Amman’s Ancient Citadel and a Not-So Relaxing Afternoon at the Dead Sea

White salt crystals on the shore of the Dead Sea, Jordan

Our second day in Jordan dawned slightly cooler and greyer than the first.  We had another early start, but as we’d had such a fantastic first day in Jordan we had high hopes for the day ahead.  Bleary-eyed, we hauled ourselves out of bed, keen to see as much of Amman as we could before leaving for the Dead Sea that afternoon.

The husband and I were super excited about floating in the Dead Sea – it was a bucket list must-do for both of us.  However, it didn’t really turn out as we hoped…  Can you guess why?

Amman’s Citadel Ruins

View of Amman from the Citadel
View of Amman from the Citadel

If you’re wondering what to see in Amman, the Citadel is a good place to start.  We drove through Amman’s streets towards the highest hill in the city, Jebel al-Qala’a.  The views from the Citadel are superb as it’s in the centre of Amman.  Here we hired a guide at the gates and learned that Amman has a long history.

Evidence of human habitation here goes back to 5500 BC.  We looked inside a cave, ceiling blackened from fire, where Neolithic tribes lived.

The Temple of Hercules, Citadel, Amman
The Temple of Hercules; spot the hand and elbow

Prior to 312 BC the settlement was known as Rabbath-Ammon but during the rule of Ptolemy II of Egypt, the city was named Philadelphia in his honour.  Philadelphia became a Roman city and part of the Decapolis League of cities. Remnants of the Roman temple of Hercules and a forum can be seen today.  There was once a large statue, presumably of Hercules, but all that remains are his elbow and part of a hand.

The reconstructed hall, built over the remnants of a Byzantine settlement, Citadel, Amman
The reconstructed hall, built over the remnants of a Byzantine settlement

In 661 AD the Umayyad Caliphate came to power and Philadelphia became Amman.   The Umayyad palace was built on top of this hill but it was destroyed by an earthquake shortly after its construction.  The most complete building is a hall with a reconstructed domed roof.

Also worth looking around is the Archaeological Museum which has a wealth of artefacts from various points throughout Amman’s history.

The Secrets of Amman’s Ancient Roman Theatre

View of the Roman Theatre from the Citadel, Amman
View of the Roman Theatre from the Citadel

The highlight of our morning in Amman was the incredible amphitheatre.  It’s just downhill from the Citadel.  We didn’t hire a guide but our driver, Nabil, told us about some curiosities that we could look for.

At Amman's amphitheatre
The Cub making friends by the amphitheatre

The first was to find a small mark on the paving slabs just off centre and towards the back of the “stage.”  If you stand on this mark and speak, your voice will be amplified by the theatre so that the people sitting at the top can hear you.  The Cub copied us, shouting in delight – she thought this was really funny.  Even taking a small step to the side stops the effect.

On the raised dais behind the stage area is a hidden trapdoor which leads to a tunnel going under the city and up the hill to the citadel.  In Roman times, this was allegedly used by the upper class who didn’t want to mix with the general public.  Unfortunately it’s locked and blocked off so you can’t creep through these tunnels, but you can peek through the gaps and see the stairs disappearing into the gloom.

The lowest wall of the amphitheatre carries your voice around to the other side, Amman
The lowest wall of the amphitheatre carries your voice around to the other side

The last secret was the best.  The amphitheatre was used for shows and fights in the past.  How did the show runners know when to bring out the prisoner, or the lions, for maximum impact?  Incredibly, the curved wall of the bottom tier acts as a sort of telephone.  Speak into the wall by one end, where the prisoners would have been waiting, and the sound travels through the stone to the person at the far side of the amphitheatre.  When the husband spoke into the wall I could hear him as clearly as if he’d been standing right next to me.  The audience wouldn’t have been able to hear this.  The Romans knew a thing or two about engineering!

A view from the top of the Roman Theatre, Amman
A view from the top of the Roman Theatre

You can climb all over the amphitheatre, so we did.  The stairs are steep!  At one end of the stage, you’ll find the Jordan Folklore Museum, with exhibits on Jordanian culture.  At the other end is the Museum of Popular Traditions.  And there’s a mini amphitheatre, the Odeon,  just next to the main theatre.  The amphitheatre has been restored in recent years and is still used at certain times today.  It’s unmissable.

In the Odeon, Amman
Bee stretching his legs in the Odeon

After our look around it was time to head off to the Dead Sea.  Just by the amphitheatre are some of Jordan’s markets. As we drove past I wished we had more time to look around these streets as I’m sure there were some beautiful things to buy and we’d have had a better look at modern Jordanian life.

Visiting the Dead Sea with Kids

Dead Sea information sign
Dead Sea information sign – look how low it is!

Situated between Jordan and Israel, the Dead Sea is so salty that nothing can live there.  You won’t see any boats on it either as the water will corrode them!  It is the lowest point on land, 390m below sea level.  The water is particularly buoyant so floating in the Dead Sea is on many people’s bucket lists.  The mud from the bottom of the sea is packed full of minerals and used in many spa treatments.

Pillar said to be Lot's wife, Dead Sea, Jordan
Pillar said to be Lot’s wife

We talked with Nabil as we drove down to the Dead Sea.  He was keen to tell us the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah (the Qur’an version is slightly different to the Old Testament) as this was where the cities were allegedly located.  We drove past a pillar said to be Lot’s wife, frozen in salt for eternity, and looked at the salt crystals on the shore of the Dead Sea.

White salt crystals on the shore of the Dead Sea, Jordan
White salt crystals on the shore of the Dead Sea

We checked into our hotel, part of a complex of hotels lining a small part of the Dead Sea, and wasted no time in getting down to the shore.  We had to walk quite a way as the Dead Sea is receding by several metres a year.  As we walked down the path signs showed just how much the sea level is dropping.  There are plans being made with Israel to create a pipeline from the Red Sea that will re-fill the Dead Sea; they had better hurry.  The day was still cool and overcast but there were a few people down by the water’s edge.

Dead Sea Jordan
View down to the shore. You can see how far the water has receded

The husband and I had decided to take turns swimming as the Dead Sea isn’t suitable for small kids.  I went first.  Bee started to wail as soon as I walked off – it was going to have to be a quick dip!  It’s an odd sensation – you really do float and you absolutely cannot swim in the Dead Sea.  I tried but nearly flipped over.

Believe me when I say you do not want to get your face in the water.  I got a teeny splash in my eye and it burned.  I also got a drop on my lip and the taste of the water is unbelievably strong.  It’s not sodium but magnesium chloride in the water and it feels almost greasy, leaving a film on your skin that you have to wash off.  If you’ve got a small cut anywhere it will also tingle and burn.

Bee was now howling for me so I got out and let the husband have a turn.  The beach wasn’t sandy, it was more dirt and pebbles so the Cub wasn’t able to make sandcastles.  There wasn’t much for the kids to do other than wait for us. Toddlers are not known for their patience and poor Bee kept fussing.

Floating in the Dead Sea
Floating in the Dead Sea

Most Dead Sea hotels have buckets of therapeutic spa mud by the shore so I quickly slapped some on my arms and legs and got back in the sea.  You’re supposed to leave the mud on for 20 minutes or more before washing it off but I was pushing my luck as it was.  Another couple of minutes and the Cub was whinging and Bee was getting frantic.  It was also getting cold so we grabbed kids and towels and gave up.

It was a far cry from the relaxing images of people reading magazines and looking chilled out that spring to mind when you think of the Dead Sea.  We started to grumble, but then reminded ourselves that we had to leave all expectations behind when travelling with such young children.  But my skin did feel very soft, and we got another bucket list item checked off, so it wasn’t all bad.

You win some, you lose some.  I think we lost the Dead Sea!


Jordan's capital Amman has some wonderful Roman treasures to discover. We also visited the Dead Sea with our toddlers.
Jordan’s capital Amman has some wonderful Roman treasures to discover. We also visited the Dead Sea with our toddlers.


Taking toddlers to the Dead Sea does not make for a relaxing afternoon! We also discovered the secrets of Roman Amman.
Taking toddlers to the Dead Sea does not make for a relaxing afternoon! We also discovered the secrets of Roman Amman.

38 thoughts on “Amman’s Ancient Citadel and a Not-So Relaxing Afternoon at the Dead Sea

  1. Shernice says:

    Visiting the Dead Sea is also on my bucket list. I’m sorry to hear that it didn’t meet your expectation. But thank you for such an honest review on this. Traveling with young children is definitely challenging. You are an inspiration. Keep traveling! 🙂

    • Emily Cole says:

      It was fun for the very short time I got to try it, so I’d recommend going! I guess it was unrealistic of us to start with, thinking that we’d find it relaxing! Never mind, we can go back when the kids are bigger, or when they’ve flown the nest 😉 And it won’t stop us travelling either 🙂

  2. Caitlin says:

    The Dead Sea is so interesting to me, I’m glad you were able to experience it! Even if just for a little bit! All those places you visited before, though – all are just beautiful. I love that everything seems to be so well preserved. It’s so surprising that structures and buildings that old are still standing!

    • Emily Cole says:

      Jordan has so many interesting and ancient ruins to discover! The whole country was fascinating and I’d recommend it to anyone. And the Dead Sea was a really fun thing to do, if only for five minutes.

    • Emily Cole says:

      Yeah, at least we did get to do it though it was rushed and a little bit stressful! You do have to adjust your expectations when travelling with little ones but it can also be great fun!

  3. Dmitriy says:

    Such a wonder travel story about country of Jordan and one of a kind Dead Sea. Long time ago I was blessed with an opportunity to float in Dead Sea but that was in Israel. My biggest travel dream related to Jordan is to visit Petra.

    • Emily Cole says:

      Petra is definitely the best attraction in Jordan but the whole country was full of amazing ruins and scenery. I’d really recommend a trip there!

  4. Anne says:

    Amman looks beautiful! So happy that I found this blog post 🙂 your pictures look so beautiful…I would love to hop on the plane directly and just GO!

  5. maniniexp says:

    I’m so sorry to hear about your experience at the Dead Sea, but I have to say it made me laugh a bit haha! I’m glad you got to experience, however difficult it was. I admire you for traveling with your kids and I hope to do that someday, as well!

    • Emily Cole says:

      Ha, we can laugh about it now too although I was just a tiny bit annoyed and then guilty for feeling annoyed… Yes and at least we did get to do it! And I would recommend travelling with kids overall 😉

  6. Victoria Hawkins says:

    Jordan is a bucket list destination of mine for sure! I have an inspiration board full of places I want to visit, which include the Roman ruins, Petra, Wadi Rum and Dead Sea. Personally I won’t travel with kids if going to such a place but I admire you guys for doing it!

    • Emily Cole says:

      All of those places you have mentioned are awesome and live up to the hype. Jordan was actually a really good place to travel with kids. We went when the weather was cool and absolutely everyone we met wanted to talk to the kids and take photos with them. We all felt very welcome!

  7. SindhuMurthy says:

    Each time I read a blogpost about Jordan, I learn something new about the destination I so wish to visit. Floating on teh dead sea is on my list too. Thanks for the heads up that the dead sea is not a place for kids. I shall wait till my son grows a little older so that we can actually enjoy the float in teh sea. But then, I am being optimistic that the sea does not recede further down.

    • Emily Cole says:

      I think if Bee had been just a year or two older it would have been OK. He just wanted cuddles at that point but if we didn’t go in the Dead Sea right then we’d have missed our chance! I think it would be OK for a child of about 10 to go in as they have to understand they can’t splash about or get water in their faces.
      I hope that they manage to re-fill the Dead Sea; I think they will as neither Jordan nor Israel can afford to lose it…

  8. Laura @ Sometime Traveller says:

    Jordan has been on my wish list for years. I’ve always only really thought about Petra and the Dead Sea, but Amman looks really interesting too. Shame your Dead Sea experience wasn’t quite the relaxing one you’d hoped for, but like you say things are never quite the same when you’ve got little ones along with you!

  9. Nancy says:

    Love this post, you have so many interesting things to tell us. Especially about the amphitheater used as a telephone. I wonder if most amphitheaters are made that way? But that was something I never knew! Even though your Dead Sea time did not work out as well as you though, at least you did it! 🙂

  10. Silvia @FindingUpendi says:

    Really enjoyed learning more about Amman’s history – especially since I knew nothing about it before! Sorry to hear you didn’t get to enjoy the dead sea. Unfortunately it really is as you say – you win some, you lose some!

  11. Diana Chen says:

    The amphitheater looks absolutely incredible. It’s so interesting to hear about the telephone effect there – I’d love to try that for myself. And floating in the Dead Sea is a bucket list item for me as well, so hoping I make it there soon! Glad you got to check it out at least, even if you didn’t get to enjoy it for as long as you would’ve liked.

  12. Lara Dunning says:

    I would love to see the amphitheater and visit the museums. The Dead Sea isn’t on my bucket list, but I’d still like to see it. I like that the hotel had therapeutic mud to use while you are soaking in the sea.

  13. diytravelhq says:

    Petra has intrigued me for a long time but I didn’t realise there was so much more to Jordan – I’m a big history buff & in love with ruins, so the Citadel & Roman Theatre are right up my alley. Sorry to hear that the Dead Sea didn’t live up to expectations, but as your put it you do sometimes win some & lose some – looks like it’s an overall win for Jordan though, at least in my book 🙂

  14. laurenza88 says:

    I watched a TV segment on the Dead Sea and the person floating ended up with someones band aid/plaster in his belly button! It also looked as though there were a lot of nasties floating around. I suppose you don’t see these things in the other oceans/seas of the world because everything doesn’t float….kinda made me second think about wanting to swim there haha!

  15. Skye says:

    Amman looks like such a fascination city. A shame you didn’t enjoy your Dead Sea experience. Yes, you don’t quite see people on Instagram holding their screaming kids out of the water, do you? ha At least you can cross it off the list.

  16. Prerna_Malhan says:

    WOW, you got a pretty amazing Dead Sea view from the hotel – must have been worth it booking the hotel. Even though you did not enjoy your experience, i like the picture of you floating in the sea 🙂

  17. Ariane says:

    The dead sea definitely is on my bucket list, but I still don’t know when I’ll be going… Perhaps I’ll travel there before having kids! At least these are my thoughts after reading your post. But then again, you can’t have it all: relaxing holidays and your own fantastic little beings. 🙂 I loved your sense of humour and your final conclusion 😉 Thanks for the great read!

  18. Venkat Ganesh says:

    I’m always fascinated by historical architecture and how they used simple laws of physics for maximum impact. How they could amplify sounds for everyone to hear without a mic or could pass messages across a field without a phone 😉 Those were some stunning views of Amman from the citadel.

    Bummer that you couldn’t enjoy Dead sea to the full but may be a revisit when the kids are older and they could enjoy it too.

  19. Hang Around The World says:

    We have a friend who have always invited us to visit the Dead Sea and now thank to your post we know why. With your photos you inspired us and we’d love to try your same experience especially the tour around the Citadel!!

  20. rhiydwi says:

    You’re totally right about not wanting to put your face in the water! Made that mistake myself and boy did I regret it! Also, I had the world’s tiniest almost fully healed paper cut on my finger before entering the Dead Sea. On exiting the Dead Sea I felt like I was in dire need of an ambulance and a full finger amputation, it was so painful! Amman Citadel is one of my favourite ruins in the whole world, I just love the whole complex!

  21. Linger Abroad says:

    First, Jordan is fast becoming one of my top countries to visit because there are so many amazing posts (plus it was featured in Star Wars: Rogue One). Second, it’s amazing how much influence the Romans had all over. The temple of Hercules and the Amphitheater look remarkably similar to the structures in Ephesus, Turkey, though I’m sure it’s like that in a lot of place. Last, your description of your experience of the Dead Sea is very different than what I imagined. Indeed, a lot of people describe being at the Dead Sea a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and though I still want to visit it, I never quite saw the appeal of going there. I think just the fact of its saltwater content and the lifelessness is just intriguing to be a part of. Really cool though!

  22. Alberto C. says:

    Jordan has been on my bucket list for years, but I haven’t had the chance yet unfortunately! Apparently the Roman archaeological sites are some of the best you can find, they definitely look amazing in your pictures!
    It’s also not the first time that I hear that the Dead Sea is not as idilic as it looks… anyway, I guess it’s still one of those places that you have to visit even if it’s only to take the touristy photo floating on the water! 🙂

  23. Maria says:

    Loved your photos from Aman and the Dead Sea. I still remember the time my son was a toddler and there are no time for mud baths and relaxing on any sea 😉 .

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