Written by Carole French
Dating from before the Iron Age and made famous in biblical times, the King’s Highway is the world’s oldest continuously used road. In ancient times it was an important trade route that linked the ancient city of Heliopolis in Egypt with Damascus and Resafa in Syria. It passed through Jordan (then Transjordan) starting at the point where the present-day modern city of Aqaba lay in the southern Arabah valley, continuing northwards through the kingdoms of Edom and Moab to Rabbath Ammon (Amman), and across the border into Syria. Along the way it passed by the cities of Petra and Ma’an, Shobak (locally Ash-Shawbak) and Karak (Al-Karak) to Madaba, and on past present-day Amman to Jerash. The people of these ancient kingdoms relied heavily on the trade route for not only goods such as spices, silks and textiles, but also for the revenue and wealth it brought.
The King’s Highway at one time passed by Mount Nebo, which according to the Hebrew Bible and the Holy Koran is said to be where the biblical leader and prophet Moses is buried, along with the holy site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. It is mentioned by name in Genesis 20:17 as the route Moses planned to take when leading the Exodus, and again in Genesis 14:5–8, when the kings of the north attacked the cities of Soddom, Gomorrah, Heshbon (Hisban), Medeba (Madaba) and Kir Moab (Karak), and attempted to take Abraham’s nephew Lot hostage. As such, it has long been a Christian pilgrimage route. Muslims, too, used the highway as an early pilgrimage route to Makkah for Hajj.
The Nabateans, famous for building the extensive city of Petra, amassed much of their wealth from the King’s Highway. They traded in spices and luxury goods like frankincense and gold from Arabia. When the Romans came to power in Jordan they, too, grew wealthy from the highway. The Roman Emperor Trajan (b53, d117) recognised its importance for both trade and for transporting troops of the empire, and instructed large sections of it to be rebuilt to a higher standard. He renamed the highway the Via Traiana Nova.
Today, the King’s Highway may not be Jordan’s main trade route, nor the route taken by visitors, who choose instead the vista afforded to them by taking the valley road past the Dead Sea, but it does pass through countryside of immeasurable beauty and some of the country’s most famous ancient cities.