The desolate hilltop of Machaerus is the castle of Herod the Great and the place where John the Baptist was imprisoned, when he outspokenly denounced King Herod Antipas’ marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias. He was later beheaded on the King’s birthday when Herodias’ daughter, Salome, is said to have danced in return for a wish, which was the Baptist’s head on a plate.
The site is protected by deep ravines and the ruins themselves are quite modest but the view over much of the Dead Sea and the hills of Palestine is breathtaking.
Hammamat Ma’in is dramatically set amidst the mountains above the Dead Sea around a series of hot springs and hyper-thermal waterfalls that cascade into natural mineral-rich hot pools, making it a wonderful retreat in the colder months. The therapeutic properties of these waters were already known and exploited in antiquity. During the 7th century AD, pilgrims travelled from all over the world to Jerusalem, Jericho, Bethany, Mount Nebo and ended their trip in bathing in the natural hot springs and waterfalls of Hammamat Ma’in.
Madaba the “City of Mosaics” is renowned for its magnificent collection of lavish Byzantine mosaics found in its churches and homes. The most famous and significant of all the city’s treasures is one of the oldest maps of ancient Palestine, the 6th century AD mosaic map which covers the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, depicting the major biblical sites from Egypt to Palestine.
The extraordinary map offers a historical insight into the surrounding region and was depicted in the past for the benefit of the pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. The River Nile, Mount Sinai, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River and Lake Tiberias are easily identified on this map, in addition to many cities such as Gaza, Bethlehem and the detailed Holy City of Jerusalem where one can still clearly make out the city walls, gates, the main street (cardo) and the domed Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Not to be missed is the Church of the Apostles, with its beautifully decorated mosaic floors depicting native birds, flowers, animals and a large central medallion, known as the female Personification of the Sea, surrounded by fish and marine creatures.
The City of Mosaics has an interesting Archaeological Park which houses a rich collection of ruins and mosaics from the area, and a Folklore Museum housed at the Madaba Museum, which displays a collection of ancient artifacts, pottery, jewelry and traditional costumes.
The history of Mount Nebo dates back to the time of the Prophet Moses, around the 12th century BC. It is believed to be the site of the Prophet’s burial place and from where he viewed the Holy Land. The place has long been a significant Christian pilgrimage site as pilgrims traveled from all over the world to Jerusalem, Jericho, Bethany and Mount Nebo before descending to Hammamat Ma’in for bathing in its natural hot springs and waterfalls. On the top of the 1000m hill are the ruins of Moses Memorial Church, built by the early Christians in the 4th century AD. Inside, are the remains of magnificent mosaic floors with stunning designs that feature hunting and herding scenes.
From a viewing platform in front of the church and looking out towards the Holy Land, a visitor may see a an Italian-designed bronze memorial of a snake on a cross which symbolizes the serpent lifted up by Moses in the desert, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. “The Son of Man must be lifted up as the serpent was lifted up by Moses in the wilderness, so that everyone who has faith in him may possess eternal life” (John 3: 14–15).
Aside from its religious significance, Mount Nebo commands excellent sweeping views over the Dead Sea and the entire Jordan Valley and on a clear day one can also see the rooftops of Jerusalem (46km) and Bethlehem.
The Dead Sea is truly an extraordinary place that should not be missed. The uniqueness of this salt lake has been known for thousands of years, and has attracted visitors ever since.
It lies in the Jordan Rift Valley at the bottom of a natural depression that reaches 418m below sea level, making it the lowest spot on Earth and the only place in the world where one can experience floating ethereally on its saline waters without exerting any effort.
Although the Dead Sea is fed from a number of small streams, springs, and mainly from the Jordan River, which flows south from the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias), but due to the diversion of more water out of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, the rate of evaporation exceeds that of the feeding river and hence the salinity levels of the Dead Sea waters are exceptionally high, measuring over thirty percent while sea water is about three or four percent, making it so buoyant that it’s actually impossible to sink and marine life quite non-existent, except for a few species of bacteria and algae.
The remarkably unique healing and beautifying powers along with the relaxing feeling that the Dead Sea imparts, makes it an exceptional natural spa with exclusive benefits, ranging from the oxygen-rich atmospheric haze which filters out harmful ultra-violet sun rays to the soothing and therapeutic properties of its mineral-rich salty waters and mud.
Several hotels are lined up along the Dead Sea northern shores, offering superb mud baths and spa treatments which would enhance your experience.
Bethany is the most important and extraordinary biblical site in Jordan. It marks the place in el-Kharrar Valley (Saphsaphas), East of the Jordan River, where our Lord Jesus Christ came 2,000 years ago, to be baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist “Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John to be baptized of him” (Matthew 3: 13), and where Prophet Eiljah is said to have ascended into heaven in the 9th century BC, on a chariot of fire from Elijah’s Hill which is located at the eastern edge of the valley.
The Baptism Site (al-Maghtas) is about 9 km north of the Dead Sea, depicted as Saphsaphas on the 6th century AD mosaic map of the Holy Land in Madaba, and known in the Holy Bible as Bethany or Beth-abara (the Place of Crossing) “These things were done in Beth-abara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing” (John 1:28).
From the days of John the Baptist, when he started his ministry and where he was baptizing, Bethany was considered a major Christian pilgrim station en route between Jerusalem and Bethlehem to the west and Mount Nebo to the east.
Recent excavations have revealed a 5th century AD monastery built on the remains of a church around a cave, on the western side of Elijah’s hill, believed to be where John had lived and where Jesus was known to have visited him.
The site is still very much the same as to how it would have looked in the time of Jesus and John, where the Bible describes the reeds and the small rough bushes which are habitats for bees, reminding us of what John the Baptist used to eat in the wilderness while he was preparing the way to the Lord, wild honey and locust.
A wealth of sites was uncovered. Recent excavations have revealed caves, where monks and hermits used to live, dug into the upper layers of the eastern side cliffs of the Jordan River, the remains of churches with mosaics and marble floors dating back to the Byzantine era, and some to the late Roman era, along with ancient baptismal pools, where pilgrims descended through the marble steps into the water to be baptized. A vast water system that used to bring water from the valley to the church and a water reservoir were also found.
The Dead Sea Rift is more than a thousand km long depression which stretches from northern Syria to the Red Sea in the south and constitutes a unique section of the immense Syrian-African rift system (Great Rift Valley) which stretches from Turkey in the north to Mozambique in the south. The Jordanian segment along the Dead Sea Rift includes the Gulf of Aqaba, the Araba Valley, the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley. The rift with its numerous wildlife and abundant vegetation provided favorable conditions for hunting and gathering and evidence of early settlements were unearthed along the rift.
The Dead Sea is the lowest part of the Rift, whose shores lie at 417 m below sea level. The fertile Jordan Valley which includes, the Jordan River, is a 120 km long and constitutes the northern part of the rift and runs from Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee) in the north to the northern part of the Dead Sea in the south; forming the northern western boundary between occupied Palestine (Israel) and Jordan.
It was in the fertile Jordan Valley that early settlements were built, some 10,000 years ago, when people started to plant crops and abandon their nomadic lifestyle, and where significant biblical events took place. The southern part of the rift is the Araba Valley, also known as Wadi Araba, which stretches from the southern part of the Dead Sea, for a 155 km, to the Gulf of Aqaba and consists mainly of mud flats and Salinas.
Azraq is a unique wetland oasis located in the heart of the semi-arid Jordanian eastern desert. It contains several natural and ancient built pools, a seasonally flooded marshland and a large mudflat known as Qa’at Azraq.
Scores of birds flock to the reserve each year, on their winter migration route from Europe to Africa, they include larks, finches, warblers, eagles, raptors, harriers, plovers and ducks.
The reserve is also home to the wild water buffalo that live in the marshland. Lizards, foxes and jackals are sporadically seen in the late evening.
Best time to see birdlife is in winter (December to February) and early spring (March and April).
Scattered across the remote plains of the Eastern Jordanian desert are many intriguing caravanserais, ancient hunting lodges, bath houses, and ruins of fortified forts and palaces, collectively known as the ‘Desert Castles’. Built in the harsh desert by the Umayyads during the 7th and 8th century AD as a testimony to their love of hunting and leisure and as a retreat from city life, these magnificent desert complexes were once richly decorated with mosaics, frescoes and marble and provided refuge to caravans crossing the harsh arid desert.
Built by the Umayyads in (AD 711) on a Roman or Byzantine site, the mighty two-storey building with its imposing thick-walled structure and narrow slits looks like a military fortress but some experts believe it was a caravanserai for passing caravans while others believe it served as a retreat or a meeting place for the Umayyad leaders. Its history and purpose remain uncertain. The castle is remarkably well preserved with a central courtyard overlooked by chambers on both floors and stables for animals right inside the gate.
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Qasr Amra is one the best preserved and the most charming of all the Umayyad desert buildings in the Eastern Jordanian desert, built as a bath-house (a place of leisure) by the Umayyad Caliph el-Walid I around (AD 711). The real outstanding attraction of Qasr Amra is the frescoes adorning its interior walls and ceilings for what they portray of human life: men hunting, athletes competing, women bathing and musicians and dancers performing, but the most remarkable of all is the one found on the little dome of the Calidarium (hot steam room) known as “the Dome of Heaven”, which is one of the first representations of the heavens on a domed ceiling, showing the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere and the signs of the Zodiac. A furnace is located adjacent to the domed steam room and it is believed that the bath-house was once installed with a sophisticated under-floor heating system.
The imposing fortress was originally built by the Romans as a military outpost then used by the Byzantines, and later by the Umayyad caliph Walid II, on his hunting expeditions around the marshes. During the 16th century AD, Qasr el-Azraq was used as a military base for a garrison of Ottoman Turks but is most famous for having been the headquarters of T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia,” in World War I during the Great Arab Revolt against the Turks. The black basalt stone fortress is almost square-shaped, with walls and towers encircling a central courtyard, a well and a small mosque built on the ruins of a Byzantine church.
The Umayyad palace of Qasr el-Hallabat was constructed on a site that was originally occupied by a Nabatean outpost, followed by a Roman fortress built as a defense against raiding desert tribes, and finally converted to a Byzantine monastery. What remains today of the palace is some ruined walls with arches, and corner towers built in blocks of light-colored limestone with dark bands of basalt, along with mosaic floors that once covered most of the rooms. 3km away is “Hammam es Sarah” bath and hunting lodge complex which was once beautifully decorated with marble and mosaic work. Visitors can still see in some areas the remains of the under floor piping system that was used to heat the bathing rooms.
The ruins of the small but beautiful Hellenistic palace of Qasr el-Abed (Castle of the Slave) lie on a grassy plain near the village of Iraq el-Amir, approximately 22 km west of the capital Amman, and are considered to be one of Jordan’s rare and finest examples of Hellenistic architecture dating back to the second century BC.
The fortified palace which was built out of white marble, with beasts of gigantic sizes carved on it, was once surrounded by a wall and is believed to have been enclosed by a large pool or a moat. The setting and the wonderful sculpted lions on the castle’s walls are the highlights today. The palace was badly damaged by a devastating earthquake in 362 AD.
In the village of Iraq el-Amir, about 500 meters from the castle, are eleven rock cut caves called Caves of the Prince with carved doorways leading to a network of rooms, believed to be tombs.
Of interest is Iraq el-Amir Handicrafts Village which is part of a community development project, established to regenerate the village of Iraq el-Amir, the Handicrafts Centre has several workshops for hand-made paper, ceramics and weaving along with a food-processing centre where local produce items are prepared.