The King’s Highway
Part 1 of Our Road Trip through the Heart of Jordan along the Legendary King’s Highway
ROUTE OF THE ANCIENTS
Imagine the clambering of traders, pounding hoofs of camels, and squeaking of wheels that tread through the heart of the Near East, beginning in Mesopotamia and extending towards Egypt. Three great kingdoms of antiquity vied for control of this route, an artery of immeasurable wealth for an ever-expanding world. Edom, Moab and Ammon, Biblical territories with their own influx of legends, collectively controlled the most important road in the Middle East – the King’s Highway.
The Israelites, in their famous exodus out of Egypt, needed to use the road in a period of desperation after forty years wandering the barren wilderness. The King of Edom refused, sending an army to repel the wandering nation. In the land of the Amorites, their king also refused, but a battle ensued that saw Israel narrowly escape with victory. The Israelites could now use the road - the King’s Highway's importance was paramount.
Now in modern times, we embark to trace the ancient footsteps on a road trip along the same fabled route of kings. Yet unlike the Israelites, we meet only smiling faces welcoming our family to the heart of Jordan.
ROUTE OF TODAY
It is the summer of 2023, and in the dusty and chaotic streets of Amman, we begin a road-trip following the same route that innumerable passerby’s followed for thousands of years prior. I buckled Zion, my three year old boy, always looking for the next adventure, and my baby girl Joy River, unaware the journey she is about to embark. I take the wheel, my wife Mary seated beside me, and the ignition of the rental car starts, signaling the beginning of our traverse of the King’s Highway in Jordan, from the capital to the Red Sea.
Amman felt as if traversing through a time-machine each passing alleyway. Bronze-age relics, Roman amphitheaters, Byzantine churches, Umayyad mosques, and modern skyscrapers all fight over the city set amongst seven hills. Amman today, like the past, represents the entry point to exploring the Jordanian highlands. Exiting the city by car, though, is a true test of nerves and awareness. Vehicles weave up and down steep streets in a timeless dance until finally we break free onto open highway.
Anticipation of adventure swells as we steer south along the King's Highway, though half of our “caravan” already lulled to sleep by the humming of asphalt.
- Go to Amman
THE CITY OF MOSAICS
The desert road to Madaba is mostly uneventful, winding past sparse landscapes transformed by patches of cultivation and villages. Approaching town, the road suddenly congests as we reach the city center, where narrow one-way streets test our directional skills. We eventually pass through a primary school parking lot, circling a Byzantine-era church to arrive at our lodging—Pilgrim’s Guesthouse. We discover this oasis is run by a small, yet long-established Christian community persisting in this predominantly Muslim town and country. Their continued presence makes sense given Madaba’s history as a Byzantine artistic jewel, left abandoned for centuries before ongoing revival.
Nicknamed “City of Mosaics” for the tile art literally unearthed from beneath its dusty streets, most of them are impressively preserved. One masterpiece, displayed prominently on the floor of the church we just passed, shows the oldest extant map of the Holy Lands, dating to the 5th century AD. This rich art speaks to Madaba’s Byzantine past, fading after its 7th century Islamic conquest, only recently experiencing a resurrection by devoted caretakers and archaeologists determined to restore its former glory.
- Explore the Madaba Outpost
Wandering the outskirts of town, we came across an active archaeological dig where we struck up a conversation with a few doctorate students of the trade. It was fascinating to hear their stories of what lies beneath, igniting our imaginations to the undiscovered, waiting for its first rays of light in thousands of years. Little Zion also stood fascinated by the workers – real-life treasure hunters to the toddler’s eyes.
The road trip continued, this time just 45 minutes south to the sprawling ruins of Umm Ar Rasas, a UNESCO World Heritage site housing magnificent mosaics from Madaba’s Roman and Byzantine era. The afternoon sun beat down as we wandered through rubble, picturing bustling city life ages ago. The main attraction lies inside the Saint Stephen Church, where a mammoth floor mosaic depicts regional cities in meticulous detail since its creation in 785 A.D. This is surely Jordan’s most impressive mosaic. Art plays such an important role in civilizations, past and present. Reliving those memories from Roman and Byzantine times, it gave us more appreciation to the pain-staking detail each pebble of the mosaic represented.
Like life, each stone may feel somewhat insignificant, but in the end, it can create a beautiful picture worth remembering and cherishing.
Leaving art behind, we venture into a darker side of history as our journey through the King’s Highway continues – War. As we approach the immense crusader castle of Karak, we can't help but feel small before its towering walls and mighty keep. We enter the fortress and 3-year old Zion's eyes grow wide with wonder. He darts down stone tunnels and in and out of interconnected rooms, his imagination sparked by legends of medieval battles once fought here. We do our best to keep up as he disappears and reappears, always staying just out of reach.
Karak certainly represents something far different than the places we've visited so far on our journey along the King's Highway. In Amman, we experienced civilization and progress, a modern Arab capital looking to the future. In Madaba, we were transported to the past through precious Byzantine mosaics depicting ancient stories. But here in Karak, we are reminded of the constant wars that have dominated these lands for millennia. As Zion plays hide and seek through stone corridors built by crusaders to defend their conquests, we can't help but think of the violence these walls have borne witness to. I thought of the endless generations who fought for control of this sacred landscape - none able to hold onto it forever.
Watching my son play joyfully amidst the fortress ruins, oblivious to the bloody history around him, I felt a kind of liberation from the grim weight of the past. For him, the joy is in the moment, not the past.
- Explore the Karak Castle
And yet, despite its bloody history, there is beauty here too, with sweeping views across fruit orchards and south towards the Dead Sea. We breathe in the crisp mountain air and let our minds wander to the next leg of our trip. We will follow the King's Highway further south into the sandstone hills of Petra, tread where the Nabateans once built their rock-cut empire on the backs of incense trade routes, gaze up at the elaborate Treasury, and imagine the hustle and bustle of a once thriving ancient crossroads. From there, we will head west to where red sea coral reefs shimmer beneath crystal waters, our journey culminating with toes in the sand as we watch the crimson sun dip below the horizon. We have much adventure yet ahead.
But for now, we should gather up our over-energized explorer Zion as he disappears laughing down another darkened stone passageway deep within the crusader castle of Karak.
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