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15 Incredible Landmarks in Jordan You Don’t Want to Miss

David Pettitt

A land of astonishing antiquity, Jordan offers everything from Roman ruins and biblical baptism sites to crusader-era castles and lost ancient cities. Yet Jordan is also a land of breathtaking natural beauty – pristine coral reefs, wind-sculpted desert scenery and the unearthly geology of the Dead Sea. Whether interested in the Roman remains in Jerash, Amman and Umm Qais or Nabatean Petra, the crusader architecture of Ajloun and Kerak, the Christian sites of Madaba, Mount Nebo and Bethany Beyond the Jordan or the country’s great outdoors here are 15 of the most incredible landmarks in Jordan.

1. Jerash

In a country renowned for its historical sites, the ancient Roman ruins at Jerash remain some of the best preserved and most impressive in the region. With evidence of settlement dating to the early Stone Age, the city’s heyday was during Roman rule when ambitious building programmes were instigated under both the Emperors Trajan and Hadrian. With its theatres and temples, bath houses, colonnaded streets, victory arches and public buildings, Jerash was a model Roman provincial city and flourished as trade, commerce and rich agricultural land brought prosperity. Highlights include Hadrian’s Triumphal Arch, Hippodrome, 1st century theatre, Church of Bishop Marianos, Sanctuary of Artemis and beautifully preserved Oval Plaza.

View of the salt-encrusted waters of the Dead Sea in Jordan

2. Dead Sea

At over 430 metres below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth and thought to form part of the Great Rift Valley that stretches from southern Africa to Syria. The unique geological and geographical features of this hypersaline landlocked lake are fed by the River Jordan and numerous wadis and springs. Famous for having the highest salt content of any water body in the world, the Dead Sea is a delicate eco-system which is the product of a desert micro-climate and high daily temperatures, a depth below sea-level that means there is no outlet for the water and a very high evaporation rate. All this has resulted in increased salinity that have attracted people to its lifeless, curative and buoyant waters for centuries.

Stone ruins of Ajloun Castle in Jordan
Uwe Brodrecht

3. Ajloun Castle

Located to the north-west of Amman at the head of the Jordan Valley, the castle at Ajloun towers over the surrounding landscape and has, for over 800 years, protected one of the region’s most strategically important locations. The construction of Ajloun was overseen by a nephew of the esteemed leader and military tactician Salah ud-Din. Unique in being the only entirely Arab designed and built castle in the country, Ajloun’s primary function was to counter the Crusader threat but, as this peril diminished, the castle helped to control and protect communications, trade and commercial interests. Centuries of warfare and natural disasters took their toll but sensitive 20th century excavations and renovations have taken place.

View through the Siq towards the Treasury building in Petra, Jordan

4. Petra

Known as the ‘Red Rose’ city, Petra is undoubtedly one of the wonders of the ancient world. Notably accessed on foot by way of the winding and narrow Siq Canyon, the first glimpse of the glistening façade of the ochre-hued Treasury is memorably impressive. Although a settlement since pre-history, Petra was the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom and fell under the control of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the 2nd century. Rich in natural resources, practically impregnable and at the crossroads of the region’s most important trade routes, the city amassed great wealth. Today the evocative remains of temples and tombs, monumental public buildings and huge theatre retain much of their scale and grandeur.

Church of St John the Baptist at Bethany Beyond the Jordan

5. Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Now confidently thought to be the place where John the Baptist came to live, where Jesus was baptised and Elijah borne to heaven, Bethany Beyond the Jordan is a major religious site and an important place of Christian pilgrimage. Set on the eastern bank of the River Jordan a few kilometres to the north of the Dead Sea, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has a number of complex Roman and Byzantine era remains and the archaeological excavations have uncovered churches, water cisterns, baptismal pools and a prayer hall. Places of interest include the area directly beside the River Jordan which is location of the remains of the Church of St John the Baptist and where baptisms took place, the hillside hermitages and Elijah’s Hill.

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6. Kerak

Occupying an important location in the centre of the country high above the ancient King’s Highway, the town of Kerak predates its best-known site – its majestic Crusader-era castle. Once inside the ramparts it is easy to see why the fortress was sited here. Views are far-reaching, even as far as the Dead Sea, and the castle held a pivotal role in the heart of a line of Crusader defences that stretched from the Red Sea all the way to Turkey. After the failure of the Second Crusade and cruel command of Reynald of Châtillon, Kerak Castle was finally captured by an army led by Salah ud-Din in 1188 AD. Today much of the fabric of the building remains including a church, Mameluke-era palace, mosque and barracks.

7. Wadi Rum

A moonscape of huge sculpted sandstone pillars, cliffs and amber sand dunes, Wadi Rum is quintessential Arabia. It is at its most beautiful at sunrise or sunset when the landscape is transformed into an ever-changing collage of oranges, purples, pinks and reds. Despite its barren appearance, Wadi Rum is a delicate ecosystem of great diversity – wild flowers bloom, ibex and jackals thrive far from human habitation, reptiles and snakes flourish and the desert supports a rich variety of birdlife including buzzard, vulture and eagle. This area is also indelibly linked to adventurer, Arabist and soldier Lawrence of Arabia who was deeply inspired by the captivating natural beauty of Wadi Rum.

8. St George’s Church, Madaba

Another small market town with an important history, Madaba is the setting for St George’s Church which contains the influential mosaic Madaba Map. With a history dating back to the Bronze Age, it was during the Byzantine era that the town came to prominence and, ultimately, established itself as one of the region’s most important Christian centres. The astonishing Madaba Map, of which now only part remains, is the highlight and one of the best-preserved Byzantine mosaics in the Middle East. The map provides a detailed representation of the region’s key religious sites, cities and geographical features, presenting an important surviving record of biblical geographic history for historians and academics.

Facade of St George's Church in Madaba, Jordan

9. Jordan’s Desert Castles

Few travel east of Amman into the vast wilderness of the Arabian Desert. This seemingly barren landscape has, in fact, been host to nomadic desert communities for centuries and the remote castles that remain are testament to this history of settlement. All the castles date to different periods and are in varying states of repair – Qasr al-Hallabat is of Nabatean and Roman origin, Qasr Amra and Qasr Kharana date to the Umayyad period and Qasr al-Azraq was built during Ayyubid rule and remained in use until the early 20th century when it served as a refuge for TE Lawrence. Qasr Amra and Qasr Kharana are both particularly well-preserved with the former a UNESCO World Heritage Site with fine wall frescoes.

10. Umm Qais

Known in ancient times as Gadara, the Graeco-Roman ruins of Umm Qais are some of the best preserved and most impressive in Jordan. Located to the north of Irbid with far reaching views to the Sea of Galilee the setting for ancient Gadara befits its importance as one of the leading regional cities of antiquity. Gadara has been identified as one of the Decapolis, a loose affiliation of influential cities on the eastern fringes of the Roman Empire, and archaeological evidence has shown it to have been a significant centre for trade and commerce and thriving artistic and cultural centre. Highlights of the site include the Byzantine church, Roman-era shops and impressive 1st century AD West Theatre.

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11. Mount Nebo

Mount Nebo is an important Christian site and where the final vision and death of Moses occurred. Set high on a rocky outcrop with far-reaching views over the Jordan River and Dead Sea, Mount Nebo is the location of the Memorial Church of Moses which, like its near neighbour Madaba, is home to a collection of beautifully preserved mosaics. In addition to its association with Moses, Mount Nebo is mentioned in a number of other Bible passages, is thought to have been a camp for the Israelites, has links to the Ark of the Covenant and has been an important pilgrimage site from the 4th century AD. In the 1930s the complex came under the stewardship of the Franciscan Order and excavations and restorations continue to this day.

View over the archaeological remains of the Roman Amphitheatre in Amman, Jordan

12. Roman Theatre, Amman

The modern Jordanian capital, during Roman times the city was known as Philadelphia and underwent significant growth. As one of the most important cities of the Decapolis, Roman Philadelphia became a hub for trade and the wealth created was used to fund a series of impressive architectural projects. In the lower city, where most of the archaeology is buried beneath more recent development, little evidence of ancient Amman remains, however, one exception is the Roman theatre. Built during the rule of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the theatre is still impressive in scale and is thought to have been able to seat over 6,000 people. The Agora, restored Odeon and Nymphaeum are positioned to the north of the theatre.

13. Aqaba

Aqaba is Jordan’s southernmost point. Beside the Red Sea and bordered by Saudi Arabia and Israel, the town is an important gateway and the only place in the kingdom with access to the sea. Mentioned in the Old Testament as a copper trading port, over the centuries Aqaba has been a major trading centre for the Nabataeans, Romans, Crusaders and Ottomans. Despite its importance as the mercantile gateway of Jordan, Aqaba also a popular beach destination with palm-fringed sandy beaches, large coral reefs and warm seas. Aside from excellent snorkelling and diving, the town has a fort which is believed to date to the Mameluke period and a small archaeological museum.

14. Amman Citadel

Amman’s citadel is the setting for the city’s finest ancient remains. High above Amman with fabulous panoramic views, it is thought that habitation of the citadel site dates to the Bronze Age although most of what is left today is of Roman origin. The main highlight of the complex is the Roman Temple of Hercules which dates to the 2nd century AD and is believed by historians to have been built over an earlier Ammonite temple that was destroyed by King David. Other places of interest include a 6th century Byzantine church, two further earlier churches, and the Umayyad Palace with its Great Square, bath complex, colonnaded streets, domed audience hall and congregational mosque.

15. Umm ar-Rasas

To the south east of Madaba, the little-known ruins of Umm ar-Rasas are the location of some fine and well-preserved mosaics. The mosaics are set within the fabric of two old desert churches, St Stephen and Bishop Sergius, and are protected from the elements by a roof and raised walkways. The Church of St Stephen has the majority of the surviving mosaics and depict everything from people and animals to everyday life, both work and pleasure. Similar to the more famous Madaba Map, the mosaics here accurately reproduce the ancient geography of the region with detailed depictions of the cities of the Nile Delta, ancient Palestine and Transjordan which is of great valuable to scholars.

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