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Jordan - When and where to visit
The Jordan Rift Valley’s lush and temperate environment is in marked contrast to the Badia desert territories. Between 6500BC and 5500BC there was, according to scientific analysis, a significant change in weather patterns across the region that is now the Middle East, which had a marked impact on the communities that lived here and the natural habitats where many species of wildlife and birdlife had long thrived. One of the most monumental changes was that the deserts of the region became hotter and drier. In Jordan, the whole of the desert region, known today as Badia, was affected. This new environment began to see a change in wildlife species to those more adept at desert habitats, while the Neolithic human communities that had begun to develop here started to seek alternative places to live. The harsher temperatures and lack of water meant it was difficult to cultivate crops and keep livestock. The communities moved towards the western boundaries of the country.
Today, Jordan has a climate similar to that of the Mediterranean, with sub-tropical hot, semi-dry summers and cool, often wet winters. However, the desert areas to the south and east, and the highest mountainous regions, can see significant variations in temperature to those found elsewhere; the deserts are generally much hotter and the highlands and mountains cooler.
The Wadi Rum, in southern Jordan, offers incredible desert landscapes. © www.visitjordan.com
August sees the hottest temperatures, which will often reach in excess of 36°C, whilst in the Badia region’s desert areas, summer days are often scorching hot with temperatures reaching in excess of 40°C. During summer evenings and in winter, temperatures in the desert fall significantly. January is the coldest month, when it is quite common to see snowfall, particularly on the higher elevations of the highlands and mountains. On average, winter temperatures are around 14°C. Wear lightweight cottons and linens when touring the country in summer, but take a jacket or jumper for the cooler evenings. In winter, take warmer clothing and rainwear.
The desert region is particularly prone to strong, often gale-force, sirocco-style winds coming from the south in late spring and early autumn. It can be a hazardous time. Huge sand storms and dust clouds can change the landscape over several days. Sand is whipped up to create dunes and covers everything in the wind’s path with a reddy-golden dusting. It can make driving or even walking difficult and potentially dangerous. Always take special care and listen to the expert advice of your tour or trek guide if you are planning excursions into the desert at this time.
The north and the west of the country, along the Jordan Valley and in the Mountain Heights Plateau, see the highest levels of rainfall. This is especially so from autumn through to mid-March, which when combined with the usual mild temperatures can result in the air feeling humid. In summer, the Dead Sea region at an elevation of below sea level can get extremely hot, with few, if any, periods of respite.
Jordan is a diverse country and one that appeals to many different types of travellers. If you like exploring cities and ancient sites then it is best to avoid the hot temperatures of summer, unless you are a sun-lover. Conversely, if you’re planning an activity trip into the mountains, then it’s best to avoid the winter months when snowfall can block roadways and hinder your journey. With all that in mind, the best months to visit are March through to June and then from mid-September through to late November.
The rich green countryside and golden desert areas like Wadi Rum are outstanding in spring. From the beginning of March the landscape becomes dotted with all manner of wild flowers. The hues are amazing, ranging in colour from the deep colour of the Black Iris (Iris nigricans), Jordan’s national flower, to the bright reds of poppies and anemones. Temperatures are pleasantly warm. In Amman and Petra, which lies around 1,000m above sea level, you can expect highs of around 28–30°C, while further south in Aqaba and around the Dead Sea region the temperature can be a few degrees higher.
The Jordan Valley, Wadi Rum and the easterly desert areas experience their hottest temperatures in summer and can become quite oppressive, making many forms of exercise something of a trial. Highs can peak at around 45°C. Aqaba, which enjoys a Mediterranean climate, will be hot too, with average maximum daily temperatures reaching around 38°C. The north and cities like Amman are generally a few degrees cooler, although still well into the 30°Cs.
Visiting from mid-September through to November, when the temperatures fall and become pleasantly fresh, opens up the possibility for more energetic activities. It’s a great time to come if you’re planning a hiking expedition for example, or simply want to spend a week or so floating in the Dead Sea. The landscape, too, takes on a greener look and wildflowers begin to reappear, prompted by the first rainfalls of the winter season.
With average highs of 20°C and little rainfall, Aqaba remains welcoming even in winter, but the rest of the country can feel quite chilly most days and downright cold in the evenings. You can expect a fair amount of rainfall in the north of the country, and frequent dustings or even heavy falls of snow in the higher mountainous areas right through to around the end of February.
Dubbed the Rose City because of the remarkable hues in the rocky landscape that dominates this region, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Petra at Wadi Musa must surely top the list of Jordan’s highlights. Once the capital city of the Nabateans who settled in Jordan some 2,500 years ago, it is today Jordan’s most visited landmark. Petra is an overwhelming space where the architectural skills of these ancient people fuse, in spectacular fashion, with an area of incredible natural beauty. There are hundreds of different monuments to see here, each painstakingly carved into the rock face. You’ll pass through the narrow gorge known as the Siq (As-Siq) with its soaring walls, see the Al-Khazneh (the Treasury) and Urn Tomb, the Ad-Deir monastery and the Obelisk Tomb and Bab As-Siq Triclinium.
Amman, the capital city, combines ancient sites with modern buildings that house government offices, art galleries, trendy restaurants and cafés, craft workshops and designer fashion shops. Its Citadel, nestled on a hill high above the city, is where some of the country’s most prized Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic remains and artefacts have been found during a series of excavation projects. See the splendid Temple of Hercules, built around ad161–66 in Jordan’s Roman era, and the Umayyad Palace, dated to around ad730. In the grounds lie the remains of a small Byzantine church with its distinctive Corinthian capitals. It is one of the earliest known religious structures in the country. At the foot of the Citadel is one of the major landmarks of Amman, its spectacular Roman Theatre, and if you are lucky enough to be in town when an operatic or theatrical performance is being performed here, be sure to visit and enjoy the atmosphere.
North of Amman lies Jerash, where some of the most impressive Greco-Roman remains to be seen anywhere in the world can be explored. For centuries this ancient city – then known as Gerasa and one of the ten eastern cities (Decapolis) of the Roman Empire – lay buried in sand, but extensive excavations have revealed the remains of homes, arches, a hippodrome and even a cathedral.
Jerash covers a massive area with a network of what were once pristine colonnaded walkways. There are the remains of temples and churches to explore, many with mosaic floors, plus two remarkably well-preserved theatres, one capable of seating around 3,000 spectators. The south theatre is still a focal point of the city and regularly hosts cultural events and musical concerts today.
Ajlun Castle was built to defend the Mamluks' empire from invading Crusaders. © www.visitjordan.com
Umm Qays and Ajlun
Around 50km further north, towards the Syrian border, is Umm Qays where the remains of the Roman city of Gadara can be visited. With its well-preserved remains of a colonnaded main street and theatre, it is an extraordinary site. Nearby is Ajlun (also spelt Ajloun), a bustling city that is surrounded by the pine forests of Ajlun-Dibbine. It revolves around a mound topped by the impressive remains of a 12th-century fortress, known as Ajlun Castle, or Qal’at Ar-Rabad. Cross its bridge to see its well-preserved inner architecture and mosaic floors. The views out towards the Ajloun Forest Reserve are worth the climb up narrow, well-worn stone steps.
The Dead Sea is without doubt a creation of nature worthy of a prime spot in the highlights of Jordan list. This great expanse of water that dominates the Jordan Valley is the lowest point on earth. The high temperatures, low humidity and high atmospheric pressure at this low depth combine to oxygenate the air, and since antiquity it has been one of the most visited places on Earth by people seeking curative powers.
The Dead Sea has few, if any, pollutants in the air, and being below sea level it receives a reduced penetration of the sun’s UV rays. The high mineral content of its waters and its thick brown mud, which when applied to the skin draws out impurities and leaves you feeling clean and silky soft, makes this one of the world’s most popular relaxation and wellness spots. Hotels offer spa packages and a viewing complex provides a panoramic vista of the sea.
Nearby, another highlight of Jordan is Mount Nebo. It is where Moses, the character portrayed so vividly in the Bible, is buried, and today is a place of pilgrimage. The view of the Holy Land from its peak, including Jerusalem and Jericho, as well as the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea itself, is truly awesome. The Jordan Valley is one of the most sacred sites, almost in its entirety, in the world. It is widely believed to have been the location of five cities mentioned in the Bible: Adman, Zeboim, Sodom, Gomorrah and Zoar.
The Jordan Valley is the location of Bethany Beyond the Jordan. Excavations there have unearthed the remains of small towns dating from the 1st century. The area, which includes Tell al-Kharrar, also known as Elijah’s Hill, is where John the Baptist is said to have lived and where he baptised Jesus Christ. This area is an important site of religious pilgrimage.
A little further south is Madaba, an ancient city that was mentioned in the Bible in Numbers 21:30 and Joshua 13:9. It is home to one of the most remarkable collections of Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics in the world, including a 6th-century mosaic depicting a map of Jerusalem. The map gives a rare insight into the layout of the city in ancient times. Today, Madaba is considered the centre of modern mosaics in the country, and mosaicists can be seen at work.
Wadi Dana and Wadi Rum
While the southern half of Jordan might in many ways be dominated by Petra, there are two other natural attractions that shouldn’t be missed in this part of the country. Wadi Dana, and its great expanse of wilderness that has been transformed into one of Jordan’s foremost nature reserves, is the first, joined by the seemingly endless terrain of untouched desert that is the Wadi Rum Protected Area.
Dotted with monolithic rock formations and surrounded by rugged mountains, the 720 km² Wadi Rum desert is one of the most famous sites in Jordan. Here, in the red and orange hue of the mountains that surround Wadi Rum, and its soft golden sands dotted with greenery, you can mingle with Bedouin tribes who will almost always extend you a welcome into their homes to drink herbal tea. You can observe rare flora and fauna, take a camel trek or hike in this huge wilderness by day, or spend a night under the stars in a Bedouin camp.
Aqaba, on the Red Sea, offers some of the best diving opportunities in the Middle East. © www.visitjordan.com
Gulf of Aqaba
The most southerly of Jordan’s treasures is its Gulf of Aqaba. Revolving around the sprawling, naturally green resort metropolis of Aqaba, Jordan’s only coastal city, the region offers some of the best diving and snorkelling opportunities in the Middle East. The area is protected and a major ongoing eco-project. Just off its coast is the world’s northernmost coral reef eco-system, teeming with brightly coloured marine life. There are over 500 different species of coral in these waters, including the rare archelia.
Moderate currents and warm waters have provided an ideal environment for crabs and lobsters, sea turtles, whales, thousands of crustaceans and molluscs, and over 1,000 different varieties of fish here. On the shoreline itself, excavations are being carried out to find what is believed to be the ancient city of Ayla, in antiquity probably the port referred to in the Hebrew Bible’s Books of Kings 9:26.
Abridged from the Suggested itineraries section in Jordan: the Bradt Travel Guide
Day 1 Amman City Tour & Jerash.
Overnight in Amman.
Day 2 Petra & Wadi Rum.
Day 1 Amman City Tour, Jordan Archaeological Museum.Overnight Amman.
Day 2 Jerash, Ajlun & Umm Qays.Overnight in Amman.
Day 3 Karak & the Dana Biosphere Reserve.
Overnight at Dana.
Day 4 Petra.
Day 5 Wadi Rum & Aqaba City Tour.
Day 6 Madaba, Mount Nebo & Mukawir.
Overnight Dead Sea.
Day 7 Dead Sea, Bethany Beyond the Jordan.
Overnight Dead Sea.
Day 1 Amman City Tour, Citadel & Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman.
Day 2 Desert Castles, including Qasr Azraq, Qsar al-Harrana & Qusayr ‘Amra.
Day 3 Jerash, Ajlun & Umm Qays.
Overnight in Amman.
Day 4 Mujib Nature Reserve.
Overnight in Madaba.
Day 5 Karak & the Dana Biosphere Reserve.
Overnight at Dana.
Day 6 Petra.
Day 7 Petra & Wadi Rum.
Overnight Wadi Rum.
Day 8 Wadi Rum.
Overnight Wadi Rum.
Day 9 Aqaba City Tour, Aqaba Archaeological Museum.
Day 10 Aqaba at leisure.
Day 11 Madaba, Mount Nebo & Mukawir & Hammamat Ma’in.
Overnight Dead Sea.
Day 12 Dead Sea, Bethany Beyond the Jordan.
Overnight Dead Sea.
Day 13 Dead Sea at leisure.
Overnight Dead Sea.
Day 14 Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts & the Haya Centre in Amman.