Things to Do in Amman
Shuttling between archaeological sites, an inevitable component of any Jordan trip, may have you longing for those haunting, limitless expanses of desert you’ve glimpsed from car windows. If so, head south for Wadi Rum, which offers spectacular vistas of towering cliffs and bold rock formations etched by erosion into other-worldly forms.
Lawrence of Arabia was a well-known visitor to the Wadi Rum, and there are a number of sites here associated with him through tradition or historical proof. But generally there is little in the way of construction, or even vegetation, with only the nomadic Bedouins able to scratch an existence out of the red desert sands.
In ancient times, the Roman town of Gerasa grew rich from iron ore as well as agricultural products which flourished in this comparatively lush temperate region. This wealth in turn endowed the town with architectural treasures: the unique oval Forum, Hippodrome, Amphitheater, Agora, and the proud columns of the Temple to Artemis. The majestic Hadrian’s Arch dates from the eponymous Roman Emperor’s visit, an event which signaled the town’s importance.
Not long after the spread of Islam into the area, Gerasa was devastated by an earthquake and for centuries lay buried in sand. This accounts for the remarkable state of preservation in this, one of Jordan’s most important Roman sites. Significant sections of all the above-named sites can still be seen next to the modern town of Jerash, as well as colonnaded streets and city walls which precisely delineate the town’s contours, giving a vivid sense of life in an ancient Roman town.
Built atop the ruins of a monastery between 1184 and 1188, Ajloun Castle (Qala’At Ar-Rabad in Arabic) sits on Jabal Auf hill overlooking the countryside in the north of Jordan. Arab general Azz ad-Din Usama, Saladin’s nephew, oversaw its construction in part to protect the region from Crusader expansion and to safeguard iron mines in the nearby hills. The fort was enlarged in 1214 but largely destroyed by Mongols in 1260. It was rebuilt almost immediately, and while earthquakes have twice caused significant damage, ongoing restorations have kept the castle in much the same condition as it stood in the 13th century. During the Crusades, the hilltop fort was one in a series of beacon and pigeon posts that allowed messages to be transmitted from Damascus to Cairo in a single day. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the fort served as a garrison for Ottoman troops, and in 1812, the vast castle was occupied by a single, 40-member family.
Dating back 18,000 years to the reign of Antoninus Pius, Amman’s restored Roman Theater is a popular visit on any trip to Jordan’s capital. Carved into the northern side of a hill that held the city’s necropolis, its position was designed to shield spectators from the sun.
Big enough to fit an audience of 6,000, as you wander the huge arena you’ll notice that the seating is split into three tiers, or diazomata: the lowest seats, closest to the action, would have been reserved for the ruling class. The middle seats were for the military, and the top seating, known as “The Gods,” would have been reserved for the general public. Head down to the stage and you’ll see how easily your voice carries. The top tiers would have heard everything! In summer, you can see Amman’s Roman Theater come back to life with regular sporting and cultural events in July and August especially. You can also visit the Jordanian Museum of Popular Traditions on the right side of the amphitheater.
Located about 2.5 hours from Jordan’s capital of Amman, the Umm Qais Museum is home to a mix of history and natural beauty that shouldn’t be missed. The site’s most popular draw would be the ruins of Gadara, an ancient Greco-Roman city occupied since the seventh century BC and originally ruled by the Ptolemaic Kingdom. According to the Bible, it was in this very place that Jesus removed demons from within two possessed men and put the evil spirits into a herd of pigs, who then sprinted into Lake Tiberias.
Gadara was a flourishing city, largely due to its strategic location atop fertile, rain-soaked land and its position as an intellectual hub for writers, artists, philosophers and academics. Today visitors can stroll the colonnaded streets; admire the dramatic black-and-white basalt columns of the Basilica Terrace; see the remains of two Roman theaters; view an abandoned Ottoman village; photograph ancient tombs; and try to imagine the shops, baths, and hippodrome.
This rather rambling but fascinating museum is perched on the Citadel Hill in Amman, just northwest of the Temple of Hercules. Built in 1951, the Jordan Archaeological Museum displays artifacts in chronological order from archaeological sites all over Jordan, dating from prehistoric times to the 15th century.
A stand out attraction is the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of 972 texts from the Hebrew Bible that were discovered in the 1940s. You can also see ancient sculpture, preserved skulls and rhinoceros teeth that date back 200,000 years.
Also housed here are several jewelry and coin collections and ancient items of daily life such as pottery, glass, flint and metal tools. Inscriptions and statuaries are also on display.
Stunning King Abdullah Mosque was built between 1982 and 1986 as a memorial to the late King Hussein’s Grandfather, His Majesty As-Sayyid Abdullah I, King of Jordan. A fine example of modern Islamic architecture the mosque is capped by a magnificent blue mosaic dome, beneath which 3,000 Muslims can offer prayer at any one time. Inside the dome are verses from the Quran, along with a chandelier also inscribed with Quranic verses. A red carpet represents fertile land and its patterns direct people towards Mecca. There is a small museum inside with a collection of pottery and photographs of His Majesty King Abdullah I. Visitors to the mosque are welcomed but should remember to remove shoes and dress modestly.
More Things to Do in Amman
A true “desert castle” near the Saudi Arabian border, Jordan’s Qasr Kharana sits two storeys tall over the desert plain. Built in the early Umayyad period 13,000 years ago, the purpose of the 60-room monolith is unclear — its design shows that it was never a fort, and it’s not on a trade route so it’s unlikely to have been a caravanserai either. It’s most likely that Qasr Kharana was a meeting space for Damascus elite and local Bedouin tribes. Whatever it was, the thick-walled limestone building remains imposing even today.
Excellently restored in the 1970s, its location in the barren desert makes Qasr Kharana one photogenic place. As you explore the upper rooms set around the large courtyard with a rainwater pool in the middle, look out for ancient Arabic graffiti. Just inside the entrance, learn more about Qasr Kharana from the interpretive plaque which is in both English and Arabic.
Qasr Amra earned itself UNESCO World Heritage site status in 1985 because of its famous frescoes, and it’s one of Jordan’s most renowned desert castles. Built near a wadi of pistachio trees during the reign of Walid I in around AD 711, restorations by a group of Spanish archaeologists in the 1970s unveiled floor-to-ceiling frescoes that caused the powers that be at UNESCO to describe the castle as a “masterpiece of human creative genius.”
Built from limestone and basalt, from the outside Qasr Amra doesn’t look particularly special. And then you enter. Greeted by frescoes of cherubs and hunters, nude women bathing, and all kinds of scenes of wine drinking, the racy images are a world away from typical Islamic art. Look up at the ceiling of Qasr Amra’s main dome to see an accurate painting of the zodiac, still remarkably well preserved after 12,000 years.
In Amman’s old quarter, Raghadan Palace was the first of many Crown properties to be built in the Royal Hashemite Court compound. Designed by Lebanese architect Saadedinne Chatella and built in 1926 as the residence of King Abdullah I and his family, the ornate palace is designed in traditional Islamic architecture style, with stained glass windows inspired by Jerusalem’s iconic al-Aqsa Mosque. Built from stone sourced from the Jordanian town of Ma’an, Raghadan Palace is also famous for its ornate woodwork and Throne Room ceiling fresco.
Renovated in the 1980s after a fire, you may recognize the Throne Room from the newspapers: it’s where King Abdullah II hosts royalty and Heads of State like Barack Obama for important meetings and ceremonies. “Raghadan” means “the very best life,” and the palace even has its own galleried prayer hall, al-Maar al A’la, on the ground floor. Basman Palace, the offices of the current king, is also in the court compound.
A tranquil oasis hidden between the vast sands and sandstone cliffs of Jordan’s deserts, the Azraq Wetland Reserve offers a welcome change of scenery, and it’s an easy day trip from nearby Amman.
The expanse of lush wetlands, glittering blue pools and seasonally flooded marshland is undeniably scenic, but the main attractions for visitors are the wildlife spotting opportunities. Around 150 species of migratory birds pass through the reserve, while native species include water buffalo and the rare Azraq Killifish.
Located about an hour east of Amman, Qasr Azraq is a desert fortress created by the Romans back in 300 AD, although the structure in its current form was built in 1237 by the Mamelukes. The exact location of Qasr Azraq (meaning Blue Fortress) in the center of the Azraq Oasis was chosen strategically; this area is the only water source for over 7,000 miles. One of the fortress’ striking features is its color – the local basalt gives it an atypical black hue, which is where it’s believed the fortress gets its name, as it can appear blueish at certain times. Flanking an expansive courtyard and mosque are long walls with inspiring towers, and the site’s huge door is a sight on its own; the structure is made completely of heavy stone (hinges included) and can be a challenge to open. The whole thing weighs three tons.While the design is impressive, most visitors head to Qasr Azraq to learn about Thomas Edward Lawrence and Sherif Hussain bin Ali.
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