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Jordan Brims With Holy, Historical Sites

Posted: 04/22/11 06:08 PM ET

If you've come to Jordan to see the country's three main showstoppers -- Petra, the Dead Sea and the site of Jesus Christ's baptism -- there's a big surprise in store for you. Visitors quickly find the whole country is an outdoor history museum.

The other jaw-droppers start soon after you get off the plane at Queen Alia International Airport at Amman, Jordan's capital. Once named Philadelphia (after an Egyptian conqueror), it's a modern city of 1.5 million people, overlooked by a hill full of temples and shrines dating back to the Bronze Age.

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From there, most of the country's major historical sites -- places where you can walk in the footsteps of everyone from biblical luminaries such as Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Lot, Ruth and Elijah to those of Roman emperors, Persian kings, crusader knights and the Arab army of T.E. Lawrence -- are within a 230-mile-long stretch starting a little north of Amman and running down the western edge of the country to the border with Saudi Arabia.

What's more, many of the tourism hot spots are less than an hour away from the capital. For instance, just 30 miles north of Amman is a jump back in time to Imperial Rome in the sprawling ruins of Jerash. Allow at least a couple of hours to wander around the city's temples, arches, theaters and colonnaded streets where General Pompey's legions once paraded before before 30,000 cheering townsfolk.

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The road west of Amman is dotted with buses heading to one of the top Christian religious sites in the world: the place where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus Christ. Located along the Jordan River on the border with Israel (the two countries have a peace treaty), the complex of churches, baptismal pools, monastic caves and riverside steps is named "Bethany Beyond the Jordan," from biblical writings. Visit the site at www.baptismsite.com.

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Among eye-poppers a little southwest of Amman is Mt. Nebo -- the spot where Moses first saw The Promised Land. At the top of the mountain, imagine yourself standing in Moses' sandals as he looked out on the panorama of the Jordan River Valley and across the river to the nearby city of Jericho.

Hop back in your car or tour bus for a quick ride to the photo ops at the Dead Sea. The lowest point on earth (1,312 feet below sea level), the sea not only edges spectacular landscapes but also top-rated health and wellness resorts. From there, the highway runs through stretches of flatlands peppered with Bedouin tents, biosphere reserves, moonscape-like deserts and rugged mountain ranges. It ends at the Jordanian seaport of Aqaba a few miles from the border with Saudi Arabia.

All told, it's a drive of only four hours from Amman to Aqaba, but few tourists make the trip in a single day. Many are on week-long guided tours, while others opt to stay over at hotels or inns near dozens of historic and religious sites, at spas along the Dead Sea and in mountain resorts. Another option: an overnight stay in a Bedouin tent in the desert.

And -- about three hours from Amman -- just about everyone spends a day or a two exploring the country's crown tourism jewel at the ancient city of Petra.

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If you were surprised by the huge number of biblical and historical sites around the country -- just a few of which have been named in this story -- you're in for a real stunner at Petra.

"Many tourists think the cliffside 'Treasury' building they've seen so often on travel posters and in movies such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the only thing that's there," says tour guide Mahmoud Iwaissi. "True, there's nothing else quite like (that building) in the world, but it's only the start of the thrills waiting for them at Petra."

Iwassi notes the historic site is one of the Seven New Wonders of the World and attracts more than 900,000 visitors a year.

Some history: Roughly 2,500 years ago, Nabataean nomads decided to settle down in what's now known as Petra, most likely when they found the place was easy to defend, thanks to a labyrinth of steep canyon walls, and was blessed with lots of water. Over time, the city became a hub for caravans traveling on trade routes linking China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome.

In exchange for protection, water and a time-out for rest and relaxation, the caravans paid taxes to the Nabataeans, making Petra one of the wealthiest cities of the ancient world. The good times lasted until the first century B.C., when the city fell to Roman legions and later became part of the Roman province of Arabia.

Whatever you've seen or heard about Petra, nothing really prepares you for the immense size of the city -- around four square miles, mostly not excavated yet -- and the 800 structures there, from rock-cut tombs to churches, temples and baths to a 3,000-seat amphitheater. And if you're up to climbing 900 stairs, a towering monastery awaits you atop the cliffs.

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Put on your walking shoes and slip a fresh memory card in your camera before entering the complex for a mile-long trek through the "Siq" walkway to the treasury building, and then another trek of almost a mile to the end of the site. Visitors who can't handle walks that long can opt for rides on donkeys, camels, horses or in horse-driven carriages -- all offered at varying prices depending on your haggling skills.

Perhaps taking a tip from the old-time Nabataean taxes, Jordan today charges 50 dinars (about US$70) for a day in Petra for visitors who spent at least a night in the country. If you didn't, you'll need to shell out a whopping 90 dinars (US$127) to get in.

The road continues south from Petra for another 70 miles to the port of Aqaba. Along the way you can take jeep rides or bump along on camels across the Wadi Rum, a long stretch of desert sands edged by monolithic rockscapes. Shut your eyes and imagine Peter O'Toole (playing T.E. Lawrence) in the movie Lawrence of Arabia leading thousands of Arab tribesmen across the desert to conquer the then-Turkish-held port of Aqaba in World War I.

Staying There: The country offers a total of some 13,600 tourist-class hotel rooms (rated 3 to 5 stars) including hefty numbers in Amman, Petra, Aqaba and along the Dead Sea. Among popular properties are the Four Seasons in Amman, the Evason Ma'in Hot Springs & Six Senses Spa outside Madaba, the Feynan Eco-Lodge in the mountains north of Petra, Movenpick hotels in Petra and on the Dead Sea, and the Intercontinental and the Kempinski in Aqaba.

More Info: Visit the Jordan Tourism Board at www.visitjordan.com.

Photo Credit: All images by Bob Schulman