28 March 2022
A friendly oasis
A small country that’s BIG on hospitality, ancient history, and culture, nothing will prepare you for how remarkable Jordan is… not even this edition of Culture Curious. Surrounded by the politically unstable Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Israel, it’s often unfairly lumped in with regional conflict. As such, Jordan has been overlooked by more timid explorers, but the country is surprisingly sheltered from the troubles of the region. Hospitality is a key tenet of Jordanian culture and violent crime is extremely rare; this is a friendly oasis that’s open and inviting to visitors - so don’t let fear be a factor in your travel plans to Jordan.
Measuring just 89,342 km², you really don’t need too long to experience the magic of Jordan. It will take you approximately five hours to cross the entire country from Irbid in the north to the Aqaba by the Red Sea in the south, meaning a week-long stay is enough to take in most - if not all - of Jordan’s wonders. Most of the country has a desert climate with little to no rainfall, and with average temperatures rising to around 30ºC on average and even up to 41ºC in the south, and over 310 days of sunshine a year, it’s the perfect escape from dreary England.
Home to 10 million souls, Jordan is the perfect destination for the young at heart. The median age of Jordanians is just 24 years old - perhaps explaining the region’s modernity. The beauty of Jordan’s treasures and the splendour of a land steeped in history, combined with a modern, vibrant culture, make it an alluring destination to explore in combination with neighbouring Israel, or all on its own.
So, if you’re ready to explore a brand new place, Jordan is the place to go… This is where our most curious Explorers go to discover ancient biblical history, taste the most amazing food and take in the most stunning natural scenery.
What makes Jordan, Jordan?
1. Unrivalled historical heritage
Separated from ancient Palestine by the Jordan River, Jordan’s historical heritage is unparalleled. This ancient kingdom is brimming with sacred sites and breathtakingly mysterious relics of the past. It has been home to some of mankind's most primitive settlements and villages - including the ancient biblical kingdoms of Moab, Gilead and Edom - and remnants of many of the world’s great civilizations can still be seen today. The famously rose-coloured stone city of Petra, Roman amphitheatres, crusader castles, Ottoman palaces and Christian mosaics set against magical desert landscapes make Jordan one of the most unique places in the world. It’s no wonder the country itself has been dubbed an “open-air museum”; the sights of Jordan are awe-inspiring.
The Ancient City of Petra is the most precious jewel in the crown of Jordan’s many antiquities. Carved directly into vibrant rose-coloured sandstone cliff faces, the city is located amid rugged canyons and mountains in what is now the southwestern corner of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Once upon a time, Petra was the thriving trading centre and capital of the Nabataean empire, but the city suffered an incredible blow when an earthquake destroyed its water-supply system and many of its buildings and the prehistoric Jordanian city became lost to the outside world… More than 500 years would pass before the ancient city was rediscovered by a Swiss traveller. Today, it stands proudly as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
Amman, the capital city of Jordan has a long history dating back to at least 13BC. In such an ancient place, all it takes is a simple stroll to hear the city’s secrets. Impressive Greek and Roman ruins tell tales of Roman rulers; mosques stand tall - a proud representation of the Ottoman rulers who put them there, and the very culture of this vibrant city speaks of the modern-day influences that make this such an appealing part of the Middle East.
Good to know: Petra, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum and Jerash are just the tip of the iceberg! There are over 100,000 archaeological and tourist sites in Jordan.
2. Stunning natural scenery
Jordan is home to some of the most stunning natural scenery in the Middle East, and scenery from one place to another is wildly different. The green and luscious north is a world away from the beautiful dry deserts of the south, while the mountainous landscape of Amman makes for awe-inspiring sunsets over the city. This is a country that requires minimal planning and only a modest budget to explore the natural world. Whether it’s canyons flowing with seasonal water; oases of palm trees, or explosions of springtime flowers scattered across arid hills, this is a country whose beauty is abundant. Unique natural wonders, untouched desert landscapes and beautiful mountain backdrops are just a few of the gems this place has to offer.
Wadi Rum: In the South of Jordan lies Wadi Rum… This jaw-dropping, Mars-like landscape is one of the country’s top attractions, and for good reason. The breathtaking golden-red sunsets, incredible stargazing opportunities and unique red sands of Wadi Rum have made it a favourite for directors of sci-fi movies, but there is so much more to these extraordinary deserts. This is 300 square miles of incredible desert wilderness, packed with interesting sites, natural rock formations and fascinating history. It’s the perfect destination for adventure lovers, who can explore the landscape on foot, bike, or even camel! If you’re feeling really daring, join visitors from across the globe and try your hand(s and feet) at rock climbing!
The Dead Sea: Jordan is home to one of the lowest points in the world: the Dead Sea. At 434m below sea level, this extraordinary natural wonder draws visitors from all over the world, who come to reap the benefits of its healing mineral waters, nutrient-rich black mud and air so rich in oxygen it protects you from sunburn. The Dead Sea and surrounding resorts make for the perfect wellness retreat. Float in cobalt-blue waters with a salt concentration 10 times higher than the ocean’s; slather yourself in healing mud, or relax on a sun lounger as you enjoy Jordan’s balmy weather.
Aqaba: Backed by purple-tinted, phosphate-rich mountains, Aqaba is Jordan's only outlet to the sea and is perhaps the country’s most picturesque location. Photogenic mountain backdrops loom over the Red Sea - aptly named after the water’s insanely beautiful colour changes. Usually an intensely deep blue-green, the waters of Aqaba transform into a reddish-brown colour as extensive blooms of the algae Trichodesmium Erythraeum die off. Whatever its colour, the seas surrounding Aqaba are teeming with colourful marine life, making them perfect for deep-sea diving, swimming and snorkelling around the beautiful red sea corals. The tank that lies at the bottom of the Red Sea’s waters is an iconic attraction that, if you’re diving, can’t be missed.
The Dana Biosphere Reserve: Perhaps one of Jordan’s best-kept secrets, the Dana Biosphere Reserve is the largest nature reserve in Jordan, covering more than 320sqkm (124sqmi) of mountains and valleys. But overshadowed by the country’s abundance of other, more famous attractions, the reserve has remained largely undisturbed by tourists. We’re not complaining, but we’re definitely surprised! From scorching sand dunes in the west to cool mountaintops in the east, the Dana Biosphere Reserve is home to wildly different landscapes, an abundance of wildlife, and one of the best night-time views you’ll find. Home to species from Europe, Africa and Asia, the reserve has a unique combination of animals and plants - including those that are rare. So far, a total of 700 plant species, 190 bird species, 37 mammal species and 36 reptile species have been recorded in the Reserve. Of these, 25 are known to be endangered, including the Sand Cat, the Syrian Wolf, the Lesser Kestrel and the Spiny Tailed Lizard. Without expert care, some of these species are at risk of extinction, making the Dana Biosphere Reserve a place of global importance.
If you’re exploring the Dana Biosphere Reserve, I’d recommend starting in Dana Village. Perched on the edge of an epic canyon whose huge orange cliffs flank an endless valley, the quaint and rustic village of Dana offers incredible views. Home to just a few locals, this is the definition of a rural experience. Crumbling houses, ruins that make perfect viewpoints and wild donkeys roaming empty sandstone streets make Dana feel like a village that has been suspended in time.
Fun fact: Jordan is one of the least forested countries in the world. Despite its surprisingly wide array of plant species, forests account for less than 2% of the country’s ecosystems; that’s way below the international average of 15%.
3. Traditional food that transcends borders
Stretching from the Syrian border to the edge of the Red Sea, the Kingdom of Jordan has long been a cultural crossroads, and the cuisine definitely reflects that. At tables across the country, Jordanian cuisine offers the chance for you (and your tastebuds) to immerse yourself into the country’s diverse heritage: the perfect blend of Bedouin flavours and local takes on the Levant's most iconic dishes. Whether you’re sipping sweet tea in Petra or trying the tastiest falafel in Amman, the food is an essential part of exploring Jordan.
The country’s gastronomists elevate classic Middle Eastern staples like hummus, shawarma and baba ganoush, but traditional home-cooked Jordanian food is where it’s really at! From mansaf to maqloube, Jordanian dishes are prepared using traditional cooking methods that have long since been forgotten elsewhere.
Zarb, a traditional cooking practice used by the Beouin people for centuries is still commonly used in Jordan. It is an underground oven with layer upon layer of baked potatoes, seasoned vegetables and slow cooked meats. The food is buried and placed upon a bed of hot coals, with the sand sealing in the heat.
Food in Jordan is traditionally as healthy as it is tasty, with colourful fresh salads like tabbouleh being staple components of the Jordanian diet. Make sure to try mansaf, the national dish of Jordan. Traditionally served on a large platter - in line with Jordanian customs of communal eating - mansaf is a dish made of tender lamb layered with paper-thin flatbread and piles of aromatic rice. It’s garnished with toasted nuts, and is best eaten with more flatbread dipped in jameed - a tangy yoghurt sauce. Mansaf has deep roots in the Bedouin kitchen and, just like so many other Middle Eastern dishes you’ve probably heard of and tried, it’s a tasty treat that transcends borders, being served from Israel to Iraq.
4. Incredible nightlife
Though Beirut in Lebanon is the so-called sin-city of the Middle East, Jordan certainly doesn’t disappoint. The buzzing capital city of Amman totally lives up to its reputation as a modern metropolis, with premier clubs a lively atmosphere.
Harrir Lounge is where you’ll find the young and trendy, with DJs from around the world playing cleverly crafted sets and expertly working the crowd. This is the home of a growing local scene, as live bands take the stage at Harrir. If you’re visiting, try to catch a show by El Morabba3, the local legends who attract a set of well-dressed Jordanian revellers. If you’re looking for the more cliched club night, check out JJ’s at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Here, British DJs play the latest chart music, attracting a young crowd of local professionals and expats.
Even outside of the capital, Jordan is home to first-rate nightlife. The Cave Bar in Wadi Musa is a blue-lit hotspot that sits inside a 2000-year old Nabatean rock tomb. This is the oldest bar in the world and is open until 4am during the summer. The Moroccan-styled Al-Maqa’ad Bar in The Mövenpick Hotel and the Wranglers Pub in The Petra Palace Hotel are other hubs of the nightlife in Wadi Musa. Meanwhile, in Aqaba, the nightlife venues take advantage of the city’s waters… The Royal Yacht Club Bar is a harbourside bar that offers splendid sunset views until 11pm.
Fun Fact: Jordan’s national flower - the Black Iris - is super rare. You’ll find hotels, restaurants and all sorts of other establishments named after the plant.
5. Religious significance
Jordan is a Muslim-majority country but, with such a rich biblical history, is it any surprise that there are long-established Christian communities and a rich Christian heritage here? In cities like Madaba and Fuhais, the friendship between Muslims and Christians is widely celebrated. Churches and mosques stand proudly beside one another, with the sounds of church bells and the Azaan (Islamic call to prayer) symbolising the harmony of the co-existing religions.
Jordan is home to Mount Nebo, one of the most sacred sites for Christians and a place of pilgrimage. It is believed that Mount Nebo is the place where the Biblical Prophet Moses first saw the Promised Land, and later where he died and was buried. Though the whereabouts of his grave remains unknown, a stone memorial and church sits atop the hill in remembrance of him. For aeons, Christians have made the pilgrimage to the top of this hill, where they can take in stunning views of the Promised Land and feel close to the Prophet Moses who once walked the same hill.
Good to know: Jordan is part of the Holy Land and Mount Nebo overlooks the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Good to know
Make sure to be respectful of cultural norms when it comes to dress codes - women should wear loose-fitting clothing and avoid wearing anything revealing, while men should bear in mind that it isn’t acceptable to walk around topless.
Always pack a scarf! This will come in handy on hot days, when it might be a good idea to cover your head to avoid getting heat stroke – this is especially the case when visiting a desert tourist site such as Wadi Rum or Petra. Women might need a scarf when visiting a religious site, such as the spectacular King Hussein Bin Talal Mosque.
Vegetarianism and veganism are widely accepted and catered to in Jordan, however traditional cuisine almost always contains animal products in some form.
Tap water is not safe to drink in Jordan, it is only used to wash things. You can get drinkable water delivered to your doorstep at any time of day, or you can buy bottles in corner shops or big stores.
It is common to greet each other with hugs and cheek kisses in Jordan.
PDA between couples is extremely frowned upon in Jordan - from holding hands to kissing. For our LGBTQIA+ Explorers, it’s also worth nothing that homosexuality, despite being legalised in 1951, is still a taboo concept.
If you are offered food, always smile and accept. Jordanians are generous people, and may take offence to their hospitality being refused.
Israel is a sensitive subject. Jordan is home to both Jordanians and Palestinians, so the subject of Israel is a sensitive matter. Avoid bringing up the topic if you don’t want to find yourself in an awkward situation.
It’s normal to eat with your hands in Jordan, and is an indication that you are enjoying the food on offer. Mansaf, for example, is a dish commonly eaten with your hands.
Jordan the safe haven
An unlikely safe haven in a region of conflict, Jordan has drawn visitors from all over the world for centuries, with its World Heritage Sites, incredible food and unique landscapes. This is a country of enormous historical significance. Whether you’re exploring Mount Nebo where Prophet Moses was said to have died, or the Jordan River where John the Baptist preached to and baptised those who repented, the stories you’ll hear in Jordan are fascinating - regardless of if you are religious or not. This vibrant country is the gift that keeps on giving - whether you’re looking for nights out, breathtaking hikes, adventure or culture, Jordan has everything you could possibly want.