Special report from Jordan, Part 1

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Tourists explore the ancient Roman city of JerashIf you've come to Jordan to see the country's three main showstoppers – Petra, the Dead Sea and the site of Jesus Christ's baptism – there's a big surprise in store for you. Visitors quickly find the whole country is an outdoor history  museum.

The other jaw-droppers start soon after you get off the plane at Queen Alia International Airport at Amman, Jordan's capital. Once named Philadelphia (after an Egyptian conqueror), it's a modern city of 1.5 million people, overlooked by a hill full of temples and shrines dating back to the Bronze Age.

From there, most of the country's major historical sites – places where you can walk in the footsteps of everyone from biblical luminaries such as Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Lot, Ruth and Elijah to those of Roman emperors, Persian kings, crusader knights and the Arab army of T.E. Lawrence – are within a 230-mile-long stretch of real estate. It starts a little north of Amman and runs down the western edge of the country to the border with Saudi Arabia.

Mock Roman soldiers show battle formations.What's more, many of the tourism hot spots are less than an hour away from the capital. For instance, just 30 miles north of Amman is a jump back in time to Imperial Rome in the sprawling ruins of Jerash. You'll give your camera a workout snapping the city's temples, arches, theaters and colonnaded streets where Roman legions once paraded before 30,000 cheering townsfolk.

The road west of Amman is dotted with buses heading to one of the top Christian religious sites in the world: the place where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus Christ. Located along the Jordan River on the border with Israel (the two countries have a peace treaty), the complex of churches, baptismal pools, monastic caves and riverside steps is named “Bethany Beyond the Jordan,” from biblical writings.

According to Rustom Mkhjian, assistant director of Jordan's Baptism Site Commission, arrangements can be made for personal or group baptisms on the site for a small fee plus charges for locally available clerics of different denominations. For more information visit www.baptismsite.com.

Baptism site on the Jordan River.Charge up your camera battery for a trio of eye-poppers starting 20 miles southwest of Amman. First up is Madaba, a biblical site today best known for its numerous churches from different historical periods. Among photo ops there is the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, its floor covered by a huge sixth century A.D. mosaic map of the Holy Land.

A short drive away is Mt. Nebo – the spot where Moses first saw The Promised Land. At the top of the mountain, imagine yourself standing in Moses' sandals as he looked out on the panorama of the Jordan River Valley and across the river to the nearby city of Jericho. On clear days, you can see as far as Jerusalem and sometimes even Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean.

Hop back in your car or tour bus for a quick ride to the region's third big attraction, the Dead Sea. The lowest point on earth (1,312 feet below sea level), the sea not only edges spectacular landscapes but also top-rated health and wellness resorts. It's one of the leading contenders in the New Seven Wonders of Nature competition. Winners of the global poll will be announced Nov. 11, 2011.

From there, the highway runs through stretches of flatlands peppered with Bedouin tents, biosphere reserves, moonscape-like deserts and rugged mountain ranges. It ends at the Jordanian seaport of Aqaba a few miles from the border with Saudi Arabia.

World War I battleground at Aqaba is now a beach and diving resort.

All told, it's a drive of only four hours from Amman to Aqaba, but few tourists make the trip in a single day. Many are on week-long guided tours, while others  opt to stay over at hotels or inns near dozens of historical and religious sites, at spas along the Dead Sea and in mountain resorts. Another option: an overnight stay in a Bedouin tent in the desert.

And – about three hours from Amman -- just about everyone spends a day or a couple of days exploring the country's crown tourism jewel at the ancient city of Petra (see Part 2 of this report).

The road continues south from Petra for another 70 miles to Aqaba. Along the way you can take jeep or camel rides across the sands of the Wadi Rum, a long stretch of desert edged by monolithic rockscapes. Bumping over the dunes, it's easy to conjure up a picture of Peter O'Toole leading thousands of Arab tribesmen across this desert to capture the World War I Turkish stronghold of Aqaba in the movie Lawrence of Arabia.

Getting there: Visitors from North America can fly nonstop to Jordan on flights operated by Royal Jordanian Airlines from gateways at Chicago-O'Hare, Montreal and New York-JFK, on the latter route a trip of a little under 12 hours. Delta also flies nonstop from JFK.

Staying there: The country offers a total of some 13,600 tourist-class hotel rooms (rated 3 to 5 stars) including hefty numbers in Amman, Petra, Aqaba and along the Dead Sea. Among popular properties are the Four Seasons in Amman, the Evason Ma'in Hot Springs & Six Senses Spa outside Madaba, the Feynan Eco-Lodge in the mountains north of Petra, Moevenpick hotels in Petra and on the Dead Sea, and the Intercontinental and the Kempinski in Aqaba.

More info: Visit the Jordan Tourism Board at www.visitjordan.com.

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