The Best Historical Sites in Jordan

There’s more to Jordan’s history than Petra. Away from the Nabataeans’ feted “Rose-Red City,” a treasure trove of ruins awaits. Travelers who want to dig a little deeper into this nation’s past can walk down colonnaded Roman roads, gaze up at Umayyad frescoes, and scramble over slumping rubble to explore toppled churches still clinging on to fragments of once majestic mosaics. Better yet, at most sites you’re likely to have the entire place to yourself.

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.
Tabqet Fahel, Jordan
Pella is the place to put on your archaeology hat. There may be no triumphant temple remains or grand Roman roads here, but if you like history, Pella is one of Jordan’s most important archaeological sites. Excavations here reveal a staggering 6,000 years of continuous settlement from the Neolithic age right up to the 14th century. The scattering of ruins strewn across the hilltop include a Canaanite temple, Umayyad residential houses, and a Byzantine church (built over an earlier Roman structure) which are fun to poke around in. The real joy of a visit here, though, is the lonely, windswept setting amid the hills, where you’ll rarely encounter another visitor except maybe a shepherd grazing his sheep.
The black basalt ruins of Umm al-Jimal have to be one of Jordan’s most intriguing historical sites. Hardly anyone ever makes it out here, which is a shame because this vast Roman and Byzantine town built uniformly out of volcanic basalt is packed with interesting half-toppled houses and churches to explore.
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Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
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