Recently, I had a chance to visit the beautiful country of Jordan, where I had a chance to stay for a whole month with my family. Although this was a family trip, I did not want to miss the opportunity to do some photography, so I grabbed a bag full of gear with me, along with my trusty travel tripod. I decided to share our adventures and trip logs from Jordan in a detailed article. Hopefully, it will give a good idea where to visit and what to photograph in Jordan to our readers.
This trip opportunity was made possible thanks to my sister and her husband, who temporarily relocated to Jordan for a couple of years. They invited us over to visit, so Lola and I decided to take the chance and explore the other side of the world with our kids. This was my second visit to Jordan (first time was a very brief “discovery” trip with my sister last year), but it was the first for the rest of my family. So big thanks to my dear sister and my best friend (who also happens to be my brother in law), who not only hosted us in their cozy house for a month, but also continuously kept us busy by taking us to all kinds of amazing places – from the best restaurants in Amman to the most historic and beautiful places one could only dream of visiting.
Before I talk about photography, let me first address the security and safety concern that some of our readers brought up before.
1) Safety and Security
Geographically, Jordan is located in a “hot” zone, surrounded by neighboring countries in war: Iraq and Syria. And with both countries being infiltrated and poisoned by terrorist groups like ISIS, it is only natural to be concerned about the security situation in Jordan. The Arab Spring seriously affected many countries in the middle east and Jordan surprisingly stayed out of the whole mess. Initially, Lola was quite concerned about our trip, but I assured her that we would be just fine, because I felt very safe on my previous trip and the country seemed quite peaceful overall, based on what I had read and seen.
And indeed, Jordan turned out to be very peaceful – it changed Lola’s mind about the situation there and it certainly reassured me that it is a wonderful place to visit. During the whole month, aside from a couple of “happy” rifle shots (a Jordanian tradition to fire rifles in the air during weddings), we did not hear or see anything scary. In fact, the government is so concerned about the security of the country, that they do everything they can to protect civilians, especially tourists from any threats. Every mall, grocery store, tourist attraction or any of the public buildings in Amman have “checkpoints” with metal detectors and personnel to make sure that nobody with a gun or even a knife can enter any of the buildings or attractions. In some areas, you can get pat-downs from either male or female personnel depending on your gender. And if you carry a backpack, they will make you put it through a security scanner, just like the ones they have at airports. Most hotels in Amman are protected by both internal security and local army – don’t be surprised to see soldiers on Hummers with big guns in front of large hotels such as the Grand Hyatt or the Four Seasons.
As for the overall safety and crime rate, Amman is quite a safe place to be, but I would certainly be a bit cautious when traveling to smaller and poorer towns, particularly close to the borders. While the Amman population is pretty content, don’t forget that Jordan continues to assist in receiving more Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, so the poorer areas can get a bit unsafe due to poor economic conditions and huge inflow of refugees. Western women can potentially get harassed when they dress very “openly”, so the general recommendation is to avoid wearing short skirts, revealing tops and shorts – it is just not in the culture. Tourist hot spots, such as the Dead Sea, Petra and the Red Sea (Aqaba) are exempt from this. At the same time, you might be surprised to see some of the local women dress quite up to “western” standards, particularly in Amman. So it is certainly not as bad as it sounds.
I had a chance to talk to a number of locals about the security situation and potential threat of instability. I was told that the main reason for stability is people being happy with their king, Abdullah II of Jordan and a “dual layer” political system. In fact, most people love their king and consider him to be righteous and just, which in the minds of people is what differentiates Jordan from the neighboring countries that were ruled by oppressing dictators. And when they see their king come out on the streets and help out ordinary people by pushing their cars out of the snow, you understand why they have such an affection for their king. Most people openly show their love for the king by placing his picture everywhere throughout the country (and I did ask several times if they were forced to hang those pictures, or if they did it willingly – it was always the latter). You will see the portraits of the late king Hussein, king Abdullah II and the crown prince Hussein in every corner of the country. The “dual layer” political system is basically comprised of the king and the royal family on top and the political structure underneath, which basically runs the country. If people express their distrust in the current government, the king comes to the rescue by making changes to the political structure, firing and replacing the government personnel, if needed. So people got used to not questioning the royal family, but instead blaming the current government for problems, similar to how it works in the United Kingdom.
2) Religious Sites
Jordan is certainly one of the prime examples of peaceful co-existence of different religions. Although it is predominantly a Muslim country, you will find different flavors of Christianity everywhere. In some places you have both churches and mosques standing right across from each other and there is no tension between people. In fact, many Christians proudly show off their religion just like in western countries, by putting “Jesus Fish” on the back of their cars. Others put a cross emblem or use small bumper stickers. Since Israel is so close, there is practically no Jewish population in Jordan and hence there are no synagogues, other than the historic ones that are not in use.
2.1) Greek Orthodox Basilica of Saint George
We visited a couple of very historic churches in Jordan, which were beautiful and worth checking out – our favorite was the Saint George church in Madaba:
It is hard to understand how old the church of Saint George is until you start exploring the art on the walls – there is beautiful hand-crafted mosaic everywhere.
This church hosts one of the oldest maps of the middle east – the Madaba Map, dated to 6th century AD!
Here is a small portion of the map, showing incredible details of hand-cut mosaic stones of different colors:
The church of Saint George is definitely worth a visit and you can do it on the same day trip to Mount Nebo.
2.2) Mount Nebo
Mount Nebo has a big religious significance to all three religions. According to the Bible, this is where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land. And from one of the areas on the hill you can certainly see a vast territory, which includes Jerusalem, if it is a clear / haze-free day. In front of the entrance you will find a large rock that says “Unus Deus Pater Omnium Super Omnes”, which is a quote from the Bible stating “One God and father of all, who is above all”:
A church is currently being built right over the ancient ruins, which is supposed to look beautiful once it is complete. When I was there, it was still under active construction.
For now, there is a big tent and a small museum that houses all kinds of relics from the site. Inside, you will find plenty of beautiful hand-crafted mosaics many hundreds of years old:
Absolutely beautiful! And all that work was made from different hand-cut color stones! I believe these were of Greek origin, from ~700 AD.
There is no access to the cross and the snake statue for now, but you can see it from the back or the side:
Another great place to visit and photograph, especially after the church opens. Hopefully, they will allow photography inside!
Mosques in Jordan are everywhere and they are also very beautiful. One of the oldest ones was built by the Umayyad’s, around the 8th Century AD and it is located at The Citadel, another must-visit place in Jordan (more on the Citadel on the next page):
The mosque is not actively used, so you can walk in and take pictures – tripod use is allowed. Here is the roof that I captured hand-held using the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens. Thanks to the built-in image stabilization / vibration compensation technology, I was able to take shots hand-held while looking up at pretty low shutter speeds. This shot was captured at 1/15th of a second:
Outside of the mosque you will find a few structures from The Citadel, which you can use as part of composition to photograph the mosque. In the below case, I used it to create a “window” looking at the mosque:
And further out you will find some cool ruins that you can climb and also use as part of your composition:
There are many other beautiful mosques in the area, such as the Grand Hussein Mosque, the King Abdullah Mosque and the Abu Darweesh Mosque. All are definitely worth checking out. The only potential issue is, you might not be able to go inside if you are not a Muslim, so you might get stopped at the entrance by security. Most mosques also prohibit use of tripods inside. But if you photograph from outside, it is not an issue at all. I really wanted to photograph the Abu Darweesh Mosque that is covered with checkered patterns. Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to do that during this trip.
One of the newer mosques is the King Hussein Bin Tala Mosque. I visited the mosque at sunset and captured it from the below angle:
Unfortunately, cloud action is rather rare in Jordan and I only have one image with a small puffy cloud in the sky. When the sun fully set and the sky lit up, the colors were gone and the sky looked bland, so I ended up picking the above image as my favorite from the set.
When it comes to transportation, forget about public transport – it is quite bad in Jordan. So your best bet is to either take taxi everywhere, or rent a car. I would personally avoid doing the latter, unless you are planning to leave Amman and go directly to places like Aqaba or Wadi Rum. The thing is, driving in Jordan is a pretty tense and terrifying experience. I did not drive even once in Jordan and although I was once tempted to rent a car, I decided not to do it after seeing others drive. Forget about car lanes or traffic lights – they pretty much do not exist. Most areas only have roundabouts and those roundabouts are like nothing you have ever seen before! There is no yielding or stopping. And if you do not do the same, you will never get anywhere. People don’t look at the signs and if they need to turn, they roll their windows down, wave with their left hand and just go, as simple as that. So, unless you are a super experienced driver who lived in a very dense city in Europe or Asia, I would certainly recommend against renting cars.
Your best option is to use taxi service. Believe it or not, but unlike in most other countries, taxi is incredibly cheap in Jordan! You could drive for half an hour in the city and only pay a few dollars, that’s how cheap it really is (from what I was told, taxi services are subsidized by the government). The trick is to make sure to drive in taxis that will use the meter, since some of them try to make some extra cash by avoiding the meter. So before you sit in any taxi, make sure to tell them that you will only sit in the car if they use a meter. Most of them will agree and won’t even question you and you certainly want to avoid those that refuse. For traveling to remote areas, it is a good idea to find a dedicated driver that will take you there instead of taxi service. There are plenty of tourist agencies in town whom you can call and negotiate a good rate for traveling to other areas of the country. If cost, convenience and flexibility are of concern, you might be better off renting a car. Driving conditions certainly improve when you get out of Amman city perimeter. However, I would still recommend strongly against any kind of driving at night (it gets pretty scary!). And be very careful when using a GPS – most maps will be obsolete and incorrect, so it might be best to rely on signs (most signs are in both Arabic and English) and locals for directions.