Journey through Jordan & Syria (ex Amman) - Overland Trip
2 weeks: to (IMT-ETJS)
IntroJordan and Syria are two countries that have much in common. Their strategic location ensured that people of the early great empires and civilisations regularly passed through the region. Their influences can be seen in the magnificence of Petra, Jerash, Bosra, Palmyra and Krak des Chevalier. Travellers seeking the more vibrant vibes of the present day can easily immerse themselves in the souqs of Damascus and Aleppo. A journey through Jordan and Syria is indeed a journey that links the past to the present.
IncludedExperienced English-speaking local tour leaders in Jordan and Syria, local guides at some sites, all transportation, accommodation, meals and sightseeing as indicated.
ItinerariesDay 1 - Amman
Your trip starts today in Amman. No activities are planned so you may arrive at any time. Rooms are generally available after 1.00 pm. If you have not pre-booked an arrival transfer you will find taxis available on arrival at Amman Airport. Make sure you agree the price before you set off into town! Your tour leader may make contact tonight, otherwise you will see him tomorrow morning at the tour briefing, which usually takes place after breakfast.
Amman is a curious city stuck in an uneasy cultural position somewhere between the western and Islamic worlds. One hundred years ago the city barely existed, but now, spread over nineteen hills, it is the showpiece of the modern Middle East. Women swathed in gowns walk the streets passing boutiques stocked with the latest European fashion. Old men sit on sidewalk cafes smoking sheesha pipes and wearing keffiyas, as their grandfathers have done before them, while kids walk by humming the latest pop tunes. The city is visually striking - with few exceptions, no building is allowed to be more than four storeys high and all must be built with the white limestone taken from the earth surrounding Amman.
This morning we visit the desert castles located east of Amman. The castle at Azraq dates back to Roman times and was used by Thomas Edward Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as his desert headquarters. He rested in here for some time with his Bedouin followers before heading out to take on their Turkish foes. Other castles date to the era of the Omayyad rulers - around the 7th and 8th centuries AD. Situated out in the barren wilderness, the desert castles are reminders of a time when Jordan and rest of the Middle East were filled with the violence of the Crusades. These structures are heavily fortified and some of them contain excellent wall frescoes. It is not hard to envisage European knights, clad in chain mail, settling down to hearty banquets within the stone walls, ever fearful of the enemies outside. On our return to Amman we visit the city's great Roman Theatre. Cut into the rock of a hill in the heart of the downtown area, it once seated 6000 people. Now it offers a little haven of peace in this bustling metropolis and closing your eyes you can almost imagine the sounds of musical and theatrical performances gracing its stage. (Approx 6 hrs driving - round trip)Day 3 - Aqaba
Today we drive south to the Red Sea coastal town of Aqaba, Jordan’s window to the sea and a place that boasts some excellent snorkel and dive spots. Its calming atmosphere and balmy weather gives it an almost Mediterranean feel and makes it an ideal spot to soak up the sun and enjoy the many water sports on offer. Wandering around town we find medieval archaeological sites, small bustling Middle Eastern markets with incredibly friendly traders who are happy just to chat, and street cafes where we can enjoy some of the best fresh fruit juice ever tasted. (Approx 6 hrs driving)Day 4 - Aqaba - Wadi Rum - Petra
This morning there is the chance to go snorkelling in the Red Sea. In the afternoon we visit the deserts of Wadi Rum and enjoy a jeep safari through some of the most spectacular areas. According to the Bedouin, to understand Jordan you must have the time and peace to clear your mind in the expanse of Wadi Rum, probably one of the most beautiful deserts in the world. As the main inhabitants of Wadi Rum, the lives of the Bedouin are intrinsically linked with the desert landscape and here and there we will see women herding goats and families around their traditional camel hair tents. Standing amid this wonderful landscape where the red rocks rise up to meet the deep blue sky, the illusion of Wadi Rum will soon work its magic on you. After travelling just a few kilometres into the desert a glance back reminds you that you would not be able to find your way back without the remarkable skills of your Bedouin guides. While all around you uniquely shaped mountains soon have you pointing out faces and shapes to your companions and wondering if anyone else thinks the rock looks like melting chocolate (they will!). Immortalised as the desert of 'Lawrence of Arabia', Wadi Rum ('wadi' means valley) was once a meeting place for caravans from Arabia, but also has a longer history dating back to prehistoric times. After our desert adventure, we continue to famous historic city of Petra. (Approx 3 hrs driving)Day 5 - Petra
We have a full day to explore the magnificent rose-red city of Petra - the most mystic and glorious of Jordan’s ancient treasures. Located in a spectacular setting deep inside a narrow desert gorge it is the remains of the once lost Nabataean city. In ancient times Petra was admired for its refined culture, incredible architecture and ingenious complex of dams and water channels. As we stroll through the towering Siq, we will be torn between the desire to make every step last and the urge to run as the anticipation of our first glimpse of the dramatic Treasury between the Siq walls almost takes over. Used in the final sequence of the film, 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', the Treasury is only the beginning of our fabulous adventure. As we climb old steps to the High Place of Sacrifice where we view the dramatic expanse of Petra, catch glimpses of a multitude of tombs nestled into rugged mountain sides, walk on sands that change colour from rose, to deep reds and to purple, take the monumental staircase to the magical Monastery and walk to the 'end of the world' for views of the wild Negev Mountains. Petra will surely be one of our most memorable experiences. After exploring Petra why not treat yourself to a relaxing and invigorating Turkish bath (optional - cost US$30) to wash away the rose sands and ease those well-used muscles.Day 6 - Kerak - Madaba - Mount Nebo - Dead Sea - Amman
Located on the King’s Highway and towering over a small town on a plateau 1000 metres above sea level is the imposing Kerak Castle. Strolling around this authentic 12th century fortress with its unique high position, towers, ramparts, dark maze of underground tunnels, vaulted halls and passageways, we gain a vivid picture of the gallantry of the Crusaders and their way of life. Our next stop is Madaba, the famous ‘City of Mosaics’ that is a busy market town with attractive streets and small churches where the mosaics are housed. These are one of the world's largest collections of mosaics and include the remains of the oldest known map of Ancient Palestine. The map sits on the floor of the church of St George and, despite the ongoing construction and activity in the church over the centuries is still in excellent condition. Ten minutes from the village of Madaba is Mount Nebo, the presumed site of Moses' death and his burial place. It was from here that Moses reached his goal of setting eyes on the holy land, knowing that he was never to set foot in it. Walking up a small slope through an avenue of fragrant pine trees you are treated to a breathtaking view of the Jordan valley and the Dead Sea - and on a clear day it's possible to see what drew Moses here - the holy land and towns such as Jericho, which were populated even in Moses' days. The site houses a Byzantine church, restored in the last century by Franciscan monks, and is a pleasant spot to walk around. More recently it was visited from the pope, who came here to celebrate the new millennium.
You probably already know that this is the lowest place on earth. But did you also know that it is part of the Great Rift Valley that stretches from the Middle East all the way down into East Africa? As you descend to 400 metres below sea level, the mountains tower above, looking fierce and unforgiving. Approaching the Dead Sea, you notice the white residue left all around the shore line - evidence of its high salinity (normal sea water has around 3-4% salt but the Dead Sea is 30% salt). Then you jump in and find out that all those pictures that you've seen were actually true, and you really can float in the sea, sitting as you would in an armchair. The Dead Sea is said to contain many healing properties, and you can reach down and pick up some of the soft, sulphurous black mud and apply it to your body like a mud pack! Many of our travellers remark just how good their skin feels after a quick dip in its waters. Stepping into the Dead Sea is a sensation like no other and definitely one of those life experiences that you shouldn't miss out on. We finish our day back in Jordan's capital - Amman. (A full day of driving with stops at the various sites)
In the morning we visit the well-preserved Roman site of Jerash. In any other country Jerash would be considered one of the main attractions, but here it is one of Jordan's best kept secrets. If you've come to Jordan because of Petra, Jerash comes as a wonderful surprise. Acknowledged as one of the best-preserved Roman provincial towns in the world, the imposing remains of the city are nestled in a green valley and reflect the grandeur of imperial Rome. Here the past really comes to life as we stand on the stage of the beautiful amphitheatre surrounded by the imaginary roar of the excited crowd, stroll around the once bustling market place and imagine the sounds of laughter coming from the bathhouses. However, perhaps even more vivid is the distant echo of chariot wheels on the colonnaded streets. As we walk between the columns, look down to where narrow channels are worn into the stone - a remarkable reminder of the days when chariots regularly thundered by.
We then continue our journey by crossing the border into Syria and visiting Bosra. Once an important town on busy trade and pilgrimage routes, modern Bosra is a quiet eclectic mix of architectural styles built in and around the old Roman city. However it is just not the architecture or the atmosphere that we will remember most vividly about Bosra, for it is also home to perhaps the best-preserved Roman theatre in existence. Doubling as the town's citadel, a fort was built around the theatre to make it impregnable, but it is what we find inside that will really leave us amazed. Not only is the theatre remarkably well-preserved, it is also possibly the largest theatre you may ever set eyes on, with room for 15,000 people. After our stop here, we continue on to the Syrian capital, Damascus. (Approx 6 hrs driving in total)
We enjoy a walking tour through this amazing city including the Omayyad Mosque, the National Museum and a wander through the old souq. The locals claim that Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and as we explore the place we will feel like we are stepping through the different layers of time. Strolling along the thoroughly modern main roads we will hear car horns blasting and catchy Arabic music blaring out of shops, cafes and car stereos, but step into the side streets and we find ourselves in another world of hidden courtyards, narrow alleyways, the occasional ambling donkey and small stalls selling a myriad of different objects. Wander into the souqs (bazaars) and watch the locals haggle ferociously over glitzy gold jewellery, bubbling water pipes, mounds of olives, gaudy clothing, sultry perfumes and just about anything else you can think of. Join them if you dare and try to drive a bargain with a shopkeeper in the traditional way – over a cup of hot, sweet tea. In the 8th century Al-Walid, the leader of the Omayyad dynasty, decided that he wanted to build a mosque that would never and could never be equalled. For the next 10 years more than 1000 stonemasons and artisans laboured over the construction and the result is the Omayyad Mosque - one of the largest and most impressive mosques anywhere. As we enter, the sheer size of the marble courtyard and the prayer hall is breathtaking as are the incredibly rich and detailed interiors. Many tourists find the mosque with its cool interior and calm and peaceful atmosphere to be a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. The National Museum gives us a great overview of Syria. This colourful country has an incredibly rich and varied history, and the range of exhibits at this museum fully reflects this. There are written cylinders from Ugarit where the alphabet was invented, frescoes from the Greco-Roman fortress city of Doura Europas far away to the east on the Euphrates River, treasures more than 2000 years old from the Mesopotamian city of Mari, marble statues from the desert city of Palmyra and much, much more. Our guide will take us round all of the most interesting and important parts of the museum.
Note: Women must be completely covered from head to foot to enter the mosque. There are long brown robes supplied at the entrance which must be worn over the top of your clothes with the hood up if you do not have a headscarf (a sarong is fine).
Maaloula is one of Syria’s most beautiful villages, with houses clinging to the face of enormous rocks. It is also the only place in the world where Aramaic (the original language of the bible) is still spoken. We visit its monastery and then continue to Krak des Chevaliers, one of the most impressive Crusader castles to be found in the Middle East. Often the very reason why people travel to Syria, this fortress is located in a dramatic setting and is in an incredible state of repair. It is so well preserved in fact that it can't have looked much different when it was in use 800 years ago, making your experience in and around the castle a true journey back in time. As we walk around the most impressive sections - the great hall and the chapel built into the ramparts with arches hallowed out of the rock, we won't be able to stop our imagination from conjuring up soldiers, servants and the buzz of Krak's distant age. Don't leave the chapel without checking out the ceiling and be sure to climb up to the ramparts for breathtaking views. After visiting the castle, we walk through the nearby valley and end up at St George’s Convent. (Approx 3 hrs driving)Day 10 - Apamea - Hama - Aleppo
We visit the Roman ruins at Apamea and then continue to Hama, famous for its huge water wheels ('norias'). This quiet town lies on the edge of the Orontes River and is perhaps the most provincial and traditional of all the Syrian cities. The huge wooden water wheels still turn slowly on the edge of the river and the gentle groan of its old mechanisms can be heard throughout much of the city. Past the water wheel, there are lovely paths along the edge of the river which come alive on warm evenings when families out strolling and couples enjoying each other’s company. Right next to the water wheels and overlooking the river are well-located restaurants, which serve up delicious traditional Syrian food. We then continue our journey to Aleppo. The claim of Damascus being the oldest inhabited city in the world is hotly disputed by the people of this northern city. But whether or not the claim is substantiated there's no arguing that Aleppo's history is just as rich and varied as that of Damascus. Although a bustling city, Aleppo is the kind of place that makes you feel instantly at ease with its relaxed pavement cafés, hole in the wall style bakeries and locals who simply want to chat. Aleppo is also a bargainers dream! Once drawn into its amazingly exotic and exiting undercover bazaar we could quite easily lose a day (or perhaps even several generations!) as we witness traders plying their wares in the same way as their fathers and grandfathers. Here it is easy to feel that we have been given a privileged insight into Syrian life. As we exchange greetings with stallholders, dodge trailers piled high with watermelons and shiny cherries, negotiate aromas, sounds and get hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of narrow alleys you can be sure that Aleppo's souqs are a real feast your senses won't forget. (Approx 3 hrs driving)Day 11 - Aleppo
We enjoy a walking tour of Aleppo including the museum and a walk through one of the best preserved souqs in Syria. Statues and treasures from Aleppo and the Mesopotamian settlement of Mari are housed in the Archaeological Museum. Our guide explains to us the significance of many of the artefacts, statues, scripts and ancient jewellery on display as we wander around. If Aleppo 'undercover' is dominated by the souqs, Aleppo 'overground' is dominated by the imposing Citadel perched on its man made mound 50 metres above the city. Crossing the huge dry moat to enter the Citadel we soon discover what centuries of inhabitants have left behind, like the 13th century Royal Palace complete with throne room, dungeons carved into the rock, a four-metre thick wall that was once the base of a Hittite temple and the remains of a great mosque built by Saladin's son, still flanked by its square minaret. Apparently the Citadel's deep wells link with the city outside via a secret network of underground passages enabling the people to seek refuge if Aleppo came under attack. In the afternoon we visit visually stunning St Simeon’s Monastery, located less than an hour's drive from Aleppo. Built more than a thousand years ago the monastery was constructed around a central pillar in honour of St Simeon, a Christian who curiously spent almost 40 years of his life standing atop various pillars, from where he would offer advice to people who had come from far and wide. Although not all the buildings have survived the test of time (the central pillar is now more of a large rock), the setting of the monastery means those that have now stand against the blue of the sky, interspersed with trees and delicate bushes of pink flowers. As we wander under arches and between columns and take in the superb panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, we are likely to have the monastery almost to ourselves.Day 12-13 - Palmyra
A drive through the desert takes us to the breathtaking ancient city of Palmyra. Sometimes famous sites of the world prove a little disappointing in reality, but Palmyra is not one of these places. This desert city really does lie kilometres from nowhere in the middle of the Syrian Desert, appearing like an abandoned set from a multi-million dollar movie. Palmyra or the 'City of Palms' is actually an oasis known to have supported settlements from as far back as the 19th century BC; however the city really came into its own during Roman times when taxes levied on a plentiful supply of caravans travelling the Silk Road paid for the beautiful civic buildings. There's plenty of time here to explore and we can enjoy a breathtaking sunset at the hilltop fortress of Zenobia, take an early morning wander with our guide and a free afternoon where your time is your own to stroll down the colonnaded street, sit in the shade of archways, pillars and temples and perhaps chat with a Bedouin or take a camel ride. Although Palmyra is no longer a secret to the outside world, you could still quite easily wander its length, lost in your own thoughts, without seeing another tourist. During our time here we also get to enjoy a guided tour through the site. (Approx 5 hrs driving)Day 14 - Damascus
We return to Damascus (approx 3 hrs driving) and the rest of our day is free. Perhaps a chance to do some last-minute shopping or sightseeing. The 18th-century Azem Palace, with its impressive gardens, was built for a former governor of Damascus and is well worth a visit. In the evening we have the chance to get together for an optional farewell dinner.Day 15 - Damascus
Our trip ends after breakfast in the morning of Day 15. If you wish to stick around for few more nights in this grand old city, please pre-book additional post-tour accommodation at the time of booking your tour.