Perched on the East Bank of the Jordan River is the Arab nation of Jordan, officially named the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. This arid, desert-laden country, filled to the brim with ancient splendour, is a peaceful refuge in a region associated by many only with religious conflict. Jordan is in fact an immensely welcoming country, with a rich cultural heritage rooted in a mixture of Roman, Nabataean and Muslim influences. Jordan never waivers in its extraordinary hospitality as it has traditionally absorbed thousands of refugees from the Palestinian Territories, Iraq and Syria, accounting for the fusion of ethnicities present in its population. The nation’s dominant religion is Sunni Islam, and it is a relatively conservative and rural country, which maintains strong links with its ancient traditions and values. Jordan is packed full of landmarks dating back thousands of years, ancient religious monuments and exquisite red desert landscapes.
Why cruise Jordan
Despite its relatively small coastline measuring only 26 kilometres, cruising to Jordan opens up a world of wonder for travellers who are keen to enjoy a truly quintessential Middle East experience. The country’s only port is at Aqaba, situated on the banks of the Gulf of Aqaba at the mouth of the Red Sea. From here, cruise ships offer fantastic shore excursions to the awe-inspiring ancient city of Petra, the sand-dune covered desert of Wadi Rum and the watery adventures of the Dead and Red Seas. Celebrity Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean, Marella and PO Cruises all offer fabulous cruises to Jordan.
Best Places to visit in Jordan
As Jordan’s only coastal city and by far the most populous in the area, the small sun-kissed town of Aqaba is the perfect place to start your Jordanian adventure. Start your day by navigating your way through the colourful, labyrinthine network of souqs – markets – which dominate the old town. Your senses will be delightfully overwhelmed by the spicy aromas that waft through the air, the intricate handicrafts made by local vendors and the excited chatter of bartering customers. Plunge straight into some culture at the Aqaba Fort with its Arabic inscriptions scrawled all over its gateway and the grand Hashemite coat of arms that is pinned above the main entrance. Continue your historical journey at the Ancient Church at Ayla, a site of crumbling ruins which archaeologists believe is the oldest church in the world. You can learn about this and more of the city’s history at the Aqaba Heritage Museum. If you head back towards the ferry terminal, you will find the Aqaba Aquarium, a host to the ecologically diverse species of fish and corals that are found in the Gulf of Aqaba. Spend an afternoon in this aquatic sanctuary and catch a glimpse of what you might see on your Red Sea snorkelling trips.
The great Ancient City of Petra is an exquisitely preserved archaeological site, which was the principal metropolis of the Arab Kingdom during Hellenistic and Roman times. Its captivating beauty and astonishingly intact ancient monuments have earned its title as one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’. The vast majority of the buildings excavated and uncovered so far, are linked to the Nabataeans, a nomadic tribe who arrived in the region in the 6th-century BC. Since then, the city is believed to have passed through the hands of the Romans, who decked the city out with typical Roman features such as colonnaded streets and traditional Roman baths. Enter through the impressive Siq, a corridor of stone which leads you straight into Petra’s heart. Upon entry, you will be met by the iconic Treasury which, as legend has it, was the place in which the Egyptian Pharaoh hid his treasure while pursuing the Israelites. As you explore this Ancient City, look out for some its extraordinary highlights such as the Street of Facades, the Royal Tombs, the splendid amphitheatre, and the High Place of Sacrifice. If you have time, it is also worth taking a short stroll around the surrounding town of Wadi Musa where you can view the Petra Exhibition and Moses’ Spring. Walking tours tend to be the most informative and efficient way of discovering Petra, although camels and donkeys are also available for hire for transporting visitors to the more distant sites.
Wadi Rum, or Valley of the Moon, has all the features you would associate with a classic, storybook desert valley. In the summer, extreme heat beats down on the soft, fiery sands and the inhospitable barren earth deters the area’s wildlife from emerging until nightfall. Wadi Rum’s red-tinged sandstone arches and sweeping crimson dunes give one the impression they are part of a landscape on another plant, hence its alternative name. It is no surprise that the region is often used as a backdrop for Hollywood films such as Red Planet, The Martian and, most famously, Lawrence of Arabia. As it is a protected area, you will be escorted through the valley with a local tour guide who will show you the striking Al Hasany Dunes, the Ain Abu Aineh spring and the gargantuan Jebel Rum mountain, along with a series of attractive canyons. Combine these natural wonders with the enigmatic Alameleh Inscriptions carved into rocks throughout the Wadi Rum area, and with the beautiful Thamudic and Kufic Rock art on the steep Jebel Umm Al Ishrin mountain, and your excursion to Wadi Rum will become one you never forget. It is also possible to visit Rum village, the home of a small community of Bedouin people who inhabit the area.
The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is one of nature’s most extraordinary phenomena, but you really have to see it to believe it. Not only is it three million years old, but the Dead Sea is also the lowest spot on earth. The sheer volume of salt makes the lake uninhabitable to marine life and as the human body is not as dense as salt water, bathers can happily bob along its surface without sinking. The therapeutic properties of the Dead Sea’s salts and minerals lead many swimmers to rub lake’s mud onto their skin, although this also gives off a distinct and not all too pleasant odour. Both tourists and locals travel from far and wide to visit some of the spas that surround the lake, where they can treat themselves to a bit of Dead Sea pampering. Celebrity Cruises offer cruisers a satisfying day trip to the Dead Sea Spa Hotel, from where they can soak themselves in the lake’s saline waters and relax for a while at the serene spa. Tours to the Dead Sea are also available straight from the port at Aqaba through tour organisers such as Memphis.
The Red Sea
The ethereal Red Sea is an Indian Ocean inlet that stretches from the Gulf of Aden in the south to the Gulf of Aqaba in the north. This magnificent waterway was made legendary in religious literature by the story in Exodus that Moses parted the Red Sea in order to permit the fleeing Israelites to escape the Egyptians. Today, the translucent cerulean waters of the Red Sea are brimming with shimmering coral gardens, colourful fish and exotic marine creatures. It is often heralded as one of the best places to go scuba-diving and snorkelling and you can find countless watersports and dive shops dotted along the coastline from the port of Aqaba. Experience wreck-diving at Cedar Pride, the spooky dive site with a sunken ship and swim through shoals of multi-coloured fish while snorkelling over the Japanese Garden. The Gorgonian I and II underwater gardens are beautiful with their bright pink raspberry and large cabbage corals. More daring divers might want to explore the Power Station dive site where you can spot turtles drifting around hammerhead sharks.
Best things to do in Jordan
Try the cuisine
The hybrid Jordanian cuisine reflects the country’s pan-Arab identity. Popular treats include kunafeh - a Palestinian pastry dessert made of fried cheese, covered in syrup, and coated in pistachios, and loz – salted green almonds. At breakfast time, Jordanians enjoy eggs, olives, cheese, sour ceram and fuul madamas – a fava bean dish. Arab unleavened bread – khobz – is widely available and is sometimes sprinkled with zaatar – a blend of local spices. In the evening, you can enjoy mezze – a tapas-style meal made up of a variety of local dishes, or makloubeh – an ‘upside down’ chicken and rice dish. The Bedouin communities live on their own diets of whatever is available at the time, although they do have their own speciality called mensaf, which is lamb, rice and pine nuts cooked with yoghurt.
Look out for the desert wildlife
Wadi Rum is home to some spectacular wildlife, despite its barren appearance. Near the springs and hanging gardens of fig, fern and watermelon, you’ll find a number of mammals, birds and reptiles seeking shade from the blazing sun. Look out for hedgehogs, hares, wolves, jackals, Arabian oryx, hyrax, falcons, owls, geckos and lizards. You might even come across a scorpion, snake or camel spider.
Relax at the thermal springs and bath houses
Clustered around the banks of the Dead Sea are countless thermal springs and bath houses, where you can relax after a soak in the lake itself. Find your zen at the Synergy Spa or ShiZen Spa and treat yourself to a massage at the Dead Sea Spa Hotel. Further up the Dead Sea, you’ll also come across the Ma’in Hot Springs. These thermal springs are perfect for a warm dip and act as a natural remedy for the skin and for joint pains.
Check out Jordan’s handmade crafts
The production of traditional handicrafts in Jordan is deeply embedded in the country’s rural culture. The Bedouin communities in particular spend a lot of time weaving, in embroidery and in making their own jewellery. Have a look round the market stalls in the souqs for mafrash – rugs, roza – traditional dresses embroidered with red cross-stitch and mosaics made from naturally coloured rock called tesserae. In the towns close to Wadi Rum there are a multitude of woven items for sale and at the Petra Pottery Association, you can buy beautiful pots and ceramics designed in Nabataean style.
Experience the Bedouin way of life
Settlements of Bedouin families can be found in desert canyons and sometimes in the mountaintops. They live in tents made from beit al-sha’ar - black goat’s hair - pitched near their herds of camels, goats and sheep. Visitors can experience their way of life by camping with these communities at Rum Stars at Wadi Rum, sampling the staple foods at Feynan Ecolodge and by visiting the Ammarin Bedouin Camp which is home to a museum featuring the lives of the Bedouin tribe.
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