Jordan is a land of both Exodus and Pilgrimage, hence you can discover many Biblical sites in Jordan. There are several holy sites that every true religious Pilgrim will visit in Jordan, such as Mount Nebo or Bethany beyond the Jordan Baptism site. However, many do not realize just how many places here form a great part of the Biblical narrative. For the traveler who is interested in seeing the many sites mentioned in the Bible, it is not only dusty, off the beaten track ruins to be visited. Even the popular sites for leisure travel also have an ancient story to tell.
Amman and Surroundings
If you begin a city tour in the capital of Amman, home to the ancient Ammonites, you will certainly visit the Citadel hill. Make time to stop in the Citadel’s archaeological museum the famous Deir Alla inscription referencing Balaam (from Numbers 22-24).
There is also an Iron Age Ammonite watchtower called Rum Al-Malfouf in the Western Suburbs of Amman near the Department of Antiquities Building. However it may not be possible to gain entry to the site for exploring. If you head to Iraq Al Amir, the scenic little village just outside Amman in Wadi Al Seer, you will be at the Biblical site of Ramoth- Mizpeh (Joshua 13:26) which was occupied by the Israelite tribe of Gad. While in Amman you can also visit the Hisban Cultural Heritage project, the excavated archaeological site of Tel Heshbon. This was originally Moabite but then occupied by Sihon, the first King defeated by the people of the exodus during the conquest.
Northern Jordan and Biblical Sites
In Jerash (Biblical Gerasa), you can get a feel for a Roman Decapolis city in the time of Jesus. (See Matthew 4:24). Head a little bit further north and Ajloun is also a beautiful area where you see the hills of Gilead mentioned in the Bible. There is a cave in Anjara which has long been a holy place for pilgrims and is home to the Church of Our Lady of the Mountain.
If you decide to tour Qallat ar- Rabadh, Ajloun’s Islamic Castle, there is a mosaic here from a previous structure which depicts the feeding of the 5,000. Then from here you can hike along the ancient Abraham Path. With a local guide, go from the visitor center of Ajloun to Mar Elias or Elijah’s hill (the traditional site for his translation into heaven) where you find ruins of one of the oldest churches in Jordan which is dedicated to Prophet Elijah. A reliable and experienced local guide for tours here is Eisa Dweekat.
Using Amman as a base, you could also visit the ancient ruins of Pella. According to ancient sources such as Eusebius and Epiphanius, this is where the Christians of Jerusalem fled for safety in AD70 as they were “commanded by an oracle given by revelation before the war to those in the city who were worthy of it to depart and dwell in one of the cities of Perea which they called Pella.”
Then you can continue north 1 hour to the striking basalt ruins of the Decapolis city of Umm Qais, biblical Gadara. In the story from the gospels, Jesus performs an exorcism and casts demons into swine. From Umm Qais, there is a marvelous opportunity to get a view over the Yarmouk river gorge, the Golan Heights in Syria, the Sea of Galilee and maybe even Mount Hermon on a clear day. A great place to stay here is at Beit Albaraka Destinations.
Biblical Sites near Madaba
The next place to use as a base for exploring is the predominantly Christian town of Madaba, known as the “mosaic city.” From here, it is a nice outing to the most important biblical site in Jordan: Bethany Beyond the Jordan, officially recognized as the Baptism Site of Jesus in the Jordan River. (See John 1:24-28) The location is also designated on the famous Holy Land mosaic map of Madaba as it was a pilgrimage site for early Christians. Monks and hermits lived here during the Byzantine period and the archaeological remains of early churches can be seen, as well as the modern St John’s Orthodox church.
Also from Madaba you are close to Mount Nebo, from which Moses viewed the land of Promise but was not allowed to enter. (See Deuteronomy 34:1-6) The site is now under the purview of the Franciscans who also have a monastery here. You will see 5th century mosaics and baptismal fonts in the Moses Memorial Church, and check out the small museum onsite. There is also a large round stone called the Abu Bad stone which has been claimed to be the stone rolled away from the tomb of Jesus by the angels. The type of stone and the size do match the tomb at Calvary in Jerusalem. If you prefer to stay near Nebo, rather than in the city of Madaba, check out the Town of Nebo Hotel which is in a lovely location.
Machaerus – Mukawir
When you begin heading south from Madaba, you can visit the hilltop where the fortress of Machaerus belonged to King Herod. This was the site where John the Baptist was executed and is located on the border of the territory between Herod Antipas and the King of Petra (Aretas IV).
From Machaerus it is just a one hour drive to the UNESCO world heritage archaeological site of Umm Ar-Rasas where the remains of several Byzantine Churches and their 8th century mosaics can be seen. It is mentioned in the Bible (Jeremiah 48:21 and Joshua 13:18) as Mephaath, as well as in the writings of the Christian historian Eusebius around 500 CE. Make sure to see the Stylite tower, where ascetic monks would sit on top in isolation.
Central Jordan – Kerak, Shobak, Petra
As you make your way towards Petra, it is usual to stop at the large crusader castle at Kerak. But the history of this site is much older than the crusades! Kerak is identified with Kir of Moab, one of two main strongholds. It is mentioned several times in the Old Testament by various names, such as Kir Harosheth. (See Isaiah 15,16 and Jeremiah 48). The site includes a church and a museum displaying Moabite artifacts.
Recently, due to development made possible by USAID- SCHEP, it is possible to visit the historical site of Buseirah (Biblical Bozrah or Botzrah) which was once the capital of the Edomites— now also a modern village located between the towns of Tafilah and Shobak. It is identified as the location mentioned several times in the Bible mainly in the judgements against Edom. (See Jeremiah 49: 13,22 and Amos 1:12).
When you stop to see Shobak crusader castle, you will be at one of the highest points in Jordan and in a strategic point in the highlands of Edom. The remains of a church and chapel can still be seen.
Petra – Wadi Musa
Arriving at Wadi Musa, the Valley of Moses, you can visit the Spring of Moses, where water was given to the Hebrew tribes. No trip to Jordan would be complete without a visit to the UNESCO world heritage site of Petra, carved from the rock by the Nabatean people. But there are also the remains of three churches and their mosaics dating to the 4th/5th century to be seen as well (Petra Church, Blue Church and Ridge Church) situated on a hill opposite the Great Temple. Many commentators believe the general area of Petra was the location where Moses and the tribes of the Exodus spent many years before heading north to enter the promised land.
Wadi Rum and the South of Jordan
Everyone loves the majestic desert of Wadi Rum, and it is a most popular attraction in Jordan as people experience the Bedouin life. But did you know that this is one of the areas that the Israelites encamped during the Exodus? Wadi Rum is amid the wilderness of Paran. The tallest mountain, Jabal Um Ad Dami has been identified by many interpreters as the biblical Mount Paran. Hiking up this mountain is very popular with adventure tourists. However, pilgrims may wish to hike here as well since this is mentioned as the place where the Lord’s presence rested next after departing from Mount Sinai.
In my view it was in Wadi Rum where Moses wrote parts of the Torah. The Biblical itinerary of Numbers 33 mentions several places in this desert (referred to as “the wilderness” in scripture). Hazeroth is on the southeastern corner along the border with Saudi Arabia. Rithmah is in south central Rum near Mount Paran (Jabal Umm Ad Dami). Rimmon Parez (which literally means “the breaking of the pomegranate”) is in north central Rum. It is mentioned in the Torah that the people had fun in a spot called Tophel. This is Wadi Rum central, where people are still having fun today! For those interested in hiking Jabal Umm Ad Dami, Wadi Rum Escape camp and tours is able to guide you.
After spending time in the desert there is a natural impulse to head to the sea! Aqaba is a usual next attraction after visiting Wadi Rum. In the vicinity of Aqaba by the Red Sea are two places mentioned in Bible: Elath and Etzion-Geber (Deuteronomy 2:8). But I think the main value is simply to see the Red Sea itself and go for a swim (or snorkel!)
The Dead Sea Highway
Of course, the Dead Sea is mentioned several times in the Bible as the Salt Sea. When you go north from Aqaba to the Dead Sea you can make a stop on the way to to see the traditional site of Lot’s Cave on a steep hillside near the town of Ghor Safi, where excavations are still underway. This is said to be where Abraham’s nephew Lot and his daughters sought shelter when fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Although there are the ruins of a Byzantine era church here, as well as an inscription in the cave, indicating that the site was long identified with Lot, I think it is also quite likely that the true site of his cave is further north.
Often, the Mujib Reserve and Wadi Mujib are thought of only in terms of adventure travel, due to the amazing gorges for canyoning and hiking there. But this area is mentioned 25 times in the Bible as Arnon, whose gorge was the boundary between Moab to the south and the Amorites to the north. It was here that the Israelites camped on their way through Jordan, (see Numbers 21:13).
Even if you are not on pilgrimage, it is amazing to know more about the significance of so many popular sites in Jordan, and this bit only scratches the surface. A true Holy Land tour, covering several Biblical Sites, should include many days in Jordan.
About the Author
Sarah Eaton has lived in several parts of Jordan: Wadi Musa, Taybeh, Wadi Rum, Aqaba and Madaba. From the U.S, she was trained as a philosopher and eventually became the Director of Religious Studies at Marygrove College as well as the Dean of Ecumenical Theological Seminary (both in Detroit, Michigan). She has a keen interest in the Biblical sites in Jordan.