The usual suspects aside, Jordan springs delightful revelations at every corner, leaving you wonderstruck. By Neeta Lal

After ooh-ing and aah-ing over Petra and Wadi Rum—the big daddies of tourist attractions—we thought we’d seen it all. Then along came Ajloun. From our hotel in Amman, the capital city of Jordan, we drove south towards the Syrian border and the hill-fringed town of Umm Qais, where history whispers from every corner.

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The 90-minute journey took us through pine forests and the olive groves of the Ajloun–Dibeen highlands. The region around Ajloun has an almost Mediterranean feel to it. The air is fresh and crisp, perfumed with evergreen oak, pine, wild pistachio and wild strawberry trees. Birds conduct their own raucous orchestra from the treetops. At roadside stalls, plump olives—in different hues and sizes—winked back at us from their jars. A cornucopia of colourful fruits and vegetables sold by the local Bedouins added more heft to the streetscape. Hamdi, our avuncular Jordanian driver-cum-guide, killed the engine and stopped for us to try some deliciously sweet bananas and mangoes.

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Soon, we reached Ajloun to view its famous Qal’at Ar-Rabad (Arabic for ‘hilltop castle’). Tickets bought, we ambled past kiosks selling touristy tat and a moat bridge that cut a swathe through the castle’s east wall. A long, sloping passage led up a gradient to an older, arched entrance, embellished with carvings of birds. Stepping inside was like walking into a vintage painting, with the dun-coloured fortification’s soaring towers, chambers, alcoves, and galleries silhouetted against an azure sky. As we nipped up to the top, vistas of the Jordan Valley opened out before us in shades of emerald and sherbet like a cinematic landscape. The hill on which the castle sits, Jabal Auf, overlooks three major wadis or valleys.

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The castle’s warren of chambers and galleries is perfect for exploration. The kids loved the castle—capacious rooms to scamper about, and plenty of selfie points with a chiaroscuro playing out in its cavernous innards. Treasures from long ago—artefacts like broken urns, weapons, and utensils from various periods of the castle’s history—tell stories of the past. Hamdi explained that the castle was formerly the site of an isolated Christian monastery, home to a monk named Ajloun.

“By 1184, in the midst of the Crusades, the monastery had fallen into ruin. An Arab general, Izz ad-Din Usama, seized this opportunity to build a fortress on the ruins,” Hamdi narrated, as we perambulated the castle’s stony ramparts peppered with debris and the occasional whirring machine deployed for its restoration. Usama’s idea behind building the castle was to limit expansion of the Crusader kingdoms, protect the rich iron mines of the nearby hills, and exhibit his clout to the warring clans of the local Bani Auf tribe.

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According to legend, Usama invited the sheikhs of the tribe to a lavish banquet in the castle. After entertaining them, he threw them into the dungeons. Later, the castle was partly destroyed in the invasions of the Mongols in 1260, but was rebuilt quickly afterwards. Ottoman troops were garrisoned here during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Today, Ajloun Castle stands partly restored after damage by two massive earthquakes in 1837 and 1927. Consolidation work on the surviving structures continues in a bid to preserve its rich legacy.

JERASH

A short drive northwards from Ajloun lies the ancient city of Jerash, one of Jordan’s most visited attractions. We stopped midway at a local Bedouin restaurant for lunch, a Jordanian buffet of pita bread, salads, rice, and meats. No Michelin stars for the food, but it was fresh and wholesome, unblemished by ‘modernity,’ and we washed it down with our favourite mint-infused lemonade, or limonana.

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Tucked into a quiet valley among the Gilead mountains, Jerash is a city with personality. It sits upon layers of history, each one more complex than the other. Within the city’s walls, archaeologists have stumbled upon ruins of settlements dating back to the Neolithic Age, indicating human occupation as long back as 6,500 years ago.

Founded by Alexander the Great, or perhaps one of his generals, the metropolis was buried for centuries under sand until it was excavated and restored over the course of a century. It flourished between the first and third centuries AD, enjoying robust trade relations with the Nabateans or ancient Arabs.

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“Jerash is considered one of the world’s largest and most well-preserved sites of Roman architecture outside of Italy,” the local guide said, as we entered the city through its spectacular gateway, Hadrian’s Arch, built to honour the visit of Emperor Hadrian of Rome in 129 AD.

The Romans Hellenised the city’s Arabic name to Gerasa, which was again changed at the end of the 19th century to the Arabic Jerash, and the moniker stayed. A melange of Greco-Roman styles as well as influences from the Orient, the city’s architecture and city planning highlight its embrace of different cultures and artistic styles. We ambled around the handsome city admiring its well-paved and colonnaded streets, exquisite hilltop temples, expansive plazas and squares, baths, fountains, and city walls pierced by towers and gates that remain in exceptional condition.

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We captured the city’s myriad sites on camera, spoilt for choice in terms of remarkable photo ops. As we took in the visual theatre, our guide told us that Jerash was one of the great metropolises of the Decapolis, a clutch of cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in the first centuries BC and AD.

Today, however, Jerash is most famous for hosting the Roman Army and Chariot Experience or RACE, the biggest show of pageantry of any kind in the Middle East. The spectacle includes 24 fully equipped legionaries demonstrating their battle formations and tactics, gruesome gladiator fights, and a chariot race with laps around its spina or the middle barrier.

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Despite yearning to spend more time in Jerash, unearthing the mysteries of this fascinating city layer by layer, our next destination beckoned.

MOUNT NEBO

History and religion intertwine so seamlessly in Jordan, it’s tough to known where one ends and the other begins. This thought sprang to mind as we soaked in a jaw-dropping view of Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank from the summit of Mount Nebo.

The 710-metre Mount Nebo, the zenith of a ridge known as Pisgah, is where Moses viewed the Promised Land just before his death and his burial here. Its breathtaking panorama extends from Jericho all the way to Jerusalem, and to the Jordan Valley in the North. In the distance looms the Mount of Olives in western Jerusalem. As we trained our eyes further, we could also glimpse the northern tip of the Dead Sea and the rolling hills of the surrounding valleys.

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“One of the world’s most important Christian holy sites, Nebo was visited by Pope John Paul II in 2000,” the guide said as we inspected the olive tree, now lush with foliage, the pope planted here as a symbol of peace. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI’s visit further burnished Mount Nebo’s reputation as a salient holy site.

Next to the viewpoint, on a raised platform, is a modern sculpture by the Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni representing Moses’ staff and Jesus’ words in John 3: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

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As we moved ahead to view the Memorial Church of Moses, we were told it is infused with elements of a Byzantine basilica uncovered by archaeologists in the 1930s. Its excavated Old Baptistery is inlaid with some of the most gorgeous ancient mosaics. In the far right corner of the church is the New Baptistery, previously a funerary chapel, that is in remarkable condition despite dating back to 597 AD. It also includes a tiny mosaic originally from the threshold bearing the greeting, ‘Peace to all’. Later, we visited the small museum and gift shop to buy some holy relics and souvenirs, including holy water in pretty vials and a book about Jordan’s biblical history.

PETRA

Nothing prepares you for Petra. Not the glossy brochures that feebly capture the blushing glow of its rocks. Nor television shows that fail to evoke the tangible magic of this spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site. And definitely not your friends, whose florid descriptions of one of the New World’s Seven Wonders are likely cliche-ridden. And so, I must paint a first-hand-witness account of it, despite its popularity. Set in the Titanic jebels of southern Jordan, between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, Petra is an enchanting ensemble of hand-hewn caves, palaces, Roman amphitheatres, temples, and tombs crafted from pink sandstone 2,000 years ago.

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We arrived in the ancient city from Nebo after a bumpy drive on a cold, wintry morning. And dived right in, starting with Bab Al Siq, a natural 1.2-kilometre-long gorge of red sandstone, formed after the mountains split. As we ambled past the canyon walls and towering rocks marked with multi-hued striations, our local guide Sam told us that Petra was also known as the Rose City due to its pink rocks. “The city is basically an ode to a lost civilisation—the Nabateans—a Semitic desert tribe about whom little is known and whose kingdom lay among these cliffs and peaks,” he said.

As gifted architects, artisans, and engineers, the Nabateans lived in the valley from the seventh century BC to the second century AD, and prospered until trade routes changed. The arrival of Romans in 63 BC brought expansion as well as ostentation. They erected some of the city’s most impressive façades, including a theatre that could seat 4,000 spectators—the world’s only theatre carved into rock.

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Petra thrived till an earthquake ravaged it in the fourth century AD and was abandoned thereafter until a Swiss explorer called Jahannes Burckhardt rediscovered the ruins in 1812. Burckhardt, dressed as an Arab, asked the local Bedouins to show him around. So enchanted was he that he kept revisiting the city, spurring global interest in Petra that continues till date.

The Siq tapers off to a few feet and then opens out dramatically at the 40-metre-high Treasury or Al Khazana, swarming with tourists, kiosks, cafes, and camel riders. Local Bedouins approached us to offer guide services or to sell necklaces and souvenirs. Shops selling ‘Bedouin kohl’ seemed especially popular.

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Experts are divided over what the Treasury’s exact function was. “Some say it was temple while others contend it was a tomb,” we were told as we marvelled at the structure’s still lustrous Corinthian pillars, friezes, and mammoth sculptures with distinct Hellenistic and Middle Eastern architectural influences. From the Treasury we walked past ancient temples, a marketplace, and an expansive Greek-style amphitheatre. Interspersed through the rock formations, rising in the distance, are remnants of over 800 tombs.

“The Nabataeans buried their dead in intricate tombs carved exquisitely from the mountain sides,” our guide explained, as we struggled to understand how the structure was crafted in such complex detail centuries ago.

Given Petra’s bewildering expanse, archaeologists even today have explored only a fraction of it. Excavations, facilitated by satellite imagery, unearthed a monumental structure buried in the sand as recently as 2016. For the last half of the hike, we nipped up 800 steps through the cliff face to the vast, temple-like monastery—Ad Deir. It crowns a craggy mountain with sweeping views across Israel and Palestine. We soaked in a stunning panorama of palm trees, surreal rock formations, and camel caravans navigated by Bedouins below us. When we returned to the Treasury an hour later, it was bathed in the salmon-pink glow of early evening. We stood transfixed yet again till Sam reminded us that our escort was waiting to take us back to our hotel.

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Reluctantly trooping back, the French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s words echoed in my mind: “Travelling makes one modest—you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” Having experienced diminution time and again in Petra’s elemental vastness, you can’t help but concur.

A TREASURE HUNT FOR THE FAMILY

Go beyond the usual tourist attractions in Jordan, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the jewels it holds. Go for a curated tour, or sketch out your own itinerary—there’s something here for every family member.

GETTING THERE & AROUND

Several airlines like Gulf Air, Oman Air, and Etihad Airways operate one-stop flights to Queen Alia International Airport in Amman. Travelling within Jordan is easy and relatively cheap as most cities are well-connected through a fine road network.

STAY

Ajloun Hotel: The hotel has a garden with an outdoor pool, and offers air-conditioned rooms with free Wi-Fi. It has a 24-hour front desk and a free shuttle, but its location—one kilometre from Ajloun Castle—is its most fetching detail. Rooms from INR 5,000

Olive Branch Hotel: Nearly four kilometres from Jerash, located on a hill overlooking Dibbin Nature Reserve, Olive Branch offers spacious rooms and an outdoor pool with a sun- lounger terrace. Rooms from INR 7,000.

Mosaic City Hotel: Around eight kilometres from Mount Nebo, Mosaic City Hotel is a small, friendly property in the heart of Madaba, within easy walking distance of the Church of St George and the famous mosaic map of the Holy Land. Doubles from INR 6,000.

Mövenpick Resort Petra: Located right at the entrance to Petra, it is crafted from natural stone, handcrafted wood, and Middle Eastern fabrics. The hotel offers 183 rooms and suites, seven restaurants, and a fitness and wellness centre. Rooms from INR 15,000.

TOURS

Amman-based Jordan Select Tours is conscious about the region’s environment and organises an array of cultural tours, including an eight-day Nabatean Wonder Itinerary. It also curates tours for groups with specific interests—from culinary arts to wine-tasting tours and birdwatching. +962-65930588.

Enjoy Jordan organises a variety of tours, from diving in Aqaba to a 10-day family itinerary and trekking programmes. +962-65534544.

Related: The Middle East in 8 New Ways