When I went with a pilgrimage group to the Holy Land back in 2019, one of the first stops upon arrival was the popular baptismal spot of Yardenit in Jordan.

Al Maghtas

I remember looking around thinking about how the place was tourist-ready. There were many souvenir and food shops, changing rooms and different groups congregating in various areas around the river. Some groups wore uniform white robes and others, like us, were in street clothes finding our way down to the green waters of the Jordan River, then renewing our baptismal vows.

A few months after that — while checking out the Unesco World Heritage List in Jordan for a return trip with friends — I realized that Yardenit was only recently associated with Jesus’ baptism. Political conflict over the years resulted in certain parts of the Jordan River being closed and this included the ancient site (about 112 kilometers downstream) which was the traditional area Christians have been visiting from as far back as the 4th Century. Yardenit was created to fill the void pilgrims yearned for, which was a safe baptismal experience by the Jordan River.

Al Maghtas came to be a holy site based on many travelers’ accounts, describing a place revered by many as it was believed to be where St. John The Baptist performed the baptism of Jesus. Archaeological remains of churches and monasteries dating from the fourth century have been found in this area, proving that this site was considered holy just a few hundred years from the time of Jesus’ death.

In the Six-Day War in 1967, this area became a closed military zone because of the warring factions. Land mines were reportedly placed on the banks of the river, so that created the necessity to close off this sacred site because the Jordan River, after all, is the border between Jordan and Israel.

Excavations here began only in 1996 after a 1994 peace treaty slowly allowed archaeologists and church officials to re-enter. Now, many Christian denominations have built churches around the area, the most prominent of which is the Greek Orthodox Church of St. John The Baptist. Of course, the precise spot of Jesus’ baptism can never be ascertained but taking all evidence at face value, the Unesco World Heritage Council inscribed this place in 2015.

I arrived in Al Maghtas filled with excitement at finally being able to visit it. It is a long but pleasant walk to the river, and you know you are getting nearer as church domes can be seen at a distance. When you get even nearer, heavily armed military men guard the steps going down to the riverbank.

Our guide, Yasmeen, converses with them then gives us a signal to enter so we go down and listen to her explain the scene before us. The narrow, murky river we are staring at is divided into three parts: The part nearest us is, of course, the Jordan side. The middle part is the border. The third part is the river bank on the Israeli side.

She calls our attention to the flags marking the corresponding areas and the presence of military forces on the opposite side as well. I shake my head in both disbelief and amazement at the complexity of the whole scenario, then I wait for my turn to touch the water, say a prayer and pay my respects on this holy ground under the watchful eye of soldiers monitoring our movements.

What a totally different experience from the sights and sounds of Yardenit.


Hands down the most famous attraction in Jordan, it became even more popular when it was voted as one of the 7 New Wonders of the World. Archaeological findings can attest to the fact that it has been inhabited since prehistoric times.

This Nabataean (nomadic Arab) kingdom was a merchant trading city since the first century BC as it straddled the north end of the caravan route from South Arabia to the Mediterranean.

Petra or Raqmu became the capital of this kingdom around the second century BC and the Al Khazneh (The Treasury), a masterpiece in Hellenistic style, is the most famous of all the structures carved out of a sandstone rock face.

It is believed to be the mausoleum of King Aretas IV, and was built in the first century AD and yet it was known as “The Treasury” because of the legends regarding the decorative stone urn that can be seen on the second level, believed to contain many treasures. In fact, the face of this structure is marked by hundreds of bullet holes from local Bedouin tribes’ attempts to dislodge the rumored treasures.

In 1812, Petra was rediscovered by Swiss explorer Burckhardt (Sheik Ibrahim). By 1920, the first hotel had opened near Petra.

Today, tourism is the main source of income in Jordan. But the hordes of tourists visiting this site can prove detrimental to its preservation. Humidity from large crowds of people visiting, climbing, leaning on and touching the rocks is causing damage to the dry sandstone. The surface of The Treasury, for example, has receded in less than 10 years of heavy tourist arrivals. So now, there is a barrier put in place to keep the crowds at a safe distance from this majestic symbol of Petra.

Petra has the infrastructure in place to facilitate ease of visit, even for the handicapped and elderly — from ramps, seating areas and many souvenir and food stalls outside to the cool, comfortable and clean Visitors Center to the options available as to how to get to the city.

For the elderly and disabled, you can take the golf cart. For the more adventurous, you can try the horse carriage. Twice, I have opted to walk through a gorge called the Siq and it takes less than an hour both ways to cover a distance of two kilometers per way. The going-to is easier than the coming-from simply because most visitors are worn out on the way back, especially if you had ventured deeper into the city by climbing the carved rock paths. There is also the heat of the sun without cover bearing down on you and the final upward climb back to the Visitors Center.

The first time I visited Petra, I stayed within the area of The Treasury and I vowed when I would return that I would explore it further, and also at night. Unfortunately for us, schedules for Petra By Night became irregular after the pandemic so I missed it again. However, I was able to explore the other parts of the city way beyond The Treasury and I highly recommend staying for a few hours or half a day at least to savor this magnificent treasure the Nabataeans built.

The government of Jordan forcibly resettled the Biduol Bedouin tribes from their cave dwellings prior to the Unesco designation process of Petra in 1985. They were provided with block built housing that had sewage and drainage systems; the largest community of which is the village of Wadi Musa and also the closest to Petra. These Biduols are one of the Bedouin tribes also proclaimed by Unesco as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage List that was inscribed in 2008.

Wadi Rum Protected Area

Also known as the Valley of the Moon, this valley in southern Jordan is located near the border of Saudi Arabia. With an area of 720 square kilometers, this largest wadi in Jordan was the setting of many Hollywood movies like “The Martian,” “Transformers” and “Star Wars,” to name a few.

Since its inscription by Unesco in 2011, it has become a tourist attraction with various guided activities and desert camps for visitors who may want to spend the night. Just like Petra, Wadi Rum has been inhabited by many human cultures since prehistoric times, as evidenced by markings like petroglyphs and inscriptions in its caves and rock walls.

Located in the Sandstone Mountain and Valley Region, this vast area is characterized by tall, vertical mountains of iron-rich, erosion resistant, Umm Ishrin Sandstone, separated by flat-bottomed valleys of alluvial sediments, aeolian sands (natural bridges and sand dunes) and salt pans.

There was a massive sand dune with sand ramps reaching the tops of hills and many other rock formations that contributed to the otherworldly feeling of the place. Simply put, in Wadi Rum, it is easy to pretend that you have been transported into another planet, most probably Mars.

Wadi Rum is home to the Zalabieh Tribe who developed most of the activities throughout this area and provide all services related to the promotion of tourism here. For now, their average number of monthly visitors is around 10,000 with tourists usually spending the night in nearby Aqaba, a beautiful and vibrant port city.

The Visitors Center we were led to upon arrival was unpretentious, informal and soon, we were herded into converted jeeps that have seen better days. You climb onto the back and make your way slowly at first into the protected area, passing many structures in disrepair, until you shakingly enter the desert path and begin to realize what an adventure you were in for.

Our sunset tour was supposed to last for three hours and lo and behold, we did not notice the time. From stops in the camps to drink tea, to venturing uphill to see the caves, to climbing rocks to get better views and trying very hard to clamber uphill in sand dunes, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

By the time we set up camp to wait for the sunset, some members of our group had climbed up to the roof of the jeeps ferrying us around this red planet we were in. As I watched our Bedouin guides make tea for us, I felt so heady, peaceful and joyous because I felt so close to nature and our Maker right there and then.

We were lucky to be one of few groups who were there that day so it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. In all honesty, I have seen more spectacular sunsets in my lifetime but there in Wadi Rum, it’s the vibe surrounding you that makes the experience extraordinary. Some of us were seated, happily exchanging stories; a few were roaming around barefoot, loving the feel of the silky sand.

The pictures taken will never capture how magical all of it was. Hoping one day we can go back and spend the night in the desert, stargazing and feeling the evening desert breeze — from the comfort of those modern tents. I am past the age of just winging it.