The Best Historic and Religious Sites in Jordan

Jordan is an ancient land with enough historic sites to spend a lifetime exploring. If you don’t have that long, head straight for the sublime ruins of Petra, the rose-pink city tucked into a series of canyons—and one of the crown jewels of world heritage. Then, travel north of Amman to the ancient city of Jerash, one of the best-preserved Roman archaeological sites in the world. You’ll also want to see the mosaics of Madaba and nearby Mount Nebo, where Moses first saw the Promised Land, as well as the site where Jesus was baptized and its surrounding Crusader castles and desert palaces.

Wadi Musa, Jordan
Petra flourished more than 2,000 years ago, trading with Rome as an equal before being abandoned after a series of earthquakes in the 4th and 6th centuries C.E. It wasn’t until the 19th century, when European explorers “rediscovered” it, that the ancient city returned to the public consciousness. Now, visitors can walk down the narrow canyon of the siq to the city entrance—as dramatic an approach as any to a tourist attraction on the planet. The canyon opens up onto the carved facade of the Treasury, Petra’s most iconic site. From there, you can explore the cliffside tombs with their colorful bands of sandstone, the Street of Facades, and the amphitheater hewn from living rock. The ancient center lies some distance off, along with the splendid old Monastery, which sits at the top of a steep but rewarding climb. Consider buying a three-day ticket and visiting at different times of day to enjoy the changing light—early in the morning is best for the Treasury, while late afternoon is better for the Royal Tombs.
Jordan
For Christians, the Baptism Site of Jesus Christ at Bethany Beyond the Jordan is one of the most significant places in the world. Located amid a prepossessing sweep of scrubby plains, next to the sensitive border between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, this is the spot where John the Baptist baptized Jesus, turning the Jordan River into holy water and reviving the souls of all believers. It’s been a pilgrimage site since the Byzantines built a church here in the 5th century.

The ruins are spread across a wide area, so tickets include a compulsory guided tour as well as a shuttle bus that ferries visitors from one attraction to the next. Expect to see the scattered remnants of churches, monasteries, and chapels, as well as the excavated baptismal site and several modern churches belonging to different Christian traditions. The highlight of the tour is visiting the banks of the Jordan River, though these days it’s more of a stream than the free-flowing water of biblical accounts. You can actually get in the water or simply fill bottles from the font, but drinking is not advised due to pollution. On the opposite bank, you’ll see pilgrims doing the same at the Israeli-run version of the site in the Palestinian Territories.
Umm Qais, Jordan
Tucked into the hilly northwestern corner of Jordan, Umm Qais (or ancient Gadara) commands grand views of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights from the edge of its plateau. It was here that Jesus is said to have performed the miracle of casting demons out of men and into pigs. The town has existed since the Hellenistic period, but is best known for its Roman ruins, which once sat along a prosperous trade route. Many ancient streets and buildings are still intact, as are several Ottoman-era stone houses, which remained occupied all the way until the 1980s. Grandest of all the ruins is the black basalt theater, located along the wide Decumanus Maximus that still holds its original paving stones. Visitors should also be sure to check out the small museum in what was once the home of the Ottoman governor, as well as the celebrated restaurant in the old Ottoman school. In recent years, Umm Qais has become a pioneer of community tourism in Jordan, and it’s even possible to take cooking classes, nature walks, or tours with a local beekeeper after enjoying the ancient ruins.
As-Salt, Jordan
The charming town of As-Salt (also known as just Salt), with its cream-colored limestone buildings climbing up the hillside, is within day-tripping distance from Amman. Here, nearly all the architecture dates from the late Ottoman period, lending the town a distinctive character that’s a real pleasure to explore. As-Salt served as the capital of the surrounding region under the Ottomans and held important trading connections with Palestine. It remains well preserved, as it wasn’t until the 20th century that it was abandoned for the new capital of Amman.

The city feels tailor-made for exploring on foot. Start at the museum, located inside an old merchant’s house, then stroll the surrounding streets lined with grand buildings, including an old Orthodox church. Be sure to also check out the narrow lanes of the bazaar, which are some of the most atmospheric in Jordan. Finally, follow the narrow backstreets up the hill to spot once-beautiful villas and take in stunning views across town.
قلعة عجلون، Ajloun, Jordan
It’s easy to assume that any castle in the Middle East was built by a Crusader, but the one at Ajloun is a notable exception. Constructed in 1184 by Izz ad-Din Usama bin Munqidh, general and nephew of the great Saladin, it commands a terrific hilltop position above the town of Ajloun, daring anyone to invade its walls. The castle itself is relatively modest but excellently preserved, which is perhaps a surprise given its turbulent history—it was sacked by the Mongols, rebuilt by the Mamelukes, garrisoned by the Ottomans, and repeatedly damaged by earthquakes. There is a small museum, but the atmospheric stonework and tremendous views from the ramparts are the real highlight of any visit here.
Al-Quds St., Jordan
According to the Book of Deuteronomy, it was from Mount Nebo that Moses first saw the Promised Land. Today, the Moses Memorial Church sits next to a viewpoint offering a dramatic—and windy—opportunity to see for yourself what Moses saw. Information boards point you in the direction of Jericho, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, and also remind you that you’re standing in the center of the Holy Land. After taking in the vistas, explore the church, which, though modern in style, was built over a 6th-century basilica and features some of the most charming and well-preserved mosaics in the country (the animals in the hunting and herding scenes are particularly delightful). Below the church, a small museum excellently describes the history of the surrounding site.
K. Talal St. 30, Madaba, Jordan
A short drive from Amman, the town of Madaba is home to one of Jordan’s largest Christian communities and several impressive churches. Of these, the Greek Orthodox St. George’s Church is the most interesting. The church wasn’t built until the end of the 19th century, but during construction workers uncovered one of the most important surviving artistic relics of the Byzantine era: the Madaba Mosaic Map. Created by artisans in the 6th century, the mosaic was once an intricate map of Holy Land sites, covering modern-day Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Egypt’s Sinai. Only a quarter of the original work survives today, but even this fragment, which sits in the floor of the church, shows astounding detail. Look closely and you’ll see fish swimming in the Jordan River, the walls and gates of Jerusalem, Mount Sinai, and even the Nile Delta. There’s also an excellent exhibition next to the church to help you get the most out of your viewing.
Kerak, Jordan
Central Jordan is bisected by the King’s Highway, which runs south between the Dead Sea and the desert. The undoubted highlight of traveling this route is the massive Crusader castle of Karak, with its immense fortifications looming over the provincial town that bears its name. Built in 1140, it was one of the last outposts held by the Crusaders after Jerusalem was recaptured by Saladin in 1187. It fell to the Arab-Kurdish armies the following year after a long, drawn-out siege and continued to change hands—and shape—over time. The Mamelukes widened the moat and added more towers, while the Ottomans built a massive entry gate.

Today, Karak remains the largest, best-preserved castle in Jordan. Inside, there are tunnels, dark chambers and dungeons, and vast, arched-roof stables to explore. If you head east out of town, past the Cairwan Hotel, there’s a lookout point where you can get a spectacular view of the castle in its entirety.
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