It is mentioned in the Bible, has been used by a number of empires, and connects some of Jordan’s most significant historical sites.

“Greetings from Jordan!” As I stepped out of the car to admire the sun setting over the vast sandstone canyon of Wadi Mujib, a group of kids shouted excitedly.


A black-and-white hooded wheatear swooped down near me as I stood on the cliff’s edge, awestruck by the mountain ranges stretching all the way to the Dead Sea. I couldn’t imagine how something so delicate could survive in such desolate ravines, fluttering across the arid mountains and nesting in rock crevices.

I could see a narrow, serpentine road winding down the ridges and gorges from where I was. The King’s Highway, or Darb ar-Raseef (“paved road,” in Arabic), is thought to be one of the world’s oldest continuously used roads. For millennia, merchants, pilgrims, and travellersWarriors and kings traversed Jordan’s central highlands from north to south, and this thoroughfare served as a vital artery connecting ancient kingdoms and empires.


Today, a modern, tarmacked road (officially known as Highway 35) sits on top of its ancient forefather. It follows the Jordan River south from Syria, passing through Roman ruins, Byzantine mosaics, Crusader castles, and the ancient city of Petra, effectively revealing Jordan’s history and connecting some of its most important historical sites.

“This route was used during the Nabataean period [4th Century BCE to roughly 106 CE], and probably before that, during the Iron Age,” said Fawzi Abudanah, an archaeologist who has studied the region’s ancient road system.

The “King’s Highway” road through Jordan is mentioned in the Bible’s Old Testament as the route that Moses requested permission to cross after leading the Israelites out of Egypt. According to Abudanah, the presence of Edomite, Nabataean, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic civilizations along much of the current highway suggests that it has been in continuous use since at least the 8th century BCE. “We keep following in the footsteps of our forefathers,” he explained.

According to Abudanah, the King’s Highway was an important trade route connecting Arabia, the Fertile Crescent, the Red Sea, and Egypt in ancient times. This road was used by caravans transporting incense and spices from Arabia to the thriving Nabataean capital of Petra. Emperor Trajan (reigned 98-117 CE) renamed the route Via Nova Traiana and paved it to accommodate wheeled carts during the Roman period. “There are still Roman milestones on the side of modern roads,” Abudanah said.


For centuries, the road served as a major pilgrimage route. Christians used it on their way to biblical sites in the Holy Land, such as Golgotha, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, during the Byzantine period. Many Muslims travelled along it on their way to Mecca during the early Islamic period.

I lived in Amman, Jordan’s capital on and off for several years, but always took the faster, easier roads heading south. When my cousin came to visit me, we decided the best way to explore the country’s long and tangled history was to take the King’s Highway and travel slowly along the path that the many civilisations who have shaped this ancient land once used.

The ancient road once passed by Amman’s highest hill, occupied since the Bronze Age. So before leaving the capital, we wandered among the ruins of a Roman temple, a Byzantine church and an Umayyad palace, which reflect the history of Jordan’s layered heritage.


We then travelled 30km south – past olive orchards, ripening pomegranates and rows of prickly pears – to the ancient town of Madaba. “The road crosses the most fertile part of the country, the area where you have springs and water sources, but also agricultural land. It’s the backbone of Jordan,” Abudanah told me.

Madaba is best known for its collection of Byzantine-era mosaics. The most famous of them, the remains of a 6th-Century floor mosaic housed in the modest St George Orthodox church, is considered the oldest surviving map of the Holy Land, and depicts various sites linked by the King’s Highway. Near the church’s altar, I tried to decipher the Greek captions indicating Jerusalem in the centre of the map, and marvelled at the details of fish swimming in the River Jordan and boats on the Dead Sea. 

Nine kilometres west of Madaba, a short detour from the King’s Highway led us to Mount Nebo, where Moses purportedly first saw the Promised Land, and where he’s believed to have died and been buried.


In the Old Testament, Moses asks the King of Edom to pass through his land in what is now south-western Jordan. “We will stay on the main road until we leave your territory,” he promised. But his request to travel along the King’s Highway was denied. The modern road is far more welcoming – I was told “Welcome to Jordan” dozens of times, and was offered tea and invited for lunch and dinner by many locals I met along the road. 

“People here are so kind and generous,” said Sabine Hendriks, a Dutch tourist cycling with her partner down the King’s Highway to the Red Sea port of Aqaba. “When we couldn’t cycle up a particularly steep hill, a truck came to our aid. It was already full, but they managed to make room for us.”


A young man working in a bakery by the side of the road told us we were his guests and brought us a tray of sweets and warm date bread when we stopped to stretch our legs. We continued south across the gently undulating plateau towards Umm ar-Rasas, a Unesco World Heritage site. It was already closing time when we arrived at the archaeological site. Nonetheless, a friendly guard named Alaa let us in and offered to show us around.

The site, which was once a Roman garrison town, contains ruins from the Roman, Byzantine, and Early Islamic periods. Alaa asked us to close our eyes as we walked to the ruins of an 8th-century church (monastic Christianity was tolerated during Islamic rule), and we were only allowed to open them when we were in front of the site’s renowned mosaics. I stood there, transfixed by the ancient towns and pomegranate trees depicted on the church floor, wondering how the mosaics had remained so vibrant after more than 1,200 years..


We travelled along the valleys and rolling hills dotted with oak, cypress and juniper trees, the landscape becoming increasingly arid, and watched the sunset at Wadi Mujib. The next morning, we explored the medieval castle in the city of Kerak. Built in 1142 and retaken by Muslims in 1188, it is one the biggest and best-preserved Crusader fortresses in the Middle East. Fuad, a local guide, led us through the castle’s many floors, some buried so deep we needed a torch to see the vaulted halls and underground chambers. He asked us to imagine Saladin, the legendary sultan who defeated the Crusaders, sitting there on a throne, their battles playing out against the backdrop of the ancient highway.

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