one-hour drive north of Amman revealed hillsides stacked with apartment buildings and open fields dotted with olive trees. I was headed to Jerash, a Greco-Roman city often likened to Pompeii because of its extensive ruins and Roman architecture. Walking through the same columns where Alexander the Great once stood and seeing the intricate mosaics, I was amazed by how well-preserved the structures—which were inhabited even in Neolithic times—remain. Throughout the trip, Jordan brought me closer to moments I’ve only ever read about in history books and the Bible.
For lunch, I headed to Beit Khairat Souf, a cooperative that empowers women and youth in the region by providing job training and opportunities like cooking and gardening. From a small kitchen, a group of women prepared dishes of hummus, chicken sawani (a spicy stew), kofta (minced meat) kebab, pomegranate salad, and fresh vegetables. I took a sneak peak into the kitchen and found the chefs dancing once the meal was prepared. Beit Khairat has a store that sells a variety of locally made products, from handmade jewelry to jam blends and olive oil—and the house is a wonderful way to support an initiative that empowers residents directly.
After lunch, I was introduced to a part of Jordanian culture I was unaware existed: graffiti. The street art movement in Jordan began in 2016 and often conveys messages of social justice and celebration of the cultures of Amman’s diverse residents. I was greeted by Alaeddin Pasha of Underground Amman Tour, who proudly shared his love of hip-hop, spurred from watching a breakdancing competition on TV. His company offers walking tours three times a week around Amman to showcase the work of street art and graffiti artists—70 percent are women. The vibrant art, splashed across buildings and the walls of narrow alleyways, is a therapeutic way for Amman’s artists to communicate their messages to the world.
At the end of a two-hour dive into Amman’s street art scene, it was time to eat. Dinner at the intimate Jordan Heritage Restaurant included a whopping 95 dishes to choose from, made possible in part by the restaurant’s mission to document and revive Jordanian food for visitors to experience. My favorite dish of the night was the makmoora—a crispy layered pie filled with spiced chicken.
A journey into biblical times
The next morning, I said goodbye to Amman and headed about 20 miles south to the hilltop of Mount Nebo, where it’s believed that Moses saw the promised land in his final days. At nearly 2,500 feet above sea level, it offers views of the Dead Sea, Jericho, and even Bethlehem and the hills of Jerusalem on a clear day. A short drive from Mount Nebo then led to the city of Madaba, known for its intricate mosaic adorned churches and underground patterns that are still being unearthed. Madaba is also home to St. George church, which features a vivid sixth-century Byzantine mosaic map considered to be the oldest religious map of the Holy Land in any form to survive from antiquity.
Marveling at ancient formations in Petra
A three-hour drive from Madaba further south revealed rows of sandstone rocks glowing under a nearly set sun. Petra was even more beautiful than the photographs I’d seen, and the view from the Marriott Petra Hotel’s patio in the nearby town of Wadi Musa provided unobstructed views of an illuminated valley that’s been named one of the seven wonders of the world. The key to experiencing Petra’s famous sandstone valley is to arrive as early as possible; the ticket office opens at 6 a.m.
Another thing to remember is that although the highly sought after and often photographed Treasury (Al-Khazneh) is a sight to behold, the valley is full of interesting sites to take in, including tombs, caves, hidden carvings, and temples—many of which were carved in the third century B.C.E. by the skilled Nabataean people. The crunch of camel-colored sand under my feet and rose-red rock formations that surrounded me is an experience etched among my greatest travel memories. Here, I was reminded again of Jordan’s connection to an ancient past, as well as how tiny I and all of my problems felt compared to the structures towering above me.
I picked up a few tips along the way in Petra. Wear comfortable shoes and bring plenty of sunscreen if traveling in the warmer summer months. It’s important not to touch the sandstone formations (tempting as it may be) in order to protect them from wear and tear. For ethical reasons, riding camels or donkeys is also not advised. If you get hungry or thirsty, there are a number of snack stalls along the way.
Floating in the Dead Sea
I hyped up the Dead Sea in my mind the entire trip—in part due to my love for a good wellness day, but also because of a fascination with just how long my body would truly float in the dense, saline-rich water. After a four-hour drive north from Petra, I arrived still giddy at the first glimpse of its pebbly shoreline, wedged between Jordan’s and Israel’s borders. Located 400 meters below sea level, I could now proudly tell my mother that I made it to the lowest point on Earth. After a quick check-in to the Marriott Dead Sea Resort and Spa, which has direct access to the Dead Sea, there was no time to waste. The water was warm enough to walk straight in, and it was only a matter of seconds before my body was sprawled on top of the salty water and gently carried away by its buoyancy.
Following an afternoon of surrendering to the sea, it was time for more relaxation at the nearby Ishtar Spa by Resense at Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea. After hours of sitting on a bus and hiking through Petra, my muscles were aching for this moment. The spa offers a number of treatments, a hammam, hydro facilities, heated lounges, and the Dead Sea pool. I settled on a body scrub using Dead Sea salt, before being wrapped like a burrito in Dead Sea mud—which has been cited to have health benefits that include improving arthritis pain and acne and detoxifying the body. Yes, I glowed after this treatment and got some of the best rest I can remember. The afternoon ended in the resort’s private lemon garden, which includes 700-year-old Jordan Valley olive trees and has views of the Dead Sea. The setting sun was even more brilliant than on the previous day. Its disappearance into the Dead Sea was the grand finale on my final evening in Jordan, and it was certainly a show (and trip) to remember.
If you go:
United Airlines offers nonstop flights from Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International Airports to Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport three times a week.
To get around:
There are a number of ways to travel around Jordan. Buses are similar to minibuses and have routes throughout the country and typically, your hotel concierge can help with plans in advance. Taxis are readily available, typically outside of hotels, as well as Uber. Car rentals are also available and the hotel can help coordinate that as well.
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