There’s more to Jordan than Petra and Wadi Rum. From Biblical sites to Roman temples, the country has a surprising number of spiritual places. Here’s a guide to the top seven religious sites in Jordan.
Amman and the Amman Citadel
The capital of the Ammonites, Rabbath Ammon, appears several times in the Old Testament. Most notably, it’s the city King David sends Uriah, one of his elite fighting men, to a sure death, clearing the way for the king to marry Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. After falling to the Greeks, Rabbath Ammon became Philadelphia, a name the Romans kept.
Today, the city is known as Amman, and its occupants are primarily Sunni Muslims. You can visit some of the city’s mosques, including the King Abdullah I Mosque, as a tourist, but the Amman Citadel is the best place to go for historical religious sites.
An archaeological site, the Citadel is located on one of the seven hills that originally made up Rabbath Ammon. Its most famous structure is the Temple of Hercules, a massive temple with portions of six 33-foot-tall remaining columns. But there’s also a Byzantine church and the remains of a mosque here.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan
John the Baptist lived in Jordan, not Israel, and it’s here that he baptized Jesus, according to the Bible (John 1:28). As you make your way to the Jordan River, you’ll pass the likely spot, an offshoot stream, and pool. Once you get to the river, you can wade into the water or watch tourists on the Israeli side do the same.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan boasts more than 20 Biblical sites, including churches, baptismal pools, and a Byzantine monastery. The UNESCO World Heritage Site also has links to the Old Testament. Tradition holds that Tell al-Kharrar (Elijah’s Hill) is the place where the prophet Elijah ascended into heaven in a chariot of fire.
The second most visited tourist spot in Jordan after Petra, Mount Nebo, is the overlook where God showed Moses the promised land. Although Moses would never enter it—he died and is buried nearby in an unmarked grave—he undoubtedly marveled at the view, which today includes the Dead Sea, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem on a clear day.
After taking in the view, visit the Moses Memorial Church. Built roughly 1,600 years ago, it boasts mosaics dating nearly as far back. Many of the mosaics depict local customs from the Byzantine era, as well as wildlife. Also on site is a small museum featuring information on the mosaics, site excavation, and more.
Madaba, the City of Mosaics
Originally a Moabite border town, Madaba earns its Biblical claim to fame in the early centuries following Jesus’ death. That’s when wealthy Byzantine citizens decorated their churches and homes with elaborate mosaics. You can see these remains at several historical sites in the City of Mosaics.
At Madaba Archaeological Park, tour what remains of the Church of the Holy Martyrs and the Burnt Palace, a Byzantine residence. Then, walk the short distance to St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church. It houses the famous “Madaba Map,” the oldest surviving mosaic map of the Holy Land. Next, visit the Madaba Archaeological Museum, where you’ll see costumes, jewelry, weapons, and carpets, in addition to mosaics.
Roughly two hours north of Amman, Umm Qais was one of the 10 cities that made up the Decapolis. Then called Gadara, the strategic city makes a notable appearance in the New Testament. It’s here that Jesus drove demons out of a man and into swine.
Today, Umm Qais is an archaeological park with views of the Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights. A basilica commemorates where Jesus performed the miracle of the Gadarene swine, but the archaeological park also contains a theater, Roman tombs, and an Ottoman village that was occupied by locals until the 1980s.
Jerash in Northern Jordan
The ancient ruins of Jerash overlook the modern city surrounding it. Considered one of the largest and best-preserved Greco-Roman cities outside of Italy, Jerash doesn’t necessarily have ties to the Bible other than it was one of the Decapolis cities at the time. However, the archaeological park contains several churches, including the Cathedral Complex and the Church of St. Theodore.
Because Jerash is a Greco-Roman city, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of its religious sites honor Greek and Roman deities. The Sanctuary of Zeus is the first major ruin you’ll see in the archaeological park. Climb to the top of the staircase to the temenos, the sanctuary where Zeus would have lived. Further in, the Sanctuary of Artemis is an impressive temple complex dating back to Jerash’s heyday 1,800 years ago.
There’s much more to Jerash than its religious sites. Don’t miss the hippodrome, where chariot races were once held, or the South Theater, where musicians often play for tips. Then, walk the Cardo Maximus, a colonnaded street with groves worn into it from the chariots that once used it. Of course, the Oval Plaza, surrounded by re-erected columns, wows, too.
Petra, Jordan’s most popular site
Despite being the capital of the Nabataean Empire, Petra had several Christian churches at one point. You can see the remains of the Byzantine Church, known for its elaborate mosaics, on a visit. Across the Colonnaded Street, the Great Temple may have been a Greco-Roman religious site or a government building.
Surprisingly, the most famous site in Petra has a Biblical connection. According to legend, the Treasury takes its name from the belief that the decorative urn on its second level contains the treasure Pharoah needed to pursue Moses into Jordan. (The architectural urn is actually made of solid sandstone.)
Moses possibly impacted Petra, which is mentioned twice in the Bible using its Hebrew name, Sela, in another way. Tradition holds that the water that flowed from the rock Moses struck was the source of Petra’s water, delivered to the city by a clay aqueduct that still exists. It’s also believed that Moses’ brother, Aaron, is buried in the area, a few miles from Petra.
Other religious sites in Jordan
If you have time, add these religious sites to your Jordan itinerary.
Lot’s Cave in Jordan: After fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his daughters took refuge in a cave near modern-day Safi. You can make the steep 10- to 15-minute climb to the cave and the ruins of a Byzantine church honoring Lot.
Mukawir: Herod Antipas imprisoned John the Baptist at this hilltop fortress and ordered him beheaded at his daughter Salome’s request. Some also say it is the palace where Jesus was taken for questioning by Herod Antipas.
Pella: Similar to Jerash, Pella is located north of Amman and was one of the Decapolis cities. You can visit the Greco-Roman ruins here, but even more fascinating is its supposed connection to the Bible. Pella is thought to be where Jacob wrestled physically with the angel of God.
Aqaba: This ancient city sits on the Red Sea, the body of water Moses would have parted to help the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt. Today, Aqaba is a popular destination for scuba diving and snorkeling.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.