Christians and Crusaders: Along the King’s Highway, Jordan

View down to the Dead Sea from Kerak Castle, Jordan

Jordan may be a Muslim-majority country but you’ll find that there are large Christian communities who live peacefully here, mainly in the towns of Madaba and Al-Kerak.  Many of the Old Testament Bible stories are set in Jordan, so there are plenty of sacred sites in Jordan that Christians may want to visit on a pilgrimage.   On the previous day at the Dead Sea we had seen the setting of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and we would spend some of our third day re-tracing Moses’ footsteps.

Moses and Mount Nebo

An ancient stone door and the restored church at the top of Mt Nebo
An ancient stone door and the restored church at the top of Mt Nebo

The story goes that Moses, who had been leading God’s chosen people to the promised land from Egypt for many years, died at the top of Mount Nebo.  Forbidden to enter, he was allowed to gaze over the country he had journeyed for so long to reach before he died and was buried in the area.  Moses is an important figure in the Qur’an as well as the Bible, so this is a special place for many people.

The front of the church at the top of Mt Nebo
The front of the church at the top of Mt Nebo

There has been a shrine of some sort in this spot for centuries.  Between the fourth and sixth centuries AD a church was built and enlarged at this holy site, until it was eventually abandoned in 1564.  In 1993 it was bought by the Franciscan monks who have excavated and discovered the secret mosaics of the church.

View of the Dead Sea and Israel from the top of Mt Nebo
View of the Dead Sea and Israel from the top of Mt Nebo

Mount Nebo is only a short drive from the Dead Sea.  Mount Nebo has another of those amazing Jordanian views over the Dead Sea and Israel.  A helpful marker next to a sculpture of Moses’ staff shows you just where in the Holy Land you are.

Modern sculpture representing Moses' staff with snakes curling around it
Modern sculpture representing Moses’ staff with snakes curling around it

When we visited we didn’t expect to the able to see inside the church as it has been shut for restoration, but we were in luck.  Work was still being carried out but we were able to walk around the church to take a look at the famous mosaics.

The wonderful mosaics inside the church are in really good repair.  The most famous is also the most complete.  Shortly after it was completed in the 6th century AD it was covered over by another mosaic until the top one was removed to be restored, revealing the hidden mosaic underneath.  It’s hard to believe it is so old; it could have been laid yesterday.

The amazing mosaic that had been hidden underneath another for centuries, Mt Nebo
The amazing mosaic that had been hidden underneath another for centuries

After a last look at the Dead Sea, we hopped back into our car and set off for Madaba.

The Byzantine Mosaics of Madaba

The whole area around the town of Madaba is famous for mosaics dating from Byzantine times.

The guarded mosaic near Mt Nebo. You can see where the fire was lit on top of it
The guarded mosaic near Mt Nebo. You can see where the fire was lit on top of it

On the way to Madaba we made a couple of stops.  The first was at a small house, off the main road.  The house belongs to a man who guards it day and night, to stop people stealing the contents.  Inside is a beautiful mosaic showing the Tree of Life and the taming of wild animals.  It’s in good repair but parts of it are scorched; the mosaic was discovered by the man’s Bedouin grandmother when she lit her fire on top of it. This mosaic appears on many souvenirs in the area.

We also stopped at a shop and art centre where mosaic-making is still an important art form today.  The owner showed us how the mosaics are made.  First the design is drawn on a piece of paper. Slivers of stone are stuck carefully on top with a glue of flour and water, smooth side down; the rough side is then cemented and the paper and glue washed off, revealing the smooth mosaic.  The shop was something else; there was so many beautiful (and pricey!) works of mosaic art and furniture for sale.

Mosque and markets in Madaba
Mosque and markets in Madaba

Expensive mosaic in hand, we continued to Madaba.  As with all of the places we visited, I’d have liked to have spent longer here.  Madaba has some lively markets and a laid back feel.  Also, there’s some great falafel to be found.  Bee was a convert, but the ever-fussy Cub refused to try any.  Never mind – all the more for me.

The Basilica of St George

The Basilica of St George, Madaba
The Basilica of St George

Madaba has a large Christian population; Islam and Christianity co-exist in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect.  In the 1880s many Christian families moved to Madaba and began excavating the mosaics they found here.  Madaba had been settled for thousands of years but an earthquake some 1100 years previously led to the abandonment of the town until the Christians settled here.

Inside the Basilica of St George, Madaba
Inside the Basilica of St George

The most important mosaic is found in the Basilica of St George and depicts a map of the Holy Land from 560AD.  It shows towns and life from the Nile Delta to Jerusalem.  It’s the earliest known map of Palestine and is an important source of information about the region at the time it was made. Much of it has been lost but at one time it would have contained 2 million pieces.

Detail of the mosaic on the Basilica's floor, Madaba
Detail of the mosaic on the Basilica’s floor

The rest of the Basilica is brightly decorated with mosaics and paintings; a contrast to the plainer churches that I’m used to seeing.

As with everywhere we visited, the Basilica was quiet with hardly any other tourists present.

The Archaeological Park

Just along the street we found the Madaba Archaeological Park which also contains some beautiful mosaics as well as remnants of Roman life.  We walked down another paved Roman street to the Hippolytus Hall which was once a Byzantine villa.

Mosaic showing characters from Greek mythology, Madaba
Mosaic showing characters from Greek mythology

You can see a pillared hall covered in beautifully detailed mosaics.  These depicted some a scene from Greek myths, showing Aphrodite, mythical animals, cherubs and the Devil.  Scattered around the rest of the Park you’ll find fragments of many other mosaics that have been uncovered.

The Shrine of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist

The church at the Shrine of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, Madaba
The church at the Shrine of the Beheading of St John the Baptist

The setting for this grisly New Testament story is a town just south of Madaba.  John the Baptist had angered Herod the King and was languishing in prison.  At the King’s birthday party his stepdaughter, Salome, danced for Herod.  The King was so delighted with her dancing that he promised her anything her heart desired; the girl asked her mother who replied that she should ask for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Herod was appalled but had no choice than to oblige the girl’s request.

Part of the replica mosaic in the museum's visitor centre, Madaba
Part of the replica mosaic in the museum’s visitor centre

Remnants from Roman columns dot the shrine’s courtyard.  Make sure you take a look at the mosaic map of the Holy Land inside the visitor centre.  You can also take a look at old photos from the end of the 19th Century showing the Christians excavating the mosaics.  Inside the shrine you can find a grotto dedicated to St John, see more important mosaics and draw water from a 3000 year old Moabite well.  Nabil told us that it was traditionally the woman’s job to fetch the water so I drew the bucket up.  It was pretty deep; I shone my phone’s torch down the well but couldn’t see the water.

The grotto dedicated to St John the Baptist, Madaba
The grotto dedicated to St John the Baptist

I think that there is more to see in the belly of the church but by this point the children had both gone to sleep and so we weren’t able to descend further.  The same went for the belfry – you can get unsurpassed views of Madaba from the top but the husband was carrying the sleeping Cub and she was getting heavy!

We decided to get our lunch at Kerak so we left Madaba and drove south down the King’s Highway to the crusader castle.

The Crusader Castle of Kerak

View over Wadi Mujib on the King's Highway, Jordan
View over Wadi Mujib on the King’s Highway

En route to Kerak we crossed Wadi Mujib; a vast valley carved out by a river which flows into the Dead Sea.  We paused briefly to admire yet another incredible view.  As we drove, we passed Bedouin nomads grazing their goats on the hillsides, their striped tents nearby.  The land slowly started to become less green and more desert-like, in contrast to the north.

The husband and the Cub at Kerak Castle
The husband and the Cub at Kerak Castle

Kerak castle sits imposingly on a hilltop.  The castle was built by the Crusaders in 1142 and was part of a series of forts which stretched from Aqaba to Jerusalem.  The castle was eventually conquered in 1189 by Saladin.  Today it lies mostly ruined, owing to Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt who captured Kerak in the 1840s and destroyed large parts of it.  Some 25% of the population of Al-Karak are Christian.

View down to the Dead Sea from Kerak Castle, Jordan
View down to the Dead Sea from Kerak Castle

Kerak wasn’t exactly as we had expected; the town is built around and even encroaches upon the castle.  We’d imagined that it would be more like Ajloun castle, where the fort sits high above the town.  The husband was a little disappointed, and thought that more information could have been provided.  I liked the romance of the place, imagining what each room would have been used for.  But we all had a wonderful time exploring the old rooms and passageways.  Ask at the ticket office to see the rooms underneath the castle, and bring a torch (flashlight) to explore more of the rooms.  We saw old dusty staircases disappearing up into darkness but didn’t dare explore all the passages with tiny children.

It had been another busy day, but we weren’t finished yet.  As the sun set, we left Kerak for Petra, where we would walk down the Siq to see Petra By Night.

Know before you go

Madaba is only a few kilometres south of Amman and is actually closer to Queen Alia Airport than the capital.  You could use Madaba as an alternative base to Amman for the Dead Sea, the King’s Highway and Kerak.

If you have more time in the area try the hot springs at Ma’in; accessible either from the Dead Sea or Madaba.  While we didn’t have time to visit, I hear good things about the Dana Biosphere Reserve which is south of Kerak.

A few short weeks after we visited, Kerak Castle was sadly the site of an attack in which 10 people, including a tourist, were killed.  It remains unclear if tourists were deliberately targeted by the aggressors.  The UK’s FCO states that travellers should be vigilant as terror attacks in Jordan are “highly likely”; for context, the same level as the UK itself, France and Germany.  I can only say that at no point did we feel unsafe in Jordan.

We covered these sites in one day as we had a private driver.  You might not be able to see all this in one day by public transport, but if you stay in Madaba you can hire a taxi for day trips.

What to see in Jordan from the Dead Sea to Kerak Castle. Journey down the Kings' Highway and discover ancient Biblical sites and amazing mosaic art in Madaba.

What to see in Jordan from the Dead Sea to Kerak Castle. Journey down the Kings' Highway and discover ancient Biblical sites and amazing mosaic art in Madaba.

42 thoughts on “Christians and Crusaders: Along the King’s Highway, Jordan

    • kidsandcompass says:

      Lucky you – we would love to go back. There was so much in Jordan that we didn’t get to see in only a week. The Jordanians were super friendly especially to our kids. Agree with you that it felt safe.

  1. Ali May says:

    Wow! What an amazing experience to soak up all the history and culture of this region. How did you get around? Were you on a tour with the kids? Or were you driving? I would love to see those mosaics! Seriously, I haven’t seen anything so detailed and in such beautiful condition. Thanks for sharing these tips.

    • kidsandcompass says:

      We were on a private tour with Jordan Select Tours who were great. So we had a driver who took us around in a car for the whole week. It worked well as our kids are only 3 and 1 – we didn’t want to worry about other travellers and we could go at our own pace. The whole country was awesome!

  2. Joe says:

    Great to see so many iconic Christian sites are in what many assume is an Islamic country. The mosaic artwork in particular is amazing! Sad to hear about the attack on Kerak Castle, and glad to hear you weren’t caught up in it. Also a good thing that you added a bit of context to the point about the official line being that a terror attack in Jordan is ‘highly likely’ too!

    • kidsandcompass says:

      While I’m not religious myself I did go to church when I was younger and so grew up hearing the stories. It was fascinating to see the settings!
      I don’t think there are many places where the terrorist threat isn’t present – it’s just the way of the world at the moment sadly. You have to do your research and work out what risks you’re happy taking. A lot of our friends assumed that Jordan wasn’t safe but I didn’t feel even uncomfortable once. We definitely wouldn’t have taken our little ones if we weren’t happy with the situation there.

  3. Revati Victor (Different Doors) says:

    I’ve been to all of these places, but your pictures present such a different perspective. My favourite was Kerak (especially the view from the top) Your know before you go warning is useful too!

    • kidsandcompass says:

      Everyone discovers something different on their travels – I always like reading articles about places I’ve been to see what other people found/enjoyed/disliked. I’m glad you found the info useful too 🙂

  4. AllGudThings says:

    Jordan has so much to offer. i loved that modern sculpture and that castle of kerak. What a breath taking view it is. Those mosaic maps looks beautiful. i want to have a look on them whenever i visit Jordan.

  5. Sid - The Wanderer says:

    I loved your post! You told the history bit so simply in such few words. When I visited Jordan, the church was shut and we couldn’t inside…great to see them through your lens 🙂

    Dead sea looks so nice from up there…lovely shots!

  6. Joanna says:

    This is a different part of Jordan that I discovered through that awful news about the terrorist attack at Kerak castle. The city of Madaba looks really beautiful and I would like to know more about the mosaics. It’s interesting how Christians and Muslims don’t mind each other and that Medaba is an important pilgrimage site.

  7. Tara says:

    I’ve heard a lot about Jordon lately, and it’s so awesome that you were able to visit with the kids and see so much! The mosaics are truly stunning – I especially love the map – such an amazing art form!

  8. natalietanner says:

    Hi! I’m so happy to find you. We also travel with the kids and I blog about making it educational. Love finding like minded families. I’ve always wanted to see Petra in Jordan, but beyond that I haven’t researched what else is there to see. You have found some amazing mosaics! I love them as art and these are so detailed and preserved. What a treat. To get the kids thinking about a trip to Ravenna, where there are also some glorious mosaics, I taught them about mosaics and we made some. I also found a cool magnetic traveling game -with a MILLION tiny pieces that had them ‘painting by number’ to create mosaics of their own. It really helped the grasp the magnitude of such a project that we were seeing in churches. It would be great prep for this trip to Jordan, too.

  9. Efthimis K. says:

    I’m really glad that it is so safe to visit. I would really love to visit all these sites in Jordan. I didn’t know that Salome’s story took place there! Did you notice the Greek letters on the floor of Basilica of St. George? Fascinating 🙂

  10. 8duffels2mutts says:

    What a beautiful place, I can feel the historical ambiance in your photos! The mosaics were especially interesting and seeing stained glass up close is always incredible. We are family travelers too, but I never really thought that visiting churches would be a good fit for our young family. But, you have proven me wrong. I am sure that they would be fascinated by the artistry and landscapes you have displayed here.

  11. Neha Verma says:

    This region seems to be wonderful. Both with respect to the architecture and culture. The fact that it is important to multi religion and culture touched me. Just proves we are all the same at the end.

  12. Swati & Sam says:

    This place looks so surreal. The photographs of the mosaics and the stone door are so lovely. Kerak castle looks so stunning. Would love to visit this place someday. A great write-up.

  13. RaW (@rambleandwander) says:

    Woot! Woot! Happy to read this post because I’ve been to all of these places too a few years back! In fact, I had a private driver through Jordan Select Tours too, so this is really like walk down the memory lane for me, heh! 🙂 Re Mount Nebo, I remember my guide telling me that from Islam’s perspective, there’s just a memorial for Moses there (they use the Arabic word, maqam, if I recall it correctly) rather than a mausoleum or a grave as they don’t really know where Moses actually died. It’s the same with John the Baptist because there’s a memorial for him in Old Damascus (although this one – in Umayyad Mosque – looks like a real mausoleum to me) as well as in Beirut. Whatever the truth is, it’s really fascinating to visit these historic places and try to match them with stories that we tend to learn/read when we were young.

  14. Sandy N Vyjay says:

    The mosaics are bewitching. They are maintained and preserved amazingly. The architecture of churches and mosques is one of a kind. While the barren yet enthralling landscapes seem oddly beautiful.

  15. Vicki Garside says:

    I’m hoping to get to Jordan this year so you’re posts about family travel there are truly inspiring. And the Kings Highway shot is so impressive! The sites, architecture and history are such a big draw for me and I can’t wait to get there to see them all for myself.

  16. Rashmi and Chalukya says:

    Those views over the dead sea from Mount Nebo and over Wadi Mujib are stunningly beautiful and the mosaics of the church are incredibly well preserved. Perhaps the most interesting were the depiction of characters from Greek mythology in the Madaba Archaeological Park, isn’t it? History is so intriguing. Mosaic making must have been an amazing experience to learn a local age old art.

  17. Abhinav Singh says:

    I have been to Madaba. It’s unlike everything else in the tiny country Jordan. I loved Jordan because there is so much variety. The Mosaic art of Madaba won my heart. Hope I return someday.

  18. travellingslacker says:

    Really glad to find this post. The history of crusades have always fascnated me. I have read many of those accounts and also the film Kingdom of Heaven comes to my mind when I go through this post. Glad to see some real sghts from these areas. So much history must be still burried underneath.

  19. Trisha Velarmino says:

    I spent three and a half weeks in Jordan and my experience in Petra and Wadi Rum were awesome! Certainly was a safe place to explore with so much history and culture. Would love to go back and try this tour that you did! Thanks for this, Emily! 🙂

  20. Shane says:

    So neat for me to learn the history behind this city, as I don’t know much at all about Jordan! Intrigued to one day visit and explore it for myself.

  21. Joan Torres says:

    Hey guys, I’ve been to many of these places (not all of them though) during my visit in Jordan. Yes, you are right. Jordan might be a Muslim country but it’s full of ancient Christian sites but the only reason for that is that this is where everything started, so in Lebanon, so in Israel so in Iraq. Last spring, I was traveling in Iraq and went to a village called Amadiya, which was the home of the 3 Wise Men.

  22. Samarpita Sharma (@write_to_travel) says:

    Over the last few months, so many people I know have been to Jordan that my heart has developed a sort of longing for the tiny country. It is moreof a blessing that all of them are bloggers and are writing about different places. Loved reading about Madaba and Kerak, the pictures are so lovely – I’m sure the trip must have been amazing! Love to the cub, she seems to be a happy traveller herself!

  23. Indrani says:

    Reading this facet of Jordan for the first time. The round door is amazing and interesting to read all little stories. The mosaics are so unique. I hope I can visit this country some day!

  24. Elisa says:

    So much history in so little country, amazing isn’t it? I visited those castles and Madaba long time ago and I found them amazing. Sad to read that now are focus of terrorist attacks 🙁

  25. Ash of ARround Planet Earth says:

    It was such an amazing experience to be where those Biblical characters wandered thousands of years ago. It is also reassuring that various religious structures and people of different faiths can co-exist and live peacefully. Madaba and Kerak are overshadowed by the more popular Petra but are definitely worth visiting and exploring.

  26. The Tales of a Traveler says:

    I have never been to Jordan and it is definitely on my list. I like the way you showed a different side of Jordan other than dead sea and Petra. I always had the impression that Jordan is a muslim country , never knew that community of Christian also stay. There is so much history

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