Old Trade Routes, Ancient Ruins, Afternoon Tea: Biking the Jordan Trail

Along Jordan’s ancient trade route, two cyclists encounter archaeological relics, forested parks, and a generous invite to lunch.

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The Jordan Trail officially opened in 2017, after two years of working to link ancient trade routes and footpaths.

Photos by Kari Medig

Yalla, yalla!” Sari Husseini called out in Arabic. “Let’s go!” With 10 miles of trail ahead, we pedaled away from Jebel es Saffaha, a mountain in southern Jordan with a long narrow ridge leading to its summit. To the west, the Arabah Valley cut a swath next to the Israel-Jordan border. To the east, the Ard as Sawwan Desert unfolded into a shimmering haze toward Saudi Arabia. In the spring of 2022, photographer Kari Medig and I set off with our mountain bikes, a pickup truck, and our guide, Sari, to ride on sections of the Jordan Trail, a recently established 420-mile hiking route—with plenty of parallel biking paths—that traverses the length of the country. Sari, who owns the Amman-based company Cycling Jordan, rode with us, and a driver shuttled us between sections of the trail in his truck. We started our journey in the hilltop village of Umm Qais in the forested northwest and 10 days later ended in the Red Sea port city of Aqaba.

The Jordan Trail officially opened in 2017, after two years of work linking ancient trade routes and footpaths. The ambition is to support rural economies and encourage travelers to explore the nation’s diverse landscapes. “I love the fact that the Jordan Trail connects the country north to south, like a bridge or human highway, connecting villages, building relationships,” Wael Sabanekh, a Jordan Trail Association founding member, told me. “I see the trail as a way to preserve our nature and grow it instead of demolishing it to build another holiday residence or another highway or street.”

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Left: Mountain biking in Jordan is still a nascent sport. The Jordan Trail is one space where bikers can ride; another is Amman National Park. On a hot, dusty day, we joined an informal outdoor club for a ride in this forested preserve, located on the outskirts of the capital. Right: The Jordan Trail measures in at 420 miles and encompasses the length of the country.

Photo by Kari Medig; Illustration by Elizabeth See

For thousands of years, the land now known as Jordan was the crucible of trade in the biblical world. The country is layered with the monuments of Islamic kings, Roman conquerors, Crusaders, Ottoman rulers, and others. Jordan gained independence from British colonial rule in 1946.

As we rode along the trail, what struck Kari and me most was the warmth and openness of Jordanians we encountered on the way. Close to Siq al-Barid, also known as Little Petra, we happened upon a group of men celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, and we made an impromptu stop.

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The hilltop archaelogical site of Jabal al-Qala’a affords a bird’s-eye view of old Amman’s narrow streets. It is rich with ruins, including the Temple of Hercules, pictured here.

Photos by Kari Medig

The group included, among others, an imam who was quick to laugh. As if by magic, one of the men coaxed flames from a handful of twigs, arranged rocks around it, and put a kettle on for tea.

Tea led to a generous invitation for a late-afternoon lunch. Kari and I took off our bike helmets and joined the men on a red blanket spread on the ground next to two SUVs parked at angles to block the wind.

Two hours later, Sari rose from the ground where a dozen of us sat cross-legged. Light was fading.

Shukran,” he said, holding his right hand to his heart, thanking our trailside hosts. Bellies—and hearts—full, we hopped back onto our mountain bikes and rode on through a rocky landscape glowing golden in the early evening light.

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Clockwise from top left: Visitors can live like a Bedouin—well, sort of—at Martian Desert Camp in Wadi Rum, wher they can walk on silky sand, share communal meals, and sleep in versions of traditional Bedouin tents; guide Sari Husseini cools off on the trail; travelers visit the ruins of Umm ar-Rasas, built by the Romans as a military fortress during the 3rd century; hospitality is an art in Jordan, where breaking bread with strangers could mean sharing a platter of spicy chicken and rice (as pictured), fresh pomegranate juice, or maqluba (a slowly simmered dish of rice, chicken, potatoes, and vegetables served inverted on a plate).

Photos by Kari Medig

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Main photo: The King Talal Dam was completed in 1978 to compensate for the country’s growing water needs. Inset photo: While passing through Deir Alla, a city on the Jordan Valley Highway, we met this young boy joyfully pedaling in circles in a gas station parking lot and sporting the flag of Palestine on his elongated bicycle.

Photos by Kari Medig

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Left: Archaeologists using radiocarbon dating believe camels were first domesticated on the Arabian Peninsula sometime around 1000 B.C.E. In the deserts of southern Jordan, camels transported goods in great caravans that traveled the spice trade routes and enriched the city of Petra. They are still used as pack animals today. Right: Many Bedouins retain a semi-nomadic existence, living in tents with their families and tending livestock on the land. Ahmad Saideen (pictured), owner of Martian Desert Camp, has used his heritage and resources to develop a thriving tourism business around the culture and landscape of Wadi Rum.

Photos by Kari Medig

Andrew Findlay is a freelance journalist who lives in British Columbia and covers environmental and social issues, travel, and adventure. He’s also written for The Narwhal, Sierra, and Bike magazine.
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