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The prime attraction in Jordan is Petra, an unforgettably dramatic 2000-year-old city carved out of a red sandstone valley in the south of the country. Hidden away from view behind mountain peaks, its numinous atmosphere and extraordinary architecture defy summary.

However, Jordan has a wealth of historical sites aside from Petra, outstanding among them the exceptionally well-preserved Roman city of Jerash, but also including Umm Qais, set on a dramatic promontory overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and Pella, where Jerusalem's Christians fled Roman persecution in the first century AD. Madaba, which became an important Christian town and regional center for mosaic art during the Byzantine period, houses the oldest known map of the Middle East, made up of millions of tesserae laid on the floor of a church. After the Muslim conquest, the Umayyad dynasty built for themselves a series of retreats in the Jordanian desert, now dubbed the "Desert Castles". Most notable among them are the bath-house of Qusayr Amra, which features a unique set of naturalistic and erotic frescoes, and Qasr Hraneh, perhaps the most atmospheric ancient building in the country. Centuries later, the Crusaders established a heavy presence in southern Jordan, most impressively with the huge castles at Karak and Shawbak. The Arab resistance to the Crusader invasion left behind a no less impressive castle at Ajloun in the north.

Even though Jordan lost the holy sites of East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron to Israel in 1967, it has continued to market itself as the "Holy Land" for its handful of religious sites, most importantly Mount Nebo, from where Moses looked over the Promised Land and where he died. Of the many sites along the banks of the Jordan River where John the Baptist is claimed to have baptized Jesus, the most likely and the focus for Jordan's millennium celebrations is near Shuneh al-Janubiyyeh west of Amman. John eventually met his death at Herod's hilltop palace of Machaerus after Salome's demand for his head on a platter, and nearby are Bab adh-Dhraa, one of the leading contenders for the site of biblical Sodom, and the cave where Lot and his family sought refuge from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jordan is also crammed full of Muslim religious sites, premier among them the tomb of Haroun at Petra and the sites dedicated to the prophets Lut (Lot) and Musa (Moses) outlined above. However, there are literally dozens more shrines and tombs in every corner of the country.

However, probably your most abiding memories of a visit will be of Jordan's varied and beautiful environment. With its sheer cliffs and red desert sands Wadi Rum - where David.Lean filmed Lawrence of Arabia -is probably the country's most captivating natural site, where you can embark on camel treks of anything from an hour to a week. Way out in the east of the country, in the furnace of the Black Desert, lies a small dammed lake at Burqu, one of the most rewarding bird watching sites in the entire Middle East.

Both Wadi Rum and Burqu are planned as future nature reserves by the highly active and dedicated Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, which currently maintains five reserves around the country. Pristine and tranquil Dana, in the rocky southern mountains, is breathtaking; Mujib (a fast-flowing gorge), Shaumari (oryx and ostrich), Azraq (a wetland habitat) and Zubia (virgin woods) are less developed but all have their own attractions for rough hiking or wilderness camping. Jordan also has some surprisingly watery pursuits for a desert land, most significantly some of the world's best diving and snorkeling in the coral-fringed Red Sea off Aqaba. The inland lake known as the Dead Sea is too buoyant to swim in, but you can instead float away a day supported by nothing more than the density of the salty water.

You'd be unwise to come to Jordan looking for urban excitement: the cities are all of modern construction and, almost without exception, mundane. The appeal of the capital, Amman, comes simply from its location, spread out over a series of precipitous hills, the friendliness of its people and the tranquility of its life.



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