Archaeology holidays in Jordan

A must buy book before you go is Footsteps by Bruce Norman, which features a section on Jean Louis Burckhardt, the Swiss traveller who rediscovered Petra in 1812.
Say Petra to any archaeology aficionado and their cheeks turn the same rosy pink of the iconic Rose City in pure excitement. A city carved into pink sandstone rock over 2,000 years ago and which has been home to many different civilisations: the Nabataeans who were nomadic Arabs, Romans, Byzantines and then the Bedouin nomads. At one point it is thought that there were 20,000 people living here and yet all of that disappeared into history until its colossal carvings and edifices were rediscovered by Jean Louis Burckhardt, a Swiss traveller, in 1812. Petra is too spectacular to have remained hidden; she must have been crying out to be found again.
On an archaeology holiday in Jordan you will have a chance to discover Petra and so many more ancient wonders, travelling in a small group with a local guide who is an expert in archaeology and history and where you have plenty of quality time at each of the country’s great sites.

Petra UNESCO World Heritage Site

Nothing quite prepares you for just how magnificent Petra is, extending for at least 60km2 through canyons, along river beds and up into mountains with two storey buildings carved into the rock. The first time you visit Petra you should approach via the Siq, a very narrow, winding canyon cut by thousands of years of seasonal rain through sandstone rocks of every shade of red. After years of being hidden, Petra likes to make an entrance.
Of course it didn’t really make a big entrance in its day, created as a highly defensible kingdom, known by its people as Raqmu, and being cleverly concealed from attacking powers with its various chasms and caves. Once inside you discover a world of houses, tombs, an amphitheatre and the Ad Deir Monastery, Petra's largest monument, dating from the 1st century BCE. The highlight for many people is Al-Khazneh, known as ‘The Treasury, which is actually an exquisite temple built into the rock.
There is a lot of walking to be done here to take it all in, so do make sure you are feeling fit and able and that you have plenty of water with you. Rules are rightly very strict here in order to preserve the rock, so you are to keep your walking poles tucked into your backpack. There is also a concern about the erosion caused by donkey hooves taking tourists up the ancient path to the monastery; read more in our Responsible tourism in Petra guide.
Bedouins’ home at Petra

Bedouins’ home at Petra

In 1979 Marguerite van Geldermalsen from New Zealand married Mohammed Abdullah, a Bedouin in Petra. They lived in a cave in Petra until the death of her husband. She then wrote the book Married to a Bedouin. Van Geldermalsen is the only Western woman who has ever lived in a Petra cave and she still lives in Petra and sells jewellery handmade by local women.
For generations, many Bedouin families lived in the caves of Petra, but in the early 1980s they were moved to houses built by the government at Umm Sayhoon. Most people visiting Petra stay at the nearby town of Wadi Musa, but Umm Sayhoon is the real thing. It is a real village rather than a tourist attraction, but its residents do sell crafts and refreshments and guide horse riding trips up into the mountains. You can also leave Petra not by the Siq but via the exit leading to Umm Sayhoon, and walk to the village with Bedouins who are heading home after a day of work at Petra.
Little Petra

Little Petra

Not so little at all, the proper name for this canyon is Siq Al Barid, or Cold Canyon. It is thought to have been like a suburb to the main site at Petra, built by the Nabataeans. Today it is part of Petra’s UNESCO World Heritage Site umbrella although it attracts far fewer visitors. You have plenty of room to take it all in, as there are wide open areas spread out around the sandstone canyon with many buildings carved into the walls in the same fashion as the main site. It was excavated much later, led by British archaeologist Diana Kirkbride in 1956. One of Little Petra’s highlights is a room, presumed to have been a dining room, which is covered in frescoes of grapes and wine related feasts; these are the only examples of Nabataean art known to exist.
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The town of Madaba dates back 3,500 years and is mentioned in the Old Testament; its marvels are scattered all over the town in the form of Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics. The most sought after is in the Greek Orthodox Church of St George, where you can see a Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land, which originally contained 2.3 million pieces. More stunning examples can be seen in several of the town’s other churches and in the Madaba Archaeological Museum.
There are two other historical highlights near Madaba. Mount Nebo is just ten minutes’ drive from here and, as well as having superb panoramic views of the Dead Sea and across to Palestine, is said to be the spot where Moses climbed after 40 days in the desert before dying with the ‘Promised Land’ in full view. Another promising place for archaeologists is Wadi Jadid, 10km south of Madaba. Here you will find 40 dolmens or ancient burial chambers. These date back to the Bronze Age and with 12 of them still in great condition, this makes for one impressive field of ghosts, or Bit Al Ghula, as local people call it.
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands and wrote my will across the sky in stars.
- T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph
The Desert Loop

The Desert Loop

Just east of Amman, the desert sands are peppered with castles and forts, the finest being Qasr al-Hallabat, Qasr El Kharrana and Qusayr Amra, dating back to the Omayyad period 661 AD to 750 AD.
Qasr Amra, the best preserved and a UNESCO site, was a bath house and pleasure palace, as you can see from its frescoes on the hot and cold room walls. Said to be one of the finest examples of early Islamic art and architecture, the bath houses had such decorative murals illustrating hunting, trees and naked women because Arab physicians believed that bathing drained energy and strength, so they surrounded themselves with images of anything that might keep their spirits strong.
Qasr El Kharrana was thought to be a desert retreat for Omayyad dignitaries and is quite a sight in the middle of a deserted plain, with massive thick walls which give it the ‘castle’ nickname, although there wasn’t anything military about it. Instead, the interior would have proffered a cool, relaxing space to shade from the harsh terrain all around, with guests chilling out in one of about 60 rooms built around an impressive courtyard. These rooms still boast vaulted ceilings and some detailed plasterwork and you can also see the date AD710 carved above an upstairs door, making it one of the earliest Islamic constructions of this kind.
Qasr al-Azraq does have a military history, including Lawrence of Arabia using it as headquarters during the Arab Revolt against the Turks. This is quite an imposing sight in the middle of the desert, a large black basalt castle on the edge of the oasis town of Azraq which is thought to date back to around 300 CE during the Roman occupation. It was reconstructed in 1237 by the Ayyubids to defend themselves against the Crusaders. You can visit Lawrence’s room which was located above the southern entrance to the castle and imagine how tough it must have been to have stayed here through the winter of 1917-18, creating military strategies with his men. Interestingly, there is a small mosque in the middle of the courtyard, where fires would have been lit to keep warm in the treacherous desert winter. There is also an ancient well and prison off this courtyard.
Qasr al-Hallabat was originally a Roman fort built to protect against desert tribes. However, like so many places, it was rebuilt during the Umayyad period when it was elaborately decorated in mosaics, carved stucco and fresco paintings, making it more of a palace than a place of war. There are Greek inscriptions inside the walls, belonging to an edict issued by the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius (491-518 AD). It still needs a lot of restoration, but you do get a good feel for the place especially the limestone carvings and arches added by the Umayyads as well as its four towers, mosque and nearby bath house.


Jordan’s capital is a must for anyone interested in archaeology, history and architecture as it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. We know it dates back to the Stone Age thanks to excavations that took place in 1994 when artefacts were discovered from this time. It was the capital of the Ammonites in 12 BCE and was known then as Rabbath Ammon, with a fascinating change of name to Philadelphia when it was ruled by Ptolemy Philadelphus in 2 BCE. He was the Roman who built the extraordinary 6,000 capacity theatre into the side of Jebel al-Qala’a. On top of this hill is a whole citadel, which is a collection of ancient Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad ruins, one of the most impressive being the Temple of Hercules, with its massive stone columns and vaulted chambers.
Another Amman must see is the Jordan Archaeological Museum, with a collection of antiquities from through the ages but, in particular, the Dead Sea Scrolls. Last but not least, and skipping forward a good few generations, the pink and white King Hussein Mosque is a great sacred site, built in 1932 on the site of a mosque dating back to 640 CE. The turquoise-domed King Abdullah Mosque is also a beautiful sight with beautiful examples of Quranic art and inscriptions.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: J Basiga] [Petra sunlight: Jorge Láscar] [Petra - tourists: Yaffa Phillips] [Petra amphitheatre: Laurent de Walick] [Donkey: Maya-Anaïs Yataghène] [Bedouins Petra: Maya-Anaïs Yataghène] [Little Petra: Gary Bembridge] [Ajloun Magada Jordan: Gary Bembridge] [Mount Nebo: Maya-Anaïs Yataghène] [Qasr Amra - Frescos Ventana: Antonio Campoy] [Qasr El Kharrana : Uwe Brodrecht] [Qasr al-Azraq : David Holt] [Bath house - Qasr al-Hallabat: David Stanley] [The Citadel - Amman: Jenny Brown] [King Abdullah Mosque: David Stanley]