Amman, the capital of Jordan, spreads itself under the warm yellow sun across a wide bowl, where neighbourhoods of cream-coloured blocks cling to the slopes. We’d only been up on the city’s highest hill, Jebel Al Qal’a, taking in the view from the ancient citadel, for a matter of minutes when something magical happened: the afternoon adhan, or call to prayer, began around the city, and the voices, real and piped, criss-crossed and echoed across the rim. When the moment passed, we walked among the Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad ruins, pausing at the 2AD Temple of Hercules and partially rebuilt Ummayad Palace.
Amman, for most visitors, isn’t the main event, but for a Jordanian odyssey, it’s not a bad start. Today, more than four million people live here, compared to 5,000 a century ago. A cosmopolitan cultural centre and a banking hub, Amman has gained prominence with remarkable speed.
We got a real sense of the local whirl after we passed the coffee shops and bookstores along Rainbow Street to enter the throbbing downtown area. It’s packed with markets, traditional food stalls – their bean (fasoulya) bites and fresh khubz breads are classics of Levantine cuisine – and traders towing carts of olives, tomatoes and peppers. A glass of Carakale beer cooled things down; the local microbrewery claims the Sumerians invented beer 5,000 years ago. North of downtown is Darat al Fununa, a cultural haven dedicated to contemporary art. Amman feels like the future of the Middle East: energetic, proud and connected.
Jordan has leapt up the travel bucket list in recent years, emerging as a must-visit destination for adventurous families. It’s easy to see why: for older children (Scott Dunn suggests aged eight upwards), it’s as if Horrible Histories has been blended with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: a thrilling melange of dramatic desert landscapes, romantic Bedouin living and incredibly preserved ancient remains that feels pinch-yourself unreal. Jerash, a 30-mile drive across the desert north from Amman, is where the Roman story really comes to life; even the coolest teen can’t fail to be impressed. Framed by ceremonial gates, it’s an imposing settlement of colonnaded avenues, capacious temples, theatres and Hadrian’s Arch – built in AD129 for the Roman emperor’s visit. Beyond it is the hippodrome, where 15,000 excited spectators once watched chariot races.
But we were taking our own chariot – a 4WD with air-con and a Jordanian guide-cum-driver – first up to the Dead Sea, to paddle and pose for floating photos, then to a shrine from which Moses is said to have admired the Promised Land, then south along the King’s Highway. Over the centuries, Jordan has been traversed by Nabateans, Romans, Crusaders, pilgrims and wanderers, from 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Burton to TE Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia). As we journeyed through desert canyons, it was easy to see why people feel a near-spiritual attachment here. There were few towns and no cities, but plenty of shepherds and goatherds, donkeys, camels and Bedouin encampments.
A thrilling mix of desert landscapes, romantic Bedouin living and incredibly preserved ancient remains
We were heading for Wadi Rum, the desert wilderness in the south of Jordan, and first stop was a tented camp at the foot of a sandstone massif. Hot towels and fresh pomegranate juice awaited, along with spacious Bedouin tents. Set amid a maze of monolithic rocks, this was to be our home- from-home for three nights. The first evening began with a beautiful moon and a delicious barbecued lamb and mezze supper around an open fire. It’s hard to imagine a more exotic setting: staggering desert scenery, stargazing and campfire conversation.